The Lie of the Palestinian ‘Right of Return’

If Israel can't be eradicated though war, it can be destroyed through demography.

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.

While more than 1200 rockets rained down on southern Israeli towns during the latest violence from Gaza’s Hamas, the terrorist organization’s leader Ismail Haniyeh arrogantly warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to "play with fire . . . Neither you nor your army and police can win this battle. What's happening in Jerusalem is an intifada that must not stop."

In fact, an unending intifada against the Jewish state has been the central mission of Hamas since its inception, and part of that war against Israel includes what Palestinians claim is their legal “right of return;” that is, the right of those Arabs who fled or were expelled from what became Israel to now return, en masse, to the Jewish state—together with all of the original refugee’s descendants, now numbering in the millions.

In its “Document of General Principles and Policies,” Hamas specifically articulates this supposed right, claiming, mistakenly, that “The right of the Palestinian refugees and the displaced to return to their homes from which they were banished or were banned from returning to – whether in the lands occupied in 1948 or in 1967 (that is the whole of Palestine), is a natural right, both individual and collective. This right is confirmed by all divine laws as well as by the basic principles of human rights and international law.”

Hamas’s aspirations aside, all sentient observers of the Palestinian issue know that the “right of return” issue is a core tactic in rendering real peace, any viable Arab/Israeli solution, effectively impossible, that the prospect of some five to seven million Palestinian refugees flooding into what is now Israel would, as the late University of Haifa professor Steven Plaut once put it, “derail Israel demographically and turn it into the Rwanda of the Levant.”

The demand for a right of return, a notion referred to by Palestinians and their supporters as “sacred” and an “enshrined” universal human right granted by UN resolutions and international law, in fact has no legal standing at all, and is part of the propaganda campaign that is based on the thinking that if Israel cannot be eradicated by the Arabs though war, it can effectively be destroyed by forcing it to commit demographic suicide.       

In the first place, the right of return claim uses the fraud as its core notion that the Palestinians were “victimized” by the creation of Israel, that they were expelled from a fictive land of “Palestine” where they were the indigenous people “from time immemorial,” as historian Joan Peters put it in her book of the same name. The recounting of this wistful fable has enabled the Palestinian cause to become the obsession of Leftists in the West, Middle East Study Centers on university campuses, the United Nations, much of Europe, and throughout the Arab world where Jew-hatred helps fuel a central evolving myth of Zionist oppression and occupation of fellow Muslim brethren.

More importantly, far from being either a “sacred” or, for that matter, legal right, the right of return is a one-sided concoction that deliberately misreads UN resolutions for political advantage and conveniently embraces only those portions that fit the intent of Arabs to make good on their intent to “drive Israel into the sea.”

In continually repeating the lie that they are victims of the “Zionist regime” and that they were expelled from a country of their own and condemned to unending refugee status, the Palestinians—and their Arab enablers—have prolonged the myth of victimhood and made the right of return a core part of their long-term strategy to weaken and eventually extirpate the Jewish state.

In their substantive and compelling 2020 book, The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace, former Israeli Knesset Member Einat Wilf and journalist Adi Schwartz fastidiously examine the right of return as part of the Arab world’s cognitive war against Israel, revealing that the Palestinians and their supporters have conjured up a purported right with no actual legal basis and continue to refer to it as something to which the ever-aggrieved Palestinians are entitled.

“The Palestinians commitment to the idea that they are still refugees and also possess a right of return to the state of Israel is deeply embedded in the Palestinian identity and its collective ethos,” they wrote. “It is an issue on which no Palestinian political opposition or dissent exists . . . While Palestinians do differ as to the best way to achieve that goal—one state with return, two states with return, or an armed struggle for return—there are no Palestinians calling upon their own people to move on from that demand. None are telling their people to do what hundreds of millions of refugees all over the world have done, even after vicious wars and displacements— move on to build new lives.”

The myth of a right of return was initiated by accusations that the creation of the State of Israel led to the eradication and dispossession of a Palestinian ‘nation,’ and that Israel continues to obstruct and deny the Palestinian’s right of self-determination, spurious claims at best, since before the 1967 war when Israel took control of Gaza and the West Bank, no one—including the Palestinians themselves—thought of themselves as a nation at all.  

Nor was the area that the Palestinian Arabs fled from in what would become Israel ever land to which Palestinian refugees could make a legally sound claim. The Six Day War of 1967, in which Israel recaptured Gaza and Judea and Samaria, including Jerusalem, resulted in Israel being cast in another perfidious role — in addition to colonial usurper of Arab land, the Jewish state became a brutal “occupier” of Arab Palestine, lands to which the Jews presumably had no right and now occupied, in the flawed opinion of many in the international community, illegally.

But when did the Judea and Samaria, Gaza, and East Jerusalem become Palestinian land? The answer is: never. In fact, when Israel acquired these territories in 1967 after being attacked by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, the Jewish state gained legally recognized title to those areas.

There is some irony in the fact that the Palestinians have repeatedly violated both the spirit and intent of 194, that particular UN resolution containing a reference to the concept of ‘return’ to one’s country, although two key points are chronically ignored by those pointing to this source as justification for their legal claim.

First, Resolution 194 was the product of the UN General Assembly and "is an expression of sentiment and carries no binding force whatsoever," meaning that it is meant to make recommendations but not law. What it did suggest, however, was 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, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which . . . should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

But Wilf and Schwartz note that while the Arabs now use 194 as the basis for a legally valid claim of return, the Palestinians contort and misread the resolution to suit their own ends.  In fact, the authors wrote, “The UN's General Assembly's powers are limited; it cannot confer legal or binding rights. Thus, the resolution is purely advisory; it does not and cannot create a ‘right’ to anything, including ‘return.’ But even if the General Assembly did have the authority to confer legal and binding rights upon peoples and nations, a careful reading of 194 makes very clear that the objective was not to create a ‘right of return.’”

Moreover, not only did the Arab states reject the resolution because it would have necessitated recognizing the existence of Israel, 194 states that the refugees ‘should’ be ‘permitted’ to return; and, importantly, that permission is based on the assumption that the refugees wished to return and that they were willing “to live at peace with [their] neighbors,” something the Palestinians, even now, have clearly never seen fit to do.

Schwartz and Wilf reveal that the unique and perfidious classification of Palestinian refugees has been made possible by the existence of UNWRA, the United Nations agency whose sole function it is to make sure that only this one group of refugees—the Palestinians—are coddled, advocated for, and repeat, mantra-like, that a human “right of return” has been sanctified and assured by international law for them, giving only this group of refugees a collective, as opposed to individual, right of return—and not only to those refugees who supposedly lived in and left what is now Israel, but all of their descendants, as well. There is no historic or legal precedent for this abuse and contortion of international law, only, it seems, when the refugees are pawns in the cognitive war against the Jewish state.

More troubling is the fact that those Palestinians who resettled and became part of the citizenry of another country are still considered refugees with the right to return to Israel—again, something never granted to any other refugee group. “In Jordan,” Wilf and Schwartz pointed to as an aspect of the Palestinian exception to normal refugee rights, “there exists a situation unlike anywhere else in the world, whereby citizens of a state, most of whom were born in that state, have lived there their entire lives . . . are designated as refugees from a different state,” namely, Israel.

Disingenuous supporters of the Palestinians like to naively dismiss any suggestion that were millions of Arabs to “return” to Israel to create a bi-national state, this would create an existential threat to the Jewish state’s continued identity. Millions of Palestinians—who have been raised from birth to despise Zionism, Israel, and Jews specifically and view them as usurpers of Muslim land and illegal occupiers—flooding Israel would, as any sentient observer would assume, create a specifically non-Jewish state, where Jews again would be an oppressed—and despised—minority in the ruins of what had been a Jewish sovereign nation. Israel-haters such a feminist professor Judith Butler, as one example, envision a fantasy world in which Arabs and Jews would peacefully and comfortably co-exist as citizens in a new, bi-national state, even though reason and history suggest that would never happen.

Schwartz and Wilf noted that those pushing the right of return deliberately, and strategically, obscure the reality that Israel would cease to exist as a Jewish state if the right of return was acted on by the millions of Palestinians claiming it, ludicrously assuming that this new bi-national state would be a democratic utopia, something, of course, absent anywhere else in the Middle East.

 “The idea of using the phrase ‘democratic country’ was intended to placate western publics and persuade them that Palestine, singularly in the Arab world, would manage to be a robust democracy where Jews could live securely,” they wrote.

“As much as this vision contradicted all evidence of the complete democratic deficit in the Arab world, and its record of treatment of ethnic minorities, especially Jews, it appealed (and continues to appeal) to Western ears. The fact that this vision was very much designed to annul the Jewish people's right to self-determination—that the country's character would be determined by its Arab majority, as a result of which the Jews would return to being a lowly minority under Muslim rule, the only role they ever had in Arab countries—was brushed aside as grumpy paranoia.”  

Given Israeli’s history with its aggressive and genocidal foes, reaffirmed with every rocket fired from Gaza, Israel has every reason to be paranoid, since its enemies have made it clear that such tactics as the right of return are not claimed as a tool for peace but as part of a strategy through which the Jewish state would be weakened and, ultimately, eliminated once and for all.

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