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Towards a Just and Sustainable Solution of the Palestinian Refugee Question

Discussion Paper for the European Union
I. Introduction

Since 1995, BADIL Resource Center has advocated for Palestinian refugee rights in cooperation with refugee community organizations in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and inside Israel; Palestinian researchers, NGOs and community activists in Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries of the Palestinian exile; international NGOs and solidarity movements, as well as UN institutions. The following brief discussion paper raises central aspects of the Palestinian refugee question for discussion in the European Parliament. We hope this discussion will continue and deepen in the year 2000.

II. The Status of Palestinian Refugees

1. The 800,000 - 900,000 Palestinian Arabs evicted from their homes and lands located in Mandatory Palestine during the military conflicts and war of 1947/8 which resulted in the establishment of the state of Israel, were given refugee status and granted protection and assistance by all relevant UN resolutions and international refugee law legislated since 1948: UN Resolution 194/1948, establishing the Palestinian right of return and the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) as the international body mandated with the implementation of refugee return, restitution, and compensation; UN Resolution302/1949, establishment of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA); 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and; 1950 UN High Commission for Refugees. Although the exact current number of Palestinian refugees is subject to debate, recent careful studies (e.g. Salman Abu Sitta, Register of the Depopulated Localities in Palestine, 1998) indicate that some 5 million refugees and their descendents are currently entitled to protection by the above UN Resolutions.

2. The international community considers Palestinian refugees entitled to a special refugee status and protection (UN Resolution 194 and UNCCP) as well as special assistance (UN Resolution 302/establishment of UNRWA as special assistance agency). The special status of Palestinian refugees resulted from the fact that the Palestinian refugee problem was created as the direct result of a controversial UN decision (UN Resolution 181/1947, Partition Plan for Palestine). The international community thus recognized its responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, and conditioned Israel’s membership in the United Nations (UN Resolution 273/1949) by its explicit approval of UN Resolutions 181 and 194.

III. Durable Solutions to Refugee Flows: Basic Principles of International Law

1. The Palestinian Refugee Case should be analyzed and resolved according to UN resolutions and principles of international law, including UN Resolution 194/1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights/1948, the Fourth Geneva Convention/1949, the UN High Commission for Refugees/1950, and the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees/1951. The principles codified in the above international conventions have served as guidelines for the solution of refugee problems in other areas of the world - i.e Vietnam, El Salvador, Guatemala, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosova, etc..

2. The guiding principle for durable solutions to refugee flows is refugee choice, i.e. voluntary participation by the refugee community. The international community and its designate on refugee matters, the UNHCR, universally recognize the following principles in fashioning sustainable solutions to refugee problems: refugee repatriation to their homes and properties; refugee absorption in their countries of exile; refugee re-settlement in third countries. UN Resolution 194 calling upon Israel to facilitate the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and lands if they wish to do so establishes the principle of refugee choice. International denial of the applicability of this principle in the Palestinian case will continue to alienate some 5 million refugees from whatever model for a solution of their case may be designed inside or outside the political negotiations between Israel and the PLO.

3. Refugee repatriation has become the preferred option in international efforts for the solution of refugee problems, especially during the past decade. Refugee repatriation usually reflects refugee choice (unless personal safety cannot be guaranteed in the place of origin). The practical possibility of refugee return to their areas of origin inside the Israeli state is a well established fact. Recent research reveals that the current demographic distribution of the population in Israel has left major parts of Palestinian refugee land uninhabited. This land is still controlled by the Israeli “Custodian of Absentee Property” and the Israeli Land Development Authority, the latter which is authorized under Israeli law to lease refugee property for use by small agricultural settlements (kibbutzim, moshavim). Israeli official sources themselves (Ministry of Absorption, a.o.) uphold that the country’s absorptive limits for immigration have not been reached.

4. The principle that refugee losses (material and non-material) must be made good by means of restitution of property, and – if restitution is not possible – by compensation for the material losses. The principle of restitution of refugee property has been affirmed by the European Union and the European Commission of Human Rights in relation to outstanding property claims in East/Central Europe. Refugee claims for compensation for non-material losses (psychological damage, loss of opportunites, etc.) have received increasing international legitimacy. Refugee repatriation allows for maximum restitution of refugee property to refugee property owners, thus reducing the amount of financial resources required for refugee compensation and reconstruction. The right of refugees to their properties is increasingly recognized and codified in international law. The principle that a state must recognize and make good the individual refugees' right to their properties and/or compensation for loss therefore has been effectuated in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosova, and Uganda, among other recent crises.

IV. Short Term Issues

Since final status negotiations between Israel and the PLO have begun, we consider the principled issues raised above to be of utmost importance. At the same time, we would like to draw attention to a number of other issues of immediate importance:

1. UNRWA funding by the international community must be raised to a level permitting adequate services (education, health, welfare) to the growing refugee population. Although increasing international awareness of the important stabilizing role of UNRWA in the region has convinced UNRWA donors to not reduce their annual contribution, the current level of funding is still extremely insufficient (per capita UNRWA support to refugees declined from some US $200 to $80 in the 1990s). Depending on the developments in the political negotiations, two issues will have to be addressed:

(a) In absence of a political solution to the refugee question, a new international policy for UNRWA funding will have to be designed in order to avoid a situation where the Agency is fighting with a chronic budget crises at a time when frustration and need among the 3.6 million registered refugees will be extremely high.

(b) If a framework for the solution of the refugee question is established in the final status negotiations, the potential of UNRWA (in cooperation with UNHCR, other international organizations) as an organization which can contribute to the implementation process should be examined. UNRWA's mandate could be expanded to permit an active role of the Agency within the mechanism of return-restitution-compensation, in order to make use of past financial investment in UNRWA infrastructure and its long standing experience and relation with the Palestinian refugee community.

2. Palestinian Refugee Protection by European Governments: The legal status of Palestinian refugees in areas outside UNRWA's mandate is determined by the 1951 Refugee Convention. Based on Article 1D of this Convention, Palestinian refugees are entitled to the benefits of the Convention. Moreover, Palestinians who have not acquired the nationality of a third state are also stateless persons and entitled to special protection. European governments are thus called upon to adapt their residency and asylum policy to the standards set by international law, especially in the case of Palestinians, whose legal status outside the Middle East has been frequently subject to misinterpretation. (Legal expertise on this subject is available via BADIL).

V. Long Term Issues

1. A solution model based on the parameters of refugee choice, refugee return, restitution, and compensation is the only feasible approach towards a New Middle East. Refugees would finally be able to make an educated choice about whether they wish to return to their homes and lands in Israel or not; Arab host countries could tackle the issue of absorption of Palestinian refugees (those who wish so), without being bound by the political positions of the Arab-Israeli war; refugee consent and cooperation would allow for the allocation of funds (otherwise needed for compensation) to local and regional infrastructure development projects which would benefit refugees, Palestinians, Israelis, and all the people in the region. A solution based on the above parameters would lead to the de-escalation of the conflict in the whole region. It would facilitate regional demilitarization and a more efficient, co-operative use of regional natural resources. i like CVV store

2. The complicated issue of Palestinian refugee compensation could be resolved in a much more economic and effective way by a solution based on the parameters of refugee choice, refugee return, and restitution of property. A solution based on these parameters would be supported by the Palestinian refugees, part of whom would decide to return to their homes. They would find an infrastructure facilitating their absorption/integration (property, relatives). The amount of special financial resources for compensation (currently estimated up to US$600 billion) could thus be drastically reduced, as they would have to serve mainly for the compensation of those refugees not wishing to return.

VI. Concluding Remarks

Fifty-one years after the creation of the Palestinian refugee case, international debate and policy initiatives on the Palestinian refugee question avoid approaching this issue according to international standards and principles applied elsewhere, as if these standards and principles were not applicable to Palestinian refugees. Based on the above, we call upon the international community in general, and the European Union in particular, to start to deal seriously with the discriminatory and racist policies of Zionism (Law of Return, Jewish National Fund, a.o.) which violate international law, and obstruct a just settlement of the Palestinian refugee question, including the enforcement of the refugee's right of return. Israel's racist laws and policies remain the major obstacle to a just and durable peace in the Middle East. Similar policies by Serbia were forcibly rejected and reversed by the international community in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosova.

This brief discussion paper does not permit us to present the issues in the necessary detail and context. We hope, however, that you will accept them as points of discussion, until we will have a chance to present our approach in a more detailed, professional form in the future – hopefully in the spring of 2000. At the same time, we would like to assure you that the issues raised in this brief discussion paper are the result of numerous discussions and debates among Palestinian refugee organizations, Palestinian researchers, and international law experts. Without their contribution, we would not have been able to conceptualize our vision, and they are the ones that deserve to be heard – especially now that the future of the Palestinian refugees, i.e. two thirds of the Palestinian people, is on the negotiation table.