Why Palestinians Demand a ‘Right of Return’ to Israel
For Palestinians, May 15 on the calendar means “Nakba,” the Arabic word for disaster. It marks the day after Israel declared independence in 1948, prompting a war in which some 700,000 Arabs were expelled from or fled their homes as the new state was established on most of the territory they knew as Palestine. For 70 years, Palestinians have claimed the right to return to their land, a position Israel rejects. This year, thousands of Palestinians are preparing to march from the Gaza Strip to the frontier, and some leaders of Gaza’s Hamas-controlled government say they will breach the border fence and attempt to recover their ancestral homes. Israel is poised to stop them.
1. Why is right of return such a hot issue now?
The short answer is Donald Trump. Palestinians are angry that the U.S. president recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and pledged to move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. The U.S. plans to dedicate the new embassy, converted from an existing American consulate in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood, on May 14, with a blue-ribbon delegation from the White House and U.S. Congress. Palestinians, who consider the eastern part of Jerusalem as occupied territory and hope to establish their own capital there one day, see an opportunity to dramatize their struggle for a global audience.
2. How exactly did Palestinians lose their land?
When Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, its Arab neighbors -- Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, with support from Iraq and Persian Gulf states -- declared war on the budding Jewish state. Many Palestinians fled in the belief that Israel would lose the war quickly and they could come back once the fighting ended. After the war, some of the Palestinian villages were destroyed, and Israel passed an Absentees’ Property Law that authorized the government to confiscate land and houses abandoned by Palestinians.
3. What’s the problem with Palestinians returning?
Mainly it’s a numbers issue. In additional to tens of thousands of the original 700,000 refugees who are still alive, Palestinians assert that some 5 million of their descendants should have the "right of return" -- not just from the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, but from communities in Lebanon, Jordan, Germany, Chile, the U.S. and elsewhere. Add these to the Palestinians who stayed put in 1948 and are now Israeli citizens (with their descendants, they number 1.8 million today) and you have the potential for Israel’s 6.5 million Jews to become outnumbered, defeating the purpose of creating a Jewish state.
4. Why should descendants have a right of return?
That’s a question a lot of Israelis ask, since it’s a right not broadly extended to the world’s other refugee populations. The answer rests with the United Nations. Its relief agency for Palestinians -- UNRWA, created in 1949 -- allows unlimited generations of descendants, including those born in other countries or who have become citizens of other countries, to be classified as refugees in perpetuity. By contrast, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), created in 1950 to care for all other displaced populations around the world, generally applies to a narrower definition of refugee.
5. Where would Israel have these people go?
Israel views the Palestinian refugee issue as part of a larger exchange of populations that’s played out over the course of decades. Some 1 million Jews fled or were forced out of the Muslim world after 1948. Many of them found refuge in Israel and became citizens, thus resolving their own refugee ordeals. Israel’s position has generally been that Palestinian refugees should settle in a future Palestinian state, and that a resolution of the issue should include compensation for the property and businesses Jews had expropriated from them or had to leave behind.
6. Why has this issue persisted for 70 years?
Because it’s been tied to a resolution of the larger, so-far-intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some international proposals for peace have envisioned a few thousand Palestinians returning to Israel while others settle elsewhere and receive financial compensation. While a comprehensive peace accord has proved elusive, several Arab states including Lebanon and Syria have refused citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees within their borders. Granted limited self-rule under preliminary agreements with Israel, Palestinian governments have maintained 27 refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, with the support of UNRWA.
7. Why is Gaza the center of the protests?
Gaza has long been a powder keg. For one thing, 68 percent of the nearly 2 million people crammed into the narrow 25-mile swath of desert bordering the Mediterranean are refugees. Gaza has been more or less closed off from the rest of the world for the past decade. The militant Islamist organization Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union, took control in a bloody coup in 2007 and since then has fought three wars with Israel. The prospect of breaking out of Gaza has special resonance for its residents because they’ve been penned in behind fences by Israel and Egypt.
The Reference Shelf
- An article in the New Yorker looks at how Hamas has managed the protests in Gaza.
- A paper published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy examines the next showdown between Israel and Hamas.
- QuickTake explainers on the two-state solution and UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
- In Bloomberg Opinion, Hussein Ibish said May would be an ugly month in Gaza.