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The RIGHT of RETURN: Sacred, Legal and Feasible – by Dr. Salman Abu Sitta

The RIGHT of RETURN: Sacred, Legal and Feasible:

The Plight of Refugees: Displacement, Deprivations, and Denial of Right to Return


The ugly record of Israel’s crimes against Palestinians continues unabated for 73 years. Unlike any settler-colonial project, the settlers would not only seize the land and evict the people but they apply their policy and practice to eliminate the people from the land, history and geography. To this, Israeli settlers added the unique feature that the settlers pose as the REAL people of the land in a unique imposter position never seen in any colonial project. The imposters appropriate the people’s food, dress, customs and place names. It was a desperate attempt to portray East European Poles and Russians as the natural people of Palestine, like their kith and kin, the Syrians and the Egyptians.

Palestinians fight for survival in their homeland for over a century, and literally in the last 73 years or 26,000 days to measure the daily suffering. Unarmed by weapons, they are armed by the unbeatable weapon: the Right to Return Home.

How did this come about?

The Anatomy of Dispossession

It started with the infamous Balfour Declaration; it was the last manifestation of European imperialism. In an unholy alliance between the British colonial power and the Zionist movement, Palestine was promised by Britain, which does not own the country, to the Jews who do not have the title to it, without the knowledge or consent of the rightful owners, the national majority of the country.

The British Mandate government facilitated the establishment of a Jewish state within its tenure. In this early period, the Jewish immigrants had a quasi-government (the Jewish Agency), a military-type army (the Haganah), a separate education system, a recognized Hebrew language, a water resources company, a power generation company and a separate labour syndicate (Histadrut), a set of land laws partial to the Jewish settlement on the land and many other manifestation of a separate state.

All Ben Gurion had to do was to announce his state in 1948.

In 1947, resort was made again by the Western powers, to complement Balfour legacy. They caused the UN to partition Palestine. The UN delegation which visited Palestine found the country had 1,111 Palestinian villages and 172 small Jewish settlements, more like farms. The delegation returned to the United Nations and proposed the partition of the country to Jewish and Palestinian states. After little modification and lots of threats and coercion, Resolution-181 of 29 November 1947 was barely passed. It dismembered the country instead of creating new life in it.

The Jewish state was allocated 55.6% of Palestine, although the Jewish settlements never possessed, not to say owned, more than 5.5% of the country. Half of the inhabitants in the would-be Jewish state were Palestinians who suddenly found themselves under foreign domination. They lived in 470 towns and villages while the new Jewish masters lived in 159 small Jewish settlements.

The Palestinians were allocated 43.7% of Palestine for their state. They lived in 622 towns and villages. There was a tiny majority of Jews (about 9,000) living in 12 settlements within the boundaries of the “Arab” state.

This leaves 0.7% of Palestine for greater Jerusalem, in addition to 18 Palestinian villages and one Jewish settlement, which was to be corpus separatum.

The Zionists seized the opportunity upon the imminent departure of the British and invaded the rest of Palestine in April 1948. Their forces over-ran and depopulated 213 villages and expelled half the refugees in 1948 while Palestine was under the protection of the British Mandate government and before any Arab soldier could set foot on Palestine soil to rescue the remaining population.

In the following 6 months after the end of the Mandate and the declaration of the state of Israel, the Zionist forces swept over Palestine and depopulated a total of 531 primary towns and villages and 662 hamlets.14 About 900,000 Palestinians became refugees. They and their descendants are still refugees today. Instead of the allocated 55.6% of Palestine, the Zionists, now called Israelis, occupied by force of arms 78% of Palestine.

The first public figure to decry this crime was Count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations Mediator for Palestine. He noted in his Progress Report of 16 September 1948, under the heading: the Right of Repatriation, that:

“The right of innocent people, uprooted from their homes by the present terror and ravages of war, to return to their homes, should be affirmed and made effective, with assurance of adequate compensation for the property of those who may choose not to return.”

He went on to say in the same Report,

“It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right of return to their homes, while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine, and, indeed, at least offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees who had been rooted in the land for centuries.”

On the next day, on 17 September 1948, Bernadotte was shot dead in Jerusalem by Jewish terrorists. One of the killers, Itzhak Shamir, rose to the position of the Prime Minister of Israel.

Bernadotte asked the UN to affirm the Right of Return, not to invent it. His last Report embodied a recommendation, his last political will, that became the core of the famous UN Resolution-194, passed on the General Assembly on 11 December 1948. Paragraph 11 states,

“Resolves that the 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 for the property of those choosing not to return and for the loss of or damage to property, which under principles of international law or in equity, shall be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

The Right of Return was also provided for in Article-13 paragraph-2 which states Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own and to return to his country. It is a simple and basic statement, affirmed by ordinary norms of justice and accepted in writing by some nations as long ago as the year 1215 when the Magna Carta in its article 42 was signed and sealed in the meadows of Windsor Castle.

The Palestinian Rights

The rights of Palestinians are based on the removal of all effects of the crime of expulsion and ethnic cleansing, as so phrased in UN Resolution 194. That is the repatriation of the refugees and the restitution of their property.

As to the restitution of their property, the record is complete. The Jewish immigrants during the British Mandate gained possession of 1,491,699 dunum (dunum = 1,000 m2), 6% out of 26,323,000 d., the area of Palestine, or 7% out of 20,255,000 d., Israel’s area. The rest is Palestinian land, ethnically cleansed.

As part of Resolution 194, the UN created the Conciliation Commission of Palestine (UN CCP) to facilitate the return of the refugees. The UN CCP has 453,000 individual owners’ property records. Although not complete (parts of Jerusalem, Ramleh and all of Beer Sheba districts are missing), they present a concrete proof of the Palestinians’ right of restitution of their property.

Al Nakba severed the geography of Palestine, occupied by the Israeli invasion, from its history, carried with the refugees in their exile. The Right of Return unites both the geography and history of Palestine.

There are many good examples of return in compliance with international law. The best example so far has been in Bosnia. With the enforcement of UN resolutions by major powers, it was possible to put international law into effect. The UN carried out its mandate by repealing the discriminatory laws against the returning refugees, creating the machinery for locating and identifying the owners of the property, firing of old-guard local officials who are reluctant to enforce restitution and finding creative ways to deal with second (current) occupants. Obviously, there were many hurdles in logistics but the principle of restitution was upheld.

There are other examples of Repatriation but the case of Palestine is the most documented, most affirmed by UN resolutions. It is also the most denied, by the same Western powers that created the original sin of Israel.

Unlike other restitution cases, Palestine is the easiest to apply. In all other cases, there are thousands of individual claimants competing against each other which would keep courts busy for years. In Palestine, there is not a single Jewish holder of the title to a Palestinian property. A single Israeli authority (ILA) administers all Palestinian property and leases it to Jewish groups. With a single contract between ILA and an equivalent Palestinian authority, the confiscated property can be returned to its owners.

The Feasibility of Return

The Right of Return is sacred to Palestinians, legal by every article in international law and feasible also.

We made several studies on how the return can be implemented. We have shown that, excluding Beer Sheba district, there are 246 Palestinian village lands which have no Jews today and 272 village lands which have few Jews, less than 5000 Jews in each (2008 figures).

Beer Sheba district is practically empty save for repopulated Palestinian cities. This surprising result was left hidden to deter the return of the refugees.

Unlike depopulated Palestinian villages which were totally destroyed by Israel, destruction in cities was limited to old quarters. Cities have expanded due to influx of immigrants. Many still retain a sizable number of Palestinians.

In Galilee, the Little Triangle and Beer Sheba, there is already a sizable Palestinian people, ready to welcome their kith and kin.

From the above it is clear there is no demographic problem in the return of refugees. In addition, there are no legal, geographical and historical reasons to prevent return except one major obstacle. That is Zionist racist policies and Apartheid.

The monetary cost of repatriation is very modest compared with other cases. The amount needed is relatively small and can be offset by compensation to which the Palestinians are entitled since Al Nakba. Reconstruction of destroyed villages can be carried out by Palestinian engineers and labor quite easily, since many of them have built similar or much larger projects in the Gulf. It is worth noting the cost of reconstruction is a small fraction of the aid to Israel provided by the USA and European Union. Moreover, this cost of construction will be incurred only once, not annually as the case of aid to Israel. UNRWA should be able with its predominantly Palestinian staff to supervise the repatriation for a period of up to eight years. Law under these circumstances should be based on democracy and justice, and forbid at pain of punishment any resort to racism, Apartheid, and discrimination. The key determinant is upholding human rights and principles of justice.

Thus, with Palestinian determination and steadfastness and with solid international law backing, the right of return shall be restored. With so many old enemies and many friends turned enemies, Palestinians should not lose heart. They shall continue to fight for their freedom and survival. They know too well is Jerusalem is Palestinian longer than London is English.

Their first priority now is to mobilize the young people, comprising over 70% of the people, with their many skills and talents, to take the frontline in Palestinian leadership, through the election of a new Palestine National Council, democratically representing 14 million Palestinians.


Table of Global Distribution of Palestinians.

Place of Refuge Palestinian Population 2019 end % of Population Geographical Distribution All Refugees 2019 Registered
(RR) 2019 Dec ACTUAL
Unregisrered Refugees % of Registered Refugees Geographical Distribution
Palestine 1948 (Israel)                    1,678,659 12%            451,378                   451,378  
Gaza Strip                    2,047,969 15%        1,622,000 1,622,121 –                       121 26%
West Bank                    2,804,664 20%        1,143,255 1,065,772                   77,483 17%
Truncated Palestine (OPT)                    4,852,633 35%        2,765,255                     2,687,893                   77,362 43%
Total  Palestine                    6,531,292 47%        3,216,633                     2,687,893                 528,740 43%
Jordan                    4,138,221 30%        3,105,650 2,419,662                 685,988 38%
Lebanon                        633,284 5%            594,246 538,692                   55,554 9%
Syria                        768,482 6%            731,967 647,143                   84,824 10%
Egypt                          85,884 1%              71,245                     71,245 0%
Border Countries                    5,625,871 41%        4,503,109                     3,605,497                 897,612 57%
Saudi Arabia                        483,726 3%            483,726                   483,726  
Kuwait                          66,365 0%              60,509                     60,509  
Other Gulf                        185,873 1%            185,873                   185,873  
Iraq, Libya                        130,779 1%            130,779                   130,779  
Other Arab Countries                            9,760 0%                 9,760                        9,760  
Total non Border Arab Countries                        876,504 6%            870,648                   870,648  
USA                        358,422 3%            304,659                   304,659  
Other Countries                        456,413 3%            387,952                   387,952  
Total non Arab Countries                        814,836 6%            692,611                   692,611  
GRAND TOTAL                  13,848,503 100%        9,283,001                     6,293,390             2,989,611 100%
Salman Abu Sitta
Founder and President of Palestine Land Society

Dr. Salman Abu Sitta is a Palestinian researcher best known for his crucial work formulating a practical return plan for Palestinian refugees and his extensive mapping of Palestine.  He is the Founder and President of the Palestine Land Society, and his archival collection and working files form the backbone of the Palestine Land Studies Center at AUB.  He is also the author of over 400 articles and papers on Palestine, as well as several books, including The Atlas of Palestine, 1917-1966 (2010).  His newest atlas, The Atlas of Palestine (1871-1877), published in August 2020, shows Palestine before Zionist colonization.  ​His book, Mapping my Return, is the first personal memoir in English describing the experience of Al Nakba in southern Palestine​.