27 April 2000


The United Nations and Palestine Refugees

DR. HUSSEIN HASSOUNA, Permanent Observer of the League of Arab States to the United Nations, New York, stated that the international community has been lately preoccupied with refugee crises in Africa, Kosovo and East Timor but has always considered the Palestine refugee problem a special case of particular importance.  The international community decided not to include the Palestine refugees in the mandate of the UNHCR, but to create a special agency – UNRWA.  Also, they were excluded from the 1951 Refugee Convention.  The rights of the Palestine refugees were recognized in Resolution 194 and numerous subsequent resolutions. Although considered recommendations, their repeated adoption endows them with considerable political, legal and moral weight.  Their legal and political authority was further reinforced by Security Council resolution 242.

Resolution 194 also recognizes the refugees’ right to compensation for their property, in case they chose not to return. A number of precedents exist: in the former Axis and Axis occupied countries laws were adopted for the restitution or compensation to Nazi victims, including damage to their possessions and property.  The same principle has been applied to former Jewish assets in Swiss banks. The value of Palestinian property can be determined from the information of the UNCCP.  Mr. Hassouna stated that the solution of the Palestinian refugees problem is a main component of any comprehensive settlement of the Middle East conflict and must be based on the following principles in order to be acceptable and lasting: the right of return, the right to compensation for dislocation and lost property, the principle of non-refoulement, the prohibition on mass expulsion, the illegality of forced population transfers, the concept of state responsibility. The UN has a permanent responsibility towards the Palestinian refugees. Any settlement of the 1948 Palestinian refugees’ problem (as distinct from the problem of displaced Palestinians in 1967), must be in implementation of resolution 194. The right of return consists of the right of individuals to return to their original 1948 homes and not merely to the new Palestinian state.  Israel should acknowledge its historical responsibility for the problem of the Palestine refugees.

MR. LIONEL BRISSON, Director of Operations, Representative of the Commissioner-General of UNRWA stated that on 1 May 2000 UNRWA will mark fifty years of field operations. Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, UNRWA was established by Resolution 302(IV). At the outset, UNRWA focussed on direct relief operations.  Later, UNRWA began to deliver basic education and health services, training and income-generation initiatives, and to support the development of community-based services. In 1950, there were some 900,000 registered Palestine refugees, compared to some 3.7 million now. UNRWA has 22,000 staff and some 900 facilities. The UNRWA-UNESCO education programme accounts for more than half of its budget. Around half a million children are enrolled in UNRWA’s 647 schools. Education is free and gender parity is maintained. In cooperation with WHO, UNRWA offers primary healthcare through a network of 122 outpatient facilities. The Agency’s Relief and Social Services programme supports more than 2000,000 Palestine refugees unable to meet their own basic needs. UNRWA’s Income-Generation Programme aims to create sustainable job opportunities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through the provision of loans.

UNRWA has a symbolic meaning for the Palestine refugees, who view the Agency as the tangible expression of the international community’s support. UNRWA supports the peace process: following Oslo, it introduced the Peace Implementation Programme aimed at making the results of the peace process felt at local level. UNRWA operations are financed almost entirely by voluntary contributions from governments and the European Union. The budget for 2000 is US$360 million. However, the Agency continues to face a critical financial situation. UNRWA continues to offer a source of stability in a turbulent region. Its ability to deliver services will depend in large part on the financial and political support it receives.

MR. MUSTAPHA DJEMALI, Director of the Regional Bureau for Central Asia, South-West Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, UNHCR, stated that in the aftermath of the Second World War, the international community acknowledged the needs of the refugees by establishing UNHCR in 1949. Palestine refugees were meant to be of concern of another agency – UNRWA, which was set up also in 1949. The UNHCR Statute excludes persons receiving assistance from UNRWA. Palestine refugees outside of UNRWA’s area of operations may be considered by UNHCR as coming within its mandate. Such Palestinians are also covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention.

UNHCR has legally assisted Palestine refugees who find themselves outside UNRWA’s area of operations with the authorities of countries of asylum. In countries signatory of the 1951 Convention, UNHCR has systematically provided legal assistance and advisory role for Palestinians who sought protection there.  The High Commissioner issued in September 1995 a joint-statement with UNRWA Commissioner General in the aftermath of the forced movement of a group of Palestinians to the No Man’s Land between two countries in the region.

UNHCR’s position is that voluntary repatriation remains the preferred solution in any refugee situations. UNHCR has repatriated more than 35 million refugees back to their countries of origin in Africa, Asia, Latin America and recently in Europe. In UNHCR’s perspective, any refugee repatriation’s viability hinges upon its voluntary character. It should be implemented under conditions of safety of the returnees.  Such a voluntary return should be sustainable, otherwise, returnees may become IDPs. All parties concerned must agree upon the repatriation.

MS. LAURA REANDA, former United Nations official, consultant, New York, stated that the Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) composed of France, Turkey and USA is the only organ dealing with the Palestine question which has been continuously in existence since 1948. The scope of its activities at one point encompassed the major political, legal and economic aspects of the issue. The Commission’s approach to resolving the refugee question was based on the following provisions: 1. The principle of the right of the refugees to exercise a free choice between returning to their homes and being compensated for the loss of or damage to their property and on the other hand of not returning to their homes and being adequately compensated for the property abandoned. 2. That the refugees choosing not to return to their homes would be entitled to resettlement elsewhere. 3. That the question of compensation was an integral part of the solution to the refugee problem.

Israel insisted that the real solution lay in the refugees’ resettlement in Arab States. Arab delegations were unanimous in demanding acceptance of the right of return of the refugees as a sine qua non for peace negotiations. The UNCCP’s active political role was eventually suspended by General Assembly resolution 512 (VI) of 26 January 1952, which placed the primary responsibility for reaching a settlement on the Governments concerned.

The UNCCP developed a number of guiding principles for a possible compensation scheme, primarily that compensation should be paid to individuals and not Governments, and should be handled through the Commission or another international body. Two sets of estimates were prepared for immovable and movable property.  The total value of abandoned land was estimated at about LP 100 million.  With regard to movable property, the total value was approximately LP 20 million. These estimates were strongly criticized by the Arab parties and the refugee representatives.

Recently, however, attention has focused again on the subsequent programme of identification and valuation of refugee properties carried out by the UNCCP in the 1950s and 1960s.  In 1996, the General Assembly requested the Secretary-General to preserve and modernize the existing records. This project is now nearing completion.

MR. YOSSI KATZ, Member of The Israeli Knesset (Labour Party), Tel Aviv, stated that his political positions reflects his personal view and is even the minority opinion within the Labour Party.

Mr. Katz said that the majority Israeli position rejects the right of return of refugees to their homes in Israel.  Extremists reject even the right of return to the West Bank. Israel argues that the Arabs caused the Palestinian refugee, by rejecting the UN Partition Plan of 1947 and by attacking Israel in 1948. Israelis believe that the return of Palestinian refugees will undermine the Jewish character, the viability and stability of the Jewish State.  Return to Israel would call into the question ownership of homes, villages and other properties. Israel must therefore avoid significantly enlarging the non-Jewish demographic component of Israel. Israelis claim that the statistics and figures of UNRWA on the refugees are grossly exaggerated.  Israelis criticize the fact that in Syria some 300,000 and in Lebanon 350,000 refugees have been stateless for many years.  Israel may not deny the right of Palestinian refugees to fair compensation but would like to link this issue to Jewish refugee compensation claims in Arab countries.

He indicated that some compromise solutions could be put forward: 1.Israel acknowledges that it shares practical responsibility, together, with other parties to the process that culminated in the 1948 war, for the plight and suffering of the refugees and that rectification of that plight by all parties is a central goal of the Arab-Israeli peace process. 2. Israel also accepts the right of return to the Palestinian State. 3. Israel will absorb 100,000 refugees in the framework of reunification or in any other basis which will be agreed by the parties. 4. Israel will cooperate in organizing an international support for a collective compensation for the loss of property and suffering of the Palestinian refugees and for the recovering and reconstruction of the refugees. 5. In case there will be an individual compensation of Arab refugees, there will be also a parallel act with regard to Jews who left their homes and property in the Arab countries.

MR. TERRY REMPEL, Coordinator of research, BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, Jerusalem said that the demise of the UNCCP was precipitated by several factors: 1. Historical circumstances – Israeli opposition to repatriation. 2. The decision to de-link compensation from repatriation. 3. The role of member states of the Commission which brought their own interests to play. 4. The internal contradictions within the UNCCP mandate.  This contradiction was evident in the debate of the draft resolution as a clash between the broad mandate as defined in paragraphs 4 to 6 and the special guidelines as defined in paragraph 11.

The success of UNCCP in relation to its broad mandate depended on its ability to bring the parties together around a broad common agenda.  The success of the Commission in relation to the guidelines depended on the ability of the Commission to convince Israel to accept very specific provisions to which it was adamantly opposed.  During its first year, though, some progress was achieved as efforts were made to determine numbers of refugees, place of origin, previous occupations, means of subsistence, and methods to determine refugee preferences. The subsequent General Assembly resolution 394 establishing the Refugee Office authorized it to deal primarily with compensation. In other words, the protection function of UNCCP was reduced to the lowest possible common denominator. Unfortunately, the Oslo process does not provide for an international agency at the negotiations to represent the specific rights, choices and interests of Palestine refugees.

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