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  Palestinian Refugees: An Overview
Refugees in the Middle East Peace Process
Resolving the Refugee Question: Key Issues
Refugees in the Middle East Process

The question of Palestinian refugees has been a core issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1948. Subsequent to the initiation of the current Middle East peace process in Madrid in 1991, it has been addressed in a variety of ways [1].

The Multilateral Track: The Refugee Working Group

The Madrid peace process envisaged Arab-Israeli peace negotiations on two tracks:

  • first, bilateral negotiations between the direct parties to the conflict (Israel-Syria, Israel-Lebanon, and Israel with what was initially formed as a joint Palestinian/Jordanian delegation).

  • second, multilateral negotiations on those broader issues whose solutions require coordinated action and the international community's support.

The multilateral track was formally initiated in Moscow in January 1992, with the establishment of the Refugee Working Group and four others (Arms Control and Regional Security; Regional Economic Development; Water; Environment).

The Refugee Working Group focused on seven main themes, each with a lead country or "shepherd". The themes were Databases (the shepherd for which is Norway), Family Reunification (France), Human Resources Development (US), Job Creation and Vocational Training (US), Public Health (Italy), Child Welfare ( Sweden) and Economic and Social Infrastructure (the European Union). In cooperation with the regional parties, the shepherds were responsible for defining needs, developing responses and mobilizing required resources. During the plenary session, each shepherd presented a report on the progress achieved under their theme since the last plenary. There were a total of eight plenary sessions of the RWG:

  1. Moscow, January 1992
  2. Ottawa, May 1992
  3. Ottawa, November 1992
  4. Oslo, May 1993
  5. Tunis, October 1993
  6. Cairo, May 1994
  7. Antalya, December 1994
  8. Geneva, December 1995

Israel boycotted the first full session of the RWG in Ottawa in May 1992. At the November 1992 meeting its participation was first delayed by a dispute over participation of Palestinian members of the Palestine National Council, and then cut short by a dispute over the issue of "family reunification." The first seven meetings of the RWG were "gavelled" by Canadian diplomat Marc Perron; he was succeeded by Canadian diplomat Andrew Robinson at RWG VIII.

In 1997, the Arab League called for a boycott of the multilaterals in protest over Israeli policies. However, lower-level work by the RWG continued. This ended, however, with the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000, which led to a suspension of all multilateral track activities.

Despite this, Canada and the subsequent RWG gavel holders (Mike Molloy, Jill Sinclair, and then Peter McRae) continued to be support a range of research, dialogue, technical, and other projects aimed at addressing both the immediate needs of the refugees and enhancing the prospects for eventually achieving a negotiated, mutually-acceptable resolution of the refugee issue.

On the work of the RWG, see the papers by Rex Brynen and Jill Tansley, Rex Brynen, (Palestinian RWG negotiator) Salim Tamari, and by former RWG Gavels Marc Perron and Andrew Robinson elsewhere on PRRN.

The Oslo Process

New frameworks and forums for discussion of refugee issues were created by the Palestinian-Israeli Declaration of Principles (DoP) of September 1993. The DoP called for the immediate negotiation of interim Palestinian self-government in portions of the West Bank and Gaza, with negotiations on "permanent status" issues--refugees, along with borders, settlements and Jerusalem--to be delayed until 1996. In May 1996, the final status negotiations were formally opened, but substantial negotiation was interrupted by Israeli elections, and the subsequent change in the Israeli government. The Hebron redeployment agreement (January 1997) called for final status negotiations to begin in March 1997. However, Israel's decision to proceed with new settlement activity in occupied territory near Jerusalem led to a deterioration in the peace process, and as of the time of writing final status negotiations had not yet begun.

The DOP did, however, call for immediate negotiations between Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan and Egypt on the "modalities of admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza in 1967." Subsequently, a Continuing (or "Quadripartite") Committee was established to discuss these issues. The Committee first met in Amman in May 1995; subsequent meetings were held in Beersheba, Cairo, Gaza, Amman and Haifa. Work within the Committee was slow, with major differences over the definition of a "displaced person" and hence the number of potential returnees. By 1997, deterioration in the peace process saw work in the Committee grind to a virtual halt.

In addition, the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement ("Oslo II") of September 1995 contained some clauses of relevance to the refugee issue, in particular those regarding residency rights for returnees.

The Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty

The refugee issue was also addressed in the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty of October 1994. In Article VIII.2, the parties agreed to seek to resolve the refugee problem:

  1. In the case of displaced persons, in a quadripartite committee together with Egypt and the Palestinians;

  2. In the case of refugees:
    1. in the framework of the Multilateral Group on Refugees [Refugee Working Group]
    2. in negotiations, in a framework to be agreed, bilateral or otherwise, in conjunction with and at the same time as the permanent status negotiations pertiaing to the territories referred to in Article 3 of this treaty [i.e., the territories "that came under Israeli government control in 1967"]

Permanent Status Negotiations

As called for in the Oslo Agreement, permanent status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were formally launched in the spring of 1996. These were interrupted, however, by the election in May of that year of a new, Likud-led government in Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Only after Netanyahu's defeat in turn by Ehud Barak, and the formation of a Labor Party-led government in May 1999, did serious negotiations really begin. In July 2000, US President Bill Clinton hosted an intensive summit meeting in Camp David between Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. These talks failed to produce an agreement, however, and little progress was made on the refugee issue in particular. In many ways, the Camp David negotiations were premature. Insufficient groundwork had been laid for an agreement, and on the refugee issues the Israeli side seemed ill-prepared to face the issue. The US may also have misread Palestinian intentions.
Following the failure at Camp David, further quiet contacts continued. The eruption of widespread violence--the second intifada--in late September, however, made negotiations more difficult, and hastened the slow collapse of the Barak government. The rapidly-approaching end of the Clinton Administration also created an additional source of pressure.

In an effort to break the negotiations deadlock, President Clinton unveiled compromise proposals - the so-called "Clinton parameters" - to the parties in December 2000. In a subsequent speech to the Israel Policy Forum in January 2001, Clinton outlined the many elements of this proposal regarding borders, security, settlements, Jerusalem, and other key issues. With regard to refugees, he noted:

...a solution will have to be found for the Palestinian refugees who have suffered a great deal -- particularly some of them. A solution that allows them to return to a Palestinian state that will provide all Palestinians with a place they can safely and proudly call home. All Palestinian refugees who wish to live in this homeland should have the right to do so. All others who want to find new homes, whether in their current locations or in third countries, should be able to do so, consistent with those countries' sovereign decisions. And that includes Israel. All refugees should receive compensation from the international community for their losses, and assistance in building new lives.
Critics suggested that the plan offered little recognition of the Palestinian right of return, nor any realistic foundation for financing refugee compensation. The Clinton parameters were accepted by Israel, albeit with some reservations. The Palestinians did not reject Clinton's idea outright, but requested clarification or raised concerns regarding aspects of the initiative.

Finally, later in January, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Taba in a last minute effort to secure an overall permanent status agreement before early Israeli prime ministerial elections in February. The talks were largely based on the Clinton Parameters. This time--for the first time-- Yossi Beilin (the chief Israeli refugee negotiator) and Nabil Sha'th (the chief Palestinian negotiatior) made substantial progress on the refugee issue. According to a fairly accurate (but not perfect) account in Ha'aretz on 29 May 2001:
Concurrent with the wording of a declaration that would absolve Israel of legal responsibility for the refugee problem (an expression of regret in place of guilt), a mechanism was worked out at Taba with the aim of defusing the highly charged issue of the "right of return." ...

The following are the principles of the settlement, as recorded by Israeli and Palestinian sources who took part in the negotiations. Most of the details were confirmed by international sources who closely monitored the negotiations.

The international body that will be established to deal with the subject will present each refugee with five options: rehabilitation in his current place of residence including citizenship of the state in which he lives; absorption in the new State of Palestine; settlement in Halutza, in the southern Negev in Israel; immigration to a country outside the region (the external affairs minister of Canada, who visited Israel a short time ago, reiterated his country's commitment to take in refugees as part of a comprehensive peace agreement); return to Israeli territory.

The five options will be shaped in a manner that will channel immigration as much as possible to options other than a return to Israel. This will include a series of incentives, an accelerated rehabilitation program and generous economic aid, which will be offered to Palestinians who forgo the option of immigration to Israel.

The immigration quotas will also be geared to induce refugees to opt for the alternatives to living in Israel. It was agreed that the immigration quotas for Israel will be lower than those set for other destinations. (According to an estimate by foreign sources, it will be possible, in negotiations, to reach agreement on a quota of 40,000 refugee immigrants to Israel over a period of five years.) In any event, it was agreed that Israel has the sovereign right to decide who will enter her territory and who will be barred from entering.

Dealing with the personal status of each refugee will be conditional upon his relinquishing refugee status and accepting the same rights as those in whatever place he chooses to reside. This means that the refugee agrees the place he chooses will be his final place of residence. In addition, this will mean forgoing claims to property in Israel. The Israeli side attached great importance to this point, viewing it as confirmation of the end of Israel's commitment with respect to the refugee problem.

The new international body will replace the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which will be dismantled within five years. The new body will assume responsibility for dealing with the refugees at both the personal and the community level. This will include establishing infrastructure and making provision for education, housing, health and welfare, and professional training. Israel would like the UNRWA to shut down its operations, on the grounds that the organization's existence perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem. It was agreed that refugee certificates that UNRWA issues would be canceled. Refugee camps containing those who choose to be rehabilitated where they are will be annexed to adjacent cities. Thus the refugee camps will lose their extraterritorial status.

The international body will raise funds and give compensation for private real estate that was expropriated from the refugees. There is still an unresolved dispute concerning property of common ownership, collective compensation, and movable property, such as vehicles and the other items that the refugees left behind.

Israel demanded that a ceiling be set for the amount of compensation to be paid; this would then become part of the permanent agreement. The Palestinians demanded that compensation be set on a case-by-case basis, with no ceiling - that is, with a separate assessment of the worth of each refugee's case. Israel argued that the adoption of that system would perpetuate the problem, because the Palestinians would quickly find themselves in a confrontation with the administration, which would attempt to reduce the assessed value of their property. One idea that was discussed was for the amount to be calculated within a designated time, using a method that would take account of macro-economic considerations and individual case-by-case calculations.
An even more detailed account of the Taba has now become available in a leaked EU internal summary of the talks. In addition, both the opening Palestinian position at Taba and the subsequent Israeli compromise position have since been published in the press.

Ultimately, however, the Taba negotiations failed to produce a comprehensive agreement on this and other permanent status issues. Against the backdrop of escalating violence, negotiations were very difficult, and neither Palestinian nor Israeli public opinion was inclined to compromise. Moreover, the Barak government itself was on the verge of collapse. In February, Barak suffered a humiliating electoral defeat at the hands of hardline Likud leader Ariel Sharon. With Sharon's accession to the position of prime minister, the prospects for meaningful permanent status negotiations quickly faded.

The "Roadmap"

In April 2003, the diplomatic Quartet (comprised of the US, EU, Russia, and UN) released its "Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict". Phase II of the Roadmap focused on "the option of creating an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty, based on the new constitution, as a way station to a permanent status settlement." Phase III called for " Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aimed at a permanent status agreement in 2005," including "an agreed, just, fair, and realistic solution to the refugee issue."

When the Israeli cabinet voted to accept the steps included in the Roadmap it explicitly underscored that "both during and subsequent to the political process, the resolution of the issue of the refugees will not include their entry into or settlement within the State of Israel." The Israeli government also included, in a list of fourteen remarks to the US, a request that "in connection to both the introductory statements and the final settlement, declared references must be made to Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and to the waiver of any right of return for Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel." [2]

US President Bush went some way to accepting the Israeli position in an April 2004 exchange of letters with Prime Minister Sharon regarding Israeli disengagement from Gaza. Specifically, the President stated that "It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel." The Bush formulation was considerably less nuanced than the Clinton Parameters, and not surprisingly received substantial Arab and Palestinian criticism.

The Annapolis Negotiations

Despite the Roadmap, serious permanent status negotiations did not begin again until well after Ehud Olmert became Israeli Prime Minister in May 2006. On 27 November 2007, the US hosted a ceremonial opening to the talks in Annapolis. Thereafter, the two sides held a series of discussions for almost a year.

While there was some progress on territorial issues, there was no such progress on the issue of refugees. Indeed, the Israeli position was considerably less generous than it had been at Taba in January 2000. According to a later newspaper interview, Olmert offered that a mere 1,000 Palestinians per year could return to Israel over five years:

I think Abu Mazen understood there was no chance Israel would become the homeland of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian state was to be the homeland of the Palestinian people. So the question was how the claimed attachment of the Palestinian refugees to their original places could be recognised without bringing them in. I told him I would never agree to a right of return. Instead, we would agree on a humanitarian basis to accept a certain number every year for five years, on the basis that this would be the end of conflict and the end of claims. I said to him 1000 per year. I think the Americans were entirely with me.

In addition, we talked about creating an international fund that would compensate Palestinians for their suffering. I was the first Israeli prime minister to speak of Palestinian suffering and to say that we are not indifferent to that suffering. [3]

In any case, the talks came to an end in when corruption charges forced Olmert to resign as Prime Minister in September 2008. In March 2009, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was elected as the new Israeli Prime Minister.

Proximity and Direct Negotiations

Prodded by a new US Administration under Barack Obama, Israel and the PLO began so-called "proximity talks" in May 2010. These did not involve face-to-face discussions, but rather placed American special enjvoy George Mitchell as messenger and mediator between the two sides. Discussions appear to have focused largely on borders and security with little attention to the refugee issue, although the PLO did "deposit" its position on the refugee question (and other final status issues) with the US.

Subsequently, the two parties agreed to start direct negotiations in September 2010. Again, there seemed little prospects that refugees would be a major focus of these at first. Most observers were also pessimistic that the talks could succeed without much greater US engagement, given both the hardline positions of the Netanyahu government as well as the political weaknesses of Palestinian President Abbas (who had lost control of Gaza to his Hamas rivals in 2007). Indeed, the talks soon collapsed a few weeks later, when it became clear that Israel would not continue its temporary partial moratorium on the illegal construction of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.


[1] For a more detailed overview of negotiations--including key negotiating texts—see also Rex Brynen, "Past as Prelude? Negotiating the Palestinian Refugee Issue," Chatham House Briefing Paper MEP/BR 08/01 (June 2008).

[2] "Statement from the Prime Minister's Bureau," Israel Government Press Office, 25 May 2003.

[3] "Ehud Olmert Still dreams of peace," The Australian, 28 November 2009.

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