A report released recently by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) revealed that Israel has welcomed around 3.3 million immigrants since its creation in 1948.
Throughout the past seven decades, Israel has been facilitating unfettered Jewish immigration to Israel while on the other hand denying the Palestinian refugees the right of return.
The immigration of the Jewish population to Israel – including their non-Jewish relatives – has been a significant component in the growth and development of the Israeli state. Thus, many define Israel as a state of immigrants.
Since its founding in 1948, Israel has absorbed around 3.3 million immigrants, mainly through waves of mass immigration from different geographic areas around the world, creating a diverse population in terms of cultural and socioeconomic status, as well as demographic differences.
In 1950, Jewish immigration to Israel was legalized when the Knesset adopted the Law of Return, which determines the right of every Jew to immigrate to Israel and become an Israeli citizen. Moreover, a child or a grandchild of a Jew, a Jew's spouse and the spouse of the child or grandchild of a Jew, who are not Jewish themselves, are also entitled to this right, according to the amendment to the Law of Return in 1970.
Nearly two-thirds of the 3.3 million immigrants who arrived in Israel since 1948 came from Europe and America, over half of them from the former Soviet Union (USSR). Another third originated from parts of Asia and Africa. The immigration to Israel has always been characterized by waves of immigration lasting for a few years, followed by low periods, which lasted about the same time.
During the three years following the founding of the state (1948-1951), the Jewish population doubled with the arrival of 690,000 immigrants. Nearly half of them came from Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa, while the rest were primarily European, including many refugees from World War II.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, the number of immigrants from western countries, including Western Europe, North and South America, and Australia increased, as they constituted a third of the 280,000 immigrants who arrived between 1969-1974. The majority of immigrants from this period came from the USSR.
This wave was followed by the longest decline of immigration in Israel's history, which lasted for 15 years from 1975 to 1989, with an average of fewer than 20,000 immigrants per year.
The period of low immigration to Israel ended in 1989, with the fall of the Iron Curtain. By the end of this year, thousands of Soviet Jews were permitted to leave the Soviet Union due to a liberalized immigration policy.
This change of policy led to a massive wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union lasting throughout the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s.
Overall, during the years from 1990-2001, more than 1 million immigrants arrived in Israel, most of them coming from the former Soviet Union. In addition to that, around 40,000 immigrants arrived from Ethiopia in a special governmental operation.
This wave of mass immigration increased the Israeli population by 20% and had a significant influence on the population's structure.
Jewish organizations worked hard to encourage this immigration, aiming to educate and inspire the Jews of the diaspora as to the centrality of the Jewish state to the Jewish people and its desirability as a Jewish home.
According to a CBS report, in 2018, Israel welcomed 37,200 new migrants, 28,100 of whom were new Jewish immigrants who moved to Israel under the Law of Return, with a rise of 6.6% from 2017.
The countries from which most of the immigrants arrived from in 2018 were Russia, Ukraine, the U.S and France.
Between January and October 2019, 27,300 new immigrants came to Israel, a rise of 20% in comparison with the previous year.
The Palestinian refugee issue
The Palestinian refugee problem remains one of the most critical and complex of the outstanding issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Seventy-one years have now passed since the 1948 Israeli War, in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced en masse and rendered stateless. Since then, successive generations of Palestinian refugees have endured discrimination, insecurity, repeated cycles of displacement and infringement of their basic rights and freedoms.
From 1948 to 1949, more than 726,000 Palestinians were expelled from or forced to leave their homes in Palestine and became refugees prior to and immediately following Israel's statehood declaration.
Many fled from direct military assaults, while others fled from fear of imminent assaults by Jewish militias. Some 150,000 Palestinians remained in the areas of Palestine that became the State of Israel, including 46,000 Palestinians who were internally displaced during the war. Israel has refused to allow these internally displaced Palestinians to return to their homes and villages.
During Israel's 1967 military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, around 300,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes there and move to other parts of the occupied Palestinian territories as well as across regional borders.
Since 1967, Palestinians continued to face displacement from and within the occupied Palestinian territories due to Israeli policies of home demolition, evictions, land confiscation, residency revocation, settlement construction and the Separation Wall.
Neither the 1948 refugees nor the 1967 refugees and internally displaced were allowed by Israel to return to their homes within what is now Israel or even to the occupied Palestinian territories.
The Palestinians who were expelled or fled the violence in 1948 were effectively denationalized by Israel's parliament in 1952 and their properties were seized and ultimately transferred to the State of Israel for the exclusive benefit of the Jewish people.
During and following the 1948 war, more than 400 Palestinian villages were depopulated and destroyed and Israel built new Jewish-only communities over some of these destroyed village areas.
As former Israel Defense Minister Moshe Dayan stated in 1969, "Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, but the Arab villages also are not there. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushu'a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population."
Nearly 5.3 million refugees are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and 1.5 million subsist in 58 refugee camps across Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territories of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Palestinian refugees, who were forcibly displaced because of the 1948 and 1967 wars, are stripped of their U.N.-mandated right of return and face substantial challenges to the full enjoyment of their rights.
The Israeli perspective
Israel claims that it has little or no responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem and that the refugee issue is not an Israeli interest or concern. Any return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, even in limited numbers, is seen as a demographic threat to Israel's central raison d'être, the Jewish character of the state.
Israelis do not accept that there exists any Palestinian refugee "right of return," and view any recognition of such a right as opening the door to a future refugee influx, the erosion of the Jewish character of the state and the de facto establishment of a binational state.
The issue remains highly sensitive, even at universities and among "peace camp" NGOs and left-leaning political parties.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) currently counts all descendants of Palestinians in its areas of operations as refugees for service-eligibility purposes, regardless of their citizenship status. A significant portion of Israelis argues that only individuals who actually left in 1948, and not their descendants, should be considered refugees.
Right of Return
The Right of Return is universally recognized by international refugee law, human rights law, the law of nationality and the law of state responsibility. It is also provided for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 13), in major treaties protecting the rights of refugees in times of armed conflicts under humanitarian laws and in core human rights conventions governing states' obligations and duties, and consistently referred to in U.N. resolutions.
The Right of Return achieved customary status in 1948 when the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 194 (111) affirming the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and to obtain restitution and compensation.
The U.N. reaffirmed resolution 194's consistency with international laws and instruments more than 135 times.
Besides, Resolution 2535 recognized "that the problem of Palestine Arab refugees has arisen from the denial of their inalienable rights under the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Other related U.N. resolutions include 393, 2452 and 3236, which further strengthen the Right of Return as "indispensable for the solution of the question of Palestine."
In fact, Israel's admission as a member to the U.N. was made conditional on its implementation of resolution 194, which it has disregarded on the basis that, according to the Israeli government, compliance would undermine the Jewish character of Israel.
It is illegal as a matter of international law to deny refugees of a particular race, color, national or ethnic origin the right to return to their homes. Yet, subsequent Israeli laws barred Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes in what is now Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
Palestinian refugees are entitled to reparations of their homes and properties based on the U.N. Principles and Guidelines, ICCPR Article 2, and other instruments.
Despite the continuing inaction of the international community, the Right of Return remains an inalienable and binding global right, which applies equally to the Palestinian people and should not be contingent on politics. It is an individual and a collective right intrinsically linked to the exercise of the right to self-determination of all 13 million Palestinians worldwide, and it is one which is, to this date, not respected.
Until it is, the Palestinian people must be protected from further displacement and expulsion.
A decision by the U.S. authorities in 2018 to cut funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which provides essential services, including health care, education, emergency assistance and jobs, to millions of Palestinian refugees has put further strain on their lives.
The growing aggression
Condemned to a life of suffering, deprivation and discrimination, the situation for Palestinian refugees is untenable and grows harder and harder with every passing year.
Israel's interest has always been to close the files of potential refugee claims once and for all, ignoring the specific phrase "right of return," and denying the U.N. resolutions and other bodies of international law that allow Palestinians to file claims, individually and collectively. Palestinians will continue to demand acknowledgment of their "right of return" as it has become part of the Palestinian identity and has provided the moral explanation for all the hardship that more than three generations of refugees have painfully endured.
* Palestinian author, researcher and freelance journalist; recipient of two prizes from the Palestinian Union of Writers