The Theft of Palestine: The Case of Palestinian Refugee Property

June 05, 2023


The Nakba origins date back to before 1948. The Naka continues today toward changing the demography and geography of what remains of the land of historic Palestine. There are well-documented Israeli ethnic cleansing plans, followed by legislative measures, which have perpetuated the dispossession of the people of Palestine wherever they are, including Palestinian citizens of Israel.

“We must do everything to ensure they (the Palestinians) never do return!”[1]

(David Ben Gurion).

This FAQ focuses on Palestinian refugee property.


1. What was the situation of Palestine by 1948?

Palestine's history is undoubtedly shaped by the year 1948. This year marked the end of almost three decades of British occupation, also known as the “Mandate,” which closely colluded and cooperated with Zionist leaders to enforce the Balfour Declaration to defy the Palestinian right to self-determination.

A few months earlier, in the Partition Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly decided to divide Palestine against the will of its indigenous population. This can be considered the starting point of a campaign conducted by Zionist militias to ethnically cleanse Palestine of Palestinians. Al Masoudiyya in Jaffa was the first Palestinian village to fall under their terror on 25 December 1947, eventually spreading to other areas.

After the British Mandate of Palestine ended on 14 May 1948, Zionist militias had already occupied dozens of Palestinian cities, towns, and villages. In many cases, the Zionist militias had coordinated with the British occupiers, who failed to protect the Palestinian civilian population. By the end of the British Mandate, there were already several hundred-thousand Palestinian refugees, including from Jaffa, Tiberias, Haifa, Safad, Beisan, and the Western part of Jerusalem. Almost 90% of the Palestinians living in cities, towns, and villages that became Israel in 1948 had been uprooted by the end of 1949. When UNRWA operations started in 1950, there were 957,000 Palestinian refugees[2].


2. Did Palestinian refugees leave out of their own will?

No. The origin of the Palestinian refugee issue is a direct consequence of Zionist plans rather than a result of the 1948 war alone. The Zionist ethnic cleansing plans of Palestine included committing terror attacks,  war crimes, and crimes against humanity to force out the vast majority of the Palestinian population. Among these attacks were dozens of massacres, such as Deir Yassin, which took place before the end of the Mandate and Tantoura, and terrorist attacks, such as the bombing of the Semiramis Hotel in Jerusalem and the market in Jaffa. As documented, such plans aimed at the expulsion of Palestinians from the coastal areas, borders with Lebanon and Syria, and the road between Jerusalem and Jaffa. Known as the "Dalet Plan[3]," this plan included 13 large military operations, 8 of which took place in territory not assigned to the Zionist entity according to UNGA Resolution 181.


3. What caused Palestinian refugees not to return home after the war?

In defiance of the United Nations Resolution 194, which recognizes Palestinian refugees' right to return, the newly created state, Israel, implemented various measures to prevent their return. These measures included the destruction of evacuated villages and neighborhoods, 531 villages were completely demolished by the end of the war. Almost five thousand Palestinians were murdered while attempting to return to their homes between 1948 and 1952.  In addition, Israel enacted the so-called “Absentee Property Law” to legalize the theft of properties of expelled Palestinians. The “Citizenship Law” granted new Jewish immigrants citizenship of the state of Israel and allowed them to take over the expropriated properties. The Israeli state also actively collaborated with various entities, such as the Jewish National Fund (JNF), to alter the demographic makeup of the Palestinian landscape.


4. What does UNGA Resolution 194, adopted on 11 December 1948, say about Palestinian refugees?

As stated in paragraph 11, the resolution reiterated 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 of property.”


5. Did Israel comply with the commitments it took upon itself in order to be accepted as a member of the United Nations? 

Israel's admission to the organization is clearly outlined in Resolution 273, adopted on May 11, 1949. To gain membership, Israel pledged to adhere to the UN Charter, implement Resolution 181, which calls for establishing two states, and implement Resolution 194, which recognizes the right of return of Palestine refugees. Despite this, Israel has continuously violated these commitments without facing any consequences. On the contrary, over the years,  Israel has been rewarded within the UN system by ironically being granted the chair of the UN Sixth Committee in 2016, which is responsible for implementing international law.


6. What was the status of land property in Palestine in 1948?

Almost all of Palestine's land was owned, worked, and used by its indigenous population. The British Survey of Palestine (conducted for the United Nations in June 1947) listed that by 1943 there were 24,670,455 dunums owned by Arab Palestinians, Muslims and Christians, while only 1,514,247 dunums were owned by Jews[4]. Palestinian landowners possessed private properties and significant tracts of land and properties belonging to churches and the Islamic Endowment. There were also pieces of land owned by non-Palestinian individuals and others seized by the British Mandate.


7. What happened to the Palestinian refugee property?

From private property to property owned by churches and the Islamic Endowment, the newly created Israeli state enacted laws to legitimize the theft of Palestinian property quickly. Through the “Absentee Property Law” and other successive legislations implemented by the Israeli Supreme Court, Israel took over not only the land of Palestinian refugees but also the land of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Racist legislation in Israel allows any Jew worldwide to “reclaim” pre-1948 property, while Palestinians in general, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, are not allowed to do so.


8. Are there any documents proving Palestinian refugee ownership of the land?

Yes. Resolution 194 established the “Palestine Conciliation Commission” (PCC), composed of the United States, France, and Turkey. After looking into British documents and statistics, the Commission created a comprehensive database of Palestinian refugee property, identifying at least 540,000 parcels of land owned by Palestinian refugees. The work of the commission eventually identified 210,000 owners. The database includes over 6,000 maps and a registry showing where each Palestinian refugee landowner owns a property. A total of 5.5 million dunums of land are included in the database. This means that a large percentage of the properties of what the international community recognizes as “Israel,” whether in Jaffa, Asdod, Haifa, Safad, and West Jerusalem, is not just stolen property from Palestinian refugees but its legitimate owners can be easily identified through the database made by the PCC. Palestinian refugees also keep thousands of documents.



The United Nations appointed its first-ever mediator in 1948, Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish national. In his first report to the Secretary-General, he wrote: “It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes, which Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine, and, indeed, at least offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees, who have been rooted in the land for centuries.”

The UN mediator was assassinated in Jerusalem by Zionist terrorists on 17 September 1948. The terrorists were led by Yitzhak Shamir, a known terrorist and war criminal who became the Prime Minister of Israel in 1983. The Israeli state never apologized for its crime, nor were Shamir or his terrorist gang held responsible. This culture of impunity explains why Israel has continued to violate its obligations under international law and UN resolutions, including notably concerning the rights of Palestine’s refugees and their properties.

As we commemorate 75 years since the theft of Palestine, it is evident that the injustices committed constitute a continual transgression against the fundamental principles of a rules-based world order. Justice for the Palestinian people, both in exile and at home, means implementing our nation’s long-overdue internationally recognized inalienable rights as the basis for any political solution.

[1] Ben-Gurion: The Armed Prophet, by Michael Bar Zohar, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1968,  p. 148

[2] Annual Report of the Director of UNRWA to the United Nations General Assembly, A/1905

[3] The Dalet Plan was formulated by the Zionist militia, Haganah, in Mandatory Palestine in March 1948. “Dalet” is the fourth letter in the Hebrew alphabet.

[4] Survey of Palestine, P 566.

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