Excerpts in “Reclaiming the Right of Return”, in Badil publication, al Majdal, issue 1, March 1999. Excerpts from a research report by Salman Abu Sitta originally published in al-Hayat (London) November 9, 1998, (page 8)


For fifty years, the core of the struggle between Palestinians and Jewish immigrants was and still is the land. The incessant aim of Zionism is to seize the land and get rid of its owners in order to realize the myth of "a land without people". The success of this aim is evidenced today by the existence of some 5 million Palestinian refugees dispersed from their homeland, which is now occupied by Jewish immigrants.

Without doubt, it is fatal error to believe that Palestinians will abandon their homeland which encompasses 92% of the area of Israel, or cease in the struggle to regain their property and the right to return to their land. The matter is not just a question of shelter or a place to live. Deeply rooted in the history of Palestine, Palestinians cannot be deported or forced to forget their homeland; they are firmly devoted to their villages, houses, hills and valleys in the narrowest meaning of the geography of the place. There is an Arabic proverb which says, one’s parents cannot be replaced. So too is it impossible to replace one's homeland.

The Palestinian leadership, which was founded upon the shoulders of the refugees to return them to their homes and lands, has disappointed its people. There is now a growing movement in the refugee community, whether they be poor or rich, whether they are in camps or in places of distant exile, to work practically towards the right of return and the recovery of homes and lands.

Delineation of Palestinian Land

The surface area of Palestine is 26,320 sq. km. The current surface area of Israel covers 20,325 sq. km. The surface are of Palestinian land inside Israel is 18,643 sq. km or 92% of the surface area of Israel, including lands of Palestinians living in Israel. The best way to estimate the area of Palestinian lands is to subtract the area of Jewish land from the total area of Palestine. Jewish immigrants were careful to register their properties as a means of proving their existence in Palestine. Land purchased by colonization companies was recorded in company books. In 1948, Jewish land amounted to 1,682 sq. km of which 181 sq. km was held under limited privileges granted by the British Mandate government. This included shares of communal lands. The total amount of registered Jewish land, therefore, was less than the total amount of land classified as Jewish. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) controlled 52.2% of registered Jewish land in Palestine, or 856,000 dunums (1 sq. km = 1000 dunums). Regardless of the actual surface area of registered Jewish land, the area was much less than the total area of lands which came under Jewish control after the 1948 war, and which they now claim as their own.

The remaining land in Palestine was held as private and public property for many centuries. The land was Palestinian property under Ottoman law. People cultivated their land and paid taxes. When the British Mandate government took administrative control over Palestine, its first objective was to survey the land in order to find out the scope and location of lands which could potentially be colonized by Jews according to the promise made in the Balfour Declaration. Maps were drawn for all of Palestine, including both rural and urban lands. Procedures were put in place to define land ownership, transforming the descriptive contracts characteristic of the Ottoman period, to pieces and shares numbered on maps. The British left Palestine, however, before completing land surveys for all of Palestine.

When the UN Palestine Conciliation Commission appointed land expert Frank Jarvis to evaluate the properties of Palestinian refugees, Jarvis and his team spent years making use of the British Mandate government land registration and tax records. Jarvis presented his report to the United Nations in April of 1964. The report can be summarized as follows:

Jarvis identified and evaluated Arab private property, owned by individuals and institutions, recorded the properties on 453,000 cards. Each card contained all the properties of an individual owner located with the administrative boundaries of one village or one city. If the individual owned properties in another village or city, these were recorded on another card. Jarvis did not identify and evaluate Arab public property. These properties included lands under the control of the government and for public municipal services but used in common by Arab villages and cities. In total, Jarvis identified 5,194,091 dunums as Arab lands occupied by Israel, including no-man's lands. This total did not include all of the Bir Saba’ [Beersheba] sub-district even though the land was Arab land with no Jewish presence. Jarvis claimed that he was unable to find records for the 12,577,000 dunums of this sub-district. Even though Jarvis' records do not include more than 30% of Palestinian lands, they are still considered to be the most important and complete reference for land ownership, especially in areas which had high population densities.

The Possibility of Return

Israel and its supporters, including researchers from the west, claim that the return of refugees to their lands, even if it is legal, is practically impossible, due to the arrival of new immigrants and the difficulty in identifying lands. There is, however, no convincing evidence for these arguments. We have carried out a demographic study for the Jewish population in rural and urban areas along with Palestinians in 41 natural districts which represent the administrative divisions in Israel. When we added to each district its share of the Palestinian returnees according to their original locations we found no evidence to support Israel's claim. The results are shown in the table accompanying this article.

Table 1 and Map Past Present and Future Demography of Israel with the Return of Refugees

It is possible to divide Israel into three regions. Region (1) includes 8 districts in the middle region of the country and around Haifa, with a surface area of 1,683 sq. km, and in which 68% of the Jewish population resides. This region is almost identical in its surface area and its location to the area and location of Jewish lands in 1948. This confirms that the settlement habits of Jews have not change substantially during the past 50 years. Region (2) includes 5 districts adjacent to Region (1) with a surface area of 1,318 sq. km and in which 10% of the Jewish population resides. This region is almost equal to the area of the lands of Palestinians who remained in the new state of Israel, even though they are not necessarily in the same place. This means that Regions (1) and (2) with a surface area of 15% of Israel is the residence of 78% of the Jewish population of Israel. And the rest? The rest reside in Region (3) with a surface area of 17,325 sq. km and is equal to in its surface area and location to the area and location of Palestinian refugee lands. Twenty-two percent of the Jewish population of Israel resides in this area today, with 19% living in several cities and the remaining 3% living in the countryside. The bitter reality is that 160,000 Jews live freely on land that is the property of 4,900,000 Palestinian refugees (1994 population), of whom many are packed into camps only a few kilometers away.

Therefore, if all Palestinian refugees would return to their lands, most of them would live in Region (3). The population density would increase from 82 to 246 persons per sq. km which is an acceptable number. The density in Israel would increase from 261 to 482 persons per sq. km having only a slight or no effect on Jewish regions.

The matter would be simpler if we put into place a transitory program for the return of refugees. Israel took one million Russians without overcrowding Ben-Gurion Airport in any one day. If we assume that we could take one million refugees from areas that are on the verge of exploding at any moment, including 329,000 UNRWA registered refugees from Lebanon and 679,000 registered refugees from Gaza, we would find the following:

In the case of the return of Lebanon's refugees, Jewish Region (1) would not be affected at all. The population density in Region (2) would increase by only 6%, while it would be possible for most refugees from the Galilee to return to their original villages in Region (3) increasing the density from 82 to only 96 persons per sq. km. Jews would remain the majority of the population by a ratio of 76% in the country.

In the case of the return of refugees from Gaza to the south of Palestine/Israel (District of Gaza and Beersheba), the Jewish Region (1) would not be affected and the population density in Region (2) would increase by only 4.5%. It would be possible for all refugees from Gaza to return to Region (3) with an increase in density from 82 to only 108 persons per sq. km. Jews would remain the majority of the population by a ratio of 72%.

The return of refugees to their farms–refugee families who have been engaged in agriculture for many centuries–would lead to an increase in agricultural production which, due to the failure of the Kibbutz, does not exceed 4% of the value of exports.

Therefore, the myth that Israel is highly crowded in all areas has no basis in fact. The aim of this myth is to keep lands empty, to populate refugee lands with new Jewish immigrants. Israel launched a massive campaign in September 1998 to encourage Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel. If we had made this study in 1989, before the arrival of Russian Jews, the return of refugees from Lebanon and Gaza would not have created a population density greater that the current density in Israel.

The other myth that Israel disseminates is that it is difficult to identify properties. This is nonsense. No country in the Arab east is more studied and planned than Palestine. British Mandate maps include all cities and villages with all details. British records assisted Jarvis, the land expert appointed by the UN, to identify ownership for a half million owners as mentioned above. British maps themselves, became the basis for Israeli maps, and Israel has recorded every change that has taken place since 1948. The Israel Lands Administration still preserves the records of old properties and registers every change in rental and usage. According to these procedures, lands are rented to the Kibbutzim and Moshavim. The ILA has offices in every district which follow up on changes to properties. The ILA has also introduced GIS technological. According to this system, all information concerning any piece of land and changes to it can be archived and retrieved. What is remarkable, furthermore, is that there is no Kibbutz which was established on the site of a destroyed village. Kibbutzim were built at a distance far from the sites of these villages, except for 21 locations where the Kibbutz is within 1 km of the village site.

The Palestinian Land Commission

It is time now to end the state of frustration and despair and to start working immediately for the right of return and return of refugee properties. It is imperative that Palestinian refugees take the initiative in order to protect and document their rights and to organize themselves to reclaim these rights. Therefore, I call for the establishment of a Palestinian Land Commission as follows:

Purpose of the Commission: This Commission would represent the material rights and those rights that accompany them for all Palestinian refugees, including those in Israel;

Responsibilities of the Commission: The Commission would document Palestinian properties, public and private, and work for their recovery. It would also preserve, protect, safeguard and develop refugee properties while preventing their sale to foreigners and those who cannot be trusted;

Return of Refugee Property: The Commission would be the guardian of the material rights of the Palestinian people until the property of Palestinian individuals is identified and returned to them. The properties of Palestinians cannot be transferred to others under any circumstances. Public property would remain under the guardianship of the Commission;

Compensation for Damages: The Commission would demand compensation for the exploitation of lands and properties and for a half century of psychological suffering due to the dispersal of the Palestinian people, taking as an example compensation that has been awarded to Jews for suffering under the Nazis and compensation from Switzerland. Compensation would not include the price of land and buildings as the homeland is not for sale;

Independence of the Commission: The Commission is independent, not political, and would cooperate with the PLO and the Palestinian Authority along with the different governments and the United Nations on this basis. It would be represented in all assemblies concerned;

Structure of the Commission: The general assembly would be composed of 1,500 members who represent the 530 villages and cities whose inhabitants were forced to leave in 1948. This would be about 3 members per village on average or one member for every 3,000 refugees. Added to these would be fifty experts. The assembly would elect an executive office of experienced persons with work being supervised by an advisory committee;

Duration of the Commission: The Commission would remain until it fulfills its objectives.

The concept of establishing this type of commission is not new. Jews established the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in London at the beginning of this century for a more difficult purpose of buying lands in far away and foreign countries. Jews have also demanded recognition of their rights in the Arab countries which they left in 1948 to live in Palestine. The World Organization of Jews in Arab Countries (WOJAC) was established in 1977 to advocate for these rights. Jewish persons have also demanded their right to recover property (not by selling them) in Europe and compensation for their exploitation since WWII. A third institution, the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), was established in 1992 for this purpose. The WJRO has succeeded in recovering substantial amounts of Jewish property in Europe and is still working for full restitution.

There are difficulties to be faced in establishing a Palestinian Land Commission. First, there is the possibility that the establishment of such a Commission will be rejected by the Palestinian Authority (PA) which considers itself to be the representative of the Palestinian people. There is, however, no contradiction between such a Commission and the PA because the Land Commission would represent the right of private ownership which cannot be renounced except by the owner. The Land Commission would not seek a political role. Furthermore, the Land Commission would be able to assist the PA in applying pressure to defend refugee rights. The Commission could also apply pressure on the Palestinian Authority when it neglects to defend refugee rights.

Secondly, many host countries where refugees reside, as well as the Palestinian Authority, may object to elections for such a Commission or may want to influence the outcome of the elections. Other Palestinian groups may also oppose the elections. There is, however, no reason for this kind of opposition. These very same villages are already represented before UNRWA, in refugee camps, and by a number of committees which differ in number and role according to the policy of the host countries. None represent a danger to the host countries.

Third, the establishment of such a Commission requires significant effort and planning that includes movement between host countries along with host country and refugee approval. The documentation process, collection and identification is possible but will be exhausting and expensive. Technological advances, however, will greatly assist in this process.

This article is not the place to deal with such detailed organizational steps and potential working programs. An extensive meeting or small conference is needed to discuss different opinions, ideas and potential plans. This requires the creation of a preparatory committee in order to execute the first practical steps. All the difficulties to be encountered will be much easier to face than the loss of the heritage and folklore of five million Palestinian refugees. The right of return and return of properties is a matter which occupies the thinking of every one throughout host countries and in the larger Diaspora. The frustration and anger that they now feel due to the possibility of losing their rights may lead to an unexpected explosion, the consequence of which would be greater than their fears. It is therefore desirable to work in a useful direction for the right of return.