‘The Problem of the Palestinian Refugees Will Be Solved When They Are Assured the Right of Return‘
Palestine-Israel Journal: Since there are conflicting figures, can you tell us how many Palestinian refugees there are today and define the categories?
Salim Tamari: Part of the problem with figures is that there are registered refugees with UNRWA, and that number is about 3.7 million. And there are displaced persons who are also registered, and they are about 1.25 million.
But these two figures are not addable, meaning that more than half of the displaced persons are also 1948 refugees, so there is an overlap. Also, there are another million Palestinians who, as a result of the successive wars, found themselves in other countries and were not subject to UNRWA calculations. They are not technically refugees because they are not registered as such, but they are people who were not able to go back to their homeland.

If you take the two categories together and divide the overlap, how many would you get?
I would say, if you include as refugees people who were in Palestine before 1948 and are unable to go back to their homeland, about five million.

That includes the Jordanians, for example?
It includes the offsprings of people who became refugees in the host countries. Many of them, of course, have citizenship in the host countries, like North America, Europe and Jordan. And there are several thousands in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt also who became naturalized citizens in these countries. But the main Arab country which naturalized Palestinian refugees is Jordan.

Is there a figure of those who will want to come back?
No. There is no such figure because the right of return is a right that need not be exercised. It could mean many things. It could mean people coming back to visit. It could mean people coming back to stay. It could mean people coming back to establish dual nationality. It could mean people coming back to establish residency but who will not reside year-round. So the question is not easy to answer because, if you refer to people who are under compulsion to leave their host countries and who, therefore, once the opportunity arises, will move their households, then that will include the bulk of the camp refugees in Lebanon - about 300,000 people, and it would include several tens of thousands of people from Syria and Jordan.

It wouldn't approach the figure of five million?
I doubt it, because most are people who have left their country and have established new lives, have children, have intermarried and so on. But the right of return, as we understand it, creates the option for all the people to return. There would be no compulsion for them to return. The idea is presumably to give people the choice whether they want to come back or not.

The UN resolution that has addressed itself to the refugee problem is Resolution 194 of December 1948, in which the refugees were given the right to return, the option to return, or if not, to get compensation. Has there been any other resolution confirming this since then, and how has Israel managed to avoid implementing it?
There have been many UN resolutions reaffirming UN Resolution 194. There have been two general resolutions, 242 and 338, Security Council resolutions which call, in the abstract, for a just and equitable resolution of the refugee problem. We interpret this to affirm UN Resolution 194.
But I want to say two things about this. First is that the United States, a few years ago, stopped supporting Resolution 194 because, in its eyes, this would preempt a solution for refugees under the peace agreement. Of course, we Palestinians object to this and we are saying it is not conducive to proper negotiations that the U.S. has stopped supporting Resolution 194.
The other point is that, in our understanding, UN Resolution 194, which calls for the right of return for refugees who want to go back and live at peace with their neighbors, ostensibly meaning the State of Israel - that is, who will live under Israeli laws - does not actually give the choice of return or compensation. My understanding is that compensation is a separate issue from the right of return. Compensation is a right for all refugees who lost property, who require restitution and who suffered because of war. The right of return is independent of this. It applies to every refugee.

Whether they come back or not? Whether they are here or not?
It also applies to people who choose to return to Palestine.

Your understanding of Resolution 194 is not the popular interpretation of return or compensation. It's not either/or.
Compensation is separate. Compensation is the right of people who suffered under war or lost property or who have grievances or who have lost life chances.

Did anything happen in Madrid or Oslo or since then to give any different sort of interpretation?
No. What happened in Madrid is that the multilaterals were established. The nature of the Madrid peace conference is that it separated the process of peace negotiations between the Arab countries and the Palestinians. The Palestinians had interim measures which were codified in Oslo, and they had final-status issues which are being negotiated now. In Madrid, five multilateral committees were established, of which one is a refugee committee which included Israel and the Palestinians, but also many other European countries and, at least, eight or nine Arab countries. The modality of negotiations in the multilaterals was to negotiate the interim conditions of refugees in the host countries and in Palestine without impinging on their final status; in other words, to negotiate other things than their political rights - human, education and health rights.
In Oslo, something else was added. In Oslo, there was a clause that dealt with the modalities of return for displaced persons, derived in toto, almost verbatim, from the Camp David agreement. That clause stipulated that Israel and the Palestinians shall establish a bilateral committee to discuss the modalities of return of people displaced by the 1967 war, which is the million-plus people, half of whom at least are 1948 refugees. This is the difference between Oslo and Madrid.

What about the rest since then?
The rest of the refugee problem is now scheduled to be discussed in final-status negotiations, including the right of return, compensation, citizenship rights and so on.

You say the U.S. has stopped supporting Resolution 194. Has it taken a stand on the refugee issue? Does it now have a different stand?
The U.S. simply stopped voting to support the work of that United Nations committee whose task was to implement the compensatory part of 194. They stopped voting for 194. They cannot vote against it.

But we don't know what their stand is on the refugee issue? That it is negotiable?
The Americans claim they have not changed their position. But in fact, what they are saying is that the final status should be bilaterally negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.

Does the American stand have any effect on the financing of UNRWA?
No, because they continue to support UNRWA at a reduced rate. And I think, despite UNRWA's difficulties, people see it as a caretaker of refugees until a political solution has been achieved.

Is the United States the main financier of UNRWA?
It's one of the main financiers. A lot of the money now is coming from Japan and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia puts in a substantial sum for UNRWA, but also the European Community and the United States. The day-to-day operations of UNRWA are now in Gaza.

Let's talk about Israel. It suggests a solution of resettling the refugees in their host countries. How can it implement that? Because to do that, it is going to impose its solution on the Arab countries, the host countries. Would these countries be willing to resettle the refugees there? We have seen what's been going on in Lebanon, where such a proposal is especially difficult politically.
The Israeli position is that the Palestinian refugees should be resettled in the Arab countries. It's not clear how they think of the future of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but I think they assume that they should be settled there. Our position is that the Palestinian refugees should have the option of return. Israel, of course, is one main country where they should return, especially, for example, those from Lebanon. Most of them left from the northern part of Israel, which is the Galilee. Once they have that option, they can choose whether they want to exercise it to their original homes, to their original countries of residency, or in the host country. They should be given the option. Those who choose not to be repatriated can be naturalized in the host countries or in third countries. This is the Palestinian position. In our view, part of the Palestinian refugees must be given the option of going back to the State of Israel. Israel has no right to ask the Arab host countries to resettle the refugees if it itself does not open the options of the right of return to refugees.

But Israel's position is to settle the refugees in Arab countries. There is a third party involved here, not just Palestinians and Israelis. What about the Arab host countries? What is their position on that issue?
The different host countries do not have the same position. Jordan, for example, has naturalized all refugees, and adopts a position - like Lebanon and Syria - that they should have the right to return. Obviously, exercising the right of return in Lebanon is different from Jordan and different from Syria. Syrian Palestinian refugees have equal rights with Syrian citizens, except for the right to vote. Other than nationality, they have full access to employment. They vote in local elections. They have total freedom of mobility. They can leave the country and come back to it. This is not the case in Lebanon. In Lebanon there's a large number of jobs denied to Palestinians. They are not free to move. They cannot leave the country and come back to it and so on. So in actual practice, although Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have the same political position on the right to return, the practical consequences of the internal laws there governing refugees make a big difference.
To summarize the point, the Arab countries' official position is that the political problem of the Palestinian refugees will be solved when they are assured the right of return. You might say, what if they do not exercise that right? Then I suppose the solution in Jordan, which is naturalization of the refugees, will be one option.

What about the refugees themselves? Do we know what they want? Will they accept whatever comes their way, or do they feel left out? Do they feel let down?
I think many refugees are feeling let down by the Oslo agreement, because it raised their expectations about possible breakthroughs in the ability to go back, at least to the Palestinian Authority parts of Palestine. That was not forthcoming in the Oslo agreement, except for about 80,000 or 90,000 people.

Eighty thousand or 90,000 people went back to the Palestinian Authority from abroad?
Yes, with the PLO, plus a few thousand professionals who did not come with the PLO, but who resettled in Palestine. So many of the refugees in Lebanon, Syria and the Arab diasporas, in general, felt let down by this agreement. I think many of them are cynical about what is likely to happen now.

Would one have expected more Palestinians to go back to the Palestinian Authority? Is there any sort of feeling that the set-up there is not good to absorb refugees?
Economic factors are crucial here in that the absorptive capacity of the Palestinian areas will play a crucial part in how many will go back to it. But remember that going back again means that many Palestinians will have the option of choosing Palestinian nationality. Whether they use that nationality to resettle or use it as a passport makes a difference because it will give them immense mobility.

Is it being exploited? Are a lot of people taking up Palestinian nationality?
They are not allowed to. Palestinian nationality today is not a sovereign act. It's subject to Israeli approval. So only people with Israeli ID cards [in the West Bank and Gaza] can get Palestinian nationality, plus the people who are allowed to travel with the PLO.

So a Palestinian living in Tunis, who was expelled in 1948 and has been living there ever since, can't get a Palestinian passport?
No. The passport has to enter the Israeli computer, and therefore has to be approved by the Israelis.

What is the Israeli policy?
Very, very strict. I mean Israel now allows 2,000 to 3,000 cases a year as family reunification. It has closed the quota for returnees with the PLO, and that's it.
It's only people who were born here who can apply for Palestinian nationality, plus the 2,000 or 3,000 cases a year as family reunification. These are the only people who are allowed to get Palestinian nationality.

Not even Jerusalemites?
Jerusalem Palestinians are not allowed to apply for Palestinian nationality.

Do you think that in the future, when there is an independent Palestinian state, it will have the sovereignty to decide on who comes back, or will it still depend on Israel?
Once there is an independent state, one of the attributes of sovereignty is the nationality act. Then the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian government of the Palestinian state, will have, if it becomes a sovereign state, the right to confer nationality on people who apply for it by its own will, including Palestinians who are not currently living in Palestine.
Now, this has some negative attributes because, in a country like Lebanon, it may be used to expel Palestinians since they will have a nationality. Palestinians in Lebanon are stateless. Once you give them Palestinian citizenship, they may be expelled without these Palestinians being able, for a variety of reasons - including economic ones - to come back to Palestine.
So obviously, at the practical level, such an act of sovereignty has to be negotiated in terms of consequences with the host Arab countries to ensure the safety and future rights of Palestinians who opt and choose to stay in the host countries.

Will a Palestinian state have the required absorptive capacity?
We should separate between the nationality act and absorptive capacity. As I mentioned, when you grant citizenship to a Palestinian refugee, presumably that person will decide whether s/he wants to go back to Palestine or not. It should be separated from the question of absorption, because citizenship would also enhance the mobility of Palestinians. It would allow some of them to establish limited residency or total residency in Palestine. That choice, of course, depends on absorptive capacity. But the granting of citizenship should be separated from absorptive capacity.

If you take absorptive capacity in view of how much land there is, water and so on, do you have any feeling of how many people are going to live there?
No. Absorptive capacity has to do with socioeconomic laws, what kind of economic agreements there will be with Israel and Jordan. It has to do with if we find gas off the shores of Gaza or not. And if we do find it, who will take it? Who will benefit from it?

You think that will be the determining factor as regards to how many will actually move? What you are saying is that it actually is not a question of how many people would like to live in Palestine, but a question of how many people Palestine can absorb economically.
Yes. I think very few Palestinians will come back out of sentimental reasons. Some will, obviously. Also the absorptive capacity has to do with the ability of the country to attract investors. You want to allow Palestinians who are now excluded from a decent living to come back to Palestine, and you want investors to come back so their money will be used for the common cause to absorb others. These are the kinds of modalities we will look for.

The main objection that Israel has to the return of refugees to Palestine, especially within the 1948 borders, is its claim that this would destroy the Jewish character of the State of Israel. It also holds that there was an exchange of population and property in and after 1948, when Palestinians left Israel and Jews left the Arab countries for Israel.
Let me start with the second part. The claim that Israel makes - that there was an exchange of population and property - we do not accept, because we think that Jewish claims in Arab countries is a bilateral issue between Jewish immigrants and the State of Iraq, the State of Egypt, the State of Tunisia, Lebanon, etc. We are not a party to these bilateral claims. Our claims are vis-à-vis the State of Israel, and we refuse to be put in a package with the bilateral Jewish claims to the Arab states.
Remember that these are Jewish and not Israeli claims, because many Egyptian Jews, for example, did not go to Israel. Many Moroccan Jews did not go to Israel. These are Jewish claims vis-à-vis the Arab countries, and we are not party to them. We certainly would have no objection - it might be a good precedent - if the Arab countries welcomed Jewish immigrants and refugees back to the host countries. But this is something bilateral, and we completely reject any kind of equation on population exchange.
The first part, of course, is very volatile. The claim that the return of refugees will destroy the Jewish character of the state has to do with a formula that Israel continues to insist that it is a Jewish state. There are two answers to this. The first one is that Israel must bear responsibility for the expulsion of the Palestinian refugees, and part of this responsibility is to allow a proportion of those to return and compensate the others. Israel refuses to bear responsibility, not for historical reasons, but for practical reasons, because bearing responsibility means they will have to account for them.
The second part of the question is that we assume that not all the refugees will go back to Israel. Many of them will choose to go back to the State of Palestine, and many will have other options. So I think the position that the return of refugees will destroy the state is a false one because it's currently used in an ideological fashion against the return of any refugee, to claim that Israel will "be destroyed" by the return of refugees. Therefore, Israel does not allow any refugees back and refuses to take accountability for what happened in 1948. I think this is the weakness of the Israeli position. Obviously, Israel would have to acclimatize itself to the existence of a large number of Palestinian Arabs within its borders. This is part of a worldwide trend where multiculturalism, binationalism, triple nationalism, is part of the nature of all modern states.

Badil (the Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Issues) in one of their working papers, said that the way they see it, it wouldn't even change the demographic balance in Israel. Would you go along with that, or would you think that was evading the issue?
That's a difficult question to answer because we don't know how many will go back. But if all those who are entitled to, will go back, it will be about 45 percent Arab, 55 percent Jews, so there will be almost parity. It depends what you mean by a Jewish state. Do you mean the state itself is Jewish, or the country is Jewish? When Israelis say that Israel should remain a Jewish state, do they mean the high echelons of government officials should be Jewish, education should be Jewish, or the country should have a Jewish demographic superiority? If by Jewish state they mean that the apparatus of government be Jewish, then we are talking about a country whose population is mixed, but not exclusively or predominantly Jewish. If they mean that the country should be Jewish in demographic terms, then the question is, what measures is the State of Israel likely to take to ensure that the Arab birth rate is restricted? Because we all know that it's much higher than the Jewish rate, and there are limited numbers of Jews who are likely to return. I am insisting on this issue because Israel has a paradoxical position. Israelis refer to demographic superiority, but actually, what they mean in practice is governance. I take the position of those who insist that Israel should become a state of its citizens, like all other states in the world. As Israel becomes a normal state and joins the European Common Market - or attempts to join it - it will have to make adjustments in its laws in this direction. And becoming a state of its citizens does not mean that Jews will become a minority. They will become equal to non-Jews, but continue as a majority in their own state.

What do you think about the indications that there are Palestinian spokespersons who differentiate between the principle of right and what would actually be in terms of returning.
I think the majority of Palestinians would agree, while supporting the right of return, that the right of return of the refugees does not mean actually going back to the immediate concrete houses, but going back to the region they originated in, with the proviso that there be full compensation for their losses in these houses. The idea is not to dismantle existing settlements, but to allow for the coexistence of returnees with Israeli residents in the area where the refugees originated. I assume that, because of cultural reasons, many of the returnees will go back to areas where Arab citizens are living. And since Lebanon is the most pressing case, I think the most equitable situation would be to focus initially on the right of return of Lebanese refugees to the Galilee area where there already is a large Palestinian community, and also to whom they are related by kinship. These are their relatives, so the process of absorption will be much easier.

The question of Palestinian refugees and their property in Jerusalem will soon be raised in final-status negotiations. You studied this issue in your recent book Jerusalem 1948: The Arab Neighborhoods and Their Fate in the War. Could you give us a brief overview of the Jerusalem refugees?
Jerusalem has a certain peculiarity. Refugees from Jerusalem in the main stayed in the vicinity of the Jerusalem area. The huge number of refugees from West Jerusalem remained in the West Bank. Many of them remained in East Jerusalem. And a very substantial number of these have Israeli residency in the greater metropolitan area of Jerusalem. So I think, in the final status, one would want to see that the situation of Jerusalem refugees, like all the refugees but with a particular focus on Jerusalem, be that they have the right to live on the western side of Jerusalem, especially since the Israelis have restored, or more than restored, Jewish property on the East side, and have expanded these Jewish properties to huge areas which previously were not Jewish.
I think it will be very paradoxical if Israel continues to claim Jewish rights on the eastern side of the city without responding to the rights of Palestinian refugees from Jerusalem to go back to Katamon, Talbiyeh, Baka, etc.

Do you have any figures?
Urban refugees, 84,268. The vast majority of them - 53,000 - are in the West Bank; 26,000 are in Jordan. Very few are in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.

How many are in East Jerusalem?
I don't have the figure for that. The total is 84,000. Fifty-three thousand are in the West Bank, so maybe half of them are in East Jerusalem.
These are refugees from the western suburbs, but there are 39 villages whose residents are also refugees, and they number 110,000. Of those, the vast majority - 73,000 - are in Jordan. And 36,000 live in the West Bank.
So basically what we are saying is that most village refugees went to Jordan. Most urban refugees went to the West Bank.

And East Jerusalem.
Yes. West Bank. East Jerusalem. Most of them came here. Talbiyeh, Baka, Katamon came here. Lifta, Deir Yassin went to Jordan. The poor went to Jordan. The upper classes came here.

How do you see a solution to this issue in light of the Israeli position that Jerusalem is "the eternal, united capital of Israel"?
I think the solution for Jerusalem is to have two sovereign powers in Jerusalem, to divide the city administratively without dividing it physically, and to allow people in Jerusalem to have two nationalities, Israeli and Palestinian. This could be a prototype for the future. To create a zone in Jerusalem where you have a municipal administrative structure that deals with the issues of the city, but within Arab areas it will be governed by Palestinian laws, and within Jewish areas it will be governed by Israeli laws.

But those refugees who are in East Jerusalem now will have the right to go to the West side?
I think refugees should have the right to repatriation and compensation. But I would separate that from the issue of administration of the city, which would have an Arab municipal body and a Jewish municipal body and a joint municipal body. Perhaps we can think in terms of dual nationality for Jerusalem people. Of course, we have to decide first where Jerusalem is, where it begins and ends. But I think this does not belong to this conversation.

Are you thinking in terms of a Buber sort of binational idea for Jerusalem where it doesn't matter who is in the majority?
Yes. I think it doesn't matter what the majority is, as long as you have equitable distribution of governing laws and you have freedom of mobility and freedom of access to the city, not only within the city, but to the city. There is nothing novel in these ideas.

Do you have anything to say about the Israelis beginning to understand that the status quo is not viable?
Yes. I think the Israelis use the notion of "the united eternal capital of Israel" in part as negotiating posturing and ideological mobilization to preempt concessions. But deep in their hearts they know they have to make concessions on Jerusalem if we are going to have peace because, unless Jerusalem is shared, there will be no peace. The other side is that a division of the city has always been portrayed as an act of war, and this is used as an excuse not to make any concession in terms of Israeli sovereignty over Arab parts of the city. So you have a double trick where the sentimental attachment of Jews to Jerusalem is being mobilized against recognition of the other party. On the other hand, there is the creation of a false paradigm - which, of course, has historical roots - that Arab administration of the city would mean a division of the city, a physical division of the city. Of course, there has to be an administrative division and some kind of separation, but because of the peculiarity of the city, there will also have to be joint administrative bodies to deal with common concerns - traffic, sewage, zoning and so on.