The Palestinian ‘Right of Return’: Abbas Wades into the Morass

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Mohammed Salem / Reuters

A Hamas supporter burns a poster depicting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a protest in Jabalya, in the northern Gaza Strip, on Nov. 3, 2012

What Mahmoud Abbas said last week was that he’d like to visit his hometown, not live there. But because that hometown — the picturesque Galilee city of Safed — is in what’s today Israel, and because, as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Abbas represents the people who claim the same land, his words were taken as more than a rumination on possible vacation plans. He had punctured the seal on the biggest can of worms in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the “right of return.”

Abbas, 77, left Safed when he was 13, his family joining the torrent of Arab families who fled their homes in 1948 ahead of advancing Jewish forces who were intent on creating Israel. Some 700,000 Arab residents departed, many at gunpoint, taking refuge across international borders in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Gaza Strip, which was then administered by Egypt. Most expected to come back, once Arab states got their act together and finally defeated the Jews on the battlefield. It never happened. What victories came their way were in the realm of diplomacy and rhetoric: in December 1948 a sympathetic U.N. passed a resolution, Resolution 194, saying they should be allowed to go back to their homes. Even more importantly, a couple of decades later militants led by Yasser Arafat forged the Palestinian national identity around the demand.

To leaders trying to negotiate an end to the conflict, the challenge is reconciling the rhetoric of righteousness with the reality that has taken hold over 64 years. Over that time, the world has nurtured the dream of “return.” Syria and Lebanon sequestered the refugees in camps, ostensibly because they were going back. The U.N. made the legal status of refugee something that can be inherited: today it classifies more than 6.6 million Palestinians as refugees. At the same time, the fact of Israel became more and more concrete — literally, so. Almost none of the homes the Palestinians fled still exist.

“In 1973, my father’s house was still around,” says Jamal Ebeid, leaning on the counter of his falafel shop in the Jenin refugee camp, where he was born 56 years ago. His parents lived on the Mediterranean coast, 30 miles (50 km) away in the city of Haifa. “But we went to visit in ’76, and it was gone.” Ebeid shrugs, but not dismissively. The subject is painful. “Everybody has a spot in his heart for his land,” he says.

In the camps, the romance of the remembered can live on nearly as vividly today as it did to the refugees David Grossman visited for his extraordinary book, The Yellow Wind. “Growing our crops there is different than growing our crops here,” Bassam Abed Rabo, 53, a handyman in Ramallah’s al-Amari camp, tells TIME. “Apples, sabra, even the eggs the chickens lay taste better there, in that soil.” The anguish is worsened by the dissonance of Palestinian political orthodoxy, which prefers to deny the obvious reality, at least publicly. In the 1970s, a Palestinian academic was interviewing refugees in Syria. He asked Arafat for permission to ask people whether they still wanted to go back to their homes. Arafat forbade the question. “May I remind you,” the academic quoted Arafat as saying, “that our movement is based on three words: right of return.”

But in 2003 another researcher managed to broach the subject, interviewing 4,500 refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. Only 10% said they would live in Israel if given the option, while 54% opted for monetary compensation and a home on the West Bank or Gaza. The other third said they would prefer to live in other countries, or rejected the terms described. Monetary compensation is, in fact, one of the options offered to refugees under U.N. Resolution 194, but Palestinian leaders say they dare not point this out it in speeches. For ignoring the taboo, a mob attacked the Ramallah office of the pollster, Khalil Shikaki, the respected director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

So Abbas’ remarks last week, which were broadcast in an interview with an Israeli television station, were hailed as “courageous” by Israeli President Shimon Peres and other Israelis eager for a resumption in peace talks. They understood the statement was intended to reassure anxious Israelis that Palestinians will be content with Israeli troops pulling out of the West Bank and Gaza, and will not later push to reverse the losses of 1948. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed Abbas’ remarks as insincere.

The reaction among Palestinians was harsh. Abbas was vilified by Hamas, the Islamist group that governs Gaza, as well as by moderates who thought he had ceded a major principle, which Abbas denied. In an interview with TIME last year, the Palestinian Authority President discussed both the practicality and potency of “return.” “You know it is a magic word,” Abbas told me, “and everybody looks to return back, to see his home, to see his land, to see the rest of his family if there is [any]. So everybody is waiting for right of return. According to the Arab Peace Initiative, we found a solution that this issue should be dealt in this way; that we will find a just and agreed upon solution with the Israelis, according to U.N. Resolution 194. Which means that some people will return — without affecting the fabric of the Israelis of course.”

“If we tell them, O.K., we will send 5 million Palestinians, everything will be destroyed in Israel. We don’t want to destroy Israel of course, we want to live with Israel. But we want to give the right for some numbers to return back, which will not affect the social fabric.” What’s that fabric now? Abbas noted that Israel’s population of 8 million people currently includes 1.6 million Palestinians, sometimes called Israeli Arabs, being descendants of those who were allowed to remain in 1948. There are also several hundred thousand Russian immigrants who are not Jewish. “So now you have 2 million, but it doesn’t affect the nature of Israel,” Abbas says.

How many Palestinian refugees would want to return?

“I don’t know,” Abbas said. “I don’t argue with anybody. ‘O.K., you want your right of return? It’s O.K., when we come to it, we will do our best to try to fulfill your dreams. According to the Arab Peace Initiative.’ But at that time, I don’t know whether the 5 million will ask — maybe some of them will ask for compensation and that’s it. Some of them will ask, ‘O.K., I will return back to Palestine.’ Some will return back to Israel. But when they think of it deeply — ‘O.K., you are going to Israel, to be a member of the Israeli society, to raise the Israeli flag, to have the identity card of Israel, to have an Israeli passport?’ ‘Oh, no no.’ We don’t go into details, no, but if somebody asks, I will answer them: ‘If you want to go to Israel, of course, you have to be an Israeli citizen. You have to make salute to their national anthem.’ ‘Oh, no no no! Some say, ‘Yes, I will go. I need to go.’”

When negotiations were still going on, Palestinian and Israeli officials bandied numbers in the low thousands when addressing the number of refugees who would be allowed back. One of the murkiest questions awaiting any potential deal is what the perhaps 2 out of 3 Palestinians who regard themselves as refugees would make of such a figure. “The right of return is a demand, and only a demand,” says Bilal Shalabi, 31, also born in the Jenin camp, where his family arrived from Zareen, a few miles north. The distinction recognizes the negotiating value of the right in right of return, something far more easily used as leverage than a real-world option. “Who is going to be able to achieve the right of return for the Palestinians?” Shalabi says. “Who’s going to achieve it? Everybody knows this. All the people know this. Everybody knows this.”


Does Karl Vick ever consider Abbas' statements in Arabic as being more truthful than what he  and his spokespeople say in English the the credulous Western media?

If Abbas refuses to say the same things in Arabic that he tells clueless Western reporters in English, then his words are meaningless.

I have scores of examples of how Abbas lies in Arabic; here are a bunch from just one speech earlier this year:

When will a Time reporter ask Abbas the hard questions?


Governments have obligations. People have RIGHTS. The Establishment of Israel's very statehood was contingent upon upholding the UN UNIVERSAL DECLARATION of HUMAN RIGHTS: Article 13 affirms that "Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."

IMAGINE if Israel would only honor the promises of their 'birth':"On the day of the termination of the British mandate and on the strength of the United Nations General Assembly declare The State of Israel will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel: it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion it will guarantee freedom of religion [and]conscience and will be faithful to the Charter of the United Nations." ---May 14, 1948. The Declaration of the Establishment of Israel


What is not clear, and certainly there is a purpose for that, is in what manner the Palestinians want to return. They want to take Israel citizenship and live in peace with the Jews that live there now ? Or maybe they want to return and say "we will never be a part of the state of Israel, this is our land by right, the rest of you get out!!"? this not the "right to return" it is the purpose of occupation. And who will return and to what will he or she will return to? will someone who was never born in Israel will return to a house that has been demolished 60 years ago or to a land that for decades now belong to someone else?

It seems to me that the Palestinians are not giving honest answers to these matters because their secret hope is to relocate in massive numbers inside the lands of what used to be Palestine and now is Israel territory and start another "intifada" in there 


@jkaravidas I have actually been to both sides of The Wall in Israel Palestine 7 times since 2005.I have met and interviewed members of Hamas as well as multitudes of NONVIOLENT Palestinians, Israelis and Internationals seeking to END the Israeli Occupation of the indigenous people and ensure that ALL citizens have equal human rights.For only .99 cents on KINDLE you can read "KEEP HOPE ALIVE" and learn "honest answers" from a 1948 Palestinian Muslim refugee who made his way to the USA and into a Top Secret position in the Defense Department during the Cold War and the bottom line is if you want peace you must work for justice!

concernedreader71 2 Like

Wow, so many distortions in one article, I don't know where to begin, but I'll give it a try.

First of all, 1948 Safed had a been a mixed town with a sizable Jewish population. Safed is one of the towns with Jewish presence going back hundreds of years... In the UN Partition plan Safed was allocated to the Jewish state. Jewish forces weren't "advancing", they were already in Safed from day one, defending the Jewish quarter from the Arab forces determined to capture Safed for the Arab state... Let's face it. The Arabs of Safed, aided by foreign reinforcements, turned on their age-old Jewish neighbors, but their plan backfired. The counter attacks of the Jewish defenders on the Arab positions, ended up driving out the Arab forces and the frightened civilians along with them. They were hoping to stay out of the fight, and return again, once the Syrian Army would join the war and finish the job...

Second, the use of the 700,000 figure is misleading. 700,000 Arabs may have been displaced during the conflict, but that includes some 300,000 internally displaced people within what became Israel, and within the Palestinian territories and even Jordan. Only some 400,000 or so were displaced OUTSIDE of what became Israel. Read the 1945 UN Partition report. Do the math. There were some 400,000 Arabs in the "Jewish state". Israel gained some 200,000 during the war through territorial gains, and 200,000 remained in Israel by 1950. That leaves 400,000 to be displaced outside Israel, not 700,000.

Third, of the 400,000 displaced outside Israel, 100,000 self displaced, long before the conflict even started, largely for socio-economic reasons (British WW2 base closures, transitions from agriculture to service/industry...). Certainly natural displacement has to be accounted for... in the US, 12% of the population is displaced every year...  200,000 or so were displaced during the war without any direct contact with Jewish forces. The invasion of Palestine by 70,000 foreign troops who occupied Palestinian villages for months, took a toll on the vulnerable subsistence farmers, whose livelihood was interrupted by their operations. The overstretched logistics supply chains for the foreign troops, made them increasingly dependent on the already meager and dwindling local resources, ... More Palestinians abandoned their homes out of fear of starvation than by fighting with Jewish forces... less than 100,000 were forced out directly by Jewish forces, as a result of their communities serving as forward operating bases for attacks on Jewish targets...

Fourth, The UN suggested that "refugees WISHING TO LIVE IN PEACE with their neighbors" shall be allowed to return. In the 1949 Lausanne Conference, Israel agreed to absorb some 100,000 refugees, and annex Gaza with its 200,000 people into Israel, provided the Arabs would recognize the authority of the Jewish state... Jordan was to annex the West Bank. without that recognition there could be no peace, and Israel wasn't about to let in people who wouldn't accept the authority of the state... The Arab states and Palestinian representatives refused the offer, hoping they'll soon be able to finish the job...

Fifth, UN actions only exacerbated the refuge situation. The UN granted refugee status to people who were not necessarily displaced from what became Israel... the distortions included creating a "frontier villagers" category, making residents near, but on the other side of the border, eligible for refugee status... It also made all dependents of any head of household who worked and lived in what became Israel, within the last 2 years, eligible for refugee status, regardless of permanent location of household. West bank villagers who occasionally ventured into the cities to supplement their farming income, could qualify their entire families for refugee status, even though they were never displaced or lost their main occupation... Nomadic tribesman who ranged throughout Palestine and beyond, and had semi-permanent communities outside of what became Israel, could qualify the entire tribe for refugee status, for losing access to trade routes and markets... etc... the UN had 860,000 initial registered refugees. The Palestinians claim they ALL have a right of return into Israel, even though MOST OF THEM WERE NEVER ACTUALLY DISPLACED from what became Israel, and most, certainly not at gun point.

Sixth, take for example the refugee situation in Lebanon. For many years, the nominal "Palestinian refugee" status given to frontier villagers, denied them a Lebanese citizenship, under the pretext they were Palestinians rather than Lebanese. By 1994, nearly 80% of the descendants of the original registrants were able to prove they were ACTUALLY LEBANESE and gain their citizenship. Yet, the Palestinians still insist that even nominal "Palestinians" have a right of return...  The "right of return" has obviously become a pan-Arab cause to undermine Israel demographically, rather than seek justice for actual refugees.They are still determined to finish the job, one way or another. There has never been an honest accounting for the different categories of Palestinian refugees... Do frontier villagers who were never displaced have a right of return? How about non-displaced West Bank based income supplementing workers? Do nomadic tribes who were largely based outside of  Israel have a right of "return?" How about non-Palestinian Arabs who worked in Palestine and returned to their countries of origin on their own, shortly before the conflict?

Seventh, The vast majority of the displaced Palestinians were Not property owners, but rather dispossessed tenant farmers and day laborers on the bottom rungs of Palestinian society. When they left their meager homes behind, they also abandoned an often abusive and harsh existence. The refugee camps may even have offered some improvements in their lives. Better housing, free food, education for the children, and basic healthcare. What they left behind was an obsolete mode of production and a feudalistic culture impossible to return to. Romantic notions of what life used to be like, by people who weren't even born 64 years ago, are just sorely misplaced fantasies... What exactly is Israel responsible to restore to a people who realistically, didn't have much to lose to begin with?

Finally, There's the 800,000 Jewish refugees who were forced to leave their homes in the Arab world, as a result of the conflict. That's certainly something that changes the equation and shouldn't be ignored...

Palestinians deserve justice, but justice demands honest accounting and realistic assessments. It requires assigning responsibility for the calamity and consequences to all the Parties involved. Israel, the Arab states that invaded Palestine, the UN, and the Palestinians themselves. It doesn't help when a major news outlets don't serve the facts in full... It only inflames delusional commentators like Musawi...


@concernedreader71  HOw many jews lived in that region when Israel was created compared to Muslim Arabs??  If the people who have lived on a land for 1000 years can be moved/displaced at Yes! Gunpoint sometimes for some vague, ambiguous religious claim how can you say that those Palestinians who left 60 years ago have nothing left here to come back to. Tell me what right did England or UN had to create a state out of a land that was home to Arabs for more than a thousand years!

My friend lets just say that you have no interest in justice and neither do we, It's Revenge we dream of. You believe in strength we will answer in strength not today maybe not tomorrow but one day you will get your answer. There are 1.8 Billion of us and maybe some 15-20 Million of you. I don't believe in violence but you have no right to believe in anything if you are weak, and we are weak so we have to listen and read what history you dictate, but it will not be so for long. Times are changing ....let us hope Justice prevails before this becomes something that will leave nothing behind not even broken pieces for us to pick up!


@concernedreader71 There is more than enough blame to go around and American's are most culpable because US foreign policy maintains and sustains the 45 years of military occupation of Palestine.American politicians and media also collude in maintaining Israel's Nuclear Ambiguity/DECEPTIONS, but you can learn a lot by listening to Israel's Nuclear Whistle Blower, Mordechai Vanunu who sent this message to American Christians and in particular Hillary Clinton:

MusawiMelake 1 Like

Just wait!, Iran will liberate the land from greedy parasites the Jews!


Joel 3:2I will gather all the nations, and I will bring them to the Jehoshaphat Valley. There I will enter into judgment with them in support of my people and my possession, Israel, which they have scattered among the nations. They have divided my land......