One of the hot-button issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the Palestinian “right of return.” The Palestinian right of return states that all Arabs and descendants who lived within Israel’s borders before the War of Independence in 1948 should be allowed to return and that all assets lost should be repatriated by Israel. In this article, we will examine the definition of a Palestinian refugee, how the refugee problem surfaced following the War of Independence in 1948, and the population and assets exchanges that took place between the Jewish and Arab states.
Who Qualifies as a Palestinian Refugee?
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency that was created by the United Nations to handle the Palestinian refugee problem, defines Palestinian refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 and 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” UNWRA’s website continues the definition to include all descendants of the original refugees, which expands the original number from 750,000 to five million today. The definition, therefore, includes four generations of descendants and those who have resettled and even gained citizenship in Jordan.
This type of refugee status is unique to that of Palestinians and UNRWA. All other refugees throughout the world are defined by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHRCR), which defines a refugee as “a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence. … A person may no longer be a refugee when the basis for his or her refugee status ceases to exist. This may occur when, for example, refugees voluntarily repatriate to their home countries once the situation there permits such return. It may also occur when refugees integrate or become naturalized in their host countries and stay permanently.” According to UNHRCR’s definition, which would exclude those who have resettled in Jordan and become Jordanian citizens, only around 50,000 Palestinian refugees remain today.
How Did the Refugee Problem Surface?
Although the land of Israel has maintained a Jewish presence since ancient times, more Jewish people began immigrating to the land to escape the increasing antisemitic persecution in Europe during the earlier part of the nineteenth century. Other immigrants came as a result of the expulsions of Jews from North Africa. This immigration reached its peak after the Holocaust of World War II when the United Nations officially adopted Resolution 181, which allowed for the creation of both a Jewish state and an Arab state within the borders of what was then called Palestine. The Jewish people accepted this resolution, as it would enable them to escape the horrors of Europe and global antisemitism and seek refuge in their ancient homeland.
On May 14, 1948, Israel officially declared its independence in accordance with the UN resolution. The following day, five Arab nations surrounded and attacked Israel in rejection of the Jewish state. This began the War of Independence, which created thousands of refugees—both Jewish and Arab. Arabs in Israel fled their homes, and Jewish people fled their homes in the surrounding Arab countries because of rising hostilities against them.
Population and Assets Exchange
This created both a Jewish and Arab refugee crisis. Around 750,000 Arab-Palestinians fled Israel, and about 860,000 Jewish refugees fled Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and Israel’s surrounding Arab countries. Jews were forbidden to return to their homes after the war, and all of their assets were confiscated. In Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) in particular, Jordan—which took control of the area—barred any Jews from entering during its nineteen-year rule. Iraq, which assumed $243 million (the equivalent of $6 billion today) of Jewish assets, said its confiscation of Jewish property served to compensate that which was lost of Arab-Palestinian assets.
In 1951, at the Paris conference, the issue of the Jewish refugees and dispossession of their assets was raised. “Israel demanded that a link be created between the Jewish exodus and the Jewish assets left behind in the Arab states and that of the Palestinian refugees, but nothing came of the discussion,” wrote Dr. Shaul Bartal, lecturer on Middle Eastern Studies at Bar Ilan University. As a result, Israel made the decision to likewise use Arab-Palestinian assets that were left behind to help aid the resettlement of Jewish refugees in Israel. By 1963, Israel had resettled all of the 860,000 Jewish refugees in Israel who were displaced from their homes in Arab countries and the West Bank. The Arab nations—except Jordan—refused to resettle the 750,000 Arab refugees.
Summarizing the Arab-Jewish population and assets exchange, Dr. Randall Price—a scholar of Middle Eastern Studies—explained, “No doubt, historic injustices have occurred with respect to refugees, but they have occurred for both peoples sharing the same land. Therefore, the claim of one people to the land on this basis cannot be made in exclusion of the other.” According to 1950 UN estimates, confiscated Palestinian assets were valued at approximately $3.4 billion, and confiscated Jewish assets left behind estimated approximately $100 billion (in today’s terms).
In light of the above facts, we do not believe the Palestinian right of return—the call for Israel to make reparations for lost Palestinian assets and to allow five million Arabs to move to Israel—is a fair or politically feasible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The fact that any refugees—both Jews and Arabs—lost homes and belongings during the War of Independence saddens us. We hope and pray for a lasting solution to the refugee issue, for peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors, and for both Jews and Arabs to come to know the Prince of Peace, Jesus the Messiah.
by Jennifer Miles
 “Palestine Refugees,” United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, accessed November 23, 2020, https://www.unrwa.org/palestine-refugees.
 Shabtai Shavit, “A Tale of Two “refugee” Organizations: UNWRA vs. UNHCR,” JUSTICE: The magazine of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (2015): 34-37, http://din-online.info/pdf/ju55.pdf.
 Ibid., 35.
 Ibid., 37.
 Randall Price, Fast Facts on the Middle East Conflict (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2003), 54–55.
 Shaul Bartal, “The Palestinian Refugee Problem Resolved,” The Middle East Quarterly 20, 4 (2013): 34.
 Bartal, Palestinian Refugee, 39.
 Alexander Joffe and Asaf Romirowsky, “The Politics of the Palestinian Right of Return,” Forbes, February 24, 2014, .
 Price, Fast Facts on the Middle East, 55.
 Bartal, “The Palestinian Refugee Problem Resolved,” 39.