Why doesn’t Israel let the Palestinian refugees return?

It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes, while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine.

– Count Folke Bernadotte, UN emissary, 16 September 1948. United Nations General Assembly Doc. A/648. Part one, section V, paragraph 6.

Overview of the truth

One of the most common demands Israel’s detractors make is that Palestinians that left 48 and 67 should be granted the right to return. There are three core reasons why this idea is not just unrealistic, but also another attempt to destroy Israel.

  • The threat of a fifth column
  • The demographic threat
  • Not all Palestinian refugees have a legitimate claim to return

The threat of a fifth column

From the inception of Zionism its founders expected Israel to house a significant Arab population, but it was imagined these Arabs would coexist peacefully.1 During the War of Independence the Arabs inhabitants of Israel were promised that if they remained neutral they would be granted total equality in the fledgling state, but if they fought or fled they’d be considered a potential threat. After the war 160,000 Arabs remained, while 600,000 2 left. It is impossible to determine how many of these were fighters and in the words of the 1948 Israeli Foreign Minister, to re-admit such a hostile bloc back into the state would be a “suicidal folly”. 3

In the Arab world, the refugees were viewed as a potential fifth-column that if repatriated could attack Israel from within.

The return of the refugees should create a large Arab majority that would serve as the most effective means of reviving the Arab character of Palestine, while forming a powerful fifth-column for the day of revenge and reckoning.

– Al Said, Lebanon, 6 April 1950

it should be easy, among the hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees from Palestine, to form an irregular army that would be in a position to cause a great deal of inconvenience to the Jews by acts of sabotage.

– Abdul Rahman Azzam, Secretary General of the Arab League

The Arab world believed that the return of the refugees would assure the destruction of Israel, a sentiment expressed by the Egyptian Foreign Minister:

It is well-known and understood that the Arabs, in demanding the return of the refugees to Palestine, mean their return as masters of the Homeland and not as slaves. With a greater clarity, they mean the liquidation of the State of Israel.

– Muhammad Salah al-Din, Egyptian Foreign Minister, Al-Misri, 11 October 1949

Fully aware of this danger the Israeli position was summarised in the same year by Golda Meir “The Jews should treat the remaining Arabs ‘with civil and human equality’, but ‘it is not our job to worry about the return [of those who have left]”. 4 Her strategy appears to have been appropriate as it has become increasingly obvious that the call for the “right to return” is a cloaked way of calling for the destruction of Israel.

If the refugees return to Israel – Israel will cease to exist.

– Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt, Zuercher Woche, West Germany, 1 September 1961

The day on which the Arab hope for the return of the refugees to Palestine is realized will be the day of Israel’s extermination.

– Abdallah al-Yafi, Prime Minister of Lebanon, Al-Hayat, April 29, 1966;

The demographic threat

If the descendents of the 600,000 refugees that left were to return to Israel they would be so numerous that they could democratically vote the state out of existence. Today 1.4 million Arabs live in Israel and like every other citizen have the right to vote. If Israel granted citizenship to the 5 million Arabs who claim descent from those that left, the Israeli Arab population would total 6.6 million. As there are only 6 million Jews in Israel, the Jews could be voted out of the country and civil war would be inevitable.

To suggest that the Arabs who left can return is an untenable idea as it would guarantee the destruction of Israel.

The international community demands the right to return

that 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 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 Governments or authorities responsible. Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of refugees and payment of compensation . . . 

– UN General Assembly Resolution 194​ (emphasis added)

The emphasised words demonstrate that the UN acknowledged Israel could not be expected to repatriate a hostile population that might endanger its security. The solution to the problem, like all previous refugee problems, would require at least some Palestinians to be resettled in Arab lands.

Originally Israel believed that peace negotiations would revolve around how big a contribution Israel would make to the resettlement of the refugees in Arab lands, and the idea of resettling the refugees in Israel was as untenable then as it is now. This was acknowledged by the President of Egypt in 1989:

The Palestinian demand for the ‘right of return’ is totally unrealistic and would have to be solved by means of financial compensation and resettlement in Arab countries.

— Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jerusalem Post, 26 January 1989.

The UN discussions on refugees had begun in the summer of 1948, before the war had concluded. Consequently, the Arabs still thought they could win and allow the refugees to return triumphant. So they rejected Resolution 194 on the grounds that its acceptance would infer recognition of Israel’s sovereignty.

It is inconceivable that the refugees should be sent back to their homes while they are occupied by the Jews, as the latter would hold them as hostages and maltreat them. The very proposal is an evasion of responsibility by those responsible. It will serve as a first step towards Arab recognition of the State of Israel and partition.

– Emile Ghoury, Secretary of the Arab Higher Committee, Telegraph (Beirut), 6 August 1948)

Once it was clear that the Arabs had lost the war they reinterpreted Resolution 194 as granting the refugees the absolute right of repatriation and demanded Israel accept this new interpretation.

Not all Palestinian refugees have a legitimate claim to return

It’s is little known fact that 400,000 additional people were logged at Palestinian refugee camps in 1948 than actually left Israel. Within months of starting operations the Red Cross and Quaker camps were reporting their counts were unreliable for the following reasons:5

  • Locals in Lebanon, Jordan and other camp locations were registering as refugees
  • Bedouin Arabs were registering as refugees
  • Some adopted the names of the dead (possibly to double their own food rations)
  • Others were counted multiple times as they moved from camp to camp

This already throws a huge question on the legitimacy of the applicants as many of those claiming Palestinian status may descend from individuals that never stepped foot in Israel. Another consideration was that the UN considered anyone who lived in the Mandate for two years before partition a Palestinian. So even those with genuine claims may not be indigenous – according to Robert F Kennedy 500,000 Arabs poured into the land between 1932 and 1944.6

The huge efforts Israel has made to assist Palestinian refugees

Had the Arabs not invaded Israel in 1948 not a single Palestinian would have been made a refugee. This has led Israel to officially state that responsibility for the exodus and subsequent refugees, was a product of the Arab invasion. Despite Israel not being responsible for their flight, it has still made incredible gestures to accommodate the demands of the refugees:

  • 1967 – Israel allowed thousands of refugees to return and more than 9,000 families were reunited, by 1971, Israel had readmitted 40,000 refugees.7
  • 1949 Lausanne Conference – Israel offered to allow 100,000 refugees to return, including 25,000 who had returned surreptitiously and 10,000 family-reunion cases – the Arabs rejected the proposal
  • 2000 Camp David summit – Israel offered to allow 100,000 refugees to return. All other refugees would be resettled in their present places of residence, the Palestinian state, or in third-party countries, with Israel contributing $30 billion to fund their resettlement – the Arabs rejected the proposal


Most of these refugees cannot be repatriated in Israel as they would introduce a fifth column that could, and almost certainly would, destroy Israel from within. Which is something the Arab world has frequently boasted.

It is impossible to ascertain how genuine the claims of the refugees actually are, as up to 40% of the claimants could be fake. And even for those that genuinely lived in Israel – they may have lived there for as little as two years, so what right do they have to return as they are not indigenous.

Despite not being responsible for the Arab exodus from Israel and recognising that there are serious questions on many of the claims? Israel has made huge gestures to help improve and resolve their plight. The state has repatriated some and for those that it cannot, it has offered billions of dollars to assist them.

Learn more truths about Palestinian refugees:


1. Chaim Weizmann, the first President of Israel, Trial and Error, Page 566 – written in December 1947
2. Palestine Betrayed, Efraim Karsh, p272
3. Moshe Sharett, “Israel’s Position and Problems,” Middle Eastern Affairs, (May 1952), p. 136.
4. Benny Morris, Benny Morris, 2003, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949, p.311
5. Palestine Betrayed – Efraim Karsh, p266
6. Robert F Kennedy – The Boston Post, 3 June 1948
7. UNRWA Annual Reports, (July 1, 1966–June 30, 1967), pp. 11–19; (July 1, 1967–June 30, 1968), pp. 4–10; (July 1, 1968–June 30, 1969), p. 6; (July 1, 1971–June 30, 1972), p. 3.