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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

V. Displaced Persons: Interim Solutions for the Refugee Problem
In line with distinctions made in the Madrid Peace Conference, the Oslo Agreement provided for resolving the issue of 1967 refugees (referred to as 'displaced persons') in the context of a four-party committee representing Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians. Article XII of the Oslo Accords stipulated that the Quadripartite 'continuing committee...will decide by agreement on the modalities of admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, together with the necessary measures to prevent disruption and disorder'.

The Quadripartite Continual Committee (QP) met at the ministerial level in Amman on March 1995 after the conclusion of the Israeli- Jordanian Peace Treaty and decided to meet periodically at the level of experts (Technical Committee) and quarterly at the ministerial level to deliberate on recommendations raised by the TC. Its frame of reference was the DOP (article 12), the Jordanian- Israeli Peace Agreement, and those clauses of the Camp David Accords that dealt with displaced persons. The inclusion of the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Agreement was meant to signal Jordan's agreement to join the QP committee--which so far was a bilateral agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Camp David Accords, on the other hand contained a stronger reference to the repatriation of DPs, with a time-frame that spans the transitional period of self-rule, i.e. five years. No such time-frame was included in the DOP.

The Committee met six times since the beginning of 1995 (Amman, Beer-Sheva, Cairo, Gaza, Amman, and Haifa). In the spring of 1995, at the Beer-Sheva meeting, it adopted an agenda revolving around four items:

  • Definition of Displaced Persons

  • Their Numbers

  • Modalities of repatriation ('admission' in the language of the DOP)

The attempt to add a time-frame to the agenda, was rejected by the Israelis and subsequent meetings of the TC were consumed by major differences on what constitutes a definition of 'displaced persons'. The differences revolved about which categories of Palestinians were displaced by the 1967 war.

The Israeli position on displaced persons initially was to regard as displaced, in a memo issued on June 5th, 1995, those Palestinians 'who were residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and were displaced as a result of the fighting'. They noted that as a 'humanitarian gesture' the Israeli government allowed Palestinians to return through the offices of the Red cross, after July 2nd 1967. Since then 88,000 persons were admitted within the Family Reunification scheme in the period between 1967 and 1994.

But this minimalist definition of displaced, with the stress on the words "as a result of the fighting" in contrast to "as a result of the war" was totally unacceptable to the Palestinians and the two Arab parties. They regarded the terminology also as contrary to the terms of the DOP which refers (in article 12) to 'persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967'.

Both the Jordanian and Palestinian delegations suggested the following alternative definition:

    "Displaced Persons are those individuals and their families and descendants who left their homes in the West Bank and Gaza, or were unable to return to their homes, as a consequence of the 1967 war."

In attempting to resolve the question of definition of 'who is a displaced person?' the committee divided the categories of displaced persons into three groupings:

  1. Those Palestinians who were out of the West Bank and Gaza on the eve of the War, and who were registered in the population registry of Jordan and the Gaza Strip. Those include students, businessmen, workers, etc. who could not come back to their homes due to Israeli occupation.

  2. Those citizens of the West Bank and Gaza who were displaced during or in the aftermath of the war.

  3. Those who left the occupied territories after the census of September 1967 and were prevented from coming back by the Israelis. Most people into this categories belong to the so-called 'latecomers' (people whose exit permit was not renewed), and deportees.

The Israeli objected to groupings 1 and 3 as constituting 'displaced persons'. They also objected to the inclusion of the words 'families' and 'descendants' to the definition. Since it was impossible to proceed on the issue of modalities of return without agreement on definition, the meeting decided to establish consensus on category 2 (ie those who lost their homes as a result of the war), and to proceed to the issues of numbers and modalities, while continuing the debates on the other two categories of displaced persons.

Shift in the Terms of Debate
With the onset of the Oslo Accords and the convening of the committee on displaced persons (QPCDP) the terms of debate on refugees began to shift. The most tangible effect of this shift was the marginalization of the multi-lateral committee on refugees. 1995 was the first year in the peace negotiations when no meeting for the refugee group was scheduled. Both the Americans and the Canadians (sponsor and head of the refugee talks respectively) replaced the heads of their delegations in charge of refugees, with less known civil servants.

Within the Arab World the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty signalled an era of normalization in which collective Arab pressure on Israel on the issue of refugees was receded. By its very nature the quadripartite committee excluded the Europeans, the Arab states, and the North Americans, in effect transforming the refugee issue into a regional context.

The Israelis press began to treat the talks on displaced persons as if they were the refugee talks itself, with warning that acceptance of repatriation for 1967 refugees signalled a prelude for the return of 1948 refugee. Shlomo Gazit, now appointed as a special advisor to the Israeli side in the multilateral talks, expressed the view that the Israeli delegation to the bilateral talks should insist that an Israeli condition for redeployment in favour of the PNA should include "the liquidation of the refugee question inside the Gaza Strip, the abolition of the formal status of refugees, the removal of UNRWA from the district and suspension of aid to UNRWA, and the dismantling of refugee camps and the removal of their population to permanent housing schemes".

At the heart of the debate over modalities of admission of DPs is the degree of control to be exercised by the PNA over the issues of border crossings and the granting of residency permits to returning Palestinians from their exile. Israeli negotiators claim, though not officially, that these controls will be relaxed from the Israeli side once they are assured that security matters are under control in PNA territories, and once economic growth in the Palestinian economy allow for higher absorption of expatriates. The Palestinians have insisted that this latter point should be an internal matter for the PNA, and that Israelis have no right to control the number of Palestinians who are admitted under the guise of security considerations. A possible turning point occurred with the signing of the Interim Agreement on Self-Government (Oslo 2) on September 28th, 1995. The changes brought about by this agreement are discussed in section VI. below.

But the shift in focus over refugees occurred within a more general questioning of the role of the multilaterals as the 'peace process' had moved from a regional issue to bilateral talks between Jordan and Israel, and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It was at this point that the Canadians attempted to break the deadlock by proposing new guidelines for the negotiations on refugees.

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