The Right to Return


Equal rights for Palestinians is key to establishing a just peace in Israel/Palestine. Of all the inequalities blocking a peaceful and just resolution, the situation of the Palestinian refugees stands out.

The Palestinian refugee problem is one of the oldest and largest refugee crises in the world. Prior to Israel’s declaration of independence in May 1948, more than 350,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their native land as Zionist paramilitaries carried out massacres and forced expulsions, including the infamous massacre of Palestinian men, women, and children in the village of Deir Yassin in April 1948. After several Arab countries entered the war in May 1948—in part because of the ongoing expulsion of the Palestinians–the Israeli military continued to carry out a campaign of uprooting and expelling the indigenous Palestinian people, forcing another 400,000 Palestinians to flee their homes and land. Altogether Israel expelled more than 75 percent of the Palestinian population. This campaign continued long after hostilities ceased and included the razing of nearly 400 Palestinian villages. Even within Israel about 100,000 Palestinians became internally displaced refugees. They were allowed to remain within the new state of Israel but were denied the right to return to their homes.

Today these refugees and their descendants number 4 million people, many still living in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere. The state of Israel has steadfastly refused the right of these refugees to return to their homes in violation of international law and numerous United Nations resolutions. At the same time, in a striking example of inequality and discrimination, Israel has declared itself the state of all the Jews in the world and automatically grants citizenship to any Jewish person anywhere in the world who seeks to emigrate to Israel. A Jew living in Texas, for example, who has never lived in Israel, can automatically gain the benefits of citizenship under the Law of Return, one of Israel’s Basic Laws, while a Palestinian refugee whose family lived in Palestine for hundreds of years is unlikely even to gain a visa for a brief visit to his or her former home, let alone obtain the right to return there to live.

This position of the Israeli government violates humanitarian and international law. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 13(2) states: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” The 1948 United Nations Resolution 194 provided that Palestinian “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….” (Art. 11) The UN has reaffirmed this resolution more than 100 times. Yet during peace negotiations in the early 2000s, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert boasted that not even one refugee would be allowed to return. Moreover, the right of return is a general principle in international law and has been affirmed by the American and European Human Rights Conventions (Art. 22(5); and 4th Protocol respectively), and by the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights in cases involving Cyprus, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Uganda.

The original 1947 UN resolution that led to the creation of Israel partitioned Mandate Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The partition resolution, which Palestinians and nearly all Arab countries deemed unfair because of its unequal distribution of land, created a state for Jews “resident” in Palestine. It said nothing about a state for Jews living anywhere in the world. And what’s more the resolution called for equal rights for Arab citizens of the new state of Israel. Israel has openly flouted this provision of the UN partition resolution, enacting more than 30 laws that discriminate against non-Jews.

The right of return does not mean that individual Israelis must give up their homes. In other refugee return situations, the right of return has been interpreted to mean that, if a former home no longer exists or is occupied by an innocent third party, return should be permitted to the vicinity of the former home.

The right of return is a practical demand. Some 78 percent of Israeli Jews currently live on 14 percent of the land in Israel. The remaining 86 percent is largely the land that originally belonged to Palestinians. Palestinians could return to their original, now empty, villages, with minimal dislocation of the Israeli Jewish population.

Equal rights for Palestinians demands that the same rights granted Jews be extended to the Palestinians. This right includes the right of return. Peace will never be achieved until Israel recognizes this right and corrects the original injustice that was perpetrated against the Palestinian people. Success in peace negotiations can only come about when Israel adopts a policy of “restorative justice” and commits itself to equal rights for all.