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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
The Palestinian Right of Return
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The Palestinian claim to a “right of return” for refugees displaced just before and following the establishment of the state of Israel (1947-1949) remains one of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The dispute is, in essence, a conflict of competing national narratives. What is not in question is that roughly 700,000 Palestinian residents of what has since become Israel were displaced – some 70% of the entire Palestinian population. Each side sees itself as the victim and the other side as the aggressor.
The Israeli narrative posits that the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael) was fighting for its existence as a Jewish state, and indirectly for the survival of the Jewish people, in the wake of the Holocaust. Most Israeli Jews argue that Israel acted in self-defense after the Palestinians and Arab states rejected the 1947 UN partition plan (UN General Assembly Resolution 181), attacking the nascent state in order to destroy it as the British Mandate came to a close. They contend that most of the Palestinian refugees fled of their own accord and were not expelled. Israel further argues today that the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants would undermine the foundations of Zionism by transforming Israel from a state with a significant Jewish majority into a state with a Palestinian majority.
In contrast, the Palestinian narrative is the story of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe). Most Palestinians believe that the 1947 United Nations partition establishing Israel was inherently unjust, giving 55% of the land to the Jews who then constituted only 33% of the population – and that, moreover, those numbers were achieved illegitimately through years of illegal immigration. The Palestinian narrative contends that the refugees were coerced into leaving, or forced off of, their ancestral lands. They cite a number of massacres (most famously Deir Yassin), which created widespread panic among the Palestinians and led many to flee – with the clear expectation that they would be able to return after the fighting was over. It is widely acknowledged that after the refugees fled, Israel refused to readmit them, confiscating their property as state lands under the Absentee Property Laws.
Today, Palestinians argue that the refugees as well as their descendants are legally and morally entitled to return to their former lands inside Israel proper, specifically citing UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (December 11, 1948), which states 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.” (It’s worth noting that UN General Assembly resolutions, including resolutions 181 and 194, are, unlike UN Security Council resolutions, non-binding under international law.)
Among Israeli Jews, as well as in Diaspora communities, there is a widely shared concern that the Palestinian “right to return” poses a real threat to the survival of Israel as a Jewish state and, in turn, to the security of the Jewish people as a whole. The Zionist axiom that Jews must, unlike during the Holocaust, “never again” place their fate in the hands of others underpins this anxiety.
At the same time, the Palestinian demand to return to their ancestral lands is deeply rooted in their experience of becoming landless and often stateless refugees following the Nakba. This sense of dispossession and subsequent humiliation is compounded by Palestinians having then been forced to live as second-class citizens in refugee camps in neighboring Arab states and in the territories occupied by Israel, since 1967. Memories are often physically preserved in family relics such as rusting keys and fraying land deeds, symbols many hope will again take on real-world value in reestablishing their legal rights to lost homes and property.
The differences in each people’s understanding of the implications of the Palestinian right of return are thus deeply rooted in the two sides’ different national experiences of oppression and dispossession. The issue is often portrayed as a clash of absolute rights in a sort of zero-sum game. When one looks beyond the rhetoric, however, and considers actual attempts to negotiate the right of return (at Taba in 2001 and in the Geneva Accord negotiations in 2003), it is clear that ample room for compromise exists, at least among moderates on both sides. Moderate Israeli leaders are willing to acknowledge Palestinian suffering, and offer a generous package of compensation and, resettlement of refugees to a Palestinian state and/or third countries. In exchange, moderate Palestinians are willing to relinquish the physical return to their ancestral homes inside the Green Line.
Moreover, Palestinian public opinion polls indicate that while a large majority of refugees want Israel to acknowledge its share of responsibility for the Palestinian exodus of 1947-1949, 90% do not want to physically return to live within pre-1967 Israel. Most Palestinian refugees would prefer to relocate to an independent Palestinian state and/or receive monetary compensation. Although the Palestinian claim to a right of return often seems thorny, when assessed in practical terms the issue is far from intractable. If open-minded moderates on both sides are empowered to work out the difficult, but viable compromises necessary, resolution of this issue may yet serve as a further step on the road to achieving a lasting, secure peace between the two peoples.
Prepared by David Albert, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Government, University of Texas – Austin