On the afternoon of May 14, 1948, hours before Britain’s Royal Navy flotilla would sail from Haifa harbor, marking the end of Britain’s mandatory rule over Palestine, leaders of the local Jewish community hastily assembled at the Tel Aviv Museum to hear the head of the Zionist leadership, David Ben-Gurion, declare, “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. …We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State … the State of Israel.” Palestine was then in the midst of a civil war. The U.N. had decided, six months earlier, to partition the land into an Arab and a Jewish state. The Jews of Palestine accepted the plan, which gave them a majority of the land despite their making up less than a third of its inhabitants. The Arabs rejected it.
But the Jews were better organized and better armed. By May 14, they had expelled or encouraged the flight of some three hundred thousand Palestinians. The war that followed ended in 1949 with Israel expanding its boundaries to 78 percent of what had been Palestine. Within that territory, eighty percent of the Arab population had been exiled and Jews now made up a majority. To preserve it, Israel prevented the non-Jewish refugees from returning, in defiance of the U.N.’s call to allow them to come home.
Both Jewish nationalism and Palestinian nationalism came to be defined by the idea of return. Israel, which was founded on the principle that Jews had a 2,000-year-old connection to the land and a right to return to it, established unlimited immigration for any Jew in the world—regardless of national origin or links to the territory. At the same time, Israel denied return to Palestinians who had been exiled from homes they inhabited in their own lifetimes.
The return of refugees from the 1948 war became the central issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It remains a crucial sticking point today. This spring, Palestinian organizers launched the “Great March of Return,” a series of protests near the Gaza-Israel border demanding that Palestinian refugees and their descendents be allowed to return to what is now Israel.
In the aftermath of 1948, the displaced Palestinians constituted the national movement’s core constituency and main political leaders. Through armed resistance, Palestinian factions sought to liberate their homeland and obtain the return that refugees in other conflicts were routinely allowed, and that was guaranteed under international law. Israel met that resistance with violence of its own, killing thousands of refugees as they tried to sneak home under cover of darkness in the years following the war.
For eighteen years after the 1948 war, the conflict was frozen. Israel was too strong to give up territory or permit return to stateless refugees, and the Palestinians were too weak to obtain it. The great powers paid lip service to their right to return but did little to help bring it about. Then, in 1967, the paradigm changed. In the June war of that year, Israel conquered Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, as well as Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan Heights. Post-1967, Palestinian refugees became an addendum to the international community’s new priority, which was to achieve peace between Israel and its neighbors through the return of lands Israel took in 1967.