March 30, 2001 Special Reports No. 5

Palestinian Thoughts on the Right of Return

March 30, 2001 | By Y. Feldner and Aluma Dankowitz*
Special Reports No. 5


The Palestinian demand for the Right of Return for the refugees was one of the reasons for the failure of the Camp David summit and for the Palestinians' objection to the Clinton proposals. While the Camp David negotiations and the Clinton proposals focused on the possibility that the refugees would have the right to return to the future Palestinian state, the Palestinians demanded recognition of their Right of Return "to their homes," as stated in UN General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 194.

"We made it clear to the Israelis," said Abu Mazen following the Camp David talks, "that the Right of Return means a return to Israel and not to the Palestinian state... because it is from there that [the Palestinians] were driven out and it is there that their property is found..."[1]

A similar position was also expressed in the letter of reservations delivered by the PA to President Clinton in response to his proposals: "Resolution 194, which is the basis for a just settlement of the Refugee Problem, determines that the return of the Palestinian refugees 'to their homes' and not 'to their homeland' or 'to historical Palestine.' The essence of the Right of Return is freedom of choice: The Palestinians must be given the right to choose where they live, and that includes returning to the homes out of which they were driven."[2]

Deviating Statements

The position that the Palestinian refugees must have the right to choose to return to Israeli territory, is the official position of the PLO and the PA and is voiced by Palestinian officials on a daily basis. Statements by Palestinian officials that deviate from this consensus are rare. One such example was PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's statement to the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar in September 1999: "We refuse to talk about the resettlement of the refugees [where they are currently located] because this is a crime. When the Palestinian State is established, it will have the right to absorb its citizens. It is the Palestinians' right to return to their homeland. Only in Lebanon do we hear talk of resettlement. Is Lebanon the only country with Palestinian refugees?"[3] PA Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Nabil Sha'ath declared three months later: "We will not agree to a solution that does not return of refugees to their homes or, at least, to the West Bank and to Gaza."[4]

These statements have been interpreted as an indication that the Palestinians may be flexible on the issue of return. However, although the proposals raised at Camp David and in Clinton's ideas were very similar to these statements - they were totally rejected by the Palestinian leadership. The explanation for this contradiction may be found in the context in which both Sha'ath's and Arafat's statements were made. The statements were made after a wave of Lebanese protests following rumors that the refugees might be resettled in Lebanon. It seems that both Sha'ath and Arafat directed their statements at Lebanese, rather than Israeli fears. They were attempting to assure the Lebanese leadership that they need not fear that the refugees will be resettled in Lebanon, because absorbing them in the future Palestinian State will always remain an option.

The Palestinian View of Israeli Fears

Palestinian officials are aware of the Israeli claim that the return of the refugees into Israeli territory implies the destruction of the State of Israel in its current Zionist character. "The demand for the return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes and property, in accordance with Resolution 194," explained As'ad Abd-Al Rahman, the PA Minister of Refugee Affairs, "is tantamount to the destruction of Israel in the Israeli political culture."[5] "The return of more than 5 million refugees to their homes jeopardizes the Israelis and therefore they utterly object to it."[6]

There are those among the Palestinian leadership who believe that the demographic change in Israel following the return is Israel's problem, and not the Palestinians.' Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) member, Hanan Ashrawi, for example, stated that: "The fact that the Zionist project requires a Jewish majority does not justify a concession of the legitimate right [of the refugees] to return and to receive compensations."[7]

On the other hand, there are those Palestinian officials who believe that the Palestinian side must address Israeli fears, if only because the international community, and first and foremost the US, take these fears seriously. "We must take into consideration the Israeli fears and interests," lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Areqat, recently, told CNN.[8]

There are two main Palestinian approaches regarding the implementation of the Right of Return. The first one is to present various models for the return of the refugees that, they claim, make it feasible. The second is to establish a distinction between the demand for Israeli recognition of the Palestinian Right of Return, which they present in absolute terms, and the implementation, which they discuss in vague terms.

Palestinian Models for the Return of the Refugees

Palestinian officials do not commit to any idea that deviates in any way from the official Palestinian line. Abu Mazen fought for years to clear his name, after it was reported that he had agreed to the return of the refugees to the Palestinian State in the "Beilin-Abu Mazen understandings." Abu Mazen now presents the hard line position according to which the refugees must return to their homes, literally. Following the Camp David summit he said, "We were not prepared to limit the number of refugees who would be allowed to return, even if they had proposed a number of three million refugees".[9]

Member of the Palestinian Cabinet, Ziyad Abu Ziyad, also fumbled once when he said to the Voice of Israel Radio that, "The Palestinians do not insist on the Right of Return and are looking for a compromise solution, nor do they ask Israel to commit suicide."[10] The following day, Abu Ziyad published a clarification in the Palestinian press saying that his "statement was not aired in its entirety" and that his intention was to say that "we do not ask of Israel to commit suicide and to transform into a state with an Arab majority, however... a comprehensive final status peace agreement cannot be reached without solving the refugee problem in accordance with Resolution 194," and "The Right of Return is an established Palestinian right that cannot be denied."[11]

Most of the 'creative' Palestinian ideas relate only to the implementation of the return and are raised by intellectuals, publicists and independent researchers, and are occasionally adopted by official Palestinian circles.

Model A: "Refugees' Return to Israel is Practical"

Palestinian researchers claim that the return of the refugees to Israel can be implemented without causing a negative demographic effect to the Jewish population. A study conducted by the PLO's Refugee Department states, "contrary to the false Israeli claims, the return of the refugees will not lead to the uprooting of many Jewish immigrants from their current homes." The study plans the refugees' return to regions which are populated primarily by Arabs and which were in Arab ownership before 1948. Most of this land has remained empty. On the other hand, the Jewish population in Israel is concentrated in territories that were under Jewish control even before 1948.

The study claims that 78% of the Jewish population lives on 14%, at most, of Israel's territory. The remaining land, 86% of Israel's territory, belongs for the most part to the Palestinian refugees. Apart from a few population centers "inhabited by religious Jews" and 154,000 Kibbutzim and Moshavim, there are no Jews at all on this land. One of the factors that would facilitate the refugees return, the study states, is the "voluntary departure" of part of those 154,000 "rural Jews."[12]

The force behind this theory is Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, a researcher and author of the book The Palestinian Right of Return -- Sacred, Legal and Practical. Abu Sitta, who was invited by the PLO's Refugee Department to present his ideas on the eve pf the Camp David Summit, states in his study: "All of the refugees in Lebanon should return to the Galilee and all of the refugees in Gaza should return to Beer Sheva. It is simple. The number of refugees in Lebanon is estimated at 399,000, and those in Gaza, at 700,000. If we return them, the Jewish areas will not be affected at all. Theoretically, the Jews will not even feel their presence. If all of the Lebanese and Gaza refugees return, their number will be equal to that of the Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel since 1989... The claim that this is impossible or even difficult is unacceptable."[13]

Following the failure of Camp David, Dr. Abu Sitta once again presented his theory in an article published in the London based Al-Hayat and in the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam. "The Israelis say," he wrote, "that the villages were destroyed, the borders were lost, and that it will be difficult to return the property. But this is not at all true. There are enough maps and documents to return each and every dunam to its owner..."

"They say that the land is full of Jewish immigrants and that there is no room for the refugees. This is a blatant lie. 78% of the Jews live on 14% of Israel's territory... Three percent live on Kibbutzim and they are using the refugees' land, which comes to 18 million dunam. The failure of the kibbutzim has been proven. They have gone into debt and many of their members have migrated to the cities. The theory of the 'agricultural Jew returning to his land' has fallen apart. This proves the traditional characteristic of the Jew -- who lives in cities, in Jewish populated neighborhoods, and whose occupation is with money and trade..."

Abu Sitta rejects the Israeli claims that the return of the refugees will change the character of Israel. Legally, he claims, international law and UN resolutions do not accept Israel's composition. In the social sense, Israel is not a homogeneous society anyway. In terms of religion, the Jews will have no problem continuing to observe their religious rituals after the return of the refugees. Demographically, the thought that the Jews will always be the majority in Israel is an illusion anyway. According to Abu Sitta's calculations, this demographic situation will change in the 2040s.[14]

Although to the Israelis Abu Sitta may sound odd, he enjoys great support, and his articles are published in the leading newspapers in the Arab world. Furthermore, leading intellectuals have praised him. He has been called an "extraordinary engineer and scholar" by Professor Edward Said, who praised Abu Sitta's "loyal expertise and authentic commitment."[15] Professor Ghada Karmi from London University, who writes extensively about the Palestinian refugees, suggested that "all those who doubt that the Right of Return is practically feasible", should read Abu Sitta's studies.[16]

PLO and PA officials who are in charge of the refugee problem, have adopted Abu Sitta's theory. They often cite it to refute Israel's claim that the return of the refugees is impossible. This claim is "null and void. It is based on false arguments and on lies whose sole purpose is to evade the implementation of Resolution 194," said Director General of the PLO Refugee Department, Walid Al-'Awadh.[17] Dr. As'ad Abd Al-Rahman, PA Minister of Refugee Affairs, uses every opportunity to cite Abu Sitta's theory. "Eighty percent of the residents of Israel live in the Tel Aviv- Jerusalem-Haifa triangle," he explained on one occasion, "aside from this triangle, the territory is empty."[18]

Abu Sitta's theory does not ease the Israeli fears of the return of the refugees. Rather, it strengthens them. His interpretation of "demographics" is limited and applies to specific, arbitrarily defined areas, rather than to the overall framework of the state.

Model B: Bi-National or Secular Democratic state

Another model presented by the Palestinians as a solution that makes the implementation of the Right of Return possible is the unification of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to form either one democratic and secular state or a bi-national state "according to the Benelux model."[19]

The idea of a secular democratic state was raised by the PLO in 1970 and survived a few years until the emergence of the 12th session of the Palestinian National Council. in June 1974. In recent years, prominent intellectuals, such as Edward Said, who have grown tired of Arafat's policies, have resurrected this idea. This approach also has significant support among the Arab Israeli leadership, the most prominent of whom is MK 'Azmi Bishara, who calls for the return of the refugees and the establishment of a "state of all of its citizens."

Columnist 'Ata Al-Qimari, has been promoting the idea of a bi-national or secular democratic state in his articles in Al-Quds for the past several years: "The refugee problem does not have a solution in the absolute sense of the word, as long as the idea of two [neighboring] states exists. The justice of one side collides with the justice of the other side, and the two contradict one another. All the solutions besides that of a bi-national state that will absorb all of the Palestinian refugees, as well as the Jewish refugees will soon blow up in our face."[20]

"Any Israeli-Palestinian agreement will be shattered on the rock of the Right of Return" he recently wrote in another article: "Israel is not ready to agree to a return of the refugees that will change its Jewish character, while the Palestinians... cannot trade this political [right] for a humanitarian [solution]... Israel, along with the US, now unequivocally state that we the Palestinians must understand that in order to win self-determination in an independent state... 'we must concede' our right to our land, Palestine..."

"In fact, this approach is acceptable both to the Western world and to the Arab world, and therefore we can anticipate great pressures from now on, to trade the Return for the Haram [The Temple Mount]. They will tell us: you have fought for a state and now, in the name of the Right of Return, you want a second state and, who knows, maybe you will yet demand a third, one [Jordan] in the name of its [Palestinian] majority?..."

"Any unilateral declaration of [an independent Palestinian] state, or even a declaration of a state in the framework of an agreement, means giving-up the Right of Return. The world will not support any future demand that [spills over into] the neighboring state. They will say to us: it is inconceivable that after the two peoples had their self determination in two [separate] independent states, that you demand to demographically conquer the neighboring state..."

"At this historic moment, both peoples must examine other solutions... because Palestine in any case cannot [truly] be partitioned. If there is a partition, everybody will feel humiliated. On the other hand, if there is one state, confederated or federated, no one will feel that a rib has been amputated from his national body. The refugee will not feel that he is being forced to settle for Ramallah instead of Lod, but rather that he can voluntarily choose between the two, based on practical residential and employment considerations..."

"There is no other solution: not separation, not detachment, not a dwarfed and crumbled independent state, and no Right of Return to Israel after the establishment of a Palestinian state in order to continue the conflict in other means. The only solution is one federal state on a bi-national and democratic basis with equal rights..."

"We Palestinians cannot trade the Right of Return for an independent Palestinian state, while they [the Israelis] cannot agree to the Right of Return after they have given up their [territorial] reserves in the region in order to allow us to establish our state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. We all want peace. We want it for the sake of Return, stability and for our national self-determination; and they want it for security and a promising future. Is there a solution that combines all of these desires under one roof and gives everyone what he wants, without cutting it off from the other side, other than the solution of two cooperating states that are affiliated with each other in one open federation?!"

"If there is something that is worth negotiating for, it is [this solution] a true peace plan that is more realistic than all the current solutions of partition, amputation, and expulsion."[21]

Columnist Majed Kayali, on the other hand, does not object to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state as long as it is an interim stage on the way to a bi-national state: "Compensations will not solve the problem of the refugees if they do not come with a moral apology... as well as a mechanism that will assure the return of the refugees to their land and property, in addition to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Only these solutions rise to the level of a just moral and political level and open a window to a historic compromise between the two sides that will allow them to share a joint future in the framework of a bi-national state or in the framework of a secular democratic state."[22]

Dr. Abdallah Al-Sa'afin, a Palestinian writer living in London, offered a variation on the theme of the bi-national state. According to him, the joint state should be shared by the Jews already living in Israel, and the entire Palestinian people: "The optimal solution, in our opinion, is Arab-Jewish co-existence between the Jews currently in Israel and the Palestinians, in the framework of one democratic state. In other words, a state that is not only for the Jews; a secular rather than a religious state, in which all of its citizens, regardless of their religion, live in equality. It will have a written constitution that will be drafted by a representative authority elected by all of the Palestinians and all of the Jews currently living in Israel."

"One of the important conditions for the establishment of this state is that Israel commits itself to absorbing all of the Palestinian refugees as equal citizens, and that it annuls the Israeli Law of Return of 1948. It will have to regard citizenship not as a religious affiliation but as a legal affiliation, that is, an affiliation of residence and life in the Palestinian-Israeli state that stretches from the river to the sea."[23]

The PLO consistently claims that in its agreement to a solution of two states for two peoples, it made a "historic compromise." The PLO's continued demand for the return the refugees into Israel after the establishment of the Palestinian state is evidence that it is not ready for such an "historic compromise." The idea of a secular democratic or bi-national state completely contradicts the compromise presumably manifested in the Palestinian consent to a Jewish state within the 1967 borders, and totally undermines the legitimacy of Zionist self- determination within any borders. Furthermore, the demographic status of the Jews within the borders of such a state would be even worse than within the official solution proposed by the PLO for the "return of the refugees to their homes" because in addition to the current population of Israel and the returning refugees, the proposed state would also include, according to this model, all of the Palestinians currently living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Thus, this idea presents no solution to the existential fears of Zionist Israel.

Model C: Practical But Not Political Return

A third model, which is not very popular in the Palestinian media, is raised primarily by the PA Undersecretary for Planning and International Cooperation, 'Adli Sadeq. According to him, the refugees can return without being given Israeli citizenship: "...The Hebrew state need not fear Palestinian demographic superiority, because the returning Palestinians are not in any case interested in being its citizens, or being represented in its parliament. Alternative formulas can be found for their political and legal existence."[24]

The idea that demographic balance is only a matter of equal parliamentary representation is flawed. Case in point is the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who, although they have no political rights whatsoever, are considered by the Lebanese state to be a threat. A Zionist state whose sovereign territory includes a Palestinian majority, cannot be expected to survive, even if the Palestinian residents are given citizenship in the neighboring Palestinian state.

Return in Stages

Another model proposed by Palestinian intellectuals includes temporal flexibility on the issue of return. Columnist Hassan Al-Batal suggested, "if we want to be practical and realistic... a generation or more will pass between the agreement on the principle of the Right of Return, and the realization of the principle."[25] Nevertheless, Al-Batal states that the return remains the solution to the Refugee Problem: "In the first stage, the Right of Return must be recognized, and in the second stage, it must be slowly implemented."[26]

Phase One: Return of the refugees in camps to Israel

One of the proposals for a slow implementation was that the first stage in the process of returning the refugees to their homes would be moving the refugee camps into Israeli territory. Dr. Mazen Abu-Bakr, a researcher of the Refugee Problem, writes: "The solution to the deeply rooted Refugee Problem lies in the implementation of Resolution 194, but there is no alternative other than to act in stages: even a voyage of a thousand miles begins with one step. The first stage must be to move the refugee camps into the Green Line. We must start with the refugee camps in Lebanon, without conceding the return of all refugees. In my opinion, as a refugee, realism does not lie in conceding the Right of Return, but in setting priorities. First priority must be given to solving the problem of the refugee camps, by shifting the refugees into the Green Line. Camps will be built there, until they can return to their cities and villages [in Israel]."[27]

Columnist Muhammad Shaker Abdallah took this idea a step further and proposed building permanent settlements for the refugees within the Green Line that will offset the settlement-blocs that Israel wants to leave in Palestinian territory: "The idea is to build a handful of Palestinian settlements inside Israel proper -- adjacent to the would-be Palestinian state. Each settlement would be capable of housing tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees. These settlements will be located on mountains, beaches and valleys. There will have to be a minimal amount of these settlement blocs equal to the amount of Jewish settlement blocs in the Palestinian territories. Immediately after the construction of these settlements, they would be placed under Palestinian jurisdiction and serve as a gigantic housing project for the returning refugees who insist on exercising their right of return to their homeland... One can easily contemplate such Palestinian settlement bloc in the Galilee mountains on the west side of the Green Line (sic.), another near the hills of the West Bank, and a third north of the Gaza Strip..."[28]

Phase One: Return of the Lebanese Refugees

The Palestinian leadership accepts the idea that the implementation of the Right of Return "will be in stages over a period of years," according to PA Minister of Refugee Affairs, As'ad Abd Al-Rahman, who added: "We understand that it is difficult to return five million Palestinian refugees to their homes in a single day..."[29]

In effect, the PA agreed that the refugees from Lebanon will get priority under any solution. In a speech made in Ramallah after his return from Camp David, Arafat said, "The return of refugees is sacred, and its sanctity is no less, in our hearts, than that of the holy places. We desire, first of all, the return of our brethren in Lebanon, because of their suffering and out of loyalty to the Lebanese people for standing by us through thick and thin and for fighting together with us in wars and during the siege on Beirut..."[30]

However, the Palestinian prerequisite for the implementation of the return in stages is that the priority given to the refugees from Lebanon will not diminish the rights of the rest of the refugees. "The Palestinian delegation to the [Camp David] negotiations required a specific mechanism regarding the priority that will be given to the return of the refugees from Lebanon," said PA Minister of Development and International Cooperation, Nabil Sha'ath. However, he added, "priority in the Return is an entirely different issue from the [principle of] Right of Return for all of the refugees."[31] To this, Head of the Refugee Committee in the Palestinian Legislative Council, Jamal Shati added, "the return of the Lebanese refugees in the framework of an agreement through a mechanism, and as a result of priorities, is acceptable to us. On the other hand, if the return of the Lebanese refugees is detached from a comprehensive solution to the issue, the PA will absolutely reject it."[32]

Phase One: Return to the Palestinian State

This model, which is similar to the American proposals, is not very popular among Palestinians. It is promoted by veteran writer, Tawfik Abu-Bakr, who writes: "...So far, we have no plan which will muster great international support or win the understanding of the important side: The Americans. There is no escape from emphasizing the 'international legitimacy' including the Right of Return, but this is not sufficient for negotiations in the international arena. Although justice is on our side, historically speaking, we are also the weak side and are, therefore, in need of broader international sympathy than they [the Israelis] are. Such sympathy is unattainable unless we present convincing ideas, at least for the long run..."

"There is no magic solution to this problem... Unless there is a decisive Arab military victory that forces the Israelis to declare the bankruptcy of the Zionist project, to turn out the lights at Ben Gurion Airport, and to cross the Mediterranean Sea back to where they or their parents came from... This magic solution no longer exists... and therefore, a long-term solution is the only one possible..."

"The Israeli side cannot object to the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees to the Palestinian state after Israel recognizes this independent state itself. Our future state must pass a Law of Return that will give every Palestinian in the world this right. There is enough territory in the West Bank for the construction of large cities... I heard objections from members of the [PLO] Central Committee, to such a law, because it closes the window to a return to the 1948 territories. In my opinion, however, this law should be passed after the nature of settlement of the Refugee Problem becomes clear, including the scope of the return [allowed by Israel] 'to the original residences.' The return to Nablus does not close the door on the return to Nazareth. On the contrary, the path will be shorter for those who have returned to Palestine, or for their sons..."[33]

Abu Bakr presents a model very similar to the American proposals and closer than any other Palestinian idea to the Israeli redline. Although he treats his proposal as a "stage" toward a possible future return to Israeli territory, he does not require any mention of this in the agreement.

Separating the "Right of Return" From its Implementation

Another tactic Palestinian officials use is emphasizing their demand for Israeli recognition of the Right of Return while remaining vague about the parameters of the implementation. Thus, for example, PA Minister of Refugee Affairs, As'ad Abd Al-Rahman, stated, "The most important thing is the recognition of the refugees' Right of Return; afterwards we will discuss the mechanism of implementation."[34] On another occasion he said, "[Israel should] recognize the Right of Return and then we will reach an agreement about the mechanism and the formulas that allow for the return while preventing the 'destruction' of Israel."[35]

The Palestinians emphasize that the Right of Return is a personal right of each and every refugee, and not a collective right. They do not explain how it will be possible to put collective limitations on a right that is subject to the personal choice of the refugees.

It seems that the purpose of separating the Right of Return and its implementation, is to weaken Israeli arguments about the expected dangers to the State of Israel from the implementation of the return. However, many Palestinians admit that recognition of the right inevitably entails its implementation. PLC member Hanan Ashrawi, for example, stated that Israel's recognition of its legal, moral and historical responsibility, "will be a step towards the implementation of Resolution 194."[36] Fatah Central Committee member and Arafat's advisor, Hani Al-Hassan stated, "The PA's position is clear: an apology must be obtained from Israel, and then the recognition of the Right of Return, [and then] it can be implemented in stages."[37]

Ingrid Jaradat Asner, Director of the "Al-Badil" Center which documents the refugees' property in Israel, agrees that "Israel's recognition of the Right of Return, in principle, is a prerequisite for the opening of negotiations about the practical solution to the Refugee Problem based on Resolution 194." She states that the Palestinians must purposely keep Israel in the dark about the implementation of the Right of Return, until Israel in principle gives in: "Members of the negotiating team, academics, and Palestinian institutions must refrain from presenting scenarios or mechanisms for a solution before Israel accepts the principle of the Return."[38]

Recognition of the Right of Return and the Compensation Issue

The Palestinian demand for an Israeli apology and recognition of the principle of the Right of Return and its responsibility for a solution to the refugee problem have significance beyond the issue of the actual return. The Palestinians demand two kinds of financial compensation: compensation for the loss of property to refugees who choose not to return, in accordance with Resolution 194 and compensation for the emotional, material and spiritual suffering caused to the Palestinians since 1948. The Palestinians demand that the second type of compensation be rewarded also to those who choose to return.

The Palestinians relate to the 1948 War in terms that parallel the Holocaust of European Jewry. Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said, established the phrase, "the victims of the victims", which has become rooted in the Palestinian rhetoric. The Palestinian refugees "suffer at the hands of the Jews -- yesterday's victims are [or have become] today's executioners,"[39] stated PA Minister of Refugee Affairs, As'ad Abd Al-Rahman: "If a European Jew demands compensation from the European governments, then the Palestinian is more than deserving of compensation for his suffering at the hands of the Jew."[40] On another occasion he said, "[We demand] return and compensation just as was the case with the Jews of the world...We deserve compensation for our suffering over the years, just as the Jews received compensation from European and other countries. They were persecuted and now they are persecuting us. Those who were persecuted yesterday have become today's persecutors."[41] Furthermore, in a symposium held in Gaza, Dr. Ali 'Odeh called on the PA to learn "from the Jews who milked Germany with their Nazi propaganda, causing the Germans guilt feelings until today."[42]

Will the Refugees Return?

Many Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line are trying to quiet Israeli fears by claiming that after Israel recognizes the refugees' Right of Return, they will choose not to return. MK 'Issam Mahoul, Ha'aretz reported, said, "The refugees do not really intend to return to Israel. They just need the right." However, when it was suggested in response that simultaneous to an Israeli recognition of the Right of Return, the Palestinians would declare that they give up its implementation -- he rejected the proposal. First Israel must recognize the Right of Return, " he said, "and then the implementation will be discussed."[43]

There is no reliable data about the number of refugees who are interested in returning to Israeli territory, and there are those among the Palestinians who estimate that their number is small. Dr. 'Adel Yahya, author of the book, The Palestinian Refugees 1948-1998 -- An Oral History, who admits that he personally has no intention to return to Israel because "with all of my talents, I will not be able to succeed in Haifa." He further states, "To imagine hundreds of thousands knocking on Israeli doors -- this is an unrealistic vision. But we must begin with the principle of the right of return, and only then to move on to compensation and other feasible solutions, which are much easier than they seem. [On the other hand,] if they say from the start: we will begin with resettlement and compensation, the refugees will reject this approach."[44]

Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, who came up with the theory of "The Palestinian Right of Return -- Sacred, Legal and Practical" is upset with those who doubt the refugees' desire to return: "There are those who say that 'many' of the refugees do not want to return even if they are given the opportunity. I don't know who conducted the statistics regarding those 'many' and with what sort of integrity. Every poll taken so far has proven that the vast majority wants to return to the very homes out of which their families were driven. Among these are included the refugees who live in Israel and in the territories of the PA itself -- despite the fact that they already live in Palestine -- and this is because returning means to their very homes ..."[45]

Dr. Abu Sitta is interested only in the practical implications of the return. "We do not need Israel to apologize in words about its crimes throughout half a century," he said, "The memory of these crimes is branded on the chest of every Palestinian. True Israeli repentance will come only with the return of the right to its owners and the repairing of the sin, and not with cheap propaganda."[46]

However, some Palestinians claim that once Israel recognizes the principle of the Right of Return, it has no reason to worry. A PLO official, who identified himself as A.F., told Ha'aretz: "Abu Sitta is dreaming, because what we are talking about is a mental return, and not a practical one. The Israelis know us, the Palestinians, but they do not understand us. Had they understood us, it would be easy to draft a text that recognizes the Right of Return and clears the way to relations of true peace that are not based on the current Israeli advantage in the balance of power. Israel would open its gates for a period of a few months so that the refugees could come and visit. The refugees would come and see the Israeli cities built on their villages, and they would see that other people live there. They would embrace their relatives in the Galilee villages, cry over the cactuses that remained as memorials to their villages; but they would begin to understand that you cannot go back in time; that even if they could live in Jaffa, what would they do without knowing Hebrew? And they don't even want to learn Hebrew, nor do they want to live with the Jews. And maybe it's better to live in the State of Palestine, with an open border, so they could go to the beach sometimes. No more than half a million refugees would want to stay in Israel, most of whom are elderly who want to die here and who have immediate family in Israel.."[47]

PA Minister of Refugee Affairs, As'ad Abd Al-RahmanΒΈ believes that many of the refugees may not want to return. The return of the refugees itself is a compromise solution, he writes in his article, because before the Arabs chose to accept Resolution 194, they called for the destruction of Israel. Now they recognize Israel's existence and settle for the return of refugees. In his view, if Israel recognizes the Right of Return, there will be an opportunity for an additional compromise, because many of the refugees may choose not to live within the Green Line.[48]


Contrary to the idea that has spread in Israel over the past years, the Palestinian demand for the implementation of the Right of Return is a real demand and not one expressed merely for domestic consumption or a negotiation tactic. Statements by Palestinian officials that convey a willingness to make a significant compromise on the issue of the refugees are very rare. It is a mistake to rely on such statements in consolidating a future assessment and to ignore the years of Palestinian emphasis on the national and individual ethos of refugees' return.

The American proposal, which is also the basis for the model proposed by writer, Tawfiq Abu Bakr, defining the return as return to the future Palestinian state -- is not supported by the Palestinian public or by its leadership. All of the other models surveyed in this analysis imply the end of Israel's existence as a Zionist state with a Jewish majority.

The distinction made by Palestinian officials between the Right of Return and its implementation is artificial. The principle of the right and its implementation are tied together, primarily because the "Right of Return" is perceived as an individual right.

The Oslo Agreement's mutual recognition as a basis for a solution to the conflict was inscribed in the Israeli consciousness in a way that allows for the continuation of the existence of Israel as a Zionist state with a Jewish majority. In the Palestinian consciousness, however, Israel's Jewish majority and its Zionist character are not sacred, and certainly not more important than the Right of Return.

Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis. Aluma Solnik is a Research Associate with MEMRI.

[1] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), November 23-24, 2000.

[2] Al-Ayyam (PA), January 2, 2001.

[3] Al-Quds (PA), September 11, 1999.

[4] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), December 6, 1999.

[5] Al-Dustur (Jordan) , August 16, 1999.

[6] Filistin Al-Youm (PA). July 1, 1998. Abd Al-Rahman resigned from his position after not being included in the Palestinian delegation to the Camp David Summit. His resignation was finally accepted by Arafat in January 2001.

[7] Shaml, Appendix to Al-Ayyam (PA), December 4, 2000.

[8] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), January 15, 2001.

[9] Al-Ayyam (PA), July 30, 2000.

[10] Al-Quds (PA), July 3, 1999.

[11] Al-Quds (PA), July 4, 1999.

[12] Al-Risala (PA) August 26, 1999.

[13] Akhbar Al-Naqab (Israel), December 6, 1998.

[14] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), August 4, 2000; Al-Ayyam (PA), August 7, 2000.

[15] Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt), February 10, 2000.

[16] Al-Quds (PA), May 13, 2000.

[17] Al-Hayat Al Jadida (PA), January 16, 2001.

[18] Al-Ayyam (PA) June 1, 1998. Also, Deputy Head of the PLO's Refugee Department, Daoud Barakat: "I believe that the Palestinians must act intensively among the Israeli public in order to raise the issue of the refugees, and to discourage the approach that says that implementing Resolution 194 is unrealistic. [We must claim] that the State of Israel managed, in a short period of time, to absorb a million and a half Russian immigrants from former USSR." Kul Al-Arab (Israel), December 10, 1999.

[19] As stated by PA Minister of Refugee Affairs, Asa'd Abd Al-Rahman. Al-Ayyam (PA), June 1, 1998. Also, The Jerusalem Times (PA), June 12, 1998; also Filistin Al-Youm (PA), July 1, 1998.

[20] Al-Quds (PA), November 27, 1999.

[21] Al-Quds (PA), January 12, 2001.

[22] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (London-Beirut), July 8, 2000.

[23] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 1, 2000.

[24] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), January 12, 2001.

[25] Al-Ayyam, July 24, 1999.

[26] Al-Ayyam (PA), September 16, 1999.

[27] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), June 13, 2000.

[28] The Jerusalem Times (PA), July 21, 2000.

[29] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, August 1, 1999.

[30] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, July 28, 2000.

[31] Appendix to Al-Ayyam (PA), December 4, 2000.

[32] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), January 16, 2000.

[33] Al-Ayyam (PA), September 26, 2000.

[34] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), August 1, 1999.

[35] Al-Quds (PA), May 18, 2000.

[36] Shamel, an Appendix of Al-Ayyam (PA), December 4, 2000.

[37] Al-Quds (PA), January 17, 2000.

[38] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), June 17, 2000.

[39] Al-Bayader Al-Siyassi (PA) January 2, 1999.

[40] Filistin Al-Youm, (PA) July 1, 1998.

[41] Al-'Awda (PA), March 26, 1999.

[42] Al-Hayat Al Jadida, (PA) December 30, 1999.

[43] Dan Margalit, Ha'aretz (Israel), March 20, 2000.

[44] Ha'aretz (Israel), November 16, 1999.

[45] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), August 4, 2000; Al-Ayyam (PA), August 7, 2000.

[46] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), August 4, 2000; Al-Ayyam (PA), August 7, 2000.

[47] Amira Hass, Ha'aretz (Israel), July 25, 2000.

[48] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 16, 2000.

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