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Palestinian refugees and the right of return

AFSC Supports Palestinian Refugees' Right of Return
Photo: AFSC

Approximately 750,000 Palestinians were displaced and became refugees as a result of the 1948 war which led to the founding of Israel. None of these displaced persons were ever allowed to return to the homes or communities from which they were displaced and the Palestinian refugee population has continued to grow in the time that has passed since 1948. Today there are more than 7 million Palestinian refugees scattered around the world. The reality of Palestinian forced displacement is at the core of the Palestinian experience and the Palestinian refugee issue is at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  This paper provides background information on the history of the Palestinian refugee issue and the politics of the right of return.    


Who are Palestinian refugees?

A Palestinian refugee is any Palestinian who fled, was expelled, or was forced into exile from his/her home in the area of historic Palestine or who has been refused reentry to their home in historic Palestine after having traveled abroad during the period between 1948 and today.[i]  The Palestinian refugee population now includes over seven million people. 

The largest group of Palestinian refugees is made up of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes as a result of the partition of historic Palestine in 1948 as well as their descendants. As of 2014 this included approximately 5 million refugees who are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and an additional one million Palestinians who were displaced in 1948 but who could not or did not register with UNRWA for assistance.[ii] 

The second largest group of refugees is made up of those Palestinians who were displaced for the first time from their homes and communities in 1967 as well as their descendants. There are approximately one million Palestinian refugees from 1967. 

The third group of Palestinian refugees includes Palestinians who have been internally displaced, i.e. Palestinians who were forced to flee their homes or villages in 1948 and 1967 and who were not allowed to return to their homes, but who remain present in either Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories. At present there are approximately 350,000 Palestinians who live within the post 1948 borders of Israel and who hold Israeli citizenship who were displaced from their homes in 1948 and who are still not allowed to return to their historic homes, villages, and land - all of which are located within Israel’s post 1948 borders. An additional 130,000 Palestinians are people or the descendants of people who were internally displaced in the occupied Palestinian territory as a result of the 1967 War.[iii] 

Finally, there are an unknown number of Palestinians who have been expelled from or refused return to the occupied Palestinian territory since 1967. This includes people who have had their ID cards and residency rights revoked, people denied family reunification, and people who have been deported and exiled.[iv] This is a process that is ongoing in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel through the processes of land confiscation, forced displacement, home demolition, and the revocation of residency rights

What was the primary cause of Palestinian displacement in 1947 and 1948?

It is often claimed that Palestinians left their homes in 1948 voluntarily or at the behest of Arab leaders. However, these claims are not supported by the historic record[v] which show that the vast majority of the 750,000 Palestinians displaced in 1947 and 1948 fled from their homes as a direct result of targeted violence and threats to their safety.[vi] Many Palestinians who fled attempted to return to their homes during or after the end of the fighting but were blocked from returning by Israeli forces.

The systematic displacement of Palestinians also began well before the UN Partition Plan formally went into effect on May 15th 1948, which is the date that marks the beginning of formal hostilities between the Israeli military and forces from surrounding Arab countries. Violent conflict between Palestinians and Jewish forces began as early as November 1947 and continued unabated until May 1948. The early months of the conflict witnessed limited back and forth violence between irregular Palestinian forces and the much more organize Jewish forces including the Hagganah, Irgun, and Palmach.   

The nature of the conflict changed dramatically in February and March of 1948 when Jewish forces began systematically depopulating Palestinian communities.  On February 15th 1948 all of the residents of the villages of Qisarya, Barrat Qisarya, Khirbat Al-Burj, and Atlit which are near present day Cesarea were forced from their homes. This was the first time during the conflict when villages were completely depopulated. [vii]   The practice of depopulating and destroying Palestinian communities was turned into official government policy by “Plan Dalet” which was finalized by the pre-state Jewish leadership in March 1948. Plan Dalet outlined an explicit strategy for taking over Palestinian communities and expelling the Palestinian population, stating:

“…operations can be divided into the following categories:

-    Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines and debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously.

-    Mounting combing and control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the village and conducting a search inside it.  In the event of resistance, the armed forces must be wiped out and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.”[viii]

At the point when the United Nations Partition Plan officially went into effect on May 15, 1948 between 250,000 and 300,000 Palestinians had already been expelled from their homes and communities, including most of the population of major Palestinian communities such as Safed, Haifa, Acre, and Jaffa. These numbers represent a majority of the Palestinian population that lived in the area designated for the establishment of a Jewish state by the United Nations Partition Plan. After May 15th 1948 the War expanded and Israeli forces took over portions of the territory that was set aside for the establishment of a Palestinian state through the Partition Plan and expelled much of the population that lived in these areas. By the end of the war approximately 750,000 Palestinians had been made refugees and between 500 and 600 Palestinian villages had been depopulated. Many of these communities were later destroyed. 

Why weren’t Palestinian refugees allowed to return to their homes after 1948?

The Palestinians who were displaced in 1948 were not allowed to return to the places from which they were displaced because their presence was seen as a threat to the maintenance of a sustainable Jewish demographic majority in the new state. This was made clear to AFSC during an August 9, 1949 meeting between AFSC employee Don Stevenson and Eliahu Elath, the Israeli Ambassador to the US. When Stevenson asked Ambassador Elath if Israel would accept the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes Elath told him that Israel would not because “Israel would commit suicide if she took back all the refugees.”[ix] 

The reality is that without expelling the Palestinian population that was present in areas set aside for the establishment of a Jewish State by the U.N. Partition Plan it would not have been possible to establish a state with a distinct Jewish character and political culture. Jews were only a slim majority of the population (55 percent Jewish vs. 45 percent Palestinian) in the area proposed for the state. They also owned less than 10% of the land in the area set aside for the new Jewish state and were clear demographic minorities in both the northern (Eastern Galilee) and southern (Negev) sectors of the proposed state where they constituted approximately 30 percent and 1 percent of the population respectively. The Jewish population was only a majority in the middle (coastal) section of the proposed state, but even here 65 percent of the Jewish population lived in the two cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa meaning that Palestinians were the majority population in nearly all of the area set aside for the new Jewish State.[x]                                  

Additionally, if the new state of Israel had attempted to keep the land that it seized during the1948 War while also allowing people displaced from these areas during the 1948 war to return to their homes the Jewish population of the new state would have been the minority population. The decision to prevent Palestinians from returning to their homes was therefore not motivated by a fear of violence by returning refugees, but rather was a decision made as the result of the Israeli government’s recognition that allowing Palestinian refugees to return would have turned Israel into a bi-national state with a Jewish minority.  Israel could not have been established as a Jewish state without the expulsion of the indigenous Palestinian population. 

Do Palestinians have a right to return to the places from which they or their ancestors were displaced?

Palestinian refugees’ right to return to the homes from which they were displaced is well established in international law. The first source of support for Palestinian refugees’ claims to a right of return is U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) Of December 1948, paragraph 11, in which the U.N. General Assembly,

“Resolves that the 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 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;

Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation…”

Since 1949, this resolution together with UNSC Res. 242 and 338 have been regularly reaffirmed by the U.N. General Assembly. 

The rights outlined in this resolution are firmly grounded in international humanitarian, human rights, and refugee law. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Executive Conclusion No. 40, “…the basic rights of persons to return voluntarily to their country of origin is reaffirmed and it is urged that international cooperation be aimed at achieving this solution.”[xi]  UNHCR’s support for the right of return is based on the idea that the right of return is a recognized customary norm of international law which is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Fourth Geneva Convention.[xii]     

Where are Palestinian refugees currently located, and what rights are they granted in the countries where they reside?

The majority of Palestinian refugees continue to reside in either the occupied Palestinian territory or surrounding countries. Of the refugees registered with UNRWA over 40% (approximately two million) live in Jordan. More than one million (23%) UNRWA registered refugees live in Gaza, nearly 760,000 (16%) live in the West Bank, 462,000 live in Syria[1], and approximately 420,000 live in Lebanon.[xiii]  Refugees not registered with UNRWA live in countries around the world, with some of the largest refugee populations located in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Gulf Countries, Chile, and the United States. 

The rights granted to Palestinian refugees vary from country to country. Palestinian refugees who are not registered with UNRWA generally hold citizenship, immigrant, or temporary resident status in the countries where they are located. Their legal status is usually consistent with other people holding their same legal status in the country where they reside. The status of UNRWA refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria is more complicated. 

In Jordan nearly 95% of all Palestinian refugees have been given citizenship and are able to participate in Jordanian political and economic life. Most registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan (over 80%) also do not live in the ten UNRWA run camps located in Jordan.   

On the other hand, most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live inside UNRWA run camps and their rights are severely restricted by the Lebanese government. They have not been granted Lebanese citizenship and are instead considered foreigners. They have almost no political rights and are denied many social rights including access to government run public services such as education, healthcare, and social security. UNRWA is the primary provider of these services to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are also blocked from obtaining employment in many professions. 

Prior to the recent Syrian civil war, Palestinian refugees in Syria were integrated into Syrian society and were granted access to government services and employment. They were not granted citizenship however and their rights to own property were limited. It is important to note that many of the Palestinian refugees in Syria have been displaced as a result of the Syrian war and Palestinians who remain in Syria have suffered together with other Syrians as a result of the war. 

Palestinian refugees living in the occupied Palestinian territory are subject to the same limitations on their rights as are all Palestinians. 

What are the Israeli, Palestinian, US government’s and AFSC positions on the Right of Return?

Israel’s position on Palestinian refugees has not changed since 1948. The Israeli government does not recognize Palestinian refugees’ right to return and continues to say that Palestinian refugees and their descendants cannot be allowed to return to the homes and communities from which they were displaced because their return would be a threat to the maintenance of a continued Jewish demographic majority in Israel. 

The United States government has not officially come out in support of the Israeli position and against the right of return. However, throughout the negotiations process US officials have pushed Palestinians to give up and/or make the right of return symbolic. 

Palestinians continue to hold that the right of return must be addressed justly if the conflict is to be resolved. 

AFSC also holds that Palestinian refugees’ right of return must be recognized and justly addressed if the conflict is to be resolved. Ending the occupation is not enough. If the international community is serious about resolving the conflict it must also recognize the central importance of justly addressing the issue of Palestinians’ right of return.  Anything less is a denial of justice and will not resolve the conflict.      

AFSC and Palestinian Refugees

Because of AFSC’s experience helping to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons following World War II, during the fall of 1948 the United Nations asked AFSC to organize relief efforts for refugees displaced by the 1948 War. AFSC accepted this request while putting forward a number of conditions including a demand that AFSC be allowed to provide relief wherever it was most needed. The U.N. as well as the Egyptian and Israeli authorities accepted AFSC’s terms. However, as a result of the quick advance of Israeli forces, AFSC’s field of operation was eventually limited to Gaza.[2]

AFSC staff arrived in Gaza in December 1948 and began coordinating relief and assistance efforts in January 1949. AFSC assistance included the setting up of camp structures, the establishment of health clinics, feeding operations, running schools, setting up other service structures, and the registration of refugees.  This work continued until May 1, 1950 when the United Nations Relief and Works Agency began its operations. 

Following the 1967 war, AFSC reestablished a presence in the occupied Palestinian territory, opening a child education program in Gaza and a legal aid center in Jerusalem for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. These programs continue as independent NGOs under Palestinian leadership. AFSC subsequently developed new programs in both Gaza and the West Bank and our work continues today in both areas through our offices and staff in Jerusalem and Gaza.

 Regarding Right of Return, most recently AFSC has organized with Zochrot a conference on the Practicalities of Refugee Return held in Tel Aviv.

Learn more

The following organizations in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel address the rights of Palestinian refugees and displaced persons.                                                      


Al-Mezan -

The Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem -

Palestinian Center for Human Rights 

Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights

The Boycott National Committee

Adalah -


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency-

About AFSC

Since 1948, AFSC has worked in the U.S., Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territory with Palestinians, Israelis, and other committed activists to support nonviolence, challenge oppression, and (since 1970) to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory. This work is guided our “Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace in Palestine and Israel”[xviii]. These principles support the implementation of international human rights and humanitarian law and call for an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory, implementation of refugees’ right of return, equality, and justice for Palestinians and Israelis.


[1] As a result of the ongoing war in Syria many Palestinian refugees who were previously living in Syria have been displaced again and are now living in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.  

[2] AFSC also provided some limited relief to Palestinians inside the new state of Israel who had been displaced and this work continued into the 1950s when AFSC ran agricultural development projects in Palestinian villages and with internally displaced Palestinians living in Israel.  However, this work was quite limited in scale. 

[i] Abu Shakrah, Jan, “Palestinian Refugees: A Discussion Paper”, AFSC’s Middle East Program, 2000

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] lbid

[v] Khalidi, Walid, “Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine”, The Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, Special Issue: Palestine 1948, (Autumn, 1988), pp. 6-7

[vi] Pappe, Ilan, “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Khalidi, Walid, “Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine”, The Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, Special Issue: Palestine 1948, (Autumn, 1988), pp. 6-7

[ix] Don Stevenson to Bronson P. Clark, “Interview with Ambassador Eliahu Elath of Israel at the Israeli Embassy, Washington on August 9, 1949.  August 12, 1949” AFSC Archives

[x] Khalidi, Walid, “Revisiting the UNGA Partition Resolution”, The Journal of Palestine Studies,” Vol. 27, No 1. (Autumn 1997) pp. 11-13

[xi] Conclusion on voluntary Repatriation, UNHCR, Executive Committee, No. 40 (XXXVI), 1985

[xiii] Ibid