Do Palestinians have the right to return? And if they do, is it realistic to expect it will ever really happen? A rare public discussion in Canada of a sensitive topic.

On March 3, a rare public discussion/debate took place in Ottawa on the tricky issue of the Palestinian “right of return”. Ottawa lawyer Jon Snipper, (bottom left) opposes the Palestinian right of return on what he feels are sound legal and moral grounds. OFIP chair Peter Larson (top right) supports it. The session was moderated by former Canadian ambassador Rick Kohler (bottom right) and questions were handled by professor Gerald Wright (top left). Watch the video recording of the event. See what you think. (Warning, its 2 hour long so get a cup of coffee!!)

Of the many Palestinian demands (end the occupation, equality inside Israel, sharing of Jerusalem, end child detention, end systematic torture, end the blockade of Gaza……. Etc.) one of the most important and most emotional – on both sides – is the Palestinian “right of return”.

Palestinian refugee Laila Abdel Meguid Tafesh, 78,holds up a key allegedly from her house in Jaffa, now located in Israel.

On the Palestinian side, it involves the MOST people living in the worst conditions. Over half of the total Palestinian population, perhaps as many as 5 or 6 million are refugees. They have rights defined in international law and need a practical solution. Humanitarian aid or compensation will not solve their problem.

In addition to a practical problem requiring a practical solution, it is also a huge emotional issue – they think that what was done to them was totally unjust and that the west has imposed a catastrophe on them because of the west’s guilt over the humanitarian tragedy of the Holocaust

On the Israeli/Zionist side, the very idea of the return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel is the most threatening of the Palestinian demands. If even a small percentage of the refugees return, Israel will no longer have a Jewish majority. And this will put in question the Zionist ideal of Israel as a Jewish State.

Because of the strong emotions attached to the idea of the return of the Palestinian refugees, it is extremely rare to hear an open debate with speakers taking opposite positions. (IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT THIS DISCUSSION: Jon is not an Israeli, and I am not Palestinian. We are both Canadians. Neither of us claims to speak for either Israelis or Palestinians. This is a discussion among Canadians about where justice lies.)


The discussion took place according to a carefully worked out format, focussing on 5 questions with specific time allotments for each to be scrupulously monitored by a moderator.

1. Did Jews have a right to come and live in Palestine before 1948, and if so, did their right to be there somehow give them superior rights to those living there at the time?

2. Why do you think 725,000 Palestinians fled from 1947 to 1949?

3. Do you think that a Right of Return to live in Israel exists for the Palestinians who have refugee status under UNWRA?

4. If so, why? If not, why not?

5. Do you think the issue of the Right to Return has been a principal stumbling block to the ability of the two sides to reach a proper peace accord?

Here is the video recording of the 2 hour discussion.

Of course, not all the issues raised in the discussion could be addressed because of time considerations. Following the webinar, I wrote to Jon Snipper commenting on four specific points he had brought up during his presentation which I did not have time to respond to.

In the spirit of OFIP’s commitment to a reasonable and respectful conversation about the Israel/Palestine issue, I offered him space to “rebut” my arguments. My comments to him are below, followed by his responses. I encourage readers who are interested in the topic to watch the webinar and read both my clarifications and Snipper’s response. If you don’t have time to watch the whole webinar, just read this exchange. You will find it interesting.

My follow up comments

Dear Jon, I would like to make a short response to 4 separate points you raised during our discussion/debate:

On your dismissal of UN resolution 194 (on the right of return) and of the International Declaration of Human Rights as “non binding” and of little importance.

You challenged the value of these 2 resolutions, pointing out that UN General Assembly (UNGA) votes are “aspirational” and non binding. That is of course true. UNGA votes are non binding. That also applies to UNGA resolution 188 (on the Partition of Palestine into 2 states) and UNGA resolution 273 which accepted Israel into the UN. All 4 have equal value. To dismiss two while upholding the other two is misleading.

The decision in 1947 to partition Palestine and give more than half of it to European Jewish immigrants was made by the highest internationally recognized body. The partition was a European solution to a European problem (anti-Semitism). The UN was dominated at that time by European powers responding to the horrors of the Holocaust. It was unjust and unfair to the Palestinians who had nothing to do with the Holocaust. If submitted to the General Assembly today, it is very unlikely that it would be accepted.

On your allegations of deep anti-semitism in the Palestinian educational system

  • Jon, you claimed that the Palestinian educational system is indoctrinating young Palestinians with anti-Semitism and a hatred of Zionism. In my opinion LIFE is teaching young Palestinians to hate Zionism.
  • As far as the education system goes, there are in fact, 3 distinct Palestinian educational systems. One is run by UNRWA, one is run by the PA in the West Bank, and a 3rd is run in Gaza under Hamas. 
  • The UNRWA system has been repeatedly accused by right wing Israeli groups of promoting anti-Semitism. This is part of the continuous Israeli attempt to undermine UNRWA generally. Zionist groups have forced this issue to be looked at repeatedly by US Congressional committees. As the USA has been a major funder of UNRWA, the curriculum of UNRWA has been closely vetted and approved by the US state department.
  • The same is true of the PA, which gets most of its funding from foreign donors. Its curriculum is also frequently vetted.
  • I am not in a position to make judgement on the curriculum in Hamas run schools. I do know that, since most of the population in Gaza is composed of refugees, they are very focussed on the “right of return” and regaining their country, which Israel regards as “anti-Semitic”.

I don’t find it surprising that there is a debate over curriculum. Both “sides” decide how to understand their own history. Israel does not allow discussion of the Nakba in any of the “Arab Israeli” schools in Israel. And they define any reference to the Nakba, or the right of return, or the questioning the ‘legitimacy” of Israel, to be “anti-Semitic”.

Here is a Wikipedia entry which sums up the debate:

If you are interested in going deeper, here is link to a recent webinar in which 3 educators one Israeli, one Palestinian and one American discuss the issue. A Look Inside Palestinian and Israeli Classrooms

On your allegations of a deep seated, widespread and seemingly irradicable antisemitism in Palestinian society.

There are some Palestinians who are very bitter based on their horrid experiences, (relatives killed, torture in Israeli prisons, houses destroyed, children beaten, humiliation at checkpoints, etc.) and probably will have difficulty ever getting over it. I have met some of them. But I am always surprised at how willing most Palestinians seem to be to find a way to live and let live.

Like you, I hear or read from time to time ugly statements from the Palestinian leadership which do confound a hatred of Israel with anti-Semitism. I thoroughly disapprove of this. By the same token, I also hear or read statements from Israeli leaders that sound equally racist. I disapprove of them too.

However, Palestinian WORDS are one thing, Israeli ACTS are something else.

At the present time, Israel is using its tremendous police/military advantage to put into practice its racist policies. The conflict is almost completely one-sided. The Palestinians are virtually helpless. There are NO Israeli children being arrested by Palestinian police, NO Israelis are taken to court before Palestinian judges where there is a 99% conviction rate, there are NO Israelis in Palestinian prisons, NO Israeli houses are being destroyed by Palestinian bulldozers. Etc. etc. If you need evidence, go no further than the most recent UN report on human rights abuses by Israelis and Israeli settlers.

In the circumstances, I hardly find it surprising that Palestinians will lash out from time to time. I see these ugly statements from some of the Palestinian leadership as expressions of helpless rage and despair.

Jon, I don’t think I will ever be able to convince you that your fear of Palestinians is hugely exaggerated. I think the only way you might be convinced would be by talking to other Jews who have lived with and frequented Palestinians. During our trip we met many – Jeff Halper, Gidon Levy, Noaia Haiach, Jessica Burnstein, and Dana, the young woman from Chicago who made a presentation at Bt’selem, among others.

You could have, and still could, follow up with them. But you seem uninterested in doing so.

In Canada you could talk to Corey Balsam (National coordinator of IJV Canada who lived in the West Bank for more than 4 years). Another Canadian is Rabbi David Mivasair, who has two children in Tel Aviv. Or Arthur Milner, a Jewish Canadian playwright, a member of the OFIP Advisory Council,  who toured his play “Facts” around Israel and the West Bank several years ago.  I am sure Arthur, Corey or David could also put you in touch with other Canadian Jews who have also had intimate personal contact with Palestinians. If you only talk to right wing settlers, its not surprising you will get a very racist view of the world.

Your allegation that our “Come and See Trip” had a “hidden agenda”. 

I am a little disappointed by your reference during the webinar (and on other occasions as well) to our trip as if it were somehow dishonest. Our itinerary was well publicized before you signed up, and we followed it to the letter. I have no objection, of course, to the fact that you did some more research. That is entirely legitimate. I have done the same. (As a result, I don’t have the same view of the Israel/Palestine issue now, as I had after my very first trip.)

Response by Jon Snipper (unedited)

  • I thought it important that listeners understand that the continuing characterization of the RoR as an “inalienable, unconditional right or return” needed to be set straight and welcomed the opportunity to do so. It is not an emotional issue as you suggest, rather a legal one with “moral” overtones which I call “moral imperatives”(MI). I did hours of research, as my own OPINIONS I thought not worth much having no expertise in this field. I don’t think you have either. The fact that I have used an Israeli West Bank Settler to direct me to sources relevant to our discussion, not for what my views should be on this issue or any others, is irrelevant. Those sources filled in the gaps in my understanding and my misconceptions created by your curated tour. They helped me fully understand the complexities of many issues. In summary, I have offered up EVIDENCE and FACTS, you have mostly offered YOUR OPINIONS.
  • Because our main discussion is about whether the RoR had any validity, which only means legal validity in international law, I sought out the arguments a legal expert would advance to a judicial body and found that very thing. You now have the article. It effectively dispatches all the possible arguments in favour of the right. You offered how you “treat” resolutions, regardless of the law.
Many Israelis argue that the Palestinian right of return has no basis in law and is an obstacle to peace
  • Whatever the injustice perpetrated by the Christian world on the Palestinians, the reality is that Israel was welcomed into the UN community of nations as a Jewish nation, which meant it had legal standing like Jordan, Syria, Iraq etc, all created out of former Ottoman territories. You conflate Israel’s admission to membership with UN resolutions about other issues. That’s comparing animals with minerals.
  • Because the subject matter has moral overtones for many, I dealt as well with those. Anyone arguing the MI is doing so in the court of public opinion, which fortunately some while ago, civilized nations realized was a dangerous place to have the rights of individuals and groups determined.. What passes for MIs of ISIS are the depths of moral depravity for Canadians.The UNGA & some of its committees are perfect examples. As you noted, resolutions often represent nothing more than the prevailing political power, and I would add, resolutions don’t always represent justice. Israel was the beneficiary and now is the victim. But I decided to deal with this as if a real court could apply some moral precepts to displace the legal imperative ie the non existence of any Palestinians refugee right of return. The English based courts know such laws (called the laws of equity) but they apply such rules based on a common understanding of morality, (ie Judeo-Christian). Anyone taking a moral high road has to come before his/her judges with “clean hands”. A people making war on their opponents, trying to destroy their internationally recognized nation & broadcasting vile propaganda about them has no moral high road to claim.
  • You offer up YOUR OPINIONS and I gather indirectly the opinions of friends and acquaintances, including Jews, who like you can attest to the peace loving nature of the Palestinians. However, do you expect that Palestinians who are strangers are going to make anti semitic and anti zionist remarks to you and your fellow travellers whatever their true feelings?
  • I have offered up EVIDENCE of the anti semitism and anti zionism found by the Palestinian Media Watch organization that has dedicated itself since 1996 to exposing what Palestinian leadership says in Arabic to its public. I offered up EVIDENCE from the ADL world survey and the Rand study conclusions that the propaganda of anti semitism and anti zionism has worked and resulted in the Palestinians being the most anti semitic people in the world. These are based on tens of thousands of people canvassed. Is that result surprising to anyone, considering that the Palestinians view the Jews and Zionists stole their land, killed thousands, imposed unjust laws and restrictions, and tormented them since 1967? Is it surprising that, considering how impotent the Palestinians must feel because of the overwhelming power imbalance you mention, hard feelings have arisen resulting in blood shed and venom spewed. Does it mean nothing that the only time the Palestinians were given the opportunity to express their views in an election, they overwhelmingly chose Hamas, dedicated to the destruction of Jews and Israel.
  • Your OPINION minimizing Palestinian loathing is remarkable, considering more than 10,000 Israelis have died and tens of thousands have been injured at the hands of Palestinians and Arabs over the last 100 years and who treat attackers as heroes to be admired and emulated as role models and pay them salaries if jailed in Israel (only this week raised considerably). You think that’s “live and let live”? You ignore the bloodshed of hundreds of thousands and displacement as refugees of millions of Arab Muslims by Arab Muslims. You forget that the Palestinians themselves had a horrible civil war after the 2006 election. The Palestinians have produced 10 different terrorist organizations over the years.Take a look at the Amnesty International report on Palestinian governance and democracy. It puts the Palestinians squarely in the camp of many Arab Muslims governments in dealing with their own citizens ie. undemocratic, repressive and intolerant of opposition. Corruption is a given.
  • Arab Muslim states & organizations in the Middle East produce dictators and martyrs, not democrats and saints. That’s what Israel finds itself facing and no Israeli leader would even consider letting in millions of Palestinian refugees, or many at all except such numbers as it agreed to as part of an overall peace plan, as has always been the Israeli position. But UNRWA claims there are 5.5 million, others almost twice those numbers (UWNRA no longer knows) and each refugee, were there any such right of return, claims it individually. So it can’t be bargained away by the PA or Hamas. I am unaware of any EVIDENCE as to how many Palestinians would demand entry if it was in the offing. You OPINE but you present no evidence in that regard because there isn’t any. I listened to a Palestinian woman on the Badil website talk of millions returning with space for them all. And don’t forget the RoR is intimately connected by the Palestinians with their right of self determination, ie ultimately eliminating Israel and returning it to its Arab Muslim roots.
  • If you are so disapproving of Palestinians leadership regarding its anti semitic statements, why doesn’t your organization live up to its lofty ideals and take on this unattractive side of Palestinian culture and governance. Just as Zionists and Jews berate Israelis for their treatment of the Palestinians, you, a pro Palestinian, could be doing the same to your “side”. It always exudes more conviction when criticism comes from inside the tent. You give the Palestinians a free pass.
  • Nothing above affects my OPINION that aside from walls, fences and checkpoints for security purposes, the other Israeli government activities going on have nothing or little to do with security, and everything to do with territorial aggrandizement, ethnic persecution and discrimination. I condemn it all, although I understand the mutual hatred and suspicion. My comments about Arab/Palestinian Muslims are restricted to the Middle East, not relevant to those living in the West. And my opinion does not affect my personal dealings with Muslims or Arabs wherever they are. I couldn’t care less about a person’s ethnicity, race or religion. What matters is his/her behaviour and character as a human being.

Jon Snipper, JD

Concluding remarks by CTIP

This debate, while difficult and even emotional, was carried out within the bounds of mutual civility. It is not surprisng that there is not yet any “convergence” of opinion. Even Canadians who agree with the “justness” of the right of return often dismiss it as “unrealistic”. But it is time for Canadians to address the serious issue of the right of return for Palestinians which has been for a very long time hidden away in a corner. Readers are invited to use the “comments’ section made available to all to carry on this discussion as long as they wish.

Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

Want to learn more about us? Go to


  1. Peter I think this is terrifically done. True spirit of open mindedness and fair minded sharing of ideas. I will be most interested in following commentary once this has had a chance for absorption in the interested community. Is Gabriella Goliger on your mailing list? Rick


  2. Jon Snipper. The position that the Palestinians do not have a Right of Return is not the dominant position among international law scholars and jurists.

  3. Thanks to you Peter and to Jon for at least engaging in this conversation. Clearly, any ‘solution’ is a long way off. We’ll see what the upcoming elections in both Israel and in Palestine bring. But at some point, the status quo will break down. What comes next? No one knows…

  4. Those who decry anti-semitism are often confounding strong dislike of the awful things that some Israelis have done with a prejudice against Jews no matter what they have done or what their opinions are. As an obviously Jewish individual who has visited Palestinians in the occupied West Bank several times, I have never encountered anti-semitism even though most of the people I met have suffered terribly because of Israeli policies and disagree with those policies. Palestinians are quite capable of distinguishing ethnicity from policy. Those who cry “antisemitism” should do the same.

    Germans and Austrians have long recognized the horror of what was done in their countries in the past and gone out of their way to make it possible for Jewish expatriates (and their descendants) to return as citizens. They have also compensated Jews who lost property. I can only hope that Israel will eventually show similar maturity and morality. The ability to recognize one’s past errors is the key to future growth.

    The only word that I can find for honouring the UNGA resolutions that you like and and claiming that the ones that you don’t like are irrelevant is “hypocrisy”. The UNGA is the closest thing to a democratic parliament that our world hasl its resolution deserve respect.

  5. Peter, it is so delightful to listen to your explanations. I find Jon and people like him, somewhat demagogic. They know how to put a spin on things which appear reasonable to some audience.

    I say that the right of Palestinian to return, is very simple.How can people like Jon claim that Jews have the right from 3000 years ago, where there’s no conclusive facts that they were absolute majority continually in Palestine. Just read Shlomo Sand book “How the Jews were Invented”.
    Nevertheless if some people have this right from 3000 years ago than I don’t have to say the obvious of few decades ago. 3000 years ago the whole world was different.

    Secondly the claim that if Palestinians given the right of return, the next day 5 million will be marching to Israel, is another demagogy of Zionists. I believe that this will not happen for a few reasons. Surly there are also other ways to satisfy legitimate Palestinian claims.

    It boils down to one fact. The one who has all the power and unconditional support of very powerful Zionists around the world, dictates the rules and always finds false ways to justify it.

    1. Hey Jake, thanks for your comment.
      Even if Israel were to accept that all 5 or 6 million Palestinian refugees ahve the “right” to return to Israel, there will still have to be a lot of discussion about when and how. There would be need for new housing, new schools, infrastructure, hospitals, etc. Canada absorbs about 300,000 new immigrants per year. How many could be absorbed into Israel (or whatever that state is named.) Few of the refugees would want to “return” to be unemployed and live in a tent in the desert. This will take some time.

  6. In reference to Jon’s assertion of the hatred drummed into Palestinian, which in part is justified due to what they went through,
    I suggest that he’ll look at the hatred drummed into Israelis by leaders and chief Rabbis. Like a minister saying that killing Palestinian women is OK, so they don’t give birth to snakes, or chief Rabbi saying to kill gentile babies is permissible, or other Rabbi to rape Palestinian women by soldiers is OK, so they can do the job being calm and on and on.
    How young Israelis can inflict horrendous crimes or many times shoot at point blank adults and children and lough about it. This is the hatred and brain washing that they go through since very young age.

  7. The Palestinian right of return is a principle that is part of the broader question of what provisions need to be made for Palestinian refugees. It would seem to be disingenuous, to say the least, to claim that Israel has no responsibility toward Palestinian refugees when they were (and are) a necessary precondition and consequence of the establishment (and maintenance) of Israel as a Jewish-majority state. Ben-Gurion and other early Israeli leaders clearly acknowledged this, even if some current ones might try to obscure it.
    Any comprehensive peace settlement needs to address the Palestinian refugee problem, and Israel bears at least some responsibility for contributing to this.

  8. Having this debate was a brave undertaking, and I commend both Peter and Jon for your civility. Thank you for it and for the this post. I have several comments.

    I don’t think natural human feelings of morality and justice on the part of viewers, and probably in everyone, can be avoided, given the deaths, atrocities and losses that litter the history.

    No country has a primordial right to exist. All countries have a history of origin that involves some mix of conquest, theft or colonization, acceptance by local and surrounding peoples, declaration by distant authorities, local rebellion and international recognition.

    Many international laws are in the beginning motivated by a human sense of what is right, what is moral, what is just. Rights of return are certainly one example.

    Jon said that he dealt with facts while Peter gave opinions. I did not find that to be the case. I have found Peter to be extremely well versed in the history, the legal concepts, and the realities of life on the ground in the Middle East. He has studied and taught it to Canadians for many years. In addition he is not connected by heritage or upbringing with any constituency there, and has no axe to grind.

    Again, thanks to all parties in the debate.

Comments are closed.