1. In a previous essay, “Palestinians Can Create Their Own Horizon” (al Quds - Feb. 17, 2022), I argued the case for UNSCOP-2, that is, going to the UN General Assembly to re-establish UNSCOP (the 1947 United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) to develop a fully detailed plan to resolve all of the permanent status issues. This plan would then be put to a referendum of the Palestinian people, approved in that referendum, then signed by the PLO, and deposited with the UN Secretary General, for transmission to the Israeli Government whenever they decide that peace is more important than more land.
In that essay I made only one mention of the refugee issue, saying that the expected boycott by Israel of the UNSCOP Commission has the advantage that it would “enhance the ability of the commission to consider creative solutions’ to the plight of the refugees while respecting Israel's demographic concerns, to use a phrase from Yasser Arafat’s New York Times 2002 op-ed ‘The Palestinian Vision of Peace.’
In this essay, I want to present what that new approach might be. But first let me make a critical point: There is no way that what I am about to propose could emerge from a negotiations process. While I do think, that in the end it will be acceptable to the Israelis because for the first time there will be a proposal on refugees that does not betray the refugees (yet does not cross Israeli redlines), it will be the first proposal that can with credibility offer, not merely a Palestinian signature on a peace agreement, but real peace. Almost everything ever proposed in the negotiations had a built-in instability because there was no step at all towards justice. The Palestinian sense of injustice done during the Nakba will never by fully relieved, because no Israeli government will ever agree to anything remotely close to what Palestinians believe would be required. However there is a world of difference between what the Israelis have offered in previous negotiations and what can be attained with new thinking. But it will not emerge through the negotiations. Rather, it has to be put on the table, fully developed by an outside agent, such as UNSCOP, and then approved by a Palestinian referendum, and then, accepted by Hamas, put to the Israelis as a real solution, and as a peace offer from the Palestinian people themselves.
Secondly, without a power new approach to the refugee issue, there is no reason to be confident that the UNSCOP plan will win the critical Palestinian referendum. However, if the UNSCOP plan offers the most powerful plan on refugees, one that goes as far as possible within the reality of Israel as a Jewish-majority state, one can be confident of approval in a
2. The Village Based Approach to the Refugee Issue
[What follows is an advance excerpt from “The Olive Branch From Palestine: The Palestinian Declaration of Independence and the Path Out of the Current Impasse,” printed by permission of the University of California Press.]
In discussing the refugee issue, the most important distinction to bear in mind, is the difference between the right of return and actual return. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 is the primary basis in international legitimacy for the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. Resolution 194 in its key passage stated:
“the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace
with their neighbors 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.”
In speaking of those “wishing to return” the resolution embraced the idea of refugee choice. It did not explicitly use the concept of “rights” but this has been widely understood to mean that refugees have a right to choose whether to return or not to return.
Of importance, the Resolution spoke of a “return to their homes.” For most of the refugees this means a return to their homes in the hundreds of small villages that dotted Palestine before the 1948 war. In almost all cases not only do those homes no longer exist, the villages themselves no longer exist. As a result of the war, whether because of fear and flight or because of outright expulsion, some 418 villages were depopulated. Then almost all of these 418 villages were bulldozed by Israel. Thus, for most refugees a “return to their homes” must be interpreted as meaning a “return to the places where their homes once stood.” An analysis of the 418 villages shows that only 71 of them were fully built over by Israel. For the most part the village areas, often very small, are today open areas with scattered rubble, often in areas designated as national parks and forests.
If the seven million refugees were allowed to choose whether or not to return, how many might be expected to actually make that choice? How many would actually choose to live in Israel, a Jewish state, rather than to stay where they are, or move to the State of Palestine, or go to other countries such as the United States or to those in Europe, or elsewhere?
No one really knows the answer to that question, and if the refugees were ever given such a choice, much would depend on the specifics involved. The only study of this question of which I am aware was undertaken by Khalil Shikaki in 2002.1 While his specific numbers cannot, in any sense, be viewed as definitive, they are quite interesting.
Refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza were polled with respect to various alternative places of permanent residence. Of those living in Jordan, 5% said they would choose to return and live in Israel. This choice was made by 23% of those in Lebanon, and 13% of those in Gaza and the West Bank. If we assume that those in Syria would choose similar to those in Lebanon, and that those in the rest of the world would choose as did those in Jordan, and then multiply by the current number of refugees in each area, we find that out of 7 million refugees, some 682,000 would choose to actually return to Israel. Roughly speaking, the 2002 study suggests that around 10% of the 7 million, some 700,000 refugees might actually choose to return to live in Israel if all were given the choice, and if compensation plus alternative choices were available.
This is very important, and suggests that in presenting any peace proposal to Israel, some specific number of those who might actually return should be used, rather than any reference to the “right of return” which for Israelis conjures up the image of 7 million refugees flowing into Israel. Palestinian discourse is strongly committed to recognition of Palestinian rights, but the emphasis should not be on a verbalization from Israelis, but on an agreement which make it possible for large numbers to exercise a right of choice.
The Refugee Issue in Negotiations Since 1993
The 1993 Oslo Accord identified the key issues of the conflict that were to be addressed in the permanent status negotiations: Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements, and security arrangements. In the twenty-eight years since the White House signing ceremony, there was serious engagement with these issues in only two periods; the negotiations when Ehud Barak was Prime Minister, most importantly the Taba negotiations in January 2001, which followed the Camp David talks in 2000, and secondly, the negotiations between December 2006 and mid-September 2008, when Ehud Olmert was Prime Minister.
In the course of those negotiations, the gap between the positions of the PLO and the Israeli government narrowed considerably on all permanent status issues, except refugees. On refugees, while the gap was narrowed at Taba, it significantly widened in the Olmert negotiations.
At the Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000, the refugee issue received only limited attention. Israel, unsurprisingly, rejected the idea of a right of return, even in principle, and was prepared to allow the return of only an unspecified, but small, number of returnees, and these only on humanitarian grounds. The Clinton parameters, put forward in December 2000 during the last days of the Clinton Presidency, identified “five possible final homes for the refugees,” but with respect to the most contentious, admission to Israel, Clinton adopted the Israeli position that this would be determined solely by Israel.
The negotiations at Taba began a few weeks later. The U.S. was not present, and the negotiators took a different tack on refugees. Discussions centered on three sub-issues: the actual return of refugees, compensation for the refugees, and a narrative statement that might satisfy the Palestinian insistence that Israel take responsibility for the refugee problem.
On compensation, the idea of an international fund was accepted, but no specific numbers were agreed to. As to a joint narrative, an effort was made, but no agreement could be reached. The most that Israel would agree to was an Israeli expression of regret for the suffering that the refugees underwent, but no acceptance of responsibility for that suffering.
With respect to the actual return of refugees, rather than insisting that this would be left to Israel, as Clinton had proposed, the Taba negotiators sought agreement on a specific number. Regardless of their affirmation of “the right of return” of the refugees, the Palestinian negotiators never sought nor expected Israeli agreement to the actual return of any substantial part of the 6-7 million refugees.
Accounts of the specifics at the Taba negotiations differ somewhat. The report prepared by EU representative Miguel Ángel Moratinos states that there was an Israeli “non-paper” that proposed that 25,000 Palestinian refugees would return over the first three years of a 15 year period. There was no commitment to an additional 25,000 for each of the four remaining three year segments, but if such were the case, the total would have reached 125,000, about 2% of the refugees. This was considerably below what the Palestinians would have accepted. In private conversations, Palestinian negotiators have said that 400,000 (6.6%) would have been “in the ballpark.”2
In the Olmert-Abbas negotiations, the Israeli position shrank to approximately 0%. Abandoning the much larger, even if vaguely defined Israeli proposal at Taba, Olmert proposed that a total of 5,000 refugees return, and he subsequently said that he had been prepared to go to 10,000. There were reports that the Palestinian negotiators had countered with a proposal that 150,000 would return, some 30 times the number Olmert offered.3 Other accounts say that the Palestinians proposed 100,000.4 Despite these reported sharp declines in Palestinian negotiators’ requirements from the Taba level, the Israeli willingness to accept refugees had declined more sharply, and subsequently, Israeli negotiators such as Tzipi Livni asserted that Israel would not accept any returning refugees.
This decline in the Israeli stance to zero returnees was subsequently reflected in the 2014 American effort, led by Secretary of State Kerry, to spell out parameters for permanent status negotiations. Kerry’s proposal spoke of four possible destinations for the refugees, the State of Palestine, their current countries of residence, other countries around that world, and in special humanitarian cases, admission into Israel, which “will be decided upon by Israel, without obligation, at its sole discretion.”5
All of this will not work, not for a peace agreement, and certainly not for attaining a lasting peace. On this most fundamental issue, negotiations not only failed, but going from Taba in 2001 to Olmert in 2008, they moved further from resolution.
Arafat, to his credit, put the matter correctly in a 2002 op-ed which ran in the New York Times, entitled “The Palestinian Vision of Peace.”6 He wrote, “There are those who claim that I am not a partner in peace. In response, I say Israel’s peace partner is, and always has been, the Palestinian people.” Addressing the refugee issue he said:
We understand Israel’s demographic concerns and understand
that the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a right guaranteed
under international law and United Nations Resolution 194, must
be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns.
However, just as we Palestinians must be realistic with respect
to Israel’s demographic desires, Israelis too must be realistic in
understanding that there can be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict if the legitimate rights of these innocent civilians continue
to be ignored.
And he correctly stated the problem “no partnerism” also recognizes, that “Left unresolved, the refugee issue has the potential to undermine any permanent peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis.” But unlike those who reach the “no Palestinian partner” conclusion, Arafat believed the problem could be solved. He called for “creative solutions to the plight of
the refugees while respecting Israel’s demographic concerns,” and it is this reference to “creative solutions” that are sensitive to “Israel’s demographic concerns,” that I have proposed as terms of reference for the UNSCOP-2 Commission.
What Arafat did not see, is that negotiations were not capable of generating such solutions. Today it falls to the Palestinians to put forward those “creative solutions” that both they and most Israelis can accept, and to do so outside negotiations.
Tellingly, Arafat published his “Vision of Peace” article in an American paper, rather than an Israeli one. The focus on the United States and the American audience, rather than the Israeli audience is reminiscent of matters discussed earlier with respect to the problem of having the Palestinian Declaration heard by the Israelis, and Arafat’s lack of interest in my proposal that the PLO address the terrorism issue, in ways the Israelis would hear, prior to issuing the Declaration of Independence. It raises a question about the extent to which he ever fully grasped that just as Israel’s partner is the Palestinian people, the Palestinians’ real partner, if they are to have one, is neither the United States nor the Israeli government, but the Israeli people. At its core, the strategic turn the Palestinians must make is to re-center their efforts on this basic. To the Palestinians this comes easily when raising the cost of the occupation is proposed, but far less so, when overcoming “no partnerism” is the issue.
A village-based approach to the refugee issue
The village-based approach has two components. The first is that the refugee issue must be connected to the question of land swaps. Back in 1992, after Prime Minister Shamir was replaced as Prime Minister by Yitzhak Rabin, Shamir said that his intention was to draw out negotiations for ten years during which time a half million Israelis would settle in the West Bank, preventing a Palestinian state. In the course of negotiations, this “creating facts on the ground” strategy was undercut by the idea of land swaps, whereby 70%-80% of the settlers would not have to be forced to return to Israel because the settlements close to the Green Line could be swapped for land inside the Green Line that would come under Palestinian sovereignty. The exact specifications of these swapped areas remains to be resolved in any future negotiations. Palestinian negotiators have sought to keep the swapped areas as small as possible, and to avoid long fingers of Israeli sovereignty intruding into the West Bank.
On the village-based approach, land swaps would take on a second purpose: transferring to Palestinian sovereignty as many of the 418 villages as might be possible.
In addition to the swapped areas being equal in size, they would also be equal in degree of intrusiveness. If there are Israeli “fingers” going into Palestine, there would be Palestinian “fingers” going into Israel, in order to include more villages. With swaps at roughly 4% of the occupied territory, depending on the extent of agreed mutual intrusiveness, it should be possible for 25-75 villages to come under Palestinian sovereignty. Each of the villages, on average, had in 1948 a population of roughly 900 people, and today is viewed as the area of their homes by about 9,000 refugees. In a few years this will reach 10,000, and for simplicity I will use this number. If we assume that 50 villages are contained in the swapped land, then 500,000 refugees will have the option to choose to return to their homes, which will now be inside Palestine, with the future of those village areas determined by the refugees and the State of Palestine.
The second part of the village-based approach is that for all of the villages that remain inside Israel, let’s assume this is 368 villages (418 minus 50) the refugees from each village would form a village-committee that would have qualified ownership or managerial authority to determine what happens to their village in the future. With respect to the 71 villages that have been built over, this would be quite limited, perhaps only the installation of an historical plaque on which a village narrative would written by the refugees and be placed at the site. But for the remaining 297 villages, the homes of 2,970,000 refugees, substantial ownership rights of each village area would be given to its village committee. Being within Israel, these villages would remain under Israeli sovereignty. Within an overall cap, of perhaps 100,000 permanent residences for all 297 villages, the village committees would decide what would happen in their village.
Perhaps there would be 100 villages in which roughly 150 homes for 1,000 refugees would be built, with the remaining villages having guest houses for short-term refugee visits. Or perhaps it would be decided to divide the 100,000 permanent residence slots evenly among the 297 villages, thus building homes in each village for the return of 337 refugees, about 60-65 homes in each village. Many ideas would emerge, and each committee would make decisions about various degrees of restoration and commemoration depending on the desires of the refugee committee from that village, and negotiations with Israel.
Specifics could include excavating the ruins of the village, restoring cemeteries and mosques, beautification, establishing a guest house for refugee visits or a historical center and so forth. It may even turn out, that most refugees and most village committees will have a preference that new homes not be built in the village areas, but rather that the villages be excavated and preserved as bearing permanent historic witness to the tragedy of the Nakba. This might be terms “the narrative preference” in which it emerges that when given actual control of the village sites, refugees, seeing that return to the agrarian world of 1947 is possible only in the imagination, prefer that villages be a visible narrative of the Nakba, rather than new housing developments. But one way or the other, all of the 4,180,000 refugees connected to the 418 villages, would have the opportunity to re-engage in various ways and make decisions with respect to their home villages. Of these 500,000 would be engaged with villages transferred to Palestine, and 3,680,000 with the villages that remain in Israel.
Beyond the villages, and 100,000 returning to them, I would suggest that a Palestinian peace proposal call for an additional 200,000 actual opportunities to return. This would bring the total number who could return to 300,000. It could be agreed that all of those returning would hold citizenship in Palestine, and would live as permanent residents inside Israel. Thus there would be no impact on Israeli elections.
Moreover, this total number of 300,000 Palestinian refugees returning as permanent residents would be offset by a decline in the number of Palestinian permanent residents currently living in Israel. These are the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, areas that in the peace proposal, (as in the Clinton Parameters and agreed to by Israel at Taba and in the Olmert negotiations) would become part of Palestine. This current population is also around 300,000, so the proposal would result in zero net growth of Palestinian permanent residents inside Israel.
The proposed actual return of 300,000 refugees is a number that, if Shikaki’s data is relevant, may be sufficient to satisfy the choice of whether to return to ten times that number, to 3 million refugees. When this is added to the 500,000 who would have the option of returning to their homes in the 50 swapped villages, this comes to 3,500,000 with a fulfilled choice of whether to return, roughly 50% of the worldwide refugee population.
To sum up what this approach offers:
- 500,000 refugees would have full right of return to the 50 villages swapped to Palestine.
- 100,000 refugees would be allowed to return to their villages inside Israel.
- 200,000 refugees would be allowed to return to other areas in Israel.
- If the 10% choosing to return ratio is assumed, this would mean 3,000,000 refugees would have a fulfilled choice of returning to Israel.
- 4,180,000 refugees would have qualified ownership rights over their villages (368 of which remaining in Israel).
In total, the proposal offers vastly more than anything ever broached in the negotiations, yet poses no demographic threat to Israel.
The compensation issue is enormously complex. It has been an element of every negotiation over the refugee issue, and meaningful levels of compensation for those refugees unable or not choosing to exercise an option to return is a critical part of any solution to the refugee issue. Moreover the higher the level of compensation for those not returning, the lower the percentage choosing to actually return.
Palestinians have claimed compensation for multiple harms, but the most straight-forward claim is simply to be compensated for their property which was taken from them, either directly for those expelled, or indirectly from others who were simply not allowed to return once the 1948 war ended.
The issue cannot be addressed here, but I would offer a simple suggestion: Israel should provide to refugees compensation equal to 1% of Israeli’s present GDP, annually, over a period of 100 years, adjusted upwards for inflation. The starting point, 1% of current GDP, is not an extensive burden, and if it brings peace, it will be more than offset in savings on military expenditures. Israel’s current GDP is roughly $400 billion, thus 1% is around $4 billion. This figure is also roughly what the United States provides in aid to Israel each year. Distributed to 1 – 1.5 million refugee families, this would be about $3,000 a year, enough to make a very substantial impact for most refugees. The proposed 100 year time frame provides the kind of permanence to a family that land ownership once did, and is supportive of “a century of peace.” In total, over a century, $400 billion (in real terms) in compensation would be paid out. Yet with Israeli economic growth, this $4 billion a year, even adjusted upwards for inflation, will be an ever smaller portion of Israeli national income; by year 75, it would be around 1/8 of 1% of GDP.
The other elements of the UN peace proposal would likely be along the lines explored in the Taba negotiations, the Olmert round, and the secret parameters agreed to by Palestinian President Abbas and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, prior to the 2015 Israeli elections. (Herzog was recently sworn in as Israel’s largely ceremonial President).
- Adjusted by land swaps the territory of the State of Palestine would be equal to that which Israel occupied as a result of the 1967 war.
- There would be a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.
- Israel would not have exclusive sovereignty over the historic walled city of inner Jerusalem, and the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif would be jointly administered and also not under exclusive Israeli sovereignty.
- The Palestinian state would be non-militarized, with special provisions to ensure Israeli security.
Finally, to strengthen the appeal of this proposal for the Israelis the Palestinians could offer permanent residence inside the State of Palestine to those Israeli settlers living outside the settlements that would be included in the land swaps. Overall, there are roughly 450,000 settlers living in the West Bank, and if 70% were encompassed within land swaps, then 135,000 remain, around 30,000 families. Some would choose to move back to Israel, some would choose to relocate to settlements covered by the land swaps, and an option of permanent residence, under Palestinian sovereignty, can be offered to the remainder, perhaps no more than 5,000 families, thus avoiding the forced evacuations that characterized Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.
Over the years there has been substantial polling of both Israelis and Palestinians with respect to a peace agreement along these lines (minus the refugee proposal). At times majority support was found on both sides, and if not, then at least solid minority support. On the Palestinian side the greatest issue was that little was offered on the refugee issue. The addition of the refugee proposal just detailed will very significantly increase Palestinian support. If it is presented to the Israeli public after having been approved in a Palestinian referendum and after Hamas has been brought on board in virtue of the referendum, and after the linkage to relations with Iran has been made visible, it will find majority support among Israeli citizens. And coupled with international support, especially from the American people, it will bring forth an Israeli partner, a future Israeli government that also says “YES.”
1 Khalili Shikaki, REFUGEES' PREFERENCES AND BEHAVIOR IN A PALESTINIAN-ISRAELI PERMANENT REFUGEE AGREEMENT, January-June 2003, https://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/493
2 Personal communication to the author, in 2015, from a Palestinian negotiator deeply involved with the refugee issue in the Taba negotiations.
3 https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/palestine-papers-whistleblower-revealed-and-saeberekat- responds
4 Ethan Bronner, “Documents Open a Door on Mideast Peace Talks,” New York Times, Jan. 24, 2011.
5 “Exclusive: Obama’s Detailed Plans for Mideast Peace Revealed – and How Everything Fell Apart,” Amir Tibon, Haaretz, June 8, 2017
6 Yassir Arafat, “The Palestinian Vision of Peace,” The New York Times, February 3, 2020.