Amid ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, leaders on both sides have hardened their stances toward the “right of return” for Arabs who fled the fledgling State of Israel in 1948 and their descendants.
In a January 11th address, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas took an unprecedented step by declaring the right of return to be a “personal decision” for each Palestinian: “Neither the PA, nor the state, nor the PLO, nor [I], nor any Palestinian or Arab leader has the right to deprive someone from his right to return,” he said.” Days later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared “no room to maneuver” on the refugee issue, and an aide called the issue a “nonstarter” that “is not going to happen.”
The most difficult sticking point in the whole conflict, Palestinians view a right of return as an essential reparation for their displacement and suffering, while Israelis reject the notion as an unrealistic, existential threat.
Both sides bolster their claims with historical arguments—nearly all of which are wrong. Zionist and Palestinian polemics that are unconvincing, hollow, or at best lazy only create obstacles to finding common ground on such a wrenching subject.
The controversy centers on the events of Israel’s War of Independence, when at least 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from what is now Israel—an event Palestinians call the nakba, or “catastrophe.” Most went to refugee camps in Arab countries, expecting to return when the fighting ended. Instead, Israel refused to let them back in and confiscated Arab property to help build the new state. The 1967 Six-Day War produced another 300,000 migrants, and today the total number of Palestinian refugees and their descendants nears 5 million.
Israelis often contend that refugees who left voluntarily or with their leaders’ encouragement are disqualified from returning. These arguments reflect a double standard between Palestinian and Jewish history. Between 1933 and 1945, more than 340,000 Jewish refugees fled Germany and Austria. Of them, some 60,000 left under the 1933 “Haavara” agreement with Nazi Germany, in which the Jewish Agency transferred property to Palestine to encourage Jewish immigration. Surely they could have reasonably demanded reentry to postwar Germany.
Long after the end of the World War II, Jewish organizations have worked hard to regain money in Swiss bank accounts, art in German homes and museums, and other assets the Nazis seized. That alone should make Israel sympathetic to Palestinian restitution claims for property lost during and after the War of Independence. Why can’t Jews who respect the enduring importance of a family art collection have the same attitude toward a family homestead, or an olive grove?
Some Israelis further dismiss a right of return by pointing to the forced exodus of more than a million Jews from Arab and other Muslim lands after Israel’s birth, which they consider a “population exchange.” But that’s a matter between the Jews who were forced to leave and the governments who drove them out, not the Palestinians who remain displaced. And while virtually no Jews want to return to the Arab countries they or their ancestors left, millions of Palestinians do want at least the option of returning home.
Palestinian arguments supporting a right of return can be historically dubious as well. Palestinians and their supporters interpret international law—and particularly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—as a guarantee that a person can return to any country he or she has left. But scholars disagree about whether that right applies to a specific parcel of land or to a broader political entity. And history is replete with episodes—including some contemporary with the Palestinian refugee crisis—during which no repatriation was even contemplated.
For example, after 1947, more than 14 million Hindus and Muslims crossed the boundaries of newly established Pakistan and India to avoid living in the religious minority on one side or the other. Similarly, after the Second World War, at least 12 million ethnic Germans were forced to move from East-Central and Eastern Europe to German-speaking countries. Nations like Hungary and the Czech Republic have never considered readmitting expelled Germans and their families, nor with few exceptions even entertained apologizing for their suffering.
Some Palestinians protest that Israel’s refusal to let them return is a form of discrimination. They cite Israel’s Law of Return, which offers citizenship to any Jew, while denying it to millions of exiled Palestinians.
But many Israelis harbor similar anxieties about the Palestinian side of the border in any eventual settlement. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, considered a moderate on the peace process, raised alarm in Israel when he said in 2010 that in a future Palestinian state, “we won’t agree to the presence of one Israeli.” Abbas appears to have been referring to the presence of Israeli soldiers in a future Palestinian state, but the remark touched on anxieties that Jews would be forbidden to live in a future Palestinian state.
Ideally, while insisting Israel maintain some form of its unique Jewish character in any refugee resolution, Israelis should accept moral and financial liability for barring Arabs who left after the Independence War. Palestinians could in turn demand compensation for their suffering and lost property, plus repatriation of a limited but not token number of refugees. In neither case would the solution be complete, but it might be enough to address legitimate grievances and acknowledge historical suffering while allowing progress on other final-status issues.
It wouldn’t end the conflict, but it could resolve one of its thorniest issues.