Palestine — Demand the Right of Return

By Abbie Bakan

In 1948, when the state of Israel was founded in a war of occupation, at least 957,000 Palestinians became refugees. They were expelled from their land and from their homes by force, some fleeing massacres.

Even before the creation of Israel, 300,000 Palestinians were forced off their land. In the 1967 war that extended the Israeli borders to the occupied territories of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a further 300,000 Palestinians were displaced. According to UN figures, today there are 3,737,494 registered Palestinian refugees, and at least an additional one million are not registered.

Over 400 Palestinian villages have been destroyed, and their property confiscated. One study published by the Washington, DC Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine estimates that compensation and appropriate reparations for property losses to Palestinians as a result of forced displacement up to 1994 would total $253-billion.

None of these refugees has the right to return to the land they were forced to flee.

Human right

The right of return to one’s place of origin is a recognized human right in international law. The United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 194 in 1949, affirming the legal right of return.

According to the resolution, Palestinian refugees:

". . . wishing to return to their homes and live in 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."

This resolution has been reaffirmed over 100 times since it was initially enacted — more than any other UN resolution. But the Israeli state, since its inception, has refused to recognize the right of return for Palestinians.

State of Israel

The denial of the right of return for Palestinian refugees reveals the true nature of the state of Israel.

It is not, as the propaganda machine would have it, a state motivated to provide a safe haven for Jews escaping anti-Semitic bigotry. Indigenous Arab Palestinians and Middle Eastern Jews lived together in peace for centuries prior to the Zionist settlements that led to the establishment of the state of Israel.

Israel is a colonial settler state.

It is bound inseparably to US imperialism, embraced by the US as an economic and military base in a region rich in the single resource on which western capitalism depends most: oil.

Jewish settlers serve as the pawns — knowingly or unknowingly — in this xenophobic colonial system.

Any one of Jewish descent, born anywhere in the world, has the right to migrate to Israel and immediately obtain full citizenship. Yet the indigenous Arab Palestinian population, displaced at gunpoint, are summarily stripped of their status and forced to live as permanent refugees.


Repeated so-called "peace negotiations" have failed partly because of the refusal to recognize the right of return.

The Madrid peace process, launched in 1991 and preceding the Oslo accord, included the establishment of five multilateral "working groups." These were ostensibly designed to involve the international community in supporting the peace process in the Middle East.

The Refugee Working Group (RWG) was chaired by Canada. It was mandated to "support the process of achieving a viable and comprehensive solution to the refugee issue."

In fact, the establishment of the RWG ensured that the rights of Palestinian refugees were removed from the central negotiations between Israel and Palestinian representatives.

Instead of demanding the implementation of the legally recognized right of return, the RWG shifted its focus, at least in its rhetoric, to the living conditions of the millions of Palestinian refugees.

The crocodile tears shed by Canada’s RWG officers did nothing to improve the lives of Palestinian refugees. And the real issue — Israeli sub-imperialism that has forced the displacement of millions of Palestinians from their rightful place of residence, work, and life — was swept aside.

The right of return for Palestinians was put aside in the Oslo peace accord, and was not part of the recent Saudi peace proposal.


Israel refuses to allow Palestinians the basic, democratic right to return to land that is rightfully theirs because a Palestinian majority would undermine the basis of the Jewish theocratic state.

Israeli terror against the Palestinians in the occupied territories today, and the denial of the right of return, are two sides of the same policy.

Innocent Palestinians have been falsely charged as criminals, or "terrorists" in their own land, attacked and forced to flee at the hands of the Israeli military, and then denied the right to return to their homes. All this is part of the strategy of ethnic cleansing that has defined the Zionist state project.

The strategy has a long history.

Deir Yassin

On April 9, 1948, soldiers of Irgun, an extreme fanatical wing of the Zionist militia, attacked the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin. The Irgun troops were under the direction of Menachem Begin, who would serve as Israel’s Prime Minister during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

The Irgun soldiers entered the village and announced the Palestinians had fifteen minutes to flee. Then they opened fire with machine guns and grenades, killing three hundred men, women and children.

Menachem Begin coldly commented on the expediency of the massacre:

"Arabs throughout the country, induced to believe wild tales of ‘Irgun butchery’, were seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their lives. This mass flight soon developed into a maddened uncontrollable stampede. . . . The political and economic significance can hardly be overestimated."


But Palestinians around the world have refused to be silenced into submission, and continue to raise the demand for the right of return without compromise. Al-Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, is a grassroots international network for Palestinian rights.

Al-Awda has ensured that the rights of Palestinian refugees are not lost, even for the likes of PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat.

In February of this year, Arafat stated in the New York Times that the right of return "must be implemented in a way that takes in to account" Israel’s "demographic concerns."

Al Awda condemned Arafat’s vacillation. Palestinians campaigned internationally for the dismissal of PLO Commissioner for Jerusalem Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, who openly called upon the Palestinian population to abandon the demand to return to their homes.

Solidarity with the rights of Palestinians is growing around the world.

For this solidarity to point towards a real and lasting peace in the Middle East, the right of return for Palestinians is a central demand, one that must be front and centre. This demand needs to be raised loud and clear in the international movement to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and to advance the interests of the global intifada.