Compensating Palestinian refugees

The pronouncements made by President Bush and, in his new capacity as Middle East Peace Envoy, Tony Blair on prospects for a peace agreement between Israel and, at least, the Palestinian Authority have been cautiously optimistic. Both are clear that an end to the occupation of some Palestinian territory and a solution to the refugee problem are fundamental pre-requisites. Yet while they may be able to muster the political will from within the Israeli government for retreating from occupied territories, the refugee problem is more complex and, perhaps, a more fundamental barrier to peace.

Michael Dumper, in the Introduction to this edited volume, argues that the refugee problem is ‘the most difficult of the outstanding problems in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians’. At the end of 2003, there were 1.3 million refugees living in camps in neighbouring countries and in Gaza and the West Bank; a further four million were registered as refugee outside of the camps. The reason Dumper sees the issue as the greatest obstacle to an agreement stems from the unique nature of this protracted refugee problem due to its longevity, its magnitude, the legal complexity, the nature of the conflict and the lack of territoriality – that is the lack of (or limits to) Palestinian sovereignty.

So will compensation be able to overcome this complexity, eschewing the preferred but perhaps utopian solution of repatriation given its capacity to generate further conflict? All sorts of challenges arise from pursuing this course of action, particularly related to setting the parameters of this compensation. Who is to get what compensation? Material losses will be difficult to prove, while psychological impacts will be difficult to quantify. It will be interesting to see how the details of any compensation plan develop.

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