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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

VII. 'Breaking the Taboos on Refugees': Peron's Vision
In Mid-March 1995 the Canadians, gavel holders of the refugee working group, circulated a document, with an initiative coming from the US delegation, whose purpose was to break the deadlock reached by the negotiations.

This was by far the most ambitious, and probably the most controversial, position put forth by the team headed by Marc Peron in attempting to draw some guideline for the future work of the RWG in the multi-lateral negotiations. It attempted, following the steering committee meeting in Tabarka, Tunis (July 1994), to project strategic vision for the refugees for the next 10 years. The paper had a further significance in that it was based on consultations with regional parties and anticipates that the co-sponsors (the US and Russia) would assume the coordination and management of this vision, with particular attention to funding projects that are involved in the implementation of its recommendations. It should be noted here that much of the problems associated with the discussion of the vision paper and its possible implementation has to do with the consensual framework required for reaching decisions in the multilaterals.

The controversy began with the definition of the 'vision' itself: "a new Middle East...[in which] our vision is a future without refugees...in which no one displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict (or their descendants) considers themselves to be a refugee". It envisioned the replacement of "statelessness by identity, poverty by development, camps by neighbourhoods, precariousness by normality" (VP 2.2, emphasis added). The assumption of 'normality' and achievement of civic rights to Palestinian refugees, without presenting it a package with the achievement of their political aspirations, has always generated fears of putting the cart before the horse from the perspective of Arab and Palestinian protagonists.

In order to alley these fears the Vision Paper insisted that refugees must be provided 'with options from which they can make a free and informed choice'. These options included an open discussion of issues like 'the right of return' and compensation. It included 'the possibility of some Palestinians being resettled (although not necessarily naturalized)--with full economic and civil rights--in the countries of current asylum' (VP 3.1.5).

RWG Achievements?
The Vision Paper then attempted to delineate the main achievements of the Group so far. Those achievements can be summarized into the following categories: (1) defining the scope the refugees and their problems as undertaken by the Norwegian shepherds in collaboration with UNRWA; (2) the mobilization of resources for improving the living standards, and socio-economic development, of refugees undertaken by the US, Italy, Sweden, and the European Union, and (3) humanitarian schemes such as improving Family Reunification procedures undertaken by the French shepherd.

On the issue of defining the scope of the problem of refugees (data and qualitative studies) the Norwegian shepherd--together with UNRWA--have produced a number of useful survey data (including the FAFO study and the ongoing demographic survey) but none of these actually answered any of the critical questions expected from the RWG on the number of refugees, their categories, and their preferences as to future options. In fact most of these studies have avoided entering into this rocky terrain precisely because of the sensitivity of the issues involved. The current difficulties of FAFO in getting basic data of this sort in the forthcoming Jordanian survey (not to speak of similar attempts for Syria and Lebanon) indicate the limitations embedded in these studies. On the other hand independent surveys that have been made outside the scope of the multilaterals (such as the PASSIA survey on West Bank refugee opinions on their future by N. Guerre, and Suhail Natour survey of the legal status of Palestinians in Lebanon) have been able to achieve considerable clarity on these issues precisely because they are not hampered by being part of the 'peace process'.

On the issue of 'mobilization of resources' it should be pointed out, without neglecting the importance of funding development projects among refugees, that much of these projects mentioned in the report are general aid projects to Palestinian development that are only partly aimed at refugees. Many of them in fact were announced simultaneously in the five working sessions of the multilaterals and should not be seen as exclusively, or even primarily 'refugee projects'. In fact it would help refugee standard of living--both in Palestine and the host Arab countries-- if these development schemes are seen (and implemented) as integrated economic projects for the population at large.

Thirdly, it is well known that the French vision for family reunification is far from being implemented, and that the concrete achievements in this regard is quite unsatisfactory--namely the raising of the ceiling of family reunifications from 1,000 cases to 2,000 after three years of intensive negotiations. Much of the procedural improvements for these schemes approved by the RWG, including Israel, are far from being implemented. It would have been more helpful if the Vision Paper made some reference to these limitations and failures in order to surmount them in future deliberations.

Where Do We Go From Here?
Here the paper suggested concrete steps on how to get out of the present impasse in the work of the RWG.

On the issue of mobilizing resources it suggested the following approaches:

  • visible projects to demonstrate effectively to refugee populations the benefits of the peace process (how exactly will this be done in Lebanon and Syria it is not clear--the paper should have been more concrete)

  • stress should be given to the practical needs of refugees outside the West Bank and Gaza, particularly in Syria and Lebanon. (It seems to me that until Syria become involved in the multilaterals, this is going to be very difficult. The RWG delegation that visited refugee camps in Lebanon in 1994 to demonstrate this point was almost confronted with immense hostility, partly due to the negative attitudes prepared in the Lebanese press and by government circles).

  • 'concrete projects need to be sensitive to, and endeavour to advance, the refugees' aspirations to live in dignity with a sense of identity' (VP 4.6). This 'concreteness' is too abstract. It is not clear what it means. To avoid being labelled as fluff it should point out what sort of projects can translate this aspirations.

On the issue of 'conceptualization and definition of the refugee problem' (VP 4.7) opened the subject of "breaking down of taboos".These 'taboos' were addressed directly in two particular items, both dealing with final status issues:

    the report called for the implementation of surveys among refugee communities for providing 'objective and subjective assessments of intentions and preferences with regard to final status' issues. Those included addressing the questions of the 'right of return' and 'the admission of displaced persons to Palestinian territories' (VP 4.10.2)

This 'taboo' subject was counterbalanced by breaking another taboo, this time by one that usually raised by the Israeli side, namely, those issues involving the integration of Palestinian refugees in the host Arab countries:

    to achieve this objective the report advocated studies on questions of naturalization, resettlement, and long-term residency in the host countries, with the aim of "informing how present refugee camps could be integrated into the surrounding communities", and the "comparative examination of immigration requirements regarding Palestinian refugees in countries outside the region" (VP 4.10.5).

Given the volatile atmosphere surrounding these two sets of issues (which for reasons of argumentation can be broadly divided into issues of repatriation and resettlement) it would have been more feasible to raise them as two political options within a single package precluding a final status resolution of the refugee question. From the Palestinian side, as well as from the perspective of most regional Arab states, the issue of re- settlement cannot be considered meaningfully unless it is part of an option that includes repatriation.

The report further proposed five concrete proposals which, if implemented, would be likely to make a qualitative difference in the work of the RWG:

  1. Refugee Statistics: Conducting a comprehensive census of refugee communities to provide "basic data on the numbers, living conditions, citizenship and employment status, links to family/property in Israel and the territories", etc. (VP 4.10.1)

  2. Absorptive Capacity: Assessment of the absorptive capacity of the West Bank and Gaza for returning Palestinians. (VP 4.10.3)

  3. UNRWA's Future: Assessment of the implications and consequences of the transfer of UNRWA services to the Palestinian Authority. (VP4.10.4). This is a problematic clause since the PA seems to be reconsidering it's earlier position on the transfer of UNRWA functions.

  4. FR Claims: Provision of a data base on the pool of potential claimants to the family reunification schemes. [The report suggests that "...in the context of final status arrangements...comprehensive peace may be associated with significant increases in the level of family reunification" (VP 4.10.6). Here the authors seem to be hinting that since Israel has been opposed to any substantial repatriation of refugees to their homes--both in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza--then an expansion of FR schemes may provide an outlet to this dilemma.

  5. Compensation Files: The report called for preparatory work on claims, valuation of claims, adjudication, "modes of balancing claims", and "the advantages and disadvantages of individual versus collective claims" (VP 4.10.7). It also calls for conducting comparative studies of compensation schemes that might be relevant to the Palestinian case.

This suggestion might have clarified an important issue:compensation is often (falsely) seen as a final status issue. There is no reason why compensation claims should not be considered for victims of the 1967 war, in the context of the work of the quadri- partite committee as part of the agenda of its technical team. Similarly claims of compensation are often discussed in the current literature (particularly in recent reports in the Arab press) as an alternative to the right of return. There is nothing in various UN resolutions (including G.A. res. 194) that treats compensation claims as an alternative to repatriation of refugees.

A Major Flaw
Perhaps the major flaw in the Vision Paper was the absence of a clear mechanism to implement these perspectives. Indeed a mechanism is lacking for carrying through principles that have already agreed on in the six meetings of the multi-laterals.

This limitation has to do with the procedural consensualism that has so far paralysed the work of multilateral proceedings. Only matters that receive the agreement of all parties to the conflict receive the stamp of approval of the RWG. This is why the final statement issued by each of the multilateral meetings has so far reflected the lowest common denominator of collective consensus. It is ironic that this limitation is seen by the report as a major source of strength in the multilaterals (VP 4.18) since it seeks to supplement bilateral negotiations.

This is equally true of substantive issues dealing with refugees, such as upgrading the status of family reunification procedures, whose limited achievements reflect the balance of forces on the ground.

How did the Vision Paper deal with this constraint? Two approaches and a monitoring mechanism are suggested: The first approach was referred to as 'enhanced dialogue' in which "flexibility and informality be utilized in dealing with sensitive problems" in order to minimize public constraints (VP 4.12).

Another approach was to open second track (ie secret or informal)negotiations in which NGOs, media people, and academic communities are involved in order to supplement or complement formal negotiations. This mechanism is suggested as a means also of bringing Syria and Lebanon into participating into RWG work (VP4.14)

This 'solution' is problematic. It attempts to deal with the deadlock in one of the multi-laterals (in this case the RWG) in the same manner that the stalled official Palestinian negotiations were dealt with in 1993 (Oslo). The part cannot be treated in the same manner as the whole. Furthermore the context here is different. The issue of refugees has become (or rather has been upgraded) into a bete noire of the outstanding issues in the transitional period.Within Israeli political discourse any concession on the issue of refugees has become tantamount to breaching the future security of Israeli citizens. Quite often Israeli collective fears on the question of refugees has been utilized by the Israeli negotiating team to preempt rational discussion of this matter. Second track and informal dialogue may be helpful to deal with final status issues, where the ideological obfuscation and intransigence can be defused, but not in dealing with transitional issues of residencies, family reunification and return of displaced persons,where agreements has been made in principle, but not on the modalities of their implementation.

If we accept this procedural distinction (between final status issues and transitional ones) then the main strength of the Vision paper can be located in the whole range of monitoring mechanisms are suggested (VP 4.15) for ensuring the implementation of decisions taken. Four areas were suggested as a monitoring role for the RWG:

  1. monitoring family reunification procedures

  2. support for implementing decisions of the quadripartite committee pertaining to displaced persons

  3. helping the Palestinian NA to deal with the consequences of UNRWA devolution in the West Bank and Gaza

  4. monitoring the implementation of decisions pertaining to refugees in final status negotiations
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