No Right of Return

President George W. Bush declared, following his April 14, 2004 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, that Palestinian Arab refugees have no “right of return” to Israel. “It seems clear,” the president said, “that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state and the settling of Palestinian refugees there rather than [in] Israel.”

This, along with his affirmation that Israel has no obligation to retreat to the temporary and vulnerable armistice lines of 1949 – 1967, provoked angry disbelief among Palestinians and many others in the Arab-Islamic world. News coverage has referred repeatedly — without context — to an Arab “right of return.” However, no such right exists or has existed, and the international record is clear.

By the Numbers

In the mid- to late 1940s — including the period of the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan, Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and the 1949 armistice agreements —between 472,000 and 650,000 Arab refugees left that portion of British Mandatory Palestine that became Israel. The larger figure reflects the difference in the area’s Arab population between the last British and first Israeli censuses; the smaller one was given at the time by the U.N. mediator. More than 50,000 did return, accepted by Israel under family reunification provisions. The Arab states rejected an Israeli offer to negotiate the return of an additional 100,000 because to do so would have implied recognition of the new Jewish state.

It should be noted that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, established in 1949 as a temporary measure to see to the welfare of displaced Arabs, counted as “Palestinian Arab refugees” any Arab who had lived in Palestine a minimum of two years.. Transitory workers and migrants inflated the totals — the decades immediately before the 1948 war had witnessed considerable Arab migration, legal and illegal, into Jewish areas of Palestine. This phenomenon helped explain Arab population growth well beyond rates of natural increase.

The majority of Palestinian Arabs assigned refugee status fled a war of aggression started by the Arab states and Palestinian Arab “irregulars.” In going to war the Arabs demonstrated they would rather destroy the Jewish state called for by U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 (the 1947 Partition Plan) than accept the new Arab state also envisioned. Mahmud Abbas (“Abu Mazen”), Palestinian Authority prime minister in 2003, told an Arabic publication in 1976 that “the Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians from the Zionist tyranny but, instead, they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate and to leave their homeland, and threw them into prisons [refugee camps] similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live.” A minority was expelled by Jewish forces. Arabs — it should be noted that until after the new Jewish state took the name Israel, the adjective Palestinian generally was applied to Jews and Jewish institutions in the Mandate — fled to Arab countries and Arab-occupied territory. Many never left historic Palestine, ending up in Gaza, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), and Jordan, all intended after World War I for Great Britain’s Palestine Mandate.

Manipulating Refugee Status

Under U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 (Dec. 11, 1948) the Arab states were offered the opportunity to negotiate return of refugees who wished to live in peace with Israelis, OR compensation for them. The Arabs were not promised both return and compensation, as the Palestine Liberation Organization and, more recently, the Palestinian Authority have insisted. The central point of Resolution 194 was establishment of a conciliation commission “at the earliest possible date … to seek agreement by negotiations [for] a final settlement of all questions between them.” That is, the resolution neither recognized nor established “a right of return,” but recommended that the Arab states negotiate with Israel about repatriation and other issues. All the Arab states voted against Resolution 194 because it contained no “right of return” and because to have voted in favor would have meant implicit recognition of Israel. Seeking to continue their war against the Jewish state by other means, they demanded instead that the United Nations grant an absolute “right” to return and subsequently misinterpreted Resolution 194 as if such a right had been recognized.

Subsequent U.N. decisions demonstrated there was no “right of return.” On Dec. 2, 1950, General Assembly Resolution 393 asserted that “the reintegration of the refugees into the economic life of the Near East, either by repatriation or resettlement, is essential … for the realization of conditions of peace and stability in the area.” Juxtaposing refugee resettlement against repatriation as an equivalent solution again shows there was no “right of return.”

On Dec. 14, 1950, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 394, which reiterated that refugee reintegration should be accomplished by repatriation OR resettlement. It also urged that the refugees “be treated without discrimination” — a provision violated by all the Arab states but, in some respects, Jordan.

On Jan. 26, 1952, the U.N. General Assembly returned to the issue in Resolution 513. It again recommended “reintegration either by repatriation or resettlement.”

Had Resolution 194 recognized or established a “right of return” for Palestinian Arab refugees, Resolutions 393, 394 and 513 would have been unnecessary, and they would not have referred to resettlement of the Arab refugees within the Arab countries in which they resided.

Peculiarly, of the millions of refugees after World War I, the tens of millions of refugees in 1933 – 1945, and tens of millions more in 1945 – 1955, ONLY the Arabs from 1948 have been permitted to inherit refugee status. Hence, roughly 500,000 people have become 3 million to 5 million “refugees,” or “refugees and their descendants,” claiming in insistent bad faith a “right of return.”

The Arab states, along with Palestinian Arab leadership, perpetuated the refugees’ displacement, rejecting their assimilation and normalization. They did so for the same reason they refused Israel’s offer to make the 1949 armistice lines permanent borders. They refused to recognize Israel as a sovereign state and so rejected direct negotiation with it over outstanding issues. Over time, UNRWA evolved into a permanent Palestinian bureaucracy with a vested interest in maintaining Palestinian Arabs as refugees rather than resettling and rehabilitating them. According to Ralph Galloway, former director in Jordan of U.N. aid to Palestinian refugees, “the Arab states don’t want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the U.N. and as a weapon against Israel.” ( In The Palestinians: People, History, Politics by Terence Prittie.)

The Real Return

A right of return that needed no qualifying quotation marks was exercised at this time. Fleeing increasing intolerance, violent persecution, and property confiscations in Arab countries and Iran in the years 1947 – 1953 were 820,000 Jewish refugees. Of these, 586,000 settl ed in Israel; many of the rest emigrated to France or the United States. All escaped lands their ancestors had lived in for centuries, in some cases millennia, and they left behind property worth several times that of the Arab refugees from Israel.

These Jewish refugees exercised an actual “right of return” to ancient Jewish lands, a right as old as Israelite settlement in Judea and Samaria more than 3,000 years ago, as enduring as the continuous Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), and expressed daily in Jewish prayers for the ingathering and return of the exiles since the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.) and Roman destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.).

The Jewish right of return was reaffirmed, not granted, in Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration, which looked with favor on the establishment of the Jewish national home in Palestine. The Jews’ rights in the land of Israel were recognized by the League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine (1922). The mandate, administered by Great Britain, referred to the “historical connections” of the Jewish people to the land and to “reconstituting” their national home. No sovereign Arab or Muslim state of “Palestine” ever existed on the land of Israel; the Jews established such a state in Eretz Yisrael three times over a period of 3,000 years, twice after returning from exile.

Solving the Dual Refugee Problem

U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 calls for, among other things, “a just settlement of the refugee problem.” “Refugee problem” — not “Palestinian refugee problem.” Neither does Resolution 242, the cornerstone of all U.S.-mediated Arab-Israeli diplomacy since its adoption shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War, mention an Arab “right of return.” That is because its principle authors — U.S. Undersecretary of State Eugene Rostow, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the U.N. Lord Carradon, and U.S. Amb. Arthur Goldberg — recognized a dual refugee problem. Mindful of the events of 1948 and after, they knew any settlement must pertain to both Arab and Jewish refugees.

With 242, and U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, in mind, news reports should refer to the Palestinian “right of return,” or “the Palestinian Arabs’ alleged ‘right of return’.” Just as many news outlets described the 2003 outline for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement as “the road map,” so too the “right of return.” If qualifying quotation marks were necessary for the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russian-drafted “road map,” an outline for diplomacy, then the Palestinian “right of return” — a thinly-disguised insistence on war by demographic means — deserves such treatment even more so.

Israel, with a population of approximately 6.5 million people — 5.2 million Jews and 1.3 million Arabs — is the world’s sole Jewish state. The Arab League counts 21 member countries plus the Palestinian Authority, with a total population of more than 250 million. Jordan, which comprises the majority of land allocated for Mandatory Palestine, has a population of about 5 million, of whom approximately 3 million are Palestinian Arabs. Another 3 million-plus Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and hundreds of thousands with refugee status reside in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

President Bush anticipates Palestinian refugees eventually can be absorbed by a democratic West Bank and Gaza Strip state at peace with Israel. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak once confessed that the Palestinian refugee problem would have to be resolved by compensation and absorption in the Arab countries in which they reside. But with the exception of Jordan, most have denied them citizenship and limited job, education, and other opportunities, unnecessarily prolonging the refugees’ inferior circumstances as an indictment against Israel. Had Israel followed a similar course, it would now host 2.5 million Jewish “refugees.”

Polls indicate large majorities of Palestinian Arabs insist on a “right of return.” For example, a Dec. 4 – 9, 2003 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research asked a representative sample of 1,319 Arab adults in the West Bank and Gaza Strip their opinions of the non-governmental “Geneva accords.” Seventy-two percent opposed the “accords'” recommendation of a West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinian state alongside Israel if it meant abandoning a general “right of return” to pre-’67 Israel; 25 percent supported it. There was no difference in response between refugees and non-refugees. The margin of error was three percent.

Likewise, after the announcement of a Saudi plan in 2002, calling for general Arab recognition of Israel in the pre-’67 lines in exchange for a West Bank and Gaza Strip “Palestine,” a survey was conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion. It was commissioned by Independent Media Review and Analysis and the Zionist Organization of America, canvassed a representative sample of 1,181 Arab adults in the territories and eastern Jerusalem, with a margin of error of 2.85 percent. Respondents were asked, among other questions, “Would you support the Saudi peace plan calling for the establishment of two states, Palestine and Israel, an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, and the establishment of full, normal relations and full peace between Israel and the Arab states if the plan does not include the right of return of refugees to within the borders of Israel?” Opposed, 62.4 percent, in favor, 24.1 percent, do not know, 12.3 percent.

Yasir Arafat rejected the Israeli-U.S. offer of a state on 95 percent-plus of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with east Jerusalem as its capital, at Camp David in 2000. He did so in part because peace would have meant acknowledging there was no such “right.”

President Bush’s confirmation that there is no Arab right to destroy the Jewish state by immigration helps dispel a toxic fantasy that has long obstructed a compromise peace. The Associated Press dispatch of April 20 describing Jordanian King Abdullah’s postponement of a meeting with Bush in in part because the president “embraced Israeli rejection of any ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees” has it right. News outlets that continue to report uncritically about a non-existent Palestinian “right of return” fail to inform those who rely on them.

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