Excerpted from “Palestinian Refugees and
the Permanent Status
Negotiations,” (Washington, DC: Palestine
Center, 1999), by Salman
Abu-Sitta, Policy Brief Number 7.
“In 1948, 85 percent of the Palestinians who lived in the part of Palestine that became Israel were driven out of their homes by Jewish forces. Most lived in 531 towns and villages that are now depopulated; their land, which was seized by Israel, now constitutes 92 percent of Israel. These Palestinians sought refuge in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and other countries.
Today there are 4.9 million refugees, of whom 3.6 million are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). About one-third live in the West Bank and Gaza, slightly more than one-third in Jordan, and 17 percent in Syria and Lebanon. Thus, 85 percent of the refugees reside in and around historic Palestine, while 15 percent are equally spread between other Arab countries and the West. All these figures exclude another 58,000 internal refugees (who, along with their descendants now number 250,000) who were forcibly relocated elsewhere in Israel and whose land was confiscated.
In December 1948, the UN General Assembly approved Resolution 194, which calls for the return of the refugees to their homes and for compensation for those who suffered damages. The same resolution created a ‘Conciliation Commission’ to facilitate their return and a relief agency (UNRWA) to provide necessary assistance until their return. Opposed only by Israel (and by the United States since 1994), the UN has affirmed this resolution 110 times in the last 50 years by an overwhelming majority. In 1974, the UN classified the right of return as an ‘inalienable right.’ The UN, and particularly the Security Council, has supported the right of return around the world by diplomacy (in Tajikistan, Abkhazia, Namibia, and Cyprus) and sometimes by force (Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor).
The right of return is also affirmed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and many regional human rights treaties. The right derives its strength from the sanctity of private property ownership, which cannot be extinguished by sovereignty or occupation and is a natural corollary of the principle of self-determination.
All schemes to settle the refugees anywhere except in their homes have failed because Palestinians have fiercely resisted permanent resettlement, which they view as a form of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and as a denial of their basic human rights. Palestinian public opinion on the subject is clear: A poll taken by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in September 1999 indicates that 90.8 percent of Palestinian refugees oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state as a price for sacrificing the right of return. Yet many Palestinians fear that, given the enormous imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, PA President Yasser Arafat will do just that. Even if 1 percent of the refugees actively oppose permanent resettlement, those 50,000 refugees represent a number large enough to threaten the stability of any government.”