Beyond Images

In-depth facts and analysis about Israel

The Palestinian ‘Right of Return’
London - published on 24 October 2003
Beyond Images Ref: 34

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This Briefing describes the Palestinian claim to a “right of return”, and sets out 7 arguments against it. The claim runs like this:-

“The Jews drove out the Palestinians to create Israel . The Palestinian refugees have a ‘right of return' to their original homes as part of any peace agreement

The Palestinians do not demand that some Palestinians should be entitled to return to Israel . Nor do they seek their ‘right of return' just to the West Bank or Gaza .

Rather, they demand that all refugees (over 3.8 million – see below) should as a matter of principle be granted a ‘right of return' to Israel , to the land from which they were supposedly dispossessed. It is irrelevant how many Palestinians would actually do so; Israel must as a matter of “justice” agree to their right to do so.

While Palestinian commentators suggest from time to time that the Palestinian leadership may be willing to compromise on this, its official position remains to require a ‘right of return' without conditions.

At the Taba talks in 2001, the Palestinians stated, and the Arab states echoed this, that the unconditional ‘right of return' was a “sacred right” of the Palestinian people (see Beyond Images Briefing 21: What Happened at Camp David and Taba?). This was a key reason for the collapse of talks in 2000-1.


Here are seven key Israeli arguments against the ‘right of return' demand (each is expanded upon below):-

1. Arab rejectionism, not Israeli aggression, caused the war in 1948 which created the refugee problem

2. Israel did not expel the Palestinian people during the 1948 war

3. Arab states and the Palestinians have exacerbated the refugee problem for over 50 years. A general ‘right of return' is more unrealistic than ever

4. Israel is under no legal obligation under UN Resolution 194 to grant the Palestinians a general ‘right of return' into Israel .

5. For Israel to accept a Palestinian ‘right of return' would risk destroying the Jewish character of the State of Israel, which the Israeli leadership and population will never accept

6. Granting the Palestinians a ‘right of return' into Israel undermines the principle of a two-state solution

7. Over 800,000 Jews living in Arab countries were forcibly dispossessed from their homes in the years following the creation of Israel . They have never been compensated, but have nonetheless resettled and built new lives in Israel . The Palestinians should rebuild rather than continue to recriminate about the past

Summary: Presented as a formula for achieving “absolute justice”, the Palestinian ‘right of return' is in fact a formula for absolute stalemate, and guarantees perpetual conflict.


Argument 1: Arab rejectionism, not Israel , caused the war in 1948 which brought about the refugee problem

The Palestinian demand for a “right of return” is premised in part on the claim that Israel is responsible for making the Palestinians into refugees when Israel came into being in 1948.

This argument is a myth. The refugee problem was primarily the result of two acts of violent rejection by the Arabs in 1947-8:-

  • In 1947 the UN proposed the partition of Palestine into two states – Palestine and a Jewish State. The Jewish leadership accepted this plan, but the Arab leadership rejected it. This rejection was immediately followed by months of intense Arab violence against the Jewish residents of Palestine , and Jewish military activity to secure the future state. Many Palestinians fled as a result of this fighting (see below). The Arab act of rejection led to war, rather than a two-state solution.

  • In May 1948, six months after the UN partition plan was rejected by the Arabs, the newly independent State of Israel was invaded by five Arab armies: Iraq , Jordan , Syria , Lebanon and Egypt . The conflict continued for many months, and thousands died.

It was Arab opposition to Israel 's existence which brought about the conflict of 1947-8, which in turn resulted in thousands of Palestinians becoming refugees. If the UN partition plan had been accepted by the Arabs, and the new State of Israel allowed to live in peace, there would have been no Palestinian refugees in the first place. At the same time a Palestinian state would have been established in 1948.

Summary: Arab aggression, not Israeli aggression, was the root cause of the refugee problem. The demand for a Palestinian ‘right of return' places the entire responsibility for resolving the problem on Israel , while whitewashing the Arabs' own responsibility.


Argument 2: Israel did not expel the Palestinian people during the war of 1948

It is routinely claimed by the Palestinians, and their supporters, that Israel drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1947-8.

Indeed, it has become fashionable to accuse Israel of “ethnically cleansing” the land of Palestinians at that time.

This is perhaps the most long-standing myth in the Israeli-Arab conflict, and is refuted by the historical record. Even the most ardent revisionist Israeli historians, who question the conventional Israeli accounts, stop short of suggesting that the Palestinians were driven en masse out of the country.

There are three key reasons for the flight of Palestinians in 1947-8:-

  • they chose to leave to avoid the cross-fire of the war started by the Arabs;

  • they were instructed to leave by Arab leaders, and followed those instructions, in order to make way for the invading armies, and on the understanding that as soon as the Arab states won the war they would be able to return to their homes; and

  • Israel 's armed forces forcibly removed them (or in isolated cases terrorised them) into leaving, or else rumours about Israeli “massacres” scared them into leaving.

Acts of wanton Jewish violence against Palestinian villages, and expulsions, did occur, but these were condemned at the time by the Jewish leadership, and were isolated episodes, not part of some systematic “ethnic cleansing”.

Quite the contrary, Israel 's leaders frequently pleaded with Arab residents to stay in their homes during the fighting, but these pleas were mostly ignored.

After the 1948 war, the bitterness of Palestinians who had become refugees was directed mainly at Arab leaders safely positioned in distant capitals for misleading them into leaving their homes during the fighting, only to find themselves permanently displaced when the Arabs were defeated.

Summary: The Palestinians were not expelled by the Israelis but were displaced from their homes in 1948 in the course of the Arabs' misguided and unsuccessful campaign to destroy the Jewish State at the moment of its birth. For the Palestinians this was a human tragedy, but not one for which Israel was primarily responsible.


Argument 3: The Arab states and the Palestinians have exacerbated the refugee problem for over 50 years. As a result a general “right of return” is more unrealistic than ever.

In 1948, there were 726,000 Palestinian refugees, according to UNWRA (the United Nations agency which was specifically created to take responsibility for these refugees).

In 2001, according to UNWRA, there were 3.8 million refugees (living in the West Bank and Gaza , Jordan , Syria , Lebanon and elsewhere). This is an increase of over 500% in their number in just over 50 years.

It is the Arab nations' own policies which resulted in the perpetuation and increase in scale of the refugee problem over this period:-

  • In 1949, just months after the end of hostilities, Israel first offered to allow families who had been separated by the war to be reunited, and agreed to the return of 100,000 Palestinian refugees. This offer was rejected by the Arabs

  • The Arab states rejected UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948, which provided a framework for a negotiated solution to the refugee problem (and see Argument 4 below)

  • Jordan , Syria , Egypt and other Arab nations took the political decision to leave the Palestinians in refugee camps, rather than resettle any of them in the Arab countries in which they found themselves. At the same time, they refused to end their state of belligerency towards Israel , and work towards peace and a reasonable and negotiated solution to the plight of the refugees

  •   The Six-Day War of 1967, which the Arabs forced on Israel, created many more Palestinian refugees (once more fleeing from the intense fighting) thus making the problem still worse

  • When the refugees issue was discussion in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2000-1, Israel 's proposals (see below) were rejected by the Arabs in favour of an “all-or-nothing” position that all Palestinians have a ‘right of return' (see Beyond Images Briefing 21).
Summary: The refugee problem was a tragic side-effect of the 1948 war, but Arab policies have exacerbated it for over 50 years. The demand for the Palestinian ‘right of return' requires Israel to bear the consequences of the Arabs' own uncompromising stance on the refugees' rights.


Argument 4: Israel 's does not have an obligation under UN Resolution 194 to grant the Palestinians the ‘right of return'

Palestinian spokesmen routinely claim that UN General Assembly Resolution 194 requires Israel to permit Palestinian refugees to “return to their homes” inside Israel , as a matter of international law.

Resolution 194 “resolves that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours [our emphasis] should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for 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 Governments or authorities responsible.”

There are at least four arguments why this does not support the Palestinian demands:-

  • The Arab nations originally rejected UN Resolution 194, but they now resort to it as the legal basis for a wholesale ‘right of return'. It is not open to them to rely on it now because they rejected it when it was applicable post-1948, and now the factual situation has changed beyond recognition (see Argument 3 above)

  • UN General Assembly Resolutions such as 194 are non-binding, rather than being mandatory, on UN Member States

  • UN Resolution 194 only applies to refugees wishing to “live at peace with their neighbours” . Today, the cause of the Palestinian refugees is being championed by several terrorist groups whose wish is the exact opposite: to dismantle Israel by terror. Violent Palestinian rejection of peace with Israel disqualifies Palestinians from exercising their supposed rights under UN Resolution 194.

  • Finally, language later in UN Resolution 194 made clear that an alternative to the repatriation of refugees was “resettlement and compensation”. The Resolution proposes return of refugees as one approach, but recognises that, even in 1948, it would not be appropriate or practical for all. If wholesale return was viewed by the UN as unrealistic even in 1948, then that is all the more the case today.
Argument 5: The ‘Right of Return' would risk destroying the Jewish character of the State of Israel

Israel was founded as a Jewish state – a country in which the Jewish people could enjoy the benefits and opportunities of independent nationhood. That is its raison d'etre.

Israel today has a population of around 5.1 million Israeli Jews, and 1.3 million Israeli Arabs. If Israel grants the right to nearly 4 million Palestinians to return to “pre-1967” Israel , then that in principle destroys the Jewish character of the country, even if not all the Palestinians actually chose to return.

Almost all Israeli citizens, and every Israeli government, is completely committed to maintaining the basic purpose of the country. For this reason, there is no issue which so unites Israelis – right-wing and left-wing, secular and religious, liberal and conservative – as the need to reject a general Palestinian right of return.

Argument 6: The ‘Right of Return' undermines the principle of the two-state solution

Most proposals for a negotiated solution are based on a version of the “two-state solution”: a secure Israel coexisting next to a viable Palestinian state.

But the concept of the Palestinian ‘right of return' into Israel undermines this principle. If Israel were to grant that right, Palestinian refugees would enjoy the right to return not to one country but to two countries – Israel and a newly-formed Palestinian state. This makes the concept of a two-state solution meaningless.

The Palestinian ‘right of return' is a euphemism for a “one-state solution” which would formalise the end of Israel as an independent Jewish state.

Argument 7: The Palestinians should look to the future, and focus on resettlement and reconstruction

The Palestinian demand for a right of return is a backward-looking and hopelessly impractical demand. This was recognised in 1989 by Egypt 's President Mubarak who stated (Jerusalem Post, January 26 1989):-

“The Palestinian peoples' demand for a right of return is totally unrealistic and would have to be solved by means of financial compensation and resettlement in Arab countries”.

Those who advocate the Palestinian right of return claim that justice is on their side. But there can be no supposed “absolute justice” for the refugees – no return of every displaced person to his or her home. As long as that fantasy is promoted, there can be no peace.

A lesson can be learnt from the Jews from Arab lands, hundreds of thousands of whom were displaced after the 1948 war, from their homes in Morocco , Yemen , Iraq , Libya and elsewhere. They have never been compensated for the loss of life and of property, but they have nonetheless resettled (in Israel or elsewhere) and built new lives. The Palestinians should rebuild rather than perpetually recriminating about the past.


During Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and behind-the-scenes meetings in 2000-1, Israel tabled proposals to address the Palestinian refugee problem. These included the following:-

  • Palestinians living abroad would enjoy an unlimited right of immigration into a future Palestinian entity, but not into Israel

  • a limited number of separated Palestinian families would be offered the opportunity for family reunification by Israel

  • an internationally-managed fund would be created to meet valid Palestinian claims for property compensation

  • and the Palestinians would give up their claim general ‘right of return'.

It is inevitable that such proposals would be discussed in the future, once negotiations resume.


Presented as a formula for achieving “absolute justice” for the Palestinians, the ‘right of return' is in fact a formula for absolute stalemate. It makes peace impossible to achieve.

Supporters of Palestinian rights should be urging the Palestinian leadership and people to forego the ‘right of return' and look for pragmatic ways of making peace with Israel , and building their people's future.