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The refugees: facts and figures


Le Monde Diplomatique - February, 1999


The background to the situation of the Palestinian refugees and the various forums for discussing their future.

By Alain Gresh


According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), founded in 1949, the Palestinian refugees and their descendants number (as of 30 June 1998) 3,521,130 of whom 30% live in camps. A refugee is defined as a person who lived in Palestine between 1 June 1946 and 15 May 1948 and who lost his home as a result of the conflict, and took refuge in one of the countries in which UNRWA operates. They are spread over three countries, plus the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There are 1.46 million in Jordan (of which 270,000 in camps), 365,000 in Lebanon (200,000 in camps), 365,000 in Syria (105,000 in camps). In Gaza there are 770,000 (of which 420,000 in camps) and in the West Bank 550,000 (150,000 in camps). The Israeli government claims these figures are exaggerated.

Several categories of people are excluded (1):

- those who sought refuge in countries where UNRWA does not operate, like Egypt or Iraq; Palestinians who were outside Palestine in 1948; everyone who did not register with UNRWA, for pride or other reasons;

- people displaced within Israel, sometimes known as "absent-present";

- people displaced in the June 1967 war who were not already refugees: with their descendants, they number about half a million people;

- people expelled by Israel after 1967 mainly for political reasons, and those who went abroad and could not return because their residence permits expired.

The total number of refugees not taken into account by UNRWA is estimated by the PLO at one million.

Who is negotiating?

The question of the Palestinian refugees was being discussed at three levels up to the Wye Plantation agreement of October 1998:

- The Multilateral Group on the Refugees, formed in the framework of the Madrid conference of October 1991. Under the aegis of Canada, it extends to several dozen countries. There are six delegations representing the Middle East: Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon (although these last two have boycotted the proceedings). The Group has held six plenary sessions, the last in December 1995; it has since held informal sessions;

- The Quadripartite Committee on Displaced Persons, created after the Oslo accords, which postponed discussion on the 1948 refugees to final status talks: only the problem of those displaced in 1967 was to be discussed in the interim period. The Committee is made up of the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Gaza. It met for the first time in March 1995;

- A bilateral Israeli-Palestinian committee which deals with the problem of refugees who returned from 1994 on with the Palestinian Authority (around 80,000), as well as West Bank and Gaza residents without permits (estimated at 30-50,000).

The workings of both the Multilateral Group and the Quadripartite Committee are deadlocked. Under the Wye Plantation agreement, negotiations on questions suspended during the interim period are to start. They are to be bilateral, but will take the position of the "host countries" (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria) into account.

What solution?

According to UN Resolution 194 of December 1948, the refugees have the choice of returning to their native homes or receiving compensation. In the latter case, it will be necessary to "settle" the refugee in a host country.

The positions of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government are irreconcilable. For the Palestinians, all refugees who so wish should be permitted to return to their homes. But the Israeli government refuses to recognise any "right of return" and its right-wingers even rejects return to a hypothetical Palestinian entity; instead, Israel wants to see the refugees settled in the host countries with international help. Various "interim" solutions have been proposed by institutions or individuals (3).

The Palestinian Authority appears to envisage a compromise solution:

- recognition of the principle of the "right to return", even if in reality it would only amount to a symbolic return of around 100,000 Palestinians to within Israel, with the others claiming compensation;

- Israel's recognition of its moral responsibility for creating the refugee problem;

- a Palestinian passport for all refugees who so wish;

- the Palestinians' right to come and live in the future state to be built in the West Bank and Gaza Strip;

- the granting of full civil rights by the host countries to refugees who do not return. UNRWA would carry on with its activities during the years it would take to implement the plan.


Translated by Wendy Kristianasen



(1) From Elia Zureik, Palestinian Refugees and the Peace Process, Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington DC, 1996.

(2) See Salim Tamari, Palestinian Refugee Negotiations, Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington DC, 1996.

(3) See Elia Zureik, op. cit., Salim Tamari, op. cit., and Joseph Alpher and Khalik Shkaki, The Palestian Refugee Problem and the Right of Return, Harvard University, Massachusetts, May 1998.


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