Should Palestinian refugees have the right to return? A Palestinian Canadian responds to Shimon Fogel

simon fogel on Tv

A few days after the Parliamentary motion to condemn BDS, CIJA President Shimon Fogel wrote a very strongly worded piece in Huffington Post (Truth vs. Myth in the BDS Movement) explaining why Palestinians have no legal right to return to their homeland. I asked a Palestinian Canadian, born of a refugee family in Lebanon, to explain why he thinks this is unfair and unacceptable. Read more.

Of the 3 demands of the BDS movement, the “right of return” of Palestinians to the lands they inhabited before 1947 is probably the most contentious.

From the 3/4 million refugees in 1947/48, the total has now risen to over 5 million Palestinian refugees. Israeli Jews worry that if they were all to return, Israel would no longer have a Jewish majority. Democracy would mean that the many laws (and practices) that today give privileges to Jews inside Israel would almost certainly be swept away. Nobody anywhere ever wants to lose their privileges.

But what happened to the refugees was clearly unfair, and needs to be recognized and remedied. Does it matter if they were forced out of Israel at gunpoint or if they fled in terror without having been forced? Whatever the reason for leaving, they were not allowed back and all their lands, household possessions, farm animals, books, and bank accounts were seized without compensation.

In his Huffington Post article Shimon Fogel takes a legal approach, arguing that “no such “right” exists, – the very term ‘right of return’ has never featured in an internationally binding document.”

I asked Rami, a Palestinian Canadian who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, and who still has family members there for his response. In his letter below, Rami explains how proud he is to have become Canadian because Canadians value fairness and human rights. The right to return, he argues is not only a legal question but also one of fairness, morality and human rights. Read his personal appeal below:


 A personal response to Shimon Fogel: Palestinian refugees are real people

My mother and father were born in Safad, in northern Palestine (now called Israel). They were forced to leave their homes in 1948 . My father passed away in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon in 2004. He always had a dream to see the home he was born in, which was less than 100 km from his camp. He was never able to make it. Israel did not allow him to go back.

He told my family many stories about their town, fields, and community. He told the story of exile too.

nakba rami

Here are some more pictures that tell you the story of Palestinian refugees.

My father and mother ended up in Lebanon in April 1948. I was born there in a refugee camp. Thanks to UNRWA, the UN refugee agency for Palestinians, I got education. I was lucky to immigrate to Canada and become a proud citizen of a wonderful country.

In a recent article, Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which advocates for Israeli interests in Canada, said that Palestinian refugees do not have the right to return to their towns. The main reason, according to Fogel, is that Abba Eban, who was Israel’s representative to the UN in 1948, was smart enough to manipulate the technical text of UN resolution 194 which deals with the refugee question. Eban’s brilliance found a way to excuse and justify my family’s loss.

Really? Well, I disagree. Many progressive Israelis disagree too, such as the Israeli organization Zochrot. My family’s suffering and my father’s dream to see his home, and the suffering and dreams of all Palestinian refugees to enjoy normal life, deserve respect. These dreams and rights do not depend on the IQ of Eban or Mr. Fogel. They depend on human consciousness.

“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

– The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 13

children ramiPalestinian children in a refugee camp in Lebanon in 2012. For these children, being a refugee is to have a life almost with no hope.

Most Palestinian refugees still live in camps and they desperately want peace and a reasonable solution that would make everyone feel protected, free and safe. Of course, this is not easy to accomplish, but we can start the first step if we have the will and imagination.

The Israeli human rights organization Zochrot , which believes in truth and reconciliation is inspiring. Canada is inspiring too: after a long and difficult path of injustice, Canadians are talking about truth and reconciliation with our aboriginal population.

Israel needs to recognize that what it did to my family and ¾ million other Palestinians was a form of ethnic cleansing according to the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe. Israel needs to admit what it did and enter into serious discussions about what we are going to do about it.

Unfortunately, “Israel is in national denial” when it comes to Palestinian history and rights, according to Eva Illouz, an Israeli professor of sociology at the Hebrew University. Canadians and all friends of peace can help to change that. Israel is the most powerful force in the region. It has the capacity and moral obligation to take the first step to change reality.

mandela rami

Let us stop hiding behind technical, legalistic language – it means little. Let us talk about people and human suffering – this means everything!  Rami


NOTE: Canada Talks Israel Palestine has forwarded Rami’s letter to CIJA’s Shimon Fogel for comment. If we receive a response, we will be pleased to print it in a forthcoming blog post.


  1. Shimon Fogel’s explanation is predictably disingenuous.

    Resolution 273, admitting Israel to the UN, required Israel to specifically fulfill resolution 194 while “noting” Eban’s concerns.

    Resolution 194 itself “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…”

    A google search will reveal various Zionist mental gymnastics to try to suppress the right of return. More importantly, Canada voted in favour of 194, and that resolution has been interpreted by the UN itself as granting the right of return, and has been reaffirmed at the UN every year since!

    We should be wasting our time with Holocaust deniers, Nakba deniers, or other such hateful nonsense.

  2. We shouldn’t !! be wasting our time with Holocaust deniers, Nakba deniers, or other such hateful nonsense.

    1. I am not sure i understand what you mean. I think we have to be open to talking to Canadians who have points of view we disagree with. If they are wrong, we need to shiw why so that a third person can judge.

    2. Save us your “anti-semitism” balony. It’s been used far too much and is a disgrace and the ultimate form of racist behavior.

  3. Robert, you appear to be on side with Peter, in that you’ve looked into the wording of U.N. Resolutions 273 and 194, and concluded that they fail to support the claims of Simon Fogel. By way of Peter’s interview of Rami, a Palestinian who survived the Nakba, Peter has presented the human side of the Palestinian narrative, alluding to reasons of justice worthy of consideration by a court of law, much as Canadians value testimonies given by victims of crime.

    Both types of evidence must be made clear to the general public, and openly debated with those such as Fogel who are anxious to maintain precedence for their claims — claims that may win out, thanks to lobbyists such as Fogel, politicians he lobbies, and the many obsequious elements of our mainstream media with a penchant for telling only the Zionist side of the narrative. For this reason, “the other side” must be confronted with verifiable evidence for all to evaluate. Revealing the parallelism of Nakba denial to Holocaust denial is not a “waste of time”.

  4. The “Right of Return” of Palestinian refugees (including descendants) to their homes in Israel in international law is a fact But so is the situation that they will never be permitted by the Jewish state Israel to exercise this right except symbolically in a limited way as part of a final agreement. To fully exercise this right a state of Palestine must be established that is sovereign and viable and can serve as a homeland for all Palestinians that wish to live there. Only this will end the serious discrepancy where Jews from all over the world are given free reign to go to Israel while the original Palestinians can not exercise an equal right in a state of their own. Working for such a “two state solution” of Israel and Palestine that allows such a right of return for Palestinians that Jews enjoy now in Israel should be paramount rather than denying that such “rights of return” exists.

    1. Hey George, I fully agree that Israelis will not allow the Palestinians to have a right of return… if they don’t need to. And today, as long as they have full backing of the USA they don’t need to. So wouldn’t a more ethical way of posing the question be: “what has to be done so that Israel would see this in its own best interest?”

    2. Thank you, George, for your interest in this subject. I believe before discussing a solution that works, people need to acknowledge first that there is a problem, and define it clearly. This is not the case with Israel when it comes to Palestinian refugees and historic record. Although what happened in 1947- 48 is very well documented by UN, Israel does not want to look into the mirror and acknowledge responsibility. This is why Israel can not even hear the names of Palestinian cities before 1948, or words like “UNRWA” and “camps”, or even “Palestinian refugees”! These words are mirrors that show reality that Israel does not want it to exist in its memory. On the other hand, Palestinians who were forced out of their homes in 1947- 48, and their families who are suffering under difficult conditions, including Israeli wars, are real people and will not go away. These people need acknowledgement and respect for their suffering. This is the least to begin with, and “technical solutions” will follow. Imagine that an Israeli government makes a historic statement to say to Palestinians: “We acknowledge responsibility of what happened to you in 1948 and we are sorry for that. Let us have a serious discussion with the participation of UN to see what we can do together to make everyone feel respected, safe and free”. After that, I am sure that dynamics will change and people can find a reasonable solution. Refugees are the most interested people in a solution because they suffer the most. Canadians and all human rights activists can help to make Israel wake up from its “national denial” and accept history and reality. History teaches us that truth and reconciliation give better sense of peace and safety than “nuclear umbrellas” when it comes to the rights of native people.

  5. Peter, I think the assertion, “Nobody anywhere ever wants to lose their privileges.” in your article is far too strong and is false. There are many who are more just than that would imply.

    Further, any person who can argue that Palestinians who want to return to specific places where they, or their ancestors, were born have no such right while insisting that I, someone who could not even begin to identify an ancestor who came from Israel, have that right has carried hypocrisy to extreme heights.

    The two-state “solution” is not a solution at all. It would prevent many people from returning to their ancestral lands – simply on the basis of their ethnicity. Lets call it what it really would be, formalization of “ethnic cleansing”

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