The Palestinian right of return is undoubtedly one of the central
problems in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is often
represented as unique among all the aspects of the conflict in that
it is a problem that has no solution. What follows is not an
analysis of the problem itself, but a survey from Israeli sources
of the ways in which it is represented - some may say
misrepresented - by both parties. For perhaps while the issue is,
in any case, intractable enough, be this deliberate or
unintentional, its representation might in itself become an
obstacle on the road to any sort of mutual understanding on the
According to UNRWA figures, there are 3.7 million Palestinian
refugees, the definition of a Palestine refugee being "someone who
resided in Palestine for at least two years before 1948, lost his
home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948-49 war and now
lives in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Syria or Lebanon." The
definition includes all these refugees' offspring. Israeli sources
intimate that the numbers are exaggerated so as to allow more
refugees to receive financial support.1 One of the most
authoritative Palestinian experts on the subject, Salim Tamari,
puts the number of refugees at 5 million, if one includes not only
those in the UNRWA definition, but all who were living in
Palestine, are now living elsewhere and are unable to go back to
In an announcement addressed "To the Palestinian Leadership," in
January 2001, over thirty Israeli peace activists, intellectuals
and politicians announced publicly that "we shall never be able to
agree to the return of the refugees to within the borders of
Israel, for the meaning of such a return would be the elimination
of the State of Israel."3 While supporting family reunions, these
people, who have for thirty years supported "a two-state solution"
and "the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination,"
say that a "massive return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel
would conflict with the right to self-determination of the Jewish
The impressive list of signatories includes writers like Amos Oz,
A.B. Yehoshua and Meir Shalev; Peace Now leaders like Galia Golan,
Amiram Goldblum and Mordechai Bar-On; Labor party MKs like Yael
Dayan and Yossi Katz; Meretz leaders like MKs Ran Cohen, Mossi Raz
and Avshalom Vilan; and prominent intellectuals like Zeev Sternhell
and Menachem Brinker. These personalities, who belong to different
streams in what is sometimes called "the Zionist left," have a
distinguished record as "central activists in the Israeli peace
camp." This highly representative list includes veterans like Arie
"Lova" Eliav, Yair Tsaban and Victor Shem-Tov, alongside younger
activists generally associated in the public eye with Peace Now.
They express strong opinions against the right of return and, if
this is the view from the left, the view from the right can be
defined as "the same but more so."
In a statement of some twenty lines, one cannot expect an
explanation of the full reasons for seeing the right of return as
tantamount to putting an end to the State of Israel. The author
Amos Oz, who has always been a leading voice in the peace movement,
has written for local and foreign audiences that the right of
return to Israel of Palestinian refugees is an old Arab code word
for the destruction of Israel. He states that the Israeli peace
camp should tell the Palestinians that their making peace dependent
on recognizing the right of return to Israel increases fear and
suspicion among Israelis at the very time when what is needed is a
Sadat-style emotional breakthrough. He asks whether the
Palestinians want "two states for two peoples or two states, both
of them for Palestinian refugees."4
Thus, Amos Oz and his co-signatories put all their weight behind a
point of view that leaves no space whatsoever for any discussion
between the parties concerned on a fundamental issue affecting
their joint future. This is particularly disturbing when one bears
in mind that, on other issues, these leftist and peace-oriented
Israelis have in the past been the main champions of
Israeli-Palestinian dialogue on peace and coexistence.
They Are Not Really Refugees
Another signatory, the distinguished author A.B. Yehoshua, writes
that "when my Palestinian friends demand the right of return, I
tell them that I would be prepared to bring all the Palestinian
refugees back to their homes in Israel on condition that they first
bring back to life the 6,000 Israeli dead who were killed during
the aggressive (Arab) war of 1948, when Israel was… seeking
Yehoshua claims that the Palestinians are not really refugees at
all. A refugee is one who fled or was expelled from his land of
birth; whereas one who had to leave his home, but remains within
the bounds of his homeland, is a displaced person. Therefore most
of the Palestinians who call themselves refugees are actually
displaced persons, since, for example, "the Arabs of Lod and Ramleh
moved to the Ramallah area, which is 30 or 40 kilometers away from
these towns," and those in other countries could have returned to
their homeland and built new homes there, but didn't do so.
He explains that Finns displaced in 1939-40 by the USSR in an
unjust war and exiled westward into the Finnish state may have
dreamed of return, but they built new homes for themselves not at
home, but in the homeland. On the other hand, rather than doing
this, the Palestinians after 1948 chose "a life of humiliation and
poverty, a welfare existence, without any basic rights… in
order not to detract from their clamor to return." Yehoshua
concludes that there is no returning home, i.e., to Israel, only a
return to the homeland, Palestine. Returning home implies "the
inundation of the state with another three million Palestinians."
Again, a viewpoint that leaves little room for discussion.
The same can be said for MK Amnon Rubinstein, a former minister and
Meretz MK6 who approvingly quotes what he calls the "meaningful
statements" of poet and journalist Ilan Sheinfeld: "Palestinians in
terrorist attacks and the Arabs in Israel in solidarity
riots… will not change one certain fact: we will not go away.
We will not leave this place. Not Jaffa, not Acre, not Nazareth,
not Giv'at Shaul B, which was once Deir Yassin, and not Ein Hod,
which was once Ein Khod. We will not give you back your land, we
will not give you back the houses you abandoned in the 1948 war and
we will not grant you your right of return, because your right of
return is our eviction. And we no longer have any place to go."7
Rubinstein adds that when Yasser Arafat "puts forward an
uncompromising demand for the right of the refugees to return,
Israel [has] reverted to the weapon of 'no choice,' the weapon that
united the Jews in Israel during periods more distressful than
today." This talk of "unity" is natural for rightist and religious
Jews, but its vehemence is surprising when it comes from within an
Israeli party belonging to the peace camp.
A completely different point of view is expressed by former justice
minister in the Barak government, Labor dove Yossi Beilin, who is
perhaps the Israeli politician who was most responsible for the
Oslo Accords and played a major role in all subsequent
negotiations. Akiva Eldar has written of the perception widely held
in Israel after the Taba negotiations that "the peace process
collapsed because the Arabs demanded the return of the refugees to
Jaffa and Haifa."8 Former U.S. president Bill Clinton was reported,
after his retirement, as accusing Arafat of demanding the return of
large numbers of refugees "unacceptable to Israel."9 This version
is seen as authentic among Israelis attempting to explain why, in
spite of all Ehud Barak's efforts, the negotiations failed,
subsequently leading to the outbreak of the Intifada.
Incorporating Both Narratives
Beilin, unlike Oz and Yehoshua, believes that "it is impossible to
demand of the Palestinians that they forgo the right of
return…" (writer's emphasis). He goes on to say, "that would
conflict with the whole ethos they have developed since 1948.
Therefore, in my negotiations with Chairman Arafat's deputy Abu
Mazen at Taba, we arrived at a solution that incorporates both
narratives, ours and theirs."10 This means that, while they don't
forgo the right of return, they don't demand that we accept
According to Beilin's account of the proposals agreed upon in these
negotiations, in concrete terms, as against today's 3.7 million
Palestinian refugees, within 5 years there will be no more
refugees. A million and a half in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip
will receive compensation and live in the Palestinian state. Half a
million will remain in Jordan. The most acute problem is 200,000
stateless refugees in Lebanon, but certain Western countries,
especially the U.S.A., Canada, Germany, and Spain, have agreed to
receive a total of 300,000 refugees. Some refugees, at the most
100,000, will come to live in Israel, the number being a sovereign
Beilin remarks that he is "generous geographically, but tough
demographically. A Jewish majority within the sovereign State of
Israel is the main thing as far as I am concerned." He would not
agree to "a permanent settlement that will ultimately worsen the
demographic balance inside sovereign Israel." On these complex
negotiations, Eldar's sources spoke of 40,000 returnees to Israel
over 5 years, of a new international body to deal with
rehabilitation, compensation, etc. The Palestinians spoke of half a
million returnees, but agreed that as a sovereign state, Israel has
"the last word."
Beilin, then, believes that the right of return is an issue that
can be negotiated with the Palestinians (writer's emphasis). He is
supported by Peace Bloc leader Uri Avnery, who states that "Israel
will recognize, in principle, the Palestinian right of return as an
inalienable human right. The practical solution to the problem will
come about by an agreement based on just, fair and practical
considerations, and will include return to the territory of the
State of Palestine, return to the State of Israel and
compensation."11 Other relatively small Israeli peace groups like
Bat Shalom are of the same view.
Former Likud minister MK Dan Meridor, a member of the Israeli
delegation at Taba, differed. He thought that "if the Palestinians
insisted on the right of return, that would be conclusive evidence
that there could be no end to the conflict. It would mean that it
was not their achievement of self-determination that would end the
conflict, but their destroying our self-determination by flooding
Israel with Palestinian refugees." (It is interesting to see the
common political language shared by Meridor from the right and Amos
Oz from the left.) Suggesting to Meridor that Israel should deal
first with the plight of the 375,000 refugees in Lebanon, mainly
from Galilee, the Palestinians asked at Taba, "Why don't you allow
them to go back to their villages? You will hardly notice
Neither, however, do the Palestinians speak in one voice on the
right of return, though all take it for granted that UN Resolution
194 of December 1948, affirming the Palestinian right to
repatriation and compensation, be honored. In a collection of
essays called The Palestinian Exodus, Salman Abu-Sitta, a member of
the Palestine National Council living in Kuwait, proposes a
detailed geographic-demographic plan for the return, including "a
maximalist scenario in which all refugees return and all Israelis
stay," referring to no less than 4.5 million refugees.13
However, he notes that not everyone would exploit the right of
return, and only one-third of world Jewry exercised the option when
it was available to them. It can be noted that when asked how many
refugees would exercise the right of return, Peter Hansen, the
director of UNRWA and a Dutch professor of political science,
replies that "it is impossible to estimate how many refugees will
return… there is no scientific way to answer the
question… I think that on Israel's part there is a tendency
to exaggerate the number of people who will want to exercise the
right of return."14 Abu-Sitta believes that, if present trends
continue, in any case there will be an Arab majority in Israel,
perhaps even within two decades - a view also expressed in one of
the last statements of Faisal Husseini.15 Abu-Sitta concludes that
"Israel should face reality and accept full partnership with the
Palestinians by allowing the refugees to return." Somewhat
strangely, his article including the maximalist scenario of 4.5
million returnees to Israel is named (or misnamed) "The Feasibility
of the Right of Return."
Yet, in the same book, Prof. Rashid Khalidi, director of the Center
for International Studies at the University of Chicago, seems to
shun such extremism and is more concerned with "what is
attainable." He demands recognizing "the right of the refugees to
return to their homes in principle," while noting that "in practice
many will be unable to exercise this right, whether as a result of
Israel's refusal to do so, or of the disappearance of their homes
and villages, or because of the sheer numbers of people
involved… as many refugees as possible should be allowed to
return to what is now Israel." If a weak Israel was ready in 1949
to accept 100,000 refugees in the framework of family
reunification, 450,000 refugees, about 15 percent of the total,
should now similarly be accepted. His article is aptly entitled
"Truth, Justice and Reconciliation: Elements of a Solution to the
Palestinian Refugee Issue."
Dr. Salim Tamari, a distinguished sociologist and director of the
Institute for Jerusalem Studies, who has written extensively on the
refugee problem, answered as follows when asked about the principle
and the implementation of the right of return: "I think the
majority of Palestinians would agree, while supporting the right of
return, that the right of return of the refugees does not mean
actually going back to the immediate concrete houses, but going
back to the region they originated in, with the proviso that there
be full compensation for the losses in these houses. The idea is
not to dismantle existing [Israeli] settlements, but to allow for
the coexistence of returnees with Israeli residents in the area
where the refugees originated." He suggests focusing initially on
the return of refugees in Lebanon to Galilee, where there is a
large Palestinian community, many of whom are relatives of the
An Agreed Formulation?
Palestinian leader Abu Mazen told an Israeli interviewer that
"already at Camp David we proposed that the Americans and the
Israelis recognize UN Security Council Resolution 194 on the
refugees' right of return, and, parallel to this, we suggested that
the formula for implementing the resolution, the number of refugees
and other details be accepted in agreement by the two parties."17
Asked whether it would be possible to find a formulation also
agreeable to Israel, he replied, "Of course. Everyone must be given
the right of return, but then we have to sit down and speak of the
details, which must be agreed upon and acceptable to the two
What about Yasser Arafat himself? Robert Malley, who was at Camp
David as special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs to president
Clinton, and calls the future of refugees "the heart of the matter"
for many Palestinians, writes that, on this problem, "the ideas put
forward at Camp David spoke vaguely of 'a satisfactory solution,'
leading Mr. Arafat to fear that he would be asked to swallow an
unacceptable last-minute proposal."19
When, at a meeting with Israeli journalists, Arafat was asked if
there can be an overall agreement without a million refugees
implementing the right of return, he asked the questioner how
should [we] Palestinians feel when in the recent immigration,
hundreds of thousands of non-Jews are permitted to emigrate to
Israel. Without being too forthcoming, he declared that "creative
solutions will be found to all the subjects mentioned at Olso -
Jerusalem, settlements, borders, military outposts, water, refugees
- and agreement will be reached if there will be goodwill."20
Palestinian Minister of Culture, Yasser Abed Rabbo, described the
claim that the right of return caused the peace talks to fail as
Israeli disinformation ploy."
However, Amnon Abramovitz, an Israeli journalist whose sources are
generally considered reliable, reported that Arafat's opening
demand at Camp David was "to allow 1.5 million refugees into
Israel, 150,000 refugees a year for ten years."21
At a meeting with Israeli peace activists, according to Akiva
Eldar, Palestinian Minister of Culture, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said
that at Camp David, Arafat distinguished between the overall
refugee problem and the specific problems of the refugees in
Lebanon, offering five ways for refugee rehabilitation, only one of
which was return to Israel.22
Robert Mallay and Hussein Agha (the latter was close to the
Palestinian delegation in Camp David), in an article shedding new
light on what happened there, wrote as follows on the subject: "The
Palestinians, while maintaining the right of the refugees to return
to the homes which they had lost in 1948, were ready to link the
implementation of the resolution to a mechanism which would provide
substitutes for the refugees and would restrict the number of
refugees who would return to Israel itself." Writing of Palestinian
readiness for compromise proposals also on settlements and
Jerusalem, the writers noted that "in spite of these compromises,
the Palestinians did not succeed in getting rid of their image as
the obstinate and uncompromising party." 23
Abu 'Ala, the chief Palestinian negotiator for final-status talks,
said at Camp David that, in spite of serious differences, "we have
always said, Let's approve the principle of the right of return
first, and then we can be flexible on the mechanisms. I know the
Israelis cannot accept the right of return. But the principle
should be approved and then we can talk in detail on how to
implement it in a way that can be good for both sides."24
An Israeli Disinformation Ploy
Nabil Sha'ath, the Palestinian Authority minister of planning and
international cooperation, intimated that the picture harbored by
the Israeli media and general public concerning the state of
negotiations on the refugees does not reflect the remarkable
progress made at Taba, where a breakthrough was achieved on this
difficult issue.25 He also claimed that at Taba, "for the first
time in 50 years, Israeli officials acknowledged a degree of
responsibility for the Palestinian refugee crisis," though this was
denied by co-negotiator Yossi Beilin.26 There is no agreed,
authorized record of the conference. Jibril Rajoub, head of the
Palestinian Authority's preventative security apparatus, is
reported to have said that at Taba, "Palestinian negotiators made
it clear that implementing the right of return would not lead to
drastic demographic changes in Israel."27
Shortly before he died, Faisal Husseini, PLO Executive member in
charge of the Jerusalem portfolio, asked Israeli journalists to
"understand [our] position on the right of return. You regard it as
suicide for Israel. All we tried to achieve was an Israeli
agreement for the principle of return, with application implemented
in such a way as not to buttress Israel's apprehensions. We are not
deceiving you. We understand that the return of 4.5 million
refugees is impossible (writer's emphasis).28
Izzat Ghazzawi, chairman of the Palestinian Writers' Union, writes
that in negotiating with the Palestinians, Israel argued that "the
Palestinian right of return is not to be denied. Yet they said that
peace is possible and the Palestinians must keep quiet and accept
whatever they are given. Very few Israelis were able to see how
patronizing this was. Israel should admit its moral responsibility
for the refugee problem and promise to solve it in the most
practical way and over a span of years." He believes that
"practically speaking, the number of Palestinians who really would
decide to return and live in Israel will be strikingly lower than
we expect. It will be impossible to talk about a genuine mass
return. There is much romanticism in the idea of bringing to life
hundreds of now-extinct villages." Ghazzawi submits that no Israeli
government would be able to provide or afford a mass return. He
concludes that, as a refugee himself, he "believes that [my]
day-to-day reality is not governed by the remains of a far-fetched
town. My family, formerly a group of completely shattered men and
women, are today each involved in their careers and social lives.
How much of this is true of other families?" The dream of return
could be realized with real borders and stability.29
In summation, bearing in mind the complexity of the problem, it
would be rash to do more than try to record where the parties
stand. It is not true, as some would have it, that all the Israelis
are against any realization of the right of return, and that all
the Palestinians intend to see it implemented in practice and in
full. On the Israeli side, there are those (too few if the truth be
told) who recognize the principle and are ready to seek an
agreement with the Palestinians on its implementation. On the other
hand, many, perhaps most Palestinians, while demanding, like all
Palestinians, that the principle of return be honored, are ready,
in practice, to bear in mind Israeli reservations as regards
implementation, and also strive for an agreement as regards
Contrary to the perception of much of Israeli public opinion, the
mainstream Palestinian position is flexible. It does not overlook
Israeli fears and anxieties. If the principle of return is
accepted, in this article considerable Palestinian readiness to
negotiate its realization is expressed. On the other hand, in the
Israeli mainstream and even in leftist circles (Amos Oz), Israel's
position is rigid - return means the destruction of the State of
Israel and the negation of Jewish self-determination, "flooding" or
"inundating" the country with Palestinian refugees.
An optimist might think that this could perhaps be the basis for a
compromise that could neutralize the main fears on both sides: a
joint commitment by both parties to accept the right of return in
principle, accompanied by a mutual commitment that its
implementation can only be carried out in agreement, that is, by
mutual consent. Such an agreement will not come easily to either
side, especially to the Israelis - but neither was it easy to reach
any of the essential milestones that, in the past, marked progress
in the conflict. As the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw
once wrote, "All great truths begin as blasphemies."
Truth, Justice, Reconciliation
In the last words of the book The Palestinian Exodus - 1948-1988,
Rashid Khalidi's summing up should surely win broad acceptance: "We
need truth so that the harm done in 1948 can be acknowledged by all
concerned, which means facing history honestly, acceptance of
responsibility by those responsible or their successors, and solemn
atonement for what was done 50 years ago. We need truth also in
order to clarify the limits of what can be done to right that
injustice without causing further harm. Once these have been
established, it should be possible to work toward attainable
justice and therefore toward reconciliation. This is essential
because our ultimate objective should be to end this conflict for
good, which can only come from true reconciliation, based on truth
1. Ha'aretz, July 6, 2001.
2. Salim Tamari, "The Problem of the Palestinian Refugees Will Be
Solved When They Are Assured the Right of Return," Palestine-Israel
Journal, Vol. VI, No. 4, 1999/2000, p. 62.
3. Ha'aretz, January 2, 2001.
4. Yediot Aharonot, August 3, 2000.
5. Ha'aretz, April 2, 2001.
6. Ha'aretz, June 10, 2001.
7. The local weekly Tel Aviv, February 9, 2001.
8. Ha'aretz, May 29, 2001.
9. Ha'aretz, June 29, 2001.
10. Ha'aretz, June 15, 2001.
11. Eighty Theses for a New Peace Camp, Gush Shalom, (Peace Bloc),
12. The Jerusalem Report, July 16, 2001.
13. Salman Abu-Sitta, "The Feasibility of the Right of Return," The
Palestinian Exodus - 1948-1988, eds. Ghada Karmi & Eugene
Cotran (Reading: Ithaca Press, 1999), pp. 171-197.
14. Ha'aretz, July 6, 2001.
15. Ha'aretz, June 1, 2001.
16. Salim Tamari, op. cit., p. 69.
17. Yediot Aharonot, May 25, 2001.
19. New York Herald Tribune, July 9, 2001.
20. Yediot Aharonot, June 24, 2001.
21. An interview with Avi Shavit, Ha'aretz, July 20, 2001.
22. Ha'aretz, July 10, 2001.
23. New York Review of Books and Yediot Aharonot, July 7,
24. The Jerusalem Report, July 16, 2001.
25. The Washington Post, May 15, 2001.
26. The Jerusalem Post, June 22, 2001.
27. Ha'aretz, May 25, 2001.
28. Yediot Aharonot, June 1, 2001.
29. Ha'aretz, July 20, 2001.
30. Rashid Khalidi, "Truth, Justice and Reconciliation: Elements of
a Solution to the Palestinian Refugee Issue," The Palestinian
Exodus, pp. 221-243.