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Refugees / Identity Issues:

Right of Return

At the heart of Palestinian claims is the demand for Israeli recognition of a right of return for refugees and their descendants. They trace this right to an array of international legal instruments, primarily paragraph 11 of the 1948 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194:

“Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return

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and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”


Palestinians approach the right of return as an individual right upheld collectively; it cannot be eliminated or withdrawn by states on behalf of their citizens. Even though Palestinian leaders have, at times, showed flexibility on the right of return, they largely have not prepared the Palestinian people for compromise.


For their part, Israelis reject legal claims for return rights, and have a strikingly different interpretation of Resolution 194 — Israel has argued it is neither binding, nor at all clear how it would be implemented. Most Israelis consider any concession on a right of return to be an expression of weakness, even betrayal, seeing it as a threat to Israel’s Jewish majority and founding narrative. Many Israelis expect the Palestinians to forsake the right of return in an agreement, although negotiators largely understand such an explicit forfeiture to be highly unlikely.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have explored compromises to resolve the refugee issue while protecting Israel’s Jewish majority. In an agreement, Israel could accept a Palestinian right of return in theory, combined with a Palestinian limit to the right in practice — satisfied primarily through Palestinian citizenship in the new Palestinian state. Consistent with this idea, former President Bill Clinton proposed language for return to “historic Palestine” or to the Palestinian “homeland.” Today, Palestinian leaders still publicly claim the “right” of return. However, in talks with Israel, negotiators have reportedly shown greater flexibility, simply demanding a “just” and “agreed-upon” solution. Mirroring the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative — backed by 57 Arab and Islamic countries — this language suggests that any resolution on refugees will have to receive Israeli approval.

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has himself suggested that he hopes to return to his childhood home in the Israeli city of Safed — but as a tourist, not to live there. Abbas’s statement was met with great resistance from Palestinians, and not convincing to Israelis.

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