It is pertinent to draw comparisons between the various positions
on the refugee problem in order to consider the possibilities for
resolving this dilemma, for this is a fundamental issue and could
constitute a rock upon which the whole peace process may shatter.
However, there are good prospects for reaching compromises. The
Palestinian-Israeli disagreements concerning the refugees can be
summarized in the following points.
The Refugees' Exodus
The Palestinian viewpoint maintains that the greater majority of
refugees were forced out of Palestine, as a result of a previously
programed ethnic cleansing procedure, aiming to create geographic
continuity in which there would be an absolute Jewish majority. The
methods utilized to coerce civilians to flee were bombardment and
the execution of several massacres. Word was spread that these
massacres had taken place to frighten those who had previously
refused to leave into doing so. Many Palestinians were prevented
from returning, though they had only left temporarily to escape the
terrors of war. However, the Israelis believe that the majority of
Palestinians left Palestine of their "own accord" and that there
was no previously concocted plan for their expulsion.
Once the reason for the Palestinians' exodus is agreed upon, the
culpable party will have to bear responsibility for the expulsion
and solve all the resultant problems. The Palestinians lay
responsibility for the expulsion on Israel, thus expecting it to
provide compensation and allow the refugees to return. Israel, on
the other hand, tends to hold the Palestinians and Arabs
responsible for the exodus and thus for the creation of the refugee
problem. Some enlightened Israelis place responsibility on both
sides, but Israel still refuses to accept any moral responsibility.
Israel has agreed, at various conferences, to discuss the future of
the refugees on the basis that it is part of the international
community and that it is ready, as are others, to rehabilitate the
refugees within their present place of residence.
The Number of Refugees in 1948
There is a contradiction between the numbers quoted by the three
sides connected to this issue (UNRWA, Israel and the Palestinians),
the importance being that remuneration depends upon these numbers.
Israel has officially stated that the number of refugees in 1948
was 520,000. UNRWA's lists registered 726,000 refugees, while
Palestinian estimations of the total figure reach 900,000. The
disparity between the totals quoted by the Palestinians and UNRWA
stems from the fact that not every refugee was registered on lists
used by UNRWA. In addition, UNRWA did not carry out a census of the
Palestinians who were outside Palestine for purposes such as study,
visits or work, and who were unable to return to Palestine due to
the war. The numbers mentioned above also do not include the
Palestinians who remained within Israel but became internal
The Right of Return
The Palestinians insist that the refugee problem is a national and
political issue which constitutes a stark expression of the
historical injustice that befell them. Accordingly, they believe
that the solution to the problem is not merely connected to their
socio-economic standard of living or level of services, even though
these are important. However, the Israelis refuse to consider the
political dimension and define the problem as one of human
suffering that the international community, including Israel,
should work to solve. Some Israelis see Israeli responsibility for
the solution of the internal refugee problem as its contribution
towards resolving the issue. Many Israeli academic theses refuse to
consider those who live outside an UNRWA-run refugee camp, as
This Right of Return is based upon UN General Assembly resolution
194 (December 11, 1948), which includes its recognition as a
condition for acceptance of Israel's membership within the UN.
Currently 194 is the only one guaranteeing the right of return at
an international legal level. It does not contradict any other
international resolutions or any bilateral Arab/Israeli or
Palestinian/Israeli agreements. Israel has not only recognized the
resolution, but has also agreed to place the refugee problem in the
final status negotiations. The Palestinians adhere to the Right of
Return and insist that the Israelis recognize this right, so a
solution to this problem may be sought in the future. However, the
Israelis insist on totally refusing the Right of Return since they
consider that any admission of this right diminishes the Jewish
character of Israel. For the past few years there has been a
growing trend to define Israel as a "Jewish state" and to request
recognition of this "Jewishness". This persistence indicates the
impossibility of reaching a comprehensive solution with the
Palestinians. We must not forget that former Israeli Prime Minister
Ehud Barak frequently cited the Right of Return as an excuse for
the failure of Camp David and Taba.
Compensation derives its legal dimension from UN resolution 194,
which explicitly stipulates compensation for those who do not wish
to exercise their right to return. From a Palestinian point of
view, as Israel has prevented the Palestinian refugees from
exercizing their right of return, it is doubly indebted to them and
should therefore compensate them for utilization of their
real-estate and possessions for the whole period of their residence
in the Diaspora. Thus it is important to differentiate between the
Right of Return and the right to compensation. Compensation,
according to the Palestinian standpoint can take various forms,
such as compensation for possessions, utilization of possessions,
suffering while living in exile, etc. On principle, Israel has
agreed to discuss compensation, but the sums it offers are small
and it does not count itself solely responsible. In 1990, Israel
estimated the worth of Palestinian possessions, including lands and
real-estate within Israel at approximately US$1.85 billion.
Palestinian estimates range between US$92 billion and US$160
The Israelis have previously linked compensating Palestinian
refugees with compensating Jewish immigrants who moved to Israel
from the Arab world. This connection is no longer presented on any
This contradicts the principle upon which the Palestinian position
is built, and there is a quasi-consensus amongst the refugees to
refuse rehabilitation. The social infrastructure and services
situation within the refugee camps constitutes obvious evidence of
refusal of resettlement. It is not Palestinian society which has
failed to absorb Palestinian refugees within it or in surrounding
Arab countries. Some believe that the refugees themselves are
responsible for not improving living conditions in the camps, so
that they are not thought of as a substitute home. The Israeli
standpoint supports settling the refugees wherever they are living
at present, claiming that returning them to Israel would not
provide appropriate living conditions, whereas such an environment
is available within the host countries, the West Bank and the Gaza
The Refugee Problem in Clinton's Parameters
At Camp David, President Clinton expressed his ideas for solving
the Palestinian refugee problem at a meeting held with the
Palestinian delegation in the White House in December 2000. He said
that for historical reasons it would be difficult for the
Palestinian leadership to appear to have relinquished the Right of
Return, and that he understood Israel's refusal of the principle of
the Palestinian refugees' right to return as a threat to the Jewish
nature of the state. His direct words were; "I sense that the
differences are more related to formulation and less to what will
happen on a practical level. I believe that Israel is prepared to
acknowledge the moral and material suffering caused to the
Palestinian people as a result of the 1948 War and the need to
assist the international community in addressing the
The American president suggested a framework for solving the
refugee problem, which included establishing an international
committee to implement all aspects of the agreement, such as
compensation, resettlement, rehabilitation, etc. Meanwhile, the US
would be prepared to lead an international effort to help the
refugees. On principle, any solution should be mutually agreed, and
call for two states for two peoples.
This has been accepted by both sides and should be a point of
departure to end the conflict. The focal point of the solution is
to be found in the Palestinians' return to their country the state
of Palestine, without disregarding the possibility of Israel
accepting some refugees.
President Clinton proposed two formulations to solve any problems
1. Both sides recognize Palestinian refugees' right to return to
'historic Palestine', or:
2. Both sides recognize Palestinian refugees' right to return to
Under his method for implementing resolution 194, refugees would
return to the following areas:
1. Areas in Israel being transferred to Palestine in the land
2. The state of Palestine.
3. A host country.
4. A third country.
President Clinton was cognisant of Israel's and other countries'
right to absorb the refugees according to their own polices and
laws. He also reaffirmed that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip
would be completely open to all Palestinian refugees, and that
Israel would declare, within the agreement, its intent to lay down
policies for absorbing some refugees within the boundaries of
Israeli sovereignty. In addition, Clinton demarcated the priorities
for dealing with the refugee problem in Lebanon. Finally, both
parties would declare that they have implemented resolution
Clinton had previously coordinated his stands with the Israeli
delegation headed by Barak, thus he expected the Israelis, who had
accepted the document before it was presented to the Palestinians,
to declare their acceptance. He also expected the Israelis, when
facing the media, to declare their reservation to some items,
providing leeway for political haggling and making some issues more
palatable to Israeli society.
The Palestinians accepted President Clinton's suggestions, but a
series of reservations connected to the refugee issues were
attached to their approval. They explained, in their reply to the
US, that they had adopted the Israeli reading of resolution 194.
They also mentioned that the resolution stipulates the refugees'
return to their homes wherever they are and not their "country" or
"historical Palestine". The memorandum affirmed that "recognizing
the Right of Return and providing the refugees with a choice is a
pre-requisite for terminating the conflict."
The memorandum presented a positive stance, as it declared that the
Palestinians would think creatively and flexibly about mechanisms
for implementing the Right of Return, clearly indicating that there
was no intention to return the 4 million refugees to areas within
Israel (i.e. the Green Line). It also expressed regret that
President Clinton did not refer to compensation or consider that
previous negotiations had reached a stage where Israeli offers were
more advanced than the American proposal.
The Taba Negotiations in January 2001
At Taba, there was an exchange of unofficial papers between the two
parties, which was considered a good basis for discussion. It was
suggested that a just solution to the refugee issue should comply
with Security Council resolution 242, which would lead to
implementing resolution 194.
Both narratives were presented and the parties had almost reached
an understanding. However, when negotiation over the details began,
the Israelis once again suggested the Clinton parameters while the
Palestinian response did not differ from the gist of the memorandum
presented to President Clinton. The Israelis also presented, in an
unofficial manner, a plan ranging over 15 years and including 3
tracks. The first track proposed the absorption of a quantity of
refugees within Israel during the first three years but without
specifying numbers (in the unofficial paper 25,000 was suggested,
40,000 was mentioned orally). The second track dealt with absorbing
the refugees within Israeli lands that would be exchanged with the
Palestinians. The third track included the issue of family
reunification. The Palestinians did not suggest any figures,
insisting that Israel should start presenting its offers.
Both parties accepted the establishment of an international
committee for compensation. They agreed upon establishing an
international 'trust fund' to deal with all dimensions of
compensation, some mechanisms for its implementation and
estimations of its size. The Israelis demanded that the
Palestinians recognize the compensation due to the Jewish refugees
from Arab countries, alongside Israel's recognition that it is not
the Palestinians' responsibility. The Palestinians' response was
that this issue was not part of the Palestinian-Israeli
negotiations. At the end of these negotiations, the Palestinians
suggested returning the refugees' possessions and the Israelis
refused to discuss this issue.
It is evident from the above-mentioned positions that at Taba a
certain degree of progress had been reached over the future of the
Palestinian refugees. It is not at all true that the negotiations
fell through, as claimed by some, due to the rigid Palestinian
stance. I believe that the door was opened for a solution, although
I cannot say a 'just solution', and that the Palestinians showed
great flexibility in dealing with this dilemma, which could open up
prospects for serious negotiations that are not influenced by
narrow electoral interests on both sides.
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Negotiation: How to End the Middle East Peace Process", Foreign
Peters, Joel. 1998. The Question of Palestinian refugees and
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Rabah, Ramzi. 1996. Palestinian Refugee, Displacement and Final
Status Negotiation. Beirut: Arab Press House.
Tamari, Salim. 1996. Return, Resettlement and Repatriation: The
Future of Palestinian Refugees in Peace Negotiations.
Washington : Institute for Palestine Studies.
Zureik, Elia. 1995. Palestinian Refugees and the Peace
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