The Palestinian "right of return" is one of the most important but least-understood aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its importance is attested by the fact that it is commonly cited as among the main reasons for the breakdown of peace negotiations at Camp David and Taba in 2000 and 2001 respectively, and because it has consistently been a central demand of the Palestinians and the Arabs in general. The latest proposal from the Arab side - the much-touted Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 - is considered moderate on the issue because it does not contain the phrase "right of return", but it does reference a UN General Assembly resolution which calls for the same thing. Meanwhile, the audacity of this demand is often clouded by an inadequate understanding of its practical impossibility and historical bizzareness.
First, I should establish just what the "right of return" is. It envisages the potential migration of some four million Palestinians to Israel, a country currently inhabitated by just over seven million people, of whom about six million are Jews. These Palestinians currently reside mainly in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The distances involved are rarely more than a few hundred kilometres, and the net displacement of many of the refugees is only a few dozen kilometres - although of course these are crucial kilometres, as they determine which political entity one dwells in. But it is not entirely appropriate to talk of "displacement" or a "return", because most of the Palestinians who would theoretically be exercising this "right" are actually the descendents of the original refugees, not the refugees themselves.
These original refugees numbered some 700,000 in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, and perhaps some 300,000 in the Six Day War of 1967, although some of these were the same people who fled in 1948, fleeing again. They have been fruitful and multiplied since, and are attended to by their very own United Nations agency, the Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) - uniquely for any people in the world, it might be added. Usually the United Nations makes every effort to resettle refugees in other countries, and the Palestinian refugees dwell in societies with which they have linguistic and cultural affinities. Yet, the refugees have maintained their separate status and resisted attempts to integrate them into the surrounding Arab countries, nursing the dream of one day "returning" to what is now Israel.
For its part, the most charitable thing we can say about UNRWA is that it has helped to perpetuate the conflict by requiring neither the refugees themselves or the societies which they inhabit to decisively deal with their own problems. The refugees continue to inhabit their "camps", which are actually in most cases solid-state buildings that are nearly indistinguishable from their adjacent settlements, as one can see from this aerial photo of the Khan Younis "camp" in Gaza or this picture of Jenin, taken just after the 2002 battle there. The Palestinians have been there a long time, and have done a lot of building, after all. By supporting them, UNRWA perpetuates their presence rather than encouraging them to assimilate and move on with their lives. So, for example, in Jordan there are nearly two million Palestinian refugees, but they are nearly all full Jordanian citizens - yet they remain in their "camps", or on UNRWA rolls elsewhere. The Arab countries, incidentally, contribute virtually nothing to funding UNRWA.
The reason that this perpetuation of the population's limbo makes sense is because it is assumed that eventually some negotiated settlement will be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians which will allow the dissolution of the "camps" and the movement of their inhabitants either to a sovereign Palestinian state or to Israel via the "right of return". Clearly a sovereign Palestinian state would be free to determine its own immigration policy, and if one is ever achieved then there would be little disputing the right of refugees to return to the land we currently refer to as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The much more controversial issue is whether large numbers of Palestinians should be allowed to emigrate to Israel as part of a final status agreement.
The moral calculus is complicated but rests on one primary factor, namely whether one admits of the legitimacy of Israel's existence. The proximate cause of the refugee problem was the aggressive war launched by the Palestinians and the Arab states in 1948 to attempt to snuff out the Jewish state and, if we take the words of their spokesmen at face value (and why should we not?) commit genocide against the Jews. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled or were forced from their homes during these hostilities, but had the Arabs and the Palestinians accepted the UN Partition Plan then these hostilities and the attendent displacement would never have occurred.
Probably about a third were forcibly ejected by the Jews as they tried to secure the main roads and prepare defensive preparations in advance of the Arab invasion. Many more fled due to other factors, not the least of which were Arab propaganda which stated that remaining in place under Jewish rule would be seen as an act of betrayal; the Palestinian belief that an Arab victory was imminent and hence they would soon be able to return; a deep aversion among many Arabs to living under the rule of the Jews, who until recently were despised second-class citizens; and fear of Jewish atrocities, fuelled by events like Deir Yassin and a Palestinian knowledge of how they themselves would act if the boot was on the other foot. It was the fog of war, a wartime refugee crisis like so many others in the world, and no-one has ever credibly demonstrated that there was a Jewish plan to ethnically cleanse Palestine. This is because there was no such plan.1
Bearing all this in mind, it's important to understand that the clamour for a "right of return" hence amounts to a call for Israel to unilaterally reverse the outcome of the 1948 and 1967 wars. Having embarked on a series of aggressive wars to destroy Israel and suffered degredations as a result of losing these wars, the Arabs now ask that the slate be wiped clean and they be allowed to emigrate en masse in peacetime to a territory they have tried and failed to conquer by force of arms on several occasions. Quite why Israel would or should acquiesce in this situation after undergoing a sixty-year long campaign for its destruction supported by the vast majority of Arabs is unclear. Equally unclear is why the Arabs would want to reside in a state they so fiercely despise, until we realize that the real aim behind the "right of return" is the destruction of Israel by means other than war.
That Israel would be entirely incapable of absorbing four million Arabs while maintaining its current character should be obvious. The "right of return" would involve an influx of a poor, under-educated population who stand opposed to most of the principles of the state of Israel and have been reared in the "camps" on the most vicious anti-Semitic propaganda. UNRWA's teachers' union is controlled by Hamas, after all. It is hard to imagine anything less conducive to peace than implementing the "right of return", which is why it is important to understand that the agenda of those who push for this emigration is not peace, but war.
Israel and the Palestinians have known no peace even during their forced separation, and it is unclear why their attempt to cohabit 8,000 square miles would fare any better. The agenda behind the "right of return" is the dilution and eventual destruction of Jewish sovereignty over Israel; the idea that the Palestinians will happily acquiesce in Israel's continued existence as a Jewish state merely because they have been allowed to emigrate to a country that most of them have never visited is sheer lunacy. Israel's fate would be massive internal violence (which would likely begin even before the emigration began), ghettoization, and the sinking of the entire of Israel into the state of the Occupied Territories. If the Arabs emerged victorious in an armed struggle, there would likely be widespread massacres of Jews and Israel would probably become another poor, backwards Arab dictatorship. But a more likely outcome would be the subjection of Arab citizens of Israel to a military dictatorship. How this is meant to benefit anyone is not clear.
This leads us to two conclusions about the "right of return", the first moral and the second practical. The "right of return" is only moral if one views the existence of Israel itself, in its current form, as immoral. To put it another way, it means viewing the 1948 Arab war against Israel (as well as, to a lesser extent, the Six Day War) as a just war. If we think it was legitimate for the Arabs to reject partition and to attempt to ensure there would be no Jewish sovereignty over any of the area, then it is natural to support the continuation of this quest via the "right of return". If, however, we think that Israel had a right to defend itself during the wars in which the Palestinians fled or were ejected, then we will oppose the "right of return". Seen in this way, the "right of return" is a potent sign of how ambivalent or outright hostile most of the world feels about Israel's legitimacy and its right to defend itself.
The second conclusion is the practical one. The "right of return" is never going to be implemented except on the back of an Egyptian tank; it is the failure and humiliation of the Arabs at being unable to achieve it by force which makes their tone of moral entitlement all the shriller. The practical alternative to widespread emigration back to Israel is for the Palestinians to be integrated into their host states and allowed the option of living in a sovereign Palestinian state, although the remoteness of the latter would make it wise to focus on the former.
This will require great efforts on the part of the Palestinian leadership, and of the populations of the Arab countries who have for so long refused to do much concrete to help the Palestinian brothers for whom they profess such love. Israel should be willing to pay ample reparations to the descendents of the refugees as part of an overall package that can ensure peace. For the Palestinian people, who have been promised for so long that they are entitled to and will achieve things that they are not entitled to and that they cannot achieve, this will be a painful adjustment process; but there is no alternative to it. Unfortunately, taking responsibility for their own destiny has rarely been a feature of the Palestinian leadership, which has ill-served its people; we wait in vain for signs of its emergence now.
1. The Israeli historian Benny Morris is the authority on the origins of the refugee problem, in his The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, a meticulous settlement-by-settlement reconstruction of events. Ilan Pappé is almost the sole figure who is regarded as remotely credible who continues to argue that there was a premeditated ethnic cleansing, most recently in his The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. However, Pappé is an avowed post-modernist who has questioned the relation of facts to historiography, and explicitly stated that he writes his history for ideological reasons. In his case, the ideological commitment is to a binational state and the implementation of the "right of return".