Countering Pro-Palestinian Propaganda, Part 6: The Refugee “Right of Return”

London, England, UK – June 12, 2021: Justice For Palestine, Protest. Credit: Sangiuliano

by A.J. Caschetta

(Investigative Project on Terrorism) — The final entry in IPT’s “Countering Pro-Palestine Propaganda” concerns one of the most enduring and outrageous claims in the anti-Israel toolbox: that “Palestinian refugees” have a right to claim land, houses and apartments from which their forebears fled during the 1948 War of Independence. In truth, few of them are really refugees, most of them left their homes voluntarily, and no “Palestinian” has a right to claim anything in Israel.

In virtually every other conflict in modern history, when a war ends, refugees are resettled in other countries where they eventually become citizens. But after the 1948 war in which Israel fought off its neighbors and won its independence, the Arabs who were encouraged to leave their homes and join one of the invading armies were not allowed to become citizens of Jordan, Egypt, Syria, or Lebanon. Instead they were forced to live in “camps” – cities, really – where they could be used as perpetual bargaining tools against the Jewish state. Declared “refugees,” their status was used to keep alive a war that had ended. The Arabs lost and Israel won.

As Benny Morris put it in 2008, “most of Palestine’s 700,000 ‘refugees’ fled their homes because of the flail of war (and in the expectation that they would shortly return to their homes on the backs of victorious Arab invaders).”

Among those overconfident Arab leaders was Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said, who promised to “smash the country with our guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter in.”

Syria’s Prime Minister, Hayed al Azm, wrote in his 1973 memoir that “we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave.”

The Arab National Committee in Jerusalem ordered women, children and the elderly to leave in March 1948.

In August 1948, the commander of Jordan’s Arab Legion said that “Villages were frequently abandoned even before they were threatened by the progress of war.”

After the capture of Haifa, a British police officer wrote that “every effort is being made by the Jews to persuade the Arab populace to stay and carry on with their normal lives, to get their shops and businesses open and to be assured that their lives and interests will be safe.”

Arabs, on the other hand, dismantled or destroyed the Jewish towns and villages they conquered in the war, among them, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Beit Ha’arava and Kalya north of the Dead Sea; four kibbutzim of the Etzion Bloc, west of Bethlehem; the Jewish Quarter in Hebron; Atarot and Neve Ya’akov, north of Jerusalem; the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem; Tel Or/Naharayim — the hydro-electric power station built by Pinhas Rutenberg by the Jordan River south of Lake Kinneret; and Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip.”

Since Arabs erroneously assumed that Jews would treat them the way they treated Jews, they fled.

In order to cater to these freshly-minted 700,000 “refugees,” the United Nations created the Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in 1949. UNRWA has since become indistinguishable from the Palestinian effort to eradicate Israel. Its schools in Gaza have long served as Hamas and PIJ missile launch pads and weapons depots and as cover for Hamas’s tunnel entrances, but now we know that the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City was used to disguise a command center for Underground Gaza, even providing it with electricity.

UNRWA teachers, many of whom cheered on the Oct. 7 massacre, keep alive the hatred fueling the conflict by “encouraging jihad, violence, and martyrdom, as well as promoting antisemitism, conflict discourse, hate, and intolerance,” according to the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Tolerance in School Education. Some 30-plus UNRWA employees even participated in the Oct. 7 assault. There is video evidence of them kidnapping hostages.

The “right of return” demand means that any relative of one of the Arabs who fled in 1948 has a right to claim parts of Israel. It would amount to some 5-7 million people, now calling themselves “Palestinian,” transforming Israel into something other than Israel. Jews would be a minority in their own country. The Jewish state would cease to be the Jewish state.

When Palestinian propagandists demand their right of return, they are demanding the right to erase Israel. The symbol of that alleged right is a key, representing the keys Arabs retained to the houses they left behind in 1948. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas regularly wears a key-shaped lapel pin, signifying his dedication to the foundational fantasy of the “Palestinian resistance.” Were it not for this fantasy, there would be a Palestinian state today.

After 1948, the best chance for that fantasy to become reality came in the offer for statehood made by Israeli PM Ehud Barak (and engineered by Bill Clinton) in 2000 at Camp David. But Arafat turned it down because it did not grant a “right of return” to Palestinians. Barak wanted to make a generous offer, but he was not going to consent to Israel’s demise. Arafat was more interested in destroying Israel than in negotiating a Palestinian state. What he could not accomplish militarily, he sought to accomplish diplomatically by forcing Israel to admit millions of “Palestinian refugees.”

As Sol Stern explains in his masterful evisceration of the “Nakba narrative,” Salman Abu Sitta, a member of the Palestine National Council, in 1998 drafted a public letter to Arafat, forcing him to pledge that no peace deal could be made without a “right of return.” The letter asserted that, “We absolutely do not accept or recognize any outcome of negotiations which may lead to an agreement that forfeits any part of the right of return of the refugees and the uprooted to their former homes from where they were expelled in 1948, or their due compensation, and we do not accept compensation as a substitute for return.” Arafat acquiesced and invented “Nakba Day” on May 15, 1998.

In 2004, the year Arafat died, he gave a speech on Nakba Day in which he reaffirmed “a sacred right of every Palestinian refugee to return to his homeland, Palestine.” No one told Arafat that the losers of wars do not dictate terms to the winners.

When Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University, advised Arafat that he could have either “an independent state or a policy aimed at returning all the refugees to Israel,” but not both, Sitta penned another letter to Arafat warning that “the right of return is a sacred and inalienable right that cannot be extinguished with the passage of time nor by any political agreement. It is an individual and collective right and no one has the right to surrender it under any circumstances.”

Sitta explains in his memoir, “Mapping My Return,” that “Palestine is our country. We are Palestinians, rooted in this land. European Jewish colonizers came to our land, carried out the largest ethnic cleansing in Palestine’s history, expelled us, took our land, and made us refugees. We are determined to return home.”

Palestinian propagandists will go to any length to make the case that they were the original residents of Israel long before any Jews lived there, including denying the authenticity of archeological artifacts confirming Jewish history in Israel. But the most preposterous claim (thus far) came in a speech aired May 26, 2023, on Palestine TV, by the president of the Palestinian National Council, Rawhi Fattouh. In an attempt to best Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that Jews have lived in Israel for 3,000 years, Fattouh boasted that Palestinians had in fact established Jerusalem in 5,000 B.C.E. and that “it belongs exclusively to the Palestinians, the Arabs, and the Muslims.” Piling it higher and deeper, he added that, “The first human civilization appeared in the ancient caves on Mount Carmel, in Palestine” and, hilariously, “Humans appeared in Palestine 1.5 million years ago.”

Considering that Homo sapiens has been around only for about 300,000 years, Fattouh’s tale of Palestinians roaming the land along with the dinosaurs in the Cretaceous period shows that no lie is too outrageous when it comes to “pro-Palestine” propaganda.

Investigative Project on Terrorism Senior Fellow A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum where he is also a Milstein fellow.