QuickTake Q&A

Why Palestinians Demand a ‘Right of Return’ to Israel

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Gaza, once again a powder keg.

Photographer: Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images

For Palestinians, May 15 on the calendar means “Nakba,” the Arabic word for disaster. It’s the day after Israel declared independence in 1948, and marks a war in which some 700,000 Arabs were expelled from or fled their homes as the new state was established on most of the territory they knew as Palestine. For 70 years, Palestinians have claimed the right to return to their land, a position Israel rejects. This year, as the date approached, thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip marched toward the frontier with Israel in a symbolic effort to recover their ancestral homes. Some attempted to breach the border fence by cutting the wire, storming the barrier and planting explosives. Israel responded with deadly force.

Palestinians demonstrate outside the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem on May 14.

Photographer: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

1. Why is right of return such a hot issue now?

The short answer is Donald Trump. Palestinians are angry that the U.S. president recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and officially moved the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. The U.S. dedicated the new embassy, converted from an existing American consulate in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood, on May 14, with a blue-ribbon delegation from the White House and U.S. Congress. Palestinians consider the eastern part of Jerusalem as occupied territory and hope to establish their own capital there one day.

2. How exactly did Palestinians lose their land?

A civil war between Arabs and Jews broke out after the UN General Assembly voted on Nov. 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into two states. When Israel announced its independence on May 14, 1948, the surrounding Arab states -- Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, with support from Iraq and Persian Gulf states -- declared war on the budding Jewish state. Palestinians fled or were expelled in several waves over the course of a year, with some leaving in the belief that they could come back once the fighting ended. After the war, Israel destroyed hundreds of Palestinian villages, and passed an Absentees’ Property Law that authorized the government to confiscate land and houses abandoned by Palestinians.

3. What’s the problem with Palestinians returning?

Mainly it’s a numbers issue. In additional to tens of thousands of the original 700,000 refugees who are still alive, Palestinians say that some 5 million of their descendants should have the "right of return" -- not just from the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, but from communities in Lebanon, Jordan, Germany, Chile, the U.S. and elsewhere. Add these to the Palestinians who stayed put in 1948 and are now Israeli citizens (with their descendants, they number 1.8 million today) and you have the potential for Israel’s 6.5 million Jews to become outnumbered, defeating the purpose of creating a Jewish state.

4. Where would Israel have these people go?

Israel views the Palestinian refugee issue as part of a larger exchange of populations that’s played out over the course of decades. Some 1 million Jews fled or were forced out of the Muslim world after 1948. Many of them found refuge in Israel and became citizens, thus resolving their own refugee ordeals. Israel’s position has generally been that Palestinian refugees should settle in a future Palestinian state, and that a resolution of the issue should include compensation for the property and businesses Jews had expropriated from them or had to leave behind.

5. Why has this issue persisted for 70 years?

Because it’s been tied to a resolution of the larger, so-far-intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some international proposals for peace have envisioned a few thousand Palestinians returning to Israel while others settle elsewhere and receive financial compensation. Several Arab states including Lebanon and Syria have refused citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees within their borders. Granted limited self-rule under preliminary agreements with Israel, Palestinian governments have maintained 27 refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, with the support of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, which was created in 1949.

6. Why is Gaza the center of the protests?

Gaza has long been a powder keg. For one thing, 68 percent of the nearly 2 million people crammed into the narrow 25-mile swath of desert bordering the Mediterranean are refugees. Gaza has been more or less closed off from the rest of the world for the past decade. The militant Islamist organization Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union, took control in a bloody civil war in 2007 and fought three wars with Israel. The prospect of breaking out of Gaza has special resonance for its residents because they’ve been penned in behind fences by Israel and Egypt.

The Reference Shelf

  • An article in the New Yorker looks at how Hamas has managed the protests in Gaza.
  • A paper published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy examines the next showdown between Israel and Hamas.
  • QuickTake explainers on the two-state solution and UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
  • In Bloomberg Opinion, Hussein Ibish said May would be an ugly month in Gaza.


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