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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

November 16, 2002

LEGAL ASPECTS OF THE PALESTINIAN REFUGEE QUESTION

For many would-be peace makers, the Right of Return is a deal breaker. Here, a legal analysis of this "Right."

Until September 2000, hopes were high that soon an agreement on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza would pave the way for peaceful coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians. These hopes have unfortunately been shattered, as Palestinians violently attacked Israelis in both the administered territories and in Israel proper, provoking violent reactions by Israel. One could wonder what purpose there is in analyzing legal issues related to a peaceful settlement when violence is the order of the day. If we nevertheless examine some of the legal issues, it is because we have not yet lost hope that sooner or later the guns will be silenced and the parties will return to the negotiating table.

The underlying conflict is mainly of a political nature. However, for several reasons it should also be analyzed from a legal perspective. First, some of the questions involved are overwhelmingly of a legal nature. Second, the parties base their claims on legal arguments. And, third, if and when a compromise is reached, it will be drafted in legal terms and be included in a legal text. This is also true of the question of Palestinian refugees.

The Beginning of the Refugee Problem
The plight of the refugees is a serious human problem. During the 1947-48 period, many Arabs "left, ran away, or were expelled."1 At the same time, Jews escaped from Arab countries. While the Jews were integrated into the countries to which they fled, the Arabs were on purpose denied integration in most Arab countries (except Jordan) in order to prevent any possible accommodation with Israel. The refugees have been receiving support and assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), established by the UN General Assembly in 1949.2

According to various estimates, the number of refugees in 1949 was between 538,000 (Israeli sources), 720,000 (UN estimates), and 850,000 (Palestinian sources). By 2001, the number of refugees registered with and supported by UNRWA had grown to about 3.5 million, since also children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are registered. Another reason for this increase is the fact that UNRWA does not systematically delete all deceased persons from its registry. According to UNRWA, in 2000 there were about 550,000 refugees in the West Bank, some 800,000 in the Gaza Strip, 1,500,000 in Jordan, 350,000 in Lebanon, and 350,000 as well in Syria. Only part of them have lived in refugee camps. The situation of the refugees has been particularly severe in the Gaza Strip and in Lebanon.3

The plight of the refugees raises at least three legal questions:

Who should be considered to be a refugee?
Do the Palestinian refugees have a right to return to Israel?
Do they have a right to compensation?
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