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Executive Summary: From Refugees to Citizens

Source: The book is distributed by the Brookings Institution

by Donna Arzt

This chapter is excerpted from Donna Arzt, Refugees Into Citizens: Palestinians and the End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1996).

Although the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations appear to be floundering, many efforts are being made behind the scenes to get them back on track, as all involved realize that only through the Oslo process can a comprehensive peace ever be achieved. The "permanent status" talks, which have been suspended since their official opening in May 1996, cover the topics of permanent borders, settlements, security, regional cooperation, Jerusalem and refugees.

This new book by Syracuse University international law professor Donna E. Arzt represents the first comprehensive effort to place the inclusion and dignity of Palestinian refugees at the core of creating a viable and lasting peace in the Middle East. Blending historical, demographic and legal scholarship with practical policy prescriptions accessible to specialists and lay readers alike, Arzt offers a blueprint for what is often called the "last taboo" in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations: a just and permanent solution to the problem of over three million Palestinians refugees.

Avoiding the acrimonious language that has almost always attended this issue, Arzt begins her analysis with a number of premises and principles:

  • Estimated at over three million people descended from those who fled the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, plus approximately one-half million who were displaced by the 1967 war, Palestinian refugees constitute both the largest concentration of stateless persons and the oldest refugee community in the world. Because 70% of all Palestinians, including non-refugees, now live outside of the West Bank and Gaza, the peace process must address their needs and concerns in order to achieve a mutually satisfactory conclusion.

  • A permanent and viable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict must include the granting of citizenship to Palestinians throughout the region of the Middle East. Only with citizenship, which represents identity, dignity, rights, obligations and participation, will the refugees no longer serve as pawns and bargaining chips for the other parties to the conflict.

In order to achieve a practical yet equitable settlement of the refugee question, four basic principles must be adopted by negotiators:

  • 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 Refugees into Citizens is Chapter Four's blueprint for permanent absorption of Palestinians refugees, offered as a catalyst for jump-starting discussions about their future. While she does not formally take a position on whether there should be an independent Palestinian state, Arzt notes that Palestinian 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, Refugees into Citizens 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.

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.

Refugees into Citizens also contains a foreword by Palestinian-Jordanian journalist Rami Khouri, extensive endnotes, a bibliographical essay, comparative references to resettlement experiences involving refugees and human rights standards from other regions of the world, and an appendix containing the most relevant documents from the Middle East peace process and international law.

Donna E. Arzt is professor of law at Syracuse University and Associate Director of the school's Center for Global Law and Practice. She was the Project Director of the Council on Foreign Relations study group, "The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Demographic and Humanitarian Issues," and has published extensively in the area of human rights. Comments are welcomed.

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