Searching for an “Antithesis” to Repatriation: International Efforts to (Dis)solve the Palestinian Refugee Problem

By Marte Heian-Engdal
Submitted to Session P4348 (Regimes for handling the Palestinians, 2016 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
From the origin of the Palestinian exodus in 1947-1949, the dominating tension in finding a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem was between repatriation, on the one hand, and resettlement with some financial compensation on the other. While the Arab regimes maintained that full repatriation was a pre-condition to any further talks of a settlement with Israel, Israel insisted that a solution to the refugee problem could only be found via resettlement in the Arab host-nations, or in third destination countries. In the first few years after the establishment of Israel, the Arab position found resonance among key actors in the international community, where repatriation was viewed as an important political principle. The pinnacle of this view is found in UNSC Resolution 194, which stated that the Palestinian refugees who wanted to return had the right to do so. Gradually, though, the international actors’ focus on repatriation also faded. Thus a reframing of the issue took place, and the focus of the international actors (both in the US and the UN system) shifted onto practicalities of managing the Palestinian refugees. This shift represented a de-politicization of the refugee issue, transforming it from a political into a humanitarian question. During this process the Palestinians were not asked what they wanted, nor included in any negotiations. Managing the Palestinians developed into a process where the core of the matter – the Palestinians – mainly found themselves pushed to the margins. The basic assumption of the international actors was that the Palestinian cry for repatriation was largely symbolic, and thus, if just their lives could be improved, this cry would still.

In this paper I discuss Israel’s shifting position on its willingness to consider compensation for the Palestinian refugees, which came to be seen as the “antithesis” to repatriation, as well as various international efforts to address the refugee problem with practice-oriented solutions throughout the 1950s. Although these processes had different motivations, they had in common that they all, in essence, sought to dissolve – rather than solve – the Palestinian refugee problem.