Middle East Refugees

Key Facts

  • Since Camp David (2000), Palestinian leadership have insisted on a ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees and their descendants, which is seen by almost all Israelis as an existential threat to the Jewish state.
  • Israel is unjustly blamed for creating the Palestinian refugee problem. The charge of a systematic Zionist strategy of expelling all Arabs as an act of “ethnic cleansing” is politically driven and factually baseless.
  • Israel cannot and should not be expected to accept moral and legal responsibility for the refugee problem it did not cause.
  • Solutions, such as Israel’s attempt to resettle refugees from the camps into permanent housing in nearby Arab towns, are consistently thwarted by Arab opposition at the United Nations lest the “refugee” status of the camp residents be altered.
  • The Palestinian ‘right of return’ has no legal basis. In Resolution 194, the repatriation of refugees is premised on their readiness to “live at peace with their neighbours.”
  • Israel challenged the legitimacy of UNGA Resolution 194 because it sought to deal exclusively with the plight of the estimated 600,000 – 750,000 Arab refugees from the 1948-49 war while ignoring the approximately 800,000 Jews forced to emigrate from Arab and Muslim countries.
  • In 2000, then-US President Bill Clinton dealt extensively with the refugee issue suggesting that the majority of refugees would be permanently resettled in their countries of current residence or in third countries.
  • Arafat continued to insist on Israel’s acceptance of an absolute right of return of Palestinian refugees as a precondition for ending violence and resuming the diplomatic process.
  • The uncompromising public position articulated by Palestinian leadership vis-à-vis the refugee issue in general, and the “right of return” in particular, remains a significant obstacle to the achievement of meaningful progress toward a substantive Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

More Information

The Palestinian leadership and its supporters abroad have, especially since the collapse of the Camp David summit in July 2000, asserted that the Palestinian refugees have an absolute “right of return” to their original homes in pre-state Israel. They routinely accuse Israel of having created the refugee problem (1947-48) and insist that Israel alone bear moral responsibility for solving it.

By claiming this “right of return”, the Palestinians have breached the reddest of red lines – even for those Israelis most prepared for generous compromise. Viewed by Israelis as amounting to a denial of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, insistence on “right of return” is seen, therefore, as an existential threat.

Israel bears no moral and legal responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem, which was an unintended consequence of the 1947-49 hostilities resulting directly from the Arab rejection of the November 1947 UN partition plan and the subsequent invasion of Israel by five Arab armies on May 14-15, 1948. Benny Morris, a leading authority on the early phases of the Arab-Israeli conflict and a prominent “new historian,” acknowledges that the plight of the Palestinian refugees was born of war and not of Israel’s design. To be sure, Israeli archival material indicates that, in some isolated instances, (as in Ramle and Lod), local Jewish military commanders, in the midst of dangerous hostilities, did evict Palestinians from their homes. However, in many other cases, as in Haifa, Israeli officials tried strenuously to persuade the local Arab community to remain. The charge of a systematic Zionist strategy of expelling all Arabs as an act of “ethnic cleansing” is politically driven and factually baseless.

In one of his first speeches to the Knesset as Prime Minister, Ehud Barak expressed regret for the suffering the conflict has caused the Palestinian people, but he emphasized that this regret was

not under any circumstance based on a feeling of guilt or responsibility for the emergence of the conflict and its results…We are not to blame but suffering was caused to the Palestinians and the truth must be spoken.

Israel cannot and should not be expected to accept moral and legal responsibility for the refugee problem it did not cause. Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University‘s Jaffe Centre for Strategic Studies has written that:

the [Palestinian] refugee problem was created in 1947-48 when the Palestinians and their Arab allies rejected United Nations Resolution 181 and tried to prevent by force implementation of the partition plan that called for the creation of a Jewish state alongside an Arab state in Palestine…The major reason for the displacement of people was the [May 1948] war itself, which the Arabs imposed on Israel in an attempt to abort its birth.

Nicole Brackman, formerly of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a book on the Palestinian refugees, has noted that:

while Israeli leaders have responded with expressions of sympathy for the suffering of the [Palestinian] refugees, they correctly insist that an admission of guilt would be historically untenable and would absolve the Arab states of their own moral and historic responsibility. In November 1947, the Palestinian leadership and the Arab leadership rejected [UNGA] Resolution 181…Subsequently, five Arab armies invaded newborn Israel initiating a war that led to the exodus of some 600,000-700,000 Palestinian Arabs.

The Globe and Mail succinctly presented these facts in a January 6, 2001 editorial:

[Arab] hypocrisy is staggering. One reason Palestinian refugees are there in the first place is that Arab countries attacked the nascent country of Israel in 1947 and 1948, rejecting a United Nations plan to peacefully divide the Holy Land into Jewish and Palestinian states. As the secretary-general of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, said of the attack at the time, ‘this will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre’….The Arab countries have been happy to use the Palestinians for propaganda purposes all these years, holding them up as examples of Israeli malice and making sure they lived in appropriate misery…

While denying moral and legal responsibility for the refugee problem, Israel has always understood that, for humanitarian and practical reasons, it is important to help find a solution to the plight of the Palestinian refugees. Indeed, in 1949, Israel agreed voluntarily to allow for the return of 100,000 refugees to their homes, but it withdrew the offer following the Arabs’ rejection of it. Nevertheless, over the years, Israel has, on humanitarian grounds and under its “family reunification” policy, allowed the return of approximately 70,000 refugees in response to individual requests, when the applicants have been deemed not to constitute a threat to national security.

Unfortunately, Israeli efforts to apply broader practical solutions to the refugee problem have rarely engendered a positive response. The Arabs have traditionally insisted on maintaining the refugee camps as a political weapon against Israel leveraging the strong international sympathy they provoke. Even when, in the early 1970s, Israel attempted to resettle refugees from the camps into permanent housing in nearby Arab towns, such efforts were thwarted by Arab opposition at the United Nations lest the “refugee” status of the camp residents be altered.

The Palestinians’ demand that Israel accord the refugees a “right of return” to present-day Israel ignores two critical factors:

  • The so-called Palestinian “right of return” has no legal basis. As a sovereign state, Israel has sole authority for determining its own immigration policy. Therefore, any repatriation of Palestinian refugees to Israel is a matter subject to permission, not a matter of right.
  • A mass return of Palestinian refugees to Israel would threaten its Jewish majority, putting an end to the two-state solution. The number of Palestinian refugees has been tremendously inflated over the years to include not only the 600,000 – 750,000 original refugees from the 1947-48 period but also their descendants (as stipulated in the definition of “refugee” provided by the United National Relief and Works Agency). Consequently, the number of “Palestinian refugees” today has grown to approximately 3.5 – 5 million, a number that rivals the Jewish population of Israel.

The Palestinians base their claim of a “right of return” on their interpretation of Article 11 of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of December 11, 1948. The resolution declares, among other things, that:

the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours 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 or damage to property which, under principles of international law or inequity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.

Israel disputes that Resolution 194 gives sanction to a Palestinian “right of return.” The language of rights does not appear in the resolution. Since 1980 the term “right of return” has found its way into a limited number of General Assembly resolutions, which Canada has consistently voted against. It is important to note that, while Israel disputes elements of Resolution 194, it has always voluntarily complied with the resolution’s humanitarian dimensions.

In Resolution 194, the repatriation of refugees – note the word “Palestinian” does not appear – is premised on their readiness to “live at peace with their neighbours,” a concept that was rejected at the time of the resolution’s adoption by Arab members of the UN because they were still engaged in pursuing a war to destroy Israel. The concept of peaceful coexistence was officially rejected by the Arab states in the General Assembly, all of whom voted against the resolution.

As adopted by the General Assembly, Resolution 194 was only a recommendation and did not have binding authority. The only Security Council resolution, which does have binding authority, dealing explicitly with the refugee issue is UNSC 242 (November 1967) but, even here, the resolution speaks only of the need to achieve “a just settlement of the refugee problem” and, like Resolution 194, does not refer specifically to “Palestinian” refugees.

Finally, Israel challenged the legitimacy of UNGA Resolution 194 because it sought to deal exclusively with the plight of the estimated 600,000 – 750,000 Arab refugees from the 1948-49 war while ignoring the arguably greater number of Jews forced to emigrate from Arab and Muslim countries in the late 1940s and early 1950s, leaving behind their personal property and their ancient communal institutions.

Thus, one cannot speak of the Middle East refugee problem without acknowledging the suffering encountered by the nearly 800,000 Jews forced out of Arab and Muslim lands around the time of Israel’s establishment. The majority chose a safe haven in Israel. Rather than leaving them to linger in squalid refugee camps as a reminder to the world of Jewish victimhood, Israel immediately offered these refugees the protection of the state and, in a few short years, absorbed the vast majority of them. As Nicole Brackman observed:

The Arab states’ treatment of the Palestinian refugees…was in stark contrast to Israel’s absorption of more than 600,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries after the state’s birth. Those communities, many over 2,000 years old, were subjected to virulent anti-Semitism, pogroms and expulsion. Their wealth was confiscated by the Arab governments. Israel, newly independent and virtually cut off from international aid, took in these Jews, made them citizens and gave them opportunities. Israel attempted, and in most cases succeeded, to integrate them into a young and struggling society despite the vast economic, social, political and religious difficulties inherent in such an overwhelming task.

In late December 2000, the World Jewish Congress placed a figure of approximately $6 billion (US) owed to Jews who were forced to flee Iraq and Egypt alone. If the assets left behind in all the other Arab and Muslim countries from which Jews were forced were added to this figure, it would certainly rise significantly. Indeed, former Israeli Member of Knesset and government minister Moshe Shahal, who chaired an organization of Jews from Arab countries, claims that Jews who emigrated from Arab countries between 1922 and 1952 left behind an estimated $30 billion in assets. Since the vast majority of these Jews were forced to leave the Arab / Muslim Middle East after Israel’s creation in 1948, the vast portion of this $30 billion figure can be attributed to that period. Shahal and others correctly note that any compensation that might eventually be paid to Palestinian refugees for property lost in present-day Israel must be balanced by compensation paid to Jews from Arab and Muslim countries.

In the September 1993 Declaration of Principles (Article 5), Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed that the refugee problem would be among the issues deferred until the final status talks. In May 1994, a continuing committee comprising Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan was established to consider ways of dealing with West Bank and Gaza Palestinians displaced by the June 1967 war. At the Moscow peace conference (January 1992) a multilateral working group, chaired by Canada, was established to develop and implement practical solutions for improving the lives of the refugees pending the completion of bilateral negotiations over their final status. This working group continued to meet and to implement practical measures for alleviating the suffering of the most destitute among the refugees, even as the bilateral track of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations became derailed.

The Palestinian demand for a “right of return” to pre-1948 Israel is not only grossly unrealistic, it is also an expression, in the eyes of Israelis, of belligerency towards Israel as the Jewish state. However, even Palestinians who acknowledge that Israel will never accede to this “right” in practice still demand that Israel accept the right of return in principle. From Israel’s perspective, this too is out of the question. Indeed, even liberal Israelis and strong proponents of Israeli concessions at the negotiating table, such as Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, openly acknowledge that the right of return is a non-starter.

The bridging proposals suggested by then-US President Bill Clinton in late December 2000 dealt extensively with the refugee issue. He suggested that the majority of refugees would have to be permanently resettled in their countries of current residence or in third countries. (There is some speculation that Canada had expressed a readiness to accept some refugees within the context of a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement). According to Clinton’s formula, some refugees would be able to relocate to the future West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state, conditional on the state’s absorptive capacity. A very limited number would be permitted, only after passing security clearance, to enter Israel on an individual, humanitarian basis under the principle of family reunification. An international fund would be established at the instigation of the United States, and with Israeli participation, to help fund the resettlement program.

This compromise, however, was unacceptable for the Palestinian leadership and their supporters in the Arab world. On January 4, 2001, Arab foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo, defined as “sacred” the “right” of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. Emboldened by such pan-Arab support, Arafat continued to insist on Israel’s acceptance of an absolute right of return of Palestinian refugees as a precondition for ending violence and resuming the diplomatic process. President Clinton was explicit in emphasizing that there would be no Palestinian “right of return” to Israel, declaring on January 7, 2001:

We cannot expect Israel to make a decision that would threaten the very foundations of the state of Israel, and would undermine the whole logic of peace. And it shouldn’t be done.

The uncompromising public position articulated by Palestinian leadership vis-à-vis the refugee issue in general, and the “right of return” in particular, remains a significant obstacle to the achievement of meaningful progress toward a substantive Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The Palestinians cannot publicly declare their support for a “two-state” solution while simultaneously insisting on a “right of return” to Israel. This position demonstrates that what they are really aiming for is one bi-national state with a Palestinian majority, which means the disappearance of the State of Israel.

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