When Israel was established as a state, Israeli historian Benny Morris asserted in his book Righteous Victims that about 700,000 Arabs who were living in the Land of Israel left the country. He claimed, “The creation of the problem was almost inevitable, given the geographical intermixing of the population, the history of Arab-Jewish hostility since 1917, the rejection by both sides of the bi-national solution, and the depth of Arab animosity towards the Jews.” Around the same period of time, over 800,000 Jews from Arab countries also became refugees. The difference, however, between Jewish refugees from Arab countries and the Palestinians is that Mizrahi Jews were absorbed into Israel as full citizens, while to date even the descendants of Palestinians who left Israel are denied by Arab governments the most basic of rights.
For this reason, supporting a right of return is a major part of Palestinian political culture. Ahmad Saidi asserted that Palestinians view the 1948 war as “a site of Palestinian collective memory; it connects all Palestinians to a specific point in time that has become for them an ‘eternal present.’” In order to preserve this “eternal present,” George Bisharat noted that “streets, alleys, shops and markets that sprouted in the camps were named for the villages and towns from which the residents or proprietors hailed.” Palestinian society revolves around remembering what Israel was like before she became a state, rather than creating something for themselves anew.
An article by Jonathan Greenberg titled Generations of Memory claims that Palestinian elementary school textbooks describe Palestine as a beautiful country that was stolen from the Arabs and will one day be returned to its rightful owners. The Palestinian media repeats the same themes. For example, this year, Palestinian Media Watch reported that PA TV showed a clip of a Palestinian woman feeding birds, whose history is portrayed as predating the Jewish presence in Israel. Then, suddenly, the woman is forced to flea first by a Roman, then a Crusader, then a British soldier and finally a Jew, who throws a cigarette on her. In the conclusion, a new Saladin allows her to come home. Thus, for Palestinian Arabs, who view history in such a light, a common symbol is the house key, which Ahmad Saidi claims Palestinians use to symbolize “the return.”
On top of these cultural expressions, the Law of the Right of Return of the Palestinian Refugees, which the Palestinian Legislative Council ratified in 2008, declares, “The right of return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes and property and the granting of compensation to them for the suffering that was their lot is a fundamental and sacred right that is not subject to purchase or sale or to conversion and no consideration [of a change in meaning], interpretation, or referendum will be applied to it. The right of return is a natural personal, group, civil, political right that is passed on from father to son and is not cancelled with the passage of time or by the signing of any agreement, and it is not possible to cancel it or relinquish any aspect of it. […] Whoever acts in contravention of the injunctions of this law will be viewed as perpetrating a grave crime of treason.” Given all of this, it is not surprising that Palestinians are still living in squalid refugee camps, even when the camps are located within Palestinian Authority controlled areas. As the PLO slogan asserts, “A Palestinian refugee never moves out of his camp except to return home.” When Israel controlled Gaza, she attempted to build better homes for the Palestinian Arabs living under atrocious conditions in refugee camps. The PLO actively worked to prevent Israel from providing Palestinians who fled Israel and their descendants with better living conditions. The PLO threatened to murder any Palestinian who left the horrendous refugee camps to live in homes built by Israel and after a number of attacks, Israel’s program to provide Gazan Palestinians living in camps with better homes died out. As a result, Gazan refugee camps remain in tact to this day, despite the fact that the area enjoys de facto independence under Hamas rule.
Thus, given how much a right of return has been incorporated into Palestinian political culture and the PA legal system, it is very hard to fathom how the Palestinian leadership could be completely satisfied with a political settlement that does not grant them a right of return to Israel. This Palestinian position is one of the main obstacles to achieving peace. It is a problematic stance because a Palestinian right of return, if implemented, would destroy Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Furthermore, it does not recognize that places change with the passage of time and that many Jews from Arab countries, like the Palestinians, also lost their homes and were never compensated for their losses. Thus, just as Jewish, Indian, Pakistani, Greek, Turkish, etc. refugees weren’t given a right of return, neither should Palestinians.