Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Challenge of the refugees

By Abdel-Azim Hammad

The question of Palestinian refugees is set to capture more of Palestinian and Israeli attention in the forthcoming final-status talks even than the future of Jerusalem and that of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank. While Israel believes that by making concessions on the refugee issue it will be able to secure Arab and Palestinian concessions on Jerusalem, the Palestinians believe that any decision they are able to extract regarding the repatriation or compensation of refugees will be a step towards a final settlement based on internationally recognised principles of legitimacy. This would then allow them to apply the same standards to other issues, including Jerusalem and the settlements.

In the past Israel has made several gestures on the refugee issue, most prominently that of a member of the Israeli Knesset and of the ruling Labour Party who recently urged his government to take moral responsibility for the refugees, permitting the repatriation of some and contributing to the solution of the plight of others. Barak himself has held out the possibility of repatriating certain refugees, not to Israel, but to the Palestinian self-rule areas, in return for which the Palestinians would sign a declaration stating that these refugees would not return to Israeli territory.

Palestinian concern over the refugee issue on the other hand has been expressed in a document on the right to repatriation prepared by Assad Abdel-Rahman, a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO with responsibility for the refugee issue. In the document, Abdel-Rahman aims to refute Israeli charges that the repatriation of Palestinian refugees to territory within Israel's 1948 borders would change the composition of the population of Israel, eradicating its Jewish character.

Barak, for his part, has dismissed the idea that a single Palestinian refugee be allowed to return to Israeli territory, regardless of the fact that such refugees, who number some five million, had either themselves or their families been displaced from land that today is part of Israel. However, in a tactical device aimed at suggesting Israeli compromise and flexibility, he has offered the repatriation of 100-150 thousand refugees to the West Bank. Rejecting the principle of compensation in lieu of repatriation, which was a part of UN General Assembly Resolution No.194 of 1948 on the issue, Barak seems to be responding to a growing concern among the Israeli intelligentsia about Israel's role in creating the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees in a bid to exonerate Israel in the eyes of the international community. At the same time, he hopes to realise certain political gains, such as extracting additional concessions from the Palestinians on Jerusalem and the settlements without giving anything of substance in return.

However, there are other parties involved, and the United States' position is crucial on the refugees issue, both Palestinians and Israelis having invested Washington with the right to propose initiatives to bring the two positions closer and to narrow gaps at the negotiating table.

The US position on the refugee question is in theory based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which recognises the right of Palestinian refugees to repatriation or compensation. However, at a press conference held in Washington last July by US President Bill Clinton and President Hosni Mubarak, Clinton modified US support for the right to return, saying that it could take place only if Israeli or Palestinian communities on the West Bank and Gaza were able to accommodate the returning refugees.

At first glance, such a condition would seem to relate to economics and the ability of local communities to accommodate an influx of refugees. However, behind this stands an American desire to maintain the present composition of Israel, and this opens a loophole in the American position through which Barak may be able to find a way forward. This being so, it is imperative for Palestinian negotiators and their Arab or non-Arab supporters to understand the American position on the refugee issue.

One early attempt to solve the refugee problem took place under US President John Kennedy in 1962. Kennedy had adopted an overall proposal for the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict that recognised the right of Palestinian refugees to choose between repatriation and compensation. He was assassinated, however, before such a proposal could be openly discussed. In any case, neither Palestinians nor Israelis were prepared for peaceful settlement at that time.

The 1967 War brought the idea of peaceful settlement once more to the fore, and William Rogers, then US secretary of state, presented an initiative for a comprehensive settlement of the conflict to President Richard Nixon in 1969. This provided for the settlement of the refugee problem on the basis of General Assembly Resolution 194, but it failed to go into detail, and Israel rejected the initiative. This was followed by an attempt by President Jimmy Carter's administration to settle the refugee issue in 1976, which again invoked General Assembly Resolution 194 as a basis for negotiation.

In the light of these efforts, it would be a major setback for Arab diplomacy were the Clinton administration, or its successor, allowed to circumvent Resolution 194 -- especially as Clinton found it difficult openly to renege on US commitments to Palestinian refugees during his joint press conference with Mubarak.

This American legacy of support for the Arab and Palestinian stance on the refugee issue is not the only advantage available to Palestinian negotiators. More than any other issue slated for discussion during the final-status talks, the refugee issue has undergone changes favourable to the Palestinians. Among these has been the emergence of a new generation of historians in Israel who have devoted their efforts to showing that the forced migration of Palestinians in the late 1940s took place at the hands either of the British Mandate Government or at the hands of armed Jewish militias. This shift in Israeli perceptions has caused the Israeli government to alter official accounts of the refugee question in history books taught in Israeli schools.

A second shift in favour of the right of Palestinian refugees to repatriation or compensation has come in the wake of the international community's strong stance against forced eviction or ethnic cleansing after the massacres in Bosnia, Herzegovnia and Kosovo, as well as after those in East Timor and Burundi.

The loophole created by President Clinton at his joint press conference with President Mubarak is therefore an issue that must be urgently addressed. While economic problems in accommodating returning refugees are not insurmountable, any alteration to the composition of its population would represent a grave problem for Israel, and this is why Abdel-Rahman's research is of such importance.

The document divides Israel into three regions, the first consisting of eight per cent of Israel's total area and being home to 68 per cent of its Jewish population, the second covering seven per cent of Israel's area and home to 10 per cent of its Jewish population, and the third consisting of 80 per cent of the total area of Israel and accommodating only 154,000 Jews. This third region had earlier been earmarked for partition and is the area from which the greater part of Palestinians were displaced. In general, the figures show that 78 per cent of Israel's Jewish population live on only 15 per cent of the land.

Were the refugees to return, Abdel-Rahman's document suggests, the population density would increase by one per cent in the first region, by six per cent in the second, and by 17 per cent in the third region, all of which means that the population composition in Israel as a whole would not undergo a radical change.

The likely problem with Abdel-Rahman'a analysis, however, is that Israel does not consider the repatriation of refugees as being isolated from the Palestinian population on the West Bank or in Gaza. Were repatriation to go ahead, the number of Arabs in Historical Palestine as a whole would be nearly equal to the number of Jews.

Therefore in negotiations, the Palestinians should not insist too heavily on the right to repatriation, but should also make compensation part of any final package. In line with this, observers have recently noted a change in the Palestinian Authority's (PA) official discourse on refugees, shifting from an "insistence" on the right to return, to simply "welcoming" it -- something that was noticeable in Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's statement on the issue before Arab foreign ministers last September.

This would seem to mean that the PA itself no longer considers the repatriation of all refugees to be tenable, and has settled instead for the repatriation of some and the compensation of others. The challenge for the Palestinians now is likely to be ensuring that Israel does not try to limit repatriation to the West Bank and Gaza only, but includes the area within Israel's 1948 borders, as well as ensuring that repatriation take place in sufficiently large numbers for it to be more than a merely symbolic return.

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