The Palestinian Refugee Problem and the Final Status Negotiations: A Review of Positions
It is pertinent to draw comparisons between the various positions on the refugee problem in order to consider the possibilities for resolving this dilemma, for this is a fundamental issue and could constitute a rock upon which the whole peace process may shatter. However, there are good prospects for reaching compromises. The Palestinian-Israeli disagreements concerning the refugees can be summarized in the following points.

The Refugees' Exodus
The Palestinian viewpoint maintains that the greater majority of refugees were forced out of Palestine, as a result of a previously programed ethnic cleansing procedure, aiming to create geographic continuity in which there would be an absolute Jewish majority. The methods utilized to coerce civilians to flee were bombardment and the execution of several massacres. Word was spread that these massacres had taken place to frighten those who had previously refused to leave into doing so. Many Palestinians were prevented from returning, though they had only left temporarily to escape the terrors of war. However, the Israelis believe that the majority of Palestinians left Palestine of their "own accord" and that there was no previously concocted plan for their expulsion.
Once the reason for the Palestinians' exodus is agreed upon, the culpable party will have to bear responsibility for the expulsion and solve all the resultant problems. The Palestinians lay responsibility for the expulsion on Israel, thus expecting it to provide compensation and allow the refugees to return. Israel, on the other hand, tends to hold the Palestinians and Arabs responsible for the exodus and thus for the creation of the refugee problem. Some enlightened Israelis place responsibility on both sides, but Israel still refuses to accept any moral responsibility. Israel has agreed, at various conferences, to discuss the future of the refugees on the basis that it is part of the international community and that it is ready, as are others, to rehabilitate the refugees within their present place of residence.

The Number of Refugees in 1948
There is a contradiction between the numbers quoted by the three sides connected to this issue (UNRWA, Israel and the Palestinians), the importance being that remuneration depends upon these numbers. Israel has officially stated that the number of refugees in 1948 was 520,000. UNRWA's lists registered 726,000 refugees, while Palestinian estimations of the total figure reach 900,000. The disparity between the totals quoted by the Palestinians and UNRWA stems from the fact that not every refugee was registered on lists used by UNRWA. In addition, UNRWA did not carry out a census of the Palestinians who were outside Palestine for purposes such as study, visits or work, and who were unable to return to Palestine due to the war. The numbers mentioned above also do not include the Palestinians who remained within Israel but became internal refugees1.

The Right of Return
The Palestinians insist that the refugee problem is a national and political issue which constitutes a stark expression of the historical injustice that befell them. Accordingly, they believe that the solution to the problem is not merely connected to their socio-economic standard of living or level of services, even though these are important. However, the Israelis refuse to consider the political dimension and define the problem as one of human suffering that the international community, including Israel, should work to solve. Some Israelis see Israeli responsibility for the solution of the internal refugee problem as its contribution towards resolving the issue. Many Israeli academic theses refuse to consider those who live outside an UNRWA-run refugee camp, as refugees.
This Right of Return is based upon UN General Assembly resolution 194 (December 11, 1948), which includes its recognition as a condition for acceptance of Israel's membership within the UN. Currently 194 is the only one guaranteeing the right of return at an international legal level. It does not contradict any other international resolutions or any bilateral Arab/Israeli or Palestinian/Israeli agreements. Israel has not only recognized the resolution, but has also agreed to place the refugee problem in the final status negotiations. The Palestinians adhere to the Right of Return and insist that the Israelis recognize this right, so a solution to this problem may be sought in the future. However, the Israelis insist on totally refusing the Right of Return since they consider that any admission of this right diminishes the Jewish character of Israel. For the past few years there has been a growing trend to define Israel as a "Jewish state" and to request recognition of this "Jewishness". This persistence indicates the impossibility of reaching a comprehensive solution with the Palestinians. We must not forget that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak frequently cited the Right of Return as an excuse for the failure of Camp David and Taba.

Compensation derives its legal dimension from UN resolution 194, which explicitly stipulates compensation for those who do not wish to exercise their right to return. From a Palestinian point of view, as Israel has prevented the Palestinian refugees from exercizing their right of return, it is doubly indebted to them and should therefore compensate them for utilization of their real-estate and possessions for the whole period of their residence in the Diaspora. Thus it is important to differentiate between the Right of Return and the right to compensation. Compensation, according to the Palestinian standpoint can take various forms, such as compensation for possessions, utilization of possessions, suffering while living in exile, etc. On principle, Israel has agreed to discuss compensation, but the sums it offers are small and it does not count itself solely responsible. In 1990, Israel estimated the worth of Palestinian possessions, including lands and real-estate within Israel at approximately US$1.85 billion. Palestinian estimates range between US$92 billion and US$160 billion.
The Israelis have previously linked compensating Palestinian refugees with compensating Jewish immigrants who moved to Israel from the Arab world. This connection is no longer presented on any serious level.

This contradicts the principle upon which the Palestinian position is built, and there is a quasi-consensus amongst the refugees to refuse rehabilitation. The social infrastructure and services situation within the refugee camps constitutes obvious evidence of refusal of resettlement. It is not Palestinian society which has failed to absorb Palestinian refugees within it or in surrounding Arab countries. Some believe that the refugees themselves are responsible for not improving living conditions in the camps, so that they are not thought of as a substitute home. The Israeli standpoint supports settling the refugees wherever they are living at present, claiming that returning them to Israel would not provide appropriate living conditions, whereas such an environment is available within the host countries, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Refugee Problem in Clinton's Parameters
At Camp David, President Clinton expressed his ideas for solving the Palestinian refugee problem at a meeting held with the Palestinian delegation in the White House in December 2000. He said that for historical reasons it would be difficult for the Palestinian leadership to appear to have relinquished the Right of Return, and that he understood Israel's refusal of the principle of the Palestinian refugees' right to return as a threat to the Jewish nature of the state. His direct words were; "I sense that the differences are more related to formulation and less to what will happen on a practical level. I believe that Israel is prepared to acknowledge the moral and material suffering caused to the Palestinian people as a result of the 1948 War and the need to assist the international community in addressing the problem".
The American president suggested a framework for solving the refugee problem, which included establishing an international committee to implement all aspects of the agreement, such as compensation, resettlement, rehabilitation, etc. Meanwhile, the US would be prepared to lead an international effort to help the refugees. On principle, any solution should be mutually agreed, and call for two states for two peoples.
This has been accepted by both sides and should be a point of departure to end the conflict. The focal point of the solution is to be found in the Palestinians' return to their country the state of Palestine, without disregarding the possibility of Israel accepting some refugees.
President Clinton proposed two formulations to solve any problems of interpretation;
1. Both sides recognize Palestinian refugees' right to return to 'historic Palestine', or:
2. Both sides recognize Palestinian refugees' right to return to their homeland.
Under his method for implementing resolution 194, refugees would return to the following areas:
1. Areas in Israel being transferred to Palestine in the land swap.
2. The state of Palestine.
3. A host country.
4. A third country.
5. Israel.
President Clinton was cognisant of Israel's and other countries' right to absorb the refugees according to their own polices and laws. He also reaffirmed that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would be completely open to all Palestinian refugees, and that Israel would declare, within the agreement, its intent to lay down policies for absorbing some refugees within the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty. In addition, Clinton demarcated the priorities for dealing with the refugee problem in Lebanon. Finally, both parties would declare that they have implemented resolution 194.
Clinton had previously coordinated his stands with the Israeli delegation headed by Barak, thus he expected the Israelis, who had accepted the document before it was presented to the Palestinians, to declare their acceptance. He also expected the Israelis, when facing the media, to declare their reservation to some items, providing leeway for political haggling and making some issues more palatable to Israeli society.
The Palestinians accepted President Clinton's suggestions, but a series of reservations connected to the refugee issues were attached to their approval. They explained, in their reply to the US, that they had adopted the Israeli reading of resolution 194. They also mentioned that the resolution stipulates the refugees' return to their homes wherever they are and not their "country" or "historical Palestine". The memorandum affirmed that "recognizing the Right of Return and providing the refugees with a choice is a pre-requisite for terminating the conflict."
The memorandum presented a positive stance, as it declared that the Palestinians would think creatively and flexibly about mechanisms for implementing the Right of Return, clearly indicating that there was no intention to return the 4 million refugees to areas within Israel (i.e. the Green Line). It also expressed regret that President Clinton did not refer to compensation or consider that previous negotiations had reached a stage where Israeli offers were more advanced than the American proposal.

The Taba Negotiations in January 2001
At Taba, there was an exchange of unofficial papers between the two parties, which was considered a good basis for discussion. It was suggested that a just solution to the refugee issue should comply with Security Council resolution 242, which would lead to implementing resolution 194.
Both narratives were presented and the parties had almost reached an understanding. However, when negotiation over the details began, the Israelis once again suggested the Clinton parameters while the Palestinian response did not differ from the gist of the memorandum presented to President Clinton. The Israelis also presented, in an unofficial manner, a plan ranging over 15 years and including 3 tracks. The first track proposed the absorption of a quantity of refugees within Israel during the first three years but without specifying numbers (in the unofficial paper 25,000 was suggested, 40,000 was mentioned orally). The second track dealt with absorbing the refugees within Israeli lands that would be exchanged with the Palestinians. The third track included the issue of family reunification. The Palestinians did not suggest any figures, insisting that Israel should start presenting its offers.
Both parties accepted the establishment of an international committee for compensation. They agreed upon establishing an international 'trust fund' to deal with all dimensions of compensation, some mechanisms for its implementation and estimations of its size. The Israelis demanded that the Palestinians recognize the compensation due to the Jewish refugees from Arab countries, alongside Israel's recognition that it is not the Palestinians' responsibility. The Palestinians' response was that this issue was not part of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. At the end of these negotiations, the Palestinians suggested returning the refugees' possessions and the Israelis refused to discuss this issue.
It is evident from the above-mentioned positions that at Taba a certain degree of progress had been reached over the future of the Palestinian refugees. It is not at all true that the negotiations fell through, as claimed by some, due to the rigid Palestinian stance. I believe that the door was opened for a solution, although I cannot say a 'just solution', and that the Palestinians showed great flexibility in dealing with this dilemma, which could open up prospects for serious negotiations that are not influenced by narrow electoral interests on both sides.

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