Abbas, Returning the Right of Return

Last week, the Palestinian right of return made a special news appearance. For some time, the issue has been a sticking point in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Refusal to budge on the right has been the cornerstone of any Palestinian position. Refusal to recognize it has been at the heart of any Israeli policy. Since 1993, it has been perhaps the most contentious issue, the one on which Palestinians and Israelis, even in their respective publics, are diametrically opposed. It was one of the few things we could actually agree to never agree upon. That symmetric status quo was where we always found ourselves. Until this week.

But before I get to the somewhat controversial words of the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, let me briefly outline where the right of return comes from.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by all United Nations member states on December 10, 1948, including Israel, states, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” General Assembly Resolution 194, passed by the UN the very next day, read that Palestinian refugees wishing to return to their homes should be able to do so, adding that those who did not should be compensated justly. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, affirming the necessity for “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.” In 1974, following a speech by Yasser Arafat, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3236, which “reaffirms also the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return.” Finally, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Israel in 1991, states, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.”

Wow, that’s a lot of international law and declarations. One would imagine that Israel, with her wealth of great legal minds and allies, must have a well thought out, deliberate, and logical response to all of that. Well, one should not hope too enthusiastically. Israel’s response is, basically, “Well, regardless of all of that legal stuff, we just don’t wanna do it. It would kind of mess up what we’ve built over here.”

See, we Palestinians have gotten pretty tired of complaining about how international law should be protecting us. As long as the Israelis live in an alternate reality, such logical arguments don’t get us very far.

Israel has summarily disregarded any sort of rights for Palestinian refugees since 1948. She has even gone as far as to create bizarre conditions, disallowing Palestinian citizens of Israel to reclaim their properties, even if they were only gone for a short time during the events of 1948, even if they could prove ownership, and even if they still live right down the street. Israel said these persons were “absent.” Then these persons showed up shortly after being expelled from their homes, thus making them “present.” Israel then gave them the befuddling title of “present absentees.” The UN refers to them as “internally displaced.” So, we Palestinians are absent, present, internal, and displaced, all at the same time. Forgive us if we sometimes seem a bit confused.

Israel argues over the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. But she also argues over the right of return of Palestinian refugees to a future Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. But why would Israel quarrel over the rights of refugees to return to a state she would have no sovereignty over? The answer is simple. It is because Israel has no intention of allowing any sort of Palestinian state to ever be established. As far as she is concerned, the whole of Palestine should be emptied of all Palestinians.

Finally, let us realize the most important aspect of the right of return. At its essence, the right of return is not one that can be negotiated away. It does not belong to the Palestinians collectively. Rather, it belongs individually to each of the almost 5 million registered Palestinian refugees walking the earth today.

And now I turn to Abbas. Last week, the Palestinian president told a group of 300 Israeli students visiting Ramallah, “We are not seeking to drown Israel with millions of refugees to change its structure.” This was taken by many as a sign of Abbas’ willingness to ease up on the right of return in negotiations with Israel. To those of us who have been keeping a close eye on Abbas, including his unwillingness to hold presidential elections for some time, his words came as no surprise. As a refugee himself, the Palestinian president is entitled to the same right as any of his brethren: to return to his home or to be justly compensated. It seems that he has chosen the latter.

This article also appeared in The Arab American News

About Amer Zahr 181 Articles
Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."


  1. Ammm…well, as always you explain the “full” picture without really touching the problems:

    While quoting the international law you “forget” the definitions of “Refugee” and the fact that for some odd reason the Palestinians have their own UN body that handels them, not the UNHCR. And this separate set of laws dictates that in the Palestinian case refugee rights are hereditary, unlike any other refugee on earth.

    This in turn means that for every person which Israel “deprived” in 1948 (lets put aside the facts on that one) there are between 10-100 new refugees.

    Accepting them will mean Israel becoming an Arab state, which is something not even the Arab citizens in Israel want (and not what the UN stated).
    There were not 5 million of you (“you”…are you from Ramallah, Gaza or from an Israeli town, BTW?) and it is time to get up and smell the coffee, tend to the real problems REAL palestinians have and stop blaming Israel for each and every problem you guys have.

    • Hi Jonathon,

      Next time you write, please use spell check as well as check your facts. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as a long list of UN General Assembly and Security Council Resolutions provide for Palestinian soverignty in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, as well as the right to return for those who lost their homes in the rest of what used to be known as Palestine. As a former UN employee, I can assure you that UNHCR works hand in hand with UNRWA, the body established to administer the refugee camps occupied by millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. UNHCR and the laws enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights pertain to the global Palestinian population in the diaspora, whether or not they reside in a refugee camp.

      As Israel has continued for decades to flout UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions providing for Palestinian sovereignty and the safeguarding of their inalienable human rights, including the right to return, indeed the number of refugees and their progeny has increased. And, with the passing of time, each successive generation has retained and renewed the intention of the Palestinian nation in exile to return to their rightful homeland – the one that Israel occupied in violation of International Law and in violation of the Ten Commandments, which include the Covenant that states, “Thou shall not steal.” With Israel’s abdication of God’s Law, the question is, “Does it remain God’s chosen people?” I think not. That’s why God sent the Prophets Jesus and Muhammad to continue to continue to teach His Message until we, humanity, get it right. In this regard, I feel we have not done enough until we hold Israel accountable once and for all for its incessant and flagrant crimes against humanity and the beautiful Palestinian people.

    • You know what your problem is (as is the problem of ALL Zionists)? It’s that you see yourself as the eternal victim but fail to see the reality of your victimizing others. The refugee problem isn’t a Palestinian problem. It’s an Israeli problem. You created the refugees, so you should deal with them. Israel is still receiving reparations from Germany for the Holocaust. Jews everywhere in the world are allowed their own “right of return” to Israel. It’s called making Aliyah. The difference is that Palestinian refugees are living in Diaspora whereas Jews around the world, whom are not living in Israel, are not. See Jonathan, in the real world, refugees are identified by their ethnicity not by their religion. A Jewish American is an American. A Polish Jew is Polish. A Russian Jew is Russian. They are not Israeli refugees that deserve their right of return because Israel or Palestine (however you choose to name it) was never their country; the never set foot there and they were never forced to flee from there due to war. On the other hand, the Palestinian refugees around the world have a legitimate claim. Israeli terrorists and military forces forced them to flee from their homes. Ariel Sharon, your national hero, was throwing hand grenades into Palestinian homes, killing men, women and children, and forcing the survivors to run for their lives. Their homes were razed. In many cases their entire villages were razed too. Their identities were completely thoroughly erased to create facts on the ground and propaganda for the Zionists who love to spout them: “there never was a Palestine”….”there never were any Palestinians living here”….”it was a land without people for a people without a land” (that one is my favorite). Sure, it was a land without people because you killed all those people and forced the rest of them to stand at the borders of Jordan and Lebanon to watch as you flattened their homes. These people and their children deserve reparations and deserve to return to their homes and lands. If you deny them those rights, then you are ironically no better than the third Reich that perpetrated the same crimes against the Jews, of whom you claim Israel is the “national homeland” (it isn’t; not even a 10th of Jews around the world live in this so-called “homeland” and many don’t want to).

  2. Jonathan, I apologize for spelling your name wrong, as well as the word “sovereignty”. That’s what I get for picking on your spelling rather than sticking to the facts.

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