Given the Palestinian refugees' precarious legal status in their host countries, recognition of the Palestinian right of return is not only legally viable, but also crucial for the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. That racially driven demographic considerations have been employed up until now to derail binding and directly applicable laws and practices, as well as keep the refugees in a state of legal limbo in their host countries, cuts to the heart of the fundamental injustice currently plaguing the Middle East. No amount of obfuscating the facts and the law can tarnish the applicability and relevance of the right of return, and Palestinian refugees and their advocates remain in both a strong moral and legal position to continue to call for the recognition of that right.
Palestinians, like Israelis, want a national existence. On this both Yasser Arafat and those Palestinians who oppose Arafat agree. But Palestinians are, in the main, refugees who long for repatriation--the right of return. These are fighting words, both between Israelis and Palestinians and, in certain cases, between Palestinian and Palestinian. Accordingly, it is best to begin slowly, to go over again the situation which has brought us where we are today.
In 1948, as a result of the first Arab-Israeli war, approximately 750,000 out of an estimated 900,000 Palestinian Arabs who were then living in the area that now comprises the state of Israel--which was, in turn, some 77 per cent of the area of Palestine as established by the 1922 League of Nation Mandate--were driven from their homes. (1) The remaining 23 per cent of Mandatory Palestine was apportioned between Jordan, which took control of the area now known as the West Bank, and Egypt, which took control of the Gaza Strip. (2) Of those 750,000 who were displaced, approximately 360,000 fled to the West Bank, 200,000 went to the Gaza Strip, 110,000 fled to Lebanon, 100,000 went to Jordan (the East Bank), and 82,000 went to Syria. (3) Smaller numbers of refugees made their way into Egypt proper.
Those numbers have now grown considerably. There are currently some 3.97 million refugees from Palestine registered with the United Nations: 1,679,623 in Jordan, 878,977 in the Gaza Strip, 626,532 in the West Bank, 401,185 in Syria, and 387,043 in Lebanon, according to the most recent figures. (4) An additional 1.5 million Palestinian refugees are not registered with the United Nations. (5)
The official Israeli position is that the Palestinians fled of their own accord in 1948 and consequently Israel has no obligation to repatriate them. (6) However, "revisionist" historians, both Palestinian and Israeli, have debunked the theory that the Arab states were responsible for the refugees' flight. (7) Archival research has revealed that the expulsion of the Palestinians was an explicit goal of leaders of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine--David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Yitzhak Rabin. (8) The only real scholarly debate now is whether the ethnic cleansing of that part of Palestine that became Israel was deliberate or merely the result of battlefield decisions. (9) That the Palestinians were made refugees as a result of Israeli military action is no longer really debatable.
To ensure basic levels of care for the Palestinians, the UN in 1949 created UNRWA, the United Nations Relief Works Agency for the Palestine Refugees. (10) Its task was, and still is, to "prevent conditions of starvation and distress among [the refugees] and to further conditions of peace and stability, ... [C]onstructive measures should be undertaken at an early date with a view to the termination of international assistance for relief." (11) To this day, UNRWA operates the majority of recognized refugee camps, while continuing to provide essential education, health, relief, and social services to Palestine refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. …