For Palestinians, 15 May represents the date when they lost 78 percent of their historic homeland and the date that turned them into the world’s oldest and largest refugee population. Palestinians refer to 15 May as the al-Nakba, or catastrophe, to describe their dispossession when over 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled prior to, during and after the 1948 war. This May, Palestinians memorialize 59 years of exile as Israelis celebrate 59 years of statehood.
International refugee law expert Susan Akram argues that the legal basis for a refugee’s right of return is established in three main bodies of law: the law of nationality and state succession, human rights law and humanitarian law. In all three, explains Akram, the right of return is both “a rule of customary international law and codified in international treaties.” Pointing to numerous treaties that Israel has ratified, which bind it to recognize and implement this right, Akram argues that Israel is the state entity responsible for creating the refugees and is thus held responsible for the implementation of Palestinians’ right of return.
During the July 2000 Camp David negotiations, Israel argued that it bore no responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem or its solution.
In December 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton, through the “Clinton Parameters,” adopted the concept of choice, or options, but excluded the most fundamental one: the option to exercise the right to return to Israel.
Israel and the Refugees
Despite confirmation by Israeli historians such as Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris, who pored over hundreds of declassified Israeli files and confirmed in minute detail that in 1948 Zionist forces committed massacres, expelled Palestinians and destroyed their villages, Israel refuses to admit responsibility for the depopulation of Palestinian villages and towns.
In a speech at the Technion in Haifa in 1969, (Haaretz, 4 April 1969) former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan confirmed: “Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifies; and Kefar Yehushua in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not a single place built in this country that does not have a former Arab population.”
In Salman Abu Sitta’s 428-page Atlas of Palestine 1948 (London: Palestine Land Society, 2005), close documentation of events from March 1948 to April 1949 reveal that the brutal armed struggle that erupted in the spring of 1948 led to the depopulation of 675 Palestinian villages. Through 27 references from Israeli sources, Abu Sitta notes that over 70 massacres by Zionist forces encouraged Arab flight in 1948. According to Abu Sitta’s documents, in May 1948 there were at least 1,113 Arab Palestinian towns and villages located mostly in urban areas around the coast. Only 99 of those towns and villages remain today.
On 23 October 1979, the New York Times published a leaked version of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s memoirs in which he recalls, “We walked outside, Ben-Gurion accompanying us. Allon repeated his question, what is to be done with the Palestinian population? Ben-Gurion waved his hand in a gesture which said ‘Drive them out!'”
Israel and the Land
Many blame the dispossession of Palestinians on Arab rejection of the Partition Plan or United Nations Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947. What is left out of this argument is that the plan gave 55.5 percent of the land to a section of the population (Jewish) who owned 5.4 percent of the land and constituted 32 percent of the total population.
After Israel declared statehood on 15 May 1948, not only did its borders incorporate more than 77 percent of the land, including 460 Palestinian villages, its leaders gained control of everything the British left behind. That , according to documents in Atlas of Palestine 1948, included nearly 2,000 miles of first-class roads, 624,000 miles of railroads, 41 railway stations, 31 airports, 33 hospitals, 15 post offices, 37 military camps (including unused ammunition and supplies), 99 police stations and posts, 350 schools, 1,984 Christian and Muslim religious buildings and 3,649 sources of water (wells, springs, cisterns, etc.).
Compensation, Host-Country Absorption vs. Return
Some have argued that refugees should be offered compensation in exchange for return. The flaw in that argument is that the term “refugee” refers to a legal, not economic status. Financially stable refugees and refugees with citizenship from other countries still have the legal right to return to Israel. In addition to the right to return, all Palestinians have a right to compensation for their losses.
The application of international law has enabled the return of refugees all over the world except in Palestine, despite the fact that U.N. Resolution 194 (11 December 1948) stipulates that “the 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.” Regarding compensation, the resolution states that compensation should be paid for the 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.”
Israel defines itself as a Jewish state and Palestinian refugees are Muslims and Christians. Jews from around the world, even converts to Judaism, are allowed to immigrate to Israel under the “Law of Return.” However, defining a country in ethnic/religious terms does not exempt it from international law.
In Bosnia, East Timor and Kosovo and in the case of Rwanda, refugees have had their right of return honored. In Kosovo, the right of return was considered a “non-negotiable” issue. In Bosnia, Akram explains, more than 50 percent of all property claims have resulted in the restitution of the homes and lands to their owners after the conflict ended. “Most remarkable in the Bosnia case is that restitution has been the goal of the reconstruction process and not a penny has been paid in compensation as an alternative to restitution,” Akram argued at a 18 July 2005 Palestine Center symposium.
Refugees in Numbers
The Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights-BADIL estimates that today there are more than 7 million Palestinian refugees and displaced persons. According to Akram, about one in three refugees in the world is Palestinian and more than two-thirds of Palestinians are refugees.
BADIL places Palestinians who were displaced and expelled from their homes in 1948 and their descendents into one group. Of those, 4.3 million are registered for assistance with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and 1.7 million are unregistered, not eligible for assistance.
Another group is comprised of Palestinians displaced for the first time from their homes in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. They are referred to as the “1967 displaced persons.” They and their descendents number approximately 834,000.
BADIL identifies two internally displaced groups-Palestinians internally displaced in 1948, who BADIL estimates at 355,000, and the 1967 internally displaced Palestinians of approximately 57,000.
According to BADIL, most refugees live within 100 miles of Israel’s border. Half of the refugees live in Jordan, one-fourth in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and approximately 15 percent live in Syria and Lebanon. The remainder live scattered around the world, primarily in the rest of the Arab world, Europe and the Americas.
More than 1.3 million Palestinian refugees live in 59 UN-administered refugee camps in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon and twelve unrecognized refugee camps: five in the West Bank, three in Jordan and four in Syria.
According to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics (2004 census), there are 9.6 million Palestinians worldwide.
Samar Assad is Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund and its educational program the Palestine Center.
The above text does not necessarily reflect the views of the Jerusalem Fund.