The Palestinian refugee problem began in 1948 when about 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from and/or fled their country as a result of the establishment of the State of Israel on an area of over more than 70 percent of Palestine. Registered refugees and their dependants today number around three million, one-third of whom are still living in harsh physical conditions in camps (UNRWA Report, 1996).

International Attempts at a Solution

The first attempt to solve the Palestinian refugee problem was General Assembly Resolution 194(11) of 1948, which states that:
... The refugees willing to return to their homes and live in 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, and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Government or authorities responsible.

This resolution was never implemented, as it was rejected by the Israeli government.
In 1959, the General Assembly sent Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold to the Middle East to seek a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. Realizing that the Israelis would not permit the return of refugees, he offered a second approach to the solution of their problem. In his report (mid-1959), he recommended that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) concentrate on rehabilitating the refugees, and help them integrate and resettle in the Arab countries where they had sought refuge. This proposal also failed because, as Adelman (1988) states, UNRWA neglected the political dimension of the refugee problem according to Resolution 302 of 1949 which states that:

Continued assistance for the relief of the Palestinian refugees is necessary to prevent conditions of starvation and distress among them and to further conditions of peace and stability, and that constructive measures should be undertaken at an early date with a view to the termination of international assistance for relief.

Naturally, the proposal did not satisfy the refugees' political aspirations.
A comparison of resolutions 194(11) and 302 in 1949 point to a clear retreat by the international community regarding the solution of the Palestinian refugee problem. The first (Resolution 194) demanded that the refugees be allowed to return or be compensated for lost property should they choose not to return. The second resolution (302) ignores those two recommendations (return and compensation) and, instead, asks for continued material assistance "to prevent conditions of starvation and to further conditions of peace." The material aid was not able to eliminate the harsh economic conditions in the camps, nor was it able to prepare the area for peace.
In the wake of the 1967 war, there was a third attempt at a solution by the international community. That year the Security Council approved Resolution 242 which affirmed the need to achieve a "just settlement of the refugee problem." This resolution became the cornerstone of almost every subsequent peace initiative in the Middle East (McDowall, 1989: pp. 48-53). It was reiterated after the 1973 war, when the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 338, calling for the immediate implementation of the requirements of Resolution 242.
Although resolutions 242 and 338 were used in subsequent peace talks as the basis for the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Camp David Accords in 1978 called for self-rule for the Palestinians, without any mention of the Palestinian refugee problem. Later, in 1991, the Madrid Conference reaffirmed the concept of Palestinian self-rule as stated in the invitation statement of the United States and the former U.S.S.R. (the cosponsors of that conference).
The retreat in dealing with the Palestinian refugee issue has become increasingly pronounced over the years. For example, the earlier resolutions - 194 and 302 in 1949 - affirmed the need to achieve a just solution to the refugee problem, albeit without specifying the nature of the solution or defining the identity of the refugees. The retreat was more apparent in the Camp David summit and the Madrid peace conference as neither mentions the refugee problem, but, instead, recommends self-rule for the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Finally, in the Declaration of Principles (OOP) between Israel and the PLO in 1993, the refugee issue was taken up in articles V(3) and 12 of which deal with the refugees of 1948 and the displaced of the 1967 war, respectively. In the first instance, Article V(3) states that the refugee issue, together with other sensitive issues, such as the status of Jerusalem and the settlements, would be discussed during permanent-status negotiations, originally scheduled to begin in mid-1996. Article 12 stipulates that a committee consisting of Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian delegations should be formed to discuss the methods and ways by which those who fled during the 1967 war would be allowed to return. It should be noted that the committee has not yet reached a consensus on the definition of those refugees.
To the minds of Palestinians, the deferral of the refugee issue to the last stage of the Middle East peace negotiations begs the question whether such a delay stems from the significance and complexity of the issue, or whether it is an attempt to relegate it to oblivion. So far, evidence points to the fact that solutions by the international community, as well as Israeli policy, seek to deny the refugees their right of return or compensation. For the refugees themselves, their problem is still alive. How do they conceptualize its solution and how far do they trust in the peace process that started with the Oslo agreement in 1993?
For this purpose, research was carried out in 1996 in the refugee camps of Balata and Fara'a, both in Nablus in the West Bank and considered representative of other refugee camps in the occupied territories. Two methods were used for the collection of data: in-depth interviews and survey questionnaires. This strategy enabled the researcher to rely on such data to obtain a certain uniformity of the refugees' feelings, thoughts, and behavior. The in-depth interviews used key interviewees from different age groups: from the older generation (60+), i.e., those who have experienced both the 1948 and 1967 wars; and the younger generations (20-30), i.e., those who were born in refugee camps after those two wars. The older generation was made up of traditionalist elements and the younger belonged to factions from across the political spectrum categorizing the refugee camp population: mainstream (Fateh); religious (Hamas, Islamic Jihad); and the leftist (PFLP, communists). The survey questionnaire used a sample of five percent of heads of households in the two camps.

The Traditionalists and the Peace Process

Two traditionalist interviewees from Fara'a camp, both 70 years old, who came originally from villages inside Israel, Dawayima and al-Teeneh respectively, held conflicting views. The first expressed readiness to accept compensation for his 100 dunums of land because "the peace process will be imposed in this area, and I cannot stand miserable conditions anymore. Do you think I am happy to accept compensation? It breaks my heart. I would prefer to live in a tent in my place of origin than to live in a castle anywhere else." The second believed selling land to foreigners went against Islamic beliefs: "The Crusaders stayed on this land more than 100 years, but, in the end, they were defeated."
The third traditionalist is Abu Sabri from Balata camp. He comes originally from Arab al-Sawalma inside Israel. His was a more cynical assessment of the situation: "The refugees will get nothing from the peace process because the main aim of the process is to accomplish stability in the region for the benefit of the great imperialist powers. Our rights are neglected. The Palestinian Authority will never achieve full authority because it lacks the necessary power."
Abu Sabri trusts neither the peace process as a method for obtaining his rights or improving his living conditions, nor the Palestinian Authority because he believes it would always be dependent on external powers. He was highly critical of compensation as a method for solving the refugee problem:

Those who are going to accept compensation have no property in Palestine, so their acceptance will not solve the problem. Land owners fall into two categories: landlords who owned large expanses of land will never be compensated by Israel or the international body, because of the huge sums of money that would be involved; the second category, owners of 100-500 dunums, will face two difficulties should they accept compensation; namely, an underestimation of their properties which will not enable them to rebuild their future and that of their families, and the risk of having to pay refunds to their respective Arab host countries.

Abu Sabri's painful conclusion can be summarized in his statement: "Those who raised the olive branch had no land in Palestine, while those who own land will raise the olive branch only when they return to their own lands and homes."

The Youth and the Peace Process

The youth represent second- or even third- generation refugees who were born in camps. One religious key respondent, a member of Hamas who wished to remain anonymous, believes that "the peace process has become a reality in the region, so we have to live with it even though we do not agree with it. Until now, the economic benefits of the peace process, since the Palestinian Authority entered Gaza and the West Bank, have been negative. In fact, the peace process has had no positive effect on the refugee issue."
In spite of the bitterness, this interviewee shows clear political awareness in his acceptance of the peace process as a reality and in his role as a member of an opposition faction. Nonetheless, given the harsh conditions in refugee camps, an important question arises about the nature of the role the opposition will play. How peaceful will it be if the peace process did not satisfy the minimal demands of some refugees?
Indeed, this was the view of the leftist interviewee for whom all the peace agreements did not satisfy the basic needs of the Palestinian people.

Politically, the Palestinians cannot achieve the freedom and sovereignty to which they aspire. Economically, conditions are deteriorating ... The only realistic solution to the refugee problem is fair compensation, but how can I forget our 300 dunums? I accept compensation as a transitional stage because our housing and economic conditions are very bad. The final solution should deal with the question of land and it is going to be difficult to forget it.

This interviewee disapproved of the methods used in the peace process and expected an uprising against the Palestinian Authority if the living conditions of the refugees did not improve. Compensation is only a transitional stage along the road to a negotiated solution. Such pessimism could be a clear indication of his despair stemming from the bad economic conditions and the perception that the peace process neglected the refugee problem. The important fact is his belief that "land is difficult to forget." The refugees may have become reconciled to the peace process, hoping that it would be instrumental in alleviating their harsh economic conditions as a first step; however, they show serious concern regarding their right of return, which Israel still denies them.
The Fateh key respondent, Abdul Mun'im, is the leader of Fateh in the camp. Although a member of the Palestinian Authority, he was quite vocal in his criticism because the refugees' living conditions have not improved, nor have their aspirations been met, in spite of their active participation and sacrifices in the struggle against Israel and the occupation, especially during the Intifada.
Abdul Mu'nim proposes a two-stage solution: the improvement of the refugees' untenable economic and housing conditions and then the return of land, which he views as the fulfillment of the will of God.
The same note of despair was echoed by another key respondent from the "control branch" of Fateh, Marshud, for whom

the peace process has not achieved anything for the refugees. They are restless and anxious. They feel that their problem has been neglected. Those who are ready to accept compensation are the most economically depressed people who also despair of a peaceful solution. The refugees are waiting in silence, but inside there is anger and an eruption could occur any time once they realize that a just solution to their problem is unreachable.

The interviews above are but a sample of the responses obtained, but through them run certain commonalities: nostalgia for home is strong in all cases, in addition to other dimensions, mainly religious beliefs, economic factors, mistrust of Arab leaders and, of course, the land. Clearly, irrespective of their political affiliation or age, the refugees share feelings of skepticism, despair and suspicion of the peace process which they viewed as catering to U.S. interests in the region and that they will not benefit from it. As for the question of return, although religious respondents rejected any compromise, leftists and non-religious were willing to contemplate a staged solution: compensation for the improvement of living conditions and an immediate relief of misery, then the return to their places of origin. So far, the peace process has not achieved any benefits for the refugees on any level. It is expected that their predicament will unite them, in spite of their different political allegiances (Gellner, 1983, p. 73).
The following two tables attempt to quantify the refugees' attitudes toward the peace process.
Generally, it was felt that outside powers determined the circumstances of the refugees' lives. The refugees see the Palestinian role as negligible. It is U.S. support for Israel in the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council and Israeli intransigence which the refugees feel played a significant role in preventing a solution to their predicament from being reached.
The above findings coincide with those of the in-depth interviews, which reveal that the refugees have no real faith that the peace process will accomplish any satisfactory results for them; yet, at the same time, a significant trend of readiness for finding a realistic solution emerged through the responses. Around one-fourth of those refugees claimed they were ready to accept compensation and, interestingly, nearly one-half were ready to return home under Israeli rule. The door, of course, remains open for conjecture about the number of refugees who would be willing to choose compensation as an immediate relief to their poverty over the satisfaction of high political or moral demands. Nonetheless, any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will have to take the rights of the refugees and their national aspirations very seriously if it is to be solid and lasting.


1. Adelman, Howard (1988). "Palestinian Refugees, Economic Immigration and Durable Solution." Refugees in the Age of Total War, ed. A. Bramwell. London: Unwin Heineman.
2. Gellner, Ernest (1983). Nations and Nationalism. Oxford: Blackwell.
3. Lauer, Robert H. and Warren H. Handel (1977). Social Psychology: The Theory and Application of Symbolic Inter-Actionism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
4. McDowall, David (1994). The Palestinians: The Road to Nationhood. London: Minority Rights Publications.
5. Secord, Paul and Carl Backman (1964). Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill. United Nations (1996). Report of the Commissioner General, A/51/13. New York: United Nations.