This paper is the result of a combined Palestinian-Israeli attempt at a dialogue on the refugee problem and the 'Right of Return'. Despite both parties' attempts to digress from traditional standpoints, they were unable to reach an acceptable compromise. This paper outlines the main facets of the problem and the views of both sides, highlighting which points are negotiable and which are more problematic. The refugee issue consists of eleven focal points for negotiation and while the first three and last two are procedural, the other six are pertinent to the negotiations.

Defining the Size of the Problem

Both sides disagree about the current number of refugees. The Israelis claim there are two and a half million, UNRWA registers indicate numbers have reached approximately four million, and some independent Palestinian sources estimate the total at six million. Similarly, there is a dispute over the value of the possessions left behind by the internal refugees and there is also controversy over the value of the reparations to be extended for psychological damage. Israeli estimates range between $3 to $10 billion, while the Palestinians put the figure at between $20 to $200 billion. Solving these disagreements will require cooperation between a number of Arab and international parties in addition to the two sides themselves.

The Terms of Reference for Negotiations

The two parties disagree over the co-opted reference to be followed in negotiations over the refugee issue. Both have accepted Security Council Resolution 242, which stipulates the need for a "just solution" to the refugee problem. And since the UN has ratified General Assembly Resolution 194 as a solution to the problem tens of times, the Palestinians consider the references within Resolution 242 inclusive of Resolution 194. But Israel refuses to accept this resolution as a basis for negotiations despite the fact that it has recognized within the Jordanian-Israeli peace accords that the principles of international law should be applied to the discussion of the refugee issue.

The Negotiating Parties

The PLO and Israel have agreed that the resolution of the refugee problem should take place within the framework of bilateral negotiations, but the countries hosting the refugees also have rights and responsibilities for this issue. These countries may wish to negotiate in the name of the refugees residing in their country; this is especially applicable to Jordan, which has granted the refugees Jordanian citizenship. Other countries could refuse to absorb any of the refugees, regardless of the solution agreed on by Palestine and Israel.

Israel may also wish to link refugee compensation to similar claims made by Jews against the Arab countries they left, following the establishment of the Jewish state. If these countries refuse to compensate the Jews, this could hold up negotiations on all related compensation issues. In addition, Israel may wish to lay the responsibility of gathering the funds necessary for compensation payments upon the shoulders of the international community and donors, which would give them a major role in negotiations.

Israel's Admission of Responsibility

Despite the fact that Resolution 194 does not require Israel to directly declare its responsibility for the existence of the refugee problem, Israel refuses to agree that this resolution should be considered a term of reference. The absence of an Israeli admission of responsibility, coupled with its refusal to recognize this resolution, might enable the Jewish state to evade its responsibilities not only towards the right of return but also to compensation.

Additionally, an Israeli admission of responsibility could enhance the chances of establishing a peace agreement between the two peoples. There have been positive steps within Israel over this issue, with the "new historians" challenging the accepted Israeli historical narrative and clarifying Israeli responsibility for expelling part of the refugees. Israeli television programs and schoolbooks have also begun to deal positively with this issue; even books published by the Israeli army have followed similar trends. Israel, it seems, is ready to partially recognize the suffering of the refugees and perhaps even its role in the problem, provided that others, such as the Arab states, admit similar responsibility.

Israel's Recognition of the Right of Return

The Palestinians fall back upon Resolution 194, and others taken by the General Assembly, as well as on human rights conventions and the principles of international law in their claims for the right of return. It is vital for the Palestinians that Israel recognize this right, to give the refugees the choice of returning to Israel, accepting compensation and returning to the Palestinian state or making a new life elsewhere. Neither the PLO nor the Palestinian state can revoke the right of an individual refugee to return, and without Israeli recognition of this right, the struggle will continue.

However, Israeli recognition of the right of return would contradict its narrative of what happened in 1948 and beyond. In addition, Israel is afraid any recognition would result in the return of millions of refugees, which would threaten its existence as a Jewish state. Israel is, however, ready to recognize the right of the refugees to return to the Palestinian state, although it may place some conditions on the timeframe of any actual return.

Implementation of the Right of Return

The Palestinians demand that refugees who want to return to Israel be granted the right to return to their houses there, while the rest be allowed to return to the Palestinian state. Some Palestinian politicians and analysts believe that only a limited number of refugees will implement their right of return to Israel, while the majority will prefer to return to the Palestinian state or to remain where they are, after receiving Palestinian citizenship and the right to reside in Palestine whenever they wish. This belief is based on the radical shift which occurred in the Palestinian national movement's aims in the mid-seventies, exchanging the aim of liberating all of Palestine for that of establishing an independent Palestinian state.

This shift created a contradiction between the desire for return and the wish to establish an independent state, but it was felt that most refugees would probably refuse to accept Israeli citizenship. Additionally, many had obtained citizenship from their host countries, some having lived there for over fifty years. Those refugees might not want to put their right of return into practice, uprooting themselves to start over after so many years, and relinquishing the benefits they may have attained in their host country. This is especially applicable to Palestinian refugees in Jordan who left the refugee camps and integrated into the country's civil and political life.

Thirdly, refugees may be unable to return to their old towns and villages, either because they have been destroyed or because they have been enveloped into the surrounding Israeli environment. However, whole communities could be returned to new homes within the Palestinian state, allowing them a feeling of continuity, even when putting their right of return into practice.

Finally, only 10 percent of refugees were born in areas inside the Green Line; while some might feel nostalgia for their birthplace, many of their offspring would probably prefer to practice their right of self-determination within a Palestinian state.

Therefore, one can distinguish between the principle of the right of return and the practice. However, Israel has so far denied the refugees any right of return, in theory or practice. It regards this as an existential issue; the return of four million refugees would cause it to lose its Jewish identity.

Israel could accept a turn of phrase that would allow it to recognize the Palestinian right of return in principle, on the condition that this right is put into practice only within the Palestinian state. Israel would allow a limited number of refugees (no more than 100,000) to return to Israel under a family reunification program. This would allow for some flexibility if the number to be allowed back were left up to the refugees themselves.

Absorption within the Host States

Absorption could have two meanings: obtaining nationality and thus permanent residency within the host country; or permanent residency within the host state after obtaining Palestinian citizenship and the right to enter the Palestinian state at any time. The Palestinians refuse to accept any solution that would revoke the Palestinian identity of the refugees by forcing them to settle in the host countries or emigrate to other countries. At the same time, the Palestinian position does not insist the refugees return, it simply gives them the right to choose between staying where they are, putting their right of return into practice, or opting to live within the Palestinian state.

Israel would prefer that the refugees are naturalized where they are, fearing that if the Palestinian state is unable to successfully absorb the large numbers of returning refugees, this could threaten the long term stability of any permanent solution between Israel and Palestine. Some host countries, such as Jordan, have already naturalized most of their refugees. But others, like Lebanon, might refuse, as doing so would affect the sectarian balance within that country. Thus any negotiations over the issue of absorption would also require the direct participation of the host states.

Compensation and Rehabilitation

The Palestinians will demand at least three types of compensation within the final status negotiations: (1) for homes (2) for the suffering, pain and loss of opportunities (3) for Israel's use of refugee land and possessions.

The Palestinians will demand that compensation be paid on an individual basis according to the value of each refugee's possessions, and on a group basis to compensate for mental suffering. It must be agreed whether the value of possessions is to be assessed according to 1948 prices, in addition to the revenues they would have yielded since that time, or according to their current value. Other obstacles to finding a final total include which method should be used to prove possession, how reparations for suffering and loss of opportunity should be calculated, and which precedents within international law should be used. The Palestinians will also want to deal with the issue of compensation for refugees living in or absorbed by the host states. Will the host states receive funds for group compensation, and will this money be used to move the refugees out of camps to integrate them into the economic and social fabric of that state?

"Closing the File"

Israel will demand that the final status negotiations include a definite closure of the file on the refugee subject. This covers two basic issues: the future of the refugees and the refugee camps. It will demand that both UNRWA and the camps are dismantled, once a final solution is reached. The Palestinians will not be able to comply with both these demands unless the refugees themselves accept them. Will they demand actual return? Will they be satisfied with return to the Palestinian state? Or will they accept integration into their host country? Any agreement must provide the refugees with these choices.

The Time Frame for Implementation

The five issues dealt with above will require an agreement on the timing of their implementation, as well as on the payment of compensation, rehabilitation and "closing the file". Israel will attempt to lengthen the waiting period for return and compensation, while seeking speedy rehabilitation. The Palestinians, on the other hand, will seek to expedite the implementation of all these agreements and delay "closing the file" until they are satisfied.

The Implementing and Supervising Parties

Finally, the negotiators will have to define who will implement each point of the agreement. The delineation of the number of refugees and the value of the compensation could be taken up by a neutral international party, such as UNRWA. However, the point of reference concerning negotiations will probably be an agreement drawn up by the two negotiating parties.

Calling upon other Arab and international parties to participate in the negotiating procedures will largely depend on the bilateral Palestinian-Israeli agreement. Israel will be responsible for recognizing its responsibility and granting permission for the implementation of the right to return. The host countries and the Palestinian state will deal with refugee absorption. Compensation and rehabilitation, which will probably constitute the larger part of the agreement, will be handed over to an international body for supervision. Similarly an international party could deal with the dismantlement of UNRWA, in cooperation with the Palestinian and the host states.


Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have avoided delving into certain aspects of the refugee issue for a long time. Israel has tried to disengage from all aspects other than that of absorption of the refugees by the host states. It has not been prepared to answer questions such as: where will the refugees return to - to their houses and villages or to new areas? Within what timeframe? What rights will they be granted? And what nature of citizenship or residency will they benefit from?

The Palestinians are especially reluctant to discuss the issues of compensation, absorption and "closing the file" as a result of their fear that such a discussion would affect the refugees right of return to their houses and possessions. Therefore, detailed and documented research into the size of compensation and method of calculation has still not been undertaken. Neither has the role of donor countries in collecting the sums required been discussed, in a bid to make Israel accept sole responsiblity. The Palestinians have also avoided looking at what the future holds for Palestinians in host countries who do not wish to exercise the right of return. However, both Palestinians and Israelis realize there can be no more evasion; and the party that is best prepared will be in the most favorable negotiating position.

This paper demonstrates that the most difficult issues will be putting the right of return into practice, absorption within the host countries, and compensation and rehabilitation. Israel will refuse to allow any meaningful return and will encourage absorption within the host countries as well as working to transfer responsibility for compensation and rehabilitation to the international community and donor countries. As for the Palestinians, they will work to guarantee the right of return on principle and in practice to both the Palestinian state and, in limited numbers, to Israel.