July 8, 2020 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1521

Palestinian Authority: The Palestinian Refugees' Right Of Return Will Never Be Canceled; No To Trump's Plan, Which Revokes It

July 8, 2020 | By Z. Harel*
Palestine | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1521

The return of the Palestinian refugees to their original places of residence, including to localities inside Israel,  is a central demand of the Palestinians, who regard it as a principle that cannot be relinquished in any negotiation toward a permanent solution with Israel.[1] They regard UN General Assembly Resolution 194, adopted in December 1948, and especially Article 11 of this resolution, as the basis for this demand.[2] Israel and the Palestinians disagree on the legal interpretation of this resolution, as well as on the number of refugees displaced by the 1948 War and on the status of their descendants who have settled, and in some cases become naturalized, in other countries.

The "Peace to Prosperity" initiative  published by the Trump administration on January 28, 2020, known as the Deal of the Century, states that "[t]here shall be no right of return by, or absorption of, any Palestinian refugee into the State of Israel," nor does it recognize the Palestinian criteria for determining refugee status. It states that "individuals who have already resettled in a permanent location" will not be regarded as refugees and will not be eligible for resettlement. However, the plan does envision the economic rehabilitation of refugees by means of large funds and by resettling them in alternative locations.

Upon the plan's publication, and even prior to its publication, the Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by Mahmoud 'Abbas, the PLO and the rest of the Palestinian factions rejected it out of hand, stressing that it cancels the refugees' right to return to their homeland and to their homes inside Israel, a right that is recognized by UN resolutions and by international law. PA officials, chief of them Palestinian President Mahmoud 'Abbas, claimed that the U.S. initiative was part of the conspiracies against the Palestinian people going back to the Balfour Declaration. They stressed that the right of return is a sacred individual right and passes down from generation to generation, and that any political solution that does not guarantee it is unacceptable and unfeasible.

Recently, ahead of Nakba Day, marked each year on May 15, the Palestinian media dealt extensively with the right of return. Many articles were published recounting refugees' stories[3] and underscoring the Palestinian commitment to this right. Fatah's official Facebook page posted many cartoons and images as well as content stressing this commitment and presenting maps of Palestine from the river to the sea that negate Israel's existence.

It should be mentioned that the discourse on the refugee issue and the right of return also increased recently due to the statements heard in Israel regarding the government's intention to apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and parts of the West Bank as part of the Deal of the Century, which provoked fury in the PA. Palestinian President Mahmoud 'Abbas announced on May 19, 2020 that, in light of this Israeli intention, the PLO and the state of Palestine are no longer committed to the agreements and understandings with Israel and the U.S., including in the sphere of security. He reiterated that the PA is committed to UN Resolution 194 on the refugee issue and that the Palestinians will adhere to their goals until they achieve independence and realize the right of return.[4]

This report reviews the current discourse in the PA on the refugee issue and the right of return.

PA President Abbas: I Reject The Deal Of The Century That Cancels The Right Of Return And Reparations

As early as January 28, 2020, the day the U.S. peace initiative was released, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called a meeting of the Palestinian leadership during which he said: "Having heard these statements [of the Deal of the Century], which were nonsense from beginning to end, we say 1,000 times: 'No, no, no, to the Deal of the Century'"[5]

'Abbas continued to express his rejection of the plan, on multiple occasions. For example, at a February 3, 2020 meeting with members of the general intelligence apparatus, he underlined his opposition to the plan and to its demand that the Palestinians relinquish the right of return, saying: "Even in my dreams I never imagined that such a plan would be presented to us. Others told us, 'Wait for the results [i.e. the publication of the plan] and then judge – it has advantages and disadvantages.' With no exaggeration, I say: There is not one single point in it that is good – all of it is biased [in favor of Israel]. We also reject what we are meant to receive in the future [under the plan] provided we recognize the Jewish state, and provided we cancel the right of return and meet other harmful conditions."[6]

In another speech, on February 6, at a meeting with representatives of Palestinian civil society, he spoke out against the main points of the deal, including its cancellation of the right of return and reparations. He stressed that, according to this plan, "the refugees – and I am first among them – have no rights at all."[7]

At a June 5 Fatah Central Committee conference 'Abbas stressed that the number of Palestinian refugees was much greater than what was usually thought. He said: "A refugee is not only someone who was expelled from his country, but also someone who was expelled from his home. The number of refugees expelled from their homes [in 1948] is 950,000. I remember that in the negotiations at Camp David the Israelis claimed that the number of refugees was 250,000, that most of them had died, and that they would consider how to compensate [those remaining], if possible. No, the official number listed by the UN is 950,000. A few days ago, I read in one media outlet [that the number is] 800,000 and 850,000. No! The number is 950,000, because anyone expelled from his home to another home is a refugee, and therefore even someone removed [from his home in] Jaffa to Ramallah, or in Ashkelon to Gaza, is a refugee – not just someone expelled from his homeland..."[8]

In a May 13 speech marking Nakba Day, 'Abbas again underlined that the return of the refugees is one of the Palestinians' goals. He said: "It has been 72 years since the forces of evil, oppression and aggression struck us, one after the other, to cause the Nakba of our people, and to uproot a million or so of our people from their cities and villages – over half the Palestinian people at that time. They turned them into those refugees [we see] in the refugee camps, whether in the homeland under the Israeli occupation or in exile, in the diaspora, near or far.

"But despite all the difficult years, despite all the tragedies and plots that struck our people – from the [original] sin of the perverse Balfour Declaration that paved the way to the Nakba... to the plot of the Deal of the Century and the recent Israeli annexation plan – our mighty people never broke, and never surrendered, but stood fast, bearing its suffering with patience and binding its wounds. Then came the outbreak of its glorious uprising in 1965,[9] [when it] opposed the occupation with courage and faith. It set out with sure steps toward obtaining recognition of its rights to freedom, independence and [the refugees'] return, backed by the PLO... Those who carried out the Nakba wanted Palestine to be a land without people for a people without a land [i.e. the Jews]. They wanted the [Palestinian] fathers and grandfathers to die and the sons and grandsons to forget. They wagered that the name of Palestine would be erased from the annals of history. To this end, they carried out plots,  pressures, massacres, and the most despicable assassination plans – the most recent of which, as we have pointed out, is the so-called Deal of the Century. But all these, as Allah willed it, were dashed the on the rock of this mighty Palestinian people... and, despite the occupation's obstacles, policies, measures and aggressive violations, we [still] continue, surefooted, towards the full restoration of our rights and the removal of this despicable occupation from our blessed land."[10]

PLO And Fatah Officials: We Will Reject The Cancellation Of The Right Of Return; The Solution To The Refugee Issue Is Their Return To Their Homes

Similar messages were voiced by PLO officials. Director of the PLO Department of Refugee Affairs and PLO Executive Committee member Dr. Ahmad Abu Houli said on January 29, 2020, the day after the details of the peace initiative were released, that "the PLO will not recognize the Israeli occupation state as a Jewish state because such recognition means that we agree to the naturalization of the Palestinian refugees [in their current host countries] and the elimination of their legitimate right to return to the land from which they were expelled in 1948. This will not happen, no matter how much pressure is exerted on us... The solution to the Palestinian refugee problem lies in the implementation of Resolution 194, which calls for the Palestinian refugees' return to the homes from which they were expelled in 1948..."[11]

Abu Houli made similar comments on May 14, 2020, ahead of Nakba Day: "The right of return will continue to be the legal, legitimate and international proof in the hands of the Palestinian refugees, and no one will be able to take it away from them or to erase it from the Palestinian memory. The Palestinian refugees have rights, a homeland, and land. The basis for any solution is their return to the homes from which they were expelled in 1948, in accordance with Resolution 194. Their return to their homes is possible; what is not possible is to forget this right, relinquish it, or to agree to the naturalizing of the refugees [in other countries]… The Palestinian leadership will be as a bulwark, defending the right of return and [other] principles, and will prevent the acceptance of the American Deal of the Century, which is opposed and condemned by the UN, the countries of the European Union, the Arab League and all other advocates of liberty in the world. The Palestinian people will stand firm against the American-Israeli efforts to naturalize the refugees [in other lands], to cancel their right to return to their homes, to restrict [this right] to a specific geographical area, or to make it subject to security or demographic considerations or to a current or future Zionist settlement plan..."[12]

The PLO Executive Committee likewise stressed the Palestinian refugees' right of return in a May 8, 2020 meeting. Its statement following the meeting said: "This right is the heart of the Palestinian cause and tops [the list of] our people's principles, which were presented by the PLO, the sole legitimate representative of our people, and include the refugees' right of return, the right to self-determination and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with full sovereignty whose capital is Jerusalem." The statement underlined "the adherence to this sacred right, which has no expiry date."[13]

Cartoon in the Palestinian Al-Quds daily: "The right of return is a sacred right" (Source: Al-Quds, East Jerusalem, May 16, 2020)

PLO Executive Committee secretary Saeb Erekat, who also chairs the PLO's negotiating division, wrote in the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida on February 4, 2020: "This plan [i.e. the Deal of the Century] is one of the Trump administration's prominent attempts to impose the law of the jungle instead of the UN resolutions and international law, and it constitutes a gross violation of international consensus in the matter of the national rights of the Palestinian people... It is therefore natural that the Palestinians and Arabs would oppose the delusion in this so-called peace plan...

"This plan will not succeed because it is the jewel in the crown of the unilateral oppressive American decisions that violate international law in the matter of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the colonialist settlements, and the issue of the refugees and UNRWA... It fails to meet the minimal threshold of the inalienable aspirations and rights of the Palestinian people, chief of them the right of self-determination and the implementation of sovereignty in its [independent] state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the right of return in accordance with UN Resolution 194."[14]

In another article, published May 11 ahead of Nakba Day, Erekat wrote: "...The Nakba was a blatant  ethnic cleansing operation that shamefully [violated the principle of] partitioning the land in accordance with [UN] Resolution 181, and had features that turned it into one of the worst cases of the oppression of a people in modern history. This is because over half the Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their authentic homeland, and hundreds of Palestinian cities and villages were destroyed, yet Israel has refused to implement Resolution 194 with regard to the return of the refugees. Furthermore, [the recognition of] this resolution was a condition for  [Israel's] acceptance as a UN member...

"I read carefully a publication put out last year about 71 first-generation Palestinian refugees forcibly expelled in 1948... [The publication] was distributed by the PLO's negotiations department to mark the 71st Nakba Day, and included testimony by these refugees. In their testimony, they all, without exception, said: 'The return is not only a sacred right, but is the decree of fate, and the question is not whether the return will happen, but when. The older ones among us will not live forever, but the young people will never forget; they will grow up to be martyrs grasping the keys of the return, and the burn mark will remain branded on their hearts until it is actualized.'"[15]

A statement published by the PLO Executive Committee on Nakba Day stated: "The movement will not budge from the objectives for which it embarked on revolution, first and foremost the right of return, [the right to] self-determination and the realization of national independence… Our people will not forgo its legitimate national rights, which are anchored in international law and in the UN resolutions, chief of them the Palestinian refugees' right of return, the right to self-determination, and [the right to] East Jerusalem as the capital of the independent Palestinian state… The committee has pledged to the multitudes of our people in the homeland and the diaspora – and specifically to the multitudes of our people in the refugee camps who were expelled during the Nakba, who [originally] numbered 950,000 and now comprise over half of the Palestinian people – to continue the struggle until every Palestinian who was expelled returns to the home from which he was turned out. [The committee] calls on the multitudes of our people to participate in the activities [marking the anniversary of the] Nakba, and to demonstrate their uncompromising adherence to the right of return and all the legitimate national rights."[16]  

Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon Ashraf Dabbour rejected any solution that involves naturalizing the refugees in their host countries, saying: "The wretched Deal [of the Century] ignores the right of return, which is anchored in international laws and decisions, and proposes despicable solutions which are in the interest of the Zionist entity, at the expense of the Palestinian refugees and several countries [that are required to absorb them]. Everyone must know that the Palestinian people has not accepted and will never accept any solution which detracts from its right to return to its homeland and to receive compensation, in accordance with [UN] Resolution 194." Dabbour stressed that the Palestinians in Lebanon would not be naturalized, declaring: "The Palestinian refugee is not interested in receiving Lebanese citizenship, despite having the utmost appreciation for Lebanon." He added: "The right of return was and continues to be [at the top of our] priority list… Rest assured that we will stand as a bulwark against any efforts to resolve the refugee issue at the expense of the other countries, Lebanon among them.[17] Similarly… we will not allow a planned and organized expulsion [of Palestinians] from the refugee camps in Lebanon to new places around the world, under the slogan of improving their circumstances… The danger inherent in this is the intent to assimilate the refugees into foreign and distant societies and to lead them to relinquish the right of return. Therefore, [the refugees,] especially those who reside in the Ring Countries,[18] must remain where they are until the [right of] return is implemented."[19]

Al Aqsa Mosque Preacher: The Right Of Return, And Reparations, Are Sacred And Are Passed Down From Generation To Generation; It Is A Shari'a Obligation

Al-Aqsa mosque preacher Yousuf Jum'a Salama, former PA religious endowments minister, wrote in an article published for Nakba Day: "The right of return is a historic Palestinian right, in that it emanates from their presence in Palestine since 5,000 BCE, and it is a legitimate right because Palestine is the land of the Prophet Muhammad's Night Journey and his ascent to the heavens. It is a legal right anchored in international charters that will never be rescinded, because it is [both] an individual and a collective right. The right of return to Palestine, the land of our fathers and grandfathers who lived there before 1948, is a shari'a-based right that is passed down from generation to generation, to every Palestinian; sons and grandsons receive it as inheritance from fathers and grandfathers. This right is promised to every Palestinian, his descendants, and his brothers, however many they may be, wherever they may be, wherever they were born, and whatever their social and economic circumstances. The blessed land of Palestine is a waqf [religious endowment] and every Palestinian knows that he has the right to return to it, and the right to receive compensation... for the expulsion, the damage, the suffering, and the losses caused to him and his descendants... We stress that the right of return to the beloved Palestine is sacred, and is a shari'a duty, exempt from limitations, and that the blessed land of Palestine will remain in the possession of its owners and of all Muslims, inshallah, until Judgment Day."[20]

Articles In The Palestinian Press: The Palestinians Will Not Forgo The Right Of Return

The same rigid stance on the right of return was expressed in the Palestinian media following the announcement about the Deal of the Century and in advance of Nakba Day. Articles and reports claimed that the right of return is the solution to the refugee issue and that the Deal of the Century is another attempt to eliminate the Palestinian cause. According to the writers, no Palestinian will renounce the right of return, which is one of the central symbols of the conflict.

An article published by the official PA news agency WAFA on February 3, 2020, several days after the details of the Deal of the Century were published, stated: "From the moment he entered the White House, U.S. President [Donald] Trump and his administration have been taking a series of steps to eliminate the Palestinian refugee issue – which is one of the basic issues that reflect the historic injustice dealt to the Palestinian people  in 1948, when three-quarters of this people were expelled to [places] far from their homes and country, after another people illegally occupied [Palestine]. The current American administration started its war against the Palestinians by casting doubt on the data from the UN Agency for Refugees, UNWRA, with respect to the number of Palestinian refugees, and finally decided, on July 31, 2018, to stop funding UNWRA as a preliminary step… toward the so-called Deal of the Century…

"The articles of the 'Trump Deal' violate all the UN resolutions concerning the issue of the Palestinian refugees… The 'Fictional Deal' and its attempts to eliminate this issue are part of a series of American attempts to harm it over the years… Our people opposed these eradication plans and foiled them, just as it will foil the 'Fictional Trump Deal.' And thus, any political solution to the refugee issue that does not take into account the right of return will remain a flawed and unfeasible solution…"[21]

The Nakba Day editorial published in the May 14, 2020 issue of the Al-Hayat Al-Jadida daily read: "Our people is more certain today than ever before that its historical salvation from the wound of the Nakba will not be realized without the return [of the refugees] and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state whose capital is East Jerusalem, and this is a decision [based on] its legitimate struggle… [a decision] which cannot be renounced and which is non-negotiable."[22]

Writer 'Omar Hilmi Al-Ghoul wrote in his February 11, 2020 column in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida: "The Zionist enterprise caused the Palestinian people's 1948 Nakba that led to the expulsion of about a million Palestinians  - who now number over six million worldwide. This is in addition to the six million more who put down roots in historic Palestine and whose basic political and legal rights the Zionist leaders deny. None of them will relinquish their historic rights in the homeland, nor will they relinquish the right of return. They oppose all patchwork solutions, because it [the right of return] and the matter of the land are the main symbols of the conflict..."[23]

In response to the land swap options proposed in the peace plan, Hamada Fara'neh wrote in his February 21 column in Al-Ayyam: "...The [only] transition will be the Palestinians' return from the diaspora to the cities and villages from which they were expelled in 1948, and whoever does not like this outcome can drink seawater or go back whence he came."[24]

Fatah Facebook Page: We Will Return To Palestine, From The River To The Sea

Since the publication of the details of the peace plan in January, the official Fatah Facebook page has posted content promoting the right of return and depicting Israeli territory as Palestine. For example, on February 15, it posted a map of the area from the Jordan to the Mediterranean as the Palestinian flag.[25]

On February 3, 2020, the page posted photos of Jerusalem, Acre, Jaffa, Nazareth, and Haifa as Palestinian, writing: "Palestine will remain as long as one freedom-loving child arises and shouts 'I am Palestinian!' It will remain."[26]  

On January 30 the page posted the cartoon below, by Palestinian cartoonist 'Alaa Al-Laqta, titled "from the river to the sea". The writing on the bottom of the figure's shoe reads "The Deal of the Century." [27] 

This trend intensified as Nakba Day drew near. On May 15 itself the page posted cartoons showing Palestine from the river to the sea, captioned "We will return, O Palestine." [28] 


Other Nakba Day cartoons on the page highlighted the key as a symbol of the refugees' adherence to the demand to return to their homes, such as the poster below, published by the PLO department of refugee affairs,  captioned: "The right of return is permanent and irrevocable."[29]    

On May 14, the page posted a image with the text, "For 72 years we did not drop our banner – We will return. 72 years after the Nakba, [the right of] return is the right and the aspiration of our people."[30]


* Z. Harel is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[2] This article states: "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 equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible" (

[3] See e.g. Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, May 15, 16, 2020.

[4], May 19, 2020.

[6] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), February 4, 2020.

[7], February 6, 2020.

[8], May 6, 2020.

[9] A reference to Fatah's attempt to sabotage the Israeli national water carrier, which is marked annually as the anniversary of the movement's founding

[10], May 13, 2020.

[11], January 29, 2020.

[12] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), May 15, 2020.

[13], May 8, 2020.

[14] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), February 4, 2020.

[15] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), May 11, 2020.

[16] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), May 15, 2020.

[18] This term, coined by Egyptian president Gamal ‘Abd Al-Nasser in the 1970s, refers to the countries neighboring Palestine – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.

[19], February 3, 2020.

[20], May 14, 2020.

[21], February 3, 2020,

[22] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), May 14, 2020.

[23] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), February 11, 2020.

[24] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), February 21, 2020.

[25], February 15, 2020.

[26], February 3, 2020.

[27], January 30, 2020.

[28], May 15, 2020.

[29], May 15, 2020.

[30], May 14, 2020.

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