The Palestinian Refugee Problem & the Right of Return

“Any one who speaks in favor of bringing the Arab refugees back must also say how he expects to take the responsibility for it, if he is interested in the state of Israel. It is better that things are stated clearly and plainly: We shall not let this happen.”

Sadly, when it comes to the Right of Return, there is virtually no difference between the Israeli Left and Right, as peace activist and founding member of Gush Shalom Uri Avnery once noted [1]–they all reject it. But, the question is why.

It is one thing to denounce such rejection, but to defeat it, a strong case must be made against it, by exposing its underlying moral bankruptcy, lawlessness and debunking its relevant myths, until it is exposed for what it really is –mere chauvinism, in the racist sense.

Background: the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem

Al-Nakba (Arabic: the catastrophe)

“It was estimated that before the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war, on 15 May 1948, the number of Palestinian refugees had reached about 300,000. As Anthony Nutting has remarked: ‘it would be truer to say that the refugees were the cause of the first Arab-Israeli war and not the result’.” (Cattan, Henry, 1976, Palestine and International Law, p.138)

In the course of the 1948 war in Palestine, what Palestinians refer to as Al-Nakba, and the subsequent establishment of the state of Israel, some 800,000 Palestinians were expelled and displaced from their villages, homes, and lands by Zionist forces.

“The extent to which the refugees were savagely driven out by the Israelis as part of a deliberate master plan has been insufficiently recognized.” (John H. Davis, Commissioner General of UNRWA 1959-63, The Evasive Peace, p.57)

An Israeli military intelligence document indicates that at least 75 percent of the refugees left due to direct Zionist military actions and/or Zionist terror campaigns. There are several well-documented cases of mass expulsions (the best-known is that of the 50,000 Arabs of the towns of Lydda and Ramle) during and after the 1948-49 Zionist-Arab hostilities. Close to 500 Palestinian villages were depopulated and destroyed by Zionist forces [2] (destroyed, to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees).

“Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis and; Kefar Yehushu’a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.” (Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Defense Minister, addressing Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa. Quoted in Ha’aretz, 04/04/1969)

Whatever the cause for their exodus, Palestinians never willfully relinquished their lands and, as such, these lands were, literally, stolen from them by the newly founded Zionist government. To be clear, these lands were systematically expropriated from Palestinians in what amounts to legalized theft and were not rightfully “bought,” per the common Israeli myth.

Enough UN documents and maps as well as testimonies by Israeli historians and politicians (for example, Ben Gurion’s testimony to UNSCOP in 1947) [3] concur that, prior to the 1948 Arab-Zionist war, Jews owned no more than 6% (5.6% by Palestinian estimates) of Palestine. By the end of the 1948 war, however, Israel controlled 78% of the total landmass, the vast majority of which was owned by Palestinian residents who were evacuated from their villages and/or who fled their homes during the war.

The Israeli government undertook formidable measures to legalize its systematic confiscation policies in the Israeli legal system in order to legitimize its ownership of confiscated properties. Various intertwined policies and laws were enacted to accomplish this task. The lands and properties of evicted Palestinians, which were described as “absentee property,” were seized under the Absentee Property Regulations of 1948.

On March 15, 1950 the Israeli Knesset passed the Absentee Properties Law, which declared as “absentees” all Palestinian citizens who were not present in Israel on the 1st of September 1948, and vested all their property in the Trustee on the Absentee Properties. This law considered the latter as the legitimate “custodian” of these properties and gave it the authority to sell and transfer ownership of such properties to the Israeli Department of Construction and Development. From thence, lands were acquired (“redeemed,” say the Jewish fundamentalists/Zionists) by the Jewish National Fund, such that by 1953 the Jewish National Fund’s “ownership” totaled over 90% of the territories under the control of the “Jewish state.” Such properties are referred to as the “nation’s land” and are limited to the use of Jews only. [4]

According to UN estimates, Al-Nakba left the Palestinian refugees dispersed in the following manner:

West Bank: 26.25%

Gaza: 38.5%

Arab Countries: 35.25%

(The UN initially registered an additional 40,000 Palestinians as displaced persons inside the territory of the state of Israel itself.)

Who is a Palestinian Refugee?

“Under UNRWA’s operational definition, Palestine refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict…UNRWA’s definition of a refugee also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948. The number of registered Palestine refugees has subsequently grown from 914,000 in 1950 to more than 3.8 million in 2001, and continues to rise due to natural population growth.” [5]

“One-third of the registered Palestine refugees, about 1.1 million, live in 59 recognized refugee camps in the area of operations in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” [5]

In wake of the June 1967 war, which Palestinians refer to as Al-Naksa (Arabic: the setback), Israel displaced between 235,000 and 350,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. This included around 175,000 UNRWA registered refugees who became refugees for a second time. Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who were displaced for the first time in 1967 were considered “displaced persons” rather than “refugees”. (Until the 1967 war, the West Bank had been under the control of Jordan. Most West Bank Palestinians fled to Jordan and continued to live under Jordanian jurisdiction, hence their classification as “displaced” persons.)

“Ten of the (refugee) camps were established in the aftermath of the June 1967 war and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, to accommodate a new wave of displaced persons, both refugees and non-refugees.” [5]

Consequently, there are over 3.8 million UNRWA registered refugees and about 2 million others non- registered.

In all, about 3 million Palestinians now live within the territory of Palestine, as it was defined by the British mandate, which is now divided between the state of Israel, and the West Bank and Gaza. About one million Palestinian are citizens of Israel, living inside the country’s 1949 armistice borders; about 1.2 million live in the West Bank (including 200,000 in East Jerusalem) and about one million in the Gaza Strip. The remainder of the Palestinian people, perhaps another 3 million, live in Diaspora outside their ancestral homeland.

Palestinian refugees constitute the single largest refugee population in the world, according to the U.S. Committee on Refugees. One in four refugees worldwide is Palestinian.

The Feasibility of the Return

Ironically, the majority of Palestinian refugees reside within a 100 miles of their places of origin (inside Israel, West Bank and Gaza) but are unable to exercise their right to return. [6]

“By the time Israel became a state in 1948, JNF owned 12.5 percent of all the land of Israel, on which 80 percent of Israel’s population now lives,” boasts the Jewish National Fund on its official website. [7]

Noted Palestinian researcher, Salman Abu Sitta, more or less agrees. His research on Israel’s demography concludes that 78% of the Jews in Israel live in 15% of Israel proper; 85% of the land is mostly refugees’ land, in which 22% of Israelis live. [8]

Logistically, therefore, the Right of Return is feasible with minimal disruption, albeit warranted, to the Israeli citizenry.

The Right of Return & International Law

Before its admission to the UN, on 11 May 1949, Israel declared that it “unreservedly accepts the obligations of the United Nations Charter and undertakes to honor them from the day it becomes a member of the United Nations.” [9]

UN General Assembly Resolution 273 stated that Israel would be admitted to the UN on the condition that Israel accepts its previous relevant resolutions, namely, 194 (which guaranteed Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes) and 181 (the partition plan of November 29, 1947). The General Assembly has reaffirmed this resolution over forty times (most recently on 11 December 1990, in Resolution 45/73). [9]

Paragraph 11 of UN General Assembly Resolution 194, of December 1948, which outlined the framework for a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem, states:

“Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

In the first Progress Report submitted by the UN-appointed Mediator for Palestine, Count Folke Bernadotte, the Mediator recognized the right of return as key to a resolution of the conflict in Palestine. Bernadotte wrote:

“No settlement can be just and complete if recognition is not accorded to the right of the Arab refugee to return to the homes from which he has been dislodged. It would be an offense against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine, and, indeed, at least offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees who have been rooted in the land for centuries.”

(Count Bernadotte paid dearly for his conscientiousness –he was liquidated by Zionist terrorists in Jerusalem, on September 17, 1948.)

UN General Assembly Resolution 3236 of 1974 reaffirmed this droit. According to Article 2, it is “the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return.”

General Assembly Resolution 51/129 of 1996 reaffirmed the right of Palestinian refugees to their property and the revenues from the property.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Article 15 states: “Everyone has the right to a nationality.”


Aside from being a pressing humanitarian case, solving the Palestinian refugee problem is the true oft-shunned key to attaining justice and lasting peace in the Middle East. The Right of Return is inalienable and cannot be “negotiated” away in a manner contradictory to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UN resolutions. To do so would be perpetuation of inexcusable and unconscionable injustice.

It is a fact: if it weren’t for Zionism, for Israel, there would be no Palestinian refugee problem. Hence, today Jews have an indisputable moral responsibility to ending the Palestinian suffering. And, if the return is demographically feasible, why, then, could not Jews and Palestinians coexist as equals in a democratic pluralistic society in the Holy Land?

Golda Meir was gravely wrong and myopic to stack Israel over humanistic-Judaism, when she said, “we shall not let this happen.” She was a Zionist.



[3] UNSCOP is United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. See Maps & Mythology, Edward F. Henderson, American Educational Trust

Mr. Baha Abushaqra is a Media Activist with Palestine Media Watch.