Palestinians’ Right of Return Is a Basic Question of Justice

Denying Palestinian refugees the right to come back to the areas from which they were ethnically cleansed is deeply unjust. We must recognize the Palestinian right of return.

Palestinian refugees hike through no man's land during the Nakba, on June 26, 1948. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson recently debated internet-based political commentator Steven Bonnell on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At one point, Robinson argued that a two-state partition could be achieved if the United States used its considerable leverage with its close ally Israel to pressure the Israelis to accept a deal.

One of Bonnell’s main counterarguments was that Palestinians would hold up any such deal by insisting on a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees from the ethnic cleansing carried out by Israeli forces during Israel’s “War of Independence” in 1948 — an event Palestinians call the “Nakba” (catastrophe). Bonnell portrayed this as an obviously absurd demand which would make peace impossible. After all, allowing millions of Palestinians to migrate back to Israel would completely change the demographic composition of the country. In response, Robinson argued that Palestinian negotiators would quite likely be willing to compromise on this point.

Robinson is almost certainly right about that. Back in 2002, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Palestinian Vision of Peace,” in which he said:

We seek a fair and just solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees who for 54 years have not been permitted to return to their homes. We understand Israel’s demographic concerns and understand that the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a right guaranteed under international law and United Nations Resolution 194, must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns.

The Arab Peace Initiative put forward by the nations of the Arab League the same year (and immediately endorsed by Palestinian leaders) used a very similar formulation. The initiative offered full diplomatic normalization between these countries and Israel in exchange for Israel withdrawing to its pre-1967 borders, allowing for a Palestinian state to be created in the remaining 22 percent of the country. The language of the initiative called not for a full right of return for refugees but merely “a just settlement” of the refugee issue. Presumably, that would mean in practice that Israel would acknowledge the Nakba and allow a symbolic number of refugees to return.

While I’ve often argued that the most just resolution of the conflict would be a single secular democratic state with equal rights for everyone “from the river to the sea,” I can certainly understand why many Palestinians might be willing to accept a two-state deal with a merely symbolic right of return if Israel ever decided to agree to it. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have spent fifty-seven years as subjects but not citizens of the Israeli state. Unlike Israeli settlers in the West Bank, they’re subject to military courts rather than regular civilian courts when they’re accused of crimes. They can’t vote their rulers out of office. They can’t even move around freely within the West Bank and Gaza — never mind to other parts of the country. A partition deal that would at least make them citizens of something might be enough to convince the majority of Palestinians to accept deep and painful compromises.

But it’s also important to acknowledge the simple justice of the original demand for a real and unlimited right to return, as opposed to a merely symbolic one. It’s not an absurd idea. In fact, it should be accepted as a matter of simple justice by anyone who believes in universal human rights.

If Ethnic Cleansing Is Wrong, so Is Denying the Right of Return

During the various wars Israel fought in the twentieth century, Israeli leaders frequently argued that Israel had its back to the wall and faced a prospect of imminent conquest and genocide. They would say that if Israel lost any of those wars their enemies would “drive the Jews to the sea.”

A closer look at the history of those wars will show that Israel was often the aggressor, its enemies tended to be in a comparatively weak position, and the fears about what a loss would entail tended to be wildly overstated for propaganda purposes. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that outright conquest of Israel, complete with widespread ethnic cleansing of Israeli Jews, really was in the cards if Israel had lost one of those wars.

In that case, ask yourself a simple question: How would you feel in such a scenario about the survivors of these atrocities and their descendants being denied the right to come home because of demographic concerns, i.e., the concern that if they were allowed to come back the percentage of Jews living in the territory would be too high? If your gut tells you that anyone expressing this “concern” was a grotesque antisemite, then why are Israel’s demographic concerns any more legitimate?

No country anywhere has a “right” to ensure that its current ethnic majority never becomes a minority — especially if the only way to secure this outcome is to deny basic rights to others. Ethnic cleansing is unjust. No one, anywhere, should ever be removed from the area where they live just because they have the wrong ethnic, racial, or religious background. And if this does happen to anyone, anywhere, of course they should have a right to come back.

Some apologists for Israel argue that the Palestinian case is different because, while many Palestinian villages were razed to the ground in Israeli war crimes, other Palestinians left voluntarily. But this is a non sequitur. Even in the absence of the kind of widespread atrocities carried out by Israeli forces in 1948 — which are well documented by Israeli historians, including some, like Benny Morris, who aren’t particularly sympathetic to Palestinian rights — all civilians everywhere have a right to flee from war zones with the expectation that they’ll be allowed to return home when the fighting is over. Barring them from exercising that right because of blatantly racist demographic concerns is a moral obscenity.

A Question of Universal Human Rights

In response to complaints about Palestinian families driven from the country in 1948 being barred from returning, some Zionists respond with whataboutism. What about Jews who were expelled from various Arab countries in 1948? What about the decision of some of those same countries to allow Palestinian refugees to reside there without offering them citizenship? What about Joseph Stalin’s expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern European countries occupied by the Soviet Union after the end of World War II?

The right answer in all cases is the same. Yemeni Jews who wish to immigrate back to Yemen, and ethnic Germans who wish to immigrate back to Poland, should obviously be allowed to do so. These aren’t hard questions.

But human rights abuses by other countries don’t justify human rights abuses by Israel. There’s also no incompatibility between saying that Palestinian refugees who grew up in refugee camps in Syria should be given Syrian citizenship if they want it and saying they should also be allowed to immigrate back to Israel to become Israeli citizens if that’s what they want. The point is that it should be up to them. And, in any of these cases, the most repugnant argument for excluding them would be that their presence would increase the percentage of citizens with the wrong ethnicity or religion.

Nor should the distinction between the direct victims of ethnic cleansing and their children or grandchildren matter much in any of these cases. In most countries, children of citizens born abroad automatically have a right to citizenship, even if their parents left voluntarily. Those children can move “back” if they please — even if they’ve never set foot there. It’s hard to see why the same principle wouldn’t apply in cases where people who grew up in a country became noncitizens after an act of ethnic cleansing.

Even if you don’t believe in completely open borders, surely the immigrants with some of the best claims to citizenship in a country they weren’t born in are those who have close family connections there. And the ones with the best claim of all are those who would have been born in the country if their parents or grandparents hadn’t had to flee from atrocities.

Human Rights Don’t Depend on Ancestry

A different Zionist argument justifies the original dispossession as a kind of long-delayed act of decolonization. Israel apologists like Ben Shapiro argue that Jews were the original inhabitants of Israel/Palestine thousands of years ago, and the right of this “native population” to come back and build a Jewish country there supersedes everyone else’s rights.

There are at least two ways of pushing back against this idea. One is to argue for a sort of moral statute of limitations on who counts as a “native” inhabitant of any given territory. Thus, the Palestinians who lived there before the first wave of Zionist settlers showed up in the late nineteenth century were the truly native population.

The other, which I defended in a recent article for Jacobin, is to say that the whole issue of ancestry is irrelevant. Palestinians’ grievances about the many injustices they have faced contemporarily and historically — the Nakba, the subsequent denial of the right of return, the apartheid conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, and the rest — can be affirmed on the basis of universal human rights, without appealing to any other premises.

Some critics of that article have brought up the right of return. Doesn’t that Palestinian demand depend, even if the others don’t, on something more than just universal human rights? Doesn’t it depend on whether Israelis or Palestinians count as the “original” inhabitants?

I don’t think so. Here’s how I’ve explained my position elsewhere:

Imagine an alternate timeline where the first Arab families arrived in Palestine a year just or two before (or even a year or two after!) the first wave of Zionist settlers showed up in the 1870s — but where everything after that point played out in exactly the same way. Like — read Rashid Khalidi’s The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine and insert those hundred years of dispossession into the hypothetical.

Would the Nakba and the subsequent denial of the right of return to the victims of that ethnic cleansing have been any less objectionable in this timeline?

My answer to all of these questions would be a very simple “no.” I don’t think it matters whether members of any particular ethnic group have lived in a given area for ten years or ten thousand years. Ethnic cleansing is always indefensible. And it’s always indefensible to bar the victims from coming back.