Refugee claims, resulting from the 1947-1948 and 1967 wars, are among the most divisive and intractable issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the Palestinian political leadership consistently claims a ‘right of return’, (often couched in terms such as "historic justice") others see this as equivalent to seeking the destruction of Israel. ( Legal Aspects of the Palestinian Refugee Question, Ruth Lapidoth) In many cases, prominent NGOs that claim to focus on human rights and humanitarian issues have added their voices and formidable resources in support of the Palestinian position on this very sensitive subject. Similarly, they often repeat Palestinian claims regarding the numbers of people involved (the number of refugees from the 1947/8 war was approximately 650,000; estimates regarding the number of descendants vary considerably.) In Part 1 of its analysis on this issue, NGO Monitor surveys the position of prominent international NGOs, including policy regarding Jewish refugees who fled Arab countries after 1947. Part 2 will examine BADIL, and other Palestinian NGO organizations that promote the "right of return".


Amnesty International covers issues related to Middle East refugees in great detail, including Iran and Iraq. Regarding the Palestinians, this NGO calls on Middle East governments to "Ensure that the right to return or compensation for Palestinian refugees is respected: these rights should be given a high priority in the Middle East peace process."

Amnesty’s policy is developed further in a 29 April 2004 open letter to US President George W. Bush, which states that "the right to return applies not just to those who were directly expelled and their immediate families, but also to those of their descendants who have maintained what the Human Rights Committee defines as having ‘close and enduring connections’ with the area. The organization supports the right of exiles to return to their own homes or the vicinity of their own homes, where this is feasible. Exiles who choose not to return are entitled to compensation for lost property and those returning should also be compensated for lost property. The rights of innocent third parties, who may be living in the homes or on the lands of the exiles, should also be taken into account."

Human Rights Watch’s policy on Palestinian refugees is similar to that of Amnesty (as well as official Palestinian policy), as outlined in 22 December 2000 letters to Yasser Arafat, Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton. In the letters, HRW Director Kenneth Roth argues "that a peace agreement between the two sides should allow Palestinians in exile to choose freely among three options: returning to their country of origin, integrating into the country of asylum, or resettling in a third country…The options of local integration and third-country resettlement should not extinguish the right of return." This position does not exclude or reject Palestinian political claims or the possibility of using refugee return to destroy Israel, an issue examined by Leonard A. Cole, who asked Roth why HRW had issued its statement at that time but never previously. According to Roth, HRW "began developing a position on the Palestinians in mid-2000…when "it seemed that the negotiators were looking seriously at the issue" "We hoped" that the position paper would help." (Leonard A. Cole, "A Palestinian Return to Nowhere", Midstream magazine, Sept./Oct. 2001).

Cole addresses the timing of the HRW statement (three months into the outbreak of Palestinian violence) wondering "how statements of support for Palestinian return would encourage them to stop the violence" and concluding that "The HRW document seems a product of wishful thinking detached from realistic solutions." They are also another reflection of the primacy of Roth’s political and ideological objectives.

Similarly, the anti-Israel NGO known as MADRE repeats the Palestinian call for Israel’s compliance with "UN Resolution 194, providing the legal foundation for the right of return of Palestinian refugees." Lapidoth, Cole and many other analysts note that this text does not speak of a right to return, but permission to return – and permission only at the "earliest practicable date". However, MADRE, like many other pro-Palestinian groups, cites Resolution 194 selectively. The text states "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 … Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of refugees and payment of compensation…" (emphasis added).

This ambiguity is reflected in statements by Oxfam, which, while again departing from its charitable mandate, does not take a clear position on this issue, simply stating in its March 2002 Foundations for Peace document that: "A permanent solution to the status of over five million Palestinian refugees [a disputed number] must be addressed in a way that is consistent with international refugee law." The nature of "international law" on this complex issue is not specified in this document. The politicization of Oxfam was demonstrated, however, as the organization’s Belgian branch hosted the 5th Annual Strategic Meeting of the Palestinian Right of Return Coalition in Ghent, Belgium, 6-11 October 2004. A number of other NGOs, such as the National Lawyers Guild, Partners for Peace, Lutherans for Reformation, Truth and Justice, the World Alliance of YMCAs, and the National Council of Churches of Christ, have also endorsed radical Palestinian positions on this most sensitive of political issues in the conflict.


Often forgotten in the discussion of refugees is the fate of 900,000 Jews who were displaced from Arab states following the creation of Israel and have still to receive any form of compensation. (See ‘A Population and Property Transfer’: The Forgotten Exodus of Jews from Arab Lands, World Jewish Congress, Sept. 2002). In its report, Amnesty devotes a single paragraph to Jewish refugees, stating that some "left because of persecution, including killings of Jews, or increasing restrictions on their activities. Others left because of Israeli encouragement to immigrate…" Amnesty acknowledges that "there are still outstanding Jewish claims for compensation.." In contrast, and following its core political agenda, HRW totally ignores this dimension of the refugee issue.

Thus, in dealing with highly volatile and divisive issue of refugee claims in the Arab-Israeli conflict, these NGOs again demonstrate the centrality of a pro-Palestinian political agenda.