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Resolving the Refugee Question: Key Issues
Palestinian Refugees and Final Status: Key Issues

PRRN is currently working with IDRC to finalize a series of policy papers on the refugee issue, outlining the various negotiating issues and possible approaches to resolving them. When that series is available, it will be posted online, replacing the overview below.

Substantive negotiations on the refugee issue were first held in 2000-01, at the Camp David and Taba negotiations, as well as in other talks and in the December 2000 Clinton Parameters. There was also some discussion of the issue during the Annapolis Round in 2007-08.

From those talks, as well as various second track projects such as the Geneva Initiative, . However, it is clear--from second track dialogue projects, from discussions in and around the RWG and Continuing (Quadripartite) Committeeit is clear that four sets of issues will be at the core of any possible solution of the refugee issue.

The Right of Return

The Palestinian "right of return" has been a central element of the Palestinian position throughout post-Madrid negotiations on the refugee issue. The right of return is expressed in terms of both the moral claim of refugees to return to homes from which they have been displaced, and by reference to a number of United Nations resolutions. The most important of these is General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of December 1948, which inter alia declares that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date..". However, a broader right of return can also be read from Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other international human rights instruments.

Israel has rejected the "right of return," and consequently opposed basing any negotiations on the principles of UNGAR 194. Typically, Israeli spokespersons have argued either that Israel bears little moral responsibility for the flight of Palestinian refugees in 1948, and/or that a de facto "population transfer" occurred as Israel accepted post-1948 Jewish refugees from the Arab world. Israel also argues that UNGAR 194 was a non-binding resolution of the General Assembly that merely recommended a particular course of action, but did not require it. In any case, mainstream Israeli commentators are virtually unanimous in their assessment that no Israeli government would ever countenance substantially changing the demographic balance of the state--the very raison d'être of which is its Jewish character.

Despite this large gap in official positions, it is possible to discern some middle ground between some Israeli and Palestinian analysts of the refugee issue. Many Palestinians--both intellectuals and officials--have spoken of a Palestinian right of return that would be understood to mean a return to national soil (in the West Bank and Gaza), rather than a return to 1948 homes. Ziad Abu Zayyad, for example, suggests that "One must distinguish between, on the one hand, the "right of return" as a principle, and on the other hand, exercising that right by literally returning to Palestine as a national homeland, and to that same home, piece of land, or grove which a certain Palestinian owned before 1948, as a private individual property."[1] Rashid Khalidi--emphasizing what he terms "attainable" (rather than "absolute") justice--suggests that while "it must be accepted that all Palestinian refugees and their descendants have a right to return to their homes in principle..." it must be "equally accepted that in practice force majeure will prevent most of them from being able to exercise this right."[2]

Others have maintained somewhat more ambiguity. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in a 2002 opinion piece in the New York Times, indicated that some accommodation of Israel's demographic concerns was possible:

In addition, we seek a fair and just solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees who for 54 years have not been permitted to return to their homes. We understand Israel's demographic concerns and understand that the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a right guaranteed under international law and United Nations Resolution 194, must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns. However, just as we Palestinians must be realistic with respect to Israel's demographic desires, Israelis too must be realistic in understanding that there can be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if the legitimate rights of these innocent civilians continue to be ignored. Left unresolved, the refugee issue has the potential to undermine any permanent peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. How is a Palestinian refugee to understand that his or her right of return will not be honored but those of Kosovar Albanians, Afghans and East Timorese have been?

The Arab League's March 2002 peace initiative, while calling for "Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194," makes this contingent on Israeli agreement.

Salim Tamari (a member of the Palestinian delegation to both the RWG and the Continuing Committee) approvingly quotes Khalidi's views, expressing them in the following terms:

    Israel's acceptance, in principle, of the right of Palestinians and their descendants to return to their homes. The Palestinians, in exchange, would recognize that this right cannot be exercised inside the 1948 boundaries but in a state on Palestine [in the West Bank and Gaza]. As part of these mutual concessions, Israel should take into its territory several tens of thousands of refugees, particularly those who have family members living inside Israel.[3]

He also adds his own view, however, that the "right of return to a mini-Palestine" should not be "bartered against the right of return to Israel itself." In a similar vein, Abbas Shiblaq (another periodic member of the Palestinian RWG team) has noted that "The right of return for Palestinian refugees will be basically applied to the future Palestinian state in areas occupied in 1967."[4] However, the Shaml Newsletter (of which Shiblaq is editor) declares that "Return to Palestinian National Authority areas is not a substitute to the right of return of the refugees of 1948"--while also acknowledging that "it would be naive to assume that political considerations and developments of the last fifty years will not have an impact on the way that this right might be implemented."[5]

The responsiveness of Israelis to this position has been mixed. On the one hand, Likud spokespersons have rejected outright even a Palestinian "return" to the West Bank and Gaza. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for example, once stated:

    If these people find themselves resettled once again in miserable refugee camps in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, gazing out from them upon their towns and the remains of their former villages, the tension and anger will be enormous.

    We cannot count on their wanting to stay put in their current places of residence, whatever the government placatingly tells us...

    The Palestinian refugee problem is a tragedy the Palestinians brought upon themselves. But one tragedy must not be replaced by another.

    If we want to continue living in this country, a solution to the refugee problem must be found elsewhere - even if it goes against the Camp David accords.[6]

Similarly, Netanyahu advisor Dore Gold has cited Israel's "demographic security" as the consequent need to prevent "a situation where the Palestinian Authority floods Judea and Samaria with [returning] refugees." [7]

On the other hand, a number of influential Israelis have been open to the idea of very limited or symbolic return to 1948 areas--provided that Palestinians explicitly abandon claims of a right of return to 1948 areas. Mark Heller, for example, has suggested that, given the impossibility (and from his perspective, undesirability) of implementing any "right of return" to the refugees' original homes within Israel proper, Palestinian refugees would instead be free to "return" to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This might be accompanied by the admission of some former Palestinian refugees to Israel on humanitarian grounds.[8] Shlomo Gazit also suggests that the refugee issue be resolved through the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and the establishment of a Palestinian "Law of Return" under which "every Palestinian in the diaspora so wishes would be receive Palestinian citizenship, carry a Palestinian passport that would grant him international recognition and rights, and, if need be, the right to immigrate to the new state."[9] By contrast, Gazit is personally less willing than Heller to consider the "return" of a token number of Palestinians to 1948 territories on humanitarian/family reunification grounds, although he does include it as a possible Israeli policy option. Even Shimon Peres, while emphasizing the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in their current place of exile, leaves the door open for this sort of arrangement, suggesting that "once a permanent settlement has been worked out, the Israeli government should have no objection to free movement into and out of the areas included in the Palestinian-Jordanian confederation."--and that, furthermore, "the success of negotiations and the positive atmosphere thus created will make it easier for Israel to show goodwill in resolving the question of family reunification."[10] An unofficial 1996 understanding between Labor's Yossi Beilin and Palestinian negotiator Abu Mazen suggested that the return of Palestinian refugees would be focussed on the West Bank and Gaza. This possibility was also held open in a 1997 unofficial paper developed by Beilin and Likud MK Michael Eitan.

During the Taba negotiations in January 2001, members of the Israeli negotiating team suggested that 25,000 refugees might be accepted over three years or 40,000 over five years, in the context of a 15-year programme of absorption that would also include (possibly additional) family reunification. This ambiguous formula could be read as representing anything from 25,000 to 125,000 or more refugees. As an alternative to this, Israeli negotiators had also suggested granting the ‘right of return’ to orig- inal 1948 refugees only – a relatively small number of refugees who were well past reproductive age and therefore posed no demographic threat to the Jewish character of Israel. This proposal was deemed unac- ceptable by the Palestinian side. Palestinian negotiators had been urged to press for a level ‘in the six figures’, but with no more explicit political guidance. During the Annapolis Round of negotiations in 2007-8, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested that some token "family reunification" of refugees might occur, but he ruled out any substantial right of return.

Most second track dialogue projects, such as the Geneva Initiative, have envisaged Palestinian refugees largely repatriating to a future Palestinian state, rather than returning to Israel.

Palestinian Statehood

As can be seen above, a central assumption of the more flexible interpretations of the Palestinian "right of return" is the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Such a state would not only be able to accept those Palestinians wishing to return to their national soil, but would further be able to offer Palestinian citizenship to those who remain in the diaspora.

The implications of this would vary across the diaspora. In Lebanon--where most Palestinians are presently stateless--the provision of Palestinian citizenship to any Palestinians electing to remain in that country might serve to assuage some Lebanese concerns regarding the political consequences of the Palestinian presence. Much the same would apply in Syria. In Jordan, however, Palestinians overwhelming hold Jordanian citizenship. Some Jordanian officials have suggested that dual citizenship would not be an option, and that Palestinians would have to choose one political identity or the other in the event of a final settlement. However, it is also possible that this issue would be resolved through the formation of a future Palestinian-Jordanian confederation, which at times has been a declared aim of both parties.

With regard to Israel, some Israelis have expressed concern at the idea that its Arab citizens might opt for Palestinian citizenship if the option were available to them. It is questionable how many would do so, however--particularly since under these circumstances Israel would presumably excerise its sovereign right to deny dual citizenship, and could easily establish additional legal disincentives.

Refugee Compensation

A second essential in final status resolution of the refugee issue is compensation--or, more accurately, the issue of both compensation (monies paid for lost property) and reparations (monies paid in recognition of the historical injustice which created the refugee issue). UNGAR 194 (III) emphasized the former, proposing that “compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.” Estimates of potential Palestinian compensation/reparation claims have varied widely, although they are typically in the tens of billions. Rashid Khalidi, for example, notes:

    A third element is reparations for all those who will not be allowed to return, and compensation for those who lost property in 1948. Given that most refugees will not be able to return, the sums involved are large indeed, according to the most authoritative recent estimate of property losses alone. Depending on the criteria used, they range from $92 billion to $147 billion at 1984 prices, when the study was done [Kubursi in Hadawi, 1984, p.183]. Even if one uses an entirely different approach, $20,000 per person for an arbitrarily chosen figure of 2 million eligible refugees and their descendants yields a figure of $40 billion. However, lest this seem like a great deal of money, we should recall that it amounts to little more than a decade worth of US aid to Israel.[11]

Such estimates are typically based on estimates of Palestinian losses in 1948, or perhaps--as with Khalidi’s figure of $40 billion, or Shlomo Gazit’s suggestion that Israel might pay up to $7-10 billion in compensation, or alternatively $10,000 per family--an attempt to place an appropriate price-tag on a historical injustice. However, some have raised questions as to what financial resources might be available to finance compensation payments. [12] A number of Western donors have signalled that while they would be generous in support of a overall Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, they see compensation of Palestinians for property seized and held by Israel as primarily an Israeli--not international--responsibility.

In addition to the issue of available resources, there are a number of questions surrounding who receives compensation:

Payments might be made to surviving 1948 refugees, or to all UNRWA-registered refugees, or differentially allocated to original refugees and their descendants.

  • Payments might be made to surviving 1948 refugees, or to all UNRWA-registered refugees, or differentially allocated to original refugees and their descendants.

  • Payments might be directed equally at all refugees, or tied in some regard to whether refugees elect to utilize their right of return. UNGAR 194 (III) suggests both models: that payments be made to “those choosing not to return,” and that general payments be made for loss and damages. If returning refugees receive lesser payments than non-returnees, this creates an incentive (especially for the poorest refugees) to remain in diaspora.

  • A portion of compensation/reparations might be paid to the Palestine Authority. This could be justified on the grounds that the PA is assuming the task of reintegrating returnees and rehabilitating existing refugee camps in the territories. It might also appeal to donors and to Israel on political grounds, given the extent to which the peace process hinges on the political stability of the PA. It would be much less effective, however, in assuaging the historical grievances of ordinary Palestinians.

  • Host governments will certainly make a claim for financial resources associated with a refugee settlement, especially given the wind-down of UNRWA and their consequent assumption of the full “burden” of any remaining refugee community. Palestinians themselves will be unwilling to see resources intended for refugees flow into the coffers of host governments instead, especially in the case of a Lebanese government that often seems hostile to the Palestinian presence. On the other hand, refugee-linked financial support (or debt relief) for host governments would, in the case of Lebanon in particular, provide the international community with some leverage to assure good treatment of, and the continued provision of services to, those Palestinians remaining in the country. By contrast, if aid were not provided to Lebanon it might simply refuse to assume functions previously provided by UNRWA, further worsening the position of any remaining Palestinian community.

There are also a variety of issues surrounding to how compensation/reparation payments might be made:

  • A claims-based system, linking compensation payments to properties lost in 1948, would result in a highly uneven distribution of resources. Those Palestinians from poorer peasant family backgrounds (who often represent the poorest portion of the current refugee population) would, under such a system, receive the smallest payments. By contrast, a system of per capita payments would recognize the injustice done to all Palestinians, would have more positive socio-economic effects, and would be much easier to administer. It might also have political advantages should the level of compensation available fall far below calculations of 1948 losses. One advantage of either system is that it would put economic resources into the hands of individual Palestinians, and create an immediate capital injection into the economy of host countries.

  • Compensation might take the form of cash payments, and/or some sort of package of services (including vouchers and soft loans). Simple cash payments maximize refugee flexibility, but provide less ability to use compensation payments to achieve certain desired economic and social objectives.

  • Compensation might be immediate, or paid over a period of time. The former provides a more ready capital resource for refugees; the latter may be necessary to bridge shortcomings in compensation financing, or to reduce the economic disruption caused by a sudden short-term, one-time capital injection into local economies.

Finally, there is the issue of compensation claims that might be made by Jews who fled Arab countries after 1948. Some Israelis have argued that such claims could be used as a bargaining chip to offset Palestinian compensation demands. Palestinians, on the other hand, argue that the proper address for any Jewish claims should be the Arab states responsible.

Refugee Resettlement
A fourth set of issues revolves around the question of refugee resettlement, whether in current countries of refuge or in third countries. Because of its opposition to any Palestinian "right of return," this has been a position favoured by successive Israel governments. Equally, Palestinian refugees have strongly opposed any resettlement outside of their homeland.

Arab host countries have also rejected the option of resettlement, although with varyting degrees of vehemence. The Lebanese government strongly imposes "tawtin", or permanent implantation, of its present Palestinian population. This view is generally shared across the Lebanese political and sectarian spectrum: According to one survey, three quarters of Lebanese opposed resettlement, and a similar proportion believed that it would have damaging political or economic consequences.[13] In Jordan, by contrast, Palestinians already enjoy full political and social rights as Jordanian citizens.

Several factors would likely shape the propensity of Palestinians to repatriate to a Palestinian state:

  • The degree of historical and social attachment to the territories. Whereas some 40% of Palestinians in Jordanian originate from the West Bank (excluding "second time" refugees), this is true of only 1% of Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria.

  • The degree of local social and economic integration. Palestinians are most integrated in Jordan, and perhaps least socially integrated in the Gulf states. In Lebanon, officials report that fully one quarter of third-generation Palestinians have a Lebanese mother or father.

  • Political and economic "push" factors in the host country. This is particularly relevant in Lebanon, where some observers fear that an unwelcoming Lebanese government would actively discourage Palestinian resdents from remaining in the event of a final status settlement. By contrast, it is doubtful (barring a sudden rise in Palestinian-East Bank tensions) that any such push factors would be felt in Jordan.

  • The economic resources of Palestinian refugees, coupled with economic conditions in the territories. Poorer refugees might be unable to relocate, even if they wished to do so. Similarly, high prices and high unemployment in the territories might make it difficult for them to do so. Because of this, the nature of any refugee compensation package would become particularly important.

  • The willingness of third countries to accept Palestinian immigrants. Some surveys suggest that many Palestinian refugees would avail themselves of the opportunity to immigrate to Western countries were that option open to them. However, the availability of such an option would be subject to the complex domestic political dynamics of immigration policy in receiving countries.

Irregardless of the political viability or desirability of such assumptions, it is immediately evident that even were final status arrangements on the refugee issue to be successfully concluded, the number of Palestinians remaining in the diaspora would remain substantial. [14] This in turn raises important questions about their civil status. As suggested earlier, a Palestinian state would presumably have the option of extending citizenship to them (although this might be constrained by the dual citizenship policies of the host country). The most sensitivity would undoubtedly arsie in Lebanon. This has led Nawaf Salam to suggest that a form of permanent residency could be granted to Palestinians remaining in Lebanon, granting them full civil and economic rights but not the political rights (voting, office-holding) of Lebanese citizenship. [15] Others have been critical of such a suggestion, raising the concern that this might create a permanent political underclass, generating the same sorts of dilemmas as those posed by long-term "guest workers" in parts of Europe.

During the intensive permanent status negotiations that took place from the summer of 2000 until January 2001, some progress was made between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in identifying a common middle ground. On the Israeli side, there appeared to be recognition that Israel would have to be accept some refugee return, admit some responsibility or regret for the refugee issue, and accept primary responsibility for financing refugee compensation. On the Palestinian side, there was recognition that Israel would not permit practical implementation of the right of return to fundamentally change the demographic face of the Jewish state. As a consequence, voluntary refugee repatriation (to a Palestinian state) and resettlement (in either present host countries or, to a much lesser extent, other countries) would also be important elements of an eventual agreement.[16] However, these understandings were rendered moot--temporarily, perhaps--by the election of Ariel Sharon as Israeli prime minister in February 2001. More generally, the upsurge in violence that began in the fall of 2000 hardened public opinion on both sides. Within Israel, protests by Palestinian citizens of Israel as to their second-class treatment led many Israeli Jews to fear any future return of even token numbers of 1948 refugees, while the second intidafa severely weakened support the Oslo peace process overall. Among Palestinians, popular support for the right of return remained strong, and the violence and increasing harshness of Israeli occupation disinclined many away from considering compromise.

[1] Ziad Abu Zayyad, “The Palestinian Right of Return: A Realistic Approach,” Palestine-Israel Journal 2 (Spring 1994), p. 77.

[2] Rashid Khalidi, “Toward a Solution,” in Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, Palestinian Refugees: Their Problem and Future (Washington, DC: CPAP, 1994).

[3] Salim Tamari, Palestinian Refugee Negotiations: From Madrid to Oslo II (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1996). Draft version archived on PRRN.

[4] [5] “Commentary,” Shaml Newsletter 3 (June 1996), p. 4.

[6] Ariel Sharon, "Arab Peace Ambush," Likud USA

[7] Gold in Yediot Ahronot, 4 June 1996. Archived on PRRN.

[8] Mark Heller, A Palestinian State: The Implications for Israel (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 80-87; Mark Heller and Sari Nusseibeh, No Trumpets, No Drums: A Two-State Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (New York: Hill and Wang, 1991), pp. 86-96.

[9] Shlomo Gazit, The Palestinian Refugee Problem, Final Status Issues Study No. 2 (Tel Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1995), p. 26.

[10] Shimon Peres (with Arye Naor), The New Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, 1993), pp. 192.

[11] Khalidi, "Toward a Solution," p. 24.

[12] Rex Brynen, "The Funding of Palestinian Refugee Compensation," presented to the ISEPME refugee group, Harvard University, February 1996, and archived on PRRN.

[13] Hilal Khashan, Palestinian Resettlement in Lebanon: Behind the Debate (Montréal: ICAS Montréal Studies on the Contemporary Arab World, April 1994), p. 10.

[14] Heller, A Palestinian State estimates the number at around 800,000 (p. 83); the PL0's own Programme for the Development of the Palestinian National Economy for the Years 1994-2000 (Tunis, July 1993) suggests a number of 500,000 returnees (displaced persons, rather than 1948 refugees) over five years.

[15] Nawaf Salam, "Between Repatriation and Resettlement: Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon," Journal of Palestine Studies 93 (Autumn 1994).

[16] Eldar, Akiva. "How to solve the Palestinian refugee problem". Ha'aretz Tuesday, May 29, 2001; and "Sir, if you please, tear down your house" (Ha'aretz, Thursday, May 31, 2001)

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