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Palestinian refugees and the 'right of return'


(CNN) -- Israel's declaration of independence in 1948 triggered an invasion by several Arab countries -- and a war that forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in what was to be Israel.

Despite a United Nations resolution recognizing the Palestinians' right to return to their homes, Israeli law barred those Palestinians from re-entering Israel at the end of the war.

The Palestinians became refugees, taken in by other Arab states -- some of which were ill-equipped to support them.

The United Nations promptly established the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to help care for those Palestinians. By June 30, 2000, more than 3.7 million Palestinians -- the refugees and their descendants -- were registered with the agency in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.

More than a million of those refugees live in 59 U.N.-operated refugee camps -- 27 of them in the West Bank and Gaza. Almost half of the roughly 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are refugees, and more than 600,000 of them live in the camps. Gaza's population has particularly increased: U.N. figures indicate 824,000 out of 1.1 million are refugees.

Jordan hosts the most refugees -- 1.6 million, of which 280,000 live in 10 camps. Another 376,000 live in Lebanon, with 210,000 of those living in 12 camps. And in Syria, 112,000 of the country's 383,000 refugees live in 10 camps.

Al-Awda -- the Palestinian Right of Return Coalition (PRRC) -- says there are an additional 2 million refugees unregistered and living in other neighboring countries, such as Iran and Iraq, but those refugees are not directly covered by U.N. resolutions and programs.

Clinton's proposal:

Clinton has proposed that the Palestinians accept sovereignty over east Jerusalem -- and the holy sites located there -- in return for dropping the right of return.

Israeli reservations:

The proposal reflects the basic Israeli position that the right of return is unacceptable. It does not affect other proposals that have suggested allowing a certain number of Palestinians to rejoin their families inside Israel as a "humanitarian gesture" or financial compensation funded by Western donor.

Palestinian reservations:

The issue cuts to the core of Palestinian national identity -- the displacement of Palestinians that was integral to the creation of a Jewish state in 1948. Many Palestinians say their right to return goes beyond the U.N. resolution, stemming from a right of a people to live in their homeland.

Additionally, the refugees abroad represent an economic drain and, in some cases, a political dilemma for their hosts. Lebanon, for example, has flatly rejected the idea of allowing the refugees currently living within its border to permanently settle there. Objections like Lebanon's -- which fueled the Arab League foreign ministers when they said after a January meeting that the right of return was "sacred" -- create additional pressure on Arafat not to compromise on this issue.

The rising opposition to the Palestinian leader's authority in the West Bank and Gaza also works against compromise; Arafat is well aware that signing away the refugees' claims would all but invite them to recreate the Palestine Liberation Organization in exile with the backing of more hostile states such as Iraq, Syria and Libya, and to further challenge Arafat's authority in his own back yard. And after three months of bloodletting, the Palestinian leader knows such opposition may find a receptive audience.

Sources:, CIA Factbook, UNRWA, Palestinian Right of Return Coalition, Palestinian National Authority

Israeli envoy to present written reaction to peace proposal
January 4, 2001
Arafat meets Mubarak, will consult Arab ministers on U.S. peace proposals
January 3, 2001
Arafat concludes second meeting with Clinton
January 2, 2001
Clinton and Arafat to meet Tuesday to discuss framework for peace
January 1, 2001
Arafat hopes for peace deal before Clinton departs
January 4, 2001
White House: Talks with Arafat yield progress
January 3, 2001

Israeli Prime Minister's Office
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The White House
Palestinian National Authority
Palestinian Position on Clinton's Proposals

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