The Difficult Road Ahead :: Whose Right of Return? ::

During the first state visit by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to the United States, President George W. Bush reiterated the US affirmation of and support for the two-state principle, a free democratic Palestinian state living side by side with Israel. He also outlined US expectations from Israel and the PNA toward the implementation of the “Road Map.” While the President’s statements on the Palestine-Israel question were the clearest in many years, the basic issue of the refugees and their right of return continues to be relegated to ‘final status negotiations’ and is most likely to be a deal breaker.

The right of return of an indigenous population to its homeland, regardless of the reasons for its departure, is a sacred right. It is guaranteed by international law and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948. Specifically, section (2) of Article 13 of the Declaration states: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”[1]

Seven hundred and fifty thousand Palestinians left their homeland as refugees during the few months of conflict leading up to the termination of the British mandate in Palestine, the departure of the Mandatory from the area and the declaration of a State (Israel) by the Jewish militia on 78% of historic Palestine. Most of these Palestinians of all ages left on foot and walked across no-man’s-land with no property except what they could carry on their shoulders, and most of them carried their children instead. Many of these same refugees had to leave again under similar adversity during the 1967 conflict, one result of which was the occupation by Israel of the remaining 22% of historic Palestine.

These Palestinian refugees with their successive generations today count in the several millions [2]; most of them are citizen-less and have been denied the right to return to their homeland. Their real and personal property, which they or their parents left behind, have been confiscated and given to Jewish immigrants who were imported by Israel to populate the state. In the meantime, many of the Palestinians who could not leave during the 1948 conflict or who decided to stay in their towns and villages, have seen their property confiscated and their villages essentially erased from the map, all for the purpose of bringing more Jewish immigrants from around the world; Palestinians living in Israel have been living as refugees in their own homeland, second-class citizens with a small fraction of the rights given to the Jewish citizens of Israel.

Ironically, the Jewish immigration into Israel was and continues to be encouraged by Israel and world Zionism based on the ‘sacred’ Jewish Right of Return. Israel considers every person of the Jewish faith, regardless of the residence location or citizenship of that person, as a citizen of Israel who has the inherent right to ‘return’ to Israel. The Jewish right of return was and remains the only justification by world Zionism for the establishment of the State of Israel on Palestinian land.

The two basic questions one may ask after considering these facts are:

(1). How can a Jew have the right to ‘return’ to Palestine or any part of it based on a theory that his or her ancestors lived in Palestine twenty centuries ago when in fact that Jew may not have even had any lineage to historic Palestine?

(2). How can a non-Jewish Palestinian be denied the right of return to Palestine when that Palestinian and/or his ancestors lived there as recently as half a century ago?

To answer the first question, one must first understand that there are two types of immigrants to Israel. The first type consists of members of the Jewish communities from around the world, particularly from the west. The second consists of those who are non-Jewish but are recruited for conversion into Judaism, from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), from other countries of the Former Soviet Union [3] and from the native Americans of Latin America, only for the purpose of promoting immigration to Israel: “The rabbis converted only those who said they were willing to immigrate to Israel immediately.” [4] The objective of the government of Israel and world Zionism from encouraging this immigration has been to bolster the number of Jews in Israel so as to offset the number of Christian and Moslem Palestinians throughout historic Palestine.

The conversion to Judaism for political purposes is obviously a despicable act, and in no way can these converts be considered ‘returning Jews.’ Neither they nor their ancestors had ever set foot in Palestine, nor can their roots be traced to the Hebrews, Canaanites, or Philistines, who populated Palestine at one time or another before or during biblical times.

The immigration to Israel of those who have been members of the Jewish communities in the west or in the CIS can hardly qualify as ‘return’ to Palestine because these immigrants are just as much converts to Judaism, just like the modern day ‘political’ converts mentioned above. In his book The Thirteenth Tribe, Jewish historian Arthur Koestler [5] explains that western Jews and Jews in the countries of the Former Soviet Union have no lineage whatsoever with the Hebrews of Palestine. Koestler explains that the origin of these western Jews is the Khazar Empire which flourished between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea north of the Caucuses during the eighth and ninth centuries. The Khazars were a “people of Turkish stock” (Koestler, 1976 p.1) and a conglomeration of nomadic tribes who flourished into a regional power and then a powerful empire, but had no religion of their own. As the Khazars were being threatened by the two superpowers of the time, the Christian Byzantines and the Moslem Arabs, the Kagan of Khazaria searched for a religion for his court and for his people; for practical purposes, if for no other reasons, the Kagan settled on accepting neither Christianity nor Islam but Judaism as the religion of the imperial court. It was not much later that Khazaria became essentially a Jewish state (Koestler, 1976). Regarding these facts Koestler states:

“Yet whereas the sources differ in minor detail, the major facts are beyond dispute. What is in dispute is the fate of the Jewish Khazars after the destruction of their empire, in the twelfth or thirteenth century. On this problem the sources are scant, but various late mediaeval Khazar settlements are mentioned in the Crimea, in the Ukraine, in Hungary, Poland and Lithuania. The general picture that emerges from these fragmentary pieces of information is that of a migration of Khazar tribes and communities into those regions of Eastern Europe – mainly Russia and Poland – where, at the dawn of the Modern Age, the greatest concentrations of Jews were found. This has led several historians to conjecture that a substantial part, and perhaps the majority of eastern Jews – and hence of world Jewry – might be of Khazar, and not of Semitic origin.” (Koestler, 1976 p.15)

“-¦the large majority of surviving Jews in the world is of Eastern European – and thus perhaps mainly of Khazar – origin. If so, this would mean that their ancestors came not from the Jordan but from the Volga, not from Canaan but from the Caucasus -¦ and that genetically they are more closely related to the Hun, Uigur and Magyar tribes than to the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Koestler, 1976 p.17)

The second question related to denying the right of return of a Palestinian to his homeland after an absence of only 57 years has never been answered satisfactorily by Israel or its proponents, or by the world community which acquiesced in the Palestinians’ displacement. We know that the absence of land is not the reason for denying the Palestinians their right of return because western Jews and Jewish converts are constantly being imported as new immigrants to populate the vacant land. Israel and its proponents have maintained that the return of Palestinians, instead of Jewish immigrants, will increase the percentage of non-Jewish citizens of Israel, upsetting the ‘Jewish character’ of Israel.

If and when peace negotiations progress as the leaders expect, there will be deafening voices asking about Jewish and Palestinian right of return. Answers rooted in racism and discrimination against either side will not be acceptable. As the western Jew and foreign Jewish converts today have the right of return, the Palestinian refugee must be given back his sacred right to return to his homeland in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. However, because Israel and many of the world powers are concerned about the impact of potential mass return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, after they have been given their rights, then let Israel and the world give the Palestinian refugees the incentive to do otherwise, but by their own free choice rather than by a prohibition.

It is a foregone conclusion that, as part of any peace settlement, Palestinians who left their homeland and were not allowed to return should be compensated for their loss of land and other property, and for their pain and suffering, during all the years they lived as refugees. Because of the economic impact of such compensation, this would require all members of the United Nations to share in establishing a Palestinian compensation fund, for it is not the problem and responsibility of Israel alone but of the entire world community.

For practical reasons, the return of Palestinian refugees could be phased over a period that would reduce the impact on Israeli society and economy. A system would be established to give priority for return to Palestinian refugees who are suffering the most, those living in refugee camps in Arab countries that do not presently allow Palestinian refugees to assimilate into their societies. Those who are nominated for return during any period would be given the alternative to settle in their country of residence, with the agreement of that country (incentives will work wonders) or in the West Bank and Gaza, with a larger compensation package; this will be their incentive to decide not to return to their homes in Israel.

Before any peace agreement can be reached, the PNA, Israel, the United States and the whole world must provide satisfactory and practical answers to the return of Palestinians to their homeland. Otherwise, denial of the Palestinian right of return will be a deal breaker, regardless of Israeli and world expectations or PNA capitulation.


[1]. See Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 1948 -” Available

[2]. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimated 9.1 million at the end of 2001 distributed as follows: 3.5 million in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem; over 1 million in Israel proper, and 4.6 million in exile, most of them as refugees in Jordan Syria’ and Lebanon. Available at

[3]. See Barkat, A., Jewish Agency plans fast-track conversion for immigrants from CIS, – Available at

[4]. See Livneh, N., Coming Home, Ha’aretz Magazine Section, Friday, July 19, 2002 -” Available

[5]. Koestler, A., The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and its Heritage, Random House, Inc, New York, 1976