UN General Assembly Resolution 194: No Matter How Problematic, It’s Still Relevant

  • 0

The recent death of top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has prompted me to revisit an important document in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, namely UN General Assembly Resolution 194. American educated, the Erekat was a counterweight to hard-core rejectionists in the struggle for a “just and lasting peace,” as we used to say. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo more recently visited a Jewish settlement on the West Bank – the highest-ranking US official yet to do so – I felt a greater urgency to understand the role of 194 in the peace process.

Passed in 1949 in the wake of the War of Independence, as Israel calls it, and the Nakba, or catastrophe, as it is referred to in the Arab and Muslim world, the resolution has two outstanding features. Most famously, the resolution declares 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 the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”[1]

Secondarily, and non-trivially, it reiterates a call for the internationalization of Jerusalem, which was earlier enshrined in the 1947 Partition Plan and known as a “special international regime.”[2]

Saeb Erekat was deputy head of the Palestinian delegation to the 1991 Madrid Conference, a high point in American prestige in the Arab world after George H.W. Bush’s successful campaign to form a true coalition of nations to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and was chief Palestinian negotiator during the later Oslo meetings. A low point in his career came in 2011, however, when the so-called Palestine Papers revealed that Erekat was willing to make significant concessions on both the status of Jerusalem and the “Right of Return,” acknowledging that only a few refugees would be allowed to return inside Israel proper, and that refugees outside the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem would not get to vote on these matters in any case. As Al Jazeera reported at the time, “On January 15, 2010, Erekat told US diplomat David Hale that the Palestinians offered Israel the return of ‘a symbolic number’ of refugees.”[3] This was enough to force his resignation, though he later returned to an official role within the Palestinian Authority.

The meaning of Resolution 194 as it relates to refugees has been debated almost ad infinitum, and much hinges on the use of the word “right,” which does not appear in the English draft. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees only calls for “voluntary” repatriation of refugees from other conflicts in the world, but Palestinian refugees have always been dealt with separately, including being the charges of a different UN agency, namely UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency), and also in counting descendants of the original 1948 war refugees as themselves refugees. (Palestinians further displaced by the 1967 war are typically characterized as “displaced persons.”) According to UNRWA estimates, which defined the original refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict,” there were 750,000 such persons.[4]

Today, UNRWA claims to serve 5.7 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants in the Middle East, and to employ 28,000 people in this service.[5]

There was an early, albeit limited, attempt in a return after the 1948 war. Joseph Alpher and Khalil Shikaki, writing in 1999 on behalf of the Joint Working Group on Israeli­ Palestinian Relations, a project of the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, declared:

“The principal known Israeli initiative took place in the summer of 1949. Under pressure from the United States, and in view of Arab refusal (at the Lausanne Conference) to discuss agreed borders until the refugee issue had been resolved, the Ben Gurion government agreed to absorb 100,000 refugees. This number would have included some 35,000 refugees whose return had already been negotiated and was underway. Israel’s decision was made conditional upon Arab agreement, at Lausanne, to a comprehensive peace, including resettlement of the remaining refugees in Arab countries… . Ultimately the Arabs rejected the Israeli offer, after which Israel retracted it.”[6]

UN General Assembly Resolution 393 (passed in 1950 and referencing 194), speaks of repatriation and resettlement to achieve the reintegration of the Palestinian refugees “into the economic life of the Near East.”[7] Asaf Romirowsky, Executive Director of SPME, has written extensively about reintegration, the refugee issue, UNRWA and “right of return.” As Romirowsky has noted, the idea of reintegration early on included economic development plans in the countries where the refugees had settled[8], but these efforts flagged over time and it’s clear, in 2020, that “right of return” to original homes inside Israel and Mandate Palestine is the Palestinian interpretation of 194.

Additionally, the unique definition that a Palestinian refugee includes descendants of the original refugees also suggests that refugees and their descendants who have resettled successfully in other, often Western or South American countries, still count as refugees. I am not personally trying to define for others who is or is not a true refugee, but only to note that counting descendants as refugees, even if they’ve obtained citizenship in other countries, is inconsistent with how the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees counts refugees from other crises in the world, and this is due to UNRWA efforts.[9]

Indeed, the independence and impartiality of UNRWA has been challenged by Romirowsky and others. Instead of providing relief and employment for the masses, the organization has become a kind of patronage system largely comprised of Palestinian employees who are aligned with building the national identity, including promulgating anti-Israel sentiment through its educational arm. “This process of a complete and total Palestinian takeover of UNRWA is similar to regulatory capture,” Romirowsky writes, “which occurs when a state regulatory authority is taken over by the interests or industries that it is designed to control.”[10]

 To me, UNRWA is highly reminiscent of what the British call a “Quango,” that is, a semi-public civil service administration that works at the behest of a government, in this case the Palestinian Authority, although UNRWA receives its money from elsewhere.

Absentees’ Property Law

Additionally, the failure to make more progress on the refugee issue was compromised by the Absentees’ Property Law of 1950 that disenfranchised both absentee owners of property (buildings, businesses and agricultural land) and resident Palestinians who’d owned land or businesses if they fled Israeli-held territory in the period of time roughly equivalent to the War of Independence, virtually treating them as enemy combatants who had forfeited their rights. Such properties fell to an appointed Israeli Custodian. This law has been condemned even by some Jewish progressives.[11]

Over the years there have been disputes concerning initial responsibility for the refugee crisis – each side basically blaming the other (and it certainly is true that Arab armies and militias invaded the nascent Jewish state, not the other way around) – but the real problem for the Israelis, at least, is simply demographic. If any large number of Palestinians return, including descendants of the original refugees, whether by right, voluntarily, or under pressure from the Muslim Arab ummah to reclaim parts of the abode of Islam, Israel will cease to be a Jewish state. Demographics rule, in other words. Demographics also are critically related to what historically has been known as “yerida,” or Jewish out-migration, which continues to befuddle Israel. According to a 2017 report in Haaretz, “The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that between the state’s founding in 1948 and 2015, about 720,000 Israelis emigrated and never returned to live in Israel. In 2017, it estimated that between 557,000 and 593,000 Israelis, not including children born to Israeli emigrants, were living abroad.”[12]

This demographic reality is also what’s behind the 2003 Israel Citizenship Law (or Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law), extended in 2020, which limits Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens moving to Israel to be with Palestinian Arab relations who are Israeli citizens. This law was introduced a few years after the Oslo Accords, as Palestinians from the West Bank were moving to Israel to rejoin close family members under a family reunification scheme. Various pro-Palestinian and peace groups have severely criticized the law over the years, such as Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. [13]

Nonetheless, according to a June 2020 report in The Jerusalem Post, “there had been an average of 800 family reunification requests a year over the past decade but it had risen to 1,000 annually over the past two years. Out of 22,000 requests, 9,200 had been approved.”[14]


I interviewed Palestinian-American professor Rashid Khalidi years ago when I was a reporter for The Indianapolis Star; he was scheduled to speak at Purdue University and I did the “advance” story. Of great interest to me, then as now, was his reference to the status of Jerusalem, which is the sometimes forgotten part of Resolution 194. Khalidi argued that maybe, just maybe, the internationalization of Jerusalem, which is still the official policy of the UN pending final status talks between Israelis and Palestinians, would help bring peace.[15]

The idea of internationalization and independence of Jerusalem has grown on me in the years since. Why? It would seem to make the entire world a stakeholder in the peace of Jerusalem. And, it might make anyone who threatens the peace of Jerusalem a greater pariah state than Israel is now in most of the Muslim world. My suggestion – for an internationalized and independent city, a kind of hybrid – is not just a sentimental position based on Jerusalem being “the home to three great religions” and all that. There is a pragmatic issue here – tourism, including Muslim tourism to Haram al-Sharif, should increase, and possibly moving parts of the United Nations to Jerusalem could help stabilize the region, as well. The settlements all around the city might become more palatable to the world as part of a Greater Jerusalem, but not necessarily a Greater Israel. Individual citizens could maintain either Israeli or Palestinian citizenship, and the city could be a formal capital of two states, if not necessarily the real, working capitals.

Abe Aamidor is an author, former university Lecturer, and retired journalist. He was part of SPME’s 2010 Israel tour.

[1] https://unispal.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/C758572B78D1CD0085256BCF0077E51A
[2] https://unispal.un.org/unispal.nsf/0/7F0AF2BD897689B785256C330061D253
[3] “PA Selling Short the Refugees,” Al-Jazeera, unsigned, Jan. 25, 2011, found at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2011/1/25/pa-selling-short-the-refugees
[4] “Palestine Refugees,” United Nations Relief and Words Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, undated and unsigned, found at https://www.unrwa.org/palestine-refugees on Dec. 16, 2020.
[5] “UN Agency for Palestine Refugees runs out of money as Covid-19 spreads,” Nov. 10, 2020, unsigned, found at https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/11/1077332
[6] “Concept Paper: The Palestinian Refugee Problem and the Right of Return,” Middle East Policy Council, Volume VI, 1999, No. 3, by Joseph Alpher and Khalil Shikaki, found at https://mepc.org/journal/concept-paper-palestinian-refugee-problem-and-right-return
[7] UNGA res. 393 (V), Dec. 2, 1950, para. 4.
[8] “Washington’s Failure to Rein in UNRWA,” Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2012, Asaf Romirowsky, found at http://www.romirowsky.com/12489/unrwa-state-department#_ftn2
[9] “UNRWA Has Changed the Definition of Refugee,” Foreign Policy, August 17, 2018, Jay Sekulow, found at https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/08/17/unrwa-has-changed-the-definition-of-refugee/
[10] “UNRWA: The Crux of the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” Justice, Winter 2014-15, Asaf Romirowsky, found at http://www.romirowsky.com/16280/unrwa-arab-israeli-conflict
[11] “Why we need to speak about the Absentee Property Law,” Jewish News, via The Times of Israel, July 5, 2020, Anna Roiser, found at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/why-we-need-to-speak-about-the-absentee-property-law/
[12] “More Israelis left than moved back in six year period,” Haaretz, Aug. 15, 2017, found at More Israelis left Israel than moved back in six year record – Israel News – Haaretz.com (Note: Some emigres are former immigrants, so unpacking the numbers is no simple task.”
[13] “Israel extends validity of Citizenship Law that prevents unification of Palestinian families in Israel,” Adalah, June 1, 2020, unsigned, found at https://www.adalah.org/en/content/view/10022
[14] “Knesset committee limits Palestinian citizenship and entry into Israel,” The Jerusalem Post, June 1, 2020, found at https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/politics-and-diplomacy/knesset-committee-limits-palestinian-citizenship-and-entry-into-israel-629958
[15] “United Nations Position on Jerusalem Unchanged, Special Coordinator Stresses, as Security Council Debates United States Recognition of City,” SC/13111, Dec. 8, 2017, unsigned, found at https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sc13111.doc.htm

UN General Assembly Resolution 194: No Matter How Problematic, It’s Still Relevant

  • 0