The ‘right of return’ into Israel:
No compromises by the Palestinians
Published: 7 July 2011
Briefing Number 290
Summary: “I see myself returning to Jaffa: why shouldn’t I?.... My heart has love for Gaza, Jerusalem and Jaffa, and whether I am in Ramallah or in Gaza, I will work for the sake of Jaffa, Jerusalem and all of Palestine....”
– Nabil Sha’ath, senior figure in Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, June 2011
The Palestinians claim a ‘right of return’ into Israel, for over 4.5 million Palestinian Arabs whom they define as refugees. And they publicly refuse to consider any compromise over this claim, even though its fulfilment would be impossible to reconcile with a two-state solution, or coexistence side-by-side with Israel. Quite simply, it would mean the end of Israel as a state for the Jewish people.
This Briefing highlights recent statements on the ‘right of return’ by the following ‘moderate’ Palestinian leaders:
- Mahmoud Abbas, proclaimed on Naqba Day, May 2011
- Nabil Sha’ath, press conference in April 2011, and newspaper interview, June 2011 (from which the above quote is taken)
- Saeb Erekat, on the anniversary of the UN partition plan, December 2010
We also highlight the results of a public opinion survey conducted in early 2011 by a respected Palestinian polling group, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which confirms the centrality of the ‘right of return’ in Palestinian thinking.
Finally, we cite a recent speech by a Palestinian Authority official describing the Palestinian refugees as “the new Palestinian nuclear weapon...”
Key messages: Israel’s settlement policies are publicly condemned around the world for being an ‘obstacle to peace’. Yet the Palestinian claim of a ‘right of return’ is a far greater obstacle to peace. Israel repeatedly declares itself ready to make ‘painful concessions’ over territory and settlements in the context of peace talks, and Israel has physically uprooted settlements in the past. Yet the Palestinians are completely intransigent over the ‘right of return’. They refuse to uproot it from their minds and political culture.
The international community vocally criticises Israel over settlements, and publicly demands a change in Israeli thinking and policies. Yet it is virtually completely silent over the Palestinian ‘right of return’.
Huge pressure is placed on Israel concerning an ‘obstacle to peace’ – the settlements. Yet there is silence towards the Palestinians over the ‘obstacle’ they have created to peace – the ‘right of return’. This is a one-sided and unbalanced approach, yet it is taken by well-intentioned politicians, pundits, campaigning groups, and diplomats. It is this one-sided approach which is itself an obstacle to a peace process and viable, long-term coexistence.
Background – what is the Palestinian ‘right of return’?
The Palestinians claim that all Palestinian refugees should as a matter of principle be able to fulfil a ‘right of return’ to Israel, to the land from which they were displaced. They base this claim on their interpretation of international law and in particular UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which was passed shortly after Israel’s war of independence (or what the Palestinians call “the naqba”).
They argue that this claim should be enjoyed by a total of some 4.5 million Palestinian refugees, most of whom are descendants of the original refugees. They regard the ‘right of return’ as ‘inalienable’, and part of international justice.
The Arab League Peace Initiative of 2002/2007 refers to the need for a “just solution” for refugees in accordance with UN Resolution 194 (see Briefing 193 – The Arab League Plan 2007 – towards normal relations with Israel?).
While some Palestinian commentators suggest from time to time that the Palestinian leadership may be willing to compromise on this right, its official, public position remains to require a ‘right of return’ without any qualification.
There is no public sign of compromise in Palestinian society. Indeed, Palestinian society and culture reinforce this mindset, daily: see for example Briefing 289 – ‘Inside a Palestinian refugee camp’).
Mainstream Israeli responses
What is Israel’s stance over the ‘right of return’? Israeli spokespeople and mainstream commentators counter that:
- It was Arab rejectionism, not Israeli aggression, which caused the war of 1948 which created the Palestinian Arab refugee problem in the first place
- Israel cannot be held solely responsible for the flight of the Palestinian Arabs during the 1948 war
- Arab states and the Palestinians have exacerbated the refugee problem for over 60 years. A general ‘right of return’ is more unrealistic than ever
- Israel is under no legal obligation under UN General Assembly Resolution 194 to accede to the Palestinians’ claim
- The international community, and in particular Arab states, must carry some of the financial responsibility for permanently resettling Palestinian refugees
- For Israel to accept a Palestinian ‘right of return’ would risk destroying the Jewish character of the State of Israel, which the Israeli people will never accept
- Under a future two-state solution, Jews would have the right to live in Israel and the Palestinians, including refugees, would have the right to live in a future state of Palestine – that is how the ‘two states for two peoples’ formula would work
- Over 800,000 Jews living in Arab countries were forcibly dispossessed from their homes in the years following the re-establishment of the State of Israel. They have never been compensated, but have nonetheless resettled and built new lives, mostly in Israel. The Palestinian Arabs should rebuild rather than continue to recriminate about the past
(From time to time in the past, Israeli spokespeople have floated schemes for symbolic family reunification and small-scale return into Israel, in the context of final status peace talks).
For more on these arguments and counterarguments, see Beyond Images Briefing 34: ‘The Palestinian ‘right of return’ (October 2003)
The attitude of Palestinian ‘moderates’ in 2011 on the ‘right of return’
The Palestinians have been publicly uncompromising on their claimed ‘right of return’ for decades.
In recent months ‘moderate’ Palestinian leaders have restated the claim, time and again. This Briefing provides a snapshot of these attitudes, and wider attitudes towards the right in Palestinian society.
Mahmoud Abbas, PA President
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stated on 13 May 2011 that every Palestinian:
“has the right to see Palestine and return to the homeland, because the homeland is our final destination....”
He added that the Palestinian Authority would continue to “take practical steps” towards achieving the “right of return”.
Abbas was speaking at a public gathering in advance of ‘naqba’ day on 15 May 2011. His words were reported by Jerusalem Post Arab affairs journalist Khaled Abu Toameh (see www.jpost.com – 14 May 2011).
Nabil Sha’ath twice rejects any compromise on the ‘right of return’
The US Administration was reported in April 2011 to be considering key principles of a new peace initiative, and one of these was that the Palestinians relinquish the ‘right of return’ into Israel and exercise it only in a future Palestinian state. In response to these reports, Nabil Sha’ath made the following comments, which were reported in the Jerusalem Post on 23 April 2011.
Sha’ath is a very senior figure in Palestinian politics. He is a member of the Fatah Central Committee and the PA ‘commissioner’ for international relations. He is considered a leading ‘moderate’ and pragmatic voice within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. He said:
“We will reject any American peace plan that calls on us to give up one of our basic rights – the right of return of refugees....”
In an interview shortly afterwards with the Israeli-Arab newspaper Kul Al-Arab, dated 10 June 2011 (and reported by www.memri.org – Special Despatch 3942, dated 23 June 2011), Sha’ath said:
“I see myself returning to Jaffa: why shouldn’t I?.... My heart has love for Gaza, Jerusalem and Jaffa, and whether I am in Ramallah or in Gaza, I will work for the sake of Jaffa, Jerusalem and all of Palestine.....”
Saeb Erekat and UN General Assembly Resolution 194
On 10 December 2010, lead Palestinian Authority negotiator and spokesperson Saeb Erekat wrote about the ‘right of return’ on The Guardian’s Comment is Free blog (www.guardian.co.uk).
Erekat argued that it is “beyond argument” that Israel was responsible for the creation of the refugee problem. He described the “expulsion” of refugees by Israel as “the seminal Palestinian experience, and the source of our collective identity”.
He argued that the Palestinians “expelled by Israeli forces” in 1948 have two rights: to return to their homes, and to receive financial compensation, each under (his interpretation of) UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
And he added that the Palestinians’ rights under UN Resolution 194 are “enshrined in international law” and “must provide the basis for a settlement of the refugee issue”. Any peace deal that does not build on UNGA Resolution 194 was “completely untenable”. Finally, he called on the world “not to abandon the refugees of Palestine”, nor to “coerce the Palestinians representatives” to abandon the ‘right of return’.
There is not the slightest hint of compromise in these words.
(For more on Erekat’s views, see Briefing 243: ‘The intransigence of Palestinian moderates: Saeb Erekat reveals the reality..... in Arabic’, 26 July 2009)
65% of Palestinians believe that the ‘right of return’ is a top national priority for the Palestinian people
In March 2011, the independent Palestinian thinktank the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) published the results of its latest poll of Palestinian public opinion. The results covered many different domestic and international issues (including reactions to the so-called ‘Arab spring’), and were summarised in a press release from PSR dated 22 March 2011 (for which see their website – www.pcpsr.org)
The total size of the surveyed sample was 1270 Palestinian adults, in both the West Bank and Gaza, and the margin of error was stated to be 3%. The director of the PSR is respected Palestinian academic Khalil Shikaki.
On the Palestinian ‘right of return’ the survey revealed that 65% of Palestinians believe that the ‘return’ of Palestinians to “their villages” of 1948 is the first or second most important Palestinian national priority.
67% of Palestinians believe that the ending of the occupation of the West Bank is the first or second most important Palestinian national priority. It is striking that the figure for the ‘right of return’ is almost the same as this. Thus we see that the ending of the ‘occupation’ would not meet the aspiration of the Palestinians to fulfil the ‘right of return’.
By contrast, only 35% of Palestinians believe that the first or second most important Palestinian national priority should be to establish a democratic political system which respects the freedoms and rights of Palestinians.
Refugees as a new “nuclear weapon”....... by Sabri Saidam
Finally, Sabri Saidam is Mahmoud Abbas’s adviser on information technology and vocational training, and the deputy secretary-general of the Fatah Revolutionary Council. In an interview published on 23 May 2011 in Wafa, which is the official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority, Saidam said as follows:
“The new Palestinian nuclear weapon is the refugees outside and inside the homeland – [who seek] a just peace but who will not turn to it until the occupation is gone.... The Palestinians have begun moving their new, quality ‘nuclear weapon’ across the borders..... this new nuclear weapon is based on a large nucleus of loyalty to the motherland – a nucleus of courage and of yearning....”
(The Saidam interview is available from MEMRI – www.memri.org - as Special Despatch No 3883, dated 2 June 2011)
Some related Beyond Images Briefings
Briefing 34 – 24 October 2003
The Palestinian ‘right of return’
Briefing 289 – 29 June 2011
Inside a Palestinian refugee camp: ‘returning to Israel’... as part of daily life
Briefing 276 – 21 January 2011
Beyond the naqba mindset: what a real change of Palestinian attitudes towards Israel would involve.... by Shlomo Avineri
Briefing 142 – 1 June 2005
Negating Israel’s existence: Palestinians demand a full ‘right of return’
Briefing 291 – 3 July 2011
1948: The Arab decisions to depopulate Arab villages in Palestine