An Impediment to Equality: Palestinian Refugees are Unlike Any Other Refugee in International Law

A blog post by Jazmine Merino, Junior Associate

In 1947, the United Nations adopted a Partition Plan to divide the British Mandate of Palestine into Arab and Jewish States.[1]  On May 14, 1948, Israel proclaimed itself as an independent Jewish State.[2]  The following day, armies from five Arab states invaded Israel causing an estimated 750,000 Palestinians to flee.[3]  The surrounding Arab nations and Iran responded with anti-Zionist violence[4] by forcing 856,000 Jews out of their homes.[5]

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was founded in 1949 following the end of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948 to provide assistance and relief for Palestinian refugees.[6]  Arab nations declined to absorb the Palestinian refugees claiming that their assimilation into their nations would underscore their right of return to Israel,[7] formerly known as British Mandate Palestine.  The refugee status not only applies to the 750,000 Palestinians, but also to the “descendants of Palestine refugee males, including [their] legally adopted children,” and “husbands and descendants of registered refugee women.”[8]  This policy is unique as no other population and their descendants receive such a status.[9]  Today, there are 5.9 million Palestinian refugees registered with the UNRWA.[10]

The legal situation remains problematic as “Palestinian refugees are unique in international law and are the longest-standing refugee situation.”[11]  The matters surrounding Palestinian refugees are often discussed at the U.N. and in the media, however, these same outlets ignore the Jewish refugees that were persecuted and displaced from Arab countries in 1948.[12]

The issue here is twofold.  Some argue that the rejection of the Palestinian right of return negates refugee rights,[13] and that their right of return can be found in international law, however, this claim has no legal basis.[14]  A closer look at a U.N. resolution resolves this issue.  It states that:

“refugees wishing to return to their homes . . . should be permitted to do so . . . and 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 . . . should be made good by the Governments . . . .[15]”

The language used does not grant a right of return, but instead provides a suggestion as noted by the absence of “shall” and the presence of “should be permitted.”[16]  Moreover, the “principles of international law” apply to compensation for property – not the right of return.[17]  The ramifications of the right of return of Palestinian refugees would greatly overwhelm the small country of Israel[18] which currently houses 9.6 million residents.[19]  Moreover, it would mark the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Second, the U.N. must acknowledge the human rights violations of the Jews who were expelled from Arab nations and Iran and afford them and their descendants the same treatment and status given to Palestinian refugees.[20]  A multitude of U.N. resolutions address the rights of Palestinian refugees, yet not one applies the term “refugees” to Jews.[21]  Resolutions must also encompass the rights of displaced Jews within the context of international law.[22]  The U.N.’s reluctance to consider expelled Jews as refugees is a glaring double standard.





[1] G.A. Res. 181 (II) (Nov. 29, 1947).

[2] U.S. Recognition of the State of Israel, National Archives, (Aug. 2, 2021)

[3] U.N. Relief and Works Agency, Palestine Refugees,,are%20eligible%20for%20UNRWA%20services (last accessed Mar. 10, 2023).

[4] Palestinian Refugees, Anti-Defamation League, (last visited Mar. 10, 2023) (discussing the Palestinian refugee issue and the displacement of Jews from Arab and Muslim nations).

[5] The Expulsion of Jews from Arab Countries and Iran – An Untold History, World Jewish Congress, (Feb. 2, 2021),–an-untold-history.

[6] G.A. Res. 302 (IV), Assistance to Palestinian Refugees (Dec. 8, 1949).

[7] Palestinian Refugees, supra note 4.

[8] U.N. Relief and Works Agency, Consolidated Eligibility and Registration Instructions (Jan. 1, 2009),

[9] Palestinian Refugees, supra note 4.

[10] U.N. Relief and Works Agency, Registered Palestine
Refugees (Jan. 1, 2022),

[11] Guy S. Goodwin-Gill, Palestine Refugees and Protection in International Law, Univ. of New S. Wales (Jan. 20, 2022),recognised%20by%20the%20international%20community.

[12] Carole Basri, The Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: An Examination of Legal Rights – A Case Study of the Human Rights Violations of Iraqi Jews, 26 Fordham Int’l L.J. 656, 657-58 (2002) (providing an analysis on the issues surrounding Jewish refugees from Iraq).

[13] Josh Ruebner, Five Things the United States Knew About the Nakba as it Unfolded, Middle E. Inst. (May 13, 2022),,all%20Palestinians%20from%20returning%20afterward.

[14] See Palestinian Refugees, supra note 4; see also Andrew Kent, Evaluating Palestinians’ Claimed Right of Return, 34, Univ. Pa. L. Rev. 149, 234 (2012) (arguing that the right of return for refugees from the Arab-Israeli conflict has no substantial basis under international law).

[15] G.A. Res. 194 (III) (Dec. 11, 1948).

[16] Ruth Lapidoth, Palestinian Refugees: Do Palestinian Refugees Have a Legal “Right of Return” to Israel?, Jewish Virtual Library, (last visited Mar. 10, 2023).

[17] Id.

[18] Israel, Britannica, (last visited Mar. 10, 2023).

[19] Population of Israel on the Eve of 2023, Cent. Bureau of Stat. (Dec. 29, 2022),

[20] Basri, supra note 12, at 713.

[21] Mitchell Bard, The Palestinian Refugees: History & Overview, Jewish Virtual Library,

[22] Shayna Zamkanei, Justice for Jews From Arab Countries and the Rebranding of the Jewish Refugee, 48 Int’l J. of Middle E. Stud.511, 525 (Aug. 2016).

One comment

  1. Great post. There can never be any chance of peace as long as the Palestinians are treated differently than any other refugees and until they give up the right of return — which would result in the end of Israel and a lot of dead people. Somehow 850K Jews were not permitted to return to their homes and they managed.

    Nice to also see this in an American law school law review, where the usual woke fare is one-sided against the Jewish state.

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