What is the Nakba and the “right of return”?

The Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) is how Palestinians refer to the dispossession of the majority of the indigenous Palestinian population within the area that became the state of Israel in 1947 and 1948.  Approximately 700,000 Palestinians were expelled by Jewish forces or fled in fear of violent attacks during the civil war and Israel’s War of Independence that followed the 1947 UN vote to partition Palestine.  Contrary to international law and UN resolutions, the state of Israel did not allow these refugees to return to their homes, nor did they compensate the displaced families.  These originally displaced Palestinians and their descendants number over 4 million people today, and they have remained refugees ever since 1948, most of them continuing to live in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, southern Lebanon, and other surrounding countries.  Only those refugees who ended up in Jordan were given citizenship, while the rest of the millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants lack national citizenship and the corresponding rights.  The Nakba is the beginning of the Palestinian refugee problem, and it is at the heart of this ongoing conflict and thus one of the issues that needs to be seriously addressed for there to be any chance of peace.

The “right of return” (to their former villages inside Israel) is seen by most Palestinians not only as just compensation for this initial ethnic cleansing and a way to solve the ongoing Palestinian refugee problem, but also as their right and a requirement under international law--according to common interpretations of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights from 1948, and most specifically referenced in UN resolution 194 part 11, passed in 1948, which includes the statement, “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours 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.” 

Though many Palestinians would accept just compensation in place of physical return to Israel, almost all Palestinians believe that Israel and the international community need to acknowledge and accept the right of return, and they are not willing to give up this right in principle.  When surveyed, less than 10% (representing about 350,000) of the over 4 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants expressed a desire to return to the State of Israel, while the majority of refugees said they were willing to take compensation and be resettled inside a Palestinian State on the West Bank or Gaza--or to receive a passport to a different country.  Many Palestinians see the right of return partly as symbolic of their desire for Israel to admit culpability in the creation of the refugee problem, which Israel has so far refused to do, instead claiming that it is the fault of Arab nations for rejecting the 1947 partition plan, or often repeating the disproven myth that it was Arab leaders telling Palestinians to leave that created the refugee problem.

Most Israelis fear the principle of the right of return because if millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants returned inside the state of Israel, it would severely erode or even eliminate the Jewish majority inside of Israel, thus “destroying” Israel as a Jewish state.  This view represents a misunderstanding not only of international law in relation to refugee situations but also reveals a strong anti-Palestinian bias that assumes Palestinians primarily wish to “destroy” Israel rather than seek justice for suffering refugees. There are many ways to implement a right of return, and most of them would limit the number of refugees returning to Israel each year so as not to cause unnecessary hardship to Israelis.

Palestinians and their supporters do not seek the right of return in order to “destroy” Israel but rather to address the ongoing injustice of the occupation and suffering of Palestinians. Implementing the right of return in a way that would allow a significant number of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel would likely alter the demographic balance of the state, but it wouldn’t “destroy” Israel. Even if the return of a significant number of refugees did somewhat erode the Jewish majority within Israel, it would only bring the demographic balance closer to what it would have been under the 1947 UN Partition plan accepted by Israel—and if so many Palestinian had not been forced to flee and then prevented from returning in the first place. Even without the right of return, 20% of Israel’s population is made up of Palestinian citizens of Israel (also called Israeli Arabs). These citizens’ higher birthrate already makes the “demographic problem” something that Israel will have to come to terms with one way or another—even without the right of return.

While many Israelis would accept a limited number of “family reunification” refugees to settle in Israel, most Israelis oppose allowing Palestinians to choose to return or not, making the right of return one of the most difficult issues to be resolved in any future resolution.

      An informative report that explains the right of return in the context of international law and precedent:


  1. A statement about the Nakba from Jewish Voice for Peace:

  2. https://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/301/images/Nakbafactsheet1.pdf

  3. Another JVP statement about the right of return:

  4. http://www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org/publish/101conflict.shtml#11

  5. An analysis of the legality of the Palestinian right of return by Gail Boling:

  6. http://www.palestine-pmc.com/details.asp?cat=3&id=467

  7. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs discusses the findings and implications of a Palestinian survey on the wishes of refugees to return:

  8. http://www.wrmea.com/archives/sept03/0309019.html

  9. Forward discusses the same survey findings:

  10. http://www.forward.com/articles/10504/

  11. A Jewish journalist offers suggestions about how Israelis should recognize Palestinian suffering:

  12. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1115587.html