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
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
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
Whether they come back or not? Whether they are here or
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
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
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
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
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
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
Is it being exploited? Are a lot of people taking up Palestinian
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
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
Not even Jerusalemites?
Jerusalem Palestinians are not allowed to apply for Palestinian
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.