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The Declaration of Principles (DOP), signed by Israel and the PLO in Washington in 1993, allows for a discussion of the Palestinian refugee issue on two levels. The 1967 refugees are being discussed now through a quadripartite committee composed of the Palestinians, Egyptians, Israelis and Jordanians. The 1948 refugees are supposed to be discussed during the final status talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, i.e., after Palestinian elections are held and Israeli forces are withdrawn from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). There are serious problems on both levels.
After meeting for close to four years, the Refugee Working Group (RWG), one of the five multilateral working groups set up under the aus¬pices of the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference, is able to show precious little by way of concrete results with regard to family reunification, not to mention tackling the larger issue of the right of return. This is due, in large measure, to Israel's position which initially opposed this group's agenda and proceeded to boycott its first two meetings.

Israeli Approaches

Throughout its history, Israel has adopted three interrelated approaches to the refugee issue. First, pretending indecisiveness and temporizing when called upon to respond to proposals bearing upon the return of Palestine refugees, in particular the application of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (III), which calls for allowing the return of Palestine refugees to their homeland and payment of compensation for those not wishing to go back. Second, creating facts on the ground which Israel used to confront external pressure from the international community and at the same time to nullify any decisions not to its liking. This strategy, which is a continuation of the Zionist movement's approach since the pre-1948 peri¬od to the Palestine question generally, remains the most enduring feature of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. Third, adopting bureaucratic procedures which obfuscate, if not complicate, the discussion of the issue and impede the implementation of any agreed-upon procedure.
Underpinning these features are three arguments regularly used by Israel. The first is the argument of security extensively used to justify bar¬ring the return of the refugees to both Israel and the OPT. The second is the old argument of demography, which Israel has always invoked to justify the prevention of Palestine refugees returning to their 1948 homes on the ground that this would threaten the Jewish character of the state. The third is the legal argument Israel and its supporters use to contend that the right of return, as stipulated in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (III), does not apply to the Palestinian case.
Except for an offer made by Israel in 1948, under pressure from the U.S.A. to take back 100,000 of the 1948 refugees, no such overtures have been made by Israel since then. The offer, at the time, was rejected by the Arabs for its low ceiling and subsequently withdrawn by Israel. For near¬ly 50 years, Israel has consistently refused even to deal with the 1948 refugee issue except in the context of an overall settlement of the Arab-Israeli con¬flict, which it knew full well was a distant objective at that time. It is thus not surprising to find that Israel has succeeded in placing the 1948 refugee issue at the bottom of the OOP agenda, leaving it to the final status talks.
As for the payment of any compensation to the 1948 refugees, Israel has linked its acquiescence to various conditions. For example, in 1949-1950, Israel claimed that the payment of compensation should not be calculated individually, but on a global basis, with a lump sum of money to be raised internationally and administered by an international organization in order to resettle the refugees in the host countries. This remains Israel's position to this day. Later on, by the middle of the 1950s, Israel linked compensa¬tion to the end of the Arab boycott, conclusion of comprehensive peace with the Arab governments, and compensation for Jews from Arab coun¬tries who settled in Israel. As we all know now, and knew then, these were remote possibilities at the time and they were used by Israel as a pretext for creating facts on the ground through confiscation of Palestinian property and the bringing in of new immigrants. This pattern continues even now, though Israel has signed a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and its relationship with many Arab countries is on the way to normalization.
A favorite Israeli negotiating tactic is to obfuscate the issue by segment¬ing the Palestinian refugees into numerous categories, and then subjecting them to conflicting bureaucratic criteria, in order to hamper their return. The following categories have been used by the Israelis, implicitly and explicitly, in their dealings with the refugee issue.

Categories of Refugees

First, there are the 1948 refugees about whose number there is disagree¬ment. Israel is unlikely to allow their return to any part of the so-called Green Line. From Israel's point of view, United Nations Resolution 194 (III), pertaining to the return of these refugees, is null and void. Israel based its arguments on the fact that the Madrid Conference was not convened under United Nations auspices. The preamble referred only to Resolutions 242 and 338 pertaining to the 1967 and 1973 wars, respectively.
A second category is the 1967 refugees, which Israel calls "displaced" persons. Here again there is a serious controversy about their number. The Palestinians estimate there are now close to 800,000 such refugees, while Israel officially refers to 200,000. (In addition to adopting a lower figure for the 1967 refugees to begin with, it would seem Israel excludes refugee descendants, second-time refugees and refugees from Jerusalem and Gaza.)
Regarding the 1967 refugees, these are further divided into three main categories, in terms of who qualifies for readmission under the family reunification scheme, the only basis on which Israel has, so far, admitted a limited number of displaced people as a result of the 1967 war. In this con¬text, it should be mentioned that only members of the immediate nuclear family are considered by Israel as eligible to apply for reunification. Indeed, a major point of contention during the multilateral negotiations of the RWG centered around the definition of the family. The Israelis contend that by family they mean solely the nuclear family, that is to say husband, wife and children, knowing full well that in Arab society the family implies much more than this, for it includes members of the extended family. It is worth noting that the Israeli definition of family reunification as it applies to its own Jewish immigrants under the Israeli Law of Return includes not only the nuclear family, but grandparents and grandchildren, in other words extending the definition over three generations.
A second category is those who are admitted at the discretion of the Israeli authorities. Finally, there is a third major category. The so-called "late comers," most of whom are in Jordan and whose number is esti¬mated at between 80,000 to 120,000. These are people who lost their resi¬dency permits because of technical reasons such as being outside the ter¬ritories in 1967 when the war broke out, or those who exceeded their peri¬od of stay outside the territories on account of work, study, etc., without periodic renewal of their permit, and were prevented from returning to their homes…
According to Palestinian sources, from 1967-1987, 85,163 applications for family reunion were presented by the Palestinians to the Israeli author¬ities, 12,814 of which (i.e., 15 percent) were approved by Israel; and between 1987 and 1989, 3,266 applications for family reunification were submitted, of which 695 (i.e., 20 percent) were approved. Between 1968 and 1994, Israeli sources note a much larger figure of around 88,000 peo¬ple who were allowed into the West Bank on a humanitarian basis under the family reunification scheme. Excluding the 20,000 which were admitted as members of the Palestinian police force and their dependents, most of whom went to Gaza, in all likelihood, the figure includes the 14,000 Israel admitted back immediately after the 1967 war between June and August 31, 1967, and an additional 2,000 to 3,000 which were admitted between September 1967 and June 30,1968.
If, however, we accept this figure of 88,000 and pro-rate it over a 25¬year period, then Israel allowed, on the average, 3,500 people to return per year. If this is the rate with which Israel intends to operate, then it may take 50 years to allow the return of the minimum number of 200,000 dis¬placed people according to Israeli calculations, and more than a century to absorb the estimated Arab figure of 800,000. Since August 1994, as a result of discussions in the multilateral negotiations, Israel promised to entertain the return of 2,000 cases per year. So far, it claims it has admitted close to 80 percent of this number, which amounts to around 6,000 persons. If cal¬culations are made on the basis of 6,000 per year, then it would take 30 years to bring back the original 200,000 refugees which Israel purports to be the number of displaced Palestinians in 1967. In the absence of clear monitoring procedures and transparency of the procedures of refugee admission, it is difficult to verify the progress of these admissions, which are minuscule by any standards. However, this helps give an idea about the nature of the problems the refugee issue is likely to encounter in the com¬ing months of negotiations.

Conflicting Positions

As for the 1948 refugees, whose fate according to the Oslo agreement is supposed to be dealt with in the final status talks, there are no indications that Israel is prepared to allow the return of any Palestine refugee from 1948 to Israel proper. There is off-the-record talk that under certain condi¬tions, Israel may allow the return of between 50,000-75,000 refugees (a very small percentage of the close to 2.7 million Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA, United Nations Relief and Works Agency), for symbolic reasons to placate international public opinion. However, this remains a remote possibility, for allowing the return of some minute number of refugees is construed by Israel as an admission of guilt regarding their exo¬dus in 1948 for which, officially, Israel is responsible. Some analysts, such as Shlomo Gazit, suggest that as a final gesture of ending the century-long conflict with the Palestinians, Israel should agree to either issue a statement or be party to an international body, such as the General Assembly at the United Nations, which would pass a resolution to replace Resolution 194 (III) to acknowledge the human suffering of the Palestine refugees. This, however, is not supposed to be considered as an admission of culpability, the intent being merely to address the psychological and moral aspects of the refugee issue.
In other words, in the best of circumstances the Israeli position is unlike¬ly to represent anything remotely close to the Palestinian position, or even that of other Arabs. At the end of the day, Israel will allow several thou¬sand Palestine refugees from the 1967 war to return by stretching their entry over a protracted period of time. Israel will focus primarily on the residents of the territories prior to 1967 and not those who were refugees from 1948 and found themselves second-time refugees as a result of the 1967 war, nor those who left the territories during the interim period for visits, marriage, work, study or any other reason.
While the Palestinians, supported by other governments, continue to refer to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 (III), as of December 1993, the Americans, and before them the Israelis all along, have treated this res¬olution as irrelevant to the settling of the refugee issue in the current frame¬work of the peace talks. In an interview in the newspaper Ha'aretz in July, 1994, Yossi Beilin, then Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, referred to Resolution 194 as only "symbolically significant," for Israel and also for the Arabs, including the Palestinians. In other words, the main task now is how to dress up, or better dress down, Resolution 194 (III) in order to dilute it, and eventually remove it from the U.N. record.
The Palestinian position so far has been characterized by political, eco¬nomic and organizational weaknesses, as well as lack of coordination with other Arab governments, and the absence of concrete and comprehensive plans to absorb returning refugees, whether of 1948 or 1967. An honest and open debate on the refugee issue within the Palestine refugee communities is imperative. This should involve a free, independent plebiscite to determine how many refugees would actually want to exercise their right of return and how many would want to remain where they are provided their safety and fair treatment in their new environment are assured. At minimum, the Palestinian National Authority should institute its own law of return and cit¬izenship laws. A failure to resolve the refugee issue satisfactorily guarantees the protraction of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into its second century.

The ideas in this article were originally presented at the United Nations International NGO Meeting/European NGO Symposium on the Question of Palestine, August 29 to September 1, 1995.

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