Right of return is the heart of Palestine’s struggle

Small children stand against wall with mural of Palestine flag

No leader can surrender Palestinians’ right to return after 68 years of exile. (Tijen Erol)

A friend of mine recently shared an image meant to show solidarity with Palestine. At first glance, I thought it was nice: it depicts a heart that is outlined with the word “Palestine,” is filled with the names of many Palestinian cities and is decorated with the colors of the Palestinian flag.

Naturally, I tried to find the city of Safad, which is near the birthplace of my grandparents. I couldn’t find it, but I also couldn’t find other nearby cities such as Akka, Haifa or even Nazareth. Then it became clear: none of the Palestinian cities seized by Zionist forces during the 1948 Nakba were included in this Palestine heart.

As a descendant of Palestinians from a village in what is now known as Israel, the barrage of Israeli propaganda attempting to bury the history of our existence is not surprising. One can expect no less from a state that was created through the expulsion and subjugation of an existing population.

Discrimination against Palestinians is not perpetrated solely by the Israeli state; it is endemic to Israeli society itself. A recent Pew survey indicates that almost half of Israeli Jews believe that Palestinian citizens of Israel should be expelled from the country and 79 percent believe that Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel.

Yet the heart image, which ignores a key injustice perpetrated against Palestinians, presumably originated from a supporter of Palestine. It is just another picture among millions being shared online, but it serves as a reminder of how the plight of Palestinians dispossessed in 1948 has in many ways been forgotten, even by those who are supportive of the Palestinian cause.

A non-negotiable right

The right of return, a cornerstone of the Palestinian struggle, is the principle that Palestinian refugees have an inalienable right to return to their homeland. This includes those who fled or were forced to flee in 1948 as well as in 1967, along with their descendants.

The right of return is also enshrined in international law. The UN General Assembly in December 1948 adopted Resolution 194, which called for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes. In June 1967, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 237 calling on Israel to facilitate the return of refugees, thereby including those forced out by Israel’s seizure of land days earlier.

Israel continues to violate its obligations under international law. It has no intention of correcting or addressing the historic injustices that created the Palestinian refugee problem, and the right of return has been one of the main issues preventing a just settlement of the conflict. In the rare instances that Israel even considers Palestinian statehood, it regards the right of return as out of the question.

Although the original refugees of the 1948 ethnic cleansing are declining in number, their descendants number more than five million. Even if a fraction exercised their right to return, this could potentially upset the balance of power within the Israeli political system in a dramatic way. Considering that Israelis have long been warned of the “demographic threat” to the “Jewish state,” and that the entire Zionist project relies on maintaining Jewish demographic domination, it is no surprise that they are unwilling to accept the right of return.

As a result of its entrenched political, economic and military power, Israel has no incentive to accept responsibility for its crimes or make any reparations. On the contrary, the Israeli propaganda machine actively tries to normalize the country’s dark history and its ongoing oppression of Palestinians.

In other words, the expectation is that repeated human rights violations, including ethnic cleansing and dispossession, become accepted as normal if given enough time. This normalization influences the perceptions of international audiences, the Israeli public and even Palestine supporters who have become disheartened by the poor prospects for a fair resolution.

Game of patience

The first conference of the Zionist movement took place more than 50 years before 1948; the colonization of Palestine has long been a maneuver of patience, backed by overwhelming violence and international complicity.

This is still the case today, 68 years after the Nakba. Israel is likely betting that after the first-generation refugees die off, the following generations will gradually forget their claims to historic Palestine.

In the meantime, the trees planted by the Jewish National Fund will continue to grow and conceal the evidence of Palestinian villages destroyed by Zionists.

It is imperative that supporters of Palestinian rights never forget the refugees of 1948. Palestine solidarity movements continue to call for the right of return, but for strategic reasons much of their activism focuses on issues such as settlement activity in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Israeli aggression against Gaza.

The Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement calls for the boycott of “all of the Israeli companies and institutions that are involved in its violations of international law,” but it acknowledges that the most prominent campaigns target companies that operate in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Campaigns against settlement activity in the so-called Occupied Palestinian Territories are simply more likely to gain broad international support than those calling for the right of return.

This reality of what powerful nations — and even some activists — will support is a testament to the persistence and effectiveness of Israeli propaganda. Despite uprooting hundreds of thousands of people in 1948, occupying their lands and subjugating those who remained, major world powers view Israel as a legitimate state, a “bastion of democracy.”

To them, Palestinian lands captured in 1948 are not perceived as occupied in any way. The “Occupied Palestinian Territories” refer to the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, and Israel’s official position is that they are “disputed,” not occupied. History is written by the victors here.

Furthermore, supporters of Israel are notorious for answering valid criticism of state policy with accusations of anti-Semitism. They equate the Palestinian right of return with the denial of Jewish self-determination and this discourages others from speaking out.

Remaining steadfast

The core issue here is that the Zionist founders of Israel expelled the native Palestinian population and seized their lands. Israel’s very foundation rests on occupation and oppression.

In Lebanon, stateless Palestinians continue to live in overcrowded and underserved refugee camps with few rights, while Israelis — effectively squatters — live comfortably on the lands of these Palestinians’ parents and grandparents, only tens of miles away. Their rightful homes and lands are undoubtedly occupied.

No peace agreement can ever void this right of return because individual rights cannot be abrogated by any peace deal. Israel arrogantly claims sovereignty over the Palestinian lands that it stole in 1948, and it would like nothing more than to receive official sanction of this claim. Any Israeli willingness to recognize Palestinian statehood would be contingent on that.

In the meantime, Israel will continue to methodically malnourish, stunt and limit the caloric intake of Palestinians in Gaza and suppress Palestinians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in the hope that protracted suffering and humiliation will lead them into submission.

The Palestinian people have remained steadfast in the face of such Israeli tyranny. Sixty-eight years of displacement and repression have not broken their will and resilience.

But as Israel’s propaganda continues to distract from the truth of its foundation, and when even the supposed chief representative of Palestinians indicates his willingness to cede his claims to his hometown, it becomes more important than ever for Palestinians and their supporters to reaffirm the right of return. Otherwise, the true extent of the occupation of all historic Palestine will be forgotten.

Mohamed Mohamed is the Finance, Grants and Development Associate at The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center in Washington, DC.




I fully agree with Mohammed's article. I also personally do not like the term"Right of Return"; I'd rather use "Palestinian Refugees must and shall return" to their ancestral homeland. "Right of Return" has become a "motto" that's void of effective activism and action.
From the time of expulsion in 1948, the Palestinians should have focused all their resources and legal and international efforts solely on Return of the Refugees to Palestine. It's never too late to do so. We shall refocus our activism and all media and communication propaganda on the "Return of Palestinian Refugees" as the only condition for a "Moral and Sustainable Peace" in the State of Palestine/Israel.


What about the Greek Cypriots and their rights in North Cyprus.? Can they go back to their lands?
Can Germans return to Koningberg?
Can French Colons return to Algiers? Will they ever forget?
What about the Syrians now living in Berlin? When can they return to Aleppo?
What about Ugandan Asians returning to Kampala?
Are you going to answer this issue or just delete it?


Here is my response to Mr. Lewis's comment:
1. Generalizing the Palestinians' displacement historic tragedy by bringing up similar tragedies in other parts of the World does not make it right nor acceptable here or there.
2. The State of Israel was created in 1948 and populated through expulsion and displacement of the indigenous People of Palestine, and settling world Jews in the their land.
3. While the State of Israel is a political reality today, it does not make it morally nor politically right to prevent the Palestinians from returning to their historic homeland.
4. No decent human being shall condone, accept, or stand indifferent about the core human issue of the Palestinians' "Refugee" status. After 68 years of the unforgettable tragedy of 1948, three generations of Palestinians are still living and confined in overcrowded "refugee camps" that are scattered in neighboring countries whithin 100 miles from their stolen hometowns and cities.
5. In conclusion, no human being shall be denied living in his/her homeland, and more importantly, "No Child shall be born a Refugee".


Here is my response to Mr Nada Hasan Kiblawi
1)Some of the similar tragedies in other parts of the World include about 700 000 thousand jews that were either expelled or left Arab countries in the 3 years following 1948 due to persecution and safety
2)The State of Israel was created in 1948 and on the day of its independence it was attacked In addition to the local irregular Palestinians militia groups by a military coalition of 5 Arab states,
3)What would happen to those jews if they tried to return to there homes in the Arab world
4)Here I ask a question. How many jewish refugees are there and why did the UN not set up a special body to deal with them.
The Arab world refused and still refuses to give citizenship to the Palestinians as they do not believe that Israel has a right to exist, and by keeping the Palestinians in camps and treating them as second class citizens they have been fueling poverty and hatred since 1948
5)In conclusion both side have suffered and will keep on suffering until compromises are made


the right of return in the neglected topic in the peace negotiations, although it's the heart of the Palestinian cause, and here is my response to Mr.jeremy feldman:

1- Nothing can justify the barbarism ethnic cleansing occurred in 1948 and expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, villages, and cities, in addition to the ongoing racist policies against the Palestinians just because they are not Jews, and therefore no one can deny from a humanitarian perspective the right of return.
2- The Jews were welcomed in the Arab world more than any other place in Europe before 1948.
3- The same logic is used now for the illegal settlements expansion in the west bank, which is immoral and based on the imposition of power.
4- The Palestinians in some of the Arab countries are living in a second class, you are right. But why you don’t look at the Arab Palestinians in Israel and how they treated. Regarding the existence of Israel, Israel has not the right to exist on the Palestinians hopes. The creation of Israel was based on an illegal, immoral, and brutal expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948, and the cause of the Palestinians feeling of hatred and poverty is the denial of their legitimate rights.
5- The Jews suffered, and the Palestinians are paying the cost instead of who is responsible of that suffering. The state of Israel did not respect the Jews suffering as a humanitarian poverty, by the expulsion of the Palestinians in addition to the ongoing racist policies against th Palestinians.