Palestinian Arabs and their supporters claim that they have a “right of return” to towns in Israel based on two principles. One is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (established December 10, 1948) and the other United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (issued the following day, December 11, 1948). These are grossly misapplied, and if anyone wants to see a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, this issue is a complete roadblock.
UDHR, Article 13
Article 13 of the UDHR makes two statements that Palestinian propagandists assert give Palestinians the right to move into Israel:
- 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.
Regarding the first point, the freedom of movement is “within the borders”, meaning that any Israeli Jew or Arab should be free to live anywhere inside of their home country of Israel. This clause has nothing to do with Palestinian Arabs or wards of UNRWA who live outside of Israel. It simply means that Israeli Arabs should be free to move into Israeli towns – where grandparents may have lived or entirely new locations – as long as there are no security matters which render such movement impossible.
As it relates to the second point of leaving and returning to a country, there are two issues with Palestinians using this clause to move to Israel: the people and the land.
Israel is a new country, founded on May 14, 1948. There are only an estimated 20-30,000 elderly Arabs who lived in Israel on that date who now reside outside of the country’s recognized borders. The other 14 million Palestinian Arabs were born elsewhere and have no such claim to “return” to Israel, including the 6.4 million registered persons with UNRWA.
The second related matter has to do with the borders of Israel. If one were to take the non-factual view that the land of pre-1948 Palestine is a single country (it was a region / territory), then the millions of Arabs living in Gaza and the West Bank today still live in that same country, so there is no argument under the second clause. Only the Stateless Arabs of Palestine (SAPs) in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan could argue to move into Israel, Gaza or the West Bank. The right of return in UDHR relates to returning to a country, not a particular town or region.
UNGA Resolution 194, Article 11
As opposed to the general UDHR meant for all people, UNGA Resolution 194 was specifically adopted for Palestinians. Article 11 calls out the matter of returning to “homes,” not a country as specified in UDHR:
“Resolves that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.“
At the most fundamental level, General Assembly resolutions are simply suggestions and not binding in law. Israel is not beholden to GA resolutions.
Critically, Palestinians have shown in deeds and words since the founding of Israel that they are not willing to “live at peace with their neighbors.” Add to the fact that only 20-30,000 people at this time are actually “refugees” makes this resolution relatively meaningless in application.
Two State Solution
Those people who back the notion of a “two-state solution” for the Israeli-Arab Conflict, with one state for Jews and one state for Arabs, should be appalled at the idea of a Palestinian “right of return” to the Jewish State. The Jewish State currently has 25% of its citizenry being non-Jews. It would destroy the basic principle of the “two state solution” for millions of Arabs to enter Israel. It is even more outrageous, when the United Nations demands that NO JEWS be allowed to live in a future Palestinian State. There’s no two-state solution if 50% of the Jewish State is comprised of non-Jews and 0% of the Arab State has Jews.
One State Solution
For advocates who argue for a single Jewish-Arab country and that Palestine was always a singular country, there are a couple of considerations.
One, Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza already live in such country, so are not and have never been “refugees” but just internally displaced people, taking billions of dollars from the world’s largess over the past decades. Resolution 194 Article 11 is specifically for refugees which excludes Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank. Only UDHR 13.1 would argue for freedom of movement within the single country, if security matters permit.
Secondly, there is only return to a country under UDHR 13.2, not to villages where grandparents once lived. Allowing refugees from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to move to the West Bank or Gaza satisfies this clause as much as moving inside the borders of Israel.
Importantly, Palestinians have no interest in either of these solutions. According to the PCPSR December 2022 poll, only 32% of Palestinians support a two-state solution and 26% support a one-state solution with equal rights for Jews and Arabs. That compares to 55% who favor terrorism against Israelis, to destroy the Jewish State and replace it with a single Arab state. It’s outrageous for Palestinians to demand the right to move to homes under UNGA Resolution 194, and skip the basic premise of coexistence that the resolution demands.
The poll also showed that the right of return issue was the second most important issue for Palestinian Arabs, behind establishing a state. The fact that UNGA Resolution 194 requires coexistence while Palestinians support new armed gangs can only be viewed as an attempt to better infiltrate and take over the Jewish State, as part of establishing a new Palestinian State.
Sentiment of Israeli Arabs
When polled in June 2018, Israeli Arabs were the most likely to cap Palestinian refugees coming to Israel (the proposed question used a figure of 100,000 people) with the balance going to a new state of Palestine and getting compensation for lost property. A whopping 84.1% of Israeli Arabs supported such limited “right of return”, compared to 21.3% of Israeli Jews and 47.5% of Palestinian Arabs. When offered a different formulation in which a capped number of Palestinians would get permanent resident status but not citizenship in Israel, and Jews in the West Bank would similarly get such status in a new Palestinian State, Israeli Arab support (63.8%) dwarfed that of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs with 36.1% and 31.7%, respectively.
Beyond the differences in granting a Palestinian “right of return” among Israeli Arabs, Jews and Palestinian, the same poll showed a big difference in support for a two state solution. Not surprisingly, no Israeli Arabs favored the idea of “apartheid” or expulsions of the other, while 14.9% of Israeli Jews voted in favor of minimal rights for Israeli Arabs, and 17.2% of Palestinians favored expelling all the Jews from the region.
SAPs in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan
The Stateless Arabs from Palestine (SAPs) only poll people in Gaza and the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have control and self-determination, having been given land to administer by Israel. The SAPs who might have some actual claims under UDHR and UNGA Resolution 194 are those in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan as described above but were not polled.
Almost all of the SAPs in Jordan have Jordanian citizenship so cannot be considered “refugees.” Jordan illegally annexed the West Bank after the 1948-9 War against Israel, and granted all Arabs living there citizenship– as long as they were not Jewish – in 1954. Palestinian-Chileans have the same non-claim to move to Israel as these Palestinian-Jordanians.
The Palestinians who might be considered “refugees” with rights to move to the holy land are those elderly Palestinians who left Israel in May 1948 and now reside in Lebanon and Syria, countries which have denied them citizenship for almost their entire lives. Of the 1.2 million SAPs in those two countries (18.8% of the total people getting services from UNRWA), around 2% are over 75 years old and would qualify to move to Israel under UDHR Article 13.2, and under UNGA Resolution 194, Article 11, if they are willing to live with Israelis in peace. While it is well understood that Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza have no desire to live peacefully with Israelis, it is possible that those in UNRWA camps in Lebanon and Syria might.
If one advocates for a two-state solution, one must simultaneously be against a Palestinian “right of return” for any Arab other than the elderly living in UNRWA camps in Lebanon and Syria. All other Palestinians wishing to return to the region would need to move to Gaza or the West Bank under the approval of the Palestinian Authority. This has long been the logical bipartisan approach of both Democrats and Republicans.
In summary, there are very few people who qualify for a Palestinian “right of return” and there is very little support for, or belief that it can be implemented peacefully amongst the people in the region.