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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Palestinian Refugees on the Day After “Independence”

Filed under: International Law, Israel, Israeli Security, Palestinians, Peace Process, The Middle East


    • The gap between Israel and the Palestinians on the refugee question cannot be reconciled. The Palestinians demand a “just peace,” which implies recognition of the right of return according to their interpretation, and rejects any compromise on the issue.
    • The Palestinian position, which receives support from Palestinian and even some Israeli human rights organizations, looks to UN resolutions that uphold the right of return as a “private right” of every refugee. This means that the representatives of the Palestinian people (as well as the Arab League and the United Nations) have no authority to waive this right in the name of the refugees.
    • According to the Palestinian consensus, non-implementation of the right of return will leave open the gates of the conflict with Israel. This implies justification for the continued armed struggle against Israel even following the establishment of a Palestinian state.
    • By rejecting “patriation” or the resettlement of the refugees in any Arab state, the Arab Peace Initiative essentially leaves each refugee with no choice but to go to Israel itself. The Arab states rejected any solution that involves “resettling [of the Palestinians] outside of their homes.”The Arab Peace Initiative does not envision the Palestinian refugees being resettled in a West Bank and Gaza Palestinian state.
    • The transfer of border crossings to Palestinian control and/or the establishment of a Palestinian state is likely to bring about a wave of immigration, combined with a mass expulsion of Palestinians (primarily from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan) toward the Palestinian territory even without a political agreement on the refugee issue. This could lead to the infiltration by Palestinians into Israeli territory, as well as legal claims by refugees at the International Court in The Hague for the right of return, restitution of property, and compensation.
  • Since the Israeli consensus holds that the mass return of Palestinian refugees to Israel means national suicide, Israel will require robust international support in negotiations on a final status agreement to reach an accord on the basis of defensible borders, and to find a permanent solution to the refugee problem based primarily on the Palestinian refugees receiving citizenship in their host countries or their absorption in a Palestinian state.

On September 2, 2010, Israel and the PLO relaunched negotiations for a political settlement to resolve their conflict, with America providing sponsorship, pressure, and go-between services, and with Egypt and Jordan providing political backing. Among the core issues to be resolved, one of the toughest is the Palestinian refugee problem. Yet the Palestinian consensus does not leave Palestinian leaders with any room for maneuver whatsoever regarding the right of return.

The PLO Position on the “Right of Return”: The Private Right of Every Refugee Is Not Subject to Negotiation

The PLO, the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people, and the Palestinian Authority that derives its authority from the PLO, religiously adhere to the historical, fundamental position of the right of return for all Palestinian refugees and their descendents, wherever they may be (their number is estimated at over 5,000,000 people), to their original dwelling places that are currently located within the territory of the State of Israel. The Negotiation Department of the PLO, responsible for conducting diplomatic negotiations with Israel, views UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and the decisions of international institutions as the source of legal authority for the Palestinian demand. The Internet site of the Negotiation Department states: The right of return is enshrined in international law:

UN Resolution 194 – (passed on 11 December 1948 and reaffirmed every year since 1948):

“[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.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” (Article 13(2))

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination:

“State Parties undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination on all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, color, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law, notably in the enjoyment of…the right to leave any country, including one’s own, and to return to one’s country.” (Article 5(d)(ii))

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

“No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.” (Article 12(4))

International Practice:

In Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, and Rwanda refugees have had their right of return honored. In Kosovo, the right of return was considered a “non-negotiable” issue.1

On this basis, the Negotiation Department details the official Palestinian position on the refugee issue as:

Palestinian refugees must be given the option to exercise their right of return (as well as receive compensation for their losses arising from their dispossession and displacement), though refugees may prefer other options such as: (i) resettlement in third countries, (ii) resettlement in a newly independent Palestine (even though they originate from that part of Palestine which became Israel), or (iii) normalization of their legal status in the host country where they currently reside. What is important is that individual refugees decide for themselves which option they prefer – a decision must not be imposed upon them.2

The Palestinians, who demand the implementation of all UN resolutions regarding the refugees, also find support in UN General Assembly Resolution 3236 of November 22, 1974, that “Reaffirms also the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return.”3

Therefore, from the PLO’s perspective, the right of return is not an issue that is up for discussion in negotiations between leaders or states, but the private right sanctified by international law of every Palestinian defined as a “refugee.” Accordingly, every refugee has the option of returning to his place of residence in the territory on which the State of Israel has been established.

Saeb Erekat, the head of the PLO Negotiation Department, stated at a meeting of Fatah activists in the Hebron region on April 15, 2009: “The right of return is the private right of every Palestinian refugee and states will not take any decision whatsoever on this matter. The historical obligation rests upon Israel’s shoulders for the suffering of these Palestinian refugees and [for granting] indemnity for the injury caused them and compensation to the state that hosts them.”4 At another Fatah meeting in Jericho on November 10, 2009, Erekat stated, “The right of return is a private right and there is no regime in the world that can compensate for it.”5

At the same time, Erekat defended PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas against criticism over what had been perceived as a retreat in his position on the right of return:

It seems that the message of President Abbas in his last speech was not properly understood. There is nothing constituting surrender or frustration, for the president will not bargain over anything concerning the fundamental principles and rights. Our struggle focuses on realizing the fundamental principles that find expression in establishing the independent state in the 1967 boundaries with its capital in East Jerusalem, the return of the refugees, the release of the prisoners, the dismantlement of the settlements, our right to water, the dismantlement of the racist separation fence, and all the rights and fundamental principles which the Palestinian people agree to. These were the points that were cited in the last speech by the president and they themselves are the heart of the political plan of the Fatah movement and its Sixth Congress that took place in August….There is no lower ceiling than these rights, and they constitute the ceiling [of the positions of the] PLO on whose behalf the Palestinian Authority was established and is the very purpose on whose behalf all the [Palestinian] wings and organizations exist.6

In a letter sent on October 28, 2010, to Robert Seri, the UN special representative to the Middle East, Erekat expressed his disappointment over the words of Andrew Whitley, director of the New York office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and his call to the refugees to stop living under the illusion of realizing the right of return and to Arab states to discuss their resettlement in their territory. In his letter, Erekat praised UNRWA’s official disassociation from this position and noted that the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes and lands is one of the most important Palestinian rights.” He wrote that the “Palestinians never waived this right ever since Palestine was witness to its disaster in the year 1948, when Israel expelled over 700,000 Palestinian refugees, and they will never forgo this right.” Erekat added, “Despite Israel’s insistence on denying the right of Palestinians to return to their homes and lands, the right of return is a legitimate right that has been upheld by international law and ratified by UN resolutions, and first and foremost by Resolution 194.”7

Mahmoud Abbas’ Position on the Right of Return – Insistence on a “Just Peace”

Erekat’s statements regarding the Palestinian position dovetail with the declared positions of the PLO and Palestinian Authority Chairman Abbas, who has never publicly deviated from the PLO’s fundamental position on this matter. Abbas’ attitude is totally identical to that of Yasser Arafat, the founder of the PLO. Like Arafat, Abbas emphasizes “justice” as the cornerstone, and as a material condition for resolving the conflict. At the September 2010 summit meeting in Washington that launched the renewed political negotiations with Israel, Abbas reiterated three times in his short address the importance of establishing a “just peace,” and said that the Palestinian people “need more than anything else, security, justice, and peace.”8

The word “compromise” was never mentioned, and it does not appear at all in his reference to a future agreement with Israel and particularly regarding the refugee problem. “Justice” totally negates compromise, according to Abbas’ concept, as he views Resolution 194 as expressing justice according to the Palestinian interpretation; that is to say, it awards legal legitimacy to the demand for return by the Palestinian refugees. Abbas’ public comments reflect this concept:

On November 20, 2009, in an address commemorating the death of Arafat, Abbas said:

We take the initiative in our hands in the sense that we do not leave an opportunity in the hands of the occupying state to control the rules of conflict management and the rules of managing the diplomatic process. This is in order to reach a comprehensive and balanced political solution to the conflict that will provide security and stability to all peoples and countries of the region, and first and foremost via a Palestinian state with its eternal capital in Jerusalem, and will guarantee the rights of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in accordance with the legitimate international decisions and first and foremost Resolution 194.9

On September 24, 2009, in a speech before the UN General Assembly marking 60 years since the establishment of the UNRWA, Abbas said:

The suffering of the Palestinian refugees, whose number currently totals 4.7 million people and constitutes more than half of the Palestinian people throughout the world, is still the heading of the Palestinian people’s disaster and the solid foundation of the Palestinian historical narrative and the search for justice and peace….[The refugees] to this very day are looking for a just solution to their suffering on the basis of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 that was adopted on December 11, 1948, and which emphasized in an unambiguous fashion the refugees’ right to return to their homes and to live in peace with their neighbors and receive just compensation in accordance with international law….

A just solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees on the basis of Resolution 194 is still one of the issues heading the order of priorities pertaining to Palestine and accordingly in all the international initiatives and agreements that were signed with the Israeli side. This issue is one of the substantial issues in the final agreement to the conflict which is based on the principle of land for peace and realizing the rights of the Palestinian people that cannot be denied, including the right to self-determination and establishing our independent Palestinian state whose capital is East Jerusalem….

The time has arrived for Israel to assent to the wish of the international community in order to realize the just and comprehensive peace and the realization of historic reconciliation between the two peoples in the holy and tormented country. At this opportunity I will reiterate what I said on previous occasions: Israeli security is contingent upon our independence and our security and that leaving the occupation in place and the continuation of the nakba will not provide security for anyone.10

On May 14, 2009, in a speech commemorating the nakba, Abbas said:

I repeat to you the oath, according to which we adhere to our fundamental national principles [embodied] in the establishment of our independent state whose capital is noble Jerusalem, and the rights of our refugees to return in the framework of a just and agreed-upon solution in accordance with Resolution 194. These are fundamental principles over which there will be no wavering or haggling, and these were rights that were ratified by UN decisions and all the international initiatives from the Roadmap program and up to the Annapolis [Conference], and likewise they are the basis for the Arab Peace Initiative, which we stick to and we demand that all sides should adopt and implement.11

On May 15, 2008, in a  speech marking Nakbaday, Abbas stated:

We reiterate our steadfastness behind our fundamental principles for peace, a peace that will bring about the termination of the occupation of all Palestinian lands conquered since ‘67 with noble Jerusalem at their heart, and finding a just and agreed-upon solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees in accordance with Resolution 194….Oh, the new generations who grew up in the shadow of the nakba, the expulsion and occupation, on your behalf and together with you we will perform this important deed of peace based on justice, liberty, independence, and return.12

On December 16, 2006, Abbas declared:

We have fundamental principles on whose behalf we are always struggling and they are: an independent Palestinian state in the 1967 borders that will exist alongside the State of Israel, and its capital Jerusalem. Jerusalem is ours, the settlements are illegal – all settlements are illegal, and as noted in the Arab initiative, a just solution to the problem of the refugees in accordance with Resolution 194 which fixes compensation for anyone who does not want to return, and I accept this. Whoever does not want to exercise a return has the right to compensation and he who wants to return enjoys the right.13

On November 2006, in a speech marking Arafat’s death, Abbas said:

Yasser Arafat cleaved to the permanent national rights that cannot be diminished [and they are:] noble Jerusalem, the sacred places to Islam and Christianity, and an agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem on the basis of Resolution 194….We state today, we will not deviate one iota from the principles of Yasser Arafat and his objectives, that the desired for peace, the peace on which Yasser Arafat signed, the peace of the brave, the peace that will restore us our rights. Oh sisters, oh brothers, I am turning to you in the name of the people who stand strong against occupation, aggression, settlements, and the fence on the homeland’s soil. [I am turning] to our people, the refugees in the camps, in the diaspora and throughout the world, to say to them that the Palestinian refugees have a right to return to their homeland. This is a right that is anchored in international legitimacy, and that the refugee problem is an issue of the homeland and identity and for this reason we refused and we will continue to reject today all the plans for settlement [of the refugees].14

Abbas establishes a link between security and peace and the realization of all Palestinian rights, and first and foremost the right of return. In other words, without the establishment of a “just peace” according to the Palestinian conception, there will not be any security in the region and the basis for the conflict and for violence will continue to exist. The use that Abbas makes of the formula “a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem on the basis of Resolution 194” is not a sign of pragmatism, and does not convey his readiness for compromise on this matter. His interpretation of the meaning of Resolution 194 is unequivocal and requires Israeli recognition of the Palestinian right of return. “Agreed-upon” in this context means by coercion if Israel will not agree to recognize the right of return voluntarily. In any case, Abbas admits that he has no authority to take any binding decision on the issue of the right of return, and he declared on September 26, 2007, that the results of the negotiations with Israel taking place in the name of the PLO will be submitted for ratification in a public referendum.15

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s Position on the Right of Return: A Commitment to Arafat’s Legacy

The formula of “a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem” serves the Palestinian leadership in messages targeted at Israel that are intended to create an impression of apparent pragmatism. In an interview with Akiva Eldar from Ha’aretz on July 19, 2007, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad responded to the question: “How does one solve the right of return and the mention of Resolution 194 in the Arab League initiative?” Fayyad said: “Have those who spoke about the right of return read the League declaration? They wrote there that the accord and the solution must be agreed upon. Agreed upon with whom? With Israel, of course. This means that the agreement will not exist without the other party.”16

Similar to Abbas, Fayyad does not speak about compromise as a basis for “a just and agreed-upon solution” with Israel, and he, too, believes that Israel must recognize Palestinian justice voluntarily or by coercion. In a speech before the donor conference to the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon on June 23, 2008, Fayyad said that one must “obligate Israel to accept the sources of authority [on the refugee issue]…including the Arab Peace Initiative, which provided an historic opportunity to reach a just, permanent and comprehensive peace that the peoples of the region require…as well as to arrive at a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem in accordance with Resolution 194 as incorporated in the Arab Peace Initiative.”17

Fayyad concedes that his loyalty is to the ideological legacy of Arafat, who never gave up demanding the return of Palestinian refugees to the territory of Israel. In an address before students in Nablus on July 30, 2009, Fayyad said:

Loyalty to the eternal President Yasser Arafat, and his renewing memory within us all, finds expression in rallying around the national program….This is our obligation to President Abu Amar and all the shahid-martyrs….This is our obligation to our people and our refugees and our expellees to persevere in steadfastly maintaining national rights as they are recognized by international legitimacy without the derogation of any one of them, and in a manner that will guarantee the end of the occupation and the discovery of a just solution to the refugee problem in accordance with Resolution 194, and as approved by the Arab Peace Initiative.18

To remove any doubt, Fayyad said in an interview to Al-Arabiya television on January 2, 2008, in response to the question: Did the Palestinian Authority forgo the right of return at the Annapolis Conference? “By no means, in no way whatsoever; it is impossible in any way whatsoever.”19

Fayyad’s position supporting the demand for the return of Palestinian refugees already appeared in an address he delivered upon assuming the office of prime minister in 2007 when he presented his objectives for the coming years:

One should work for the end of the occupation and the establishment of an independent state, with its capital in noble Jerusalem, on all the Palestinian territories conquered in 1967, relying on the principles and conditions that were set in the Declaration of Independence from 1988, finding a just and agreed-upon solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees on the basis of Resolution 194, the aspiration to put an end to settlement and the separation fence, and removing all the material and political obstacles that constitute an impediment to obtaining these objectives.20

The issue of the right of return again appears in a report of the Fayyad government summing up the first quarter of the government’s second year (June 16, 2008-September 16, 2008). In the framework of surveying the government’s achievements it is written, “The Information Ministry works to present the daily suffering of our Palestinian people as a result of the actions of the occupation authorities and to transmit the Palestinian narrative to all the media outlets and also operates to inform people of Palestinian rights and first and foremost the right of return, self-determination, and the establishment of a Palestinian state whose capital is noble Jerusalem, alongside buttressing the legitimacy of the national authority.”21

Fayyad’s plan to establish a Palestinian state that was published in August 2009 clarifies in an unambiguous manner that the realization of Palestinian “justice” on the refugee issue is a substantive condition for peace and, by inference, for regional stability and security. “Despite the fact that the refugee issue will be discussed in the negotiations on the permanent agreement, the Palestinians, of course, will not accept any diplomatic agreement that will not be based on justice and an agreed-upon solution to the main issue in accordance with international decisions including UN General Assembly Resolution 194.”22

In another speech that he delivered at the Kalandia refugee camp north of Jerusalem, Fayyad made it clear that “a lasting peace will not be established without finding a solution to the refugee problem in accordance with the legitimate international decisions and especially Resolution 194.”23 At another occasion,  Fayyad said: “The refugee problem is the heart of the Palestinian problem and the solution of the problem and the implementation of a just peace constitutes the heart of the PLO national program and the diplomatic struggle the PLO is waging in the name of all members of the Palestinian people in the homeland and in the diaspora countries on the way to realizing all the legitimate rights embodied in the return, liberty, and self-determination of an independent Palestinian state within all the 1967 borders.”24

At an event in Ramallah marking 61 years since the nakba (May 14, 2009), Fayyad said: “The time that has passed does not cancel our right to return and our people persevere in their struggle until they realizes their freedom to return.”25 A similar message formed the foundation of Fayyad’s address to mark Nakba Day in 2008: “We say that the commitment to the suffering of the refugees and their rights as it pertains to us means reinforcing the steadfast stance and holding on tight against expulsion and uprooting…and this means continuing the struggle to end the occupation, realizing independence, and guaranteeing that a just solution to the refugee problem reached in accordance with legitimacy and international law and the Arab Peace Initiative.”26

A Palestinian Consensus: The Gates of the Struggle Remain Open If the Right of Return Is Not Implemented

According to the Palestinian conception, without the realization of the right of return, the conflict with Israel will continue until “justice” is obtained. Uthman Abu Gharbiyya, who was chosen to fill the important post of Secretary of the Sixth Fatah Congress and previously headed the national guidance apparatus of the Palestinian Authority, explained the Palestinian stance regarding the realization of the right of return soon after the convening of the Camp David conference and on the eve of the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. In a lecture before the officers of the security apparatuses, Abu Gharbiyya said: “The gates of violence will not be closed from an historical standpoint, except with the establishment of an independent Palestinian state whose capital was Jerusalem and the return of the refugees….We fought and we sacrificed blood and dead in order to obtain liberty, honor, and independence. We will not forgo this in any way. The gates of struggle are open.”27

A position justifying the continuation of the armed struggle as long as Palestinian refugees and their descendents have not realized the “right of return” received additional sanction at the convening of the Sixth Fatah Congress in 2009 that updated the movement’s ideological platform for the first time since its previous convening in 1989. In the framework of the diplomatic program that was ratified, Fatah determined that one of its fundamental principles was what was defined as “a right to resistance.”: “The Fatah Movement cleaves to the right of the Palestinian people to oppose occupation with all legitimate means including its right to realize the armed struggle, that is approved by international law, as long as the occupation and settlement continue and the Palestinian people are deprived of their full rights. The continuation of the struggle for the liberation of the homeland to establish an independent Palestinian state and the return of the refugees requires the activation and unification of our fighting movement and realizing Palestinian national unity.”28


Palestinian lea

ip, that is not conceding one iota on the demand for the return of the refugees, is also constrained by the decisions of its official institutions that clearly defined the Palestinian stand on this issue:

A. The PNC – The Palestinian National Council published an announcement marki