Normative dimensions of the Palestinian refugee issue

Posted: February 19, 2014 by Rex Brynen in conferences

I recently returned from another in the long-standing “Minster Lovell” series of conferences organized by Chatham House (UK). This time the focus was on the normative dimensions of the Palestinian refugee issue, with the meeting including Palestinian, Israeli, and international experts.

This is a difficult topic, for several reasons. First, the issue touches upon core aspects of Palestinian and Israeli narratives—narratives that often don’t agree. Given the suffering involved by all those who have been displaced, dispossessed, and exiled by the conflict, it can strike a deep emotional cord. In contrast to the previous session at Minster Lovell (which focused on the technical aspects of refugee compensation) the topic is one that largely intangible and hence difficult to precisely categorize or define.

Minster Lovell itself was rather soggy, since the meeting took place amid heavy rainstorms that flooded parts of southern and central England. However, accommodation and arrangements at the Old Swan and Minster Mill were excellent as ever.


The first (half) day of the meeting started with a general discussion of why the normative dimensions of the refugee issue mattered. We then moved on to an examination of Palestinian and Israeli perspectives on the topic. Overall, I would say that five major dimensions of the issue emerged from this:

  1. Recognition/responsibility/apology. Is it enough for Israel to simply acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinian refugees, or is more needed—a statement of regret, or perhaps acceptance of responsibility for their expulsion in 1948? To what extent can initiatives such as commemoration, memorialization, historical commissions, or even a truth and reconciliation commission help to address some of these needs?
  2. The normative dimensions of the right of return. Refugee return is, of course, also a “tangible” question of whether Palestinian refugees and their descendants might be able to return to their ancestral homes with Israel. However, it also has normative dimensions, in that Palestinians view this as an internationally-acknowledged moral and legal right that also requires recognition, even if the actual number of refugees returning might be limited, or even largely symbolic.
  3. Compensation as a moral element. Any compensation paid to Palestinian refugees would be at least partial reparation for their dispossession. I am doubtful, however (especially after the last workshop) that it could fully addresses the losses and suffering they have experienced. To what extent can compensation perform a symbolic and moral function too?
  4. Addressing the forced displacement of Jews from Arab countries. In addition to the hundreds of thousand of Palestinians that were forcibly displaced during the establishment of the state of Israel, many Jews also fled from discriminatory treatment in Arab countries. How might the situation of Jewish refugees be addressed in an agreement with regard to such normative dimensions as moral acknowledgement?
  5. End of claims, moral closure. Can an agreement not only bring to an end claims made against one party by the other, but also bring about a sort of moral closure to the decades of dispossession, violence, and conflict?

PriorNegotiationsI presented a review of how normative issues had been dealt with in prior Israeli-Palestinian negotiations , as well as selected unofficial “track two” initiatives:

  • Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement (track II/1995)
  • Core Group working paper (track II/1999)
  • Camp David negotiations (official/2000)
  • Clinton Parameters (official/2000)
  • Taba negotiations (official/2001)
  • Geneva Initiative (track II/2003)
  • Annapolis negotiations (official/2007-08)

In general, in official talks Palestinian side has sought a clear expression of Israeli responsibility for the forced displacement of Palestinian refugees, while Israeli has been unwilling to go beyond an acknowledgement of the refugees’ suffering.  A copy of my presentation can be found here. Much of this discussion also drew on an excellent chapter by Mike Molloy and John Bell on “Intangible Needs, Moral Acknowledgement, and the Palestinian Refugee Issue” in  The Palestinian Refugee Problem: The Search for a Resolution (coedited by myself and Roula el-Rifai).

For the second (full) day of the workshop, participants were divided into three working groups, and challenged to develop appropriate language, formulations, linkages, and sequencing that might be used to address these issues in the context of current or future peace negotiations. In contrast to the usual “seminar” format of such discussions (which tend to produce a thoughtful but rather indeterminate output) or “second track” meetings (where the emphasis is often on producing an agreed text), the emphasis here was on brainstorming as many new ideas as possible. While participants certainly expressed their views on the political feasibility of the ideas put forward, the working group moderators made it clear that all ideas were welcome. After all, you never know when interesting synergies might emerge between several different proposals.

To make things interesting, the composition of the working groups was randomly shuffled every 90 minutes or so by drawing names from what the Harry Potter fans among us dubbed the “sorting hat.” I was certainly impressed with the energy and insight that participants devoted to the process.

Ina  final session, the working group moderators and the rest of the participants offered some reflections on the discussions. In my own view, several points stood out.

It was generally agreed that the normative dimensions of the refugee issue are centrally important. Achieving political and moral closure for the issue is more than simply a case of shifting people (repatriation, return, resettlement) and money (reparations/compensation). However, there was less agreement on whether it is necessary to address this now, or whether it is better to postpone the issue until issues of borders and Palestinian statehood have been agreed by the parties. In the former case, it was argued that postponing the issue would only fuel the alienation and anger of refugees. In the latter case, it was suggested that progress on territorial issues might create a better atmosphere for addressing difficult normative issues in future. I admit to still being undecided on the question.

The point was made by several participants that Israeli recognition of its historic role in creating refugee issue should not be seen as concession. Rather, it was better understood (when and if such recognition ever happened) as the self-confident act of a modern state that has come to terms with past abuses. After all, it has become increasingly common for democratic countries such as Australia, Canada, the UK, or US to acknowledge past wrongs—not as a sign of weakness, but in rather as an act of political maturity.

There was considerable discussion of how language, acknowledgement, symbolic acts, and truth and reconciliation initiatives might help promote moral closure, justice, and reconciliation. It was recognized, however, that it can be difficult to assure that such measures have the intended effects. There was also considerable debate as to how willing the Israeli public might be to acknowledge some responsibility for the refugee issue.

The question of recognition of the Jewish character of Israel emerged as a surprisingly important theme in what was, after all, a workshop devoted to the Palestinian refugee issue. Some Israeli participants suggested that this was necessary to offset any symbolic or practical Israeli recognition of a Palestinian right of return; others argued that the issue had simply assumed too much political salience in Israel to now be forgotten; still others cited Palestinian reluctance to acknowledge deep Jewish ties to the region as a reason for wanting such recognition. It was also argued that such recognition might facilitate Israeli recognition of Palestinian moral claims.

A large majority of participants were  uncomfortable with recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state.” Palestinians asserted that this could be seen as justifying ethnic cleansing in 1948 or legitimizing the treatment of Palestinians in Israel as second class citizens. Many Israelis were uncomfortable with the implications of the formulation for Israeli democracy. It was also widely felt that such terminology, if put forward by the US in its own bridging position, could prove a major stumbling block to progress. Conversely, there was much wider acceptance of recognizing Israel as “homeland of the Jewish people” or other similar formulations.

There was very broad agreement that Jews were displaced from some Arab countries, and were deserving of both recognition and remedy. Many felt this issue had no place in a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement, however, but instead was more properly an issue that should be raised with the states concerned. Others felt that, even though the issue might have been originally raised by the Israeli government largely as a bargaining chip, it was now at the point where it had to be addressed for Israeli domestic political reasons.

In the end, lots of ideas were generated, far too many to be listed here. These will be summarized in a forthcoming Chatham House report on the meeting, which should be available in the coming weeks. When it that report is released it will also  be announced here at the PRRN blog.

  1. […] Normative dimensions of the Palestinian refugee issue […]

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