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Source: Journal of Palestine Studies, forthcoming 1997.

by Rex Brynen [1], McGill University

This article seeks to explore the contours of possible Palestinian-Israeli final status arrangements on the issue of Palestinian refugees, and assess the ramifications of such a settlement for Lebanon and the Palestinian refugee population resident there. At first glance, this might appear to be a questionable enterprise. Few would dispute that political progress on the Palestinian refugee issue has been slow, verging on the nonexistent. This is true in both the multilateral and bilateral tracks of the peace process, and is particularly true for questions regarding Palestinians in Lebanon.

Subsequent to the opening of the current Middle East peace process in Madrid in 1991, one track of the multilaterals was devoted to the refugee issue. However, the Refugee Working Group (RWG) has largely devoted itself to technical and humanitarian concerns "without prejudice to the refugees' long-term status." [2] One partial exception to this has been the sensitive theme of family reunification, with its evident implications for Palestinian "return". A second noteworthy development was the Canadian gavel-holder's "vision paper" of March 1995, which unsuccessfully sought to set forth the central issues of political controversy--right of return, compensation, repatriation, resettlement, and a future Palestinian political identity--for research and dialogue. Throughout, Israel--assisted by the neccessarily consensual processes and multilateral framework of the RWG--has strongly resisted any effort to "politicize" the work of the group. Meanwhile, Lebanon and Syria have boycotted the RWG and all other multilateral tracks, with Lebanese government and political leaders often showing exaggerated hostility to the work of the group. [3]

Under the bilateral Palestinian-Israeli Declaration of Principles ("Oslo Agreement") of September 1993, discussion of the refugee issue was postponed until final status negotiations, along with the issues of borders, settlements and Jerusalem. The agreement did, however, establish a Continuing (or "Quadripartite") Committee, consisting of the Palestinians, Israel, Jordan and Egypt, to reach agreement on "the modalities of admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967." (Article XII). Progress in the Continuing Committee has been glacially slow. Moreover, the vast majority of Palestinians in Lebanon are 1948 refugees, rather than the 1967 "displaced persons" covered by the committee's discussions. Final status negotiations did formally open, as scheduled, in May 1996. That opening was entirely ceremonial, however, with a prolonged hiatus caused by Israel's elections and subsequent change in government. As of the time of writing (November 1996), no substantive final discussions had yet occurred between the two sides, and none seemed imminent.

With the election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a Likud-led Israeli coalition government, any prospects for substantial political progress on the refugee issue have, for the time being, vanished. [4] Indeed, Likud spokespersons have justified opposition to Palestinian sovereignty on grounds of blocking the PA from accepting the future return of Palestinians from Lebanon (or elsewhere in the diaspora). [5]

Given this rather depressing political context, why then attempt to "imagine a solution"? There are several responses to the challenge.

First, the current blockage in the peace process may prove temporary. It must be admitted, however, that the author himself holds out scant hope for meaningful political progress in the lifetime of the present Israeli government.

Second, even if blockage remains for some time to come, the refugee issue will necessarily be a key element of any future Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement. Consequently, there remains value in strategic "spade-work" intended to facilitate the work of future Palestinian and Israeli negotiators. [6]

Third--and following on from the previous point--the need for scenario-generation, planning and dialogue on the refugee issue is particularly acute. While there has been very considerable attention devoted by scholars and policy-makers as to scenarios for possible final status arrangements on issues such as security, borders, Jerusalem and regional economic relations, less attention has been devoted to the question of refugees. On the Israeli side, many are reluctant to address a question which raises profoundly difficult questions about the birth of the state and Israel's historic responsibility for the refugee problem. On the Palestinian side, deeply-rooted historical grievances and the requirements of political mobilization make it difficult for leaders to show public flexibility.

The net result is often issue avoidance: it is noteworthy, for example, how little attention was reportedly given to the refugee issue in the informal final status discussions that occurred between Abu Mazen and Yossi Beilin in 1995-96. [7] Few "second track" research/dialogue projects have gone much beyond this either. [8] In this context, the change of government in Israel may actually present new opportunities for creative thinking on the refugee issue. Specifically, members of the Israeli Labour Party--essential to any Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement,. and now "freed" of the responsibilities of governance--may be able to address the issue with a degree of imagination and frankness that was difficult when they formed the government of Israel.

Finally, as Andrew Robinson (the current Canadian gavel-holder of the RWG) recently noted, "the purely humanitarian approach, which is mostly what has been possible until now, does not really allow us to get to the heart of the issue." [9] In other words, the current situation of the Palestinian community in Lebanon demands both immediate humanitarian attention and long-term political reflection.

Imagining a Solution
Within the existing literature on resolution of the refugee issue, a number of studies by Israeli, Palestinian and other scholars stand out.

On the Israeli side, Mark Heller was one of the first to explore these issues directly, first in his ground-breaking A Palestinian State (1983), and later in the refugee chapter of the book coauthored with Sari Nusseibeh, No Trumpets, No Drums (1991). [10] Shimon Peres devoted a chapter to the refugee issue in his 1993 book The New Middle East . [11] Most recently, Shlomo Gazit--former Israeli military coordinator of the West Bank and Gaza, former director of Military Intelligence, and advisor to the Labour government on the refugee issue--authored a very important study on resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem for the Jaffee Center in 1995. [12] On the Palestinian side, RWG team members Abbas Shiblaq, and Salim Tamari have (unofficially) addressed the outlines of a refugee settlement, while Rashid Khalidi has produced some of the most important ideas published on the topic. [13] A number of authors (Yusif Sayigh, Sami Haddawi, Atif Kubursi, Don Peretz, Nawaf Salam, and Ruth Klinov, among others) have addressed the question of Palestinian losses and possible compensation. Finally, there are also a number of unpublished or forthcoming studies on the refugee issue that reflect on possible final status arrangements, including those generated by projects at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Center for Lebanese Studies and Refugee Studies Program at Oxford University, and the Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East at Harvard University. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is a recent monograph by Donna Arzt for the Council on Foreign Relations. [14]

In these studies, three major aspects of a final status settlement of the refugee issue emerge: the Palestinian "right of return"; the question of compensation and reparations; and the resettlement of Palestinian refugees, either in their current countries of exile or elsewhere. The remainder of this paper will explore each of these issues in turn, identifying the most likely political scenarios and assessing their implications for the Palestinian community in Lebanon.

The Palestinian Right of Return
The Palestinian "right of return" has been at the center of the Palestinian position on the refugee issue throughout post-Madrid period. Palestinian claims in this regard are rooted in the principles of natural justice and the historical experience of Palestinian dispossession. They are also frequently buttressed by reference to a number of United Nations resolutions. The most important of these is UN 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, whatever the considerable moral and legal weight of refugee claims, the "right of return"--understood in its original sense to mean the large-scale return of Palestinian refugees to their homes within the 1948 territories--is one which will not, under any conceivable set of circumstances, be realized. However one evaluates the legal, moral and political character of its stance, no Israeli government will ever countenance substantially changing the demographic balance of the state--the very raison d'être of which is its Jewish character. Nor, for that matter, would Israel easily assume moral responsibility for the refugee issue.

On this point, mainstream Israeli commentators are virtually unanimous. Shlomo Gazit puts the Israeli position thus:

Israel denies the legality of the Palestinian claim. If it recognizes the "right" of return it would also be admitting responsibility, and perhaps even culpability for creating the problem. But Israel categorically denies any responsibility for the War of 1948. On the contrary, the guilt and responsibility are all Arab-Palestinian... Israel would deny any responsibility even if there were no practical demands for a "return" of the refugees; even more so when recognition of such a right would deny Israel the right to control and veto the number of returnees...

Israel also rejects "return" for material reasons. There is no possibility of allowing the refugees to return to their original homes and lands without completely undermining the fabric of Israeli society... [15]

Similarly, Shimon Peres characterizes the "right of return" as:

...a maximalist claim; if accepted, it would wipe out the national character of the State of Israel, making the Jewish majority into a minority. Consequently, there is no chance that it will be accepted, either now or in the future. [16]

Officially, most Palestinian public, official discourse on the right of return is unnuanced--in part to play to domestic constituencies, in part to preserve bargaining room, and in part because the refugee issue has not been a high priority for the Palestine Authority. At the same time, 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." [17] 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." [18]

Others have maintained somewhat more ambiguity. Salim Tamari (a member of the Palestinian delegation to both the RWG and the Continuing Committee) approvingly quotes Khalidi's proposal, 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. [19]

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." [20] 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." [21]

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. In the view of Ariel Sharon:

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. [22]

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." [23] Similarly, the policy guidelines of the present Israeli government explicitly state:

The Government will oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state or any foreign sovereignty west of the Jordan River, and will oppose "the right of return" of Arab populations to any part of the Land of Israel west of the Jordan River. [24] Such concerns are even more marked when it comes to areas within the Green Line: in the fall of 1996 the Israeli Housing Ministry issued a report noting with alarm the growth of the Arab (citizen) population in the Galilee. [25]

On the other hand, a number of influential Israelis have been open to the idea--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. [26] This might be accompanied by the admission of some former Palestinian refugees to Israel on humanitarian grounds. [27] 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." [28] 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." [29] All of these analysts would presumably limit family reunification to Palestinians actually born in 1948 territories, rather than their descendants.

Table 1: Distribution of UNRWA-Registered Refugees by District of [Family] Origin (June 1992)

  Jerusalem (inc. Hebron, Ramallah) Nablus (inc. Jenin, Tulkarem) Gaza (inc. Beersheba) Lydda (inc. Ramle, Jaffa) Haifa Galilee (inc. Acre, Nazareth, Safed, Tiberius) Others Total
Gaza 1,120 922 366,193 188,620 2,948 363 41 560,207
Jordan 212,279 29,973 170,989 415,882 88,825 92,651 120 1,010,719
Lebanon 1,583 394 411 26,871 61,420 228,580 168 319,427
  West Bank/Gaza: 2,388     Other: 317,039        
Syria 1,923 492 1,295 18,505 67,422 209,516 54 299,207
West Bank 150,688 55,331 27,889 27,889 77,475 10,030 78 459,147
TOTAL 367,593 87,112 566,777 566,777 298,090 541,140 461 2,648,707

If this formula--a Palestinian "right of return" realized through Palestinian statehood, the ability of refugees to gain national citizenship and "return" to national soil in the West Bank and Gaza, coupled with the return of a limited number of 1948 refugees to their homes within Israel under the rubric of family reunification--is a key probable element of a final status resolution of the refugee issue, what then are its implications for Lebanon and the Palestinian community resident there?

In this context, it is important to note that international experience suggests that the number of refugees who choose homeland repatriation is often much smaller than planners and activists initially anticipate. The proportion, moreover usually declines over time. In the case of Palestinian refugees, approximately 3% (or about 90,000 of the Palestinians in Lebanon) were born before 1948, in Palestine. As the conflict continues without resolution, this group continues to shrink.

It is also important to recognize that only a small fraction of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon--less than 1%, according to UNRWA figures--have family origins in the West Bank or Gaza (Table 1). Instead, the Palestinian population in Lebanon derives from the Galilee and coastal Palestine. Strong attachments to these areas have been nurtured across generations of refugees through collective memory, patterns of marriage and the geography of neighbourhood settlement. This has three major implications:

  • Substantial differences might be expected within and between diaspora populations as to the desirability of such final status arrangements. Support would thus be strongest in Jordan (where approximately 40% of refugees originate from the West Bank and Gaza, not counting "second time" refugees who resided there between 1948 and 1967), and weakest in Lebanon.

  • It is not clear what portion of Palestinians in Lebanon would, in the first instance, choose to return to an "unfamiliar" part of Palestine. This reluctance would be sustained not only by a lack of psychological attachment, but also due to weaker family ties (and hence weaker local social support mechanisms) in the West Bank. By contrast, many Palestinians in Lebanon have formed strong social ties to their host country. According to one Lebanese official, for example, fully one-quarter of third generation Palestinians in Lebanon have one Lebanese parent. [30]

It might also be added that a great many Palestinians in Lebanon could not afford to relocate to the West Bank and Gaza. Although wages in the territories may be high by regional standards, the local price structure is equally high (tied as it is to the Israeli market). There is also currently very substantial unemployment. In the event of substantial repatriation, wages would decline, local costs (particularly for housing) would increase, and unemployment would grow still further. Most Palestinians still resident in Lebanese refugee camps have only very limited capital assets. (An important proviso concerns the availability of financial resources arising from any compensation/reparation payments to refugees, an issue discussed at further length below.) Moreover, the crisis in Palestinian education in Lebanon [31] will, in the long run, make it even harder for many Palestinians to move from Lebanon to the West Bank, where the level of background education is now much higher. In short, the economic "pull" factor is likely to be relatively weak.

At the same time, there is very little support in Lebanon, at either the official or popular level, for the permanent resettlement of a significant number of Palestinians. Since 1982, the Lebanese government has made every effort to make life uncomfortable, and Lebanon unwelcoming, for the Palestinian community. [32] With the establishment of a Palestinian state and Palestinian citizenship, it is likely that the Lebanese government would accelerate this campaign. While a combination of international disapproval and the absence of any border between Lebanon and a future Palestinian state would render mass deportations unlikely, there are a range of other forms that such pressures could take: further restrictions on economic activity, security pressures and intimidation, non-renewal of residency for Palestinians leaving Lebanon, perhaps even stripping Palestinians of legal rights altogether.

Such political "push" factors may thus outweigh the relatively weak economic "pull" factors, resulting in the return of significant numbers to the West Bank not by choice, but rather under adverse political conditions and despite an unwelcoming economic context in the territories. Compounding this is the imperfect information which Palestinians in Lebanon (in comparison to, for example, Palestinians in Jordan) may have on economic opportunities in the territories.

For Palestinians, all of this poses a significant political dilemma: how can Palestinians work to assure some "right of return" while at the same time assuring that those Palestinians wishing to remain in Lebanon are able to do so, and to do so under tolerable economic and political conditions. Addressing this requires several elements: first, an effort to constructively engage Lebanese public opinion, and to the extent possible, the Lebanese government; second, substantive planning for the absorption of returnees within the West Bank. Furthermore, it is essential that any final status settlement of the refugee issue maximize the scope for informed choice by the refugees themselves. The modalities for paying refugee compensation, and any possible linkage between compensation and return, may also prove important in this regard.

Refugee Compensation
A second essential element 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. [33] 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. [34]

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 [35] 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, too little attention has been paid to what financial resources might be available to finance compensation payments. At a time when only $3 billion (about one-quarter of it in the form of loans) has been pledged to support the entire Oslo process in the West Bank and Gaza--indeed, at a time when the international community seems unwilling or unable to reliably cover even the recurrent budget deficit of the PA--the suggestion that tens of billions of dollars would be forthcoming for refugee compensation is extraordinarily unlikely. Less optimistic estimates suggests that, unless conditions change significantly, the total amount available from all sources--Israeli contributions, international donors, the wind-down of UNRWA, and the transfer of Israeli settlements in the territories--is likely to be less than $13 billion, and perhaps as little as $1.3 billion or less. [36 ] The former amount (approximately $3,900 per UNRWA-registered refugee) is much lower than most discussions envisage; the latter amount (as little as $390 per UNRWA-registered refugee) is clearly inadequate, and even insulting--suggesting that far more creative attention must be paid to the financing on refugee compensation.

The payment of refugee compensation could involve a variety of modalities, each of which has particular implications for Lebanon and Palestinians in Lebanon. There are, for example, a variety of issues surrounding who receives compensation:

  • 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. [37]

  • 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 is so openly 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 related 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 (which might in turn increase the attractiveness of allowing Palestinians to retain their residency in Lebanon).

  • Compensation could be paid to surviving 1948 refugees (or their estates), or paid to all UNRWA-registered refugees . The former system would tend to penalize poorer Palestinians with larger family sizes, and would inevitably cause social tensions as the descendants of deceased 1948 refugees were forced to distribute the compensation amount within the family.

  • 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 particular 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 are a number of issues surrounding the imperative of resource mobilization:

  • Any compensation fund must be designed so as to maximize the prospects for Israeli, regional and international contributions. This will inevitably involve addressing a number of apparent contradictions: compensation must be seen by Palestinians as satisfying their desire for some expression of Israeli responsibility for the refugee problem, be seen by Israel as admitting to no such blame, and be seen by Arab and international donors as contributing to peace and regional development rather than representing third-party payment of Palestinian property claims arising from Israeli actions.

  • The compensation issue will be further clouded by the issue of Jewish claims against Arab states. By some estimates these exceed Palestinian losses in 1948. [38] In any event, failure to address them would render it even less likely that Israel would offer compensation for Palestinian properties.

Refugee Resettlement
A third cluster of issues concerning any possible final status resolution of the refugee issue involves the question of permanently resettling Palestinian refugees in either their current location or in a third country. As of 30 June 1995, UNRWA showed a total registered refugee population of 364,164 in Lebanon, representing around one-tenth of the Lebanese population. [39] As noted earlier, this issue is obviously one of enormous sensitivity in Lebanon. [40] According to one survey, three quarters of Lebanese opposed resettlement, and a similar proportion believed that it would have damaging political or economic consequences. [41] The same survey found that, in the event that resettlement were "imposed" on Lebanon, 40% of Lebanese believed that their sectarian community should "resist militarily" (although, conversely, 60% believed that their community should either acquiesce or "respond positively"). [42] It is, moreover, widely believed by many in Lebanon that the international community has already drawn up plans for such resettlement, whether in Lebanon or elsewhere. [43] In the case of the latter, press reports have variously identified Iraq, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Sweden, Spain and the United States as the destination. [44]

In fact, no such plans exist. Indeed, although the rumours resurface with all of the predictability (and reliability) of Elvis Presley sightings, the issue of resettling Palestinian refugees has never been discussed at any meeting of the multilateral Refugee Working Group. Nor, for that matter, has the international community plotted to close UNRWA in 1999--another staple of the refugee rumour circuit.

Having said this, it is a certainty--as the preceding discussion of the "right of return" has suggested--that some, perhaps many, Palestinians will be unable or unwilling to relocate from Lebanon to the West Bank in the context of a final status settlement.

What this number might be is impossible to know in advance, and certainly in the absence of any clear evidence of both refugee attitudes and the modalities of a refugee agreement. Nevertheless, both common sense and rough estimates suggest that the number will be considerably larger than zero:

  • To the extent that studies have attempted to estimate the number of returnees to the West Bank/Gaza during the first five to ten years following a refugee settlement, numbers in the range of 500,000 to 1,000,000 are typically used. [45]

  • To this could be added the number of Palestinians who might be admitted to Israel under the rubric of family reunification, a group that might (under optimum conditions) number in the tens of thousands. [46]

  • The Gulf states might be persuaded to reverse the continuing outflow of Palestinian expatriate workers, while extra-regional states might be convinced to relax their immigration requirements for Palestinians. It should be noted, however, that this is easier said than done. In the Gulf, not only are oil economies in retrenchment, but political suspicion of Palestinian workers was heightened by the 1990-91 Gulf crisis. In the West, the intense politicization of the immigration debate in most potential recipient countries might make it difficult to target Palestinians for accelerated admission. Consequently, it seems likely that (under optimum conditions) this group might number in the low tens of thousands. Moreover, the immigration policies of receiving countries will likely prioritize applicants with higher levels of education, health and professional skill, thus threatening a "brain drain" of Palestinian intellectual and economic resources from Lebanon.

Together, this represents between one-fifth and one-third of the diaspora population. Even if one assumes that "push" factors would double the rate of return among Palestinians in Lebanon, this still leaves somewhere around 100,000 to 200,000 Palestinians remaining in Lebanon in the medium-term. A long-term forecast is even more uncertain, but--barring extreme measures by the Lebanese government--a continuing population of 50,000 to 100,000 Palestinians seems a prudent guesstimate.

These figures are similar to those proposed by Donna Arzt (Table 2):

  1996 population 2005 population
West Bank and Gaza 2,080,000 2,400,000
Jordan 1,832,000 2,000,000
Lebanon 372,000 75,000
Syria 352,000 400,000
Israel 840,000 1,000,000
(family reunification)
other Middle East states 446,600 965,000
non-Middle East states 452,000 900,000
TOTAL 6,375,800 8,265,000
Table2: Proposed Post-Settlement Palestinian Population Distribution (Arzt)

Although such (highly conjectural) figures would represent a considerable reduction in the Palestinian population in Lebanon, they remain a substantial number nonetheless. Ideally, whatever portion of the Palestinian community elected to remain in Lebanon would have its legal status normalized in some way, perhaps through a combination of Palestinian citizenship coupled with some sort of permanent residency status, as suggested by Nawaf Salam in his very important article on the subject. [47] This would allow Palestinians full legal and economic rights without extending to them such political rights (voting, office-holding) of Lebanese citizenship--thus promoting socio-economic integration without threatening national or political assimilation . The reduction in size of the Palestinian community might facilitate this, by reducing its demographic weight and hence its perceived threat to Lebanon's fragile sectarian balance. [48] One would also hope that a suitable level of international assistance would be available to rehabilitate refugee camps and help normalize the socio-economic circumstances of those Palestinians who elect to remain.

As noted earlier, there is at present little reason to be optimistic on either of these scores. The Lebanese political climate remains far from welcoming. And international resources in support of a refugee settlement are likely to be severely overburdened.

Conclusion This paper has sought to "imagine" the nature of a possible resolution of the refugee issue. The outline that emerges lies very close to models suggested by Rashid Khalidi, Donna Arzt, and Mark Heller and Sari Nusseibeh, and within close "negotiating distance" of proposals made by Salim Tamari, Abbas Shiblaq, Shlomo Gazit and others. It can be objected, of course, that the central premise of this model--the attainment of Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza--does not lie within the trajectory of the Oslo peace process. Certainly, it does not lie within the scope of what Israel might agree to under a Netanyahu government. However, this author remains convinced--for reasons to lengthy to elucidate herein--that the process was headed in the direction of sovereignty under the previous Israeli Labour government, and that it might well progress in a similar direction were the Labour Party to return to power.

It can also be argued that some of the assumptions made herein--notably about limits on the right of return, and regarding the resource constraints on any likely compensation package--are either excessively pessimistic, or show excessive willingness to abandon moral principle. In fact, they are intended to be neither, but rather to represent realistic appraisals of what is possible within the current political and economic climate. Similarly, resource constraints exist, whether one wishes them to or not. Ignoring them, or simply "assuming" tens of billions of dollars does nothing to increase the funds that might be available. Instead, it is important to think in much more detail about how resources can be generated and sustained, and what compensation modalities would be most effective.

The implications that emerge from all of this for Lebanon and its Palestinian population are substantial. Given a "right of return" focussed on the West Bank and Gaza, only a very limited return of refugees to 1948 territories, limited opportunities for third-country resettlement, and perhaps less compensation than many Palestinians presently expect, a smaller but still substantial Palestinian population is likely to remain in Lebanon for an extended period of time. The precise number of those choosing repatriation to the West Bank and Gaza is likely to be shaped in part by economic conditions in the territories, and by the amounts and nature of compensation paid. In view of this, it is essential that greater intellectual energy be devoted both to issues of sustainable development and refugee absorption in the territories, and to maximizing the value and effectiveness of any compensation regime.

The precise number of those choosing repatriation to the West Bank and Gaza will also be shaped by "push" factors associated with Lebanese government policy. These become particularly important in the context of Palestinian sovereignty, and hence the increased capacity of a future Lebanese government to deport Palestinians to a Palestinian state. International incentives (for example, aid to Lebanon) and disincentives (pressure on the Lebanese government to respect the rights of its Palestinian residents) may play a key role in shaping government policy. Lebanese assessments of the economic advantages (through local expenditure of compensation payments) and disadvantages (through an increased service burden caused by the eventual wind-down of UNRWA) will also play a role, as will Lebanese fears of large-scale Palestinian "implantation". Ideally, the civil and economic status of remaining Palestinians would be regularized through the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship and Lebanese permanent residency, and by the provision of adequate post-UNRWA services. However, a much darker future remains equally possible.

At present, Palestinian refugees remain marginalized with a peace process that is itself (at best) stalled and (more likely) in retreat. Even were the Oslo process to once more progress towards final status agreement, however, the implications for Palestinians in Lebanon remain uncertain. It consequently becomes incumbent on scholars no less than policy-makers to consider how that uncertainty could be minimized, and how the best possible future for Palestinians in Lebanon might be realistically pursued.


[1] Rex Brynen is associate professor of political science at McGill University, Montréal. This article is based on papers presented to the Centre for Lebanese Studies/Refugee Studies Centre conference on "The Palestinians in Lebanon," Oxford, September 1996, and at the Intstitute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East, Harvard University, October 1996. The financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Fonds FCAR are gratefully acknowledged. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author.

[2] Some variant of the latter phrase has appeared in almost all RWG proceedings. For an overview of the RWG and the challenges facing it, see Rex Brynen and Jill Tansley, "The Refugee Working Group of the Middle East Peace Process." Palestine-Israel Journal 2, 4 (Autumn 1995); Salim Tamari, Palestinian Refugee Negotiations: From Madrid to Oslo II (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1996); and Joel Peters, Pathways to Peace: The Multilateral Arab-Israeli Peace Talks (London: RIIA, 1996). See also the various RWG press releases and gavel statements archived on Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet website at http://www.arts.mcgill.ca/ MEPP/PRRN/prdocs.html.

[3] This was evident, for example, in both the treatment given to then RWG gavel-holder Marc Perron during his mission to Lebanon in 1994, and in the1994 Qurai'i housing incident. On the latter, see Fida Nasrallah, "Lebanese Perceptions of the Palestinians in Lebanon: Case Studies," paper presented to the CLS/RSP conference on "The Palestinians in Lebanon," Oxford, September 1996.

[4] The June 1996 policy guidelines of the new Israeli government emphasized that "The Government will oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state or any foreign sovereignty west of the Jordan River, and will oppose "the right of return" of Arab populations to any part of the Land of Israel west of the Jordan River." Archived on the Israel Information Service website at http://www.israel-mfa.gov.il/gov/guidln96.html.

[5] Interview with Dore Gold in Yediot Ahronot , 4 June 1996, pp. 2-4, archived on PRRN at http://prrn.mcgill.ca/prrn/papers/gold.html. For an even stronger statement, see Ariel Sharon, "Arab Peace Ambush," archived on the Likud USA website at http://www.likudusa.com/ articles/sharon2.htm.

[6] On the value of second-track projects and strategic policy research, see Marc Perron's February 1995 address to the ISEPME refugee group, "The RWG: One Year Later," archived on PRRN at http://prrn.mcgill.ca/prrn/papers/peronharvard95.html.

[7] The informal discussions reportedly resulted in agreement that Palestinians would confine the "Right of Return" to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, rather than to 1948 areas. Palestine Report , 9 August 1996, p. 10.

[8] For a extensive listing of "track two" refugee projects, see Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet at http://prrn.mcgill.ca/prrn/prprojects.html. See also the discussion in Elia Zureik, Palestinian Refugees and the Peace Process (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1996).

[9] Andrew Robinson, "The Refugee Working Group: Constraints and Challenges of the Situation in Lebanon," presented to the conference on "The Palestinians in Lebanon," Oxford, September 1996. Robinson also delivered a rebuke to the Lebanese authorities, noting that "there is much unhappiness in the international community about the treatment of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and in particular Lebanon's non-application of international standards respecting human rights in so far as the situation of refugees is concerned."

[10] 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.

[11] Shimon Peres (with Arye Naor), The New Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, 1993), pp. 181-194.

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

[13] Rashid Khalidi and Itamar Rabinovich, The Palestinian Right of Return: Two Views Occasional Paper No. 6 (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, October 1990); Rashid Khalidi, "Toward a Solution," in Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, Palestinian Refugees: Their Problem and Future (Washington, DC: CPAP, 1994).

[14] Donna Arzt, Refugees Into Citizens: Palestinians and the End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1996).

[15] Gazit, The Palestinian Refugee Problem , pp. 7-8.

[16] Peres, The New Middle East , p. 189.

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

[18] Rashid Khalidi, "Toward A Solution"

[19] Tamari, Palestinian Refugee Negotiations , p. 39.

[20] Abbas Shiblaq, "In Search of a Durable Solution: Residency Status and Civil Rights of Palestinians in Host Arab States," paper presented to the conference on the Middle East Multilateral Talks, Los Angeles, June 1993, p. 19.

[21] "Commentary," Shaml Newsletter 3 (June 1996), p. 4. Back issues of the newsletter are also archived on PRRN.

[22] Sharon, "Arab Peace Ambush."

[23] Gold in Yediot Ahronot , 4 June 1996.

[24] Archived on Israel Information Service at http://www.israelmfa.gov.il/gov/guidln96.html.

[25] Palestine Report , 23 October 1996.

[26] Heller, A Palestinian State , projects the return of some 800,000 Palestinians to a future Palestinian state (p. 83).

[27] Heller and Nusseibeh, No Trumpets, No Drums , p. 95.

[28] Gazit, The Palestinian Refugee Problem , p. 26.

[29] Peres, The New Middle East , p 192.

[30] Senior Lebanese government official, 30 September 1996.

[31] Bassem Sirhan, "Education and Palestinians in Lebanon," paper presented to the CLS/RSP conference on "The Palestinians in Lebanon," Oxford, September 1996.. See also Leila Zakharia, "Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon," FOFOGNET Digest , archived on PRRN at http://www.arts.mcgill.ca/ MEPP/PRRN/papers/sayighdisc.html.

[32] For a discussion, see Souheil al-Natour, "The Legal Status of Palestinians in Lebanon," paper presented to the to the CLS/RSP conference on "The Palestinians in Lebanon," Oxford, September 1996.. On housing, health and the status of refugee women see the papers presented at the same conference by Mahmoud Abbas, Ali Hassan, and Leila Zakharia.

[33] On the compensation issue, see Don Peretz, Palestinians, Refugees, and the Middle East Peace Process (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 1993).See also, Rex Brynen, "The Funding of Palestinian Refugee Compensation," presented to the ISEPME refugee group, Harvard University, February 1996, and archived on PRRN at http://prrn.mcgill.ca/prrn/papers/brynen1.html.

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

[35] Gazit, The Palestinian Refugee Problem , pp. 21, 30.

[36] For the detailed calculations involved, see Brynen, "The Funding of Palestinian Refugee Compensation." Virtually all Western policy-makers with whom the author has discussed the issue in recent years tend towards the lower estimate (and indeed sometimes suggest the availability of an even smaller amount).

[37] Donna Arzt suggests that those returning to Israel be eligible for loans, while those returning to a Palestinian state, or accepting resttlement in a third country, be eligible for grants. However, it is doubtful whether Palestinians would accept that returning 1948 refugees--who would not be eligible to claim their 1948 properties--should be excluded from a compensation regime. Arzt, Refugees into Citizens , p.94.

[38] Don Peretz, Palestinian Refugee Compensation , Information Paper 3 (Washington DC: Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, May 1995), p. 11.

[39] The figure of 364,164 UNRWA-reigstered refugees represent 10.9% of the total UNRWA-registered refugee population in the region, perhaps 5% of Palestinians worldwide. From time-to-time Lebanese spokespersons have suggested that the number of Palestinians in Lebanon is much higher than this. On the other hand, other analysts, citing substntial Palestinian out-migration, suggest that UNRWA figures overestimate the actual Palestinian population in Lebanon by a third. Sirhan, "Education and the Palestinians in Lebanon," p10.

[40] Farid Khazen, "Permanent Settlement of Palestinians in Lebanon: Recipe for Conflict," paper presented to the CLS/RSP conference on "The Palestinians in Lebanon," Oxford, September 1996.

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

[42] Some variation in attitudes was evident between different Lebanese sectarian communities, although the differences were relatively limited. Opposition to resettlement was strongest among Maronites and Shi`a, and weakest in the Sunni community. Khashan, Palestinian Resettlement in Lebanon: , p. 12.

[43] Khashan found that 43% of respondents believed that there existed secret "plans" for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

[44] See, for example, "Letter from Nahr al-Barid," Middle East International , 4 November 1994--as well as the subsequent denial by then RWG gavel-holder Marc Perron in Middle East International , 2 December 1994.

[45] 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.

[46] Donna Arzt writes: "Moreover, based on discussions with both Palestinian and Israeli moderates, I believe it will be possible for an Israeli Labour Government to accept between 50,000 and 100,000 returnees to Haifa, Jaffa and other Palestinian ancestral homes within Israel, so long as there is a concomitant commitment by Israel's neighbors to offer permanent resettlement to comparable numbers in their own countries. (One hundred thousand is the figure that Israel agreed to readmit back in 1949. That was a much greater percentage then, relative to Israel's Jewish population at that time and relative to the Palestinian population of the time than it is in today's demographic framework.) These returnees to Israel would be screened to preclude any who have previously engaged in terrorism and be required to demonstrate proof of original residence there, as well as agree to live in peace." Arzt, "Negotiating the Last Taboo."

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

[48] In the longer term, however, the continuing multi-generational presence of a large, non-citizen (and hence disenfranshised) population might itself cause political and moral dilemmas comparable to those posed by the presence of long-term guest workers in EU countries.

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