Source: Palestine-Israel Journal

(Roane Carey (ed.), “The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid”, Verso, London, New York, 2001).

One of the most important lessons we have learned from the fifty-three-year Palestinian-Israeli conflict is that the essence of the struggle is the expulsion of the people of Palestine from their homes and the confiscation of their land. Another term for this is “ethnic cleansing”. A foreign minority descended upon the shores of Palestine, expelled the national majority, denied its existence and rights, and created a state on its soil.

This cataclysm caused havoc in the area: regimes were toppled, leaders were assassinated, five major wars were fought, and hundreds of smaller attacks were carried out. The result was that all of British Mandate Palestine was conquered, in addition to territories in the four neighboring countries.

Yet the refugees, dispersed as they are, many of them living in deplorable conditions in exile, others suffering under occupation or virtual siege, harassed by friend and foe, still survive. They are the largest popular force to shape the modern history of the Middle East. The implementation of their inalienable rights is the key to a permanent peace. All else, including a Palestinian state, so-called regional cooperation or other contrived devices to obscure this fundamental issue, is peripheral.

The surprised reaction in the West to the Al-Aqsa Intifada is an indication of the distorted image (“the irrational Middle East”) built up over the years by pro-Israel bias. The current surge of articles in the Israeli and American press about the Right of Return points more to surprise than recognition, to fear about, rather than interest in, Palestinian rights. By all sensible measures, the refugees are still the main problem to contend with.

Ethnic Cleansing Plan

Getting rid of the native inhabitants of Palestine has long been one of the tenets of Zionism.1 It was clearly spelled out by Yosef Weitz, the head of the Transfer Committee and the chief of land-confiscation operations. As early as 1940, he proposed an ethnic cleansing plan: “The only solution is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries. Not a single village or a single tribe must be left”.2

Plan Dalet was designed to “occupy” and to “expel”3 the Palestinian people. It was David Ben-Gurion’s doctrine that the destruction of the Palestinian people and their cultural and physical landscape was the precondition for creating the state of Israel on its ruins.4 The systematic elimination of the Palestinians in 1948 took the following forms:

  1. Military Plans for Jewish Settlement:

    As early as January 1948, four months before the official war began, the Zionists prepared plans for the settlement of 1.5 million new immigrants over and above the existing 600,000 Jews, two-thirds of whom were themselves recent immigrants under the British Mandate. During the Jewish military operations that followed the UN partition resolution of November 1947 and before the end of the British Mandate, more than half the Palestinian population was expelled. The settlement agencies headed by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) directed the military attacks to acquire coveted land, such as the villages of Indur, Qumiya, Ma’lul, Mujaidil and Buteimat in Galilee, which were destroyed primarily to grab their land.5

  2. Physical Elimination of the Refugees:

    Almost every one of the thirty-odd Zionist/Israeli military operations was accompanied by a massacre of civilians. There were at least thirty-five reported massacres,6 half of which took place before any Arab regular soldier set foot in Palestine. The most infamous of these massacres is Deir Yassin, the largest is Dawayma, and the latest disclosed by an Israeli researcher, Teddy Katz, but known to Palestinians all along, is Tantoura. Shooting of civilians was not restricted to wartime. After the fighting ceased, some of the refugees tried to return home to rescue civilians left behind, to retrieve some belongings or to attend to crops or cattle. These returnees were shot on the spot as “infiltrators”. The UN truce observers reported hundreds of such cases.7

  3. Plunder and Destruction of Property:

    Plunder took place in the immediate aftermath of military assaults, especially in cities such as Haifa, Jaffa, Lydda, and Jerusalem. The looters included nearby kibbutzniks, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) brigade commanders and the high-ranking political figures of the ruling Mapai (Labor) party.8 There followed a massive campaign of destruction, which lasted over fifteen years and in which 53 percent of the 418 villages surveyed were totally destroyed, 32 percent were substantially destroyed, 12 percent partially destroyed (3 percent were inaccessible to the survey).9 The clear aim of this destruction was to prevent the return of the refugees.

  4. Political Action:

    Soon after the state of Israel was declared (May 14, 1948) and following the protest of UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, who witnessed, by June 1948, the expulsion of about 500,000 refugees, the Provisional Government of Israel said it could not allow any refugees to return before a peace treaty was signed, on the pretext that these refugees would be a “security threat”. Even after the fighting stopped, Israel refused to re-admit the refugees, and it maintains this position in the international arena to this day. It does so even though Israel’s admission to the UN in May 1949 was unique in that it is the only UN member whose admittance is “conditional” upon return of refugees (Resolution 194) and withdrawal to the lines of the partition plan (Resolution 181).10

  5. Creation of a Fictitious Legal Web to Mask Illegal Confiscation:

    Before, during and after the 1948 war, Israel resorted to many legal devices to organize and justify the confiscation of 18,700 square kilometers (92 percent of Israel) of Palestinian land, in addition to the property found in 530 depopulated towns and villages. The property was held by the Custodian of the Absentee (i.e., refugee) Property and transferred later to the Development Authority. All such land, as well as JNF holdings, is now administered by the Israel Land Administration (ILA). In simple terms, the “Absentee” is a Palestinian refugee unable to return. The term also applies to Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are not “Absent”, hence dubbed “Present Absentees”; much of their land has also been confiscated.11

  6. Importing of Jewish Immigrants to Fill the Depopulated Villages:

    Immediately upon the invasion of Palestinian villages, Israel activated its program of sending Mossad agents to transport Jews in Arab countries to Israel. The immigrants were persuaded by a mixture of rosy promises, incentives, and, for the reluctant ones, various acts of coercion, including sabotage and bombings.12 About 700,000 arrived in the period 1949-52. Many of them were unhappy about the discriminatory treatment they received at the hands of the ruling Ashkenazi. Their resentment is still strong today.

All these actions were designed to prevent the return of refugees to their homes. While Israel was successful in preventing return, the refugees remained adamant. They could often see their old homes across the barbed wire of the armistice line; indeed, most refugees still reside within a two-hour bus ride of these homes. The problem for Israel thus became how to get rid of the refugees themselves, wherever they were.

Resettlement Plans

Today, 88 percent of the refugees live in Palestine and environs: 46 percent in British Mandate Palestine, 42 percent in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, within a 100-mile radius of Israel. Only 12 percent reside further afield, equally divided between Arab and other countries. Their total number, according to 1998 figures, is 4.9 million, of which only 3.6 million are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the official body set up to care for the refugees.13 More than two-thirds of the Palestinian people are refugees. More than two-thirds of the Palestinian people are refugees. This situation is unique in modern history.

The proximity of the refugees and their unquenched desire to return explains the feverish Israeli attempts to bring in as many immigrants as possible from such diverse places as Ethiopia and Russia, just to fill the depopulated Palestinian locations. There are over three dozen such schemes14 (over a hundred if we consider minor variations). They are all Israeli-inspired and are based on one or several of the following premises: that the Palestinians are not a distinct “people”, that they could and should live anywhere else, that they have no rights to qualify them for return, that their return is not physically possible, or that their return is not desirable because it would threaten the “Jewish character” of Israel.

The latest edition of these schemes is a proposal made by Donna Arzt.15 Although dressed in humanitarian garb, it is essentially a continuation of the ethnic-cleansing plan executed by Ben-Gurion, Weitz and Ariel Sharon. The plan calls for the transfer of 1.5 million refugees to various parts of the world and the forced exile of several million others under a scheme of threats, coercion and bribery.16

Former US President Bill Clinton’s proposals, “bridging” or otherwise, at the final-status talks at Camp David in the summer of 2000 play the same theme with minor variations. All such schemes have failed, and they will continue to fail. Therefore, it becomes increasingly necessary to go back to basics and find creative solutions. First we must refute the Israeli taboo that the Right of Return is not possible.

Why Should the Refugees Return?

First, it is perfectly legal in accordance with international law.17 The well-known UN Resolution 194 has been affirmed by the international community 135 times in the period 1948-2000. There is nothing like it in UN history. This universal consensus elevates the weight of this resolution from a “recommendation” to an expression of the determined will of the international community. International law also prohibits mass denationalization of a people if the territory in which they live undergoes a change of sovereignty.18 Thus the refugees are entitled to return to the homes they lost and to a restoration of their nationality as well. The Right of Return is supported by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the many regional conventions based on human rights law. It is also derived from the sanctity of private ownership, which is not diminished by change of sovereignty, occupation or passage of time.

Second, the Right of Return is sacred to all Palestinians. It has remained their fundamental objective since 1948. Their determination on the return issue has endured despite warfare, suffering, and enormous social and political changes. In this, the refugee from Iqrit, who is an Israeli citizen, the refugee from Lydda, who is a Jordanian citizen, the refugee from Haifa, who is stateless in Syria or Lebanon, and the refugee from Jaffa, who is a US citizen, have the same determination.

Third, there is no acceptable reason why they should not return. The Israelis oppose return on the grounds that it will pollute the “Jewish character” of Israel and cause outward emigration of Jews. They say it is impossible because the refugees’ villages have been destroyed and property boundaries lost. None of these claims stand serious scrutiny.

The Demographic Case

It is often claimed that there is no room in Israel for the refugees’ return. Even if this were true, it would not diminish this fundamental right. In fact, it’s not true. Previous studies on the subject19 can be summarized as follows:

It is possible to divide Israel’s forty-six natural regions into 3 groups [see Fig-1]: Group A, 1,628 square kilometers, has a Jewish population of just over 3 million (67 percent of Israel’s total Jewish population).20 This area is, roughly, the land acquired by Jews during the period of the British Mandate. Most Jewish settlement after the creation of the state centered around this earlier domicile.

Group B, 1,508 square kilometers, is almost the same size but not the same location of the land owned by the Palestinians who remained in Israel after the 1948 war (since 1948, Israel has confiscated two-thirds of the property of its Palestinian citizens). In group B there are 436,000 Jews, or 9.6 percent of all the Jews in Israel, along with 92,000 of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Thus, 77 percent of Jews live in 15 percent of Israel’s area.

That leaves group C, 17,381 square kilometers, located in two large blocks, corresponding roughly to the Northern and Southern Districts as per Palestine and Israel’s administrative divisions. This is the land and heritage of about 5 million refugees who were expelled from their homes in 1948 and their descendants. About a million Jews live in group C, but 80 percent of them live either in cities that were originally Palestinian and are now mixed, or in a number of small new “development towns”. These development towns, heavily populated by Sephardic Jews, or Mizrahi, are generally impoverished, with the highest unemployment rates and the lowest annual incomes in Israel; they are living proof of the country’s ethnic segregation and discriminatory policies.

This leaves 200,000 rural Jews who exploit vast areas of refugee land (the remainder of the land is used for military purposes and afforestation). Most of these rural Jews (160,000) are residents of the moshavim (cooperative farms) and kibbutzim (collective farms). The kibbutz, which used to be the flagship of Zionism, is now dying out. Today only 8,600 kibbutzniks live on agriculture, assisted by tens of thousands of hired laborers from Thailand, an ironic subversion of Zionist doctrine, which prohibited the employment of non-Jewish (especially Palestinian) labor.

Thus, the rights of 5 million refugees are pitted against the prejudices of 8,600 kibbutzniks.

To illustrate the point further, consider this scenario: If/when the registered refugees in Lebanon (362,000) return to their homes in Galilee (still largely Arab) and the registered refugees in Gaza (759,000) return to their homes in the Southern District (now largely empty; rural Jewish density is 6 persons per square kilometer, compared with 5,500 persons per square kilometer in Gaza), there will be negligible effect on Jewish density in group A, and Jews will retain numerical majority in A, B, and C.

The number of Russian immigrants is equal to the number of refugees from Lebanon and Gaza combined. If the Russians had not immigrated and these 1 million refugees had been allowed to return home, Israel would have its present density. Instead, immigrants were admitted to Israel while the rightful owners of the land have not been allowed to return to their homes.

Restoration of Palestinian Villages

Another Israeli claim is that all village traces are lost and have been built over by housing for new immigrants. Again, even if this were true, it would not undermine the Right of Return: property robbery does not grant a title deed. However, the claim is false.

In [Figures II and III], all the existing built-up areas in Israel today have been plotted, and superimposed on them are the sites of 530 towns and villages depopulated by the Israelis in 1948. The striking result is that the sites of the absolute majority of such villages are still vacant. All village sites, except one each in the subdistricts of Safad, Acre, Tiberias and Nazareth, are vacant. Naturally, the area most affected is the coastal strip, especially in the Tel Aviv suburbs. There, a dozen village sites have been built over as a result of the expansion of the city. The displaced refugees from these built-over areas now number 110,000, or only 3 percent of all registered refugees. The largest displaced villages are Salama, Yazur, and Beit Dajan, with a combined population of 75,000. A number of village sites west of Jerusalem, and north and south of Tel Aviv, have been built over.

However, well over 90 percent of the refugees could return to empty sites. Of the small number of affected village sites, 75 percent are located on land totally owned by Arabs and 25 percent on Palestinian land in which Jews have a share. Only 27 percent of the villages affected by new Israeli construction have a present population of more than 10,000. The rest are much smaller.

The accommodation of the returning refugees from the affected villages is fairly simple, at least from an operational point of view: they could retain the property rights and grant a forty-nine-year lease to existing occupants, most of which are institutions. Meanwhile, they could rent or build housing for themselves in the vicinity.

Figure I: Jewish and Palestinian Concentration in Israel Area A, with two-thirds of Israel's Jewish population, is essentially the same land in which Jews lived in pre-1948 Palestine. Area B is mixed, where Palestinians and Jews live, Almost 80 percent of the country's Jews live in Areas A and B. Area C represents largely the land and heritage of 5 million refugees who are denied the right to return home. Only 160,000 rural Jews live there, in addition to 863,000 urban Jews who live in cities that were originally Palestinian.

We are, however, left with the comfortable prospect that the overwhelming majority of the refugees would be able to return to currently empty sites. Their housing should not be an insurmountable problem. In addition to Israel’s tenfold increase (through both natural increase and immigration) of its 1948 Jewish population of 600,000, we can cite the examples of Amman’s expansion (ten times), Beirut’s (six times), and Kuwait’s (thirty-three times), in which the Palestinian refugees themselves played a key role.

What Is the Profit and Loss Account?

If a historical conflict is solved by the return of 5 million refugees to their homes in accordance with international law, what is the price of this huge achievement?

  • Figure II: Existing Built-Up Areas in 2000-Northern District The central part of Israel's Galilee is densely populatd by Palestinians. When the refugees return, they will find the majority of their old village sites vacant. They will live among their relatives, and Jews in Area A will hardly feel the difference.
  • Figure III:Existing Built-Up Areas in 2000-Southern District When the refugees return to the south, they will find it almost empty, except for a few towns. All rural Jews, in 14,000 square kilometers, would fill only a single refugee camp; while the density in Gaza is 5,500 persons per square kilometer, Jewish rural density is 6 persons per square kilometer. Return of the refugees will hardly be felt at the center.

The 160,000 moshav and kibbutz residents who would be affected may decide to stay and rent land (this time from the owner, not from the ILA, by a simple change in the lease contract), or they may decide to relocate. The kibbutzniks have always been considered the pioneers of Zionism and the elite of Israeli society. A high proportion of army generals and Knesset members are kibbutzniks. They were usually granted the most fertile (Palestinian) land. However, this has dramatically changed. While 90 percent of Jewish immigrants joined a kibbutz in 1917, today only 3 percent of Israelis live on a kibbutz. There are constant desertions and very few new recruits. Most of the kibbutzim are near bankruptcy, with only 26 percent of them producing 75 percent of total kibbutz agricultural output.21

The area of irrigated fields cultivated by the kibbutzim decreased from 213,628 acres in 1987 to 189,564 acres in 1991.22 The economic return of these vast resources is meager and diminishing. Out of $5 billion accumulated debt borne by the kibbutzim, the government has written off $2 billion, rescheduled $2 billion and encouraged the private sector to contribute $1 billion.

Recently a major change in government policy affecting kibbutz and moshav land further undermines the rights of the Palestinian owners. Until recently this land was officially held by the ILA and leased to the kibbutzim and moshavim. In the early 1990s Ariel Sharon, as Minister of Infrastructure, and Raphael Eitan, as Minister of Agriculture, introduced regulations permitting the rezoning of this agricultural land for residential construction to accommodate Russian immigrants and to build commercial outlets, shopping malls and private apartments. The kibbutzniks would then be compensated for this transaction at 51 percent of its value. This made the bankrupt farmers very rich overnight by allowing them to pocket the value of (Palestinian) land they never owned in the first place. This angered urban taxpayers, the vast majority of Israel’s population. Two committees, one in 1997 and another in 2000, reduced the compensation to 25 percent of the land value. Thus has “sacred spiritual property” been transformed into commercial real estate.

In 1997 the ILA started to sell refugees’ land. Its average contribution to the treasury amounted to $1 billion a year, excluding compensation to the kibbutzniks. One dunum (one-quarter of an acre) in the center of the country sells for $1 million.23 In 1998, 110 kibbutzim were allowed to expand their residential area (that is, change the zoning from agriculture to residential), which can be sold to others, by 115 percent. “Others” may include any Jew living anywhere in the world. Out of a general plan for 500,000 residential units, 150,000 were planned in the kibbutz.

Sharon, who expropriated for himself a farm of several thousand dunums near Iraq Al Manshiya (Qiryat Gat), said: “The only way to absorb the immigrants was by taking land from the Kibbutz... I knew the [economic] hardship they are experiencing… it is better they build on the land and sell houses”.24

In June 2000, fifty-two members of the Knesset submitted a bill to rezone 4 million dunums, or 80 percent of the land registered with the UN Conciliation Commission on Palestine, from agricultural to residential land-in other words, to transfer the UN registry of Palestinian refugees’ land from that of land leased to the kibbutz to land sold to a developer in order to build and sell apartments to Israelis and Jews of any nationality.

An interesting intervention was made by the impoverished Sephardic community, who did not share in the extravagant benefits showered on the kibbutzim. The Sephardim formed a group, Hakeshet Hamizrahit, which petitioned the High Court against sale of kibbutz land, stating that “the land in question was largely expropriated from Palestinians and thus transferring property rights to the inhabitants of the rural communities means negating forever the Palestinian refugees’ right of return”.25 Thus, the return of 5 million refugees and the end of the historical conflict is weighed against the livelihood of 8,600 kibbutzim, an economically bankrupt movement now mostly abandoned by the Israelis themselves.

Water and Agriculture

Water can be a cause of war in the Middle East. It has been widely reported that Israel’s invasion of the West Bank and Syria in 1967 was designed to control the headwaters of the Jordan River and the tributaries and aquifers of the West Bank. Israel’s desire to maintain control of these water sources is one of the main reasons for its refusal to seal an agreement with Syria and the Palestinians. Each of these resources, diverted from Syrian and West Bank waters, amounts to 500 million cubic meters per year (500 mm3/y), much of which is wasted, as will be demonstrated.

Water resources in the territory of Palestine on which the State of Israel was declared in 1948 are 350 mm3/y. This amount was increased before 1967 by Israeli drilling under the West Bank and by full control of Palestinian and Syrian sources after the 1967 war. It reached 2,020 in 1990, of which 1,471 mm3/y is taken from sources located in Arab territory.26

Where does this water go? In 1995, 594 mm3/y went to municipal (domestic) purposes, 133 to industrial use and 1,300 to agricultural use. As Peter Beaumont has shown,27 this works out to be a constant 100 m3/y/person for municipal purposes for every year since the creation of the state in 1948. This is higher than the consumption of Jordan (60), and much higher than the impoverished West Bank (37.5), which has lost 90 percent of its water resources to Israel. And the overcrowded Gaza Strip has a critical water deficit with dangerously increased salinity.

Israel has maintained the use of 1,200-1,400 mm3/y for agriculture. The more extravagant use of 860 m3/dunum (1 hectare = 10 dunums) in the 1950s has now been reduced to 600 m3/d. These precious resources are provided to the farmers at 70 percent of the cost at 19¢/m3, while the cost to domestic user is $1.0-$1.76/m3.28 Thus domestic users underwrite vast water subsidies to farmers, who raise water-intensive crops like potatoes, corn, cotton and watermelon.

Following the expulsion of the Palestinians and confiscation of their land in 1948, the amount of land under irrigation increased rapidly, from about 300,000 dunums in the early 1950s to 2 million dunums in the late 1970s, the difference between the figures being Palestinian property. By 1999 this figure had shrunk to 1.1 million dunums because of general lack of interest in agriculture.29 The total amount of land under cultivation has grown from about 1 million dunums in 1950 to 4.2 million dunums in 1997, shrinking from a maximum of 4.4 million dunums in 1990,30 the difference between 1 million dunums and the other figures being confiscated Palestinian property.

Who utilizes this vast land? In 1998 there were 72,500 agricultural employees,31 of which 36,800 were Jews. Of those Jews, only 8,600 were kibbutzniks. These vast land resources, with their generous water subsidies, account for only 1.8 percent of Israel’s GDP.32 To produce this meager contribution, Israel has had to import 24,300 foreign workers (mostly from Thailand) while denying the right of the Palestinian farmers to till their own land. (Some of the Palestinian workers allowed in Israel actually work their own land, as hired laborers, for the benefit of Israelis.)

The waste in water has been noted by other authors. Some advocate reducing agricultural activity or changing it to more profitable crops, which would free water for other uses. One study notes that “the evidence strongly suggests that Israel’s water quantity crisis is more a result of misallocation than absolute scarcity”.33 Another recommends that the wasted water could be “sold” to Jordan and the West Bank in a peace deal. Apart from the irony that Israel would be selling illegally confiscated water back to its rightful owners, the fact is that Israel’s enormous water and land resources are exploited by so few to produce so little. If this land and water were turned over to the lawful owners, there would be little loss to Israel-despite common claims to the contrary-and tremendous gain in the nation’s political legitimacy, with a real chance for genuine peace in the region.

“Professor Fadle Naqib, an expert on the Palestinian economy formerly with the UN Conference on Trade and Development, says that although it is common for developing countries to reduce the agricultural share of the economy, it is necessary for palestine to develop its agricultural sector.34 Capital requirements at this stage would be small, an ideal situation for a recovering economy. The vast majority of the refugees are farmers, and agriculture has been their occupation from time immemorial. When they recover their land, they will no doubt greatly enhance the value of the agricultural product. The refugees in Gaza already do so. With scarce and saline water, they produce better and cheaper vegetables than the neighbouring kibbutzim. That is why Israel refuses to admit their products to its market.35 I am not of course suggesting that all refugees should revert to agriculture or that agriculture is their only occupation. Palestinians are one of the most highly educated peoples in the Arab world and have flourished in a number of skilled occupations. The point here is simply that Palestinians have a deep attachment to their land and will be able to cultivate it more economically than the israelis. With their education, they will be able to meet the challenge of industrialized agriculture when this economic threshold is reached.

Another area of Palestinian excellence is Jaffa oranges, known for centuries. After the Israelis conquered the Jaffa environs in 1948, “the overwhelming majority of the 150,000 dunums of citrus trees remained unattended… Roughly one-fifth of the abandoned citrus groves in the whole country were still being cultivated”.36 The Israelis looted the pumps and pipelines and earmarked large tracts for housing construction. The remainder of citrus groves, which produced 950,000 tons in 1975, deteriorated to the extent that only 340,000 tons were produced in 1997 and 250,000 tons in the drought year of 1991.37 The famous Jaffa oranges could be revived by the Palestinian farmers who originally planted these citrus groves.

To be sure, there are problems to solve. Many refugees would have to change their present occupation (mostly in construction) and revert back to agriculture. Tighter controls on water consumption will have to be applied. At some cut-off point, say a maximum of 1,300 mm3/y, agriculture has to be industrialized. New and improved crops will have to be grown. In all this, Israeli research may be useful. Certainly the Palestinians would be enthusiastic workers, since they would be returning to land cultivated by their families for centuries. All in all, the return to peace and a stable region far outweighs any application problems.

The “Jewish Character” Syndrome

Considering the European Jews’ history of being oppressed, Jewish fear of gentiles is understandable. But when this fear is forged into active policy, it is dangerous and bloody, as the case has been in Palestine. The expulsion and expropriation of the Palestinians, as a precondition for establishing the state of Israel, was a result of this paranoia. That was Ben-Gurion’s doctrine, now fully documented by historians. This doctrine is still being followed. It calls for committing an actual murder for fear that the victim, if he lived, might harm the murderer.

The claim that the “Jewish character” of Israel would be threatened is commonly recited to justify the denial of fundamental right of Palestinians to their land and property. But what is the meaning of “Jewish character”? If it entails policies that deny the return of refugees and allow unlimited numbers of Jewish immigrants in their place, this is best described by the noted jurists Thomas and Sally Mallison, who pointed out that “the term, ‘the Jewish character’, is really a euphemism for the Zionist discriminatory statutes of the State of Israel which violate the human rights provisions of the Partition Resolution... The United Nations is under no more of a legal obligation to maintain Zionism in Israel than it is to maintain apartheid in the Republic of South Africa”.38 The US State Department rejected any special meaning for the Jewish citizens of Israel by stating that it “does not recognize the legal-political relationship based on the religious identification of American citizens… Accordingly it should be clear that the Department of State does not regard the ‘Jewish people’ concept as a concept of international law”.39

This is not an isolated view. In 1998 the UN Treaty-based Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights said that Israel’s “excessive emphasis upon the State as a ‘Jewish State’ encourages discrimination and accords a second-class status to its non-Jewish citizens... The Committee notes with grave concern that the Status Law of 1952 authorizes the World Zionist Organization/Jewish Agency and its subsidiaries including the Jewish National Fund to control most of the land in Israel, since these institutions are chartered to benefit Jews exclusively… The Committee takes the view that large-scale and systematic confiscation of Palestinian land and property by the State and transfer of that property to these agencies constitute an institutionalized form of discrimination because these agencies by definition would deny the use of these properties by non-Jews”.40 Israel cannot maintain this position for long. The moral and legal weight of human rights will catch up with it one day. How can this concept of “Jewish character” be an accepable basis for peaceful relations?

Some mean by the “Jewish character” a society in which Jews are a numerical majority. But in what territory? In the whole of British Mandate Palestine? Today, 47 percent of the population of Palestine are Arabs and 53 percent Jews. In fact, the percentage would be reversed if we take account of the fact that about half of the Russian immigrants are not really Jews.

In Israel itself, if we extrapolate from the natural population growth from 1948 to 1999 of Jews (1.6 percent) and Palestinians in Israel (4 percent), the two ethnic groups will be equal in about 2050.41 Are the Israelis buying time? If we narrow the territory in question to the 15 percent of Israel where almost 80 percent of the Jews live, and where the Palestinians are only 11 percent of the Jewish population, the future date in which the Palestinians become a significant minority will recede considerably.

All these examples indicate that the notion of the numerical superiority of Jews is a cruel time game in which the refugees rot in their camps until the Israelis realize, or admit, that this contention is a horrible hoax, intended to keep the conquered land empty until its owners give up or are gotten rid of by a “final solution” of the Palestinian problem.

The most incredible notion is the claim that the “Jewish character” means a socially homogeneous society in which Jews speak one language, dress and behave similarly, and uphold the same values such that the presence of one national group, the Palestinians, will pollute this uniformity. It is hard to imagine that very many Israelis really believe that, since there are no dominant common features between the Russians and Moroccans, the Mizrahi and Ashkenazi or the Haredim and the secular. There are thirty-two spoken languages in Israel and about two dozen political groups with an equivalent number of newspapers for a Jewish population a little larger than Los Angeles. The problem of a fractured society is a serious one, and it is already causing internal conflict in Israel, now tenuously held together by the drummed-up Arab danger. Considerable research has already been devoted to this question.42 But the return of Palestinians to their ancestral homes would not substantially exacerbate these problems. Already, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are [Fig-1] 11 percent of the population in group A, 21 percent in group B and 70 percent in group C.

If “Jewish character” refers to religious practice, this has rarely been a problem in the Arab and Islamic world. Numerous historians have demonstrated that Islamic and Arab societies have treated Jewish minorities far better than Christian societies have.

There is no ethical or legal justification for the maintenance of a “Jewish character” that denies human rights or violates international law. The real reason for Israel’s racist practices is to maintain its hold on Palestinian land and keep it as a reserve for future Jewish immigration. On March 1, 2001, the Israeli media reported that Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon told the Jewish Agency board that his plan is to bring 1 million immigrants from Russia, Mexico and Ethiopia, and that Israel must bring all of the world’s Jews to Israel by 2020.

The Logistics of Return

Assuming that the force of international law will be exercised, as it eventually was, with varying degrees of success and consistency, in Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor, and Kuwait, the actual process of return is fairly straightforward.

First, locating the refugees: The refugees from 530 depopulated towns and villages, in addition to 662 secondary localities, are registered with UNRWA.43 A typical village consists of four to five large and related families who know one another quite well. A record of 3.6 million (1998) registered refugees is kept by UNRWA with full names of all individuals, their birth date, their origin (the depopulated village) and where they reside today in each of the five UNRWA areas: Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The unregistered refugees (1.3 million) are mostly previous inhabitants of Palestinian cities. Again, they belong to well-knit families and can be found in Arab and foreign capitals without much difficulty.

Second, locating their land: Palestine was divided into administrative units where village boundaries and town-planning boundaries are well marked on about 130 British maps. Thus village and town properties are well defined within their respective units, both in terms of area and location. For individual ownership within the village or town limit, the UN Conciliation Commission on Palestine keeps about half a million owner index cards defining the land owned and the parcel and block for each owner in a village or town. This index can be related to a map reference. To define Palestinian land, it is much easier to identify Jewish land and subtract same from the area of Palestine, since Jewish colonists before 1948 were keen to keep records to prove ownership and residence in Palestine.

Third, transfer of ownership from the ILA. As explained above, the Palestinian land together with JNF land has been administered by ILA. All such land is leased to users by means of forty-nine-year leases (now renewed, possibly to longer periods) to Jewish entities only: kibbutzim, moshavim, cooperatives, the IDF (airports, bases, firing ranges), and various government ministries (forestry, mining, fishing). Upon return of the refugees, either the lease contract can be terminated or reduced to cover only the surplus land. There are many creative ideas here. One of them was suggested by the Israelis themselves: in 1948 the Mapam party, which worked briefly for Arab-Jewish coexistence, proposed that with compensation paid to the refugees they could improve productivity of their land such that there would be enough “surplus” land to lease to the neighboring kibbutzim.44

Fourth, phasing of return: The most depressing hardship cases are in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. The return of the Gaza refugees to their villages in group C of the Southern District should be straightforward. The rural area is empty, save for a total of 78,000 rural Jews in an area of 14,231 square kilometers. Their number is smaller than a single refugee camp in Gaza. As indicated before, almost all village sites are vacant. The Jewish inhabitants of cities like Beersheva, Majdal-Ashkelon and Isdud (Ashdod) could continue to pursue their occupations without hindrance.

Most of the refugees living in Lebanon would be returning to Galilee (Northern District of C). Here there are about 90,000 affected rural Jews, or about the same number as one large refugee camp in Lebanon. The adjustment should not be that difficult because many of the refugees would be reunited with long-separated family members in their old villages. They would find few social difficulties in an Arab environment where Palestinians today outnumber Jews by one and a half times.

After the Gaza and Lebanon refugees are absorbed, refugees could return to groups A and B, which have a sizable Jewish population. Group B would be easier, as most village sites are still vacant. In group A, about a dozen villages in Tel Aviv suburbs and four in West Jerusalem have been encroached upon by new construction, although there are gaps and still-standing houses left. Here, the transfer of lease contract to the rightful owner and the compensation he receives will enable him to build or rent a house/apartment nearby unless or until another arrangement with the present occupant is made. This problem and its solution are common. It has already been encountered by refugees who returned with PA officials to the West Bank.

Fifth, housing construction: This is a major project but definitely manageable. The huge housing schemes constructed in Amman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, in which many of the engineers were Palestinian, are good examples. Because Palestinian society is relatively homogeneous and the refugees would be returning to their ancestral villages, there is little chance of repeating Israel’s mistakes in the construction if its dysfunctional “development town”, in which there is a great deal of friction between the diverse ethnic groups involved.45 The funds for construction would come partly from compensation paid by Israel for (a) material and psychological damages to refugees in accordance with international law and similar precedents, and (b) the accrued revenue from their property exploited by Israel for fifty-three years in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 53/51 of December 3, 1998, paragraph 1.

There is a wealth of information regarding large housing projects. As an instrument of execution, UNRWA could turn itself into an organ of the UN Development Program. It already has 21,000 Palestinian staff members, although most of them work in educational and medical services. But the technical and labor force is readily available inside and outside Palestine, even on a volunteer basis. In short, the technical aspects of the return are solvable.

Sixth, the legal aspects: to start with, the UN Security Council should act to implement Resolution 194, first passed in December 1948, by all possible means at its disposal, acknowledging meanwhile that “the earliest practicable date” specified in the resolution should have been July 1949, when the last armistice agreement between the 1948 belligerents was signed. If a choice is offered to the refugees for return or resettlement, this should be done only after the Security Council’s decision to implement Resolution 194. Compensation should then be offered, but not as a substitute for return, and should be paid to individual refugees, each according to his losses, “under principles of international law or in equity”, as stipulated in the resolution, by “the governments or authorities responsible”.

Resolution 194 already created the mechanism for implementing the return. This is the Conciliation Commission for Palestine (CCP), which still exists at the UN. Its early failure to carry out its functions was a result of Ben-Gurion’s intransigence. He believed, rightly, that if peace treaties were signed at the time, this would mean the return of refugees and return of territories Israel had occupied in excess of the 1947 Partition Plan (24 percent of Palestine). However, it is clear now that no return means no peace. The UN CCP should have its mandate bolstered to deal with the present situation. It should also take up the role of protecting the returning refugees physically, ensuring their peaceful repatriation, building infrastructure and monitoring provisions for their protection against discrimination of any kind in line with provisions of Resolution 181 (II) of November 29, 1947. This resolution covers all necessary aspects of the rights and duties of returning refugees as citizens in one of the two envisaged states. Their minority rights are protected by this resolution as well. While returning refugees retain their national identity as Palestinians, they can take up citizenship in Israel in accordance with Chapter 3 of the resolution. According to international law, the territory and people go together; whoever holds the territory must keep the population. They cannot be expelled and disfranchised, as Israel has done to the Palestinians.

The attempts to dissolve UNRWA prematurely—that is, before the full repatriation of the refugees—and to disregard the CCP are obviously means to circumvent and marginalize international law. This will not work, nor will the attempts to replace the CCP with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, which would treat the Palestinian refugees in the same manner as victims of flood, famine or coups d’état. The UNHCR is prohibited from extending protection to the Palestinian refugees under paragraph (1D) of its charter. This paragraph excludes from its mandate any group of refugees who are already covered by another UN agency, thus acknowledging the unique position of the Palestinians, who are covered by the UNRWA for welfare and relief and by the CCP for conflict resolution, both in accordance with Resolution 194. Another Israeli attempt to evade its responsibility is its proposal to create an international fund for the refugees’ compensation in which Israel contributes very little money but has a great deal of control. Israel, as the beneficiary of Palestinian property for fifty-three years and the responsible party for al Nakba, must solely pay the compensation according to resolution 194 and customary international law, which combines the body of applicable laws, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention. Compensation is not meant for sale of homes and land; these are not for sale. Compensation is owed because of psychological suffering, loss and damage to property, and for exploitation of property for fifty-three years.


Both Israelis and Palestinians agree that there can be no peace without a resolution of the refugee problem, but they differ on the method of resolution. Israelis believe they can extend and legalize their original ethnic-cleansing operation. This is an illusion. The fact that all of their so-called “resettlement schemes” have been nipped in the bud, by governments and people alike, is proof enough of that.

In spite of the misfortunes they have endured, Palestinians continue to shape the political events of the Middle East, and they are supported not only by millions of Arabs but by an increasing number of Europeans and Americans. The refugees’ plight will be debated domestically in many countries in the near future. Nobody will be far enough from the Middle East to ignore its problems.

I have demonstrated that the Israelis have no legal, ethical, practical, demographic or economic reason to persist in denying the refugees’ rights. Israel’s position is solely derived from racist policies, the only one left in the world and thus condemned by the rest of the world. That this odd situation has prevailed for half a century was made possible primarily by the military, financial and political support of the United States. The price of maintaining this position will be high, the more so when the people of the region force their rulers to adopt policies toward the United States and Israel that are strictly consistent with international law and human rights.

The price Israel has to pay for permanent peace is far less than imagined. In a land that is relatively underpopulated today, in which half its citizens are, on average, outside the country at any one time46 and where the appetite of its young people for war has waned considerably, peace—especially a peace that guarantees the rights of Jews and Palestinians under international law—should be highly desired. All Israel has to do is become a truly democratic country for all its citizens and interpret its Law of Return on a legal, not a racist, basis. In its absorption capacity, it should give priority to those who are lawfully qualified to return, not those who bring seeds of conflict and war. Priority should be given to those who own, not those who conquer.

If Israel fails to take this opportunity, it will commit the Middle East to at least fifty more years of bloodshed. The refugees have paid more than their share of the cost.