‘The Right of Return’


“There is no greater sorrow on earth,” wrote the Greek dramatist Euripides, “than the loss of one’s native land.” The largest land-less and state-less nation in the world today is the Palestinian nation, and the Palestinian refugee problem is the world’s oldest and largest refugee problem. It has been on the agenda of the United Nations since its inception. For five decades the Palestinian refugees have endured great injustice and hardships after having been uprooted from their homes and forced to live in Diaspora, deprived of minimum national and human rights. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: “The Palestinians have suffered displacement longer than any other refugee group of comparable size. Since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the creation of Israel, wars in the region have uprooted many families two, three or even four times. The fourth generation of Palestinian refugees is now growing up in camps constructed by their great-grandfathers. Palestinian refugees are sorely in need of a solution to their problems…” In fact, the plight of the refugees � and their future � has become an integral factor in the so-called “Middle East peace process”. After all, most participants in the ‘peace process’ accept that a just solution to the question of Palestine cannot be achieved without a just solution to the issue of the Palestinian refugees.

For years, the tragedy incurred on the Palestinian refugees placed their demand to return to their land and homes at the top of the Arab agenda. The “right of return” draws its authority from a number of UN resolutions, primarily the one passed by the General Assembly on December 11 1948 � Resolution 194 � which states in Article 11 that “�the 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.” The United Nations has reaffirmed this resolution almost annually and Israel’s admission into the UN (according to Resolution 273 of May 11 1949) was actually conditioned on its willingness to implement Resolution 194.

The Arab states and the Palestinians have thus traditionally demanded that the five million Palestinian refugees be given a free choice between repatriation or compensation. The official Israeli position, on the other hand, has always been that there can be no returning of the refugees to Israeli territories, and that the only solution to the problem is their permanent resettlement in the Arab states or elsewhere. Since 1949 all Israeli governments have consistently refused to discuss any possible return of refugees to the pre-1967 borders. They do not want the refugees back under any condition. As the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, admitted in his diary, on 18 July 1948: “We must do everything in our power to ensure that they [the Palestinian refugees] never return.”

The Israelis have four main arguments for rejecting the return of the refugees.

First, they claim that the Palestinians fled from their villages and towns in 1948 under orders from their leaders and therefore the state of Israel has no moral responsibility for repatriating the refugees or offering them compensation. However, this allegation was long ago proved untrue by researchers like Walid Khalidi and Erskine Childers. Indeed, in Israel, the Palestinian claim � that Israeli militia groups violently forced the refugees from their homes � is now being increasingly acknowledged by a new school of revisionist historians such as Benny Morris, Tom Segev, Ilan Pappe and Simha Flapan.

Flapan’s book, ‘The Birth of Israel’, details eight specific massacres perpetrated by Israeli militias and terrorist gangs in villages and townships designated as Arab areas by the UN partition resolution.

This murderous campaign of ethnic cleansing culminated in the massacre of Deir Yassin on April 9 1948, in which hundreds of unarmed Arab civilians were slaughtered by gunmen, striking terror into Muslim and Christian Palestinians who, according to Flapan, fled by the thousands before the advancing Israeli execution squads.

With the new wave of Israeli revisionist historians uncovering more material on the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem, it has become clear that the mass flight of Palestinian civilians from Mandate Palestine was a strategic goal of the founders of Israel. The myth of Arab responsibility for the evacuation of the Palestinians has been debunked.

In fact, even if it could be proved that the Palestinians left their towns and villages voluntarily in 1948, that would still not negate the moral and legal responsibility of the Israeli government to repatriate the refugees. As the Jewish scholar William Zukerman once commented, “The fact that the Arab refugees fled in panic because of real or imaginary danger is no excuse for depriving them of their homes, fields, and livelihood. No people are exempt from panic in wartime; least of all the Jews. In their long wandering, Jews have often fled from real or imaginary threats of pogroms and wars. To deprive the Arabs of their homes and property because they, like most other human beings, sought safety of their children, is a grave act of injustice.”

Second, the Israelis reject the “right to return” on dubious legal grounds. Resolution 194, they point out, is a product of the UN General Assembly. General Assembly resolutions, unlike those of the Security Council, are non-binding and essentially are only suggestions. Also, the resolution itself does not use the language of “rights” or “right of return” and does not specify the nationality of the refugees. This, however, misses the point. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 is part of a corpus of international law that recognises and reaffirms the right of all refugees throughout the world to return to their homes. The “right of return” is enshrined in:

1. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948

2. Article 12 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights of 1966

3. Article 5(d) of the International Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination of 1966.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights actually states quite clearly that, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

Third, the Israelis claim that the implementation of UN Resolution 194 would be akin to ‘national suicide’. They claim that a recognition of the “right to return”, by encouraging the arrival of millions of Palestinian refugees into the State of Israel, would change the demographics of the country in such a way as to effectively end the existence of the independent Jewish state. As Shimon Peres once pointed out, the return of the refugees “�would wipe out the national [Jewish] character of the state of Israel.”

Yet the argument that if Palestinians were allowed to return � as mandated by international law � Israel would cease to be a Jewish majority state, is as legitimate as was the Nazi plan to create a purely Germanic ‘Aryan’ nation-state free of all Jews, Gypsies, blacks and other racial minorities. As the legal scholars, W. Thomas Mallison and Sally V. Mallison, once noted: “The United Nations is under no more of a legal obligation to maintain Zionism in Israel than it is to maintain apartheid in South Africa.”

Finally, the Israelis claim that, legal and moral arguments aside, it is simply impossible to resettle the millions of refugees in their country of origin without radically affecting the lives of the millions of Israeli people now living in that land. Yet the fact is that the Israelis have little to lose in real terms. The Palestinian expert on refugees, Dr Salman Abu Sitta, has written that, “the right of return is physically possible. This is contrary to the myths and misinformation campaigns propagated by the Israelis. Demographic studies show that 78 per cent of the Jews in Israel live in 15 per cent of Israel. Only 22 per cent live in 85 per cent of Israel, which is largely Palestinian land. Of these, 19 per cent live in towns, mostly Palestinian. This leaves three per cent of Jews, the rural residents of the Kibbutzim and Moshav, in control of the vast Palestinian land. Thus we have here a tiny minority of 200,000 Jews obstructing the return of five million refugees, the rightful owners of the land they exploit.”

Abu Sitta adds that the relocation of these Jews, in the most congested but unlikely scenario, wherein all the refugees choose to return, “is a very cheap price that Israel should pay for what it inflicted upon the Palestinians and still cheaper price to pay for a secure future for both peoples.” To quote Joseph Massad, assistant professor of modern Arab intellectual history at Columbia University: “What Abu Sitta’s proposal offers is a challenge to the pervasive [Israeli] rhetoric of pragmatism and realism and the capitulationist stance of the PA [Palestinian Authority] and its supporters.”

The fact is that the right of return is sacred, moral, legal and feasible. It is also necessary for peace. It is clear to all impartial observers that a just solution to the question of Palestine cannot be achieved without a just solution to the issue of the Palestinian refugees. However, this view should not be misunderstood. Writing in the Financial Times, on January 10 2001, the Arab-American activist Ali Abunimah pointed out that to view the Palestinian refugees as ‘the last remaining obstacle’ to peace in the Middle East is “�misguided and dehumanising. The refugees, whose plight is at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, are people in need of justice and redress, not spoilers at everyone else’s party. Peace must be made with them and for them, not at their expense. A settlement that demands that the refugees remain for ever dispossessed and in exile will never be willingly accepted by them.”

The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish has also written extensively on this point, describing the refugee population as “exiles from history and homeland”. He rightly draws attention to the way in which the refugees have been turned into “victims of the map”, as well as “the people of nowhere”. Instead of being individuals, they have become a ‘problem’ � a barrier to the so-called ‘peace settlement’ which the American government would like to impose on the Middle East. Yet as Dr Martin Luther King so rightly declared, peace without justice is not peace at all. And justice for the Palestinian refugees can only ever involve a return to their homes, and land, in Palestine. Until then, ‘peace’ is unattainable. As former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion once declared: “If I was an Arab leader I would never make peace with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country.”


1 Website of the UNHCR (http://www.unhcr.ch/world/mide/palestin.htm)

2 Quoted by Michael Bar-Zohar, p.157, ‘The Armed Prophet � A Biography of Ben Gurion’ (London, 1967)

3 Simha Flapan, ‘The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities’ (New York, 1987)

4 William Zukerman, ‘Jewish Newsletter’, September 1950 (published in New York)

5 Shimon Peres, p.198, ‘The New Middle East’ (London, 1993)

W. Thomas Morgan & Sally V. Mallison, ‘Palestine Problem in International Law and World Order’ (London, 1986)

6 Salman Abu Sittah, ‘An End to Exile’, Al-Ahram Weekly, 9-15 March 2000, Issue No.142

7 Ali Abunimah, ‘Israel should welcome the refugees’, The Financial Times, 10 January 2001

8 Quoted by Nahum Goldmann, p.99, ‘The Jewish Paradox’ (London, 1978)