On Jan. 28, President Trump revealed his administration’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. As several commentators noted, the proposal explicitly states that there shall be no “right of return” — a key phrase with a very particular meaning that few analysts have carefully parsed out.
The Palestinian Authority, the entity that governs the West Bank, has continually demanded a “right of return” in nearly every negotiation that has occurred since the PA was created a quarter century ago. To understand the origin of this so-called “right,” one must first understand the history.
In 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a partition plan for British-ruled Mandatory Palestine: Resolution 181, which called for the establishment of both a Jewish state and an Arab state. Arab states and Palestinian Arab leaders rejected it out of hand, choosing war over statehood. They violated Resolution 181 by attacking the fledgling Jewish nation. In the combat that followed, hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Jews fled. In some cases, they were forced from their homes in Mandatory Palestine and beyond.
Estimates of the original number of Arab refugees vary. The British Foreign Office suggested the number was between 600,000 and 760,000. A 1950 report by the U.N. Conciliation Commission for Palestine endorsed an estimate of 711,000 refugees by an “expert of the Statistical Office of the United Nations.”
Many of these initial Arab refugees were set up in camps in Arab nations that typically refused to grant them citizenship or give them equal rights. Rather, they were treated as political pawns and overseen by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.
In retaliation, some Arab nations punished their native Jewish populations by seizing their property and expelling them or forcing them to flee under threat of death or torture. Of the more than 800,000 Jewish refugees, nearly 600,000 settled in Israel.
In the years since, Palestinian leadership has promoted the idea of a “right to return.” Not, of course, for the Jewish refugees — for whom no recognition or compensation has been offered. Nor is this “right” just for the original Arab refugees, the people who actually left Israel as the Arab states made war against it. Rather, the term “refugee,” as UNRWA and Palestinian leadership define it, includes people who are several generations removed from the conflict, people who are citizens of new states, and people who reside in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — places that the Palestinians themselves claim as part of a future Palestinian state.
According to UNRWA, any Palestinian Arab descendants from the 1948 conflict are considered “refugees” until they “return” to Israel.
Thanks to this dubious definition, UNRWA considers there to be more than 5.3 million “Palestinian refugees” who have a “right to return.” In an Oct. 28, 2018, speech, PA President Mahmoud Abbas even claimed that there were 6 million. The actual number of surviving refugees from the 1948 war is closer to 30,000, according to an unreleased State Department report.
Demanding that 6 million Palestinian “refugees” have a “right” to “return” to a place where most of them never lived runs counter to Palestinian claims that they want to have their own independent state. As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis noted in the Washington Post, this demand negates the idea of Palestinian statehood — unless that state means, by its definition, the demographic end of the Jewish nation of Israel. As the American Jewish International Relations Institute observed, such a move would “end the existence of the majority-Jewish state” in Israel.
In their unguarded moments, Palestinian leaders and their state-controlled media have said as much. Palestinian Media Watch, which monitors Arab media in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has highlighted that official PA television promotes the “right of return” by showing a map of “Palestine” that simply erases Israel. PA-approved textbooks also hail that demand.
Defenders of the “right of return” often cite U.N. General Assembly Resolutions 194 and 394 and Security Council Resolution 224 to buttress their claims. But the Arab states voted against 194 in part because it did not establish a “right to return.” Indeed, it only “recommended” that original refugees from the conflict, not descendants, be permitted to return, and only after they agree to live “at peace with their neighbors.” (It should also be noted, as the late historian Martin Gilbert has documented, that these resolutions can be applied to the Jewish refugees as well.)
For decades, Palestinian leaders have rejected offers for statehood and peace while citing a “right” that doesn’t exist. Both the press and policymakers should speak honestly and openly about what it would truly mean and perhaps reflect on why Palestinian leaders continue to demand it.
(Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed in The Washington Examiner on Feb. 4, 2020)