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This house calls on Israel to give citizenship to pre-1948 residents+descendant­s

  • Jun 10, 2014 · 7:00 PM
  • Commonwealth Club - Boardroom

With the breakdown of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians at the end of April, there have been calls to step back from the technical issues that were being negotiated, in order to look at the big picture.

Both Israelis and Palestinians agree that the biggest issue that divides them is what's known as the "Palestinian Right of Return", which is claimed as a "right" by the vast majority of Palestinians, and denied by the vast majority of Israeli Jews. During Israel's war of independence,[masked], about 700,000 people, the majority of the non-Jews (Palestinian Arabs) who had been living inside what became Israel's borders, were either forced out or fled. When the shooting stopped with an armistice signed, the government of the new state of Israel refused to allow them to return to their homes, and refused to grant them citizenship or even enter the new state. Palestinians claim that refugees from[masked] who are still alive should be allowed to return to their original homes and live as equal citizens of the country where their homes are now located, and also that this right should be passed on to their descendants, now numbering around 6 million. The Israeli government argues that there is no such general "right", and says it'll accept at most a few thousand back, mostly for family reunification, as part of a final comprehensive peace deal.

Since both sides cite historical justifications for their positions, we need to look at the history.


Two thousand years ago, the area that we now call Israel and Palestine was part of the Roman Empire and had a Jewish majority. Most Jews in the world lived outside the Israel-Palestine area, but this area, especially Jerusalem, had particular religious significance to them. Following Jewish revolts against the Romans, who then destroyed the Temple and the city of Jerusalem in the first century, the Jewish population in the area shrank, from emigration and conversion, and Christians became the majority. Later, after the area fell under Muslim rule, Muslims became the majority. In 1882, about 8% of the population were Jews, the rest being Muslims or Christians.

The year 1882 also marked the beginning of immigration of European Jews who were inspired by the Zionist movement, which began in response to persecution in Eastern Europe, and called for large-scale immigration of European Jews to a new Jewish homeland in the Israel-Palestine area, which was then part of the Turkish empire.

British Mandate of Palestine, 1920 - 1948

The Turks were on the losing side of the First World War, and in 1920 the British took control of the British Mandate of Palestine, given responsibility by the League of Nations to prepare the country for independence. Britain allowed more Jewish immigration, following the famous 1917 declaration by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour:

"His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

After Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews, World War II and the Holocaust, and the relocation of post-war European Jewish displaced persons, by 1947 Palestine had 608,000 Jews (33%) and 1,237,000 non-Jews (67%). With the British pulling out, the United Nations General Assembly decided on November 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into two new states, one with a Jewish majority, the other with a non-Jewish (Arab) majority.

The partition resolution in 1947 stated that nobody would be forced to move, but that individuals would become citizens of whichever new state that their own home happened to be in. Based on the existing populations, boundaries were drawn so that:

• the proposed "Jewish" state would have 498,000 (61%) Jews and 325,000 (39%) non-Jews;

• the proposed "Arab" state would have 10,000 (1%) Jews and 807,000 (99%) non-Jews;

• a separate international zone around Jerusalem would have 100,000 (49%) Jews and 105,000 (51%) non-Jews.

The Jewish leaders in Palestine accepted the partition resolution, but Arab leaders rejected it, calling it unfair to allocate over half of Palestine to a "Jewish" state when only 1/3 of Palestine's population were Jews, and most of the Jews were recent immigrants. Fighting broke out in Palestine, with massacres of Arabs by Jews, and of Jews by Arabs, and many fleeing their homes (far more Arabs fleeing than Jews). Then on May 14, 1948, the state of Israel declared independence, based on the "Jewish" state of the UN partition resolution, but not defining its borders. Included in the declaration:

• "The State of Israel ... will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex;"

• "We appeal - in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months - to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions."

Despite the large non-Jewish population in the new country, all 37 signatories of the declaration were Jewish, and only one of them had been born there; 35 of the 37 had been born in Europe but moved to Palestine as children or adults.

There was no similar declaration of independence of the "Arab" state in Palestine proposed by the UN partition resolution. Upon Israel's declaration of independence, armies of Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq invaded the land of Palestine to defend the Arabs and fight the Israelis. Jordan took the area now called the West Bank (about half of the land envisaged for the "Arab" state in the UN partition plan, plus most of the Jerusalem zone), and Egypt took the Gaza Strip. (Both of these areas later came under Israeli military occupation, as a consequence of the war of 1967.) With superior arms and, surprisingly, with more troops than the combined Arab armies, Israel was able to expand its borders beyond those of the "Jewish" state in the UN partition plan, and an armistice was signed in 1949. Of the 881,000 non-Jews living in 1947 in what would become the state of Israel, only 156,000 were left two years later, because the remaining 725,000 of them became refugees.

Responses to mass displacement

On December 11, 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194, stating in part:

• "The General Assembly, Having considered further the situation in Palestine, ... Resolves that 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"

At this time, the government of Israel offered to allow at most 100,000 refugees to return, but only in selected areas of the country, not necessarily to their own homes, and only as part of a general peace treaty to resolve all issues (which still has never happened). The Israeli government also demolished about 400 Arab villages, now that their people had gone.

Over the next few years, in Arab countries, popular anger over the displacement of so many fellow Arabs at the hands of Jewish militias and by Israel, the self-proclaimed state of the Jewish people, led to threats against their own Jewish populations, and about 800,000 Jews were either forced out or left countries such as Iraq, Egypt, and Morocco.  Most of them went to Israel.


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was formed in 1949 to provide aid to these refugees and their male-line descendants in countries neighboring Israel. Currently there are 5,030,049 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA:

• 2,070,973 in Jordan;

• 1,240,082 in the Gaza Strip;

• 754,411 in the West Bank;

• 517,255 in Syria;

• 447,328 in Lebanon.

Except for some in Jordan, these refugees are  stateless, meaning that they are not citizens of any country. About 1/3 of them are still living in refugee camps, which have grown to be more like whole cities rather than the tented encampments they had been originally.

There are an estimated 1 million or so Palestinian refugees living elsewhere in the world, who used to live in what's now Israel or are descended from people who lived there up until 1948.


Since issues of restitution or compensation for lost property are complicated, we'll leave them aside in our debate and focus on citizenship: Should Israel be asked to grant Israeli citizenship to the non-Jewish pre-1948 residents of what became Israel, and their descendants, as it has always done for pre-1948 residents who were Jewish? Citizenship in a country confers rights to live within its borders and to have access to employment and public services such as health and education.  (Note for clarification: This debate is not about calling on Israel to give Israeli citizenship to everyone in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  It's only about Israeli citizenship for those who used to live within the current boundaries of the state of Israel, or are descended from someone whose home was there before 1948. This happens to include most of the current residents of the Gaza Strip, and many in the West Bank, but the eventual political status of those two areas, which are not considered to be part of Israel, is a separate issue.)

Supporters argue that allowing the non-Jewish refugees to return to what is now Israel is a moral necessity: the Israeli government's insistence on keeping them out simply because they aren't Jewish violates basic human rights and UN resolutions, and the Israelis themselves promised to uphold equal rights for all inhabitants when they declared independence as a state. Probably even more than the ongoing Israeli military control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the refusal of the Israeli government to allow back people who used to live within its borders is the greatest obstacle to achieving a peace in the region that will be accepted not only by Arab governments, but also by their people. Supporters also argue that descendants of the original refugees also deserve to be allowed to live and have citizenship in Israel, following the standard international practice of citizenship by descent, especially for people who have no other citizenship.

Opponents argue that the non-Jews living in what became Israel do not deserve citizenship because they collectively fought against Israel right from the beginning and had five Arab armies coming in to assist them in this fight. Furthermore, the 725,000 Palestinian refugees who fled to neighboring Arab countries and were not allowed to return to homes in Israel are outnumbered by about 800,000 Jews who were later forced out of Arab countries where they had lived for centuries. Most of the Jews from Arab countries were taken in by Israel, so in effect, a two-way exchange of populations took place, like the ones between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, or between India and Pakistan in the 1940s. Opponents are especially concerned about the large numbers involved: if all 6 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants became citizens of Israel and moved there, Israel's population would almost double, and Jews would make up just under half the population in what would no longer be the world's only Jewish state.


• Wikipedia

• "The Real Story": Good overview of historical background, including interviews with Israeli historians Tom Segev and Benny Morris on This American Life (20-minute radio program). You can also read the transcript: skip down to "Act Two. What's The Truth Good For, Anyway?"

In favor:

• Salman Abu Sitta, "Palestine Right Of Return, Sacred, Legal, and Possible"

• Interview with Eitan Bernstein, "The Return of the Refugees will Bring Peace"

• Amnesty International

• Human Rights Watch

• American Friends Service Committee


• S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and The Atlantic, "Is Peace Possible", 15-minute video

• Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, "The Palestinian Claim to a 'Right of Return'"

• Zionism & Israel Information Center, "Right of Return of Palestinian Refugees: International Law and Humanitarian Considerations"

• Anti-Defamation League

As usual, this debate is free for members of the Commonwealth Club, and $5 for non-members.

We have already arranged speakers to present arguments on both sides of this motion, as well as a moderator for this debate.

Everyone who attends will get a chance to speak.  After the debate, those who are interested will continue the conversation at a nearby pub.

Join or login to comment.

  • Peter

    The speaker in favor said non-Jews were promised they could stay by the UN plan & Israeli independence declaration, and UN resolved they should return; Israel offers citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent (15 million outside Israel), but not to non-Jewish exiles + descendants (6 million) who are at least as deserving. The speaker against argued it's only a negotiating tactic, as Palestinian leaders have been open to bargaining it away; and though post-1990 standards would support it, these people were exiled in 1940s when different norms applied. Supporters argued it's needed for national & regional reconciliation, like Rwanda or S. Africa, and US support would improve US moral standing. Opponents feared Israel would be ruined by arrival of so many Arabs in the world's designated Jewish state. Some opponents said original exiles do deserve citizenship, but descendants don't. Start vote: 5 yea, 3 nay, 3 abstain. End vote (with speakers & moderator): 7 yea, 6 nay, 1 abstain.

    June 17, 2014

  • David M.

    Pretty contentious stuff. I've actually lost friendships over this issue. Glad we're talking about it.

    May 28, 2014

  • Barbara W.

    Sorry to miss it!

    May 27, 2014

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