Week 50: Right of Return

Week 50: Right of Return

December 10 to December 16

December 11 is the anniversary of the passage of U.N. Resolution 194 in 1948. It stated, “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date …” Palestinians are still waiting on that “earliest practicable date.” Here’s what you need to know and what you can do so that together we can rise up.

Topic: Right of Return

Palestinians have been demanding the right to return to their homes and property for seventy years. The right of return is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and precedents for it go back to the ancient philosophers. 

Over 5 million Palestinians (first-generation refugees and their descendants) are recorded as displaced persons as a result of the Nakba (the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948). During and following the 1948 war, more than 600 Palestinian localities were depopulated and destroyed and over 800,000 Palestinians were dispossessed. Furthermore, another 250,000 Palestinians were forced from their native lands and homes, becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Israel. The majority of the internally displaced refugees still live within a few kilometers from their former villages, while a majority of the Palestinian refugees in the neighboring Arab countries still live within 100 kilometers of the border to Israel and are denied the right to return to their homes.

But with so many Palestinians living in such close proximity to their homeland, why have more than 70 years passed without resolution? What are the prospects that Palestinians’ could be granted return any time soon? And, realistically, what would a right of return resolution even look like?  

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has supported the Palestinian right of return since the beginning, and addresses many of these questions in their paper on the right of return:

Why weren’t Palestinian refugees allowed to return to their homes after 1948?

AFSC identifies three reasons Palestinians weren’t allowed to return. First:

The Palestinians who were displaced in 1948 were not allowed to return to the places from which they were displaced because their presence was seen as a threat to the maintenance of a sustainable Jewish demographic majority in the new state. This was made clear to AFSC during an August 9, 1949 meeting between AFSC employee Don Stevenson and Eliahu Elath, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. When Stevenson asked Ambassador Elath if Israel would accept the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes Elath told him that Israel would not because “Israel would commit suicide if she took back all the refugees.” 

Second, AFSC believes “The reality is that without expelling the Palestinian population that was present in areas set aside for the establishment of a Jewish State by the U.N. Partition Plan it would not have been possible to establish a state with a distinct Jewish character and political culture.” This is because Jews made up only a slight majority of the population and owned less that 10% of the land promised for Israel. Because most Jews lived in Tel Aviv and Haifa, in reality they were vastly outnumbered in most of the territory. 

Third, “if the new state of Israel had attempted to keep the land that it seized during the1948 War while also allowing people displaced from these areas during the 1948 war to return to their homes the Jewish population of the new state would have been the minority population.”  

By seizing more land than the U.N. Partition Plan awarded to the Jews for their state, they were putting themselves at an even bigger demographic disadvantage. If, that is, the Palestinians were able to return to their lands and home. Thus, the main motivator for denying the right of return was not “a fear of violence by returning refugees, but rather was a decision made as the result of the Israeli government’s recognition that allowing Palestinian refugees to return would have turned Israel into a bi-national state with a Jewish minority. Israel could not have been established as a Jewish state without the expulsion of the indigenous Palestinian population.”

Do Palestinians have a right to return to the places from which they or their ancestors were displaced?

We pointed at at the beginning of this essay that the right of return is enshrined in the UDHR. While this backs the moral and ethical claim for the right of return it is, sadly, not binding under international law. However, the law is also in favor of the right of return. AFSC points first to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of December 1948, paragraph 11, in which the U.N. General Assembly:

“Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors 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…”

AFSC further points to Resolution 242 (following the Six-Day War) and Resolution 338 (the 1973 Arab–Israeli War) and writes of Resolution 194, “The rights outlined in this resolution are firmly grounded in international humanitarian, human rights, and refugee law. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Executive Conclusion No. 40, ‘…the basic rights of persons to return voluntarily to their country of origin is reaffirmed and it is urged that international cooperation be aimed at achieving this solution.’ UNHCR’s support for the right of return is based on the idea that the right of return is a recognized customary norm of international law which is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

What are the Israeli, Palestinian, U.S. government’s positions on the Right of Return?

Of Israel AFSC writes, “Israel’s position on Palestinian refugees has not changed since 1948. The Israeli government does not recognize Palestinian refugees’ right to return and continues to say that Palestinian refugees and their descendants cannot be allowed to return to the homes and communities from which they were displaced because their return would be a threat to the maintenance of a continued Jewish demographic majority in Israel.” And through the decades the United States has not offered a firm position on the right of return. However, through all of the negotiations “US officials have pushed Palestinians to give up and/or make the right of return symbolic.” 

And it should come as no surprise that Palestinians hold the right of return as central to any resolution to the conflict. When placed alongside Israeli obstinacy and American indifference, it makes a resolution to the  right of return demands seem intractable. But is it? AFSC, for one, believes that “Palestinian refugees’ right of return must be recognized and justly addressed if the conflict is to be resolved.” 

How would the Right of Return be implemented?

Many organizations and individuals have attempted to layout blueprints for how the right to return could practically be implemented. One such attempt was Zochrot’s second Return Conference, “From Truth to Redress: Realizing the Return of Palestinian Refugees.” (Video highlights) While the 37 presenters represented a wide variety of approaches and conclusions regarding the right of return, if you read through their papers common themes emerge:

  • First, at a time when many believe a two-state solution to be “dead and gone,” an alternative vision for shared political power must be found.
  • Second, within that political framework return can’t be realistically implemented without ensuring that all citizens of Israel are granted equal rights and protection under the law. 
  • Third, Israeli acknowledgment and acceptance of the right of return would in itself be a huge step towards understanding and implementation. 
  • Fourth, return must be understood as not a singular idea, but as a pluralistic idea, meaning different things to different people. While physical returns would be a portion of the solution, return also encompasses symbolic returns, cultural interests, visitation and travel rights, and economic solutions.
  • Fifth, returns could involve physical returns in rebuilding Palestinian communities in their historic locations (if not now occupied), but protect the rights of current residents on lands now occupied.

While it is far beyond the scope of this short essay, or a single conference, to present a comprehensive roadmap for the right of return, what should be  clear is that Palestinians need not be denied indefinitely their right of return in order for the Israeli state to continue to exist. Many people are working on visions of a shared future in which the right of return is fulfilled and the State of Israel becomes a better state as a result.

Until that happens, however, over five millions Palestinians are stuck in a sort of limbo, unable to reclaim what is rightfully theirs, and lacking the rights and resources to move forward with their lives. Throughout the week, we will publish additional pieces highlighting the stories behind these numbers and highlight the many organizations working on the right of return, and what you can do to help.

Based on an essay contributed by Zochrot, as was the following case study on Lubya Village. Updated for the second edition of Kumi Now

Story: Lubya Village

This story focuses on one of those ruined villages, Lubya, that was depopulated and destroyed during the Nakba, and about a genuine act of historical justice made in 2015, 67 years after the destruction of the village. 

Introduction: Lubya Village

The ruined Palestinian village, Lubya, was located in northern Palestine around 10.5 km west of Tiberias. It was a typical hill village, known for their fertile lands with wheat production, olive trees and fruit groves. In 1596, the village was required to start paying taxes on their olive press, beehives, and on their goats. It was a successful village through the centuries, and was growing quickly in the 20th century, from 1,850 residents and 405 homes in 1931 to 2,726 residents and 596 homes in 1948.

But in 1948 attacks by Zionist forces on this successful village began. The first was reported on January 20 and left one villager dead. Attacks followed in February and March. The villagers fought to keep their village. When Nazareth fell on July 16 the villagers were terrified of their fate and abandoned their homes. The following morning, Israeli forces shelled the village, destroying homes, and occupied the village. One Lubya Palestinian descendant, Aissa Hajjou recalls her father saying “I hid in a tree, I was surrounded and didn’t know where to go … How they hysterically took revenge against people and houses.” Another Lubya Palestinian refugee, Amina Zu’aitier recalls the escape from Lubya: “We were walking to the north, trying to escape to Lebanon … I looked behind and saw Lubya in the distance. Its houses were in flames and smoke covered the sky. I was crying since the moment I left Lubya, but at that point, I realized that it is over, we lost everything.” 

In 1949, the Israeli town of Lavi was established on the village’s lands. Additionally, the village lands were covered with the Lavi Forest and the South Africa Forest, planted by the Jewish National Fund. Ultimately, in 1965, all buildings of the village were demolished completely. Nayif Hajju summarizes the feeling of losing one’s home as they are fated to “carry the burden of sorrow and grief for having lost our village.” Amina Zu’aitier further elaborates: “There was nothing left of Lubya; they demolished even the mosque, and the wells we used to drink from they filled with rocks and they planted trees everywhere that concealed everything.”

Lubya’s Refugees

Following the Nakba, the majority of Lubya’s refugees lived in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Only a few families remained in what became Israel and became internally displaced persons (“present absentees” in Israeli legal jargon), mostly in the village of Dayr Hanna. After the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon many from Lubya were dispossessed a second time, now to Europe. And as a result of the civil war in Syria, some of Lubya’s refugees were killed, mainly in al-Yarmuk Refugee Camp. Most of the remaining refugees fled to Europe. The number of Lubya refugees and their descendants globally is currently estimated around 40,000.

In 1950, Israel passed the Absentees’ Property Law, which stripped the Palestinians of their properties. Muhammad Kharzoun, a refugee from Lubya, describes his state of homelessness as such: “Yes, we were all peasants, but loving one’s homeland is part of our faith and religion. It is part of our souls, it is even more precious than our souls. Whoever does not have it, has nothing.” This law was the main legal instrument used by the Israeli government to claim ownership over Palestinian land

Jewish National Fund (JNF) Colonial Practice

The Lavi Forest, part of which is called the South Africa Forest, now covers the ruins of Lubya. The only remaining sign of life in the village is its cemetery. The humble Muslim grave markings are still present, mostly untouched by the pine trees. Refugee Hamad Jodeh said, “if I didn’t love this place would I keep coming back here on my tractor all the time? They made it into a forest. To claim that there was no village here. But you can see the cactus, which proves that Arabs lived here.”

The Lavi Forest was planted by The Jewish National Fund. The JNF was created in 1901 and was dedicated to buying and settling land on behalf of the Jewish people, acquiring Palestinian land for Jewish settlement. This process includes judaizing the landscape, clearing it of any trace of Palestinian presence, history, and memory. More than two-thirds of the forests planted by the JNF are located on destroyed Palestinian villages, now inaccessible, unnamed, and unkept. Today, it prides itself of being an environmentally-friendly NGO by planting trees and creating parks. 

Apology and Accountability

Transitional Justice has been designed as a field that refers to transitions from dictatorship to democracy, or from conflict to reconciliation. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, we propose pre-transitional justice—a set of tools and strategies applied during an intractable conflict to promote transition from a culture of denial and impunity to one of recognition and accountability. Apologizing is a way to express accountability, which is the beginning of compensation, both material and symbolic.

The donations for the Lavi Forest came from South Africa in the 1960s (during Apartheid). However, (with the end of Apartheid) after discovering why the forest was planted where it was, the group StopTheJNF South Africa was formed by South African Jews in 2012 with the purpose of exposing the truth. In 2015, this group came to Lubya to apologize for their actions and to seek forgiveness from Lubya’s refugees. 

Shereen Usdin, a South African StopTheJNF activist, stated in her apology: “While this forest may be an attempt to erase the memory of Lubya, there can be no denying what happened here. These stones, these graves, these wells, these cacti plants, are all bearing witness. Now as Jewish South Africans we have come here to this forest and to the ruins of Lubya in order to acknowledge and to take responsibility for this injustice.” This was a unique event which took place in May of 2015, coordinated and implemented by Zochrot, attended by media, activists, the wide public and village refugees. This initiative was an important symbolic gesture, which may be the stepping stone for initiating more acts of redress and introducing the right of return for all Palestinian refugees.

For more information on the visit (including images and videos) visit Zochrot’s website with the Lubya case: http://zochrot.org/en/village/49244.

 Kumi Action

First, you can watch The Village Under the Forest, a 54-minute documentary that tells the story of Lubya, the village described above. Screen it for your class, your church group, your family, your school club, etc. You can purchase the video online for less than US$8, or rent it for US$3: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/villageundertheforest/78181601. Watch a trailer here: https://youtu.be/ISmj31rJkGQ. 

But please don’t stop with a film screening! Lubya is just one of the many destroyed Palestinian villages that have been covered with the JNF forests funded by overseas donations. If you look at these forests on Google Maps you see reviews that praise these locations for their beauty and recreational opportunities. The stories, rights, and villages of Palestinians are being buried online just as they are in real life. Alert other travelers to the true stories of the lands they are using by leaving a review on Google Maps.

We suggest you leave a 1 or 2 star review that says something like: “While this is a beautiful area, the truth is that this forest was planted over destroyed Palestinian homes and villages and is land that rightfully belongs, according to international law, to those refugees and their descendants. I encourage everyone to urge the JNF to both acknowledge and right these wrongs so that Jews and Palestinians may live in peace as neighbors.” 


You can write a review of Lavi (South Africa) Forest and tell the story of Lubya here: https://goo.gl/maps/aV2iC1Rb1Kz


You can learn about Canada’s donations by watching:

“Three Palestinian Villages Are Buried Under Canada Park”: https://youtu.be/98EHGWGqpsk .

“Canada Park in Israel”: https://youtu.be/yHRbR7nMxN4 part 2: https://youtu.be/NrhaglA5c_w 

Then leave a review of Ayalon Canada Park at: https://goo.gl/maps/eVevSStrgCB2 

Great Britain and the United States

You can watch “Stop the JNF” to learn about Brittania Park and USA Independence Park: https://youtu.be/QUrlojwSWI8 

You can write a review of Britannia Park at: https://goo.gl/maps/NAEz5Gosotk 

Or a review of USA Independence Park at: https://goo.gl/maps/b5GUerFcH5x 


Finally, Lifta is one of the few Palestinian villages to not be entirely leveled. It is now a park, popular with Israeli Jewish citizens who use its pools for pleasure and for their ritual ablutions. If you read the reviews they are overwhelmingly positive, with no mention of the injustice done to its owners. Watch a short video on Lifta from BADIL called “Sons of Lifta” https://youtu.be/L7afYef4bSQ, then leave a review at: https://goo.gl/maps/3spdukNt5Sp 

Share a photo of your film screening and/or Google Maps reviews on social media. Include a link to this page of the Kumi Now website along with the hashtags #KumiNow and #Kumi50.

Literature: Reflection by Archbishop Emeritus Elias Chacour

I reached Bir’am [my home village, which had been destroyed in 1948] just at sun-up … The light grew and filtered warmly through the olive branches. Only the chirping birds and the crunch of my steps on gravel stirred the silence. All about me the ruined stone houses were solemn, ghost-like. I climbed a crumbled wall into the dimly lit shell of the church. In the parish house, swallows sheltered in the remaining rafters. I stood frozen, dumb-struck, nearly overcome by the sense of desolation.

And yet, at the same moment, I was caught unawares by a deep sense of life. From the wrecked homes, I imagined that I heard laughter, the voices of women, men deep in conversation … In the church, beneath the empty teetering stone tower from which our bell had been taken, ‘Alleluia’ was sung by children’s voices again. It occurred to me then that even bombs could never fully destroy such reverence for God and life and the land as we had felt there. … How terribly sad that men could ignore God’s plan for peace between divided brothers, even supporting one group as it wielded its might to force out the other … [We are called] to lift up, as Jesus did, the men and women who have been degraded and beaten down.

This reflection was originally found in Blood Brothers by Archbishop Emeritus Elias Chacour, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee born in the Upper Galilee. 

Additional Resources

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