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Compensation as Part of a Comprehensive Solution to the Palestinian Refugee Problem

Source: Workshop Papers.

by Jalal Al Husseini

Observations on Compensation in the Palestinian Refugees' Case (June 1999).
Cermoc (Amman),

Not being a specialist in compensation myself, I will limit my comments to some preliminary observations regarding the main principles that should influence the handling of the Palestinian refugees' compensation issue.

My main assumption is that any lasting solution to the Palestinian refugee problem must rely on two main principles:

  • The solution should adhere to prior UN resolutions, in particular resolution 194 (III) of the UN General Assembly, which provides for a solution based on repatriation and compensation. In this regard, historical precedents might be useful in tackling the technical issues involved.
  • It should also be based on the principles of self-determination and democracy, taking into account the refugees' own choices concerning their future.

The "participative" approach may seem demagogic and time-consuming to those who have advocated, since the start of the current peace process, a quick and "pragmatic" settlement to the issue. However, history - and in particular UNRWA's experience - has taught us that the refugees' clout with national politics should not be underestimated. Indeed the refugees have often proven instrumental in nullifying the good intentions of programs or decisions considered at variance with their political interests, and more particularly with their right of return as promoted by resolution 194. In order to maximize the chances of success of any settlement scheme, be it in the field of compensation, resettlement, or return, it is important for the refugees to be involved in initiatives aimed at finding a solution to their problem. This can be accomplished either through direct consultation or at the very least through the consideration of their points of views as expressed by their institutional representatives at the local and national levels.

This approach may also help end to the rumours, so widespread today among refugee communities both inside and outside Palestine, regarding an alleged conspiracy to forsake the right of return and/or compensation in exchange for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In turn, such dialogue would contribute to easing the current tension between the refugee communities and the host authorities, and especially the PNA.

In the light of these initial remarks, I would like to make the following recommendations:

1. For juridical and political reasons, compensation should not be regarded as opposed to repatriation.

In fact, contrary to widely shared opinion, resolution 194 (III) does not establish a dichotomy between compensation and repatriation. On the contrary, it recommends the payment of compensation not only for the property of those choosing not to return, but also for the loss of or damage to property of those who return. Thus return and compensation are by no means mutually exclusive.

Even though compensation in exchange for repatriation might well emerge during the talks as the only viable long-term solution, for the sake of its smooth implementation it should not be presented as the only option. One must bear in mind that the acceptance of compensation, usually associated with permanent resettlement, has long been regarded by the refugees and the Palestinian leadership as tantamount to a betrayal of the national cause. Although many refugees today admit that repatriation as put forward by resolution 194 (III) - namely the return to their homes inside the 1948 boundaries - is not feasible, the psychological barrier towards compensation and resettlement still emerges very clearly in their narratives. As a result, these two options are both generally rejected. The absence of clear estimates about the sums involved, as well as the lack of assurance that they will be the direct beneficiaries of the payments (and not the host authorities), are two factors that have reinforced these negative feelings towards compensation.

By the same token, the issue of compensation should not be directly linked to the dissolution of UNRWA, which has become in the eyes of the refugees a symbol of their political rights. This should remain the case at least until necessary steps have been taken to fill the vacuum such a dissolution would cause.

2. Compensation schemes should not limit themselves to the recommendations set forth in resolution 194 (III): namely that financial payment for lost property should be provided, be it movable or immovable (in historical precedents, both types of property have been considered).

Indeed, such an arrangement would benefit mostly the refugees who owned landed property in Palestine before 1948, and exclude the less privileged socio-economic categories, such as the rural and urban proletariat. These latter strata then formed the majority of the Arab population and today constitute the bulk of the refugee camp population along with their families. While the objective of compensation schemes is certainly not to make up for the socio-economic discrepancies existing within Palestinian society, other forms of compensation should nevertheless be provided, in recognition of the material and psychological sufferings they have sustained over the past 50 years.

In particular, monies could be paid:

  • in view of the historical injustice that created the refugee question.
  • for the loss of income due to foregone employment, business or educational opportunities.
  • for the social and psychological damage sustained.

These two last categories were included in the German- Israeli compensation program.

In practical terms, this means that a double compensation mechanism should be established. One part should be for property compensation benefiting refugees who have documentary evidence of property ownership inside 1948 boundaries (the British records as well as UNRWA family files may be very useful in this respect). The other part would compensate refugees on an equal footing, with respect to non-property linked claims.

One of the main difficulties for the parties involved in the final negotiations will be to reach an agreement on the definition of the term "refugee", so as to determine precisely who is entitled to compensation. For that matter, do we know what is the Israeli definition of a Palestine - or Palestinian - refugee ?

At any rate, the amount of monies involved will be large. Estimates range from a minimum $ 7-10 billion for mere reparations (S. Gazit) to a maximum $ 147 billion at 1984 prices (Kubursi-Hadawi). These estimates do not include the funds that might be given to the host authorities to implement the reintegration of the refugees who do not return. Therefore, the international community will be asked to contribute, with Israel and its main supporter, the USA, being the major donors.

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