The “Sacred” Right of Return

Clinton's latest “peace proposal,” which should be totally unacceptable to Israelis, was instead shot down by Arabs. Why? Because, they say, Palestinians have a “sacred” right to return to Israel.

Let's focus on this issue. It deserves far more exploration than it ever gets in the popular press.

Arabs say some 500,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes by Israelis during the formation of the Jewish state in 1948.


The truth is that many Arabs left in direct response to pleas from neighboring Arab governments, which boasted that they would quickly purge the land of Jews. By contrast, Joan Peters points out in her excellent history, “From Time Immemorial,” the Jewish Haifa Workers Council was urging fleeing Arab residents of that city to stay.

According to a research report by the Arab-sponsored Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut, cited again in “From Time Immemorial,” the majority of Arab refugees in 1948 were not expelled at all, and some 68 percent left without ever seeing an Israeli soldier.

Peters cites documented evidence that, after the war, it was the Arab leadership that actively blocked the return of these refugees to their former homes.

“It is inconceivable that the refugees should be sent back to their homes while they are occupied by the Jews,” said Emile Ghoury, secretary of the Arab Higher Command. “It would serve as a first step toward Arab recognition of the state of Israel and partition.”

Arab activist Musa Alami was even more blunt: “The people are in great need of a 'myth' to fill their consciousness and imagination.” It was he who first raised the myth of “Palestinian nationhood.”

There was just one problem, as Peters points out. From 1948 through 1967, Israel controlled very little of historic Palestine. Most of it, including the entire West Bank, was under the control of Jordan. Thus, it was not until Israel captured more of that land in the Six-Day War, that a real Palestinian nationalist movement began.

Thus, the Arab refugees have remained political pawns for the last 52 years. The Arab nations have refused to settle them, preferring to use them as a wedge against the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

Also forgotten amid the barrage of political propaganda consuming the so-called peace talks is another issue raised so effectively by Peters — the Arab Jew.

“For every refugee — adult or child — in Syria, Lebanon, or elsewhere in the Arab world who compels our sympathy, there is a Jewish refugee who fled from the Arab country of his birth,” she writes. “For every Arab who moved to neighboring lands, a Jew was forced to flee from a community where he and his ancestors may have lived for 2,000 years. The Jews escaped to their original homeland, where their roots are even older; the Arabs also arrived where they were in the majority, where they shared the same language and culture with fellow Arabs, and often only a few dozen miles from their places of origin.”

What took place, in effect, writes Peters, was a population exchange — the kind that has been repeated many times throughout the world in a variety of conflicts.

Nobody raises the issue of Jewish refugees anymore, because they have been successfully resettled in Israel. In 1948, there were more than 850,000 Jews living in the Arab world. There are believed to be fewer than 25,000 today.

The Arab Jews moved quickly as soon as they got the chance. Most left with only the clothes on their backs. Few had any opportunity to take with them any possessions of value. They were not compensated, in most cases, for their homes. Many of them lived under indescribable persecution for generations, but had no place to go before Israel was reborn in 1948.

That's why I find it so amusing that Arab leaders today talk about a “sacred” right of return for Arabs to “Palestine.” The truth is there are more Arabs living within the borders of Israel today than there were in the same area prior to 1948. No authority is demanding they stay, and they are surrounded by Arab lands and Arab nations. Why do they stay?

I can say, as an Arab-American, that they stay because there is more freedom in Israel. The kinds of uprisings we are witnessing in Israel on a daily basis would never be tolerated in any Arab country.

After 52 years, isn't it time for the wealthy Arab nations to do the right thing by their refugee neighbors and resettle them among other people who speak their language, share their values and celebrate their culture?

(This article can also be found on

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage