home contact sitemap
background research material related activities keeping up-to-date
Research Material
Research Projects
Research Papers
Articles and Research Papers
  Newsletters and Opinion Surveys
Videos and Documentaries
Internet Resources

Source: speaking notes, Canadian International Development Agency (Hull), 18 June 1997.

by Donna E. Arzt

Let me begin by attempting to demonstrate why the refugee question -- which is one of the "final status" negotiation topics -- is necessarily the cornerstone of any just and comprehensive peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. Then I will walk through some of the main principles, proposals and conclusions presented in my book, Refugees into Citizens: Palestinians and the End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1997).

Let's start with three basic facts:

FIRST: With between three and four million refugees out of a total Palestinian population of over 6.3 million, Palestinian refugees are the world's largest concentration of stateless persons.

SECOND: Now that we're approaching the 50th anniversary of the 1948 dispersal of Palestinians, they are the world's oldest refugee community.

AND THIRD: Seventy percent of all Palestinians live outside of the West Bank and Gaza. Therefore, Oslo I, Oslo II and the related agreements up to and including the recent Hebron agreement, do not even begin to address their needs and concerns.

That is why virtually anyone who looks at the conflict honestly -- whether it's a Palestinian analyst working with the Palestinian delegation to the multilateral Refugee Working Group such as Salim Tamari, or an Israeli academic and military official such as General Shlomo Gazit -- recognizes that there is no hope for a just, lasting and comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict without a during and regionally inclusive resolution of the refugee question. In other words, for the final peace agreement to have legitimacy and therefore permanent stability, it has to achieve a satisfactory status for the refugees.

But why has this topic been so often ignored, or if mentioned, referred to as a "taboo"? Why, when the media reports on the issues yet to be negotiated in the final status round of talks, do we hear about "Jerusalem, the settlements, the borders, security," but often, no mention of "the refugees"? Why are there over 80 different, publicly floated proposals on what to do about Jerusalem, but few well known proposals (other than the notorious "transfer" plans of the Israeli right-wing) about the refugees?

Understanding why this is so actually provides some clues as to how to solve the question. Israelis of almost all political and ideological persuasions have viewed the very idea of the return of Palestinian refugees as, first of all, a demographic threat, secondly, a security threat, and third, an existential threat to Israel's identity as a refuge for Jewish refugees. If not all of these, then at least a juridical and financial nightmare, on the assumption that over three million refugees would turn up on Israeli doorsteps, either demanding their houses back or making claims for vast amounts of compensation. Even an Israeli as far to the left as Shulamit Aloni has put her foot down and declared, "No, not even a single Palestinian can return to the pre-1967 borders." (Although the Israeli Labor Party has recently changed its platform to accept Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza, it has not endorsed any Palestinian "right of return." Moreover, the Beilin-Eytan plan leaked in January has specifically rejected it.) For Israelis, it has been treated as heresy to even contemplate the issue.

Ironically, even for the Palestinian Authority, the issue of refugee return has been given short shrift, relegated to the bottom of their lists of negotiation objectives. For two reasons, primarily: First, because the Oslo process has shifted the PLO's traditional constituency, the Palestinian diaspora, to the sidelines in favor of the more centralized locales of the West Bank and Gaza, and directed its immediate concern to building a governing apparatus there. The refugees have been lost in the shuffle. But secondly, it is because the Palestinians are not yet ready to acknowledge formally and officially -- even though Palestinian moderates, speaking for themselves, have done it -- that in practical terms, not every refugee will be able to return home. Most still use the language of absolute ultimatums. Nevertheless, because the PLO has already, for nine years now, accepted Israel's right to exist within its pre-1967 borders, and has only sought statehood in the West Bank and Gaza, it has more or less acknowledged that actual and complete "return" is not possible. In other words, the stage has been set for substituting the collective right to statehood for the aggregate of millions of individuals returning to their homes. Because the rejectionist camps on both sides have interfered with Oslo's original timetable for negotiating the refugee question, the Palestinians have not reached the point where they can collectively acknowledge their willingness to compromise.

To the contrary, whenever there is a public discussion of this issue, it almost immediately degenerates into a heated argument over who caused the initial flight of the refugees, into fights over numbers and definitions, and into emotional, politicized rhetoric using legal-sounding terminology and authorities that are usually misused, misquoted or taken out-of-context.

My book tries to cut through this rhetorical, impassioned thicket by separating out the historical and demographic facts that can be reasonably agreed on from those that cannot and probably never will, and to deconstruct the legal standards and authorities so as to identify those that are helpful and those that are not. I offer some suggested guidelines, targets and procedures, not because I think I have the definitive solution but simply to start the dialogue going on realistic terms. Only when the wider community -- the regional media, the academics, the Western governments and NGOs and others who support the peace process -- begins to talk about the refugee question will the actual negotiators be comfortable broaching it. This process must begin now so that the cornerstone of the peace process, the refugee issue, can be on the table before the entire process disintegrates into a morass of violence, demoralization and disingenuousness.

Obviously, the final peace agreement will be a package of compromises on many issues, such as security, borders, forms of sovereignty, etc. But if we allow the refugee question to be relegated to the very end of the negotiations, after all these other issues are resolved, the diaspora Palestinians will lose patience and reject the legitimacy of the negotiation process. This has all but already happened with the refugee community in Lebanon.

What is my starting point?

FIRST, that comfort and stability for any long-term refugee population can only come through citizenship, because citizenship signifies dignity, inclusion, rights and obligations.

SECOND, that even though the Palestinian refugee crisis is unique in its size and longetivity, it is not so sui generis that it cannot profit from looking at how other refugee crises have been resolved and what other contexts have produced in the form of human rights guidelines. So I look at the experience of UNHCR, Human Rights Watch, and other IGOs and NGOs in other regions of the world.

THIRD, what I call the four "principles of peace":

  • Discussion of the issue must be forward, not backward-looking, so that age-old battles over fault and causes of dislocation of the Palestinians will not be relitigated.
  • Wherever possible, obligations of the parties to the negotiations must be made reciprocal and regionally balanced.
  • International normalcy, that is, how responsible, peaceful states and their citizens are expected to behave and interact, should be the standard.
  • The parties must recognize that each people, both Palestinians and Israelis, has equal rights to land, statehood, security and survival.

The centerpiece of the book is Chapter Four's blueprint for permanent absorption of Palestinians refugees, offered as a catalyst for jump-starting discussions about their future. (It is available on the Palestinian Refugee Research Net website.) While the book does not take a formal position on Palestinian statehood, I acknowledge that sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is more likely than semi-autonomy to generate widespread Palestinian approval for compromises short of full repatriation of the refugees to the pre-1967 borders of Israel.

Because international law requires that population transfers be effectuated on an orderly, humane and -- most importantly -- a voluntary basis, the book offers a plan with the following structural components:

ABSORPTION TARGETS. Each of the Middle Eastern parties participating in the final peace treaty negotiations -- which will include Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt and hopefully, Syria, Lebanon and other Arab states -- as well as any Western states which offer to participate, will absorb an optimal ("target") number of refugee families which will neither be demographically, politically nor economically disruptive to it or to neighboring states. This caveat is particularly important in the West Bank and Gaza, the stability of which would be undermined by an overly rapid flood of immigrants. During a necessary transitional period, in which the refugees will move in gradual waves rather than in one large-scale rush, housing, jobs and infrastructure can be readied and disorder avoided.

Proposed "absorption targets" include:

1996 Palestinian Population Target for Year 2005 Comment
WEST BANK 1,200,000
2,400,000 largest
GAZA 880,000 450,000 reduce over-crowding
JORDAN 1,832,000 2,000,000 nat. inc. only
LEBANON 372,700 75,000 (60,000 now citizens)
SYRIA 352,100 400,000 some Leb.
ISRAEL 840,000 1,000,000 nat. inc. plus 75,000
same as Leb. (cf. Lausanne Conf.1949)
OTHER MIDDLE EAST 446,600 965,000 double
NON MID-EAST STATES 452,000 900,000 double
TOTAL 6,375,800 8,265,000  

Note that the number who are to be allowed to return to Israel is balanced with the number who will stay in Lebanon, whose government has repeatedly announced that it wants all of the refugees to leave. The figure of 75,000, though surely a controversial one for Israelis, is actually about the same number that the Israeli government agreed to reabsorb in 1949. Given the small number of Jews living there at that time, and the smaller population of Palestinians then, 75,000 was a much greater relative percentage than it is today. Because international law (including UN General Assembly Resolution 194) allows a state to use national security as a criterion for return of refugees, Israel can insist that the 75,000 who return (possibly the oldest living generation of Palestinians, the ones who retain personal memories before 1948), will not engage in terrorist acts. Moreover, this symbolic act of compromise by Israel will facilitate getting Syria, Lebanon and other Arab states to grant citizenship to more Palestinians and permanently absorb an optimal number as well.

CHOICE, COMPENSATION AND PASSPORTS. All refugees will be offered a fully informed, written choice of available residential and compensation options, including absorption in a state in the region, return to the Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza, or, if qualified (according to criteria such as family reunification and a commitment to live in peace with their Jewish neighbors), return to their ancestral home in Israel. Each family will, in writing, rank its residential preferences, which will then be accommodated according to available spots within the regional absorption targets.

Compensation (either in the form of a "reintegration allowance" or real property) for those who are eligible but who do not return to Israel, will be awarded out of a fund contributed to jointly, and without acknowledgement of fault, by Israel, Arab states, and other countries, including those in the West which are unable to absorb significant numbers of refugees. In addition, all Palestinians, no matter where they reside, will be offered a Palestinian passport which will declare their Palestinian nationality and enable them to visit and/or work in the West Bank and Gaza if they choose. Such a national passport "would express for every holder the emotional and symbolic bond that unites the Palestinian people."

CITIZENSHIP AND REHABILITATION. In addition to Palestinian passports, the refugees will be offered citizenship and full protection of their human rights in each of the absorption states, including Israel, to which they go. Thus, anyone who does not become absorbed in the West Bank or Gaza will be eligible for dual nationality (or dual citizenship, if the territories become an independent sovereign state) both as Palestinians and as citizens of their country of residence. The resettled refugees will also receive rehabilitative services, including, health care, education and job training, in order to encourage their full social, political and economic integration. These services will be supported by development funds awarded to the countries on the basis of their willingness to absorb optimal target populations and administered with the assistance of U.N. agencies and relevant non-governmental relief organizations.

TRANSITIONAL INSTITUTIONS: A number of regionally balanced tribunals and commissions will be created to implement this program, hearing claims and appeals. After an agreed period of time, all additional claims will be extinguished.

To conclude, the rhetorical war, as well as the war of violence, has to come to an end. Each side must respect the other side's passions, lost lives, indignities and pain from the past, and then move on. Retribution is not going to achieve peace. Only pragmatism will. Thank you.

Donna E. Arzt
Associate Professor of Law
Syracuse University College of Law
Syracuse, N.Y. 13244 USA
Tel. 315-443-2401
Fax 315-443-5394
"Justice, justice thou shalt pursue." - Deut. 16:20

previous top next
  Copyright © 2008 PRRN home   contact us   sitemap