The Palestinian Right of Return — Where Justice Lies

Of the various arguments that Israel has no right to exist, none is more controversial than that the Palestinians have a“right of return”.  All over the world, people chant, “from the river to the Sea. Palestine will be free.”

Two years ago, thousand of people in Gaza, led by Hamas, began “The Great March of Return”. For a year and a half, people in Gaza protested and attempted to reclaim the land only to be turned back by Israeli soldiers, who sometimes used live fire to accomplish this. These protests were not peaceful; many Gazans demanding the “right of return” were armed with guns, knives, and explosive devices. Yaha Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza, even proclaimed, “We will tear their hearts out of their bodies.” After a year and a half of trying, Hamas called off the Great March of Return without obtaining even a centimetre of Israel. Always in competition with Hamas, Mahmoud Abbas said no one “has the right to deprive someone of the right of return”.

Various people have suggested how important the issue of the Palestinian “right of return” is. Some call it the “core issue” which must be resolve before there can be peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Another has said that “peace will be impossible until the right of return problem is solved.”

Nor is it just the Palestinians who demand the Palestinian “right of return.” The United Nations, too, bears responsibility for promoting the doctrine. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which operates schools in refugee camps, teaches Palestinian children that they have a “right of return” as a key part of its curriculum. Since there are over 5,000,000 people living in Palestinian refugee camps, this is no small source of support for the movement.

Terrorist organizations like Hamas and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) have long taught that the “right of return” can only be achieved through violence. Like the terrorists, UNRWA glorifies the “martyrs” who have killed dozens of Israelis, including Israeli children. It teaches its students to say things like, “Dying for their country is the duty of every Palestinian” and “The road to Palestine runs through the blood of our martyrs”.

Hamas and many of the supporters of the Palestinian “right of return” have said explicitly that the purpose of the Palestinian “right of return” is to abolish Israel. While in negotiations Israel has said that it is willing to accept the return of a limited number of Palestinians, it, too, views an unlimited Palestinian “right of return” as its death.

There are three arguments in favor of the Palestinian “right of return.” The first is theological. Entities like Hezbollah, and Hamas preach that Allah gave all the land between the Jordan River and the Sea to Muslims. Orthodox Judaism teaches that God promised the same land to the Jews. There is no way to reconcile the two views. People will believe what they believe. The second basis is that international law mandates that the land be returned to the Palestinians. The academics and politicians don’t agree on what the international law is. There is no court which can adjudicate the issue. In my view, the issue is a political not a legal one.

The third rationale upon which the “right of return” is based is the that justice demands it. Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, who has lectured all over the world on the subject, explained, stating, “We have been kicked out of our home and we want it back.”

Abu Sitta maintains that in 1948, when he was a ten-year-old boy, Israeli soldiers forced roughly 1,000 members of the Abu Sitta family off the land, and that there are now roughly 10,000 members of the Abu Sitta family who have a right of return. Sometimes he refers to “my land.” Other times he refers to it as his family’s land. He maintains that Israel stole 20,000 dunams (5,000 acres) of “my land” That is almost 8 square miles. That is a lot of land.

He even, incorrectly, refers to Palestine as “my country.” In fact, there never was a country called Palestine in which the Abu Sittas had land. The land was occupied by the Turks and incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1516-17. For the most part, the Turks let the local people alone. So long as they paid taxes to the Turks, Jews and Muslims could govern themselves. From 1516 until the First World War, the land was under Turkish control. After World War I. The allies formed the League of Nations, which took over the land and gave the “mandate” to administer it to the British, who did so from 1920 until 1948. Since Israel became a state in 1948. for the first time in over 500 years, the land has been governed by people who actually lived on the land.

Before Zionists came to Palestine in the early 20th century, farming techniques were very primitive. Golda Meir explained: saying, “One of the first sights that shocked me when I came to Israel in 1921 was an Arab turning over a field with a very primitive plow. Pulling that plow were an ox and a woman. Now, if that means that we have destroyed this romantic picture by bringing in tractors, combines, and threshing machines, this is true. We have.”

Golda Meir arrived in Palestine 17 years before 1948. The Jewish farmers who have worked the fields after 1948 have been continuing the tradition of the Jews who settled the land at the beginning of the 20th century. If justice means anything, it means that the people who settled the land, developed modern agriculture on the land, and made the desert bloom have a better claim to justice than a 15-year-old whose ancestors have not lived on the land for over 70 years.

Four agricultural kibbutzim, Nirim, Nir Oz, Magen, and Ein Hashlosha were established on the land near Gaza which Abu Sitta claims as his. All were established in the 1940s and early 1950s. When someone asked one member of Nirim why she did not move, she replied that she lived there because her parents are buried there; her husband is buried there; her children live there; and her grandchildren live there. In short, it is her home and has been five decades.

Moreover, the land as it existed in 1948 is vastly different from the land today. That land is located in what is known as the “Western Negev.” While there was some farming there before the 1940s, today there are modern fields, crops of all sorts, and fruit trees. One can walk by row after row of small trees nurtured by drip hoses, an Israeli invention. The land is lush and green. It is a classic case of Israelis “making the desert bloom”. Even if you accept the Palestinian narrative of what happened in 1948, justice is still on the side of the people who turned a desert green, and made the area their home.

Nor is it just the people who live in the kibbutzim near the Gaza border who made the area their home. A bit north of the four kibbutzim, but still less than 1000 meters from Gaza, in the 1950s, Jews established the City of Sderot, which over 25,000 people now call their home. Sderot is a modern city with streets, parks, malls, businesses, theaters, and residential neighborhoods. It is very different from the Arab villages which were once in the area. Few of the people who live in Sderot were even alive in 1948. Thousands of them are children who have never known another home.

I have focused on the land near Gaza in part because it has been the focus of the Hamas Great March of Return, but also because the issues of justice that apply to it apply to all of Israel.

For example, one of the places to which the advocates of the Palestinian “right of return” lay claim is Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv was was established in 1909 on land which a Jewish banker BOUGHT from its owner. The picture above shows that Tel Aviv was built on vacant dirt. That purchase took place 40 years before the advocates of a Palestinian right of return maintain that Jews “stole” their land. Today, Tel Aviv is a modern city which looks nothing like the barren land on which it was established.

If evaluated from the point of simple justice, the claim to a Palestinian “right of return” must be rejected. It is violent doctrine that can only be achieved by a war which results in the destruction of Israel. It is based on a bogus claim that the land was stolen from the people who now seek to return to it. For five generations, the people of Israel have made the land their home. Displacing them because of something that happened 72 years is hardly just.

About the Author
After spending an adulthood as a lawyer in Colorado where much of my practice involved the public interest, I made aliyah. As I child I was told by my mother, a German, Jewish refugee, that Israel was a place for her and her child. When I came here, I understood what she meant. Though I am retired now, I have continued my interest in activism and the world in which I find myself.