One of the holy grails of the Palestinian movement is the "right of return," and it is one that always haunts any peace agreement. Alongside it is one of the most vilified pieces of Israeli legislation, the Absentee Property Law, which has provided more grist for the academic mill of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than anything else. Even after 60 years of conflict, there is very little understanding by Palestinians or others of either the concept of "return" or that of absentee property - which together represent an idea and the thing to which people might return.
It is important to begin with something that should seem undisputed. Why is there such a dispute as to the total number of Palestinians who became refugees in 1948? The UN claimed, based on British estimates, that there were 1,076,000 Muslims, 13,500 Druse and 145,000 Christians in Palestine in 1947. After the War of Independence there were 32,000 Christians, 90,000 Muslims and 14,000 Druse. Some 507,000 people lived in the West Bank and Gaza before 1948. No more than 592,000 people could have become refugees, and that is using the Mandatory government's population estimate, which was probably an exaggeration. It is the descendants of those people who today claim a right of return.
THERE ARE many Palestinians who, clinging to their ancient keys and documents relating to some property in Israel, have come to visualize a return to a place that is a fantasy. I've spent enough time traveling around the country with educated Palestinians to come across this distortion of memory. Palestinians have an attachment to things that they believe relate to their ancestors, such as old mosques that remain in many places. But they also have an attachment to things that they assume are Palestinian, such as Nahlaot in Jerusalem. The area, built from stone, seems to many Arabs to remind them of the Old City, and they wrongly assume that it must have been an Arab area. Thus some of the "right of return" relates to areas that were never Arab, but which Arabs imagine must have been Arab because of the way they look.
There are other properties that were Arab but were never owned by the people who claim a right of return to them. Take the village of Muharaqa that was once not far from Sderot. This village was established on land acquired by the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the late 19th century. He settled peasants from nearby Gaza in a planned village, armed them and told them to till the soil and bring civilization to the hinterland bordering the Negev. They subsisted that way until the sultan's overthrow in 1908, when the village and its lands were confiscated by the Turkish state.
During the British Mandate, the sultan's heirs sued for the return of the village, and the British court found that the land was state land. In the 1940s, the local villagers also petitioned the court and received the same reply. When the villagers subsequently fled in 1948, they left behind houses erected on land they never owned. Now those villagers, probably living in Gaza, want to "return." If they are owed compensation, it would be for their dwellings, not their nonexistent land.
WRITING IN Pity the Nation, the Israel-bashing author Robert Fisk, who usually writes for the Independent, claimed to have uncovered a great gem. He got an interview with the custodian of absentee property, who supposedly informed him that "about 70 percent" of the land of Israel might have Arab claimants to it. Fisk noted, "Arabs owned a far greater proportion of that part of Palestine which became Israel than has previously been imagined."
Fisk and his supposed informant were both wrong.
More than a third of Mandatory Palestine, the Negev, was never surveyed by the British and its land never properly registered, although the British believed that the vast majority of the Negev (13 million dunams) was government land. Of the two-thirds of British Palestine remaining, the area of the West Bank (5 million dunams) was also never surveyed. The British surveyed areas that tended to change hands in land sales and that took place mostly in the low country. It is hard to say exactly how much of the land that has a traceable title was categorized as absentee property of individual Arab landholders, but it wasn't "about 70%."
Whatever the amount was, large portions of it were not actually owned by the people who had lived on it. Some of it was owned by absentee Arab landlords and wealthy families. When Arabs speak of the right of return, they don't usually consider that they will be returning to lease their houses from the Abdul Hadi, Taji or Husseini families. When they speak of compensation, they certainly don't realize that the compensation, if paid to the actual owners, would never go to them. They fantasize about returning to a real house that they can call their own. Probably the most successful propaganda the PA has ever uttered is the idea that there is a right of return to anything that resembles a house and private land in Israel.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University.