At the conclusion of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were unable to return to their homes and property within the new state of Israel.
These are perhaps the only facts about the issue of refugees that both Israelis and Palestinians can agree on. While both sides are close to agreement on practical measures to address the needs of Palestinian refugees, the intense emotional and narrative aspects of the issue make it especially difficult to resolve.
To start with, Israelis and Palestinians argue over who is to blame for the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis. Palestinians believe that the refugees were either forced from their homes by Israelis or fled due to fear of assault by Israeli forces, and thus Israel is to blame for the Palestinian refugee crisis.
Israelis argue that most Palestinians left of their own accord or were encouraged to do so by the invading Arab armies who were expecting a quick victory, and thus Israel is not responsible for the creation of the refugee crisis.
The reality is probably somewhere in between, with numerous factors having contributed to the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis.
Another important related question is who are refugees and, in turn, how many are there. The United Nations agency established to handle Palestinian refugees -- UNWRA -- counted 914,221 Palestinian refugees after the end of the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war. Israeli estimates put the number at between 520,000-650,000. A further question is whether a resolution to the refugee issue should address just those original refugees, or should it also include subsequent generations -- which is no minor distinction, since the number has grown to almost 5 million, according to UNWRA's latest estimates, and that is only the number of refugees who have registered with UNWRA.
Of the almost 5 million registered refugees, about 40% live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; About 20% live in Syria and Lebanon, and another 40% live in Jordan. But what about the refugees who live outside of UNWRA's areas of operation? Will they too be included in whatever final arrangement is agreed upon?
These are just some of the questions that will have to be answered in attempting to resolve the Refugee issue.
When the Palestinians come to the negotiating table, they make six key demands regarding refugees. They demand Israeli recognition of responsibility for creating the refugee crisis; an Israeli recognition of a right of all Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to the homes they left in what is now Israel; as well as citizenship, a permanent place of residence, and compensation for all refugees and their descendants. Giving refugees a choice in determining their place of residence is also important for addressing a population that sees itself as having been denied that agency for decades.
Israelis bring their own set of demands to the negotiating table. They refuse to acknowledge responsibility for the creation or perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee crisis, nor are they willing to acknowledge any right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees or their descendants. When it comes to issues of narrative and recognition, Israelis insist that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and homeland of the Jewish people. They also insist that any refugee package be considered an end of claims.
On the two first issues, the two sides appear to have diametrically opposed positions. The first is the recognition of responsibility. For Palestinians, this is a key component of their national narrative and a crucial part of any comprehensive peace deal. For Israelis, a recognition of responsibility would not only undermine their own national narrative and admit to being founded "in sin," but may also carry legal obligations to rectify the situation. These two positions appear largely irreconcilable -- no previous negotiations have overcome this issue, and thus far, creative formulations have not been able to bridge the gap.
The Palestinian claim to a right of refugees to return to Israel is a similarly challenging issue. Palestinians believe this is a right incorporated in international law, primarily UN General Assembly Resolution 194, and see an Israeli recognition of such a right as a key step needed to rectify what they see as the historical injustice perpetrated on refugees. For Israelis, the possibility of millions of Palestinians returning to Israel would completely upend the demographic balance in Israel, making Jews a minority and ending Israel's status as a Jewish state - a completely unacceptable outcome to them. Again, the position of both sides start out as seemingly irreconcilable.
The positions of the two sides on these issues were on display during the Camp David negotiations of July 2000, though Israel did offer to allow a limited number of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel on the basis of humanitarian considerations or for family reunification. Israel's offer was further detailed during the Taba negotiations the following year, getting specific about numbers and laying out a three-track, 15-year absorption plan. Subtle changes were also apparent during the Annapolis process, with the Palestinians recognizing Israel's demographic concerns and signaling a willingness to accept a symbolic recognition with limits on implementation. Israel took the important step of recognizing the suffering of Palestinian refugees, though stopping short of acknowledging any responsibility for that suffering.
The Arab and Palestinian rhetoric on this issue has evolved and seems to have softened in recent years. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's May 2011 op-ed in the New York Times made no explicit mention of a right of return, but rather a "just solution for Palestinian refugees" -- a marked shift from previous statements, and in line with Abbas's recent recognition of Israeli demographic concerns.
This is also in line with the "just solution" language from the Arab Peace Initiative, which also consciously omitted any specific insistence on a right of return. It also used the phrase "agreed upon" to indicate that any agreement with Israel as a party would have to address Israeli concerns.
So it appears that the two sides may be moving closer to each other, but there remain significant gaps on these issues of responsibility and rights. And these are serious issues, which may topple any future negotiations. To quote the International Crisis Group on this question, "The refugee question is not a card waiting to be discarded once a deal on other issues is reached. But Palestinians will assess any comprehensive settlement as a package deal, and compromise on the refugee question will be facilitated if core needs are met elsewhere." In other words, compromises will have to be made by both sides and on all issues -- and if there is any hope in softening the Palestinian position, their needs would have to be met in other areas, and particularly on the other aspects of the refugee issue. To be specific, that would mean the four other Palestinian demands: citizenship, residence, compensation, and choice.
So is there a deal that can resolve the Palestinian refugee crisis while preserving Israel as a Jewish state?
Palestinian refugees were largely dispossessed of citizenship, a place to live, and their assets. In order to craft a comprehensive resolution to the refugee issue, all of these elements would have to be addressed, as would creating an effective implementation mechanism.
First let's look at citizenship. The majority of Palestinian refugees do not have any citizenship. One possible solution is to offer to all refugees the option of citizenship in the new state of Palestine.
Though providing refugees with Palestinian citizenship would end their status of statelessness, the new state of Palestine might not be able to accommodate a massive influx of new residents. Since the majority of registered refugees live in refugee camps, and many others are living in countries as temporary residents or illegally, any agreement would have to provide refugees with a permanent place of residence. This is also where the possibility of choices comes in. Proposals for residence tend to fall into two categories.
The first is resettlement -- finding refugees a new place to live. One natural choice for a number of them is the new state of Palestine. Of symbolic significance to these refugees would be living in the swap land that was traded to Palestine from within the pre-1967 borders of Israel. A limited number could also live in Israel, as Israel has offered in previous negotiations -- though this would be Israel's sovereign discretion, and not as part of a "right of return". An important component of resettlement would be other countries that would be willing to take in Palestinian refugees as permanent residents or citizens.
The second category of possible options is rehabilitation -- for the refugees that choose to stay where they currently live. This would have to be at the sovereign discretion of the host countries. And since many refugees currently live in refugee camps, significant amounts of money would be needed to integrate them as permanent residents in these countries, especially in terms of housing, employment, infrastructure, education, and health.
The third aspect of a resolution to the refugee issue is compensation, which has numerous components. The first question is types of compensation. Palestinians have demanded two types of compensation in previous negotiations -- compensation for specific material and property that refugees lost, as well a more general compensation for their suffering, sometimes referred to as compensation for refugeehood.
Compensation can also take multiple forms. Compensation for material and property loss presents a unique challenge in terms of providing evidence for assets that date back decades and even centuries. Some proposals create a two-track system -- where refugees can either provide evidence or receive a standard sum through a Fast Track. Both Israelis and Palestinians supported this kind of compensation system during previous rounds of negotiations.
Another question is the form of compensation. While the natural tendency is to focus on money, some proposals advocate for a voucher system, ear-marked for expenditures like education and professional training, so that refugees can invest in their future and help build the new Palestinian economy. Others argue, after decades of dispossession, refugees should be given the freedom to spend the money as they see fit.
Some proposals advocate for including within any agreement funds to repay the countries who have hosted the refugees for decades. While the appropriateness of such restitution is debatable, it would certainly incentivize these countries to support the peace deal, and perhaps encourage them to allow refugees to remain in their countries as permanent residents.
A major issue for Israel is Jewish refugees who were forced to flee from Arab countries -- a population that has shrunk from 856,000 in 1948 to less than 8,000 in 2004. 586,000 of the Jews who left eventually settled in Israel. Many Israelis believe that if Palestinian refugees are being compensated, so should these refugees. In fact, a recent bill in the Israeli Knesset mandated that this compensation be included in any future peace deal. Palestinians argue that since they played no role in the plight of these Jewish refugees, it is irrelevant to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and must be negotiated with the Arab countries from which the Jews fled.
The AIX Group, comprised of Israeli and Palestinian economists and scholars, has published some of the most detailed analyses of potential models for resolving claims of Palestinian refugees. They estimate that the total amount needed for settlement and rehabilitation programs, as well as compensation for property and refugeehood, would be between 55 and 85 billion dollars.
An agreed Israeli contribution to an international fund could symbolically address, and perhaps substitute for, an Israeli recognition of responsibility -- thus potentially channeling notions of responsibility to such practical arrangements. Israelis agreed to contribute to such a fund during previous negotiations. The value of the assets located in settlements that Israel would leave complete in the West Bank could also offset against Israel's contribution to the fund.
Such an elaborate plan of resettlement, rehabilitation, and compensation would require an effective mechanism to administrate it. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which actively deals with such issues, would seem like a natural choice -- though Israelis generally dismiss the UN as biased against them and would likely object to their involvement. Allowing the new Palestinian government to administrate these programs would bolster their credibility, which could be helpful in light of some compromises it will likely have to make on symbolic issues dealing with Israeli recognition of refugee rights. Previously, concerns about corruption and capacity made such an option less attractive, but recent good performance by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, led by former IMF executive and current Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, makes such an option more viable. Still, Palestinians might be hesitant to take on such a complex process that will inevitably be the subject of criticism and complaints. A third possibility is a newly-established international agency, composed of representatives of the two parties, regional stakeholders, and international members. Both Israelis and Palestinians agreed to this idea during previous negotiations.
An agreement can explicitly state that it satisfies the refugee parameters of all relevant UN resolutions, as a key to precluding any future claims by the Palestinians. It can also explicitly state that it satisfies the refugee parameters of the Arab Peace Initiative, thus allowing for the full implementation of the initiative's commitments. The agreement can also mandate the phased dismantling of UNWRA.
After exploring the different narratives relating to refugees, looking at the demands both sides bring to the negotiating table, and examining potential solutions to the various components of an agreement, let's return to the question we asked at the beginning of this presentation: Is there an arrangement that can resolve the Palestinian refugee crisis while preserving Israel as a Jewish state?