Photo Credit: Yori Yanover

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.


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Rachel Avraham is a senior media research analyst at the Center for Near East Policy Research and a correspondent for the Israel Resource News Agency. She is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media.”


  1. First, Benny Morris shouldn’t be taken seriously by anybody seriously delving into this amazingly complicated geopolitical gordian’s knot. For the sake of brevity, any interested reader can dig through loads of academic criticism over Morris’ work, or should I say “early work” since after apprently having a severe crisis of conscience Morris completely reversed his earlier thesis of Israeli culpability and while insisting that the manifold charges of Blood Libel he has made against Israel are still correct, that the Palestinians are in fact culpable since any rational entity would treat them the same way. In other words, Morris went absurd to bizarre, and then some.

    That said, the Morris’ cited figure of 700,000 Palestinian refugees generally is cited by a plethora of sources. The truth is far different. On October 18th, 1948, the UN Acting Mediator for Palestine stated that there were 472,000 Palestinian refugees but that they calculated that the total by the end of 1949 (when the official Armistice Agreement would be signed) could not possibly exceeda little more than 500,000 and this included all refugees, not just those registered for benefits with the UN. Then, considering that this included all refugees generated west of the Jordan River- not just from what would soon become the Greenline- the 500,000-plus figure shrinks significantly. (Source-“The Progress Report of the Acting Mediator for Palestine, Submitted to the Secretary General for Transmission to the Members of the United Nations- Supplement to Doc A/648 Part III,” Section 5(c), under the heading, “The Current Situation”).

    If we examine relevant data we find that no more than 270,000 of that total number could have possibly been generated from within the Greenline. Of course this never gets discussed with both sides approaching the issue as if Israel would absorb refugees originally from Khan Younis and from Jenin.

    As for a Right of Return, Israel already offered this institutionally at Lausanne but Palestinians rejected the offer out of hand. On an individual basis all Palestinians with verifiable ties to territory within the Greenline are eligible for return via immigration. Omar Barghouti, the mouthpiece for the BDS-IAW movements- ironically- is a perfect example of this. Born in Qatar, raised in Egypt, in 1991 he and his family immigrated to Israel based upon that pre-1948 connection and were given citizenship.

    Reparations were paid by Israel institutionally at Lausanne, and on an individual basis are considered on a case by case basis up until the present. In addition, all liquid assets were returned to their legal owners in 1956.

    The Palestinian demand for a Right of Return is mere propaganda and as the author correctly noted, Jewish Refugees from Arab and Islamic Lands far outnumber the Palestinian refugees and yet unlike their Palestinian counterparts, there is no rejection of assimilation nor demands for financial or materiel benefit as one still finds amongst Palestinian refugees- and perhaps more importantly, their descendants.

    The League of Nations in 1920 envisioned a Population Transfer of Jews from the Arab lands coming to the Levant, and Arabs in the Levant- “Palestinians”- would leave and reside in Syria and in other Arab Nations. In effect, what took place wasn’t far from that- albeit through unofficial channels.

    Palestinians need to accept the fact that Israel will never grant this irrational demands. Time to grow up and see about fashioning a life for themselves wherever they now reside.

  2. Until so called "Palestine" became Israel it was no better than a desert with a few green areas here and there. The Al Aqsa mosque was overgrown and unkempt. The Ottoman Empire showed little interest in the area, Jordan didn't really exist. As Loren states 'the Arabs Right to Return' violates the UN Charter and is illegal. Unfortunately the US and current UN administration are to weak to remind Islam of this fact.

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