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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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),
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.
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.