The refugee problem is one of the oldest unsettled issues in
contemporary history. It is highly complex, emotional and even
explosive. For almost five decades, the refugee problem was
overshadowed by Arab-Israeli wars over territorial and political
issues. Now, with the peace negotiations underway, the question of
the refugees has emerged as an integral part of the multilateral
talks. Different scenarios have been offered by the parties
concerned on how best to resolve this problem, yet many hurdles lie
in the path of a just and satisfactory solution. Several pertinent
points have been raised in dealing with the refugee problem:
1. An analysis of the absorptive capacity of the West Bank and Gaza
and of the socioeconomic and other implications of a large influx
of Palestinians from outside these areas.
2. Assessments of the future transfer of UNRWA functions to the
Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
3. Consideration of questions regarding naturalizations,
integration, reset¬tlement and the long-term residency of
Palestinians in their current coun¬tries of asylum.
4. Assessment of the relative costs of various options for
resolving the refugee problem, including considerations of the
compensation issues and formulae for burden-sharing.
5. The question of family reunification.
6. Jerusalem and the refugee negotiations.
The Historical Evolution of the Palestinian Refugee Problem
A. The Principle of Right of Return
A major dimension of the negotiations on refugees is the issue of
right of return for the Palestinians. The Palestinian and Arab
position is rooted in the fact that U.N. Resolution 194 constitutes
the basis for a just solution to the refugee problem. An
individual's right to return to his/her native country is an
integral part of that individual's fundamental rights. In cases
where people have been forced to leave their countries because of
war and hostilities, the right of return is unquestionable. A
notable exception is the case of the Palestinian people who were
expelled from their country to seek refuge in adjacent Arab lands
and were denied the right of return on polit¬ical grounds. It
is important to note that the right of return for
is organically tied to the national right of self-determination, a
principle that is guaranteed by a variety of international
For almost two decades, from 1953-1973, the Palestinian question
was essentially treated as a "refugee problem." However, in 1974,
the U.N. General Assembly unequivocally acknowledged the
Palestinians' right to self-determination in compliance with the
U.N. Charter, and reaffirmed their inalienable right of return.
This basic human right is at the core of the current Middle East
problem. Without a fair and equitable solution to the refugee
problem, the Middle East will suffer from continued political
B. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
The context of the right of return is explicitly spelled out in
Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which
1. Everyone has a right to freedom of movement and residence within
the borders of each state.
2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including one's
own, and to return to it.
3. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and
It is evident from the above that the Palestinian people and
refugees have been denied these rights, which gives the refugee
issue a universal and humanitarian dimension.
C. The Commission on Human Rights
The draft principles contained in the Commission's mandate read as
1. Everyone is entitled, without distinction of any kind, such as
race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion,
national or social origin, property, birth, marriage or other
status, to return to her /his country.
2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter
his/her own country.
3. No one shall be denied to right to return to his/her own country
on the ground that s/he has no passport or other travel
In legal terms, these principles confirm the inherent right of
return as an acknowledged norm of international law, recognized by
the civilized nation¬-states.
D. The Partition Resolution and Subsequent U.N.
The Partition Resolution, Resolution 181 (II) of November 29, 1947,
which called for the establishment of both a Jewish and an Arab
state in Palestine, did not refer to any right of return. However,
the right of return was endorsed and ratified by the U.N. General
Assembly in 1948. Indeed, the U.N. established the right of return
of Palestinians in Resolution 194 (III), based on a draft
resolution presented by Great Britain to the General Assembly on
December 11, 1948 (see p. 121).
This resolution established the Conciliation Commission for
Palestine, instructing it to "facilitate the repatriation,
resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees
and the payment of compensation." The element of compensation is
the core of the right of return, which was interpreted in the
provision of paragraph 11 of Resolution 194 (III) by the
Conciliation Commission for Palestine. This resolution, which was
drafted five decades ago, has been reiterated by the General
Assembly in every ses¬sion since then, with a "note of deep
regret that repatriation or compensa¬tion of the refugees as
provided for in paragraph 11 of General Assembly Resolution 194
(III) has not been effected."
In the wake of the 1967 war, several U.N. resolutions have called
for the return of the Palestine refugees. Israel was required to
undertake obliga¬tions to cooperate in the return of the
second wave of Palestinian refugees to their homes. On June 14,
1967, the General Assembly endorsed Resolution 237 according to
... essential and inalienable human rights should be respected even
dur¬ing the vicissitudes of war ... [and which also called]
... upon the gov¬ernment of Israel ... to facilitate the
return of those inhabitants who have fled the areas since the
outbreak of hostilities ...
Resolution 242 of November 11, 1967, called for "achieving a just
settle¬ment of the refugee problem." The Assembly explicitly
called upon Israel to "take effective and immediate steps for the
return without delay of those inhabitants who had fled the areas
since the outbreak of hostilities."
Similarly, in 1970, the Assembly recognized that ... "respect for
the rights of the Palestinians is an indispensable element in the
establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle
And, in 1973, the Assembly endorsed the right of return of the
Palestinian people, tracing it directly to Resolution 194
E. The Committee on Palestinian Rights
In 1975, the General Assembly established the Committee on the
Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. The
Committee submit¬ted its report in May 1976, which stated the
... to implement the right of return, a two-phase program was
proposed. In the first phase, the Palestinians displaced in 1967
should be allowed to return to the territories which have been
under Israeli military occu¬pation since 1967.
It called for "the designation or creation of a competent agency to
beentrusted with the organizational and logistical aspects of the
mass return of displaced Palestinians; the creation and financing
of a fund for that purpose; and the registration of displaced
Palestinians other than those already registered with UNRWA."
The Committee's report was endorsed by the General Assembly in
November 1976, and in December 1977. Thus, on both occasions, the
Assembly reendorsed the right of return of the Palestinian
So far, however, the U.N. has not been successful in securing
Israel's acknowledgment of the right of return for the
Resolving the Palestinian refugee problem is imperative for a
durable peace in the Middle East. Several academic studies on the
question of Palestinian refugees have been published by serious
scholars from different angles and perspectives; many others are
underway. However, on the issue of com¬pensation, the figures
published by economists and other scholars in the field are highly
controversial. Several observations and solutions have been put
forward by scholars in the field of refugees and demography.
Henry Cattan, for example, identifies three existing guiding
1. Application of justice and international law;
2. Implementation of relevant U.N. resolutions; and
3. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Furthermore, he believes that the following solutions are
appropriate for a final settlement of the problem:
2. Repatriation of the refugees to Palestine;
3. Repatriation of the refugees originating in the area of the
4. Restitution of property;
5. Annulment of other measures taken by Israel as the occupying
6. Indemnification of refugees; and
Jacques Cuenod identified certain variables that can influence the
solution to a refugee problem, among which are the following:
1. The attitude of the refugees themselves;
2. The attitude and policy of the country of first asylum;
3. The attitude and policy of resettlement countries;
4. The attitude and policy of the country of origin; and
5. The "hidden forces."
According to Cuenod, resettlement with compensation is the most
suitable and realistic option.
As for the Palestinian refugees' attitude, it can be summarized as
fol¬lows: 31.6 percent are for the total liberation of
Palestine; 48.3 percent are for an independent Palestinian state;
8.6 percent are for compensation.
However, unless Israel is willing to cooperate in the search for a
just solu¬tion to the refugee problem, resolutions and studies
alike will remain in the realm of the academic, and the chances for
a permanent peace in the Middle East will be shattered. It is,
therefore, urgent that this issue be given greater priority, and it
is to be hoped that joint efforts by the parties concerned can
proffer practical and acceptable solutions to such an enduring
Henry Cattan, Solution of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (Vienna,
International Progress Organization), 1982.
Jacques Cuenod, "Refugees: Development or Relief," Refugees and
International Relations, eds., Loesher and Monahan, (NY, Oxford
University Press), 1989.
Economic and Social Council Resolution. U.N., 1988, (LIV) of 18 May
"The Right of Return of the Palestinian People," United Nations
Publications, ST /SG/SER.F/2, New York, 1978.