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Saturday, December 01, 2007


Palestinian Refugees and Negotiations

"Palestinian Refugees and Negotiations "
Palestine Center Information Brief No. 158 (21 November 2007)
By Diana Buttu

“We shall remain like a wall upon your chest, and in your throat like a shard of glass.”—Excerpt from Tawfiq Ziad’s “Here We Will Stay”

On 16 July 2007, President Bush called for the convening of an “international meeting” in order to push forward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process following almost seven years of Israel’s refusal to negotiate. It is expected that this conference will address the unresolved issues in previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, chief among which is the issue of the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees. This note aims to provide a history of the negotiations on the issue of Palestinian refugees and argues that the restoration of rights to Palestinian refugees must be a key component to any lasting agreement (1).


"We must expel Arabs and take their places."—David Ben Gurion, 1937, Ben Gurion and the Palestine Arabs, Oxford University Press, 1985.

The U.N. Partition of Palestine (2) served as the visible catalyst of the flight of Palestinians from their homeland. Up until that time, Palestine’s Jewish population had been steadily increasing as Jewish immigration into Palestine was virtually unlimited by the British forces controlling Palestine.

By 1947, it is estimated that Palestine had 1.9 million inhabitants; 31 percent of whom were Jewish (with the majority being recent immigrants) and the remainder Palestinian Arabs (Muslims and Christians). Once passed, the U.N. General Assembly resolution served as the “green light” for Jewish Zionist forces to begin their campaign of forcible expulsion of Palestinians from Palestine. The numbers of Palestinians who fled or were forced to flee have been the subject of much debate, with Israel and Zionist groups downplaying the numbers to as little as 350,000 while Palestinian sources indicate that upwards of 900,000 Palestinians fled during 1947-1949. U.N. sources estimate that 750,000 Palestinians fled during this period (amounting to 75 percent of the Muslim and Christian population of what became Israel) (3).

Thousands of homes and hundreds of villages were also demolished, thereby erasing the presence of Palestinian Arabs who fled. A mere 150,000 Palestinian Arabs remained in what became Israel with thousands of them internally displaced from their homes (4). Palestinian refugees and internally displaced Palestinians (who hold Israeli citizenship) have never been able to return to their homes. The U.N. General Assembly quickly spoke to the issue of Palestinian refugees demanding that Palestinians be allowed to return to their homes in what became Israel. This resolution (U.N.G.A. 194 (III)) has been reaffirmed every year since December 1948.

Though the visible catalyst of the creation of Palestinian refugees may have been the cloud of war (and in particular the U.N. Partition Plan), the real catalyst for these expulsions lay in the plans set out by Zionist strategists many years prior to the U.N. Partition Plan. For Zionists, the goal of a “Jewish state” in an area where the majority of people are not Jewish could only be achieved by two means: mass Jewish immigration coupled with mass expulsion of non-Jews (ie. Palestinian Arabs). (5) Viewed in this light, while the precise numbers of those Palestinians who fled Palestine are important, the central debate in resolving this issue should not focus on the numbers but on the motivation behind the expulsion. Unfortunately, to date, Palestinian-Israel negotiations have failed to address the reason behind the expulsion—the creation of a “Jewish state” in an area in which the people are not Jewish—and instead the various “solutions” proposed only aim to reinforce the reasons for the expulsion.

Today, the number of Palestinian refugees registered with U.N.R.W.A. and their descendants number more than 4.4 million with unknown numbers of unregistered refugees.

Phase I: From Willful Blindness to Agreeing to Talk

"There is no such thing as a Palestinian people... It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn't exist."—Golda Meir, statement to The Sunday Times, 15 June 1969.

From 1948 until the start of the first Palestinian uprising, Israel and its supporters went to great lengths to deny the very existence of Palestinians. Famous among these denials was the above statement by former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and books such as Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial. The Palestinian uprising of 1987 and the continued presence of Palestinian citizens of Israel proved to Israelis that the Palestinians did indeed exist and that the “problem” could not be willed away.

By 1993, with the start of the Oslo process, Palestinians (and hence Palestinian refugees) could no longer be ignored and indeed was soon placed on the table as one of the “permanent status issues” to be discussed by the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] and Israel. However, unlike the other permanent status issues—water, settlements, borders, security and Jerusalem—the issue of Palestinian refugees did not refer solely to actions surrounding Israel’s 1967 occupation but to the very essence of the conflict: the creation (and subsequent enlargement) of a “Jewish state” and the associated dispossession and denial of freedom required to carry out these plans. It is therefore unsurprising that while Israel agreed to find a “solution” to the plight of Palestinian refugees when negotiations finally began seven years later at Camp David in 2000, Israel refused to discuss the issue, determining instead that Israel would only discuss the “resettlement” of Palestinian refugees rather than their return (6). The Clinton Parameters of 2000 reinforced this position by setting three “options” for Palestinian refugees—resettlement, moving to the Palestinian state or limited return to Israel. This position was later adopted at talks at Taba in 2001 and focus remained on resettlement with limited “symbolic” return (up to 50,000 Palestinians, representing 1 percent of Palestinian refugees) to what is now Israel, in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state”(7). Despite the climate of negotiations, the parties focused solely on means of accommodating the refugees elsewhere rather than restoring their rights and challenging the validity of the concept of ethnic cleansing to make way for an exclusivist state. Instead, facing the dual dilemmas of occupation and dispossession, Palestinian negotiators opted to choose to address the former while accommodating the latter. Such accommodation was later demonstrated in the Arab League Initiative of March 2002, which while calling upon Israel to completely withdraw from all of the territory it occupied in 1967 also, for the first time, diluted the Palestinian demand for the implementation of the Right of Return. The Initiative provided for the, “Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194.” By 2003, the demand was further diluted with the Geneva Initiative in which former Palestinian negotiators agreed that any Palestinian return to Israel would be at the “sole discretion” of Israel(8).

Phase II: The Monologue Begins

With Israel’s refusal to negotiate following the election of Ariel Sharon as Israel’s Prime Minister, dialogue gave way to monologue and with it, Israel unilaterally determined that Palestinian refugees would no longer be able to return, in violation of international law. Not content with the various formulations that sought to concede the Right of Return, Israel set out to obtain international (and namely U.S.) support for its unilateral position. The diplomatic efforts soon paid off, and by April 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush adopted Israel’s position in his letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In it, he stated:
It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel (9).

Phase III: The End of the Greater “Jewish State” in Exchange for a “Jewish State”

Although President Bush’s letter reflected an outward change in U.S. policy towards Palestinian refugees, the response from Palestinian negotiators was muted with greater condemnation placed on President Bush’s acceptance as legitimate Israeli large colonies in the West Bank. The muted response did not come as a surprise to many. Since the start of negotiations in 2000, the PLO’s main focus has been on the creation of a “Palestinian state” rather than on advocating the rights of Palestinian refugees and demanding that their right to return be implemented. Instead, with passing years and the expansion of Israeli colonies, a “trade-off” has been set into place: territory for refugees.

As Annapolis approaches, Israeli negotiators have made their position clear. Most recently Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni announced that, “Just as Israel is the embodiment of the Jewish national movement and is the homeland of the Jews, so too must the Palestinian state be the embodiment of the Palestinian national movement and the homeland of the Palestinians.” This statement not only ignores Israel’s ethnic cleansing but implicitly demands that the Palestinians accept Israel’s racist actions and be content with the formation of a state on a mere fraction of their territory. In short, while Livni and Israel view as a concession the concept of a “greater Jewish state,” they have, in effect, demanded that Palestinians accept the notion of a “Jewish state” and thereby give up on the Right of Return.


The negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have revealed two major flaws in regards to the rights of Palestinian refugees: (1) the failure to recognize the desires of Palestinian refugees and (2) lack of adequate representation for Palestinian refugees. Regarding the former, proposed “solutions” to Palestinian refugees have failed to take into account the unique nature of Palestinian refugees. Unlike other refugee populations around the world who seek refuge in other countries, Palestinian refugees have overwhelmingly expressed a desire to return rather than be resettled. Yet, solutions have given greater weight to Israel’s inherently racist “demographic concerns” than the legitimate rights of Palestinian refugees. As a result, inadequate solutions have been proposed—all of which legitimatize Israel’s actions while diminishing Palestinian rights. Regarding the latter as mentioned above, Palestinian refugees—an issue that goes to the core of the conflict—were lumped together with the other issues surrounding—actions that pertain to Israel’s 1967 occupation. As a result, Palestinian negotiators, who live under Israeli military rule and whose main goal is to see an end to Israel’s military rule, have also been the voice for Palestinian refugees, despite the fact that they may have conflicting interests. In doing so, not only has the international community and Israel ignored the desires of Palestinian refugees, so too have Palestinian negotiators who instead appear to soften their demands for the implementation of the Right of Return in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While this may ultimately lead to the creation of a “Palestinian state,” adopting the strategy—land for refugees—is not wise. Today, the number of Palestinian refugees residing outside Palestine exceeds the number of Palestinians living in Occupied Palestinian Territory. Moreover, with the rights of Palestinian citizens inside Israel as well as internally displaced Palestinians still hanging in abeyance, the PLO will be unable to claim to legitimately sign onto an “end of conflict” agreement that Israel wants. Instead, it is time to challenge Israel’s ethnic desires and the concept of a “Jewish state” rather than continuing to view Palestinians as a “demographic threat” instead of individuals whose rights must be upheld for comprehensive peace to be achieved. Without so doing, the international community will have promoted the very racist ideals that it has long sought to eliminate.

Diana Buttu is a lawyer who resides in Ramallah and a former legal advisor to the PLO on refugees.

This piece was written exclusively for The Palestine Center. The above text may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. This information brief does not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.

1This note will not directly deal with those Palestinians who fled the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. Though many argue that their status differs from that of the refugees who fled in 1948, as will be outlined below, the reasons for their flight is the same: the creation of a larger “Jewish state.”
2U.N. Resolution 181 passed overwhelmingly by the General Assembly but not the Security Council.
3Even prior to Israel’s declaration of statehood on 14 May 1948, an estimated 300,000 Palestinians had fled Palestine, debunking Israeli claims that Palestinian refugees fled at the orders of neighboring Arab countries as a result of the declaration of war against Israel.
4These Palestinians lived under Israeli military rule from 1948-1966, akin to the current restrictions imposed by Israel on the Palestinians of the West Bank.
5It cannot be ignored that the events of World War II and its aftermath (and in particular the Holocaust) served as a catalyst for the migration of Jews to Palestine. That said, plans for Jewish immigration were laid out well before World War II and the Holocaust. And though Israel’s supporters cite the Holocaust as a reason for having a “Jewish state,” it cannot be ignored that the creation of a state intended to provide refuge to Jews has created one of the largest and longest standing refugee populations.
6Rob Malley and Hussein Agha, “Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors,” New York Review of Books, Vol. 48, No. 13, 9 August 2001..
7The Moratinos “Non-Paper.” A copy can be found at http://www.jmcc.org/documents/docs.html.
8This position was further adopted by the “Geneva Initiative,” which provided that the return of Palestinians to what is now Israel would be at the “sole discretion” of Israel. See http://www.jmcc.org/documents/genevaagree.htm.
9A copy of the letter can be found at http://www.jmcc.org/documents/bushsharonlet.htm.

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