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Return, Resettlement, Repatriation:
The Future of Palestinian Refugees in the Peace Negotiations

Source: FOFOGNET Digest, 22 April 1996

by Salim Tamari, Institute of Jerusalem Studies

Final Status Strategic Studies
Institute for Palestine Studies
Beirut, Washington, and Jerusalem

February 1996

II. The Scope of Negotiations
Altogether seven plenary meetings of the RWG took place (Ottawa May and November of 1992; Oslo, May 1993; Tunis, October 1993; Cairo, May 1994; Antalya, December 1994, and Geneva, December 1995), with an additional 'intersessional' meetings to discuss specialized themes preluding plenary meetings. The shift from periodic to annual meetings of the plenaries reflected a widely held view in the multilaterals that intersessionals (in part because of their size) were more effective in advancing issues discussed. To these we must add another six meetings of the Quadripartite Committee on Displaced Persons (Amman, Beer-Sheva, Cairo, Gaza City, Amman, and Haifa) which was established by the Oslo Accords, which will be discussed separately below.

Several issues were raised from the beginning about the composition of the group and the scope of its deliberations.

a. Representation:
The first battle of the RWG was over who represents the Palestinians. Since the terms of the Madrid Conference was seen by the Israelis as to exclude the Palestinian delegates from the PLO, the exile community and Jerusalem the first two meetings in Ottawa were occupied by bickering over the heading of the Palestinian team first by Elias Sanbar (from the exile community), and then of Muhammad Hallaj (a PNC member). In every case the Palestinian team had to appear under the joint umbrella of the Jordanian-Palestinian team, and were denied separate representation. The first RWG meeting was boycotted by the Israelis, and the second ended with a stalemate due the dominance of discussion over representation.

The issue of representation was not resolved until the Cairo meeting in May 1994 which came after the signing of the DOP and the PLO became the direct negotiator with the Israelis.

b. Defining the Mandate of the RWG: Are Jews Also Refugees?
During the Second Plenary (in Ottawa November 1992) the Israelis raised the issue of including Jewish and other refugees in the deliberations of the RWG. The US delegation to the Lisbon Steering Committee (May 1992) also attempted to widen the scope of the RWG to include non-Palestinian refugees, including Cardias and Armenians. In particular the Israelis saw it as an opportunity to treat the problem of final status of the Palestinian refugee problem in the context of population exchange. That is, by suggesting that Palestinian refugees from Palestine have been replaced by the influx of Jewish refugees from North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, and other Arab countries. This position is based on an earlier claim of quid pro quo made in 1948 by David Ben Gurion:

    "When the Arab states are ready to conclude a peace treaty with Israel [the question of refugees will come up for constructive solution as part of the general settlement, and with due regard to our counter-claims in respect of the destruction of Jewish life and property..."

From the point of view of the Palestinian, and other Arab delegations this was seen not as a humanitarian gesture but an attempt to diffuse the work of the committee, whose mandate was already established in the Moscow steering Committee.

The Palestinian delegation countered this notion of 'exchange' by stressing three points about Jewish immigrants to Israel: (1) That Jews from Arab countries, in the main, came voluntarily to Israel, while the Palestinians were forcibly expelled from the homes; (2) that Palestinians took refuge in a different host countries than those from which the Jews emigrated to Israel (primarily Iraq, Morocco, and Yemen); and (3) Arab countries, at least in theory-- and in the case of Morocco, in fact--have proclaimed the right of their Jewish citizens to return to their countries. In consequence the Palestinians raised the demand that issues of compensation, repatriation and return on the part of Jewish immigrants in Israel should be raised bilaterally with the respective Arab countries, just as the Palestinians will raise these issues bilaterally with Israel during final status negotiations.

c. Themes: Humanitarian Aid vs. Political Rights:
The two perspectives that dominated the debate about the nature of the negotiations was whether the RWG will focus on humanitarian aid in the direction of integrating the refugees in the social structure of the host countries, or one which would assert their political rights. The resulting format was a compromise in which seven themes were proposed in which conditions of refugees in the occupied territories and the host countries were addressed, 'without prejudicing the final status deliberations of refugees'. This proviso, became an essential component of the gavel's summary of each plenary meeting. Just as the Palestinians insisted on including in each of their opening statements a reference to General Assembly Resolution 194 (the Right of Return), which was always diluted into the gavel's summary as a general reference to 'relevant UN resolutions on refugees'.

Only one of the seven themes, family reunification, dealt concretely with a political dimension of refugee dispersion. The other six themes addressed issues of community development and living conditions of refugees. Each interested country 'shepherded' one of these themes: Databases (Norway), Human Resources Development/Job Creation (USA), Public Health (Italy), Child Welfare (Sweden), Economic and Social Infrastructure (European Union), and Family Reunification (France).

It soon became apparent that family reunification was too explosive to be dealt with as a neutral issue of ameliorating the status of refugees since it generated a heated discussion around the issues of dispersal, military laws of residency, and demographic control of the size of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza.

In the analysis below considerable attention will be paid to three documents which have affected the course of the multilateral negotiations, the first concerns the debate on family reunification, which proved to be a much more contentious issue than anticipated; the second, on the Canadian perception of how to break the deadlock in the negotiations (the 'vision paper'); and finally, on the European Union attempts to link aid to refugees with creating options for integrating refugees in the Arab host countries.

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