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About The Palestinian Refugees by Joseph Massad

Frequently Asked Questions

Fact sheet # 8

About The Palestinian Refugees

Prepared by Joseph Massad

Assistant Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University

Who are the Palestinian Refugees?

In 1995, according to the figures of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the 1948 refugees (and their descendants) living in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria numbered 3,093,174 people. As for 1948 refugees who remained in Israel proper but were displaced from their homes (and are referred to by the Israeli government as “present absentees”), they number between 120,000 and 150,000.[i] In 1994, the number of 1967 refugees (termed displaced persons), numbered 1,132,326 people, half of whom also were 1948 refugees, i.e. those who had been displaced for the second time. [ii] These numbers do not include Palestinian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, North Africa and the Gulf Arab countries, nor do they include Palestinian Bedouins who were no longer allowed to return to their grazing lands within Israel, nor the middle class Palestinian refugees who did not register with UNRWA, nor the children of Palestinian women who married non-refugee Palestinians or non-Palestinians, as UNRWA no longer considers these as refugees. Those belonging to these four categories number around 300,000 people. [iii]

What is the value of the property lost by Palestinian refugees?

The value of 1948 Palestinian refugee property losses alone (not to mention reparations) range from $92 billion to $147 billion at 1984 prices. According to 1994 calculations Palestinian losses are estimated at $253 billion in reparations and compensation. [iv]

Do the Palestinian refugees have a legal right to return to their homes?

The United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 194 in 1949 affirming that Palestinian refugees “wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property, which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” [v] The resolution has been reaffirmed more than 100 times since its initial enactment, more than any other UN resolutions.

Will the Oslo “peace process” lead to the repatriation of Palestinian refugees and their compsensation?

No. It was in Madrid that the issue of refugees was separated from the bilateral tracks dealing with the central issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and relegated to what was called the “multilateral track” which set up a “Refugee Working Group” (RWG) chaired by Canada. The purpose of the RWG is not to negotiate over the status of the refugees, but rather to improve the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees, particularly those outside the West Bank and Gaza. The only political issue that was discussed at the RWG besides Palestinian representation was the question of family reunification wherein the Israelis agreed to increase the pre-existing annual quota of 1000 to 2000, it being understood that Israel had never fulfilled the earlier or later quota anyway. [vi]

As for the 1993 Declaration of Principles (DoP), its declared aim was to reach a “permanent settlement based on Security Council Resolution 242 and 338.”[vii] Resolution 242, as is commonly known, calls, as an aside, for a “just settlement of the refugee problem.” [viii] The DoP asserts that only in the permanent status negotiations between representatives of the Palestinian people and the Israeli government will the remaining issues, including that of the “refugees,” be covered. [ix] Moreover the DoP called for inviting the governments of Jordan and Egypt to participate in establishing “cooperation arrangements,” which will include the “constitution of a Continuing Committee that will decide by agreement on the modalities of admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967” (Article XII). As of yet, neither committee has produced anything that is remotely connected to resolving the status of Palestinian refugees. Moreover, Yitzhak Rabin insisted after the DoP that Israel would not allow more than a few thousand 1967 refugees to return, adding that if the PLO “expect[s] tens of thousands [of refugees to return,] they live in a dream, an illusion,” [x]

[For further information on this issue, please see Fact Sheet 7:  "What are the
Palestinian Collective and Individual Rights under International Law?
]


[i] See Elia Zureik, Palestinians Refugees and the Peace Process, (Washington D.C: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1996), pp. 18-19.

[ii] Ibid., p. 23.

[iii] Ibid., p. 19.

[iv] See Atif Kubursi, Palestinian Losses in 1948: The Quest for Precision, Information Paper #6, (Washington D.C: Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, August, 1996), p. 5. See also Sami Hadawi and Atif Kubursi, Palestinian Rights and Losses in 1948, A Comprehensive Study, (London: Saqi Books, 1988).

[v] United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (III), 11 December 1948, Article 11. Reproduced in George J. Tomeh, ed., United Nations Resolutions on Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Volume One 1947-1974, (Washington D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1975), p. 16.

[vi] Salim Tamari, Palestinian Refugee Negotiations, From Madrid to Oslo II, A Final Status Issues paper, (Washington D.C: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1996), pp. 7, 9-13.

[vii] Israeli-PlO Declaration of Principles, December 13, 1993, (Article I), reproduced in the Journal of Palestine Studies, no. 89 (Autumn, 1993), p. 115.

[viii] United Nations Security Council 242, 1967, Article 2B, reproduced in Tomeh, United Nations, p. 143.

[ix] Israeli-PlO Declaration of Principles, 13 December 1993, (Article V-3), reproduced in the Journal of Palestine Studies, no. 89 (Autumn, 1993), p. 117.

[x] New York Times, 27 October 1993, p. A 3.