26 April 2000


Palestine refugees – the longest-running humanitarian problem in today’s world

MR. SALMAN ABU-SITTA, Researcher and former member of the Palestine National Council, Kuwait, told the conference that the 3.7 million refugees who are registered with UNRWA and the 1.3 million unregistered,   constitute two-thirds of the total of eight million Palestinians and represent the largest, oldest and most politically important group of refugees in the world. General Assembly Resolution 194 enjoys sustained, universal and overwhelming consensus, having been confirmed more than 100 times in the last 50 years.  It affirms the right of refugees to return home, it provides welfare to the refugees until they return, and it creates a mechanism to effect that return: the UNCCP.

It is often said that refugees have the right to return but the country cannot absorb them. This is a misrepresentation of the facts.  Two thirds of the Jews still live in 8 per cent of Israel, or basically in the 1948 neighborhoods. 78 per cent of the Jews live in 14 per cent of Israel. The remaining  86 per cent of Israel, which  is largely the home of the Palestinian refugees, is exploited by  200,000 rural Jews, who hold up any prospects for peace. If the registered refugees in Lebanon (362,000) were to be allowed to return to their homes in Galilee, which even today is predominantly Arab, the Jewish population there will hardly feel the difference. To put the numbers into perspective, the numbers of Russian immigrants, mostly economic and largely non-Jews, are almost the same as those of Lebanon and Gaza refugees combined.

Since 1948, there have been more than 3 dozens schemes to resettle the refugees anywhere in the world except their homes, all devised by pro-Israelis, all failed.  Compensation is often mentioned as a solution.  However, compensation is a not accepted for homes and land – these are not for sale but for restitution.  Compensation is due for material and non-material damages and losses which the refugees have incurred for 50 years, and reparations for war crimes.

MR. DON PERETZ, Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University, New York, stated that the Palestinians and the Arab States consider Israel responsible for the payment of compensation to the refugees who left in 1948. The Israeli Government has disclaimed responsibility for the refugee departure, placing the blame on the Arab leaders. Israel, however, has indicated willingness to discuss the issue in the context of a peace settlement as a humanitarian gesture, not as an obligation by the State of Israel.

He said that a major task is the identification of items to be compensated for.  Sources for identification of former Palestinian Arab assets are diverse. The Israeli government has not published any estimates of the overall value of abandoned property. Available estimates from UNCCP offered a rough calculation of the value of moveable property at  20 million Palestinian pounds (LP). The UNCCP estimated that the total value of abandoned Arab land was about LP 100 million. When the issue of compensation was initially raised, Israel responded with counter claims for Jewish owned property in areas of Palestine held by Jordan, war damage claims, and claims for property of Jews leaving Iraq in the early 1950s. The Sephardi lobby in Israel will continue to exert strong pressures on the Government to take into account their counter-claims.

He noted that the principal difference between the parties over compensation is whether payments should be global or individual. Neither the US nor the UN has taken an official position on this question. To the extent that funding may become available, it will probably be for global compensation in the form of contributions to rehabilitate and resettle the refugees. Given the magnitude of compensation to be paid, the source would have to come from or supplemented from outside the region.

MR. URI AVNERY, journalist, writer, peace activist and Chairperson of Gush Shalom, Tel Aviv, said that he had had first-hand experience on the refugee issue having taken part in the battles of 1948. On the Palestinian side, there is the dream of the return, while on the Israeli side, there is a nightmare that the return will mean the destruction of Israel. A solution that can be accepted by the majority of Israelis must be found. There can be no lasting peace without putting an end to the tragedy of the refugees and this cannot be achieved until the Israeli people accept return as compatible with the spirit and security of the State. The first step towards a solution is that the State of Israel clearly admits its part of the moral responsibility and asks for forgiveness. The admission of responsibility leads to UN resolution 194.

Mr. Avnery proposes that Israel should undertake to bring back an agreed number which can be absorbed psychologically, politically and economically. It will not in the millions, but more than tens of thousands. This is feasible as many refugees have relatives in Israel and others left villages that are still inhabited by Arab citizens. Many refugees can be resettled in the future State of Palestine. If the Palestinians agree to accept them this would strengthen their case to have the settlements evacuated and turn them over to the refugees. Great sums would be required from the international community to compensate the refugees who do not wish to return for their lost property and for the loss of educational and other opportunities. He proposes that an open discussion should be held to demystify the refugee issue, and that an objective scientific body free from political pressure should estimate the number of Palestine refugees, feasibility studies on return should begin, and a joint Israeli-Palestinian information center on the issue should be established.

MS. SUSAN AKRAM, Associate Professor, Boston University School of Law, Boston, said that the Palestine refugees, unlike any other group of refugees, are singled out for exceptional treatment in the international legal instruments dealing with the rights and obligations of states towards refugees. Almost all states and international entities have interpreted those legal instruments as severely restricting the rights of Palestine refugees. Although Palestinian refugees are not specifically mentioned in Article 1D of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, it is evident from the interrelationship of this provision with the Statute of the UNHCR, the regulations governing UNRWA and resolution 194 that this provision is applicable to the Palestinians.

Mrs. Akram said that certain immediate issues should be addressed:

1. An agency or entity fully competent to represent the interests and further the claims of the refugees must be immediately empowered to do so, both in the  context  of  the negotiations and before international and other fora.
2. The alternative scheme of Article 1D must be recognized as affording Palestinian refugees full benefits under the Refugee Convention, including access to the right of asylum and residence in whatever state they find themselves until they can exercise their rights of return, compensation and restitution, in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions.
3. UNHCR must immediately intervene with Israel and with other state signatories to the Refugee Convention in which Palestinian refugees reside to demand the protection of the refugees and prevent further erosion of the refugees’ human rights pending a final resolution of their status. This may include the UNHCR requesting an advisory opinion from the ICJ until there is a fully sovereign entity empowered to raise such claims on the refugees’ behalf.
4. UNHCR or the agency chosen to represent the refugees should draft its own framework for durable solutions based on the appropriate UN resolutions.
5. Refugee communities themselves must become aware of the legal framework available to them in order to accurately access options and possibilities for raising their own claims within and outside the context of negotiations.

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