The Right of Return and Israeli Society

Nine months after the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada and nearly half a year since the collapse of final status talks at Taba, Egypt, the lack of international political will to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of international law leaves little room for optimism about the immediate future of the region and the more than 5 million Palestinian refugees who remain in exile more than 50 years after their displacement/ expulsion.

While models presented in the Israeli press fall far short of principles of international law and practice (See box below), Palestinian negotiators have so far refused to state their principled agreement to any of the solution models and principle catalogues promoted by Israeli "insiders." The lack of publicly accessible information, the complexity of such models, and the numerous pitfalls and inherent dangers to refugee rights, continue to give rise - and correctly so - to serious concern among Palestinian refugees and human rights activists.

At the same time, however, the Palestinian people, in particular its refugees, have succeeded to confront Israeli society with their demand for recognition and implementation of refugees' right of return to their homes and properties in what is now Israel. al-Majdal spoke with Tikva Honig Parnass (9 May 2001), a veteran Israeli anti-Zionist activist and editor of the political magazine Between the Lines, and with Yael Stein (6 June 2001), research director of the Israeli human rights organization B'tselem, in order to shed some light on the background, character and perspectives of the Israeli debate.

How to Solve the Palestinian Refugee Problem
Excerpts from: Akiva Eldar, Ha'aretz, 29 May 2001. The author claims that the following principles were accepted by Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha'ath in the last rounds of the Taba negotiations.

1. An international body that will be established to deal with the subject will present each refugee with five options:
rehabilitation in his current place of residence including citizenship of the state in which he lives; absorption in the new State of Palestine; settlement in Halutza (a land strip in the southern Negev to be transferred by Israel to the Palestinian state); immigration to a country outside the region; return to Israeli territory.

2. The five options will be shaped in a manner that will channel immigration as much as possible to options other than return to Israel. This will include a series of incentives, an accelerated rehabilitation program and generous economic aid, which will be offered to Palestinians who will forgo the option of immigration to Israel.

3. The immigration quotas will also be geared to induce refugees to opt for the alternatives to living in Israel. It was agreed that the immigration quotas for Israel will be lower than those set for other destinations, and that Israel has the sovereign right to decide who will enter her territory and who will be barred from entering.

4. Dealing with the personal status of each refugee will be conditional upon his relinquishing refugee status and accepting the same rights as those in whatever place he chooses to reside. This means that the refugee agrees that the place he chooses will be his final place of residence. In addition, this will mean forgoing claims to property in Israel. The Israeli side attached great importance to this point, viewing it as a confirmation of the end of Israel's commitment with respect to the refugee problem.

5. The new international body will replace UNRWA, which will be dismantled within five years. The new body will assume responsibility for dealing with the refugees at both the personal and community level. Israel would like the UNRWA to shut down its operations, on the grounds that the organization's existence perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem. It was agreed that refugee certificates that UNRWA issues would be canceled. Refugee camps containing those who choose to be rehabilitated where they are will be annexed to adjacent cities. Thus the refugee camps would loose their extraterritorial status.

6. The international body will raise funds and give compensation for private real estate that was expropriated from the refugees. There is still an unresolved dispute concerning property of common ownership, collective compensation, and movable property that the refugees left behind.

7. Israel demanded that a ceiling be set for the amount of compensation to be paid; this would then become part of the permanent agreement. The Palestinians demanded that compensation be set on a case-by-case basis, with no ceiling - that is, with a separate assessment of the worth of each refugee's case.