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Property Rights and the “Right of Return”

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The Israeli government has been taking the position that any hope for a permanent peace settlement with the Palestinians must be preceded by a number of preconditions. One of the leading preconditions is that the Palestinian authority reject any claim for a “right of return.”

What this refers to is the fact that, during the 1948 war for Israeli independence against the surrounding Arab countries, thousands of Palestinian Arab families left those parts of Palestine controlled or occupied by Israeli military forces. Some of these families left because they found themselves in the line of fire. Others left out of fear of living under Israeli rule. And still others left because of appeals by surrounding Arab governments to clear out of the way of their advancing armies.

The joint attempt by the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon to militarily crush the new state of Israel failed. And the thousands of Palestinian Arab families then found themselves exiled in refugee camps in the surrounding Arab countries. Many of them and their offspring have now been living in the camps for 55 years.

During this time, they became pawns of the Arab countries that were their hosts. For the most part, they were prevented from accepting the reality of the situation and going on with their lives by integrating themselves into the host countries. Instead, the host governments wanted them to remain in the camps — with the bill for their food, housing, and care paid for primarily through international organizations, including the United Nations. The Arab governments could point to the poor and primitive conditions in which the Palestinians lived as a propaganda tool against the Israelis on the stage of world opinion.

The Israelis are adamant against any “right of return” by Palestinian refugees or their descendants. A large influx of refugee Palestinian Arabs, they argue, would threaten the demographics that now makes Israel a “Jewish state.” The Palestinians and their descendants who find themselves in this situation will have to accept living either in their host countries or in what would eventually become a Palestinian political entity on the West Bank.

What has not been raised in almost any of the debates of a “right of return” has been the issue of legitimate property-right titles. The real property and personal property that the Palestinian refugees left behind were owned by them. The land, buildings, and related assets were, in many cases, the legal property of those families for generations. War and the fear of battle drove them into the neighboring Arab countries that were viewed as taking them out of the harm’s way of combat.

If a settlement is reached between the Israelis and the Palestinians, justice would suggest that all legitimate property should be returned to its rightful owners and that residence by those owners on their property should be once again permitted. Indeed, one of the points made over the last 10 years concerning the wars in the former Yugoslavia has been that “ethnic cleansing” has driven people from their land and homes and that they should be allowed to return — even if the conquering group has now redistributed the property to members of their own national or ethnic group. Why? Because it is stolen property and the new occupants are in possession of ill-gotten gains.

If the present occupants of Palestinian properties wish to privately offer some monetary settlement to the rightful Palestinian owners, so that they may retain the land and related assets seized and redistributed to Israelis more than half a century ago, they should certainly be free to do so. And, indeed, many of the descendants of the originally uprooted Palestinian property owners might very well prefer a cash settlement to returning to a piece of land they have never seen. But if the original owners or their descendants did, in fact, wish to reclaim that which is rightfully theirs, justice and the principle of private property suggests that they must be allowed to do so.

Would this possibly change the demographic balance of the state of Israel? Quite possibly. But the original founding of the Israeli state disrupted the demographic balance in which the Palestinian Arabs had long been the majority. What this would force the Israelis and many others to rethink would be the rationale and justice of attempts to maintain ethnically or religiously based societies by hermetically sealing them off by means that violate fundamental rights of human freedom — including the right of private property and the freedom of peaceful residence.

What would be illegitimate and inconsistent with the fundamental principles of liberty would be for the Israelis to expect U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill to cover compensation or resettlement costs of the displaced Palestinian families and their descendants as part of any “road map” for a Middle East peace agreement. Those who support or feel any personal ties to the maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state should be free to contribute money to buy the property titles from their original Palestinian owners.

But a denial of private property rights and the right to live and work on that which individuals rightfully owned is not a basis upon which to establish a lasting and justice peace.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).