"There was no such thing as Palestinians...It was not as though there was a Palestinian People in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people, and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist."
-- Golda Meir, London Sunday Times, 15 June 1969.

That every Palestinian has a legitimate, individual right to return to his or her original home and to absolute restitution of his or her property.

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What does international law say about the refugees?

The right of repatriation to one's home is claimed on the basis that the attachment of individuals to territory is a basic human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 13, states: "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 12, states: "No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country."

The term "country" here includes one where a person has the right of nationality, even if sovereignty has changed there. Before 1948, Palestinian Arabs were nationals of Palestine, then under British administration. When Israel exerted sovereignty over that territory, it was under an obligation to recognize the nationality rights of the existing population. It refused, however, to do so.

No state may refuse to offer its nationality to an inhabitant of territory over which it exerts its sovereignty, whether the inhabitant is physically present at the time of the intial exertion of sovereignty. This right is typically affirmed at the time of a change in sovereignty, if the change is effected by a treaty. Thus, for example, when the USA purchased Alaska from Russia, the treaty effecting the purchase required the USA to offer USA nationality to Russian nationals who lived in Alaska.

No state may refuse entry and resident rights to persons having a legitimate connection to the territory. For the Palestinian refugees, the right of attachment to the territory that became the State of Israel and the right of return to that territory is recognized by the international community through repeated assertions beginning in 1948, when the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 194. Paragraph 11 of Resolution 194 affirmed the proposition that existing populations must be offered nationality in a territory in which sovereignty changes. It called on Israel to permit the repatriation of the Palestinians who had been displaced in 1948 and viewed Israel as being legally required to do so.

Being a human right, the right to be offered nationality and to be repatriated cannot be bargained away by any state or entity. A state may assist its nationals in effectuating this right, but the right is an individual right and exists apart from the action of the state in regard to it. Resolution 194, Paragraph 11 clearly recognizes this by affirming that every refugee should be permitted to return and clearly identifying it as an individual choice that cannot be made by others on behalf of the individual. It states "that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so as the earliest practicable date."

Even though the right involved is an individual right, a state representing the Palestinians may negotiate on its behalf to implement the right. Thus, the State of Palestine may negotiate with Israel to implement the repatriation of the Palestinian refugees. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinian Authority (PA) currently are functioning as the governing body of the State of Palestine and thus are the proper entities to carry out that negotiation.

If, however, the State of Palestine were to conclude with Israel a treaty that either omits mention of the repatriation of the Palestinian refugees, or that renounces such repatriation, the individual right of repatriation would not thereby be erased. In that situation, the implementation of repatriation would be rendered more problematic. Practical mechanisms to force Israel to repatriate would be difficult to find. As a result, the current negotiations are highly significant in implementing the right of return of the Palestinian refugees.

According to widely accepted standards of international law -- existing international law and UN resolutions can be replaced only by a political agreement whose provisions grant rights equal to or beyond those defined by international law.

Neither can UN resolution 194 be invalidated by the declaration of a Palestinian state on a specific part of territory, as it clearly provides for the refugees' right to return to their homes, even where these homes are located in what has become the state of Israel.

The right of return, solidly anchored in a wide range of international laws, will remain a human right and a legitimate claim, until surrendered by the Palestinian refugees themselves.

Refugees FAQ index | Be Informed Index

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