About 700,000 Palestinians became refugees as a result of the 1948 Israeli/Arab war. Today, they constitute some 3.7 million people. Palestinian demands for a right of return of 1948 refugees to Green Line Israel have long been a central barrier to Middle East conflict resolution. However, many on the Israeli and local Jewish Left seem to believe that under the right circumstances the Palestinians would be willing to accede to a minimalist or symbolic application of this return. In short, many Jewish doves interpret the Palestinian refugee tragedy as a humanitarian rather than political issue similar to that of the Jewish exodus from Arab countries which should be resolved primarily by resettlement and compensation.
This pragmatic interpretation of Palestinian refugee claims is explicitly reflected in two recent unofficial peace initiatives: the Geneva Accord signed by former Israeli Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin and PLO Executive Committee member Yasser Abed Rabbo, and the peace petition initiated by former Shin Bet security services chief Ami Ayalon and al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh. Both plans suggest an abrogation of the right of return. The Geneva Accord states that any humanitarian return of refugees to Israel (estimated at about 20,000-40,000 Palestinians) will be subject to Israel’s sovereign discretion, while the peace petition formally states that Palestinian refugees will return to Palestine, but not to Israel. However, it is arguable that both documents involve wishful thinking in that they underplay both the centrality of the right of return to Palestinian discourse, and the almost unanimous continuing support for its literal implementation.
Palestinian demands for a right of return to Israel date back to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948. The Resolution stated that:
... the 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 and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.
The Resolution was adopted as a non-binding recommendation in the context of attempts to mediate a peaceful resolution of the first Israeli-Arab war. The Arab states and Palestinian representatives initially rejected the resolution on the basis that it also implied support for the UN Resolution 181 partition plan. The Israelis also opposed the resolution, but offered in July 1949 to accept the return of 65,000-70,000 refugees as part of a comprehensive peace settlement. However, the Arab states rejected this offer.
Later, the Palestinians adopted Resolution 194 as the principal legal basis of their political claims against Israel. Prior to the 1967 Six Day War, right-of-return rhetoric was used to deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel and so provide a rationale for the Arab refusal to recognise the State of Israel. However, following the 1967 war, the international debate shifted from questions about the legitimacy of Israel within the Green Line borders to questions about the legitimacy of a Palestinian State in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. The subsequent political contest for or against a two-state solution explicitly assumed that any resolution of the Palestinian refugee tragedy would be addressed within the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. There could be two states or there could be a Palestinian right of return, but there could not be both.
The Oslo Peace Accord signed by Israel and the PLO in 1993 did not mention Resolution 194, and the question of the 1948 refugees was deferred to the final status negotiations. Nevertheless, a combination of factors including popular agitation by refugee groups such as Al-Awda (return) and Badil plus the Palestinian Authority’s promotion of annual Nakba day demonstrations mourning the defeat of 1948 and demanding a return of refugees to Israel served to ensure that the right of return remained a central and non-negotiable part of the core Palestinian narrative.
This centrality was evident during both the Camp David and Taba negotiations in July 2000 and January 2001 respectively. The Palestinians demanded that Israel acknowledge its moral and legal responsibility for the refugee tragedy, and argued for the right of every Palestinian refugee to return to their homes in Israel in accordance with Resolution 194. They also called for an immediate timetable for the return of the 350,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon to the Galilee. Their sole concession was that perhaps only 10 to 20 per cent of the total number of refugees – between 400,000 and 800,000 people – would want to return to Israel.
The Israeli negotiators (who included prominent doves such as Shlomo Ben Ami, Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid) denied any historical or moral responsibility for the Palestinian refugee exodus, and refused to recognise any right of return. However, they were willing to countenance the return of about 40,000 refugees under a family reunion and humanitarian program over a period of five years.
The Israeli position reflected the national consensus that Israel could not agree to a right of return under any circumstances since it would constitute a direct threat to the existence of the state. Put simply, it would potentially transform the Jewish State of Israel into a bi-national state where Jews would once again be a minority. The Palestinians would have not one state but rather one-and-a-half or even two. This position was shared by the entire political spectrum including prominent peace activists such as Amos Oz, David Grossman, and A. B. Yehushua.
Since that time, all leading Palestinians have continued to insist on a right of return. They include not only Arafat, but also relative moderates such as Abu Mazen, Abu Ala, former Minister of Labor Ghassan Khatib, and prominent Gaza-based human rights activist Eyad El Sarraj. Some have suggested that the return be limited to reflect Israeli concerns around national sovereignty and demographic balance, while others have not. All are influenced by overwhelming public opinion.
For example, a survey conducted by the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information in 2001 found that about 90 per cent of refugees insisted on returning to Israel. In contrast, a controversial July 2003 poll by Ramallah-based political analyst Khalil Shikaki suggested that only 10 per cent of refugees – about 370,000 people - would seek to return to Israel. The only significant Palestinian figure to support a waiving of the right of return is Sari Nusseibeh. Nusseibeh acknowledges that two states and a right of return to Israel are a contradiction in terms but his views appear to enjoy little popular support.
Demands for a literal right of return remain fundamental to contemporary Palestinian identity. These demands are not principally tactical or theoretical or symbolic, they are real. Yet the Israeli narrative around 1948 is completely different, and the respective definitions of justice around these historical events are dichotomous. It may be possible to find some common ground around a creative set of solutions to alleviate the continuing suffering of the refugees. However, no Israeli government will accept any legal obligation to repatriate refugees. As long as the Palestinians continue to press refugee claims as part of a political rather than humanitarian agenda, there is unlikely to be any serious progress towards a two-state solution.