Press Release
Department of Public Information · News Coverage Service · New York

25 June 1996


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) sought to use its unique position to reach beyond present needs and build a foundation for the future, William Lee, the Chief of its New York Liaison Office said this morning. However, because of severe budget deficits, the Agency could no longer continue without a visible diminution in the quality and quantity of its services.

Addressing the annual North American NGO Symposium on the Question of Palestine during the second part of its three-day session, Mr. Lee said donors were willing to fund massive public works projects with visible, palpable benefits for Palestine refugees, yet, were unable to support UNRWA's basic health, education and relief activities. The Agency would welcome non- governmental organization initiatives to persuade governments to maintain and broaden their financial support.

The Symposium is meeting this year on the theme, "Towards a just and comprehensive settlement of the question of Palestine". This topic of this morning's session was Palestine refugees and displaced persons.

Don Peretz, Professor Emeritus at Binghamton University, proposed the establishment of an international fund for refugee compensation and economic rehabilitation, to be administered by a commission comprised of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the former combatants. The commission would give priority to individual claims, he added. Andrew Robinson, the Director-General of the Middle East Peace Process Coordination Bureau in the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, said his working group addressed broad regional issues whose solutions required coordinated actions and international support. It aimed to help improve the refugees' conditions without prejudice to their rights and future status. Rosemary Sayigh, an anthropologist and independent researcher, spoke about what she termed the critical situation facing Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. She said North American non-governmental organizations could mobilize their Palestinian and Arab communities to lobby the Lebanese Government on Palestinians civic rights and UNRWA to maintain and strengthen its services.

Salim Tamari, Director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies at Bir Zeit University, said the refugee question was one of the most difficult of the final status issues slated for bilateral negotiations. New Israeli Government's guidelines insisted that the Palestinian right to return should be denied; this approcah narrowed the negotiating possibilities.

Following the statements, the five panelists took part in a general discussion on the issues.

The Symposium will meet again at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow, 26 June, to consider the question of Jerusalem.

Symposium Work Programme

The annual North American NGO Symposium on the Question of Palestine met this morning to continue its consideration of this year's theme, "Towards a just and comprehensive settlement of the question of Palestine". Panel presentation will be made on the question of Palestine refugees and displaced persons. (For additional background, see Press Release GA/PAL/722 of 19 June.)

Palestine Refugees and Displaced Persons

SALIM TAMARI, professor at Bir Zeit University and delegate to the multilateral peace negotiations on refugees, said the question of refugees was one of the most difficult of the final status issues slated for bilateral talks. Israel and other parties had resisted considering the matter which, from the beginning, had many controversial elements. Israel wanted to consider the question of refugees in general, while the Arabs wanted to deal only with Palestinian refugees.

He said the Palestinian position was based on General Assembly resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948, which established the right of refugees to be compensated for their losses and to return home. Israel and the United States had increasingly viewed that resolution as unimplementable. Within the Palestinian camp, the issue has been dominated by sentiment, ideology and pragmatism. The Israelis, however, took an intransigent position by which any reference to the right of return was seen as tantamount to the destruction of Israel.

The guidelines of the new Likud administration insisted that the right to return of Palestinians should be denied, he said. Refugee working groups had concentrated on refugees' living conditions and on the issue of family reunification, making some progress on the latter. They had also focused on the plight of refugees in the Arab world, particularly in Lebanon. The Netanyahu victory, however, had limited the boundaries of the ongoing negotiations.

ANDREW ROBINSON, Director-General of the Middle East Peace Process Coordination Bureau of Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and Gavel-Holder of the Refugee Working Group, said the Group had been set up to complement bilateral negotiations. The Group aimed to address broad regional issues whose solutions required coordinated action and international support. It did so by improving the current living conditions of refugees and displaced persons without prejudice to their rights and future status, by facilitating and extending family reunification, and by supporting a comprehensive solution to the refugee problem.

This year, on Gavel-Holder, he had consulted with refugees in five camps in Jordan, Mr. Robinson said. He held discussions with Jordanian officials on the humanitarian situation and on the future, in light of the permanent status talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The Group's traditional emphasis on refugees outside Gaza and the West Bank had not changed. However, it had decided to focus on those areas because of rapid changes taking place there now and had consulted with the Palestinian Authority in a way that was acceptable to the parties.

Last May, the Group had considered the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and the need for donors to find ways to support them, either through dedicated donations to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) or through other channels. The concept of adapting to change would be very useful for project development and policy formulation in the West Bank and Gaza; it would also be important for all residents as they dealt with the effects of changing circumstances. That applied to long-term residents, the newly returned, former detainees, people moving in and out of camps, parents concerned with overcrowding in schools, and young people setting up house in the new environment.

Unfortunately, Syria and Lebanon did not participate in the Group, a fact which limited its ability to address issues comprehensively in those countries, he said. Nevertheless, the Group was committed to maintaining a dialogue with those countries and with their Palestinian communities. On a recent visit to Lebanon, he had expressed concern to the Government about the humanitarian, economic and civil situation of its Palestinian refugees. The Group wished to support and help Lebanon and Syria and their Palestinian refugees; there was no question of secret agendas or of attempts to prejudice the results of negotiations.

ROSEMARY SAYIGH, anthropologist and independent researcher, said more than two thirds of the Palestinian people were refugees. Most decisions about their fate were being taken in an international or regional context marked by United States-Israeli domination, official Arab detachment, efforts to dismantle the legal and institutional framework of refugees rights, and Palestinian fragmentation. Refugees were particularly vulnerable in Lebanon, where the authorities opposed short-term improvement in their status, as well as their ultimate settlement. Factors affecting the situation of Palestine refugees there included travel restrictions, underemployment, a health and education crisis, and a decline in external aid. Although the number of community-based non-governmental organizations had increased from five to 17 since 1982, they had to register under Lebanese law, which restricted their membership, direction and employment.

It was difficult to protect future developments because of the restricted Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue and the absence of a clear government policy, she said. The Government was likely to veto high-profile projects which suggested permanent settlement of refugees in Lebanon, as well as any large plan to improve their living conditions. Visible refugee misery was seen as the only way to remind the world of Lebanon's burden, and as a means of pressuring refugees to migrate. Despite the insecurity of Palestinian non- governmental organizations, they had not been prevented from working in the camps, nor from holding seminars and exhibitions or meeting foreign delegations.

She said the North American non-governmental organizations could work to mobilize their Palestinian and Arab communities and their media around the refugees right to choice. They could lobby the Lebanese Government to give Palestinians civic rights and abolish travel restrictions, and mobilize UNRWA to maintain and strengthen its services. They could also help set up a human rights non-governmental organization in Lebanon and send youth volunteers to work with Palestinian non-governmental organizations there.

DON PERETZ, Professor Emeritus at Binghamton University, New York, said the question of compensation had been deferred because of differing ideas on who was responsible for refugee flight and who should pay for abandoned property, as well as on the scope of the problem. Israel had disclaimed responsibility for the flight and did not consider compensation an obligation. However, it had offered to consider payment as part of a general peace agreement with due regard to counter-claims for Jewish property lost in the 1948 war and for property abandoned by Jews who left Arab countries. The Arab States and the Palestinians insisted that compensation was an individual right of the refugees or their beneficiaries. They placed responsibility for payment on Israel, but insisted that the United Nations share the obligation because of its role in establishing the Jewish State.

A number of technical problems confronted those dealing with the compensation issue, he said. Who was entitled to compensation and how much? Most of the land classified as abandoned Arab property had not been registered under the Land Settlement Act, which identified ownership. A large part of Palestine had been registered under the old Ottoman system. Nearly half of Palestine included the southern Negev region, where Bedouin ownership was presumed rather than clearly defined. Some estimates suggested that up to 50 per cent of the land was communally owned. Often, the only evidence of ownership was oral.

Drawing attention to Jewish counter-claims of lost property, he said it might be appropriate to combine the problems of compensation and economic rehabilitation. That could be done through the establishment of an international fund for refugee compensation and rehabilitation to be administered by a commission comprised of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the former combatants. The commission could raise funds for economic rehabilitation, with priority to be given to individual claims.

WILLIAM LEE, Chief of the New York Liaison Office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said over 3.2 million Palestine refugees were currently registered with UNRWA. Of these, some 1.3 million were in Jordan. There were 700,000 refugees in Gaza, 524,000 in the West Bank, and approximately 340,000 in Lebanon and Syria. The Agency provided eligible refugees with free basic education, access to its high-tech vocational training colleges, and community-based health care. It looked after sanitation in the camps and provided social services to the poorest refugees, including food rations, cash assistance, and grants to set up self-support schemes.

Basic programmes had improved significantly in recent years, he said. Although there were still too many crowded classrooms in outdated buildings, there were new UNRWA-designed schools, each with a fully equipped computer room. Health centres had well-equipped dispensaries, dental clinics and such specialist facilities as family-planning services. The youth activities centres were back after years of closure. The outstanding portfolio of $8 million in loans, supporting more than 1,000 refugee-run enterprises, had a 90 per cent repayment rate, despite deteriorating economic conditions in Gaza and the West Bank.

Such programmes had transformed UNRWA's relationship with the refugee community from one of dependence to one of partnership, he said. They were making a major, positive impact on the refugees' social and economic environment. However, the voluntary funding on which UNRWA depended for its core programmes had not kept pace with increased demand. The natural growth of the refugee population, coupled with inflation and unfavourable exchange rates, called for more income to maintain existing services. Donors were willing to fund massive public works projects with visible benefits, but not the Agency's basic health, education and relief services. The Agency would, therefore, welcome any non-governmental organization initiative to persuade governments maintain, increase and broaden their financial support for its activities.


A participant asked if Canadians were able influence the United States to modify its position in the multilateral negotiations. Mr. ROBINSON said that, within the refugee working groups, the United States had volunteered to lead on the theme of human resource development. The role of refugee working groups was to complement the bilateral negotiations and to seek consensus on issues that could not be addressed in those talks. The United States had not taken positions on issues that fell under the bilateral negotiations.

Mr. TAMARI said the United States should play a neutral role in the negotiations. However, two years ago, it had stopped supporting Assembly resolution 194. In addition, its Congress had voted to move the United States embassy to a site of abandoned Arab property in Jerusalem before 1999.

Ms. SAYIGH said the absence of a clear United States policy was important. Their position now was that the question of Palestinian refugees was part of a larger refugee problem.

Another participant said the basis for a solution to the refugee problem was contained resolution 194. Compensation should be for individual Palestinians and for the Palestinian state. It was important to address the human dimension of refugee status and the conditions in which Palestinians had to live for so many years.

Mr. TAMARI said the question of determining who is a displaced person had been debated for two years without resolution. Israel insisted that the right of return did not apply to the dependants of displaced persons. The peace agreement gave the Palestinian Authority civilian control of the West Bank and Gaza. However, the question remained as to whether the Authority should be able to determine who should reside there. Israel should not consider demography a security issue. Of those who left between 1967 and today, 120,000 had been denied the right to return.

Mr. PERETZ said the question of compensation of individuals for human suffering touched on the issue of justice for the refugees. It was crucial to reconcile what should be with what was possible. The property involved had an estimated value of over $200 billion; to be worth $200,000 billion; the cost of human suffering could be $1 trillion. What was to be the source of such compensation?

Another participant stressed the role of consensus in reaching creative solutions. What was Canada doing to demonstrate leadership and to show other nations the choices that were possible?

Mr. ROBINSON said that all five of the multilateral working groups operated on the basis of consensus, the establishment of which was demanding and required leadership. It was futile to operate without consensus. Canada had placed great emphasis on the question of refugees, and it attached great importance to the negotiations.

The question of adaptation had been agreed last December by a carefully constructed consensus, he said. The idea was to find ways to help the Palestinians adapt to the changing situation and was distinct from the larger efforts of the international community. Determined efforts were made to address the humanitarian situation outside the West Bank and Gaza and to ensure that the Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria were engaged in the peace process. It might seem as though not a lot had been accomplished, but it was not for lack of trying on the part of the Canadian Government.

In response to another question, Mr. TAMARI said that commitment to resolution 194 was a matter of principle. In principle, the Palestinians could not enter into negotiations unless the wrongs against them were righted. In practice, however, the situation in Israel would not allow full justice to Palestinians.

Mr. PERETZ said there was a certain ambiguity in the phrase "the right to return". It had been left ambiguous for specific reasons, particularly the question of the right to return. In essence, it meant the right of return to Palestine.

In response to a question about global compensation, he said that individual compensation denoted a situation in which an individual presented a claim for a specific piece of property. Global compensation was a lump sum to a group of people for property or a wrong done to them.

Responding to a question about the situation in which Palestinians in the diaspora who wanted to visit their families were asked by UNRWA to give up their Palestinian identification, Mr. ROBINSON expressed concern about the increased difficulties that were being imposed on the Palestinian community, particularly in Lebanon. The question of giving up a Palestinian identification card was not a Canadian requirement, and he was not aware that it was a requirement of Lebanon.

Some things could be done to alleviate the humanitarian situation of refugees without prejudice to the rights of the Palestinians, he stated. He had never felt that Palestinians should not have good domestic structures or homes, yet, many members of the Palestinian community believed that permanent homes would signal a renunciation of their right to return. It was remarkable that, for so long, people had been asked to live in desperate conditions so that they would continue to plague the international conscience. Improving the sewage system and having permanent houses and clean water would not jeopardize refugee status.

Mr. LEE said Palestinians in Australia who applied for visas to visit Palestine had been asked to surrender their Palestinian identification cards. The card was no good to an individual who was registered outside of Lebanon once he or she was in the area administrated by UNRWA, but that person could be reregistered under his or her family's identification.

Would moving the UNRWA office from Vienna to Gaza be cost-effective? a participant asked. Mr. LEE said the costs of the move were being financed out of special funding, but they had not yet been able to raise the full amount. Some international staff members were transferring from Vienna to Gaza. Once they were settled, there would be substantial savings in staff costs, as well as benefits in efficiency.

Ms. SAYIGH said that Palestinians who had a second nationality had not been asked to surrender their refugee identification card, but, rather, they had been crossed off the lists of Palestinians with residence rights. Palestinians in Lebanon needed a non-governmental organization to take up such issues.

A participant said the right of return was not ambiguous, and negotiations should start with the legal interpretation.

Another participant said that non-governmental organizations should pressure the United States to withhold aid to Israel until it conformed to the peace process. Everything else would then fall into place.

Asked to comment on the Israeli attack on Lebanon, Ms. SAYIGH said Palestinians had been totally marginalized. For once, they were not the object of the attacks, and the Lebanese had come into the Palestinian camps to seek refuge.

Another participant said there was no ambiguity on the part of the Palestinians concerning the right to return. They had the right to return to every single inch of Palestine.

Most Israelis did not share the view that they were entirely responsible for the injustices visited on the Palestinians, a delegate said. Many Israelis believed the Palestinians had the right to return, but to the Palestinian state.

Another participant said the voices of the people must be listened to; otherwise, there would only be peace on paper.

Mr. TAMARI said there was no agreement which allowed the Palestinians to return to the West Bank. The present Government did not distinguish between the refugees of 1948 and those of 1967. Israel should be committed to the return of some of the Palestinian refugees to Israel.

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