Palestinian right of return

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Concept.png Palestinian right of return Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png

The Palestinian right of return is the political position or principle that Palestinian refugees, both first-generation refugees and their descendants have a right to return, and a right to the property they themselves or their forebears left behind or were forced to leave in what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories (both formerly part of the British Mandate for Palestine), as part of the 1948 Palestinian expulsion and flight, a result of the 1948 Palestine war, and due to the 1967 Six-Day War.

Formulated for the first time on 27 June 1948 by United Nations mediator Folke Bernadotte, proponents of the right of return hold that it is a sacred right, as well as a human right, whose applicability both generally and specifically to the Palestinians is protected under international law. This view holds that those who opt not to return or for whom return is not feasible, should receive compensation in lieu. Proponents argue that Israel's opposition stands in contrast with its Law of Return that grants all Jews the right to settle permanently, while withholding any comparable right from Palestinians.

Opponents of the right of return hold that there is no basis for it in international law, and that it is an unrealistic demand. The government of Israel does not view the admission of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel as a right, but rather as a political issue to be resolved as part of a final peace settlement.



The number of Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war is estimated at between 700,000 and 800,000, and another 280,000 to 350,000 people were refugees of the 1967 war. Approximately 120,000–170,000 among the 1967 refugees are believed to have also been refugees from the 1948 war, fleeing a second time. Today, the estimated number of Palestinian refugees exceeds four million. The right of return has been of great importance to Palestinians since then.

The first formal move towards the recognition of a right of return was in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 passed on 11 December 1948 which provided (Article 11):

  • Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours 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.

UN General Assembly Resolution 3236, passed on 22 November 1974 declared the right of return to be an "inalienable right".[1]

The right of return was defined as the "foremost of Palestinian rights" at the 12th Palestine National Council meeting in 1974 when it became the first component of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's trinity of inalienable rights, the others being the right of self-determination and the right to an independent state.

Israel has since the birth of the refugee problem consistently rejected that the Palestinians would have any inherent "right" of return. In June 1948, the Israeli government stated its position, which was reiterated in a letter to the United Nations on 2 August 1949, that in its view a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem must be sought, not through the return of the refugees to Israel, but through the resettlement of the Palestinian Arab refugee population in other states.

1948 Palestinian exodus

The Palestinian refugee problem started during the 1948 Palestine war, when between 700,000 and 800,000 Arabs left, fled, or were expelled from their homes in the area that would become Israel. They settled in refugee camps in Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that were occupied by Transjordan and Egypt during the war.

From December 1947 to March 1948, around 100,000 Palestinians left. Among them were many from the upper and middle classes from the cities, who left voluntarily, expecting to return when the situation had calmed down. From April to July, between 250,000 and 300,000 fled in front of Haganah offensives, mainly from the towns of Haifa, Tiberias, Beit-Shean, Safed, Jaffa and Acre, that lost more than 90% of their Arab inhabitants. Some expulsions arose, particularly along the Tel-Aviv – Jerusalem road and in Eastern Galilee. After the truce of June, about 100,000 Palestinians became refugees. About 50,000 inhabitants of Lydda and Ramle were expelled towards Ramallah by Israeli forces during Operation Danny, and most others during clearing operations performed by the IDF on its rear areas. During Operation Dekel, the Arabs of Nazareth and South Galilee could remain in their homes. They later formed the core of the Arab Israelis. From October to November 1948, the IDF launched Operation Yoav to chase Egyptian forces from the Negev and Operation Hiram to chase the Arab Liberation Army from North Galilee. This generated an exodus of 200,000 to 220,000 Palestinians. Here, Arabs fled fearing atrocities or were expelled if they had not fled. During Operation Hiram, at least nine massacres of Arabs were performed by IDF soldiers. After the war, from 1948 to 1950, the IDF cleared its borders, which resulted in the expulsion of around 30,000 to 40,000 Arabs.

The United Nations estimated the number of refugees outside Israel at 711,000.

No Arab country except Jordan has to date assimilated a significant population of Palestinian refugees, nor given them full citizenship, and many rely on economic aid from the UN or persons in other countries. It is the position of most Arab governments not to grant citizenship to the Palestinian refugees born within their borders; this policy is in part due to the wishes of these Arab states for Palestinians to be allowed to return to their homes within Israel, in part due to these states wishing to relieve themselves of the refugees.

Causes and responsibilities

The causes and responsibilities of the exodus are a matter of controversy among historians and commentators of the conflict. Although historians now agree on most of the events of that period, there is still disagreement on whether the exodus was due to a plan designed before or during the war by Zionist leaders, or whether it was an unintended result of the war.

Absentees' property

During the Palestinian exodus, Israeli leaders decided against the return of the refugees. During her visit at Haïfa on 1 May 1948, Golda Meir declared: "The Jews should treat the remaining Arabs 'with civil and human equality', but 'it is not our job to worry about the return (of those who have fled)". A group consisting of "local authorities, the kibbutz movements, the settlement departments of the National institutions, Haganah commanders and influential figures such as Yosef Weitz and Ezra Danin started lobbying against repatriation. A Transfer Committee and a policy of faits accomplis were set up to prevent a refugee return. In July, it had become an official policy: "Absentees' property" was managed by Israeli government and numerous Palestinian villages were levelled.

A parallel has been drawn by some commentators between the state and private restitutions made from Germany to Israel over Holocaust confiscations and the compensation due to Palestinians evicted in the formation of Israel. Others have compared Palestinians' claims for compensation to the claims of ethnic Germans who were expelled from eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War II.

In 1945, of 26.4 million dunams of land in Mandate Palestine, 12.8 million was owned by Arabs, 1.5 million by Jews, 1.5 million was public land and 10.6 million constituted the desertic Beersheba district (Negev). By 1949, Israel controlled 20.5 million dunams (approx. 20,500 km2) or 78% of lands in what had been Mandate Palestine: 8% (approx. 1,650 km2) were privately controlled by Jews, 6% (approx. 1,300 km2) by Arabs, with the remaining 86% was public land.

1967 Palestinian exodus

During the 1967 Six-Day War another Palestinian exodus occurred. An estimated 280,000 to 350,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights as a result of the Six-Day War; approximately 120,000–170,000 among them were believed to also be refugees from the first war, fleeing a second time.

Relationship to Jewish exodus from Arab countries

A comparison is often made between the situation of Palestinian refugees and the exodus of Jews from Arab countries who are now in Israel (or elsewhere).

It is estimated that 800,000 to 1,000,000 Jews were either forced from their homes or left the Arab countries from 1948 until the early 1970s; 260,000 reached Israel between 1948 and 1951, and 600,000 by 1972.

In 2000, Bobby Brown, advisor to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Diaspora affairs and delegates from the World Jewish Congress and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations began an intensive campaign to secure official political and legal recognition of Jews from Arab lands as refugees. The campaign's proponents hoped their efforts would prevent acceptance of the "right of return" to Palestinians, and reduce the amount of compensation that would be paid by Israel for appropriated Palestinian property. Then-president of the United States Bill Clinton gave an interview in July 2000 to Israel's Channel One and disclosed an agreement to recognise Jews from Arab lands as refugees, while Ehud Barak hailed it as an achievement in an interview with Dan Margalit.

In 2002, the organisation "Justice for Jews from Arab Countries" (JJAC) was created and its Founding Congress (Election of a Board of Directors, Finalised By-Laws for the organisation, etc.) met in London in June 2008. Beginning in November 2008, they planned to undertake major initiatives and that in 2009, they would hold a national conference in Israel. Their achievement to date is described as "having returned the issue of Jews from Arab countries to the agenda of the Middle East."

Hometown return

In November 2012, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas repeated his stance that the claim of return was not to his original hometown, but to a Palestinian state that would be established at the 1967 border line. Hamas denounced this adjustment. Abbas later clarified (for the Arab media) that this was his own personal opinion and not a policy of giving up the right of return. Israeli politicians denounced the clarification.

UN General Assembly Resolution 194

The issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees has been a very sensitive issue for Palestinians (and Arab countries in the region) since the creation of the refugee problem as a result of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 which was passed on 11 December 1948, recognised the right of return for the first time.

Resolution 194 also deals with the situation in the region of Palestine at that time, establishing and defining the role of the United Nations Conciliation Commission as an organisation to facilitate peace in the region.

Article 11 – Palestinian Refugees

The main Article of Resolution 1948, for the purpose of this article, is Article 11 which deals with the return of refugees.

Article 11 of the resolution reads:

The General Assembly Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours 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 exact meaning and timing of enforcement of the resolution were disputed from the beginning.

Since the late 1960s, Article 11 has increasingly been quoted by those who interpret it as a basis for the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees.

Israel has always contested this reading, pointing out that the text merely states that the refugees "should be permitted" to return to their homes at the "earliest practicable date" and this recommendation applies only to those "wishing to ... live at peace with their neighbours". In particular, David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, insisted in an interview with the members of the Conciliations Commission that as long as Israel could not count on the dedication of any Arab refugees to remain "at peace with their neighbours" – a consequence, he contended, of the Arab states' unwillingness to remain at peace with the state of Israel – resettlement was not an obligation for his country.

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