by Alon Liel
For 40 years we did not speak about it. It did not exist. It was not an issue. It was not only that former Prime Minister Golda Meir said there was no Palestinian people; nobody dared to speak about the issue of refugees returning, and no one admitted that they would be allowed to come back to a state of Palestine.
First of all, there is no way that the issue of refugees will not be an integral part of the final status agreement. In fact, the final status talks that started under then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 1999 included the refugee issue on the agenda.
Here are 10 principles which I feel should accompany the discussions on the future of the Palestinian refugees:
The discussion has to be between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), without either party imposing its will on the other.
The agreement about the future of the refugees has to be part and parcel of the package of the whole agreement. In other words, issues such as borders, settlements, water and Jerusalem, as they progress, will also definitely influence the outcome of the refugee issue. Of course, the agreement on this issue has to be based on international law and on the interests of both sides. But as we proceed, there might be some room for bargaining within the different issues in the final status talks.
The issue of refugees is related to the interests of several countries in the region — especially Syria, Lebanon and Jordan — and we cannot ignore this. The legal status of the Palestinians who will decide to stay in these countries will have to be settled after we reach a final status agreement.
We realize that the Palestinian refugees will be allowed to come back to what will be the state of Palestine, but nobody knows what the figures will be. Nobody knows the pace. And a lot of money will be needed. We are aware of the state of the Palestinian economy, and a large part of the financial burden will have to fall upon the shoulders of the international community, the donor countries. The countries assisting the Palestinian Authority at the moment will have to carry a large part of the burden of absorbing the refugees in the future Palestine. In August 1999, there was a terrible earthquake in Turkey. The international community raised around $5 billion to assist Turkey, an unprecedented amount. The Turks claim the overall damage was $15 billion. The fact that the international community raised $5 billion shows that there is money floating around. A lot of it was from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, but also from governments and private companies. And the government of Israel contributed its share as well.
There will have to be a correlation between the ability of the future Palestine to absorb refugees and the pace of absorption. We know what is happening there, and when we speak about economic cooperation or separation, we can hardly call it an economy. We know their rate of unemployment. The return of the refugees will have to be synchronized in such a way so as not to cause additional suffering by putting most of them on the unemployment lists of the future state of Palestine once it is established.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) will have to cease to operate once we have an agreement. It can be phased out gradually, but UNRWA cannot continue to operate after Israelis and Palestinians reach an agreement on the refugees.
Compensation: It is clear that not all those who will have the right to return will actually come back and, therefore, we have to deal with the issue of loss of property since 1948. We will have to find a formula, again together with the international community. There is no way that Israel or the future Palestine or other countries of the region can carry this financial burden. The international community will also have to assist with the issue of compensation.
The Palestinian refugees will not be able to return within the future permanent borders of Israel. We can speak about individual cases that the state of Israel can consider one by one, on a humanitarian basis, and decide whether they will be allowed entry or not. But the principle in this agreement should be that Palestinian refugees should not be allowed inside the borders of the state of Israel.
Recognition of the tragedy: It is fashionable, internationally, to ask for forgiveness. Even Barak asked for forgiveness — of a very different nature — from the Oriental Jews. We will not be able to remove the refugee problem from the agenda if there is no declaration, and I guess it will have to be a mutual declaration — with both Israel and the Palestinians expressing regret about the forced displacements and taking some degree of responsibility. I am not speaking now about the wording of it. It has to be from both sides. The sides do not have to use the same text, but such a declaration of recognition of the tragedy will be needed.
Once we have reached an agreement on the refugees, it must be a final agreement. It must be clear that, once we reach the agreement and implement it, the issue cannot be opened up again. We must set a date beyond which this issue is removed from the agenda once and for all. As for the figures and the timetable and so on, this, of course, has to be part of the agreement.
Dr. Liel originally presented these principles during a seminar held at Yakar’s Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem entitled “Palestinian Refugees: Facing the Problem,” held in November 1999. Today, 10 years later, he says that the principles remain the same. The problem is getting to the point where they will be dealt with in a realistic negotiating process.
The other participants in the seminar in 1999 were Dr. Adel Yahya, Richard Cook, David Bedein, Dr. Paul Scham, PIJ Editorial Board members Danny Rubinstein and Walid Salem, Dr. Dan Shueftan and General (res.) Shlomo Gazit. The moderators were Isabel Kershner (then at the Jerusalem Report) and PIJ Editorial Board member and Yakar director Benjamin Pogrund.