Addressing the Palestinian Right of Return

December 18, 2014 OPINION/NEWS




Anant Mishra

“You seem to be surprised to hear that there are still problems of 1948 to be solved, the most important component of which is the right to return of Palestinian refugees.”

“The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not just an issue of military occupation and Israel is not a country that was established ‘normally’ and happened to occupy another country in 1967.  Palestinians are not struggling for a ‘state’ but for freedom, liberation and equality, just like we were struggling for freedom in South Africa” – Former South African President Nelson Mandela.



While being present in the region for centuries, the mentality of Palestinians being a separate demographic did not begin to emerge among themselves until the 1830s with Muhammad Ali’s, the then leader of Egypt, consolidation of control over Palestine.

The first Palestinian revolt that resulted, while not more than marginally successful, had a larger purpose than ousting Muhammad Ali. It was the first nationalist movement of the Palestinians and thereby initiated a sense of identity beyond just the region’s name.  The sense of identity, or lack thereof, has been a primary focal point for those resisting the Palestinian right to return.  As UN initiatives highlight a people group’s rights, opponents of the Palestinians right to return term their identity as being a subset of the broader Arab identity and not demanding equal rights.

Such a challenge to the Palestinian identity stems from post-World War I (WWI) influences.  With the loss of Ottoman control, the Palestinians were forced to organise their own political groups (Al-Muntada al-Adabi and Al-Nadi al-Arabi.) These political groups became the first tangible identity for the Palestinians to grasp.When the first Palestinian Congress convened in 1919, the prospective future of Palestine was outlined by the Palestinian Arabs. While an anti-Zionist sentiment was unanimous, Jews were not initially banned from entering Palestine. Rather, they simply had to recognize Palestinian majority.

However, the ability of the Palestinians to rule themselves would quickly be suppressed by the British Balfour Declaration in 1917. The Balfour Declaration is a transmission between the then United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to the then leader of the British Jewish community and identified the Jewish population as the British preferred population. While not strictly opposing Palestinians, it made clear that the creation of a Jewish State was critical to British foreign policy.  Additionally, the Jewish population would later identify the Palestinians as being prospective Israeli citizens and thereby denying their nationalistic identity beyond a minority demographic.

While technically holding the vast majority of the population, some historians suggest that their political freedom was being suppressed, thereby making the people group a political minority.  When referenced in the international community, the British would simply refer to the Palestinians as “non-Jewish communities,” despite it being easier to describe the Jews as non-Palestinian communities. Even still, the recently formed League of Nations, predecessor to the UN, had Jewish representation. Meanwhile, 90 percent of Palestine’s population had to voice any concerns via the British.During this period, Jewish literacy and wealth rose at a much greater pace then the Palestinians, who had a literacy rate of this time at less than 25 percent.  Representing 90 percent of the population, the Palestinians received less than a quarter of the resources available.

Palestinian identity was further stemmed with the United Kingdom’s attempted withdrawal of the Balfour Declaration in 1937 through the Peel Commission. The Peel Commission identified a future British withdrawal from Palestine and a possible compromise of a two-state solution between the Palestinians and Jews. While appearing genuine in purpose, the Peel Commission illustrated to the Palestinian Arabs that control over their homeland was not a negotiable point for their governors. Al-Muntada al-Adabi and Al-Nadi al-Arabi ceased to exist as viable political groups during this time.

In 1948, the Palestinians experienced the “Nakba” or cataclysm of their people.  When Israel declared independence and the subsequent war with the Arab states occurred, the Palestinians were caught in between. In fact, by the time of Israeli independence, the Palestinians still represented over two-thirds of the population.

However, in 1951, the UN stated figures which estimated that 711,000 Palestinians were now international refugees.  Of the 160,000 that remained in the newly created state of Israel, one-quarter were internally displaced and thereby economically and politically inept.  Once this occurred, the Palestinians became not only a political minority, but a populace minority as well.  The Palestinian diaspora remains in large numbers throughout the Middle East, but with little political or economic opportunity and is estimated to be approximately 4.95 million. Even still, the people would be referred to as Palestinian Arabs by the international community until 1964 when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was established.  Only then would the identity of “Palestinians” be fully instituted.

In 1967, the Palestinians would experience yet another exodus of nearly 300,000 refugees after the Six-Day War.  At this time, the Palestinians focused their cause on a right to return which supplemented their quest for identity.  However, the Camp David Accords, which served to outline a peace settlement between Egypt and Israel in 1978, illustrated that the international community did not consider the Palestinian refugee cause to be at the forefront of issues. During this conference, Palestinians were not consulted concerning the framework for peace in the Middle East and the refugee’s right to return was not discussed. Subsequently, the UN rejected the framework in A/RES/34/70 “On the Situation in the Middle East” stating that all partial agreements and separate treaties that did not meet the Palestinian rights and comprehensive solutions to peace were unacceptable.

This oversight was eventually rectified in 1993 with the Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine, which granted life to the two-state solution, but still left the question of Palestinian refugees to another date.  The Oslo Accords thereby represent the first major initiative that grants Palestinians a separate identity and acknowledges the question of their right to return as being a negotiable point. While substantive discussions concerning the Palestinian refugees have not taken place since, Israel and the international community’s recognition of the Oslo Accords and the PLO necessitates that the refugee’s return must be granted along an undetermined timeline.


Current Situation 

Since the Oslo Accords, the call to return to Palestine has changed drastically.  In November 2012, the Palestinian Authority (which the Oslo Accords recognise as the legitimate government of Palestinians), President Mahmud Abbas, stated that the claim of return was not to his original hometown, but to a Palestinian state to be established at the pre-1967 border line.  This represents a drastic shift in Palestinian policy, which had assumed that the “Nakba” would be rectified.  Not surprisingly, this declaration was quickly condemned by Hamas and other fundamentalist pro-Palestinian groups.

Additionally, the issue has become much more complex for the UN. In addition to becoming more focused on relief efforts, the current Syrian crisis has resulted in more than 650,000 Palestinians being displaced.  Due to the lack of access by observers and international assistance, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has faced tremendous difficulty in logistics to bring aid to the Palestinians.  Paradoxically, the new refugees created by the Syrian crisis has resulted in an increase in pressure to the surrounding Member States hosting Palestinians, such as but not limited to Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.  Although the Syrian Palestinian numbers cannot be easily verified, the UN estimates that there are currently 6 million refugees; the largest being in Jordan (3 million), Israel (1.65 million) and Lebanon (0.5 million), although registered numbers are far lower.

In Jordan, Palestinian refugees have received some of the highest degrees of education of any of their counterparts but include significant levels of conditioning that serve to guarantee that each child wishes to return to Palestine and leave Jordan.  While education to the Palestinians is granted in Jordan, they still remain marginalized.  Both in education and law, Palestinians receive lesser privilege than the other Arab citizens.  In part, the Palestinians have been seen as a possible threat to Jordan’s King Abdullah dynasty.  Should all Palestinians in Jordan be granted full citizenship and remain in Jordan, they would quickly overpower the population and represent a majority group.  In fact, many have called for a new Palestinian state to replace the Kingdom of Jordan rather than await Israeli negotiation. Largely, the proponents of granting citizenship in the current host States will rid the Palestinians of refugee camps and promote a better living situation for the new generation.

Due to being a clear minority in Lebanon, the Palestinians have been concentrated in camps or neighbourhoods throughout the country, presumably to allow for quick relocation once they are able to return to Palestine.  One such neighbourhood, Shatila, exists on the outskirts of Beirut and clearly represents an economic disparity between the minority Palestinians and the rest of Lebanon.  Shatila exists within sight of much more affluent Beirut districts, but remains equivalent to a refugee camp despite multiple generations living within its walls. From 16-18 September 1982, one of the political factions of Lebanon’s civil war entered Shatila and massacred Palestinians.  Numbers of casualties ranged from 700-3,500 depending on the reporting body. Lebanon continues to maintain the refugee camps status and resists UNRWA aid to the Palestinians within its borders, thereby limiting international assistance.

Upon the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Palestinian homes were torched.  Many of the diaspora experienced a second exile during this time period. Despite being removed from their homes for nearly 75 years, the Palestinians continue to live in refugee camps.  Largely, this is due to the political factions from preventing the groups from moving on.  Using checkpoints and other such factors to prevent development, the governments guarantee that the only hope for Palestinian progress is a return to Palestine.  The governments of neighbouring States do not wish for Palestinians to become settled within their own state. Otherwise, they fear the minority could gain prominence in the region.  The Arab League has instructed its Member States to deny citizenship to original Palestine Arab refugees (or their descendants) “to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland.” The UN thereby faces a difficult challenge of negotiating human rights principles and relief aid for a people group that has been marginalized by nearly all relevant actors.


Actions Taken by the UN and other multilateral organisations 

By every standard, the Palestinians right of return is meant to be guaranteed by the UN.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the most pivotal document for the UN, states in article 13(2) that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Nevertheless, securing this right has proven troublesome for the UN and other multilateral organizations.  In the UN General Assembly (GA), many resolutions on the topic have little to no enforceable value and are subsequently not considered binding by the relevant parties.  The UDHR has been brought up in the UN GA often.  In GA Resolution 3236, the body reaffirmed “the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return.” Therefore, any doubt on the Palestinians right to return has been attempted to be erased by the UN.  The UN Security Council (SC) has made vague efforts at supplementing this effort with enforceable measures, but with few tangible results.

UN Security Council Resolution 242 passed in 1967 and represents the first noticeable call for a “just solution” to Palestinian Refugees.  SC Resolution 242 also called for Demilitarized Zones in Palestine so as to guarantee economic and social growth for the returned refugees. Yet, Palestinian areas remain 47 years later heavily militarized and Palestinian refugees reside in heavily degraded refugee camps. Therefore, the UN has in large part moved away from implementing return and has taken up action to mitigate the effects on individuals within the Palestinian Diaspora.

One body which has been heavily utilised for this purpose is the UNRWA.  Originally intended to provide public work jobs and direct relief for the Palestinians, the UNRWA has since become a supplier of education, health care, social services and emergency aid for some 5 million Palestinian refugees. What makes the UNRWA’s mission unique is double-fold.  Firstly, it controversially exists as the only multilateral refugee agency dedicated to a single people group.  Secondly, it identifies Palestinian refugees as “any person whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” There are some concerns that this mandate will have to be changed in years to come as there are only an estimated 50,000 people remaining that fit this definition.




For those refugees not falling under the UNRWA’s jurisdiction, the UN has designated the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as the appropriate agency. While aid to refugees is part of the UNHCR’s mission, the primary focus is implementing voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third Member State for displaced people.  Due to this focus, the UNHCR has had trouble implementing any efforts with Palestinian refugees as each of these options are often not available. Additionally, the UNHCR’s definition of a refugee requires consensus on a nationalistic identity.  The definition reads:   “Any person who is outside the country of his nationality or, if he has no nationality, the country of his former habitual residence, because he has or had well-founded fear of persecution by reason of his race, religion, nationality or political opinion and is unable or, because of such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of the government of the country of his nationality, or, if he has no nationality, to return to the country of his former habitual residence.”

Therefore, the power of the UNHCR to implement assistance to the Palestinian refugees is severely limited by international consensus on the nature of their return.  While available for implementing a return, it cannot act decisively until an agreement of some form is made.

In large part, the GA 4th committee has acted as a forum for the Palestinian refugee right to return.  During the 68th session, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General briefed the Committee and claimed that the refugees had become part of “one of the largest human displacement disasters of modern times” as six out of 12 Palestinian camps in Syria had become battlegrounds.  Additionally, he stated that the Gaza Strip economy was moribund and forced displacement in the West Bank was increasing settler violence.  The GA 4th committee has been the principle UN body implementing resolutions on the Palestinian refugee status and notably passed nine resolutions during the recent 67th session.

On February 5, 2013, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon encouraged the GA 4th committee to better assist the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP).  Primarily, the GA has annually renewed the mandate of CEIRPP, but has also used reports made by the CEIRPP to consider the question of Palestinian right to return.   Nevertheless, the primary focus of the GA 4th committee has become to assess the implementation of assistance to Palestinian refugees by multilateral organizations while awaiting more conclusive decisions on their right to return.



Throughout the modern history of the Palestinian people, they have existed as either a political or populace minority in whatever state they reside in.  While Israel has been accused of being the primary repressor, other Member States including but not limited to the United Kingdom, Lebanon and Jordan have also appeared to some as marginalizing the Palestinians and prevented them from developing or expanding economically, socially, or politically.  The result in each of these Member States has been the creation of Palestinian groups dedicated to creating a political voice.  Calling for a return to Palestine has been at the forefront of these groups.  However, through political marginalization, poor economic development, lack of citizenship and numerous other factors, these groups have achieved little progress.

It remains to be seen whether the international community will be able to assist the Palestinians in achieving tangible progress.  Meanwhile, even the Palestinians do not fully agree on the very nature of the Diaspora’s return as seen by the controversial statement made by President Abbas. While the nature of the Palestinian return or even the question of their return is negotiated, it has fallen to the UN as one of the few organizations ardent on assisting the current situation for the Palestinians.





Anant Mishra

Anant Mishra is a former youth representative for United Nations. Almost 4 years of experience, he has served in number of committees including United Nations Conference for Trade and Development and United Nations General Assembly primarily focusing on international trade, education, finance, economics. food crisis And disputes. He is available on [email protected]



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