|The Feasibility of the Right of Return
Source: ICJ and CIMEL paper, June 1997
Salman H. Abu-Sitta, which received his
PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of London.
He is the founder and director of a construction and
development company which worked for the World Bank,
Arab Fund, Kuwait Fund and others in the Middle East
and Africa. He writes frequently on the Palestine
Question and has been a member of the Palestine National
Congress for 20 years.
The Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict has arisen
because of the Israeli conquest of Palestine in 1948
and the expulsion of its people in order to accommodate
newcomers from overseas. The struggle is therefore
about land taken and people expelled. The Palestinian
Nakba (catastrophe, holocaust) has no equal
in modern history. A foreign minority expels the majority
of the inhabitants of a country, occupies their land,
obliterates their physical and cultural landmarks
in a military campaign that is planned, armed, manned,
and is financially and politically supported from
Half a century later, there are 4,600,000 refugees,
expelled from 532 localities, without a home, identity
or a certain future. Their plight shook the foundation
of the Middle East, toppled practically every neighbouring
Arab government or removed its leader, caused five
major wars and innumerable attacks. After 50 years
of strife, it is abundantly clear that there can be
no peace without them, and that they have no wish
to go anywhere except Palestine. The yearning to return
to the homeland is the core of the Palestinians' psyche.
It is this unrelenting determination which has driven
them to maintain a monolithic structure across many
countries of refuge.
The infamous outcry of Golda Meir, "there is no
such thing as the Palestinians", is but one of many
myths fabricated in order to justify the expulsion
of the Palestinians. Others, like "land without a
people for a people without land', "the refugees left
on Arab orders" and "War of Independence" for Israeli
invasion, have been shown to be false, but not before
political and material advantage was extracted out
One of the persistent myths is the `impracticality'
of the return of the refugees, on the assumption that
the country is full of immigrants, the villages are
destroyed and it is impossible to find old property
boundaries. This view is advanced by the Israelis
and adopted by well-meaning people who agree that
the Right of Return is perfectly legal but cannot
be implemented on physical grounds.
The legal aspects have been dealt with elsewhere
in these proceedings. In this paper, we shall review
briefly the circumstances of the refugees' expulsion
and show that the return of the refugees is practically
feasible, and even desirable for permanent peace to
The Dimensions of Nakba:
Only by considering the human and material dimensions
of Nakba, will it be possible to comprehend
why the "refugee problem" is the core of the Middle
East conflict and its solution.
The number of Jews in Palestine grew
from 61,000 in 1920 to 604,000 in 1948, of which only
150,000 were born in Palestine. The rest were legal
and illegal immigrants, mostly of military age; some
were veterans of World War II. in 1948, the Palestinian
Arabs were the absolute majority of the population
The Jewish foreign minority expelled 805,000, or 84%
of the Palestinian inhabitants of the land that was
conquered by Israel in the 1948 war. The Palestinian
refugees lost their homes, property and land in 532
Thus, the "refugee problem" was born. Their number
grew to 4,476,000 (1994), 30% of whom still live in
truncated Palestine (West Bank and Gaza), and 53%
in neighbouring Arab countries. In total, 83% of the
refugees (and 88% of all Palestinians) are still in
Palestine or within 100 miles from its borders. The
rest are working in the Gulf, Europe and the Americas.
In terms of land, the Zionists/Israelis
had conquered a total of 20,325 sq.km (78% of Palestine).
Israel's area consists of :
- 1,682 sq.km (8% of Israel): land under Jewish
control prior to 1948 war.
- 1,465 sq.km (7% of Israel): Palestinian land
whose inhabitants stayed in Israel, and
- 17,178 sq.km (85% of Israel): land which belongs
to the Palestinian refugees.
Thus, fully 92% of Israel is Palestinian land.
How It Happened:
To tell the story of Nakba is not a futile
exercise in history. Not only it explains why the
Palestinians are determined to return, but it also
underlines the obligation of Israel to allow them
to return home and compensate them for the material
and psychological damage they have suffered.
It is remarkable that the eye-witness accounts
of hundreds of thousands of refugees about their horrifying
experience of the exodus have been ignored in the
west, and credence was given to the official Israeli
handout. New analysis of released Israeli files, such
as the excellent works by Morris, Pappe', Flapan,
Finkelstein, has confirmed what the refugees were
saying all along.
While Palestine was under the protection of the
British Mandate, 213 localities (43%) were over-run
and depopulated by the Israelis. If we add 27 days
of fighting, between 15 May and 11 June, in which
Arab regulars entered, unprepared, and unfamiliar
with the country, we find that 291 localities (59%)
were depopulated and 62% of the refugees became homeless.
The Arab intervention, not only failed to restore
the current refugees to their homes, but failed also
to rescue the remaining one-third. It is clear therefore
that the aggressor and the defender have exchanged
places in the Israeli myth-making.
There is one other striking feature
of the exodus. By comparing the depopulation date
of each village against the various Israeli operations
in a database analysis, it is found that practically
no exodus has taken place at the cessation of hostilities,
however brief. The lull in the fighting would have
been an ideal opportunity for the villagers to leave,
since the threat to their life and property is still
present. The fact is they did not leave. The correlation
between their departure and the Israeli assaults is
The impact of massacres is considerable. Dayr Yassin
is an infamous example, but the Dawayima is the largest
and most brutal. About 500 were butchered by the units
of the 89th Battalion (the 8th Brigade) on the afternoon
of 29 October 1948. A total of 25 massacres have been
reported during the major Israeli operations from
April to October 1948, and were used as military instruments
in accelerating the exodus.
Oral history records have shown that, when expelled,
the villagers moved to a nearby safe place or stayed
with relatives, waiting. Many have circulated around
their village waiting to return. Those who tried to
return were shot on the spot as "infiltrators". Soon
after, their houses were destroyed and their harvest
burnt, to prevent their return. With the exception
of those inhabitants of coastal towns who left by
sea and those who were forced to march, most refugees
made a tortuous trek around their villages trying
in vain to return, before they ended up in a place
of refuge. As subsequent wars would show, even that
was not final.
Thus the claim that the refugees
left their homes on orders of Arab governments, not
through Israeli expulsion and military assaults, is
A corollary of this claim is that the Arab governments,
not Israel, are responsible for the refugees and that
they must resettle them in their countries at their
Analysis shows that 23% of the villages
had been depopulated due to "expulsion by Jewish forces",
51% by "military assault", 9% by imminent attack on
the village, making a total of 83% of the villages
depopulated due to Jewish military attacks. Psychological
warfare was responsible for 9%, while 1% of villages
left on their accord, and 7% reasons unknown.
Semantics aside, the depopulation of the refugees
is the direct result of an all-out war waged by Israel
The argument which deserves careful
attention, however, is the practical one: namely that
villages are destroyed and land boundaries unrecognizable.
The claim that, with the destruction
of villages, it is not possible for the refugees to
return, presupposes that a refugee can only recognize
as home, and wish to live in, the same old house he
left. Ignoring the racial overtones of this contention,
a cursory look at the development of Amman, Beirut
and the Gulf cities in the last fifty years, most
of which is the work of the Palestinians, would show
that dramatic transformations, many much larger than
Israel's, have taken place. There is no reason to
assume that the same cannot be repeated upon return.
A return would be to the same land, most frequently
the same site, with reconstruction of villages and
repairing of long-neglected Palestinian cities.
With the exception of Central District, relatively
few village sites are occupied by modern construction.
Most Kibbutz buildings and prefab units are installed
away from old village remains.
Then, it is claimed that boundaries
have disappeared and are impossible to determine.
Available Palestine and Israel detailed maps, assisted
by modern technology, now used by Israel to lease
the refugees land, are sufficient to determine old
and new boundaries. It can be demonstrated that all
boundaries and ownerships are well-recorded.
Not only the villages are kept in the memory of the
refugees and their children, but their images are
kept for posterity through the British aerial survey
of 1945-1946. Typical examples are shown.
Armed with convenient myths, pro-Israeli schemes have
been advanced in order to get rid of the "refugee
problem" for ever. These schemes are based on the
following assumptions. The Palestinians are not a
people, they are a community of Arabs. They have no
country called Palestine. They immigrated to that
place recently. They have no roots (mostly nomads);
they do not have strong ties to the land (as Jews
do). They are backward and they did not fight well,
so they do not deserve the country anyway. Their `Transfer'
to other places is not a human or material loss. The
Jews, however, are a people-being-reconstituted and
they must be brought from the far corners of the world
to cement a new (or renewed) identity. They are 'civilised'
and can develop the land more efficiently. A natural
corollary of this is that the dismemberment and the
'end' of the Palestinian people is perfectly acceptable
and their replacement by Jewish immigrants to create
a new people is a miraculous act of God and a victory
for civilization. This zero sum equation is the root
of all evil in this conflict.
clearly demonstrated, the origin of the idea of resettlement
lies in the Zionist policy of `Transfer' (expulsion).
After 1948, Western schemes, for example by Thicknesse
been suggested to resettle refugees in Syria and Iraq
(Lebanon was not suggested), possibly with UNRWA as
an instrument. After 1967, pro-Israeli authors proposed
a plethora of resettlement schemes. Peretz, who writes
frequently on the subject, endorses solutions which
allow a limited return of the refugees to a toothless
state, not to their homes. He also considers limited
compensation for lost property to be offset against
the unrelated and exaggerated claims of Jews who left
Arab countries to settle on Palestinian land. Heller
also proposes resettlement elsewhere and a limited
return (for 1980, 750,000 out of eligible 2,700,000),
again to a nominal state, not to their homes.
presented a comprehensive review of resettlement plans
and other refugee issues. He describes in particular
the semi-official Israeli suggestion by Shlomo Gazit.
Gazit insists on the `finality' of the solution, the
"renunciation" of the Right of Return, dismantling
of UNRWA and abolishing the special status of refugees.
As a reward, Gazit wants Israel to issue a "moral-psychological
acknowledgement" recognizing the suffering of the
Palestinians in the last fifty years. To avoid the
notion of Israel's responsibility, this acknowledgement
would come as part of a UN resolution abolishing the
Right of Return enshrined in Resolution 194, para
A Palestinian writer, A. H. Khalidi,
picked up the thread by suggesting a trade-off between
this paper acknowledgement and the admission, by the
Palestinians, that the implementation of the Right
of Return is "impossible". This lone view has no echo
among the refugees.
in a much publicised report, suggests the permanent
dispersal of the Palestinians by their resettlement
wherever they are (with cosmetic adjustments), or
anywhere they wish, except their homes. The new twist
for this sour wine in the same cracked bottles is
that the Palestinians will maintain their link as
a people by holding some kind of Palestinian identity
papers provided that they drop their claim to their
land. Upon such event, Israel will retain their land
legally. As an act of generosity, Israel will allow
back, after rigorous vetting and within a limited
period, a total of 75,000. Translated to 1948 figures,
this means 8,000 original refugees, a fraction of
the 300,000 figure proposed by Truman in 1949 as a
price for admitting Israel into the UN. Finally, Israel
was admitted to the UN upon the promise made by Sharret
to allow the return of 100,000, a promise he never
Needless to say, all the resettlement schemes have
utterly failed, because they deny a people the most
natural right, to return home. In spite of major wars,
suffering and much disappointment, the last fifty
years have shown that the Palestinians insist on returning
home. Instead of harping on worn out ideas, it is
time to face this reality and look afresh at new,
natural and permanent solutions.
The Return Plan:
The argument which gains currency, especially among
people who believe that the Right of Return is legal
and just, is the assumption that Israel is fully populated
and that any returnees would displace existing Jewish
residents. It will be shown that this fear is unfounded
and that the return of the refugees is possible with
no appreciable dislocation to the Jewish residents.
Israel is divided into 41 `natural
regions'. See map. The first eight natural regions
have an area of 1,683 sq.km (8% of Israel). This is
where the majority of the Jews (2,924,000, 68%) live.
We shall call this Area (A). It is remarkably similar
in size, but not exactly in location, to the area
in which the Jews lived in pre-48 Palestine. This
concentration emphasizes the traditional pattern of
Jewish life; in close proximity and in pursuit of
trades such as commerce and industry. Fifty years
of Israeli conquests and expansion did not convince
the majority of Israelis to abandon traditional habits.
The next five natural regions
have an area of 1,318 sq.km (7%) in which 419,000
Jews (10%) live. We shall call this Area (B). The
size of this area is close to the land of the Palestinians
who remained in Israel. Thus, 78% of the Jews in Israel
live in 15% of the land.
This leaves Area C (17,325 sq.km., 85% of Israel).
This area is remarkably similar, but not exactly identical,
to the Palestinian land from which they were driven.
Who lives there now ? About 800,000 urban Jews, 154,000
rural Jews and 465,000 Israeli Palestinians. Thus,
154,000 Jews cultivate the land of 4,476,000 refugees
who are prevented from returning to it.
In the proposed plan, it is possible
to allow the return of the refugees to their original
homes in the majority of cases, and closeby in others.
Palestine sub-district boundaries are close to Israel's,
viz: Safad, Tiberias, Nazareth, Baysan, Acre, Haifa,
Jaffa, Gaza, Ramla, and BeerSheba. The largest difference
lies in the sub-districts that are divided by the
Armistice line of 1949. It will therefore be possible
to relate the refugees' return to the Israeli natural
regions. In the large BeerSheba Sub-District, the
refugees are distributed in the plan according to
their original density, which is high in the north,
sparse in the south.
With the return of the refugees, the overall density
will be 482 persons/sq.km, instead of the present
261, which is still an acceptable figure. The new
overall density of 482 p/sq.km. is a far cry from
the congested miserable conditions which the refugees
have to endure while their land is the playground
of the privileged Kibbutz. The present density in
Gaza Strip is 4,400 and the West Bank 880 p/sq.km,
considering the areas under the control of the Palestine
National Authority (PNA). Understandably, this is
one of the major and lasting causes of instability
In the Return Plan
summarized in Table
1, Area A will remain largely Jewish (76% Jews),
Area B will be mixed and Area C will be largely Palestinian
(81% Palestinian). Some adjustments, however, will
be desirable from a practical point of view. In densely
populated Area A, it will be preferable to relocate
rural Palestinians (about 900,000) to Areas B and
C. Conversely, only 154,000 rural Jews may have to
relocate from Area C to Area A, after the end of their
lease, to allow Palestinian farmers to recover their
land. That is if they do not wish to mix with Palestinian
farmers. This disparity in the numbers of relocated
population, although unfair and painful to the Palestinians,
appears to be advisable to enhance the homogeneity
of population. Due to the special status of Jerusalem,
no relocation is applied to it.
With the refugees' return, the population density
in the Jewish area (A) changes only slightly, while
it increases about 3 times (246 compared to the present
82 persons/sq.km) in the Palestinian Area C. That
is to be expected. Ramla-Lydda and Khadera areas will
have higher densities, but this would be balanced
by merging into the "Triangle" which has already a
significant Palestinian population. It is expected
that natural population movement and economic forces
will lead to a voluntary and more balanced distribution.
Let us examine in more detail the Southern District
(the Palestinian Gaza and BeerSheba Sub-Districts).
Only 78,000 rural Jews live in 14,107 sq.km. Their
relocation up north, if they wish, should not cause
any hardship. The remaining 555,000 (urban) Jews are
distributed as follows: 63% live in 3 Palestinian
towns: Beer Sheba, Ashdod and Majdal-Ashqelon, a further
24% live in 3 new towns: Qiryat Gat (Iraq Manshiya),
Elat (Um Rashrash), Dimona (Rujm el Belewi). Their
occupations; shipping, transport, industry and education,
are beneficial to the District. They should continue
to pursue these occupations. (It is ironic to note
that these new towns with population ranging from
26,000 to 42,000 are equivalent in size to, or smaller
than, a typical refugee camp, e.g. Jabaliya Camp,
Gaza, 40,000). Thus, the return of the Palestinians
to their land and the pursuit of their traditional
occupation in agriculture will not cause major disruption,
neither to Jewish population, nor to their occupations.
If we turn to the Northern District (3,325 sq.km),
we find a similar pattern, although not so clear-cut.
Of 134,000 rural Jews, only 76,000 may be relocated,
if they wish. The urban Jews in the District are 71%
of Jews. About 90% of those live in just 9 towns,
three of which are originally Palestinian (Acre, Tiberias,
Shefa Amr). The largest town in the District, (Nazareth
54,000), is totally Palestinian today. Other than
Nazareth, the remaining towns are, once again, similar
in size to a typical refugee camp.
Although Haifa and Central Districts
are densely populated Jewish areas, the presence of
Palestinians in those Districts is significant. The
Palestinians are 26% and 9% of Jews respectively.
In these Districts, there are 13 purely Palestinian
towns with a population in excess of 10,000 each.
What is evident is that the Palestinian presence
all over Israel today is a fact. The return of the
refugees will not be a novelty. It is not as catastrophic
as some make it to be. Although the relationship between
the two has not been easy, the fact is the Palestinians
and the Jews lived together for the last 50 years
without major problems, not to mention centuries of
Arab and Jewish harmony. The return of the refugees
is consistent with existing concentrations of Jews
and Palestinians and with their respective occupations.
The return shall not cause dislocation of Jews and
only minor voluntary relocation.
The proposed plan represents the most congested
(worst) case, ie all refugees return and all
Jews stay. For Palestinians, they must have the right
to return, whether they actually return or not, now
or later. For Jews, Israel gave them the right to
live in Israel any time wherever they come from. Few
exercise this option (34% of world Jewry) and many
who do, leave after a while (17-20%). But even in
the most congested case, only 154,000 Jews may choose
to relocate elsewhere in Israel to allow 4,476,000
refugees to return to their homes and end half a century
of destitution and suffering. This is a very cheap
price Israel should pay for what it has inflicted
upon the Palestinians and still cheaper price to pay
for a secure future for both peoples.
What will the returnees do? What will the relocated
One of the main tenets of Zionism is to `return'
to the land, to abandon traditional occupations in
finance and commerce and become farmers tilling the
land. That was a major departure for East European
Zionists who rarely, if ever, experienced agricultural
life. Communal colonies, given the name: Kibbutzim,
were set-up in pre-48 Palestine to set the example.
Kibbutz members were the Zionist
elite. They formed the backbone of Israel's army.
They held, and still hold, superior political weight
and enjoy unparalleled advantages. By the end of 1947,
the Kibbutz members dwindled considerably. The post-1948
immigrants, who were neither Zionists nor East Europeans,
would not choose the Kibbutz if given the choice.
Although they were given land, supplies and training
upon arrival, many of those new `farmers' drifted
to the urban centre thereafter.
In the eighties, agricultural labour
decreased, in absolute and relative terms, from 6.4%
to 4.7% of the labour force.
In the same decade, the agricultural sector was facing
"a major crisis". It was burdened by debt, and could
not be economically viable. Dozens of new settlements
were abandoned and many collapsed. About 50-60% `moshavim'
members did not work in agriculture. Only 26% of all
units used 60% of all water and land and produced
75% of all production. The remainder is obviously
a failure. This is not surprising as some estimates
indicate that the number of the employees of the agricultural
organizations is four times the number of farmers.
The often-repeated vocalised dream
of `making the desert green' had not materialised.
In 1987, the Jewish rural population in the central
and southern Negev was only 7,000, while that in the
more fertile northern Negev was just 25,000. These
figures remain stagnant as negative migration is replaced
Thus, after decades of investments and "Zionist aspirations",
not to mention huge quantities of water (40% of total
agricultural consumption) drawn from northern Jordan
river, at the risk of wars, the natural potential
population of the Negev, as compared to an equivalent
arid zones elsewhere, has been exceeded by a negligible
figure, less than 50,000 Jews.
The contribution of agriculture to
GDP decreased from 7.9% (1983) to 2.4% (1993).
Now it accounts for 4% of exports. To increase its
economic value, Israel plans to reduce the area of
low-value crops such as cotton, citrus, avocado and
wheat (barley is already eliminated) in favour of
speciality crops, eg. flowers, spices and herbs.
On the other hand, the Palestinians have been farmers
for centuries. As successive British Government reports
during the Mandate show, every cultivable plot of
land was cultivated. In the south, wheat was extensively
grown at annual rainfall of just above 200 mm and
barley at above 100 mm. It is true that the productivity
was low due to lack of capital and research. But this
can be remedied; witness the excellent produce of
farmers in Gaza in a tiny plot of land irrigated by
increasingly saline water under conditions of Israeli
occupation. Their produce posed a threat to Israeli
agriculture to the extent that it was prohibited from
entering Israel or left to perish at the crossing
With the return of the Palestinians to their land
and resuming their traditional occupation in agriculture,
with more investment and advanced technology, rights
will be restored without an appreciable loss to those
who deprived them from these rights.
A legitimate question would be about the sufficiency
of water resources for doubling the country's population.
First, it must be observed that Israel
has consumed about 80% of the water resources it controls,
for agriculture. Subsidized water, at 5.85-12.5 US
cents/cubic metre (m3) for the first 80% of supply
(compared to 50 cents for domestic use) was offered
willingly to the Kibbutz.
The average cost of production is 30-36 cents/m3,
while for arid areas, desalination cost is as high
as $1.6/m3, or 16 times the cost to the Israeli farmer.
What is there to show for this extravagance? A tiny
number of "elite class" farmers on the edge of bankruptcy
holding under their possession 85% of the (Palestinian)
Moreover, this exploitation of resources
exceeds by far the safe yield limits. Serious undermining
of aquifers has been observed in the Coastal Plain
and near Tiberias.
Fresh waters from Yarmouk are pumped in Tiberias,
thus rendering the water of lower Jordan river, accessible
to Jordanians, unsuitable for irrigation. The salinity
of Gaza water is responsible for deteriorating agricultural
produce and water pollution has caused widespread
health problems. This irresponsible exploitation coupled
with immense thirst for more water has been one of
the major causes of 1967 and 1982 wars, and will probably
cause future wars.
The water consumption of Israel grew
from 350 million cubic metres per year (mcm/yr) to
1,000 in 1956, due to Tiberias canal diversion, Huleh
drainage, and Yarkon (Auja) diversion to Negev. After
reaching the limit of water exploitation in its territory
in 1958, Israel started to tap the resources of the
West Bank aquifer, well before the 1967 war. By 1965,
Israel built its National Water Carrier and destroyed
Syrian irrigation schemes. That increased its consumption
to 1,320 mcm/yr, out of which 820 was Arab water.
By seizing Arab head-waters in 1967 and occupying
south Lebanon in 1982, the consumption increased to
2020 (1990) mcm/yr, of which 1471 was Arab water.
In 20 years, Israel plans to increase its consumption
to 3000 mcm/yr. Not only is the present exploitation
of Arab water subject to the censure of the international
but the continued pursuit of the same policy will
be a recipe for more wars.
however, a rational approach is followed, new war
may be avoided. If the refugees return and resume
their occupation in agriculture, a regional Arab agreement
may be concluded. In Table
2, we have examined 3 cases of water use. Case
1 (actual): Israeli consumption consists of 1300 mcm/yr
goes to agriculture, 133 to industrial use and 594
for municipal (domestic) use. Israel's municipal consumption
is extremely high at 104 cubic metre/ person/year
(285 litres/person/day), as compared to Jordan (60)
and the West Bank (37.5). It should not be difficult
to curtail this wasteful consumption down to Jordan's
While keeping agricultural consumption to 1300 mcm/yr,
we shall examine two future cases. Case 2: All refugees
return; no additional Russians immigrate, with the
present remaining; municipal use fixed at 60 cm/p/yr
for all population. Case 3: No refugees return; an
additional 1.5 million Russians immigrate to Israel;
Israeli municipal use remains at 104 cm/p/yr. Cases
2,3 require roughly the same amount of water, about
2700 mcm, which is the max amount of water which may
be extracted for Israel/Palestine from its territory
and the immediately adjacent region.
Case 2 is feasible through inter-Arab agreement
for distribution of water resources and allowing the
refugees to return. Case 3 is not possible without
a new war to acquire more Arab land and water and,
at the same time, keeping the refugees away from their
homes. The consequences of either admitting more Russians
or allowing the refugees to return are therefore obvious.
There are no water resources available at present
for both cases.
These figures will be tempered, of course, by economic
conditions and political stability, or lack of it.
These factors will, among other things, affect the
number of Russians willing to live in Israel (currently
outward migration among them is 20%). The conclusion,
however, remains valid.
If, however, Israel continues to
impose its control on land and water and plans for
further expansion, on the belligerent principle that
"water cannot be a consequence of peace; it is a condition
then the area may well witness another fifty years
of destruction and bloodshed.
From logistic point of view, it is not difficult to
put the Return Plan into effect. In the period 1949-1951,
Israel admitted over 650,000 Jews under conditions
of war after a journey of thousands of miles. In the
nineties, Israel admitted a similar number of Russian
Jews without as much as crowding the airport.
For the Palestinian refugees, the return home is
much easier. All what they have to do is to travel
by buses for 1-2 hours, from Gaza northeast, from
the West Bank westwards and from Lebanon south to
Galilee. They know where to go; their village sites
are mostly vacant. They know who they are; a typical
village consists of 4-5 hamulas (large families)
which are still intact. There are complete records
of about 700,00 families and five million individual
files. We know the original inhabitants of each village,
their family history for 50 years and where they and
their off-spring reside today.
Construction of new or temporary homes can be, and
has been, achieved at a record time. Workforce and
young men of the village can preceed the arrival of
the whole village. UNRWA has a wealth of experience
in this regard, which is run by a Palestinian staff
of 21,000. Thousands of qualified Palestinian workers,
engineers and planners have similar experience. Detailed
project plans can be drawn up. The task of reconstruction
and rehabilitation is quite manageable; witness the
Desert Storm logistic exercise when half a million
soldiers were moved, fed, housed in a matter of few
To protect the refugees' property
rights, it is necessary to form a Palestine Land
(PLA), with the following mandate:
- PLA represents the property rights of the People
of Palestine everywhere.
- PLA functions are: to document, recover, hold,
protect, maintain and develop Palestinian property.
- PLA is the custodian of all Palestinian property
until the shares of the individual owners are determined
and/or the property is handed over to its owners.
- PLA is an independent authority. It cooperates
with PNA, Palestine National Congress and the relevant
UN or other agencies.
- PLA remains active until all its functions are
The general assembly of PLA consists of approximately
1500 members, representing 532 depopulated localities,
at the rate of 3 persons per `equivalent' village
unit. These persons may be elected or represented
by mukhtars, chief landowners and leading personalities.
The total area of Palestinian land is the sum
of village and town lands, including common and public
land, minus Jewish ownership in 1948. The latter
is very well-defined, as it was the ardent desire
of Zionist immigrants and corporations to have a proof
of land purchased or acquired in Palestine. It is
the task of PLA to take control of this (net) Palestinian
At first, villagers will own their village land
collectively, through PLA, in the form of a number
of allocated shares, assigned to each village. The
areas of village lands are well-defined. The total
ownership of each village is therefore indisputable.
The village "unit", with its monolithic, historical,
cultural and blood-ties continuity, remains the best
instrument for repatriation and rehabilitation.
Then, individual ownership may be
assigned. The UN Conciliation Commission of Palestine
(CCP) has 450,000 records of registered individual
ownership. The writer has examined some of these records
and found them quite legible, contrary to some reports.
These records, however, represent only 5,194 sq,km
out of 17,178 sq.km. total Palestinian refugees' land;
the difference being unregistered, but recognized,
ownership, due to the hasty departure of the Mandate
government. Custom and inheritance laws may be applied
for the descendants in these cases, but always maintaining
the village "unit".
The legal transfer of property is
straightforward. The 49-year land leases held by the
Kibbutz are due to expire in 1998. The deeds may be
transferred to the legal owners, through PLA, by the
(Israeli) Custodian of Absentee Property. The (Israeli)
Development Authority will then become redundant,
and Israel Land Administration should hand over the
documentation. There shall be no cases of dispute
between individual Jews and Palestinians since practically
all Jews who benefited from Palestinian land since
1948 have no personal title deeds.
UNRWA shall continue to function until all refugees
are adequately and safely repatriated. UNRWA then
turns into a development authority under UNDP. The
Return Plan shall be carried out under the guardianship
of CCP which shall ensure the physical and legal well-being
of the returnees.
All returning Palestinians shall be issued certificates
of Palestinian Identity, (converted from the present
UNRWA refugee ID's plus new certificates for about
1,241,400 (1994) refugees who are not registered),
in addition to, and regardless of, any other citizenship,
including Israeli, they may have, at any time. They
shall enjoy full civil and religious rights. Their
political rights shall follow the country of their
citizenship. They shall have the right to obtain the
country's citizenship without discrimination on any
Will Democracy Win?
The proposed Return Plan set out above certainly
runs against the pro-Israeli schemes of resettlement.
It is, however, in line with the rights and wishes
of about five million refugees whose voice is rarely
heard. Let us walk through the fog of myths and look
at some facts.
To the Palestinians, the Right of Return is sacred.
Palestinians "exist"; they are a people. If we learn
anything from the last 50 years, it is that the Palestinians
will not just disappear, or disperse. It is now abundantly
clear that, of the parties in the conflict, they are
the only ones who have nowhere else to go or wish
to go except Palestine.
The most natural thing in the world is to return
home. That is why legislators did not see the need
to inscribe it. Yet, in spite of adverse legal sophistry,
Palestinians have a solid right to return, supported
by the absolute majority of the nations of the world.
Demographically, their return will cause minimum and
voluntary relocation of Israelis and no `transfer',
a welcome relief when compared to Israel's plans.
It can be done. It is feasible. It is even beneficial,
to prevent new war and create permanent peace.
The Palestinians have no obligation, moral or legal,
to accommodate the Israelis at their expense. By any
standards, the Israelis have such obligation - to
correct a monumental injustice they have committed.
Nevertheless, the refugees' return has nothing to
do with Israel's sovereignty. It has nothing to do
with whether Oslo agreements succeed or fail. It has
nothing to do with settlements, boundaries or even
Jerusalem. Let all these issues take their natural
The negative points of the proposal are clear. Israel
will not allow it, at least now. It has the military
muscle, aided by the US, to prevent it. Israel's justification
for this denial is to protect its security and preserve
It is of course ridiculous to claim that unarmed
subjugated Palestinians are, or could be, a threat
to a regional military and nuclear superpower. Security
is euphemism for the protection of Israel's gains:
land, water and sovereignty, which it has wrenched
from the Palestinians. Security in this sense means
therefore the denial of all, but token, Palestinian
rights. This will not be allowed to happen, and if
it did by sheer force, it will not be permanent, for
the naked power, by its very nature, is transient.
Therefore, it is in Israel's best interest to achieve
security by eliminating the need for it. The return
of the refugees will achieve it permanently.
Israel clings to the idea of Jewish purity. Israel
today is a tribal society armed with high-tech. There
is no place in the future for such a state. It cannot
continue to protect its exclusivity by brutal force
and still hope to share civilized values and exchange
trade and ideas with the rest of the world, least
of all the Arab World.
Inside Israel, there are several disparate groups
(religious, secular, European, Asian, African) which
are preserving their own separate ways. There are
the Israeli Palestinians, who comprise 20% of the
Jews. This separate national group is young, 45% less
than 20 years old, against 29% for Jews. This young
wave will propel itself into more representation in
the next two decades. Israel would then have two choices,
a negative one, to subjugate them, or a positive one,
to accept them as citizens. If Israel subjugates them
(as it did in 1948-1966), transfer or exterminate
them in the extreme, it would become more isolated
than ever and will deserve to be the pariah of the
world. In the age of mass communication and the upsurge
in the awareness of human rights, this would be suicidal
for Israel. If it accepts them, as it should, it would
have no problem with the `other' Palestinians.
Thus, the sooner Israel turns democratic, the less
it will pay for peace. Waiting will buy time but will
not solve the problem. To break the rock of `return'
down into a multitude of pebbles: resettlement here
and there, return of a token number, a few family
reunions, splitting the refugees to genuine refugees,
refugees with citizenship, displaced persons, permanent
residents ...etc. will only create as many problems.
Besides, it had been tried and failed.
The best course, and the least costly, remains the
return of the refugees. To be sure, the refugees return
is not a sweet pill for the Israelis to swallow, especially
after they have enjoyed an easy military victory and
vast material gains in the last fifty years. But for
a permanent cure, a pill must be taken.
for Jews born in Palestine are estimated from the
natural increase of those resident in Palestine in
1920. In 1995, 4,388,000 Jews live in Israel, the
home of 5,657,000 Palestinians, of which 1,011,000
still live there. The rest, 4,646,000, are expelled
to make room for the Jews. Since 1980, the Palestinians,
resident and exiled, outnumber the Jews inspite of
open immigration for the latter. For pre-1948 Jews
and Palestinians, see A Survey of Palestine for the
Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, Vol. 1, Ch. VI,
p. 140, Reprint 1991, the Institute for Palestine
Studies, Washington DC and W. Khalidi (1987), App.
I, p.841. For dispossessed Palestinians, see Abu-Sitta.
For Palestinians in Israeli-Palestine (67% of total),
see J. Abu-Lughod, Table 3, p.160. For post-1948 Israeli
figures, see Statistical Abstracts of Israel, CBS,
1995, No.46, Table 2.27 and others.
details, see Abu-Sitta. The depopulated localities
are 13 towns, 420 village and 98 tribes. The list
is based on Morris (1987) and W. Khalidi (1992), plus
Beer Sheba Sub-District which is added in detail for
the first time. The population is upgraded to the
year 1948 from Village Statistics of 1945. This paper
contains also database analysis of the depopulated
villages, their population size and land area, when
they left and why, and the incidence of massacres.
See Hadawi, App.V p. 224, App.VI p.230, App.VIII p.247
and AbuSitta Table 3. Note that about half Area B
has been expropriated by Israel although owners are
Israeli citizens, so-called "present absentees".
See the well-known works by Morris (1987, 1990) for
a new look at the now-declassified Israeli files.
For the myth of Arab orders to leave, see W. Khalidi
(1988). For further discussion of Morris's research,
showing it has not gone far enough, see Finkelstein.
For a new review by Israeli authors of Israel's responsibility,
see Pappe', Segev, Flapan. For a review of UN files
by non-Israeli author, see Palumbo. For a database
analysis of all depopulated villages, see Abu-Sitta.
This analysis is an extension of Morris's Work (1987),
using the same criteria, to cover 532 localities.
See Abu-Sitta (1996).
>See Falah (1996) for a field survey of physical and
cultural destruction of the Palestinian presence in
for example Peretz, who argues that the return is "neither
feasible nor practical", p.72 and that "conditions have
so changed..." p. 73, so as not to permit return. See
also the comments by Elie Sanbar, the Chief Palestinian
Delegate in the multi-lateral talks on refugees. After
utterly refusing to forfeit the Right of Return, the
Palestinian Delegation was given `the practical difficulties'
as a pretext for no return.
Palestinian towns from which they were depopulated
(eg. Jaffa, Acre, BeerSheba) are left without repair.
Palestinians who remained in Israel are prevented
from any care or upgrading of their property, except
by a special permit which is difficult to get. Israelis
destroyed most villages immediately upon expulsion
of their inhabitants. In a field survey of 418 villages,
Falah (1996) found out that, on a scale of 1 to 6,
where 1=total obliteration, 6=partly occupied by at
least 2 Jewish families, 7=inaccessible villages,
1=19.4%, 2=33.5%, 3=14.3%, 4=17.7%, 5=4.1%, 6=8.4%,
7=2.6%. This means roughly that 67.2% were totally
destroyed, 17.7% partially destroyed, 12.5% partially
Palestine is a well-documented country. First scientifically-prepared
map was prepared by Jacotin in 1799 during Napoleon's
Campaign. In 1872-1877, Palestine Exploration Fund
surveyed Palestine and produced 26 sheets with 15,000
names (none of them Jewish) under 46 designations.
The Government of Palestine (1920-1948) produced maps
of Palestine (1:100,000, 1: 20,000, 1:12,500 down
to 1:1,250 series). It also kept Land Registry records,
from which United Nations Conciliation Commission
on Palestine produced Landowners Index, available
on micro-film. Israel used and updated the above maps
for lease of land to the Kibbutz. Geographical Information
System (GIS) can recreate past, present and forecast
future conditions of land and people.
See Masalha (1992, 1997)
See Thicknesse (1949).
See Zureik (1996).
See his article in the Herald Tribune, 12 Feb 1997.
Arzt report suggests a final solution to the Palestinians.
The report contains errors of fact and builds on them.
In her permanent `Transfer' plan, Table 4.1, p.88,
Arzt quotes US Bureau estimates for the year 2005,
cited in Peretz, p.16, which exclude Palestinians
in Europe and the Americas. Yet Arzt conveniently
halves the figure of "other Mideast States" to include
"non-Mideast States". Arzt table for 1995 is equally
doctored. Furthermore, her tables for total Palestinians
underestimate the figure by about one million (1995
estimate: 7,025,000 min-7,590,000 max). The substance
of Arzt's plan is to resettle the refugees mostly
wherever they are, with a new transfer for 1,800,000,
half of them to Europe and the Americas and the other
half to the West Bank. Most of the latter are `Displaced
Persons' anyway. They would normally have returned
had Israel not kept the West Bank under occupation
against the will of the international community. Half
of Gaza refugees will have to endure another transfer
somewhere else while a negligible number will return
to their homes in Israel if they satisfy strict rules
already in operation since 1950.
are: Tel Aviv, Judean Mountain, Haifa, Petah Tiqwa,
Sharon, Rishon Le Ziyyon, Southern Sharon and Rehovoth.
The highest present density is 6711 (Tel Aviv) and the
lowest 767 (Sharon) person/sq.km.
See for example Arnon Sofer, p.126. Many others have
lamented the concentration of Jews in localized areas
as a danger to Israel which should be solved by `Transfer'
(expulsion) of the Arabs (in Israel), to prevent them
living in sparsely populated areas. Michael Romann
argues that Jewish demography has put a limit on the
ability to attain maximum territorial control of Arab
land (Middle Eastern Studies, 26(3), July 1990, pp.371-382).
Recent news (eg. Sunday Times, 9 Feb 1997, p.17) about
a plan to build 40 islands off-shore is an indication
that the pattern of dense coastal urban settlement
will continue and flourish.
These are: Lod, Hadera, Yizre'el, Nazareth, Kinerot
(Tiberias). The highest present density is 883 (Nazareth)
and the lowest 189 (Yizre'el) persons/sq.km. >
Ninety per cent of the returnees are distributed over
the three most northern regions; Gerar, Besor and
Be'er Sheva, and 10% in the remainder of Beer Sheba
Sub-District. This is consistent with their habitation
These are, in descending order of population, the
largest 30,000, the smallest 10,000:
Umm al-Fahm, Bag'a al Gharbiyya,
Judeida, Daliet al-Karmel, Tayibe, Tire, Tirat Karmel,
Kafar Qasem, Kafar Qara', Arrabe, Ar'ara, Qalanswe,
Ramla (mixed). (Israel CBS T .2.16.)
Aharoni, p.134, Table 3.8. In 1989, employed persons
in agriculture, forestry and fishing numbered just
Aharoni, pp. 208-213.
In the Southern District, those who entered and left
respectively (in thousands) at the years indicated
1965: 22.6-20.6, 1970: 15.2-14.3,
1980 : 15.5-16.9, 1990: 23.5-24.9, ( Israel CBS, T.
See E. Efrat who discusses the failure in `Negev'
at length, pp.182-185. His figure for Beer Sheba bedouins
1983 from Aharoni, p.200. 1993 from Statistical Abstract
of Israel T. 6-7 (1994).
Hillel, p.228, Efrat, p.211.
See Dabbagh et al, in Rogers and Lydon, p.228, Tables
Lowi, p. 151.
See for example Davis et al, p. 40.
figures are compiled from Lowi, Hillel, Davis, Kahhala,
Eisa, Masri, Bakour Y and Kolars J, p.131, (in Rogers
For the damage to and the illegal exploitation of
the Occupied Territories' water resources, see UN
report, UNA/AC.183 (02) W21, p.6, p.66 respectively.
This report also quotes sources, p.10, that Israel
"controls more than 2300 mcm of the Arab world water
The reduced figure of 60 cm/p/yr (164 litres/p/day)
is still larger than most Arab countries other than
the Gulf. The reduction can be achieved by applying
disciplined and serious policies of water economy,
as was the case in Tunis which reduced its municipal
consumption from 44 to 30 cm/p/yr. See Dabbagh et
This bold and frank statement in quotation represents
the Likud position, given by Ploss and Rubenstein.
Quoted by John Waterbury, p.60, in Rogers and Lydon.
This idea is not without some precedent. The UN discussed
in its early deliberations the appointment of "an
administrator for refugee property". See A/AC.25/W.81/Rev.2,
Or 5,194,091 donums (donum=1000 sq.m.) estimated as
the registered individual Arab property in
Israel (RP/1), excluding `unsettled title', common
and public Arab property and the whole of Beer Sheba
Sub-District (12,577,000 d). See the CCP Land Expert
report by Jarvis, UN A/AC.25/W.84, 28 April 1964.
Upon the conquest of Palestine in 1948, Israel passed
a series of laws, described by Peretz as "a sort of
legal fiction". A Custodian of Absentee Property was
appointed, who in turn transferred this property to
a `Development Authority'. The latter was empowered
to sell. buy, lease, develop or cultivate the Absentees'
Property, provided that such transactions are restricted
to Jewish entities only. In pre-1948 Palestine, land
held by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was declared
to be "in the name of the Jewish People everywhere
in perpetuity". With the vast land gains acquired
in 1948, a dispute arose between JNF and Israel government
about its control. The latter claimed that such land
should be registered in its name as a reward for "the
triumph of the Haganah and the flight of the Arabs".
It was finally agreed that JNF is allowed to increase
its holdings and all Palestinian land be administered
by Israel Land Administration (ILA) according to JNF
rules. JNF stated in 1949 that, "[o]f the entire area
of the State of Israel [20,325 sq.km], about 300 sq.km
are state domain. The JNF and private Jewish owners
possess under 2,000 sq.km [1,682 sq.km]. Almost all
the rest [ie 88%] belongs at law (sic) to Arab owners,
many of whom left the country..." All the Palestinian
land is now run in custody by ILA (until the owners
return). For a comprehensive description of JNF activities,
see Lehn and Davis, particularly p. 108, 114, and
Janet L Abu-Lughod,. `The Demographic Transformation
of Palestine', pp. 139-163 in `Transformation of
Palestine', Ed. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, (Northwestern
University Press, 1971).
S H Abu-Sitta, `The Right of Return, Sacred, Legal
and Possible' (in Arabic), Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi,
Beirut, Vol. 19 , No. 208, pp. 4-38. June 1996.
Yair Aharoni, The Israeli Economy: Dreams and
Realities, (Routledge, 1991).
Donna E Arzt, Refugees into Citizens: Palestinians
and the End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, (New
York:The Council on Foreign Relations, 1997)
T Dabbagh and A.B Faraj., `The Importance of Developing
Desalination Technology and Its Impact on Water Scarcity
in the Arab World', (in Arabic), The Second Seminar
on `Water Resources and Uses in the Arab World',
(The Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development,
Kuwait, 8-10 March 1997).
Uri Davis, Antonia Max, John Richardson, "Israel's
Water Policy", Journal of Palestine Studies
Vol. 9, No. 2, 1980,
Elisha Efrat, Geography and Politics in Israel
since 1967, (Frank Cass, 1988).
Naguib Eisa, (Ed.), Water Problems in the Middle
East (in Arabic), Strategic Studies, Research and
Documentation Centre, Beirut, Vol. 1, 1994
Sharif S Elmusa, `Dividing the Common Palestinian-Israeli
Waters', Journal of Palestine Studies Vol XXII,
No. 3 Spring 1993,.
Ghazi Falah, `The 1948 Israeli-Palestinian War and
its Aftermath: The Transformation and De-Signification
of Palestine's Cultural Landscape', Annals of the
Association of American Geographers, 86(2), 1996,
Norman G Finkelstein,. Image and Reality of the
Israel-Palestinian Conflict, (Verso 1995)
Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel, Myths and
Realities, (Croom Helm, 1987).
Sami Hadawi, Palestinian Rights and Losses in
1948, (London: Saqi Books, 1988).
Mark A Heller, A Palestinian State, The Implications
for Israel, (Havard University Press, 1983).
Daniel Hillel, Rivers of Eden: The Struggle
for Water and the Quest for Peace in the Middle East,
(Oxford University Press, 1994)
Subhi Kahhala, Water Problems in Israel and its
Impact on Arab Israeli Conflict (in Arabic), Paper
No. 9,( Institute of Palestine Studies, Beirut, 1980)
W. Khalidi, (Ed.), All That Remains, the Palestinian
Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948,(
Washington, D.C: Institute for Palestine Studies,.
W. Khalidi, `Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest
of Palestine, Journal of Palestine Studies,
Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Autumn 1988, pp.3-70.
W. Khalidi, Ed., From Haven to Conquest,
(Washington, D.C: the Institute of Palestine Studies,.,
Walter Lehn, and Uri Davis, , The Jewish National
Fund, (Kegan Paul International, 1988).
Miriam R. Lowi, Water and Power, The Politics
of a Scarce Resource in the Jordan River Basin,
(Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Nur Masalha, Expulsion of the Palestinians; The
Concept of Transfer in Zionist Political Thought,
1882-1948, (Washington, DC: Institute of Palestine
Nur Masalha, A Land without a People: Israel,
Transfer and the Palestinians, (Faber and Faber,
George Masri, Israeli Interests in Arab Waters
(translated into Arabic), (Paris: Centre d'Etudes
Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee
Problem 1947-1949, (Cambridge University Press,
Benny Morris, 1948 and After, Israel and the
Palestinians, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).
Michael Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe,
(London: Quartet Books, 1987).
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Conflict, 1947-1951, (I.B. Tauris, 1992).
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East Process, (Washington, DC: US Institute of
Peace Press, 1993).
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the Arab World, Perspectives and Prognoses, (Harvard
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Elias Sanbar, Interview in Al-Hayat, Daily,
London, 18 and 19 December 1996 , p. 18
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2000" (translated into Arabic), Journal of Palestine
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a Survey of Resettlement Possibilities., (London
; New York : Royal Institute of International Affairs,
). viii, 68 p.
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Photo Captions: (not included in this version)
Photo 1. Ramleh, one of 13 depopulated towns.
Together with its twin, Lydda, their inhabitants,
numbering 60,000, have been expelled by the direct
orders of Rabin. They were forced to march in July
heat, children and old men falling by the wayside.
Photo 2. Bureir, one of 240 depopulated
villages. Bureir was occupied before the entry of
the Arab regular forces and was the scene of a massacre.
Photo 3. Al Ma'in. One of 98 tribal lands.
Although in the Negev, it was fully cultivated, as
can be seen. Total cultivated land in Beer Sheba was
greater than it is today.
Photo 4. Dayr Yassin, the site of the infamous
massacre on 9 April 1948. Twenty-five massacres were
committed during the expulsion of the Palestinians
Photo 5. Emmuas, mentioned in the Gospel
of St Luke as the place where Jesus appeared after
crucifixion. Emmuas was destroyed and the inhabitants
were expelled on Rabin's orders in 1967, in continuation
of the 'Transfer' policy followed since 1948.