The Palestinians and the "Right of Return"
By the early 1990’s, most Israelis, on both sides of the political spectrum, had come to embrace a two-state solution to their decades-long conflict with the Palestinian Arabs, a solution based on the idea of trading “land for peace.” For these Israelis, and especially for the doves among them, the twilight hours of Ehud Barak’s short-lived government came as a terrible shock.
During a span of six months, from the Camp David summit of July 2000 to the Taba talks a few days before his crushing electoral defeat in February 2001, Barak crossed every single territorial “red line” upheld by previous Israeli governments in his frenzied quest for an agreement with the Palestinians based on the formula of land for peace. Unquestioningly accepting the Arab side’s interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed in the aftermath of the Six-Day war of 1967, Barak’s government offered to cede virtually the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip to the nascent Palestinian state, and made breathtaking concessions over Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem. But to its amazement, rather than reciprocating this sweepingly comprehensive offer of land with a similarly generous offer of peace, the Palestinians responded with wholesale violence.
At Taba, the Palestinians also insisted, with renewed adamancy, on another non-negotiable condition that had been lying somewhat dormant in the background of the Oslo process begun in 1993. No peace would be possible, they declared, unless Israel guaranteed the right of the Arab refugees of the 1948-49 war, and their descendants, to return to territory that is now part of the state of Israel, and to be compensated financially for lost property and for decades of privation and suffering.
The reintroduction of this issue, at a moment when Israel had effectively agreed to withdraw to its pre-1967 lines, shook the Israeli peace camp to the core. All of a sudden, it seemed that the Arab states and the Palestinians really meant what they had been saying for so long—namely, that peace was not a matter of adjusting borders and territory but was rather a euphemism for eliminating the Jewish state altogether, in this case through demographic subversion. “Implementing the ‘right of return’ means eradicating Israel,” lamented Amos Oz, the renowned author and peace advocate. “It will make the Jewish people a minor ethnic group at the mercy of Muslims, a ‘protected minority,’ just as fundamentalist Islam would have it.”
Oz’s plaintive cry struck no responsive chord with his Palestinian counterparts, however. “We as Palestinians do not view our job to safeguard Zionism. It is our job to safeguard our rights,” stated the prominent politician Hanan Ashrawi, vowing to uphold the “right of return” even at the cost of undermining Israel’s demographic balance. “The refugee problem,” she continued, “has to be solved in total as a central issue of solving the Palestinian question based on the implementation of international law”; for not only has this right of return “never been relinquished or in any way modified,” it “has been affirmed annually by the UN member states.”
As it happens, Hanan Ashrawi is very much mistaken; and so, in his own way, is Amos Oz. There is no such collective “right of return” to be “implemented.” But to grasp what is at issue here requires a deeper look into history, demography, international law, and politics.
Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the Palestinians’ legal case, their foremost argument for a “right of return” has always rested on a claim of unprovoked victimhood. In the Palestinians’ account, they were and remain the hapless targets of a Zionist grand design to dispossess them from their land, a historical wrong for which they are entitled to redress. In the words of Mahmoud Abbas (a/k/a Abu Mazen), Yasir Arafat’s second-in-command and a chief architect of the 1993 Oslo accords: “When we talk about the right of return, we talk about the return of refugees to Israel, because Israel was the one who deported them.” The political activist Salman Abu Sitta has put it in even more implacable terms:
There is nothing like it in modern history. A foreign minority attacking the national majority in its own homeland, expelling virtually all of its population, obliterating its physical and cultural landmarks, planning and supporting this unholy enterprise from abroad, and claiming that this hideous crime is a divine intervention and victory for civilization. This is the largest ethnic-cleansing operation in modern history.
One may be forgiven for pausing a moment at the last sentence. To identify the Palestinian exodus—some 600,000 persons at most—as “the largest ethnic-cleansing operation in modern history” requires at the very least a drastic downgrading of other rather well-documented incidents: the 15 million ethnic Germans forced out of their homes in Eastern Europe after World War II; the millions of Muslims and Hindus fleeing the newly established states of India and Pakistan during the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1948; the millions of Armenians, Greeks, Turks, Finns, Bulgarians, and Kurds, among others, driven from their lands and resettled elsewhere during the 20th century; and so forth and so on.
But put aside the hyperbole. The claim of premeditated dispossession is itself not only baseless, but the inverse of the truth. Far from being the hapless victims of a predatory Zionist assault, the Palestinians were themselves the aggressors in the 1948-49 war, and it was they who attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to “cleanse” a neighboring ethnic community. Had the Palestinians and the Arab world accepted the United Nations resolution of November 29, 1947, calling for the establishment of two states in Palestine, and not sought to subvert it by force of arms, there would have been no refugee problem in the first place.
It is no coincidence that neither Arab propagandists nor Israeli “new historians” have ever produced any evidence of a Zionist master plan to expel the Palestinians during the 1948 war. For such a plan never existed. In accepting the UN partition resolution, the Jewish leadership in Palestine acquiesced in the principle of a two-state solution, and all subsequent deliberations were based on the assumption that Palestine’s Arabs would remain as equal citizens in the Jewish state that would arise with the termination of the British mandate. As David Ben-Gurion, soon to become Israel’s first prime minister, told the leadership of his Labor (Mapai) party on December 3, 1947: “In our state there will be non-Jews as well—and all of them will be equal citizens; equal in everything without any exception; that is: the state will be their state as well.”
In line with this conception, committees laying the groundwork for the nascent Jewish state discussed in detail the establishment of an Arabic-language press, the improvement of health in the Arab sector, the incorporation of Arab officials in the government, the integration of Arabs within the police and the ministry of education, and Arab-Jewish cultural and intellectual interaction. No less importantly, the military plan of the Hagana (the foremost Jewish underground organization in mandatory Palestine) for rebuffing an anticipated pan-Arab invasion was itself predicated, in the explicit instructions of Israel Galilee, the Hagana’s commander-in-chief, on the “acknowledgement of the full rights, needs, and freedom of the Arabs in the Hebrew state without any discrimination, and a desire for coexistence on the basis of mutual freedom and dignity.”
The Arabs, however, remained unimpressed by Jewish protestations of peace and comity. A few days before the passing of the UN partition resolution, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the former mufti of Jerusalem and then head of the Arab Higher Committee (AHC), told an Egyptian newspaper that “we would rather die than accept minority rights” in a prospective Jewish state. The secretary-general of the Arab League, Abd al-Rahman Azzam, promised to “defend Palestine no matter how strong the opposition.” “You will achieve nothing with talk of compromise or peace,” he told a secret delegation of peace-seeking Zionists in September 1947:
For us there is only one test, the test of strength. . . . We will try to rout you. I am not sure we will succeed, but we will try. We succeeded in expelling the Crusaders, but lost Spain and Persia, and may lose Palestine. But it is too late for a peaceable solution.
In the event, the threats to abort the birth of Israel by violence heralded the Palestinians’ collective undoing. Even before the outbreak of hostilities, many of them had already fled their homes. Still larger numbers left before war reached their doorstep. By April 1948, a month before Israel’s declaration of independence, and at a time when the Arabs appeared to be winning the war, some 100,000 Palestinians, mostly from the main urban centers of Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem, and from villages in the coastal plain, had gone. Within another month those numbers had nearly doubled; and by early June, according to an internal Hagana report, some 390,000 Palestinians had left. By the time the war was over in 1949, the number of refugees had risen to between 550,000 and 600,000.
Why did such vast numbers of Palestinians take to the road? There were the obvious reasons commonly associated with war: fear, disorientation, economic privation. But to these must be added the local Palestinians’ disillusionment with their own leadership, the role taken by that leadership in forcing widespread evacuations, and, perhaps above all, a lack of communal cohesion or of a willingness, especially at the highest levels, to subordinate personal interest to the general good.
On this last point, a number of Palestinians have themselves spoken eloquently. “There was a Belgian ship,” recalls Ibrahim Abu Lughod, an academic who fled Jaffa in 1948,
and one of the sailors, a young man, looked at us—and the ship was full of people from Jaffa, some of us were young adults—and he said: “why don’t you stay and fight?” I have never forgotten his face, and I have never had one good answer for him.
Another former resident of Jaffa was the renowned Palestinian intellectual Hisham Sharabi, who in December 1947 left for the United States. Three decades later he asked himself “how we could leave our country when a war was raging and the Jews were gearing themselves to devour Palestine.” His answer:
There were others to fight on our behalf; those who had fought in the 1936 revolt and who would do the fighting in the future. They were peasants . . . [whose] natural place was here, on this land. As for us—the educated ones—we were on a different plane. We were struggling on the intellectual front.
In fact, the Palestinian peasants proved no more attached to the land than the educated classes. Rather than stay behind and fight, they followed in the footsteps of their urban brothers and took to the road from the first moments of the hostilities. Still, the lion’s share of culpability for the Palestinian collapse and dispersion does undoubtedly lie with the “educated ones,” whose lack of national sentiments, so starkly portrayed by Sharabi and Abu Lughod, set in train the entire Palestinian exodus.
In 1948, both the Jewish and the Arab communities in Palestine were thrown into a whirlpool of hardship, dislocation, and all-out war—conditions that no society can survive without the absolute commitment of its most vital elites. Yet while the Jewish community (or Yishuv), a cohesive national movement, managed to weather the storm by extreme effort, the atomized Palestinian community, lacking an equivalent sense of corporate identity, fragmented into small pieces. The moment its leading members chose to place their own safety ahead of all other considerations, the exodus became a foregone conclusion.
The British High Commissioner for Palestine, General Sir Alan Cunningham, summarized what was happening with quintessential British understatement:
The collapsing Arab morale in Palestine is in some measure due to the increasing tendency of those who should be leading them to leave the country. . . . In all parts of the country the effendi class has been evacuating in large numbers over a considerable period and the tempo is increasing.
Hussein Khalidi, Secretary of the Arab Higher Committee, was more forthright. “In 1936 there were 60,000 [British] troops and [the Arabs] did not fear,” he complained to the mufti on January 2, 1948. “Now we deal with 30,000 Jews and [the Arabs] are trembling in fear.” Ten days later, he was even more scathing. “Forty days after the declaration of a jihad, and I am shattered,” he complained to a fellow Palestinian. “Everyone has left me. Six [AHC members] are in Cairo, two are in Damascus—I won’t be able to hold on much longer. . . . Everyone is leaving. Everyone who has a check or some money—off he goes to Egypt, to Lebanon, to Damascus.”
The desertion of the elites had a stampede effect on the middle classes and the peasantry. But huge numbers of Palestinians were also driven out of their homes by their own leaders and/or by Arab military forces, whether out of military considerations or, more actively, to prevent them from becoming citizens of the Jewish state. In the largest and best-known example of such a forced exodus, tens of thousands of Arabs were ordered or bullied into leaving the city of Haifa against their wishes and almost certainly on the instructions of the Arab Higher Committee, despite sustained Jewish efforts to convince them to stay.1 Only days earlier, thousands of Arabs in Tiberias had been similarly forced out by their own leaders. In Jaffa, the largest Arab community of mandatory Palestine, the municipality organized the transfer of thousands of residents by land and sea, while in the town of Beisan, in the Jordan valley, the women and children were ordered out as the Arab Legion dug in. And then there were the tens of thousands of rural villagers who were likewise forced out of their homes by order of the AHC, local Arab militias, or the armies of the Arab states.
None of this is to deny that Israeli forces did on occasion expel Palestinians. But this occurred not within the framework of a premeditated plan but in the heat of battle, and was dictated predominantly by ad-hoc military considerations (notably the need to deny strategic sites to the enemy if there were no available Jewish forces to hold them). Even the largest of these expulsions—during the battle over the town of Lydda in July 1948—emanated from a string of unexpected developments on the ground and was in no way foreseen in military plans for the capture of the town. Finally, whatever the extent of the Israeli expulsions, they accounted for only a small fraction of the total exodus.
It is true that neither the Arab Higher Committee nor the Arab states envisaged a Palestinian dispersion of this extent, and that both sought to contain it once it began snowballing. But it is no less true that they acted in a way that condemned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to exile. In early March 1948, the AHC issued a circular castigating the flight out of the country as a blemish on both “the jihad movement and the reputation of the Palestinians,” and stating that “in places of great danger, women, children, and the elderly should be moved to safer areas” within Palestine. But only a week later, the AHC was evidently allowing those same categories of persons to leave Jerusalem for Lebanon, and also ordering the removal of women and children from Haifa. By late April, nothing remained of the AHC’s stillborn instruction as Transjordan threw its doors open to the mass arrival of Palestinian women and children and the Arab Legion was given a free hand to carry out population transfers at its discretion.
Muhammad Nimr al-Khatib, a prominent Palestinian leader during the 1948 war, summed up his nation’s dispersion in these words: “The Palestinians had neighboring Arab states which opened their borders and doors to the refugees, while the Jews had no alternative but to triumph or to die.”
That is true as far as it goes—yet it severely underplays the extent of mutual recrimination between the Palestinians and their supposed saviors. From the moment of their arrival in the “neighboring Arab states which opened their borders and doors,” tension between the refugees and the host societies ran high. The former considered the states derelict for having issued wild promises of military support on which they never made good. The latter regarded the Palestinians as a cowardly lot who had shamefully deserted their homeland while expecting others to fight for them.
This mutual animosity was also manifest within Palestine itself, where the pan-Arab volunteer force that entered the country in early 1948 found itself at loggerheads with the community it was supposed to defend. Denunciations and violent clashes were common, with the local population often refusing to provide the Arab Liberation Army with the basic necessities for daily upkeep and military operations, and army personnel abusing their Palestinian hosts, of whom they were openly contemptuous. When an Iraqi officer in Jerusalem was asked to explain his persistent refusal to greet the local populace, he angrily retorted that “one doesn’t greet these dodging dogs, whose cowardice causes poor Iraqis to die.”
The Palestinians did not hesitate to reply in kind. In an interview with the London Telegraph in August 1948, the Palestinian leader Emile Ghoury blamed not Israel but the Arab states for the creation of the refugee problem; so did the organizers of protest demonstrations that took place in many West Bank towns on the first anniversary of Israel’s establishment. During a fact-finding mission to Gaza in June 1949, Sir John Troutbeck, head of the British Middle East office in Cairo and no friend to Israel or the Jews, was surprised to discover that while the refugees
express no bitterness against the Jews (or for that matter against the Americans or ourselves) they speak with the utmost bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states. “We know who our enemies are,” they will say, and they are referring to their Arab brothers who, they declare, persuaded them unnecessarily to leave their home. . . . I even heard it said that many of the refugees would give a welcome to the Israelis if they were to come in and take the district over.
The prevailing conviction among Palestinians that they had been, and remained, the victims of their fellow Arabs rather than of Israeli aggression was grounded not only in experience but in the larger facts of inter-Arab politics. Indeed, had the Jewish state lost the war, its territory would not have been handed over to the Palestinians but rather divided among the invading forces, for the simple reason that none of the Arab regimes viewed the Palestinians as a distinct nation. Perhaps the clearest sign of this was that neither Egypt nor Jordan allowed Palestinian self-determination in the parts of Palestine they conquered during the 1948 war: respectively, Gaza and the West Bank. As the American academic, Philip Hitti, put the Arab view to a joint British and American committee of inquiry in 1946: “There is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not.”
So much for “the largest ethnic-cleansing operation in modern history.”
But the appeal to history—to what did or did not happen in 1948-49—is only one arrow in the Palestinian quiver. Another is the appeal to international law, and in particular to the United Nations resolution that, as Hanan Ashrawi sternly reminds us, “has been affirmed annually by the UN member states.”
The resolution in question, number 194, was passed by the UN General Assembly on December 11, 1948, in the midst of the Arab-Israeli war. The first thing to be noted about it is that, like all General Assembly resolutions (and unlike Security Council resolutions), it is an expression of sentiment and carries no binding force whatsoever. The second thing to be noted is that its primary purpose was not to address the refugee problem but rather to create a “conciliation commission” aimed at facilitating a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Only one of its fifteen paragraphs alludes to refugees in general—not “Arab refugees”—in language that could as readily apply to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were then being driven from the Arab states in revenge for the situation in Palestine.
This interpretation is not merely fanciful. The resolution expressly stipulates that compensation for the property of those refugees choosing not to return “should be made good by the governments or the authorities responsible.” Had the provision applied only to Palestinians, Israel would surely have been singled out as the compensating party; instead, the wording clearly indicates that Arab states were likewise seen as potential compensators of refugees created by them.
Most importantly, far from recommending the return of the Palestinian refugees as the only viable solution, Resolution 194 put this particular option on a par with resettlement elsewhere. It advocated, in its own words, 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,” but also that efforts should be made to facilitate the “resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees.”
It was, indeed, just these clauses in Resolution 194 that, at the time, made it anathema to the Arabs, who opposed it vehemently and voted unanimously against it. Linking resolution of the refugee issue to the achievement of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace; placing on the Arab states some of the burden for resolving it; equating return and resettlement as possible solutions, and diluting any preference for the former by means of the vague phrase, “at the earliest practicable date”; and above all establishing no absolute “right of return,” the measure was seen, correctly, as rather less than useful to Arab purposes.
Only in the late 1960’s, and with the connivance of their Soviet and third-world supporters, did the Arabs begin to transform Resolution 194 into the cornerstone of an utterly spurious legal claim to a “right of return,” buttressing it with thinly argued and easily refutable appeals to other international covenants on the treatment of refugees and displaced persons. Today, after decades of fervent Palestinian rejection of the very idea of living “at peace with their neighbors,” the most that can be said of those who invoke the language of Resolution 194 is that they are being disingenuous—though stronger and more accurate words also come to mind.
And the refugees themselves? As is well-known, they were kept in squalid camps for decades as a means of derogating Israel in the eyes of the West and arousing pan-Arab sentiments. And there large numbers of them have remained, with the conspicuous exception of those allowed to settle and take citizenship in Jordan.
At the end of the 1948-49 war, the Israeli government set the number of Palestinian refugees at 550,000-600,000; the research department of the British Foreign Office leaned toward the higher end of this estimate. But within a year, as large masses of people sought to benefit from the unprecedented influx of international funds to the area, some 914,000 alleged refugees had been registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
More than a half-century later, these exaggerated initial numbers have swollen still further: as of June 2000, according to UNRWA, the total had climbed close to three and three-quarters million. Of course, UNRWA itself admits that the statistics are inflated, since they “are based on information voluntarily supplied by refugees primarily for the purpose of obtaining access to Agency services.” (The numbers also include close to a million-and-a-half Jordanian citizens.) But the PLO, for its part, has set a still higher figure of 5 million refugees, claiming that many have never registered with UNRWA.
Aside from demanding an unconditional right of return for these individuals, Palestinian spokesmen have calculated that justice will also require monetary “reparations” in the amount of roughly $500 billion—half for alleged material losses, and the rest for lost income, psychological trauma, and non-material losses. To this figure would also be added the hundreds of billions to be claimed by the refugees’ host countries (notably Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan) for services rendered, bringing the total to about $1 trillion.
Needless to say, Israel has challenged UNRWA’s figures, not to speak of the PLO’s; it has unofficially estimated the current number of refugees and their families at closer to 2 million. But even if the more restrictive Israeli figures were to be accepted, it is certainly true, just as Amos Oz darkly predicts, that the influx of these refugees into the Jewish state would irrevocably transform its demographic composition. At the moment, Jews constitute about 79 percent of Israel’s 6-million-plus population, a figure that would rapidly dwindle to under 60 percent. Given the Palestinians’ far higher birth rate, the implementation of a “right of return,” even by the most conservative estimates, would be tantamount to Israel’s destruction.
Not that this stark scenario should surprise anyone. As early as October 1949, the Egyptian politician Muhammad Salah al-Din, soon to become his country’s foreign minister, wrote in the influential Egyptian daily al-Misri that “in demanding the restoration of the refugees to Palestine, the Arabs intend that they shall return as the masters of the homeland and not as slaves. More specifically, they intend to annihilate the state of Israel.”
In subsequent years, this frank understanding of what the “right of return” was all about would be reiterated by most Arab leaders, from Gamal Abdel Nasser, to Hafez al-Assad, to Yasir Arafat. Only during the 1990’s did the PLO temporarily elide the issue as it concentrated on gaining control of the territories vacated by Israel as part of the Oslo peace process. Its Israeli interlocutors, for their part, chose to think of the “right of return” as a PLO bargaining chip, to be reserved for talks on a final-status settlement and then somehow disposed of symbolically or through a token gesture of good will (such as by conceding some degree of Israeli “practical”—but not “moral”—responsibility for the 1948-49 exodus).
Throughout the 1990’s, successive academic study groups, made up of the most earnestly forthcoming Israelis and the most grudgingly tractable Palestinians, devoted themselves to formulating a compromise proposal on this issue. They all failed—a fact that should have raised a large warning flag, but did not, even though the reason for the failure was plain enough. For the “right of return” is, for the Palestinians, not a bargaining chip; it is the heart of the matter.
That is why, over the decades, other perfectly commendable Israeli gestures toward dealing with the plight of the refugees have consistently met with indifference or rebuff. In 1949, Israel offered to take back 100,000 Palestinian refugees; the Arab states refused. Nevertheless, some 50,000 refugees have returned over the decades under the terms of Israel’s family-reunification program, and another 75,000 who were displaced from the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war have also returned to those territories. As Alexander Safian of CAMERA has documented, 90,000 Palestinians have also been allowed to gain residence in territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority since the beginning of the Oslo process. Safian similarly points out that millions have been paid by Israel in settlement of individual claims of lost property—“despite the fact that not a single penny of compensation has ever been paid to any of the more than 500,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries.”
Indeed, if one were to insist on the applicability of international law, here is one instance where it speaks unequivocally. In 1948-49, the Palestinians and Arab states launched a war of aggression against the Jewish community and the newly-proclaimed state of Israel, in the process driving out from their territories hundreds of thousands of innocent Jews and seizing their worldly goods. Ever since, these same aggressors have been suing to be made whole for the consequences of their own failed aggression. Imagine a defeated Nazi Germany demanding reparations from Britain and the United States, or Iraq demanding compensation for losses it suffered during the 1991 Gulf war. Both legally and morally, the idea is grotesque.
But in the end none of this matters. What is at issue in the dispute over the “right of return” is not practicality, not demography, not legality, and certainly not history. What is at issue is not even the refugees themselves, shamefully left in homelessness and destitution, and nourished on hatred and false dreams, while all over the world tens of millions of individuals in similar or much worse straits have been resettled and have rebuilt their lives. What is at issue is quite simply the existence of Israel—or rather, to put it in the more honest terms of Muhammed Salah al-Din, the still vibrant hope among many Arabs and Palestinians of annihilating that existence, if not by one means then by another.
Tactically, “we may win or lose,” declared Faysal al-Husseini, the “moderate” minister for Jerusalem affairs in Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, in late March of this year; “but our eyes will continue to aspire to the strategic goal, namely, to Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea”—that is, to a Palestine in place of an Israel. “Whatever we get now,” he continued, “cannot make us forget this supreme truth.” Until this “supreme truth” is buried once and for all, no amount of Israeli good will, partial compensation, or symbolic acceptance of responsibility can hope to create anything but an appetite for more.
1 I have recounted the Haifa story at some length in “Were the Palestinians Expelled?,” COMMENTARY, July-August 2000.