No issue is more emblematic of the 20th century Palestinian experience than the plight of the approximately seven million Palestinian refugees. An estimated 70 percent of all Palestinians worldwide are refugees, while one out of three refugees worldwide is Palestinian. Approximately half of all Palestinian refugees are stateless. For decades, Israel has denied Palestinian refugees the right to return, violating UNGA Resolution 194, while providing for unfettered Jewish immigration to Israel.
Palestinian refugees lack the most basic human rights, suffer from inadequate international protection and assistance, and bear the brunt of the ongoing conflict with Israel. A just resolution of the refugee issue – one that recognizes the right of return and provides a range of meaningful choices to refugees – is essential to a successful negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A Brief History of the Refugee Issue
From 1947 to 1949, more than 726,000 Palestinians were expelled from or forced to leave their homes and became refugees prior to, and immediately following, Israel’s statehood declaration. Many fled from direct military assaults, while others fled from fear of imminent assaults by Jewish militias. Some 150,000 Palestinians remained in the areas of Palestine that became the State of Israel, including 46,000 Palestinians who were internally displaced during the war. Israel has refused to allow these internally displaced Palestinians to return to their homes and villages.
During Israel’s 1967 military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, roughly 300,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes there to other parts of the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) as well as across regional borders. Among this new wave of fleeing Palestinians, approximately 120,000 had previously been displaced in 1948. Since 1967, we have continued to face displacement from and within the oPt as a result of Israeli policies that include home demolition, evictions, land confiscation, residency revocation, construction of settlements and the Separation Wall, and the massive supporting Israeli military presence. Neither the 1948 refugees nor the 1967 refugees and internally displaced persons have been allowed by Israel to return to their homes within what are now Israel and the oPt.
Those Palestinians who were expelled or fled the violence in and around 1948 were effectively denationalized by Israel’s parliament in 1952. Their properties were seized and ultimately transferred to the State of Israel for the nearly exclusive benefit of the Jewish people. During and following the 1948 war, more than 400 Palestinian villages were depopulated and destroyed. Israel built new Jewish-only communities over some of these destroyed village areas. As former Israel Defense Minister Moshe Dayan stated in 1969,
“[J]ewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushu’a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”
However, by some estimates, 90 percent of the sites of our villages destroyed by Israel during and after its 1948 conquest remain vacant. By contrast, the vast majority of our refugees’ homes located in urban centers were left standing in 1948 but were occupied by Jewish immigrant Israelis.
Today there are seven million Palestinian refugees the majority of whom live within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of Israel’s border.
1.4 million refugees who are registered with UNRWA currently live in 58 official UNRWA refugee camps in the oPt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon (“host countries”). However, there are also many of our refugees who are not registered with UNRWA but live in these camps and still others that live in camps not recognized by UNRWA or the host country.
Our largest refugee camp population resides in the Gaza Strip. The highest proportion of refugees residing in camps among any single host country’s Palestinian refugee population lives in Lebanon.
Roughly 770,000 registered refugees live in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Of these, approximately 190,000 live in 19 refugee camps in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. More than one million registered refugees reside in the Gaza Strip. Roughly 500,000 live in one of the eight camps in the Gaza Strip. Our refugees in the oPt possess the same housing, health, employment, and education rights as non-refugees.
The treatment of Palestinian refugees varies among host countries. Jordan granted citizenship to most refugees who fled in 1948, along with the civil and social rights attending Jordanian citizenship. Palestinians living in Syria have the same rights and responsibilities as Syrian citizens, except nationality and political rights.
Palestinians today are a Diaspora community that is scattered all over the world, including in most Arab states, Europe, and in North and South America. Yet, while the Israeli Law of Return allows any Jew residing anywhere in the world to live in Israel and the oPt, irrespective of direct lineage in the territory, those of us that are native born and possess the keys to our homes and titles to property in historic Palestine are denied the right even to visit our families, property and ancestral homeland.
In 1948, in response to the mass displacement of our refugees, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 194, including paragraph 11 which provides, in part, that:
“the [Palestinian] refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors 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 of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible”.
Resolution 194 endorsed the right of our refugees to choose whether to repatriate to what is now Israel or to be resettled elsewhere, and codified the accepted principles of customary international law. It has been reaffirmed by the General Assembly every year since its adoption.
The right of return for our refugees also is well-established under other international law, including:
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948): “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (Art. 13(2)).
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country” (Art. 12(4)).
The UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons: “All Refugees and displaced persons have the right to voluntarily return to their former homes, lands or places of habitual residence, in safety and dignity” (Art. 10.1)… “Refugees and displaced persons should be able to effectively pursue durable solutions to displacement other than return, if they so wish, without prejudicing their right to the restitution of their housing, land and property” (Art. 10.3).
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: “The Committee is concerned about the denial of the right of many Palestinians to return and repossess their land in Israel (Article 5 (d) (ii) and (v)). The Committee reiterates its view expressed in its previous concluding observations on this issue and urges the State party to assure equality in the right to return to one’s country and in the possession of property” (Art. 18).
Our vision requires a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue in accordance with international law, and specifically UN General Assembly Resolution 194. A just solution must be based on the right of return and reparations. Our position on refugees is also included and supported in the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which calls for “a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.”
Right of Return
Key to the resolution of the refugee issue is Israel’s recognition of the applicable principles and rights of the refugees, including our refugees’ right to return to their homes and lands. Israel’s recognition of the right of return will pave the way to negotiating how that right will be implemented. Choice is a critical part of the process. Our refugees must be allowed to choose how to implement their rights and normalize their status. The options for our refugees should be: return to Israel, return/resettlement to a future Palestinian state, integration in host states, or resettlement in third-party states. Rehabilitation in the form of professional training, education, medical services, provision of housing, etc. will also be a necessary component of each of the options.
Reparations consist of three elements. The first is Israel’s recognition of its role in the creation and perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee upheaval. While Israel may have its own narrative to explain the circumstances surrounding the creation of the Palestinian refugees, it is undeniable that when our refugees sought to return to their homes, Israel systematically, and adamantly, blocked their efforts. To this day, Israel continues to deny their right to return. Israel must acknowledge unequivocally its responsibility for these actions if there is to be a just, peaceful, and sustainable solution to the conflict.
Restitution is the second element of reparations. Under international law, restitution is the primary remedy for property that has been confiscated arbitrarily. If restitution is materially impossible, or where the damage will not be made whole by restitution alone, or if a refugee chooses compensation in lieu of restitution, that compensation must be full and complete. Alternatively, compensation in-kind may be offered in the form of vacant land in Israel.
Compensation is the third element of reparations and is comprised of three categories. Compensation must be made for property that cannot be restituted (or if the refugee chooses compensation in lieu of restitution), for material damages (personal items, livelihood, etc.) and for non-material damages (pain and suffering resulting from longstanding displacement).