Palestinian Refugees and the Right of Return

The Palestinian refugees are a largely disenfranchised majority of Palestinians, about half of which live in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the other half of which live in refugee camps throughout the Middle East or have emigrated to other parts of the world. The refusal of the Israeli government to recognize their rights as refugees to return is one of the biggest symptoms of the apartheid regime.


Historical Context and the Nakbah

Refugee from the Nakba Oversees Refugee Camp

The mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 is called the Nakbah, an Arabic word for “catastrophe.” In late 1947, there were approximately 900,000 Palestinians in the area that was called Israel in 1948 after the Declaration. Within a year and a half, around 750,000 of them were driven out to become stateless refugees. Only 16% of the original Palestinian population in the area that became Israel was allowed to stay within the 1948 borders and, after being subjected to martial law for nearly two decades, were finally granted citizenship in 1967.

Palestinians Flee During Nakba

The Nakbah occurred during a war between Israel and a number of surrounding Arab countries. Israeli leaders used this war as an opportunity to shape the demographics of the land they had taken over in their favor, establishing a clear Jewish majority in the area that became Israel. Benny Morris, a leading Israeli historian, writes that at least 24 organized massacres occurred in 1948: “That can’t be chance. It’s a pattern. Apparently, various officers who took part in the operation understood that the expulsion order they received permitted them to do these deeds in order to encourage the population to take to the roads. The fact is that no one was punished for these acts of murder. Ben-Gurion (the first Israeli Prime Minister) silenced the matter. He covered up for the officers who did the massacres” (Morris, 2004).

Palestinian Refugee Girl after Nakbah

These massacres were used to terrorize the Palestinian population, as villagers were threatened by Israeli military officials that they would suffer the same fate as their compatriots if they did not leave. After the end of the war, the Israeli government used bureaucratic means to deny citizenship for Palestinians who fled so that their refugee status would become permanent and the state’s goals of maintaining a Jewish majority of citizens could be realized. The Nakbah was not supported by all Jewish parties when it happened. Aharon Zisling, a minister from the left-wing Mapam party, said on June 16 1948: “We are embarking on a course that will most greatly endanger any hope of a peaceful alliance with forces that could be our allies in the Middle East … Hundreds of thousands of Arabs who will be evicted from Palestine … will grow up to hate us … If you do things in the heat of war, in the midst of battle, it’s one thing. But if, after a month, you do it in cold blood, for political reasons, in public, that is something altogether different” (Flapan, 1987: 110).

The Rights of Refugees

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country,” as well as “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.” Furthermore, in December of 1948, after the end of the war between Israel and a number of neighboring Arab countries, the United Nations passed UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which in Article 11 “Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours 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.”

Palestinian Man Holds Key to Lost Home

While the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes was understood as inviolable for decades, Israeli and US governments of late have taken to treating those rights as negotiable. Some Palestinian politicians have voiced their willingness to negotiate on the issue. However, it is important to recognize that there is no political organization or institution which represents the millions of Palestinian refugees who do not live in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank. Finally, the right of refugees is not a collective right which can be bargained away, but rather is one which applies to individual refugees, each of which have the right to choose whether or not to return or to receive compensation. Many Palestinians still have the deeds and keys to their old homes, keeping them as reminders that their claims to their homes will not disappear. The phrase “We Will Return” has also been used by Palestinian refugees who will never forget the crimes committed against them and their families during the Nakbah.

Why Israel Continues to Violate the Rights of Refugees

Israel has never acknowledged the right of Palestinian refugees to return because it knows that such a return would spoil its project of maintaining a Jewish majority within its borders. These refugees do not pose a threat to Jewish communities within Israel, but rather to the Israeli state ideology which leaves no room for a non-Jewish identity within Israel. Israel’s goal has never been to be a democracy for its citizens, but rather a Jewish democracy.


  • Flapan, Simha, 1987: The Birth of Israel—Myths and Realities.

  • Morris, Benny, 1989: The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949

  • Morris, Benny, 2004: interview with Ari Shavit in Ha’aretz