The Future of Palestinian Refugees in the Peace Negotiations
Little has changed in the debate over the predicament of Palestine refugees in the span of half a century of dispossession, since the Conciliation Commission for Palestine, established by the U.N. General Assembly, began its delibera¬tions with the Lausanne Consultations in May 1949. The themes which were then the problems of repatriation, resettlement, social and economic rehabili¬tation of refugees, assessment of lost Arab property in Israel, and the reunion of broken families,! are still the central concerns surrounding the refugee meet¬ings that were generated by the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991.
Nevertheless, the establishment of the Refugee Working Group (RWG) in the Arab-Israeli multilateral peace negotiations in 1992, and the Continuing Committee for Displaced Persons in March of 1995 - although ostensibly addressing the same issues raised in Lausanne - occur in drastically changed circumstances, the old issues having been cast in a new light.
Uppermost is the recasting of the status of the Palestinians as a people whose cause has now become not exclusively an Arab and Islamic one as it was in the aftermath of the 1948 war, but an international cause with con¬crete territorial claim to a land and (for most) sovereignty. In addition, the Palestinian refugee issue is now recast not as an exclusively humanitarian issue as it was in the 1940s, but as part of a conception of restoring the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people.
Secondly, the issue of solving the problem of refugees is fast becoming part of the new dichotomy within Palestinian politics between the contin¬gencies of state building, and the demands of the diaspora for representa¬tion and repatriation. Returning refugees are dealt with not primarily as the culmination of decades of yearning and dream fulfillment, but as part of a series of compromises between the absorptive capacities of the Palestinian economy and the ability of the Palestinian negotiators to wrest concessions from Israeli bureaucratic and political objections to their repatriation.
Thirdly, the issue of refugees is encountering formidable forms of resis¬tance from Israeli decision-makers. While the Israelis seem to be embark¬ing on new realization that the Palestinian state, with 1967 boundaries, is an inevitable outcome of the negotiations, they are singling the return of refugees to a barrage of ideological and political objections, both at the public level in the press and media, and at a more direct level in the nego¬tiations over displaced persons. The return of Palestinian refugees is now being portrayed as a security issue within Israel, and as a prelude to a sub¬tle scheme of undermining the Jewish character of the state, even when it entails the return of refugees to the areas under Palestinian control only.
That these objections are being raised now, with such heightened inten¬sity, is precisely because the possibility and probability of return are part of the modalities of the negotiations, both in the DOP and in the delibera¬tions of the Quadripartite Committee for Displaced Persons.

Final Status Resolution?

The distinction made in the Madrid Peace Conference between bilateral negotiations and regional (multilateral) negotiations was meant to create complementarity between the practical concrete problems that only Israel and the Arab parties can negotiate directly, and those global issues that outside interested parties can contribute to, or benefit from. In an essay on the multilaterals Joel Peters made the following interpretation.
The Palestinians, being the weaker party, viewed this distinction different¬ly. They saw in the multilaterals an arena where they could compensate for their limited options on the ground by seeking alliances in bilateral nego¬tiations with Israel. Confined as they were with the negotiating tasks of the transitional period, the Palestinians insisted that an element of final status issues be added. They saw in the introduction of the RWG a "political" dimension not available in the other four groups [environment, water, eco¬nomic development, and disarmament]. It was "political" in a double sense:
It sent a signal to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon that they were not forgotten in the protracted negotiations of the transitional peri¬od. This would give a much-needed legitimacy to the impending signing of an Israeli-Palestinian accord, which was bound to be seen as too conciliatory by Palestinians in the diaspora if a refugee component was missing from it.
It also introduced an element of final status negotiations to supplement the negotiations over displaced persons which was bound to dominate talks over refugees.

Shift in the Terms of Debate

With the onset of the Oslo Accords and the convening of the Committee on Displaced Persons (QPCDP), the terms of debate on refugees began to shift. The most tangible effect of this shift was the marginalization of the multilateral committee on refugees. The year 1995 was the first in the peace negotiations when no meeting for the refugee group was scheduled.
Within the Arab world, the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty signalled an era of normalization in which collective Arab pressure on Israel on the issue of refugees receded. By its very nature the Quadripartite Committee excluded the Europeans, the Arab states, and the North Americans, in effect transforming the refugee issue into a regional context.
The Israeli press began to treat the talks on displaced persons as if they were the talks on refugees themselves, with a warning that acceptance of repatriation for 1967 refugees signalled a prelude for the return of 1948 refugees. Shlomo Gazit, now appointed as a special advisor to the multi¬lateral talks, expressed the view that the Israeli delegation to the bilateral talks should insist that an Israeli condition for redeployment in favor of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) should include the "liquidation of the refugee question inside the Gaza Strip, the abolition of the formal sta¬tus of refugees, the removal of UNRWA from the district and suspension of aid to UNRWA, and the dismantling of refugee camps and the removal of their population to permanent housing schemes."3
At the heart of the debate over modalities of admission of displaced per¬sons is the degree of control to be exercised by the PNA over the issues of border crossings and the granting of residency permits to returning Palestinians from their exile. Israeli negotiators claim, though not official¬ly, that these controls would be relaxed from the Israeli side once they were assured that security matters were under control in PNA territories, and once economic growth in the Palestinian economy allowed for higher absorption of expatriates. The Palestinians have insisted that this latter
point should be an internal matter for the PNA, and that Israelis had no right, under the guise of security considerations, to control the number of Palestinians to be admitted.

Strategic Options in Negotiations over Refugees

Of the three final status issues slated for bilateral negotiations in May 1996, the question of refugees has received the least attention in terms of strate¬gic vision. In many ways it is also one of the hardest to resolve given Israeli intransigence on this issue, and Palestinian inability to impose any condi¬tions on their protagonists. By contrast, the issues of Jerusalem and settle¬ments have had a considerable number of futurist scenarios and even a modicum of agreement. No such debate has surrounded the issue of refugees, and yet the legitimacy of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the eyes of the Palestinian diaspora rests to a large extent on the ability of the PNA to ensure the return of expatriate Palestinians to their country.
As final status negotiations draw nearer, the following issues are likely to dominate the debate over the future of refugees:

1. Refugees and Displaced Persons - Linkages between Bilateral and Multilateral Issues:
More accurately, this linkage is related to the manner in which agreements made in the current negotiations over the fate of 1967 displaced persons are likely to affect final status negotiations over 1948 refugees. There are cur¬rently over one million displaced persons, if those who lost their residency as a result of Israeli administrative measures were to be included among them, and over 2.5 million 1948 refugees and their descendants. But there is a great degree of overlap here since at least 30 percent of displaced per¬sons are second-time refugees from the 1948 war.
Obviously not all of these refugees will relocate to Palestine even if the opportunity were available. A number of factors will determine this likeli¬hood, including quotas of return agreed upon, the absorptive capacity of the Palestinian economy, and the attractiveness of the new regime in compari¬son to the relative security or insecurity of Palestinians in the host countries.
In the transitional period (lasting five years from the signing of the DOP in 1993), it would be to the advantage of the Palestinians to separate.the issue of displaced persons from that of 1948 refugees on the following grounds:
First, to preempt claims that the settlement of displaced persons in the West Bank and Gaza is part of a final package that precludes their further claims on rights inside Israel. This is particularly relevant to the status of displaced persons who are also 1948 refugees.
Second, since the issue of displaced persons is discussed in the context of the Quadripartite Committee, which is a purely Arab-Israeli committee, Palestinians would benefit greatly from the participation of the interna¬tional community (in particular, U.N. organizations) if the multilaterals continued to debate the status of 1948 refugees.
Third, the Committee of Displaced Persons has been discussing the status of people who lost their residency but who are technically neither refugees nor "displaced persons." These include deportees and citizens who lost their permanent identity cards. It would overload the work of the final status negotiations if these categories of people were transferred to their committee.
Nevertheless, there is a certain degree of linkage that is bound to merge the work of the two sets of negotiations. Those include the manner in which the earlier returnees are absorbed, procedures for applications for return, and claims for compensation made by 1967 and 1948 refugees.

2. Jerusalem and the Refugee Negotiations:
The status of Jerusalem was inadvertently linked to the refugee issue as a result of several moves on the part of the Israeli government and the Jerusalem Municipal Council that were seen as preempting final status negotiations.
First was the attempt to restrict the conditions of residency of Jerusalem Palestinians who lived outside municipal zones Gune 1995) by withdraw¬ing access to health and national insurance services for Jerusalemites who cannot establish actual residence within the city boundaries. Family reuni¬fication schemes which are available to West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, limited as they are, are virtually denied to Jerusalem Arabs.
This was followed by a campaign to close down Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem that were described as affiliated with the PNA. In reaction to this campaign to shut Palestinian institutions, Faisal Husseini reminded an Israeli audience on May 25th, 1995 that 70 percent of West Jerusalem prop¬erty belonged to Palestinian Arab refugees from Talbieh, Lifta, Qatamoun, Baq'a, and other suburbs and villages that later formed the bulk of Israeli West Jerusalem.4 In the 1967 census it was found that about 10,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem (16 percent of the population then) were born in the Western part of the city.s With their descendants, they constitute today over a quarter of the population of Arab Jerusalem. Today Palestinian Jerusalemites are treated as absentees as far as their West Jerusalem property is concerned, while Jews who have property in the eastern part are allowed to, and often establish rights, to their pre-1948 property.6
In negotiating issues of residency rights and family reunification, East Jerusalem should be seen as a regional extension of the West Bank. In negoti¬ating the modalities of admission of displaced persons, East Jerusalem should have equal status to the repatriation of its refugees from the war of 1967.
Palestinian properties and material losses in West Jerusalem, part of the corpus separatum in the partition plan, should be raised as Israeli Jews are making claims (and appropriating) properties in Silwan, Atarot (Qalandia) and the Jewish Quarter or the Old City. The Palestine Conciliation Commission has already established the aggregate inventory of these claims.
The right of return to lost homes and properties in West Jerusalem should be raised on par with Jewish claims (and actual movement) to homes and properties in Palestinian Jerusalem.
Jewish settlement in Palestinian Jerusalem (Ramat Eshkol, Ramot, Neve Ya'acov) should be treated in the same manner as the status of Israeli colo¬nial settlement in the West Bank and Gaza.

3. Final Status Claims: Compensation or Return?
This is a false dichotomy which is often raised in the course of negotiations. It is clear from the protocols of the Conciliation Commission Report that two modes of compensation are proposed, one for returning refugees, and one for non-returning refugees? The Palestinians have taken a principled but static position on the question of return. In the multilateral negotiations the Palestinian delegation has always reiterated General Assembly Resolution 194 as the basis for all political solutions to the refugee problem. The Israelis have in turn been systematic in their rejection of any mention of Resolution 194 or the inclusion of any other specific resolution in the summary statements. For the first time since the adoption of Resolution 194, the United States has, in 1995, withheld its annual commitment to it. What does this mean?
As final status negotiations loom on the horizon (in May 1996), immense diplomatic pressure will start building on the Palestinians to give up their insistence on the right of return. The Israelis in their turn have made it clear that they will not support any categorical "right of return" for the Palestinians - either to Israel itself or to the West Bank and Gaza.8 It is inconceivable that any Palestinian authority can yield to such pressure and retain its legitimacy in the eyes of its constituents, or - significantly - by exiled Palestinians in the diaspora. On the other hand, it is clear that the Palestinian negotiators cannot simply go to the final status talks armed only with abstract UN resolutions. Concessions at the practical level are bound to happen if at least some justice is to be realized for 1948 refugees.

This article is excerpted from a forthcoming monograph to be published by the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington.


1. For a detailed review of the work of the UN Conciliation Commission, see Rony Gabbay, A Political Study of the Arab-Jewish Conflict: The Arab Refugee Problem, (Paris: Librairies Minard), 1959, pp. 237-312.
2. Joel Peters, Building Bridges: The Arab-Israeli Multilateral Ta I ks (London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs), 1994.
3. Shlomo Gazit,. The Palestinian Refugee Problem (Tel Aviv: The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies), 1995.
4. AI-Quds, May 25,1995.
5. Meron Benvenisti. "Solving the Problem of Arab Property in West Jerusalem through Compensating Citizens as Part of a Permanent Settlement," Ha'aretz, June 1,1995.
6. Ibid.
7. "Compensation to Returning Refugees," memo prepared by the Legal Advisor to the Economic Survey Mission, November 1949, UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine, The Question of Compensation, AI AC.25/w.81/Rev 2, 2 October, 1961. 8. Gazit,op. cit.