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Palestinian Refugees and the Middle East Peace Process

Source: New Hampshire International Seminar/Yale-Maria Lecture in Middle East Studies

by Rex Brynen, McGill University

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are presently over 26 million refugees of all kinds worldwide. [1] The Palestinians have the unfortunate status of being both the largest single group of refugees in the world (numbering over 3 million persons), and one of the oldest (having been refugees for some five decades). Their plight. moreover, is a profoundly political one, touching the very core of the Arab-Israeli conflict and peace process.

This paper will examine how the refugee issue has been dealt with in the context of the current Arab-Israeli peace process, the obstacles that have been confronted, and some of the ideas that have been put forward by Palestinian, Israeli, and other scholars on what a resolution of the might look like. Before doing so, however, a brief overview of the origins of the refugee question and assessment the current situation of Palestinian refugees will be offered to provide greater context to this discussion.

Origins of the Palestinian Refugee Issue
The Palestinian refugee issue has its origins in the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the eruption of Arab-Israeli war that accompanied this. During this period, some three-quarters of a million Palestinians left their homes within what was to become the state of Israel to seek refugee in the (Jordanian-controlled) West Bank, the (Egyptian-controlled) Gaza Strip, Syria, Lebanon, and further afield. When Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967, a further 300,000 fled these areas for neighbouring Arab countries.

Why Palestinians fled in 1948, and why they have remained refugees since then, has long been a been a subject of political controversy. Israel has generally maintained that the refugees had fled of their own choice, or at the command of Arab leaders:

The Middle East refugee problem was created as a result of Arab and Palestinian rejection of the 1947 UN partition plan and their decision to declare war on the nascent Jewish state. On the day Israel declared its independence (May 15, 1948), five Arab armies invaded its territory....

During the war, the Arab states called on the Palestinian Arabs to temporarily leave the country and to "return with the victorious Arab armies." [2]

In this view, not only are the Palestinians responsible for their flight from Palestine, but they are also responsible for failing to have resolved the issue by allowing themselves to be absorbed into their host countries. [3] Finally, the Israeli government has argued that "Refugee movements and exchanges of populations are a common phenomena in world history," and that Israel itself absorbed nearly 600,000 Jews from Arab countries--thereby effectively cancelling out Palestinian claims. [4]

For Palestinians, their dispossession in Palestine in 1948 was a defining national moment. They have argued, moreover, that the refugees were forcibly driven from Palestine by the conscious and deliberate policy of a Zionist movement that was explicitly committed to the establishment of a Jewish state. Once Palestinians had fled, their lands were seized, and most refugees were prevented from returning. In this view, "Israel has been, and continues to be responsible for the process through which the refugee problem was crafted... through violence against civilian populations in times of war, and through expropriation of their lands and homes after the war." [5]

As is immediately evident, the historical debate over the origins of the refugee issue is not simply a matter of differing perspectives, but rather a broader struggle over moral and political responsibility for the issue. However while the debate remains highly politicized, the past decade has seen important new scholarship which casts valuable analytical light on the refugee flows of 1948. In particular, Israeli historian Benny Morris has shown that the flight was due to a complex mixture of factors: military conflict, widespread fear among Palestinians, specific Jewish attacks and atrocities, Arab disorganization and demoralization, and occasional localized incidents of "ethnic cleansing." [6]

Following the war, the United Nations adopted General Assembly Resolution 194(III), which inter alia declared 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, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property of those choosing not to return and for loss and damage to property which, under principles of international law, or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.

It soon became apparent, however, that Israel had little desire to see the return of large numbers of Palestinians to their homes within Israel, perceiving them as a threat to both Israel's security and its Jewish character. This official position has remained largely unchanged until now: the present Israeli government, for example, argues that "the entry into Israel of masses of refugees would pose a very real threat to security, law and order and the viability of Israel's social fabric, as well as to the demographic viability of Israel as the world's only Jewish state." [7] For their part, Palestinian refugees have strongly rejected the notion that they should be excluded from their birthplaces on racial grounds. Instead, they have insisted on their "right of return" and have rejected resettlement in host or third countries.

Not surprisingly, various diplomatic initiatives on the refugee issue through the 1950s and 1960s went nowhere. In the meantime, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency UNRWA) was established in 1950 to provide assistance to the refugees. [8] In 1978, the Camp David agreement did contain some signs of change, in the form of an Israeli commitment "to decide by agreement on the modalities of admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, together with necessary measures to prevent disruption and disorder." However, these and other Palestinian aspects of proposed Palestinian "autonomy" would remain unimplemented, having fallen by the wayside of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

A Profile of the Refugees
As the refugee issue has remained unresolved over the decades, the refugee population has grown. As of June 1997, some 3,417,688 refugees were registered with UNRWA is its various areas of operation (Table 1). In turn, UNRWA-registered refugees represent around half of all Palestinians worldwide (Table 2).

Table 1: Distribution of UNRWA-Registered Refugees, June 1997

  Jordan Lebanon Syria West Bank Gaza
registered refugees 1,413,252 359,005 356,739 542,642 746,050
refugees as proportion of local population 31.3% 10.5% 2.4% 34.2% 74.4%
refugee camps 10 12 10 19 8
proportion of refugees in camps 18.7% 54.5% 29.2% 26.3% 55.1%
SOURCE: UNRWA in Figures, UNRWA HQ, Gaza, September 1997.

It is important to note that registration with UNRWA is solely an indicator of registration with UNRWA, and not necessarily of refugee status in the ordinary meanings of international law. Only those displaced persons within UNRWA's area of operations in the 1950s (or those children subsequently born in those areas to registered refugees) can be registered, while those who fled further afield are not counted in UNRWA totals. Thus, those displaced by from the territories in 1967 are not counted among the refugees unless they were already registered with UNRWA; nor are those who were trapped outside the West Bank and Gaza in 1967; nor are those who voluntarily left the territories and were subsequently refused readmission. Thus, as can be seen from a comparison of Tables 1 and 2, approximately half of Palestinian diaspora does not have UNRWA refugee status. At the same time, around one third of UNRWA refugees reside within Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza, although not yet under Palestinian sovereignty, and not in their original homes within Israel. Some Palestinians--including most Palestinians in Jordan--have acquired citizenship in another country. Under UNHCR rules, this might invalidate their legal refugee status. Finally, the size of all these numbers has been hotly contested by some parties, and veiled in secrecy by others. Israel has often charged that numbers are inflated by an under-registration of refugee deaths; the Palestinians argue that UNRWA registration fails to reflect the full number in exile, and that Israeli population counts in the territories routinely underestimated the actual number of Palestinians. In Jordan in particular, the actual proportion of Palestinians in the country's population (somewhere between 40% and 60% by most estimates) is a very sensitive political issue, and has never been publicly revealed.

Table 2: Estimated Palestinian Population Worldwide, mid-1996

Area Population Percentage of total Palestinian population
West Bank 1,572,000 21.3%
Gaza 963,000 13.0%
Israel 1,095,000 14.8%
Jordan 2,272,000 30.7%
Lebanon 356,000 4.8%
Syria 325,000 4.3%
Egypt 54,000 0.7%
Iraq 33,000 0.4%
Libya 38,000 0.4%
Rest of Arab Countries 319,000 4.3%
United State of America 159,000 2.2%
Other Countries 209,000 2.8%
Total 7,395,000 100%

SOURCE: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics for Palestinians in WB/Gaza (http://www.pcbs.org/english/pop1.htm) and other countries (http://www.pcbs.org/english/t7.htm); Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics estimates of Palestinians in Israel (http://www.cbs.gov.il/shnaton/st02-01.gif).

The social and political conditions of Palestinian refugees vary significantly from region to region. [9]

West Bank and Gaza Strip. Almost all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza come under the full (Gaza, Area "A" of the West Bank) or partial (Area "B") authority of the Palestinian Authority. They are thus entitled to PA-issued passports/travel documents. However, because the PA lacks political sovereignty, their mobility continues to be severely restricted by Israel. Around one-quarter of refugees in the West Bank and around one-half in Gaza reside in refugee camps, which have acquired (as elsewhere) the character of permanent urban areas. Overall, there is relatively little difference in the living conditions of refugees and non-refugees, although camp inhabitants are typically worse off than the general population (Figure 1). As an indicator of living conditions and access to medical care (often provided, in the case of refugee camps, by UNRWA), infant mortality rates for refugees are similar to non-refugees, and significantly better than regional averages (although very much worse than neighbouring Israel).

Figure 1: Refugee Camp Conditions in the West Bank and Gaza

SOURCE: Marianne Heiberg and Geir Øvensen, Palestinian Society in Gaza, West Bank and Arab Jerusalem: A Survey of Living Conditions (Oslo: Fafo, 1993), p.369.

Jordan. Because Jordan formally annexed the West Bank in 1950 (subsequently "disengaging" from that commitment in 1988), most Palestinian refugees (95%) in Jordan hold Jordanian citizenship. Moreover, Palestinians fully participate in the political and economic life of the country. Indicative of this integration is the very high proportion of Palestinian residing outside the camps. While there are few differences in average living condition between Palestinian refugees and non-Palestinian Jordanians, conditions in the camps are significantly below national averages. [10]

In Jordan, tensions have sometime arisen between the regime (which ultimately rests on an East Bank powerbase) and segments of the Palestinian population, with elements of the former alarmed by the substantial demographic weight of the latter. In 1970-71 these and related tensions exploded into a full-scale civil war between the Palestinian nationalist movement and the Hashemite monarchy, resulting in the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan. While relations today are far more amiable, East Bank-Palestinians tensions do occasionally resurface, and the regime remains extremely wary of the refugee issue and how its future resolution might affect Jordanian and Hashemite interests.

Lebanon. Unlike Jordan, where refugee integration is high, Palestinians in Lebanon are marginalized. Few (mostly Christian) Palestinians have managed to obtain Lebanese citizenship, few are granted the permits required for legal employment, and legally most are excluded from employment in many professions. Palestinians are also denied access to government services, and hence heavily depend on UNRWA. As a result, a large proportion reside still reside in refugee camps, and social conditions are significantly worse than elsewhere in the diaspora or for the general Lebanese population. According to one survey, 94% of wage-earning Palestinian families in Lebanon live below the poverty line. [11] Mobility in and out of the country is restricted by dependence on UNRWA refugee documents, which other countries may not accept for the purposes of international travel, and which may be insufficient to guarantee readmission to Lebanon. The adverse conditions of Palestinians in Lebanon would appear, at least in part, to be a deliberate strategy intended to discouraging Palestinians from remaining there. In this regard, it may have enjoyed some success: many researchers suspect that the number of Palestinians actually residing in Lebanon is perhaps a quarter less than the UNRWA figures suggest.

Lebanese policy towards the Palestinians has its root in both that country's delicate sectarian balance and its history of civil and regional conflict. Since their first arrival in 1949, the predominately Sunni Muslim Palestinians were viewed by many among Lebanon's Christian minority as a political threat. In addition, the Palestinians became active combatants in the Lebanese civil war from 1975-90, alienating various other groups in the process. Finally, the Palestinian armed presence in Lebanon attracted increasingly destructive punitive and retaliatory attacks by Israel, culminating in the 1982 invasion of the country. As a result, Lebanese across the sectarian spectrum express strong opposition to the resettlement (" tawtin ") of Palestinians in Lebanon. [12]

Syria. Palestinians in Syria (unlike those in Jordan) do not enjoy citizenship; however, (unlike those in Lebanon) they do enjoy full legal equivalency with local nationals in almost all areas, including both employment and access to government services. However, there are some restrictions on Palestinian property ownership. Moreover, as with all persons in Syria, there are tight controls on all political activity. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, like those in Lebanon, largely depend on their refugee documents for travel purposes, thus restricting their mobility.

Other countries. Elsewhere in the region, the residency and other conditions of Palestinians has generally deteriorated in recent year. In Kuwait, the 1990-91 Gulf war and its aftermath saw some 300,000 Palestinians left the country either because of the Iraqi occupation or subsequent expulsions by the Kuwaiti authorities. Elsewhere in the Gulf, other countries have also reduced the number of Palestinian expatriate employed. In Libya, the government signalled its opposition to the post-Oslo Middle East peace process by also expelling many Palestinians; those with nowhere else to go found themselves trapped in tents on the Libyan-Egyptian borders for months on end. In both Egypt and Iraq, Palestinians have been increasingly treated like other foreigners, with corresponding restrictions on employment and access to government services.

Table 3: Refugee Conditions

  infant mortality rate(deaths per 1000 live births)
  refugees non-refugees
West Bank 29 25
Gaza 38 31
Lebanon 42 32
Jordan 33
Egypt   63
Arab World   67
Developing World   64
Israel   7

SOURCE: Yousef al-Madi, Demographic, Economic and Social Characteristics of Palestinian Refugees in Gatherings in Lebanon (Damascus: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and UNICEF, October 1996), p. 54; Jon Pedersen, "West Bank and Gaza Living Conditions: Are Refugees Different? (The answer: not very much)," paper prepared for the Harvard Refugee Project; United Nations Development Program, World Development Report 1997 (New York:Oxford University Press, 1997).

Refugees in the Middle East Peace Process
Since the onset of the current Arab-Israeli peace process in 1991, the refugee issue has been discussed in a number of different fora: the multilateral Refugee Working Group (RWG), the "quadripartite committee," in the proposed "final status" talks, and in the context of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. This has reflected not only the inherent dynamics of the issues, but also the interplay of compromises and agreements that have shaped the architecture of negotiation. Arab participants in the conflict had long demanded "comprehensive" and "international" peace negotiations which would involve a multilateral negotiating framework (thus enabling Arab parties to pool their collective negotiating resources), and external participants (notably the United Nations, Europeans and erstwhile USSR, who were seen as more sympathetic to Arab aspirations than the United States). Israel, not surprisingly, had long preferred a bilateral negotiating dynamic (which would enable it to take best advantage of its greater power) and had opposed all external involvement other than that of the US. Israel had also sought symbolic acceptance of its existence and position in the region--an aspect of "normalization" that many Arab participants were reluctant to accept, either for domestic political reasons, or in the belief that Israeli isolation was a substantial Arab negotiating card, better played at a later date.

The US view on negotiations generally mirrored Israeli preferences, with regard to both direct bilateral negotiations and a preeminent US mediatory role--characteristics of the earlier US-mediated Egyptian-Israeli negotiations at Camp David. Although both the Gulf War and the decline of the USSR had confirmed the US position as predominant actor in the Middle East, the task in initiating the peace process remained substantial: neither Israel (governed in 1991 by a hard-line Likud government) nor the Palestinians were particularly enthusiastic.

The Madrid Process and the Refugee Working Group [13]
The structure that was finally adopted in 1991-92 reflected a number of tradeoffs: a series of bilateral negotiations between Israel and its neighbours (including the Palestinians), complemented by a series of multilateral "working groups" on issues of broader issues: arms control and regional security, environment, water, regional economic development, and refugees. According to then US Secretary of State James Baker, the multilaterals were intended "to address those issues that are common to the region" and that "can best be addressed by the concerted effort of the regional parties together with the support of the international community and the resources and expertise that it can provide." [14]

The multilaterals, as well as the format of the formal opening of negotiations in Madrid, were intended to meet Arab desires for enlarged negotiating fora; Washington-based negotiations between Israel and (separately) Syria, Lebanon, and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation addressed the most important substantive issues in bilateral formats. Within the multilaterals, the issues of water resources, environment and especially regional economic development would enable Israel to enlarge its contact with Arab actors, and hence facilitate a degree of normalization. The Refugee Working Group (RWG), on the other hand, was largely intended to reward the Palestinians for their participation in the broader peace process, and for their acceptance of several constraints on their participation. These constraints--demanded by Israel as a precondition for its participation--included formal Palestinian representation within the framework of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, rather than independently; restriction of Palestinian representation to persons from the West Bank and Gaza, rather than the diaspora; and a prohibition on the participation of PLO officials.

It was also understood that the multilaterals would generally operate by consensus, and that the chairs of the working groups would act as facilitators rather than exerting any procedural power or direction--an aspect that was underscored by terming them "gavel holders". Canada was selected as gavel-holder for the RWG, and an overall steering committee was also established for the multilaterals. [15] Of the working groups, the RWG was clearly the most contentious of the five, touching as it did on sensitive (and even existential) issues for many of the parties. It was for this reason that Canada was assigned RWG gavel, since it was seen by Washington as cautious and reliable while being acceptable to Israel and the other regional parties.

The sensitivity of the RWG was fully evident from the outset. Syria and Lebanon have boycotted the RWG and all other multilateral activities, refusing to normalize relations with Israel in the absence of agreement on bilateral issues. Israel's dissatisfaction with the group was demonstrated at the first two plenary meetings of the working group, held in Ottawa in May and November 1992. In particular, it protested the participation of Palestinian delegation members from outside of the West Bank and Gaza, something which Israel complained was a violation of the Madrid ground rules. Both the US and the Canadian gavel, however, felt that it was vital to include diaspora Palestinians in a working group intended to address the refugee issue. [16] The result was an Israeli boycott of the May 1992 RWG plenary. The boycott, however, had little effect: the meeting was held anyway, and in Israel's absence a series of "themes" were identified that would come to comprise the RWG agenda: human resource development, job creation and vocational training (with the US acting as "shepherd" for this theme), public health (Italy), child welfare (Sweden), economic and social infrastructure (EU), databases (Norway), and family reunification (France). [17] Although the themes were delineated so as to facilitate future Israeli participation, Israel was particularly unhappy with the issue of "family reunification," which seemed to touch upon Palestinian demands for a "right of return"--something that Israel had consistently opposed. In order to have greater influence over agenda-setting, and with a new Labor government in power, Israel agreed to participate in the second Ottawa meeting. However a new crisis erupted when it became publicly known that the head of the Palestinian delegation was a member of the Palestine National Council, the PLO's parliamentary body. In the end, the difficulty was overcome by a face-saving formula that enabled Israeli participation. However, Israel later walked out of the November 1992 meeting in continued protest of the family reunification theme.

By the time of the third plenary meeting of the RWG in Oslo in May 1993, the question of Palestinian representation was no longer troublesome, in part because the increased pace of Palestinian-Israeli bilateral negotiation (and the close engagement of the PLO in the process) had rendered it moot. This was even more the case by the time of the fourth plenary meeting in Tunis in October 1993, occurring as it did in the wake of the Palestinian-Israeli Declaration of Principles and formal, mutual political recognition between Israel and the PLO. Coincidentally, the Tunis meeting was the first multilateral plenary to be held in the region. Subsequent RWG plenary sessions were held in May 1994 (Cairo), December 1994 (Antalya), and December 1995 (Geneva).

Across all of the agreed themes, the RWG has identified a number of key imperatives in its work. The first of these is defining the problem : that is, a need for a common understanding of the scope of the refugee problem and how to deal with it. The Working Group has sponsored basic data collection and analysis to define the scope of the refugee issue, establish priorities and assess the impact of choices. This work has included two surveys of living conditions of the West Bank and Gaza, and one of Jordan; needs assessments to identify refugee needs in public health, child welfare and economic and social infrastructure and; an inventory of ongoing assistance programs.

A second priority has been promoting dialogue : the Canadian gavel has seen the RWG as a forum for regional parties to state positions, develop and test options and generally build confidence among the members. As gavel-holder, Canada has led international missions to Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. The subsequent reports identified a number of immediate pressing needs for refugees outside of the West Bank and Gaza. Another key focus in this area has been the question of policies and procedures for family reunification. France has worked to bridge differences between the parties, and the RWG won an Israeli commitment to increase to number of persons permitted to return to the West Bank and Gaza for humanitarian purposes. In practice, however, family reunification has encountered serious stumbling blocks, and today has ground to a near-halt. Finally, RWG members have encouraged a number of conferences and workshops intended to promote broader dialogue on the refugee issue. [18]

Finally, the RWG has worked to mobilize resources for refugees. The Working Group has worked with UNRWA to raise funds for UNRWA's Peace Implementation Plan (PIP) for the refugees. One particularly noteworthy project has been the reunification of Palestinian families living in the Rafah area of Egypt ("Canada Camp") with their relatives in Tel El Sultan in Gaza. Canadian and Kuwaiti funds have sponsored the transfer of 110 refugee families. Here too--despite agreement in principle among the parties regarding the Canada Camp population--progress has been painfully slow, leading one Palestinian scholar and former negotiator to remark that "at this rate it is going to take two, three, or more centuries to return the rest [of the refugees]." [19]

Overall, the RWG has faced a number of serious problems. One set of these is financial: there is still a serious shortage of resources to meet the pressing humanitarian needs of refugees, particularly for those outside the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, the RWG's efforts to mobilize resources substantially overlap with those of others, notably UNRWA itself as well as the international donor group for the West Bank and Gaza. Consequently, it is not always clear how much new funding for refugees is actually generated by the RWG. A second set of problems facing the working group are structural in character. The RWG does not operate as a cohesive group, but rather assembles periodically for plenary meetings or intersessional activities. Consequently, the Gavel-holder remains unsuccessful in wielding influence outside of the working group structure. Syrian and Lebanese non-participation in the RWG has hampered the working group's efforts to target resources at refugee communities in those countries. This problem is particularly acute in Lebanon, where much of the refugee population endures extremely adverse socio-economic conditions. Finally, the RWG faces formidable political obstacles in its work. There remains a large gap between the publicly-articulated positions of Israel and the Palestinians on the refugee issue, with the former insisting on the "resettlement" and "rehabilitation" of refugees, while the latter emphasizes the Palestinians' right to compensation and "return". These sorts of differences have been manifest in discussions on family reunification, which have met with the most controversy and resistance from Israel. The Israeli delegation has been willing to consider family reunification as a discretionary humanitarian issue, but not as a political right for Palestinians. Ironically, the consensual format of the RWG, coupled with the political differences evident within it, can also generate an unfortunate degree of depoliticization in Working Group activities--that is to say, a focus by default on less controversial humanitarian issues.

Perhaps most important, the RWG--like other multilateral track activities--is hostage to the tone of the bilateral peace process; when the latter suffers, so too does the former. This has been particularly evident since the May 1996 election of hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the consequent deterioration of Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli negotiations. Faced with this, and especially with stepped-up Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories, the Arab League voted in March 1997 to suspend Arab participation in the multilaterals. [20] Thereafter, only low-level and less formal RWG activities could continue.

Declaration of Principles and Interim Agreement
On 3 September 1993, after months of secret Norwegian mediation outside the regular bilateral negotiations, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed a Palestinian-Israeli Declaration of Principles in Washington DC. The "DoP" or "Oslo Agreement" opened up important new avenues in the peace process, paving the way for the Gaza-Jericho agreement of May 1994, the subsequent establishment of Palestinian administrative authority in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the expansion of that authority under the Palestinian-Israeli Interim Agreement of September 1995. The parties also agreed to begin negotiations on the the core "final status" issues--refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, security arrangements and borders--by the start of the third year of a five year interim period.

These agreements altered the environment for dealing with the refugee issue in several important ways. With the subsequent establishment of interim self-government in Gaza and portions of the West Bank, many Palestinian refugees came under the limited jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA was empowered to issue travel documents/passports to West Bank and Gaza residents (but not others), as well as given some powers to register previously unregistered Palestinians in the territories as residents. In addition, an estimated 50,000-100,000 Palestinian returned to the territories during 1994-97, most of these comprising formerly exiled PLO political, military and bureaucratic personnel (and their families) assuming new functions within the Palestinian Authority, or visitors overstaying their permits. Finally, the Oslo Agreement and its successors transformed the pace and quality of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations

In addition, two other fora for addressing the refugee issue were established. The first of these was the Palestinian-Israeli-Jordanian-Egyptian continuing (or "quadripartite") committee, formed in compliance with Article XII of the Oslo agreement to "decide by agreement on the modalities of admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, together with the necessary measures to prevent disruption and disorder." [21] Second, the Oslo agreement called for "final status" negotiations on the refugee issue (as well as the issues of settlements, security arrangements, borders, and Jerusalem) to begin by May 1996.

The Quadripartite Committee. The Quadripartite Committee first met in Amman in March 1995. Despite this and other meetings, however, it soon became apparent that progress would be slow, and that Israel was not eager to permit the return to the territories of Palestinian displaced in 1967. Instead, debates largely centered around definitions. Israel held out for a minimalist definition of a "displaced person" (namely those actually displaced by the fighting in 1967), totalling around 200,000 persons. The Arab parties held to a broader definition (including those trapped outside the territories by the outbreak of war, those who had left the territories after 1967 but who had later been refused readmission by Israel, deportees, and their descendants), totalling around 1.1 million. [22]

The Final Status Negotiations. Palestinian-Israeli final status negotiations were formally opened on 6 May 1996. However, substantive discussion were immediately postponed because of Israel's impending general election. Thereafter, final status negotiations were put off still further as Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, adopted a tougher position with regard to the Palestinian issue. In January 1997 an agreement on Israeli redeployment in Hebron called for the final status negotiations to begin in March of that year, but this date too passed without such negotiations occurring. Indeed, as of the time of writing (February 1998) there still seems little hope that these discussions will be joined any time soon.

The Israeli-Jordanian-Israeli Treaty
A final agreement which has addressed the issue of Palestinian refugee is the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of October 1994. In Article VIII.2, the parties agreed to seek to resolve the refugee problem:

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

b. In the case of refugees,

i. in the framework of the Multilateral Group on Refugees [Refugee Working Group]

ii. in negotiations, in a framework to be agreed, bilateral or otherwise, in conjunction with and at the same time as the permanent status negotiations pertaining to the territories referred to in Article 3 of this treaty [i.e., the territories "that came under Israeli government control in 1967"] .

This formula essentially endorsed the frameworks already established under the Madrid process (the RWG), and the Oslo agreement (quadripartite committee, final status negotiations), while leaving open the possibility that the architecture of the latter might be open to consensual modification or elaboration.

Resolving the Refugee Issue: Key Issues [23]
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. 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." [24] Indeed, Likud spokespersons have justified opposition to Palestinian sovereignty on grounds of blocking the PA from accepting the future return of Palestinians from the diaspora. [25]

While such official positions hold out no grounds for optimism, it is possible to identify some areas of agreement emerging among key Israeli, Palestinian, and Israeli scholars. Examination of these ideas further suggests what elements might go into any eventual final status agreement on the refugee issue.

On the Israeli side, Mark Heller was one of the first to explore the refugee issue directly, first in his ground-breaking A Palestinian State (1983), and later in the refugee chapter of the book coauthored with Palestinian scholar Sari Nusseibeh, No Trumpets, No Drums (1991). [26] Shimon Peres devoted a chapter to the refugee issue in his 1993 book The New Middle East . [27] 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. [28] On the Palestinian side, (former) RWG negotiators Abbas Shiblak, 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. [29] 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 Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East, as well as at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Institute for Palestine Studies, the Center for Lebanese Studies and Refugee Studies Program at Oxford University.

In addition, there have been unofficial political efforts to identify common ground between the Israeli (Labor) and Palestinian positions, and between the Israeli right and the Israeli left. With regard to the former, informal discussions in 1996 between Labour MK Yossi Beilin and senior PLO official Abu Mazen produced a general and unofficial understanding on how final status issues might be resolved. With regard to to refugees, press accounts reported that "It is agreed that the Palestinian state will not be limited in absorbing refugees within its area, and in return the Palestinians will commit to forego the right of return of the refugees to the area within the Green Line. The refugees will qualify for compensation. A new international body will be established, headed by Swedes, which will take the place of the UNRWA. Israel will commit to financially help the rehabilitation of the refugees of Lebanon." [30] Beilin also pursued dialogue with a group of Likud MPs led by Michael Eitan, in a similar effort to find common ground. Their agreement, reached in January 1997, noted with regard to refugees:

  1. The right of the State of Israel to prevent the entry of Palestinian refugees into its sovereign territory will be recognized.
  2. The administration of the entrance of refugees into the Palestinian entity and the limits to that entry will be decided upon during the negotiations of the permanent settlement, within the larger discussion of Israel's security issues.
  3. An international organization will be founded, in which Israel will play an important role, with the goal of financing and carrying out projects for compensation and rehabilitation of the refugees in their places. The organization will also address Israeli claims for reparations for Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
  4. Israel and the Palestinian entity, each within its own boundaries, will rehabilitate the refugees on the basis of the disengagement of the UNRWA, the repealing of the refugee status and the arrangement of housing and employment and housing with international aid. (For Israel this refers to the Shoafat and Kalandia refugee camps in Jerusalem.)
  5. Israel will continue its policy of family reunification on the basis of existing criteria. [31]

The Beilin-Eitan agreement was clearly a rather more restrictive vision that reached between Beilin and Abu Mazen. In both papers, as well as in the various academic studies cited above, 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 Palestinian Right of Return
As noted earlier, the Palestinian "right of return" has been at the center of the Palestinian position on the refugee issue since 1948. 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 UNGAR 194 (III) of December 1948, as well as more general principles of international refugee and humanitarian law.

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 unlikely to be realized. However one evaluates the legal, moral and political character of its stance, no Israeli government will 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... [32]

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. [33]

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." [34] 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." [35]

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. [36]

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 Shiblak (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." [37] However, the Shaml Newsletter (of which Shiblak was 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." [38]

Moreover, it is important to note that the idea of a "right of return" focused on a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, however much discussed among Palestinian intellectuals, does not enjoy strong support among ordinary Palestinians themselves. One December 1996 survey (based on press reports of the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan) asked "do you agree that the solution to the refugee issue would be to grant them the right of return only to the Palestinian state only, or would you say that the solution should guarantee their right to return back to their homes that they were forced to leave in 1948?" Respondents overwhelming favoured a return to original homes (73.2%) over "return" to a Palestinian state (19.4%), with this particularly strongly felt among refugee camp inhabitants (with 77.9% favouring a return to 1948 areas). [39] Another survey (also spurred by reports of the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan) asked respondents whether they agreed with the following compromise:

    The refugees would have the right to return to the Palestinian state only, but a small agreed upon number would be allowed to return to Israel. Those not returning to Israel would be compensated for properties lost in 1948 and for material and non-material damages done to them. They are also rehabilitated. The Palestinian insistence on the right of return, as a principle, would not be given up.

Put this way, 54.4% "supported" or "strongly supported" the proposal. [40]

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. [41]

Former Netanyahu advisor and current Israeli representative to the UN 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." [42] Such concerns are even more marked when it comes to areas within Israel's 1948: 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. [43]

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. [44] This might be accompanied by the admission of some former Palestinian refugees to Israel on humanitarian grounds. [45] 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." [46] 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." [47]

If this formula--a Palestinian "right of return" realized through Palestinian statehood, the ability of refugees to gain Palestinian 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 probable element of a final status resolution of the refugee issue, what then are its implications for diaspora Palestinians?

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 10% were born before 1948, in Palestine. As the conflict continues without resolution, this group continues to shrink. At the same time, the younger generation of refugees is usually better integrated into the host community than their parents or grandparents. According to one Lebanese official, for example, fully one-quarter of third generation Palestinians in Lebanon have one Lebanese parent. [48] It is also important to recognize that only a small fraction of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon or Syria--less than 1%, according to UNRWA figures--have family origins in the West Bank or Gaza. Instead, this refugee population derives from the Galilee and coastal Palestine, areas that were incorporated into Israel in 1948. Strong attachments to these areas have been nurtured across generations of refugees through collective memory, patterns of marriage and the geography of neighbourhood settlement. By contrast, around 40% of refugees in Jordan originate from the West Bank and Gaza, not counting "second time" refugees who resided there between 1948 and 1967.

Finally, there are substantial economic barriers to the repatriation of Palestinians from the diaspora to a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. In Lebanon, most Palestinians have marginal employment in the unskilled or semi-skilled service sector, and only very limited capital assets. Lacking skills and resources, few might therefore be in a position to easily relocate. Food and housing prices in the West Bank and Gaza are quite high by regional standards, creating a further disincentive. Moreover, the Palestinian economy in the territories--buffeted by devastating economic shocks caused by periodic Israeli "closure"--would hardly appear attractive to potential returnees. Between 1992 and 1996, per capita GNP fell by a remarkable 36% in the West Bank, and unemployment rose to over twenty percent, with peaks of over fifty percent in Gaza during closure. Indicative of the economic unattractiveness of the the territories, private investment has fallen by three quarters since the onset of the peace process. [49]

Ironically, such constraints on refugee repatriation might actually assist refugee absorption by reducing the rate at which it might occur--thus providing a future Palestinian state and economy with the time needed to incorporate the returnees into the labour market and extend the necessary education and other state services. A soon-to-be-released study by the Harvard refugee project, for example, suggests that around 500,000 Palestinians might return over five years. If so, this is equivalent to only four years of regular population growth in the territories. However, repatriation will also clearly require a number of important social and infrastructural investments. Given the inability of the Palestinian Authority to raise adequate resources for capital investment, much of the burden of this will necessarily fall on international donors.

For Palestinians, all of this poses a significant political dilemma: how can Palestinians work to assure some "right of return" to 1948 territories, while accepting in practice that most refugees will be repatriated to 1967 areas, and at the same time assuring that those Palestinians wishing to remain in diaspora are able to do so, and to do so under tolerable economic and political conditions? For Israel, there are equally difficult issues to be faced: acceptance of Palestinian statehood (the sine qua non for any resolution of the conflict, including its refugee dimension); consequent recognition of a Palestinian state's sovereign right to admit returnees and grant citizenship; and acceptance that some symbolic return of a limited number of Palestinians within the borders of Israel proper may also be a necessary component of any compromise.

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. [50 ] 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.... 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. [51]

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 [52] 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 $3.6 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 or UNRWA--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. [53 ] 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. In particular, it seems inevitable that Israel, rather than international donors, will have to foot the major portion of the costs of 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. [54]
  • A portion of compensation/reparations might be paid to the Palestinian 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.
  • 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. [55] 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. Indeed, 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 the diaspora to Palestine in the context of a final status settlement.

For the governments of Jordan and Syria, this may not present a problem: the former already considers its Palestinians as full citizens, while the latter has largely treated them on a basis of social and economic equality. Both countries will want to assure, however, that they are somehow compensated for assuming responsibility education, health and other refugee services previously supplied by UNRWA.

In Lebanon, by contrast, there is virtually no support for the permanent resettlement of a significant number of Palestinians. [56] According to one survey, three quarters of Lebanese opposed resettlement, and a similar proportion believed that it would have damaging political or economic consequences. [57] 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"). 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. [58] In the case of the former, a thoughtful book on the refugee issue written by Donna Arzt and published in 1997 by the Council on Foreign Relations met a typical reaction when it inspired large Lebanese headlines on the "Compromis americain: Implantez les palestiniens [American Compromise: Implant the Palestinians]." [59] In the case of the latter, press reports have variously identified Iraq, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Sweden, Spain and the United States as the destination. [60]

With the future establishment of a Palestinian state and Palestinian citizenship, it is possible that the Lebanese government might seek to push the Palestinian community into emigration 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 could 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.

In Lebanon, however, whatever portion of the Palestinian community elected (or was permitted) to remain should 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. [61] 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. [62] 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.

Looking Ahead
Based on the preceding discussion, what can we conclude about the Palestinian refugee issue and the Middle East peace process? Several points stand out.

The first is that the refugee issue remains a core issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict , and particularly for the Palestinians. Any Arab-Israel peace process which ignores this dimension will not prove enduring.

Second, t he refugee issue has fundamental regional dimensions , affecting all states who host large Palestinian refugee populations. Consequently, any future resolution of the issue must be regional in scope too.

Third, that the establishment of a viable and independent Palestinian state is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition to resolving the refuge issue . Such a state will not only permit Palestinian repatriation, but will also allow diaspora Palestinians to opt for Palestinian citizenship should they so choose. Increasingly, this particular element represents the consensus of most Palestinians and a substantial proportion of Israelis, including much or most of the Labor Party.

Fourth, the question of the Palestinian "right of return" remains highly controversial . Whatever the moral and legal weight of Palestinian arguments, it is unlikely that Israel would ever permit a substantial number to return to 1948 areas. Conversely, it is doubtful whether a resolution which fully ignores the right of return, and bars even limited numbers of Palestinians from ever returning to their birthplaces, can be accept by the refugees themselves.

Fifth, i nadequate attention has been devoted to the financial costs of underwriting a solution to the refugee issue , whether in terms of compensation or the costs of rehabilitation/repatriation/return/resettlement. Without adequate resources, it is difficult to see how an agreement could be sustained. The international community will only foot the bill for part of this; Israel too will have to face up to historic responsibilities and provide a large share of the necessary resources.

Sixth, Lebanon poses particular problems for resolution of the refugee issue , given its large refugee population, their adverse socioeconomic conditions, and strong Lebanese opposition to any permanent Palestinian presence. This suggests that Palestinians from Lebanon might be given priority in any agreed schemes of repatriation, return and/or third country resettlement.

Finally, there is a critical need to promote a freer and more open dialogue on refugee issues . Within Israel, the situation of Palestinian refugee is rarely reflected upon at all, and indeed seems to be something of a "repressed memory" of an morally questionable period in Israeli state-formation. On the Palestinian side, UNGAR 194 and other resolutions and slogans have often been proffered as a substitute for critical assessment of what Rashid Khalidi has eloquently referred to as "attainable justice." [63] Neither society, in short, has prepared itself for the compromises that both sides will inevitably have to make if the refugee issue is to be resolved.

Certainly, given the current state of the peace process and the policies of the present Israeli government, there is little chance of that happening soon. In the meantime, however, there may be opportunities for scholars too to play a useful role. In this connection, the largest and most inclusive scholarly meeting ever held on the refugee issue was convened in Ottawa in December 1997, involving more than forty participants from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Europe and North America. In the final plenary of that conference, the group made precisely this point:

Given the importance of the issue, there was broad agreement that researchers have a potentially valuable role to play, by providing the kinds of methodologically-sound and policy-relevant data required to inform negotiating processes, underwrite political decisions and define solutions, support the implementation of existing agreements, and facilitate the conclusion of future understandings. It was recognized that, in the end, it would be negotiators rather than scholars who would determine the content of future final status arrangements. Accordingly, the former were free to reject the proposals and analyses offered by the latter. However, by exploring possible scenarios, packages and arrangements, and by identifying the various issues that might confront any effort to operationalize these, researchers were offering valuable strategic "spade-work" in support of a final settlement.

In doing so, researchers should not be constrained by "red lines" and taboos, but rather should use their freedom as scholars to think originally and creatively--to "enlarge the menu" rather than self-censor. Equally, however, a certain amount of political realism is also critical if academic musings are to have policy impact. [64]

If a solution is to be achieved, the negotiating parties will have to talk openly and freely about a range of delicate issues.

While official channels remain blocked, and the gaps and suspicions remain substantial, such dialogue has--at long last--now begun to occur.

Rex Brynen is Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University, and coordinator of Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet ( http://www.prrn.org ). He received his B.A. from the University of Victoria and his M.A. and Ph.D. the University of Calgary, and worked on the Middle East peace process as a member of the Policy Planning Staff of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in 1994-95. He is author of Sanctuary and Survival: The PLO in Lebanon (Westview, 1990), and editor or coeditor of Echoes of the Intifada (Westview, 1991), The Many Faces of National Security in the Arab World (Macmillan 1993), and Political Liberalization and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1996 and 1998).

This paper was originally prepared for the New Hampshire International Seminar/Yale-Maria Lecture in Middle East Studies, University of New Hampshire, 3 April 1998.


[1] As of January 1997, this included 13.2 million refugees, 3.3 million returnees, 4.9 million internally displaced, and 1.9 million others "of concern" to UNHCR. The 3.2 million Palestinian refugees covered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency are not within UNHCR's mandate, so the two totals have been added here.

[2] Israeli statement on refugees to the opening session of the multilateral track of the Middle East peace process, Moscow, 27 January 1992. Archived online at gopher://israel-info.gov.il:70/00/mad/multi/multi.9

[3] Prime Minister's Office (Israel), Background Paper: The Refugee Issue , online at http://www.pmo.gov.il/english/policy/bp-refugees.html .

[4] Israeli statement on refugees to the opening session of the multilateral track of the Middle East peace process, Moscow, 27 January 1992.

[5] Statement to the Middle East Peace Multilateral Negotiations Working Group on Refugees, Ottawa, 13 May 1992, reproduced in Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, Facts and Figures About the Palestinians Information Paper 1 (Washington, DC: CPAP, 1992).

[6] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

[7] Prime Minister's Office (Israel), Background Paper: The Refugee Issue.

[8] On the history of UNRWA, see Benjamin Schiff, Refugees unto the Third Generation: UN Aid to the Palestinians (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995).

[9] For an overview of Palestinian circumstances across the region, see Laurie Brand, Palestinian in the Arab World: Institution-Building and the Search for State (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988); Abbas Shiblak, Residency Status and Civil Rights of Palestinian Refugees in Arab Countries Shaml Monograph Series 1.

[10] For a detailed examination of the living conditions of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, see Marie Arneberg, Living Conditions Among Palestinian Refugees and Displaced in Jordan Fafo (draft) Report 237 (Oslo: Fafo, 1997).

[11] Leila Zakharia and Samia Tabari, "Palestinian Women in Lebanon: Health, Work and Opportunities and Attitudes," paper presented to the CLS/RSP conference on "The Palestinians in Lebanon," Oxford, September 1996, p28

[12] According to one opinion survey, resettlement was opposed by 87% of Maronite Christians, 78% of Greek Orthodox Christians, Greek Catholic Christians, and Sh'ite Muslims; 71% of Druze Muslims; and 63% of Sunni Muslims. Hilal Khashan, Palestinian Resettlement: Behind the Debate Montreal Studies on the Contemporary Arab World 1, April 1994, Table 6.

[13] This discussion on the RWG draws heavily from Rex Brynen and Jill Tansley, " The Refugee Working Group of the Middle East Peace Process ," Palestine-Israel Journal 2, 4 (Autumn 1995), and Rex Brynen, " Much Ado About Nothing? The Refugee Working Group and the Perils of Multilateral Quasi-negotiation ," International Negotiation 2, 2 (November 1997).

[14] James Baker, "Opening Comments" opening session of the multilateral track of the peace process, Moscow, 28 January.

[15] The other gavels are the US and Russia (ACRS), the US (water), the EU (REDWG), and Japan (environment). The multilateral steering committee is "chaired" by the cosponsors of the peace process (US and a largely inactive Russia), and consists of the "regional parties" (Israel, Jordan, Palestinians and Egypt, with Syria and Lebanon not participating); Saudi Arabia (representing the Gulf Cooperation Council) and Tunisia (representing the Arab Maghrib Union); the EU, Japan and Canada (as gavels); and Norway (as chair of the post-Oslo Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, which oversees aid to the Palestinian Authority). Joel Peters, Pathways to Peace: The Multilateral Arab-Israeli Peace Talks (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1996), pp. 8-15).

[16] US support for Palestinian participation in the RWG was expressed in Moscow, and again in a February letter from US Secretary of State James Baker, "Letter to Faisal Hussayni [February 1992]." Journal of Palestine Studies 21, 4 (Summer 1992), p. 167.

[17] Later in the process, Switzerland was given special responsibility for the "human dimension" in the RWG and other working groups.

[18] For details, see http://prrn.mcgill.ca/prrn/prconference.html .

[19] Elia Zureik, letter to the editor, in Globe and Mail (Troronto), 24 April 1997.

[20] Council of the League of Arab States, Resolution on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 31 March 1997, in Mahdi Abdel Hadi, ed., Documents on Palestine: Volume II (Jerusalem: PASSIA, 1997), p. 340.

[21] In the terminology of the issue, "refugees" are Palestinians who fled Israeli proper in 1948, while "displaced persons" are those who fled the West Bank and Gaza when these areas were occupied by Israel in 1967. Complicating things further is the fact that many displaced persons are also refugees.

[22] According to Jordanian data, in 1994 there were some 531,198 "displaced" Palestinians in Jordan who held UNRWA refugee status, 500,417 displaced who did not hold refugee status, 88,211 "latecomers" who had been refused readmission to the territories, and 12,500 deportees. Tayseer Abdel Jaber, "The Situation of Palestinian Refugees in Jordan," paper prepared for the Harvard refugee project, January 1996.

[23] This section draws heavily on Rex Brynen, " Imagining a Solution: Final Status Arrangements and Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon ," Journal of Palestine Studies 26, 2 (Winter 1997).

[24] Archived on the Israel Information Service website at http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa.

[25] Interview with Dore Gold in Yediot Ahronot , 4 June 1996, pp. 2-4, archived on PRRN at http://www.prrn.org/research/papers/gold.html. For an even stronger statement, see Ariel Sharon, "Arab Peace Ambush".

[26] 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.

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

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

[29] 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).

[30] "Central Points of Beilin Abu Mazen Plan".

[31] Text of the Beilin-Eitan agreement.

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

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

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

[35] Rashid Khalidi, "Toward A Solution"

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

[37] Abbas Shiblak, "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.

[38] "Commentary," Shaml Newsletter 3 (June 1996), p. 4, archived on the Shaml website at http://www.shaml.org .

[39] Jerusalem Media and Communications Center poll, cited by Aaron Lerner, "Beilin Pushed for Poll on His Plan," Independent Media Review & Analysis , 2 January 1997, archived at http://prrn.mcgill.ca/prrn/papers/imra_jmcc.html

[40] Center for Palestine Research and Studies, Public Opinion Poll #27: PA and PLC Performance, Democracy, Armed Attacks, Local Councils and a Permanent Status Plan , April 1997.

[41] Sharon, "Arab Peace Ambush."

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

[43] Palestine Report , 23 October 1996.

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

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

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

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

[48] Senior Lebanese government official, 30 September 1996. This number may be exagerated, however; data from Gaza suggests that only 9% of refugee camp inhabitants marry outside the camps.Dag Tuestad, "The Organization of Camp Life: The Palestinian Refugee Camp of Bureij, Gaza," in Are Hovdenak et al., Constructing Order: Palestinian Adaptations to Refugee Life (Oslo: Fafo, 1997), p. 110.

[49] Rex Brynen, Hisham Awartnai, and Clare Woodcraft, Donor Assistance in Palestine , a study prepared for the CIC (NYU)/SSRC "Pledges of Aid" project, February 1998, pp. 2-3. See also the various quarterly economic reports prepared by the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Occupied Territories (UNSCO).

[50] 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://www.prrn.org/research/papers/rynen1.htm.

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

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

[53] For the detailed calculations involved, see Brynen, "The Funding of Palestinian Refugee Compensation."

[54] 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. Donna Arzt, Refugees Into Citizens: Palestinians and the End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1997), p.94.

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

[56] 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.

[57] Khashan, Palestinian Resettlement in Lebanon: Behind the Debate , pp. 10, 12.

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

[59] Arzt, Refugees Into Citizens: Palestinians and the End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict , reviewed in Magazine (Beirut), 14 February 1997.

[60] 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.

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

[62] 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.

[63] Khalidi, "Toward a Solution."

[64] "Plenary Session," PRR/IDRC Stocktaking Conference on Palestinian Refugee Research, Ottawa, December 1997, archived at http://prrn.mcgill.ca/prrn/prconference.html .

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