Palestinian refugees’ right to return to the places they and their families once lived is among the most emotionally and politically charged issues of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Only the most basic facts of history are uncontested: From the decision in 1947 to end the British mandate through Israel’s War of Independence from 1948-49, as many as three-quarters of a million Palestinians were displaced, events that Palestinians refer to as the “Nakba”—the Catastrophe.1 Most left for surrounding countries, or to Gaza and the West Bank (controlled by Egypt and Jordan, respectively), while a small number made their way to Western countries. The descendants of these individuals living in other countries number more than five million.2 A second wave of roughly 250,000 departed from the areas occupied by Israel in 1967.3

These are the accepted facts; on everything else, there is bitter disagreement. Palestinian refugees and their descendants say the original refugees were dispossessed and expelled, or fled under threat of violence. Nearly all Israeli Jews, beyond a handful of historians and activists, reject the Palestinian version of events. The dominant national Israeli narrative holds that those who left in 1948 were largely manipulated by Arab armies, during a war that Israel did not start, then held in refugee camps for generations rather than integrated into new countries, so that they could be used as political pawns. It is widely believed in Israel that the “right of return” for millions of Palestinians is a unique demand, designed to destroy Israel’s Jewish character.

The issue of return has been one of the greatest obstacles to reaching an Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement. The two sides hold almost mutually exclusive starting points: Israel insists there can be no right of return to areas of Israeli sovereignty (inside Israel’s borders as they were before 1967), and denies responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem. At most, Israel has considered allowing a small number of refugees back for family reunification, which it generally frames as a humanitarian gesture, while generally accepting that refugees could return to a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel views insistence on return to Israel as concrete evidence of Palestinians’ intention to destroy Israel.

These disputes are deeply symbolic. Israel views insistence on return to Israel as concrete evidence of Palestinians’ intention to destroy Israel, as well as evidence of global hypocrisy: Israel insists that no other refugees in other places in the world make similar multigenerational claims. For Palestinians, however, the right of return is a gold standard. Acknowledgment of the Nakba and the right to go back to the land of their parents and grandparents is tantamount to recognition of Palestinian national identity. Palestinians have argued their claim based on international law and historic justice.

The passionate feelings around the right of return, combined with the high profile of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, can make the issue seem singular in the world—and singularly unsolvable. However, many conflicts since World War II have displaced people and created refugees. Examining how refugee claims have been addressed in these and other post–World War II cases reveals that there is a path forward for Israel and Palestine.

First, the notion that Palestinians demanding return automatically signal an intention to destroy Israel should be laid to rest. International law and convention have evolved, if unevenly, to support refugee rights, including the right of return, and thus contradict Israel’s argument that Palestinians cannot claim the legal right. Further, refugee return has been incorporated into conflict resolution in practice. The cases examined in this report show that the Palestinian demand for return is not unique. Refugees elsewhere make similar claims in similar circumstances, and other conflict resolution processes have sought solutions, if imperfectly, rather than dismissing the claims.

Yet the outcomes of other cases also show the limitations on refugee return in practice. In other cases, “return” has come to be defined and implemented differently according to the context of local conflict resolution. The maximalist Palestinian vision of all scattered Palestinian refugees and their descendants returning physically to Israel within the Green Line (the ceasefire lines established in 1949) has little precedent in practice.

Both sides are thus required to make further compromises from their starting positions, but the ultimate policy solution need not be a radical departure from terms that have already been considered. On both sides, existential symbolism overwhelms pragmatic policy. For any future negotiation to succeed, it is essential to defuse some of the emotions around the refugee problem. Comparing refugee experiences of other conflicts can also be helpful for this aim. No two conflicts are identical. But juxtaposing the Israeli–Palestinian predicament with other comparable situations can put both fears and claims into perspective, while identifying similar dilemmas, responses, and results.

There are a range of policies that might be adapted to advance solutions. The other cases that this report examines indicate a need—and the potential—for a pragmatic balance between the principle of return and the requirements of implementation, which can advance historic justice and conflict resolution, rather than scuttle both.

This report includes a number of key findings and recommendations.

  • New thinking about the right of return—at the levels of law, politics, and symbolism—is essential for reaching successful solutions in final status negotiations in Israel and Palestine.
  • The right of refugee return (repatriation) exists in international law and conventions, although its legal basis has mainly evolved since World War II. The right does not depend on the historical cause of the original displacement. Still, such laws and conventions are subject to differing interpretations about whether they apply to Palestinians’ and their descendants’ right to return to areas now under recognized Israeli sovereignty.
  • In practice, the demand for return, even decades after displacement, is not unique to Palestinians. Recognition of the right of return, and realization of that right, have been achieved in other conflicts—with varying levels of success, to be examined here.
  • Ethnic minority refugee groups have successfully sought the right of return in other cases, and the right of return as recognized in international law and convention does not discriminate according to the ethnicity of refugees. If anything, international policy has at times sought to advance the return of ethnic minorities, specifically following the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s.
  • Inherited refugee status is also not unique to Palestinians, and can be seen in Rwanda and Kosovo. And in Cyprus and elsewhere, status as an internally displaced person (IDP) can be inherited from parents.4
  • In practice, however, the return of ethnic minorities has been complex and limited to a small portion of those who have the right. The degree and the style of the fulfillment of minority return varies greatly according to different local circumstances, as the cases of Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Cyprus illustrate.
  • To advance discussions about the right of return, Israel should drop the accusation that the demand is unique to Palestinians, or that it is proof of Palestinians’ destructive intent.
  • For their part, Palestinians should explicitly separate their demand for the right of return from discussions about the final determination of Israel’s national identity. Determination of Israel’s Jewish character should happen through internal Israeli political channels, whether or not some Palestinians view the right of return as a vehicle to change that character. Palestinian negotiators should acknowledge the need to separate the two issues.

Resolution of the right of return has been an obstacle during negotiations; the sides could instead make it a starting point for new negotiations, however remote such a process appears at present. With assurance for Israelis, and recognition for Palestinians, along with viable policy approaches, this obstacle can be removed at the start, so that negotiations over the remaining core issues have a greater chance of success.

A Short History of Rejectionism

The modern plight of Palestinian refugees begins with a fundamental disagreement over the historic cause of the problem.

The Israeli perspective focuses on the following basic themes: In the Israeli view, Arab countries started the war in 1948 in their attempt to destroy the brand-new state; their leaders entreated Palestinian Arabs into fleeing, promising to vanquish Israel so they could return. The Israeli perspective holds that these actions by Arab leaders were the main cause of the exile. Israelis may acknowledge that some civilians fled due to Israeli actions, but they view this as an unfortunate consequence of a war that Israel did not start, and conclude that Israel has no responsibility for the fate of the displaced.

In the Israeli view, preventing Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes was a natural response to a wartime situation; Israel viewed the refugees as a threat to the Jewish identity of the state, and to its physical security. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (1948) resolved that Israel “should” allow them to return, but Israel has broadly argued that this resolution has been misinterpreted—primarily, that the phrase “should be permitted to return” leaves the decision to Israel’s discretion and does not actually affirm that Palestinians have a right to return.5 Further, the Israeli perspective argues that Arab states rejected UN General Assembly Resolution 194 at the time it was issued, because their acceptance would have legitimized Israeli sovereignty.6 The Israeli point of view also holds that Arab countries refused to give Palestinian refugees full rights and citizenship, preferring to use the refugees as political leverage against Israel. Some Israeli researchers have argued that postconflict refugee return contradicts the international norms and practice of the era (1940s and 1950s).7 Some Israelis also insist that inherited refugee status was invented in order to inflate the number of refugees who demand return; that minority returns are unprecedented elsewhere in the world; and that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) perpetuates dependency and the refugee problem as a whole.8 Underlying all these arguments is the existential Israeli fear that if offered a right of return, up to six million people could flood Israel, and destroy the Jewish majority forever.

Palestinians at the Qalandia refugee camp in the West Bank, February 11, 1956. Source: John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In contrast, the Palestinian perspective holds that the refugee issue is largely, and perhaps exclusively, Israel’s responsibility. As Israeli historians themselves have documented extensively, often based on the archives of the Israeli government and the Israeli Defense Forces, Jewish authorities before Israeli statehood encouraged Palestinians’ exodus even before the 1948 war.9 Israeli pressure on Palestinian civilians accelerated through direct attacks and violent intimidation during the 1948 war, augmented by Israeli policies and legislation that barred Palestinians from returning following the conflict.10 For Palestinians, the Nakba is the sum of these actions. Their claim to return is based on Resolution 194, along with other international conventions, and the fact that many Palestinians are still stateless. Palestinians also demand historic acknowledgment and redress.

Proposed Solutions and Their Failure

A two-state peace agreement is intended to provide all Palestinians with self-determination and the option of citizenship. But Palestinians also claim a right to return to their homes or land inside Israel. Further, all two-state negotiations have failed. The failure of negotiations and the issue of the right of return are closely linked, and the problem remains unresolved.

The first official Israeli–Palestinian negotiations over the “core issues” of statehood and borders, settlements, refugees, and Jerusalem were conducted at the Camp David Summit in July 2000. The talks collapsed, but over the next few years, negotiators developed fairly advanced policy solutions. The policies for a future two-state agreement were articulated in the greatest detail in the civil society initiative known as the Geneva Accord of 2003, which sought to build on earlier negotiations and complete the two-state vision. The accord generally envisioned a package of options for refugees, including:

  • return (presumably without limits) to a newly established Palestinian state;
  • citizenship for refugees in the countries where they currently live (such as Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan) if they do not yet have such citizenship;
  • citizenship in a third country (presumably in the West, if they do not yet have citizenship in the United States or a European country);
  • compensation for lost property; and
  • return of a limited number to Israel itself, based on family reunification and up to a specific number (ranging from 25,000 to 100,000 in most negotiations).11

Although negotiators found the “package” of options to be logical, the final item—return of Palestinian refugees to Israel—sparked the greatest opposition among both the Israeli and Palestinian publics when tested in surveys, outweighing even opposition to the division of Jerusalem.12 Israelis found any implication of Israeli responsibility for the refugee problem to be an existential threat, and rejected the very idea of return. Palestinians, on the other hand, indicated greater acceptance of the Camp David proposals on refugees. But their support was based on proposals for return that went far beyond a realistic Israeli position—including that Israel would acknowledge its historic responsibility, recognize UN General Assembly Resolution 194, and admit hundreds of thousands of refugees.13

Since the time of the Geneva Accord, Israeli positions have hardened. Right-wing activists have launched campaigns charging that the Nakba narrative is fabricated.14 In joint Israeli–Palestinian public opinion surveys in 2018, fully 70 percent of Israeli Jews rejected the basic compromise: that most Palestinians would return to a Palestinian state, while about 100,000 could return to Israel for family reunification purposes. Refugee return, even in a relatively scaled-back version, is thus the item Israelis reject more than any other.15 Israelis are not even inclined to recognize the basic outline of Palestinian history, rejecting even the idea of acknowledging the suffering that the Nakba caused Palestinians.16

Palestinian public opinion about the right of return is equally strong—in the opposite direction. A 2009 survey showed that the right of return was the second most significant issue of the conflict for Palestinians, second only to achieving an independent state.17 In the 2018 joint poll, Palestinians showed the greatest support (48 percent) for the proposed solution for refugees, compared to other items included in the simulated agreement such as the division of Jerusalem or land exchanges.18 Documents leaked in 2011 showed that during the 2007–8 Annapolis negotiations, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas had lowered demands relative to Camp David, negotiating for the return of just 10,000 refugees to Israel, and privately acknowledging that most would not return.19 In 2012, he openly stated that he would not return to his family’s home inside Israel. He faced criticism from Palestinians for this proclamation, and later defended the rights of individuals to return, alongside other pragmatic solutions.20

This report is focused on advancing solutions, rather than determining the historic causes of the problem, which have been painstakingly and comprehensively documented by historians. Further, the historic cause of displacement does not affect claims of return in international law and norms. That being said, historic responsibility can play a valuable role in reconciliation. Both the discussion of history and the question of solutions are politically explosive, but the historic causes can be debated in an ongoing way—while conflict resolution and policy solutions are a starting point for de-escalation. Solutions are necessary for an agreement, while historic consensus is not. A peace agreement, this report concludes, can address history without resolving or ending the research into factual historic events, their causes, and their meanings.

The next section takes refugee return questions out of Israel and Palestine and into the global sphere, looking at how the issue of return has played out in comparable conflicts. The goal is to provide greater information about other experiences and possible solutions.

The Evolution of a New Concept

The concept of human rights, including those of refugees, evolved in direct response to the tragedies of the twentieth century. Tens of millions of people were displaced during and after two world wars. After 1945, the international community renewed efforts to create new structures to keep the peace. Teams of legal scholars worked to formulate the principles of the UN Founding Charter, which they hoped would help prevent wars by treating the underlying causes of conflict. The basis for human rights law emerged during this period, as well.

The process of establishing universal human rights was fraught with tension. The immediate political challenges of decolonization in South Africa, India, and Palestine overlapped with the urgent need to define the ideals of human rights in response to the fresh trauma of World War II. Law and politics intervened in one another from the start.21

On December 10, 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), after more than two years of negotiations about the text. Article 13, section 2 states: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”22 This is often seen as the first international agreement on an individual’s right to return, and favors the Palestinian position.

There was little by way of pre–World War II law or convention providing for the return of refugees; what did exist addressed the issue only by implication. For example, the Hague Convention of 1907 states: “The occupant [a hostile army]… shall take all the measures in his power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety.”23 In a report prepared for BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, one author interpreted this passage as a basis for deriving a right of return.24 However, the BADIL paper acknowledges that the Hague Convention does not state an explicit right of repatriation (nor is it clear that a sovereign state can be an “occupying power” of its own territory). The same BADIL paper provides interpretations of other relevant pre–World War II norms, primarily the prohibitions on denationalization and the rules of state succession. But such interpretations are rarely found in any other legal examination of the right of return. 25

The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 is occasionally cited as a basis for a right of return. Article 49 states: “Such evacuations may not involve the displacement of protected persons outside the bounds of the occupied territory except when for material reasons it is impossible to avoid such displacement. Persons thus evacuated shall be transferred back to their homes as soon as hostilities in the area in question have ceased.”

However, this section of the 1949 document relates to occupying powers and occupied territory, and is only rarely considered as a basis for the argument that international law guarantees a right of return in the case of sovereign states.26

The UDHR is a somewhat more common starting point for most Palestinian arguments grounded in international law. The declaration is nonbinding, and there is a fundamental political dispute over whether Israel can be considered Palestinians’ country (for the purpose of the clause that says “everyone has the right… to return to his country”) given the transition of political power at the time of the Nakba.27 Nevertheless, the UDHR is the foundation of international human rights law, and is often cited in the discussion over the Palestinian right of return.

The day after the UDHR was passed, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194, which states that “Palestinian refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” The text goes on to provide for property compensation for those who choose not to return. However, UN General Assembly resolutions are not binding in international law; rather, they carry normative and political weight.

Given the chronology, and the fact that the UDHR was under negotiation for two years before UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (with a legal team that included ardent Zionists), the idea of return is clearly not a Palestinian invention.28 Israel’s first leaders could not convincingly claim that they were unaware of the emerging normative approach proscribing expulsion and supporting return. Preventing return following the wartime flight and expulsions contravened those norms.

Perhaps the new Israeli leadership was operating on realpolitik alone, which it deemed more urgent than the nascent quest for universal human rights norms. (Indeed, seventy years later, those norms’ consistency and effectiveness are still uncertain.) Israel’s leaders acted in ways that were darkly consistent with the first half of the century, but which were quickly being repudiated. Palestinians may well have been among the first beneficiaries of the idea that refugees should be granted the right to go home, but the notion grew out of emerging international support for universal rights—not from a Palestinian conspiracy.

Israel’s leaders acted in ways that were darkly consistent with the first half of the century, but which were quickly being repudiated.

More refugee conventions followed. In 1951, the United Nations adopted the “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.”29 This convention defined refugees in greater detail, outlined responsibilities of host countries to protect them, and developed the principle of non-refoulement—refugees cannot be forced back home if they still face persecution. While the convention forms the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it does not explicitly address the right to return, and it does not apply to anyone protected by a different UN agency. (In fact, only Palestinians fell into this matter category at the time, since UNRWA, an agency dedicated to them, was created prior to the formation of UNHCR; today some Palestinians fall under UNHCR’s mandate as well.) However, the 1950 statute outlining the tasks of the Office of the High Commissioner, which was approved and reaffirmed by the UN General Assembly, discusses “voluntary repatriation” as one solution for refugees, which UNHCR has considered a form of customary international law.30 Voluntary repatriation has since become one of the main principles established as a durable solution for refugees, alongside resettlement and local integration.

In 1966, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provided a more robust legal instrument on the matter of refugee return. This convention states the right to leave and enter one’s country (Article 12.4), and is legally binding on parties to the convention. Israel signed it in 1966, and acceded in 1991.31 The ICCPR’s applicability to Palestinians suffers from the question of whether Israel today is the country of Palestinian refugees, the same question that has made the UDHR’s relevance uncertain. Similarly, scholars question whether the ICCPR applies collectively or individually. Legal consensus points to an individual interpretation, on a case-by-case basis.32 The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination follows the same wording, and is also interpreted as applying to individuals. This second convention entered into force in 1969, and Israel acceded in 1979.33 Notably, neither of these treaties condition refugee rights on the reasons a people became refugees: the historic causes of becoming a refugee are irrelevant to the rights refugees enjoy.34

To summarize, international law, convention and norms regarding an explicit right of return evolved primarily following World War II, almost simultaneously with the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. Over the following decades, the right became clearer through international instruments. UNHCR states that its earliest missions to assist in mass refugee return were in 1962, when it helped Algerians return from Morocco and Tunisia.35

However, the compendium of resolutions, statutes, and conventions leaves specific aspects of the Palestinian situation disputed, at least by Israel, among them the following key questions: Can Israel be considered Palestinians’ country, if the vast majority dispersed during the War of Independence? Is there a collective or individual right of return? How is refugee status to be determined over generations? International law does not distinguish the rights of minorities to return from the rights of any other refugees—but what are the precedents for minority return, especially in cases where refugee return could transform a minority into a majority, or challenge the country’s identity?

While some of these questions are the subject of heated legal debate, observation of related cases shows how they might be addressed in practice—and the complexities around these experiences.

Other Conflicts and Their Refugees

The cases reviewed below—Rwanda, Cyprus, Bosnia, and Kosovo—do not include all refugee situations since World War II; rather, they were selected for this report as relevant comparisons to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The main justifications for selecting these cases are as follows:

First, they occurred after the massive population expulsions and forced transfers that were a direct result of World War II.36 It would be inconsistent to judge World War II–era and earlier population movements on the same legal and moral standard as later ones, especially given that the main normative and legal frameworks addressing return emerged several years later (1948, 1949, 1950–51, 1966). At the same time, the earliest case of displacement examined in this report (Rwanda) began only a decade after the Israeli War of Independence. Further, each case selected for this report involves an ethno-national conflict, in which both the original expulsions and return reflect direct challenges to the ethnic identity of the state. The cases are also diverse in terms of their conflict status: Two of them, Rwanda and Bosnia, are resolved (if troubled). Two remain formally unresolved (Cyprus and Kosovo). No two conflicts are identical, and what follows is not an exhaustive list of relevant refugee crises. However, the lessons of these cases provide a strong foundation for the policy recommendations that follow.


In 1959, a Hutu-led coup against the Tutsi monarch in Rwanda caused an initial wave of the minority Tutsis to flee. After the Tutsi king went into exile in 1960, waves of Tutsi refugees continued to depart Rwanda throughout the 1960s.37 The earliest exiles sought protection, and protested involuntary repatriation from Uganda by British authorities. But those who remained abroad were poorly integrated into host countries (mainly Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi).38 Over the next few decades, members of this early wave formed militia groups representing the struggle to return.39 The Rwandan government resisted return, though it began considering concessions and broader reforms in the late 1980s.40 But by 1990, the exiled groups had formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which invaded Rwanda that year and effectively began a guerrilla war.

Violence escalated, until in August 1993 the Hutu-led Rwandan government and the Tutsi-dominated RPF signed the Arusha Accords to end the war. The agreement was a power-sharing arrangement for a future government; it was intended to end the RPF’s military struggle by providing for Tutsi return and political representation. At this time, Tutsis made up roughly 15 percent of Rwanda’s population.

The Arusha Accords directly addressed the claims of the earliest Rwandan refugees, more than thirty years after the first wave of Tutsis fled Rwanda, stating that “the return of Rwandese refugees to their country is an inalienable right and constitutes a factor of peace, national unity, and reconciliation.”

Article 8 of the Arusha Accords defines refugees as both those registered with UNHCR, and those who simply declared themselves to be refugees. The Arusha Accords also recognized inherited refugee status, including for those who were born abroad and remained stateless.41

A 1991 report for the U.S. Committee for Refugees analyzing the background to the RPF invasion advocated emotionally for a solution, in terms that echo Palestinian claims:

[This report] concerns refugees, people who have been in exile—stateless and spiritually homeless—for three decades, people whose long-term pain and frustration provide the context from which the war has sprung. [Many are] the offspring of the original refugees. Having known no life but that of unending alienness, their drive to have a homeland has become all-consuming. Understanding their psychology… is an important element in making any progress toward a real solution. Having rejected substantial repatriation of the refugees for years, Rwanda bears much of the responsibility for recent events. This in no way suggests an endorsement of the [violence]. However, the situation of any refugee group must be resolved satisfactorily within a reasonable time frame; ignoring refugees’ pain indefinitely will almost always produce violence.42

The Arusha Accords were never implemented. In April 1994, Rwanda’s president, Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was assassinated. Extremist Hutu groups in the country responded by launching the three-month-long genocidal campaign. Between 800,000 and a million people were murdered—mostly Tutsis and some moderate Hutus.43 Up to two million people eventually fled Rwanda or were internally displaced—Tutsis, but also large numbers of Hutus who fled after the RPF captured Kigali in July 1994.

As the country descended into genocide, the United Nations issued increasingly panicked resolutions, most of which reinforced the Arusha agreement: UN Security Council Resolution 918 cited the importance of the Arusha Accords as the means to reach a peaceful solution, along with others.44

The killing did not end by agreement; rather, the Tutsi-led RPF captured the capital and took over the leadership. As the country sought to rebuild, the new leadership stated its intention to implement the Arusha Accords, including the return of refugees.45

Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s long-ruling strongman leader (and the former commander of the RPF), has attempted to repopulate and revitalize the country, largely by cultivating relations with the West. He has advanced the idea of a shared Rwandan identity, practically stifling the use of ethnic and tribal labels. 46 The call to repatriate refugees regardless of identity is an important piece of this effort. In recent years, much attention has focused on the “cessation” of refugee status, since Kagame claims that no groups are threatened in Rwanda today. Approximately 2–3.4 million refugees have returned since 1994. Between 500,000 and 800,000 of these are Tutsis—an ethnic minority.47 (Rwanda’s population is estimated at 12.7 million today.)48

Byabugogo Cell assistant secretary Butera Aicha, 33, leads an Ibiganiro byo Kwibuka, or “Meeting of Remembering,” at the Muhima Sector building on April 8, 2014 in Kigali, Rwanda. The meetings, held each night for the week succeeding the anniversary of the 1994 genocide, are mandatory attendance for people in the area. Residents learn about the history and origins of the genocide and are told to unite for good. Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In Rwanda, a refugee situation that began in the late 1950s escalated, primarily over the right of return. The agreement of 1993 was based on the full return of a minority group that used military force against the state; the return of ethnic Tutsis also posed a threat to the ethnic identity of the country, with a Hutu-dominated government and Hutu majority population. Return of both the minority and other groups eventually took place after terrible violence against the minority (alongside victims in the majority group, considered moderate Hutus) within the country. Refugee status applied to descendants as well as the original exiles, by the decision of the conflicting parties.

Several aspects differ from the Israeli–Palestinian case. For one, Rwanda seeks a shared Rwandan identity superseding ethnicity. This is not the case in Israel or Palestine. Further, the 1994 war ended with a Tutsi (the returning minority group) leadership, giving the ruling power an interest in having the minority group return.

Perhaps the biggest contrast lies in demography: Even large-scale Tutsi return was not anticipated to overwhelm the numbers of Hutu, while full return of all Palestinians and all their descendants to Israel proper would quickly overtake the number of Jewish Israelis. The question of preserving identity while recognizing return is a major aspect of the Cyprus conflict, examined below.


Like Israel and Palestine, Cyprus struggles with separate identities, and a territorial division. The island became independent from Great Britain in 1960, through a power-sharing government negotiated by Greece and Turkey, which, along with Great Britain, became guarantors of stability. However, the constitutional arrangement in Cyprus established in 1960 broke down in 1963, sparking the first conflict between ethnic Greek and ethnic Turkish Cypriots. In 1974, Greek nationalists backed by the military junta in Greece attempted to overthrow the Greek-dominated Cypriot government; in response, Turkey invaded, and ultimately occupied, the northern part of the island. Turkish and Greek military troops remain to this day.

About 190,000 Greek Cypriots from the northern part of the island fled their homes and properties in 1974, following violence and atrocities. Turkey did not allow them to return.49 Some 50,000–60,000 Turkish Cypriots fled from south to north during this time (some of these were people who had already been displaced in earlier clashes in 1963).50

In 1975, the leaderships of the Turkish Cypriot and the Greek Cypriot communities agreed that Turkish Cypriots would be allowed to move to the north, while Greek Cypriots were theoretically allowed to stay in the north. However, the Turkish Cypriot leadership referred to the arrangement as a “population exchange”—understood to legitimize the exodus of Greek Cypriots from the northern part of the island. In practice, most Greek Cypriots left the north, and communities on either side became mostly ethnically homogenous.51 After the Turkish Cypriots moved from the south during the fighting, their total number in the north was estimated at less than 100,000 by October 1974, and possibly about 115,000 after the remainder moved from the south. (After 1974, “settlers” from Turkey were included in northern Cyprus population counts, most likely to blur the distinction and show a more sizable population.)52 However, immediately following the hostilities, had the 190,000 Greek Cypriots who left the north returned, they would have outnumbered the Turkish Cypriots by nearly two to one.

The United Nations also supported the return of refugees, adopting a resolution immediately after the cessation of the hostilities in August 1974, calling to allow them to return. (Technically, Cypriots who fled their homes were IDPs, since they did not cross international borders—yet they are often referred to, even in official documents, as “refugees”). Resolution 361, article 4 states: “[The Security Council] expresses its grave concern at the plight of the refugees and other persons displaced as a result of the situation in Cyprus and urges the parties concerned… [to] take appropriate measures to provide for their relief and welfare and to permit persons who wish to do so to return to their homes in safety.”53

It is noteworthy that these decisions in Cyprus were occurring at the same time that the right of Palestinians’ return continued to be debated in other international forums—again underlining that the Palestinian dilemma was not totally unique. For example, just months after this Security Council call for refugee return in Cyprus, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3236 (XXIX), reiterating the “inalienable rights” of Palestinians to return “to their homes and property… and [calling] for their return.”54 It is not clear if the Cyprus case influenced the United Nations; Resolution 3236 may also have reflected a specific shift of approach toward the Palestinians within the United Nations following the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. However, the Cypriot and Palestinian resolutions are consistent in the explicit support for refugee return during this phase.55

Graffiti on a building along the buffer zone on the southern, Greek side of the divided city of Nicosia, Cyprus, on March 6, 2017. Source: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The United Nations consistently favored a right to return for Greek Cypriots in the years to come. UN General Assembly Resolution 37/253, adopted in 1983 after the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus unilaterally declared independence (recognized only by Turkey), “calls for respect of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Cypriots, including… urgent measures for the voluntary return of the refugees to their homes in safety.”56

In the early 1990s, UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali proposed a framework for negotiations in Cyprus that included an option for all displaced people to return or claim compensation for lost properties.57 These claims have been a fixture of conflict resolution efforts on the island. For political reasons, the Turkish Cypriots placed less emphasis on the return of displaced people to the south, focusing instead on legitimizing their Turkish Cypriot entity in the north, through benefits and properties given to the displaced.

However, the Greek Cypriot side has never relinquished the demand for displaced people to be able to return.58 Although displaced Greek Cypriots live in the country of their citizenship (Cyprus) and have been given benefits for integration, they retain IDP status within the country, along with their children. However, UNHCR ceased to consider them a “population of concern” in 1999, while the “Demopoulos” judgement (examined below) by the European Court of Human Rights raised doubts and limitations on next-generation property claims.59 Among Greek Cypriots, the issue holds great emotional and symbolic power. In 1999 (the fiftieth anniversary of the UDHR), twenty Greek Cypriot women went on a hunger strike to demand the right of return.60 As recently as 2017, a Greek Cypriot member of the European Parliament posed an emotional statement to the body on World Refugee Day: “Being a refugee from Kyrenia, I am transferring the agonized appeal of those thousands of European refugees for the restoration of their inalienable right to return to their lands and properties in safety, as provided by resolutions of European courts and the relevant UN Resolution 3212, also endorsed by Turkey.”61

International courts have repeatedly upheld the Greek Cypriot position. In 1976, the European Commission on Human Rights ruled that Turkey had violated the rights of the displaced by preventing return. In 1996, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey had violated the European Convention on Human Rights and the Protection of Fundamental Freedoms, and forced Turkey to pay compensation.62In 2001, the same body declared that refusal to allow displaced persons access to their homes is a violation of human rights.63 However, a 2010 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights rejected a Greek Cypriot petition regarding property compensation, signaling a possible shift in support for long-term claims. The judgement in the Demopoulos case, as it is known, did not refuse property restoration claims in principle, but argued that they need to take into account the time elapsed, changing circumstances, and the potential harm to the current local population if full restoration is allowed. The judgment also argued for the need for a broader political solution, and noted the fact that the petitioners were required to pursue their claims before a local body the Turkish Cypriot authorities had established by that time, for that purpose. (The petitioners had declined to appeal their claims there, rejecting the legitimacy of the authorities in the north.)64

Some have observed that the international consensus supporting right of return, and minority returns in particular, peaked in the 1990s following the Bosnia precedent, but that the recent developments regarding Cyprus indicate a measure of skepticism regarding such categorical support for return.65

While the status of international law and norms continues to evolve, peace proposals for Cyprus have nonetheless attempted to resolve the problem of displaced people’s return and compensation with a combination of compromise and acknowledgment of the rights of the displaced. Following decades of failed negotiations, in 2002, the Annan Plan (named after then UN secretary general Kofi Annan) developed a detailed agreement to reunify the island as a federated state. The plan offered both property restitution frameworks and protections for anyone who could be displaced as a result of returning owners. Yet the Annan Plan also recognized that each constituent state in the envisioned federation wished to preserve its identity. The plan therefore essentially proposed demographic engineering.

The agreement allowed for a complete moratorium for the first five years on people moving to the “other” side of the island—either Greek Cypriots moving to the north, or Turkish Cypriots moving to the south—with an exception only for older returnees between the second and fifth year.66 After five years, return would be allowed, but with demographic limits. Some Greek Cypriot returnees would go to areas intended to become part of the Greek Cypriot constituent entity (in later territorial adjustments, as per the plan).67 Others would return to areas remaining under Turkish Cypriot authority; but ethnic minorities on the respective sides (Turkish Cypriots in the south, Greek Cypriots in the north) would initially be limited to 6 percent of the total population of the side. Within twenty years, however, this cap on residents from the other constituent state could increase to nearly 20 percent.68 In an apt illustration of the competing factors, this chapter of the Annan Plan is titled “Citizenship, Residency and Identity.”69

Regarding the displaced, the language of the Cyprus negotiations has focused more on property rights and restitution. However, in the articles of the Annan Plan dealing with that issue, the final clause includes the phrase “unlimited right of return” for owners dispossessed of their land and homes.70

The Annan Plan was not to be—it fell in a twin referendum held in 2004 among both communities. Turkish Cypriot voters passed the plan with a strong majority, while Greek Cypriot voters rejected it with an even stronger majority of nearly three-quarters. Post-referendum analyses mainly highlight the Greek Cypriots’ security fears of Turkey, the general sense that the deal was biased in favor of the Turkish Cypriots, leniency toward Turkish settlers, and other claims. The issue of refugee return and property compensation is sometimes cited anecdotally, but is not necessarily seen as the primary reason for the Greek Cypriot rejection.71

As in Israel and Palestine, the negotiations in Cyprus acknowledge the distinct identities in two territorial regions, and struggle to balance these with the acknowledged need for property restitution and return. Here too, IDP status granted within Cyprus applies to descendants, although the Demopoulos ruling in 2010 has begun to limit claims of later generations. Yet, like Israel and Palestine, the plans have never been agreed upon, and have never been tested in practice.

One of the main differences between Cyprus and the situation of the Palestinians is the life situation of displaced Greek Cypriots versus Palestinian refugees, especially those who remain stateless. Greek Cypriots long for their homes, but at least live in a recognized state as citizens among their compatriots. Many Palestinians’ lives are far more precarious.


In the 1990s, the violent collapse of Yugoslavia led to the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.72 From 1991 to 1995, 2.2 million people were displaced from their homes in Bosnia—about half of the population of the landlocked country became either refugees or IDPs.73 Bosnia had been the most ethnically diverse of the six constituent republics of the former Yugoslavia; people of all ethnic groups were displaced—Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians, and many others.

However, unlike Rwanda or Cyprus, the war in Bosnia ended with a peace agreement. The 1995 Dayton Accords, achieved through American-led negotiations, stopped the fighting and provided a new constitutional arrangement. Bosnia was divided into ethnically defined, highly autonomous territorial entities—one Serb, the other a “federation” of Bosniaks and Croats. Both exist under the rubric of a central government, with carefully engineered ethnic representation at all levels of government. Bosnia therefore provides an opportunity to consider both an agreed solution and the results of its implementation.

The right of return was essential to the Dayton Accords as a means to achieve the primary aim of the peace settlement: to “reverse” violent ethnic cleansing.74 Annex 7 states: “All refugees and displaced persons have the right freely to return to their homes of origin. They shall have the right to have restored to them property of which they were deprived in the course of hostilities since 1991 and to be compensated for any property that cannot be restored to them.”75

The right of return was essential to the Dayton Accords as a means to achieve the primary aim of the peace settlement in Bosnia: to “reverse” violent ethnic cleansing.

Within a year of the war’s end, about 250,000 displaced people returned to Bosnia voluntarily. About a million people would eventually be repatriated to Bosnia (one-half of those who were displaced). By 2016, about 95 percent had their status resolved: either they were resettled into a new country, integrated into the area of refuge, or repatriated (returned). The international community views this situation as largely resolved.76

The Dayton Accords may have brought peace, but they hardly ended Bosnia’s problems, including the process of refugee return, which has been fraught. The first wave of returnees in the 1990s returned mainly to areas where they were an ethnic majority.77 In those cases where minorities attempted to return to their prewar homes, they were often met with bureaucratic resistance and hostility, by local authorities and, sometimes, by mobs.78 The contradiction between the aims and the effect of the policies for return was so pervasive that it became known as the “Dayton paradox.” In response to a war of ethnic segregation, the peace agreement simultaneously accepted ethnic territorial division, while encouraging ethnic diversity within each region, through return. Yet in practice, restoring diversity has been difficult and uneven in Bosnia.79

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the European community and UNHCR increased the focus on refugee return in Bosnia, and “minority return” became a named policy.80 Support for repatriation became integral to conflict resolution in general, largely as a result of the Dayton Accords. “Following in the footsteps of Dayton,” Megan Bradley writes, “almost every peace agreement signed since 1995 recognizes the right of displaced persons to return, usually not only to their country, but also to their homes.”81

An apartment building still heavily scarred by bullet holes from the 1992–95 Bosnian War stands near a gleaming office building on June 29, 2014 in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Source: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

By 2002, more than 100,000 minority returns had been documented in Bosnia. However, many of these putative returnees actually just went back to reclaim properties, which they later rented or sold, choosing not to live as a minority in their former regions.82

A 2017 study found that minority communities within Bosnia returned at varying rates: when it meant living as a minority, 48 percent of Bosniaks, 27 percent of Croats, and 12 percent of Serbs returned to their prewar areas of Bosnia.83

A field-based analysis examined the reasons refugees did not take advantage of their right to return, when doing so would make them a minority. The study found that refugees were averse to the discomfort of living within a majority group that was either hostile or perceived to be so, amidst recent trauma and fresh memories of war. Many simply chose to live among their own ethno-national community. “Home,” the report observed, meant community, social structures, and environment, and these could not be recreated.84

Bosnia remains a living experiment. The evolving implementation of the Dayton Accords produced the concept of minority returns as a policy, but experience has led to serious doubts about both the pragmatic feasibility of minority return, and its efficacy for peacemaking. In Bosnia, both the desire and the formal right to return were recognized, but social realities took a different turn.


The relevant experience in Kosovo was similar to that of Bosnia. In the late 1980s, this semiautonomous province within Serbia (the most powerful of the six republics that made up the former Yugoslavia), with a majority of ethnic Albanians and a small ethnic Serb minority, demanded independence. A decade later, escalation between Serbia and Kosovo led to a massive refugee crisis and the U.S.-led NATO intervention in 1999. Approximately one million residents of Kosovo were displaced in the late 1990s: roughly 600,000 were refugees who crossed into neighboring countries; about 400,000 were internally displaced.85 The vast majority of those displaced before and during the war were Kosovar Albanians. Following the war, reprisals and security fears led about 240,000 Serbs (and other ethnic minorities) from Kosovo to leave as well.86

The Kosovo War, which escalated through 1998 and culminated in the NATO air campaign starting in March 1999, did not end in agreement. Instead, UN Security Council Resolution 1244 of June 1999 granted Kosovo “substantial autonomy and meaningful self-administration.” It also, confusingly, reaffirmed what remained of Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity while insisting on the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo, and established international forces to administer the transition.87 The political status of Kosovo and Serbia remains unresolved to this day.

When the fighting ended, a large majority of the ethnic Albanian refugees returned to Kosovo of their own accord. UN Security Council Resolution 1244 repeatedly reaffirmed their complete right to return. But the situation of returnees was starkly different than before the war. Albanians were now returning as a majority group in an autonomous entity, rather than as a marginalized minority in the erstwhile country of Yugoslavia. Thus, in the case of Kosovo, the return of the ethnic majority came as little surprise, and presented few of the difficulties of the situation in other postconflict settings, where returning minorities threatened to change the demographic balance.

The return of ethnic minorities to Kosovo, on the other hand, is far more complicated. By most estimates, ethnic Serbs made up between 9 and 13 percent of Kosovo’s population by the late 1990s.88 Following the war, they are estimated at fewer than 8 percent.89 Many remain staunch rejectionists of Kosovo’s independence, and routinely insist that Kosovo is part of Serbia, although Kosovo has been recognized by more than 100 countries.90 UN Security Council Resolution 1244 established the right of return for all Kosovo residents without distinguishing by ethnicity, and thereby ignored the demographic implications of return. By 2001, some Serbs had begun to return in an organized fashion.91 They continued in small numbers throughout the decade, though burdened by competing political pressures.92

The return of Serbs therefore raises questions that are quite similar to those of the Israeli–Palestinian case. Kosovo is in a tenuous international position; it is blocked from becoming a UN member, and Serbia works constantly, sometimes successfully, to convince countries to rescind their recognition of Kosovo’s independence. The return of ethnic Serbs to Kosovo means accepting people who not only question Kosovo’s existence, but who are also backed by figures that very concretely undermine the country’s political existence. Serbia’s position is in turn backed by Russia. And at the local level, memories of inter-group violence in Kosovo are as fresh as those in Israel of the Second Intifada. Negotiations with Serbia involve a possibility of territorial partition of the newly independent state of Kosovo (which unilaterally declared independence in 2008). An increased number of ethnic Serbs in certain areas could make it easier for Serbia to argue for such partition.93 Perceptions of ethnic Albanian Kosovars that the Serb minority threatens Kosovo’s existence as an independent state—as well as its ethnic identity—have an immediate and concrete basis.

After declaring independence, Kosovo ratified a constitution, despite the country’s unsettled status. The ethnic Albanian leadership chose to offer the full and expansive right of return to all: “Article 155 [Citizenship] …2. The Republic of Kosovo recognizes the right of all citizens of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia habitually residing in Kosovo on 1 January 1998 and their direct descendants to Republic of Kosovo citizenship regardless of their current residence and any other citizenship they may hold.” The next article goes on to state that Kosovo will work to promote such return, including assistance with property recovery.94

Thus, in Kosovo, the tone for return was set by the international community (UN Security Council Resolution 1244) and advanced by the majority group in the absence of a peace agreement. Kosovo’s posture on the matter was closely aligned with Western expectations of a multiethnic society. Returnees have included those who inherited refugee status, and those who hold other citizenship. Kosovo’s government takes an active role in assisting with return and integration.95

In Kosovo, as in Bosnia, grandiose intentions have been met with low numbers of minority returns in practice.

However, as in Bosnia, grandiose intentions have been met with low numbers of minority returns in practice. The rate of ethnic Serb return to Kosovo is estimated at 10 percent or less of the total displaced Serbian population, lower than in Bosnia (where some 12 percent of ethnic Serbs returned), and comparable to Croatia (where the rate was 10 percent).96

In sum, the two cases from the former Yugoslavia highlight a robust recognition of the minority right of return, but difficulties with implementation in practice. Even these difficulties are not universal, however. One global survey cited cases in which minority return was considered a success (in West Africa and Central America).97 Simply put, while there is great variability in the practicality of the right of return, the existence of the right is widely respected outside of the context of Israel and Palestine—even when its realization poses politically difficult questions.

Possible Solutions

The most consistent thread in these cases is the prevalence of the need for refugees and displaced people to return. There is no evidence that Palestinians are unique in the demand to return to their homes.

Nor is a long-term commitment to return unique, even decades after displacement (Rwanda and Cyprus are examples). Rwanda’s first crisis began just a decade after the first wave of the Palestinian exile.

The inheritance of refugee or IDP status is also not unique, but in these cases has been granted locally rather than by international bodies. This is the case in Cyprus (as a decision of the Republic of Cyprus government), Rwanda (under the Arusha Accords), and in Kosovo (unilaterally defined by Kosovo’s constitution). As noted above, both the UNHCR and the U.S. State Department point to a list of other cases with inherited status.98

In all cases, the right to return applies to minorities as well. In two cases, returning minorities were associated with political forces that posed a clear and material threat to a country’s political status (Kosovo and Rwanda), including military attack in Rwanda. Such situations present grave complexities, but are not unique to Israel and Palestinians.

In light of all these observations, it is clear that refugee return is integral to practices of conflict cessation.

Still, the basis for the right of return in international law is somewhat ambiguous. International declarations provide the right, but they are not binding. International conventions are binding, but subject to interpretation. UN General Assembly resolutions carry normative but not legal weight, and in some cases (such as the UDHR and the ICCPR), their language is open to interpretation. The normative argument for the right of return is thus strong, but it has a less definitive legal basis.

Furthermore, the very notion of codifying return as part of the emerging human rights system was new following World War II. Definitions of refugees and the preferred solutions have evolved since. Repatriation (return) has been integral from the earliest years of the post–World War II order, but has been given more or less weight at various points. Minority return was named as a goal only in the 1990s, though it had occurred in practice at earlier times. In many cases, all of these approaches to the issue of return are subject to political pressures of both the conflict community and the international community. There is no single, consistent, clear solution.

The implementation of minority return has been limited and problematic. Still, knowing they have the right can arguably advance the legitimacy of conflict resolution in itself, and provide a sense of justice.

The implementation of minority return has been limited and problematic. Minorities have not always wished to return, home communities have not always been welcoming, and numbers have remained low. Still, knowing they have the right can arguably advance the legitimacy of conflict resolution in itself, and provide a sense of justice. In the case of Cyprus, return has been designed in a way that balances the desire for population majorities in different territories; independently of the issue of return. However, a permanent peace deal has proved elusive, so the proposals have not been tested.

The clearest lesson for Israel and Palestine should be an acknowledgment of the right of return in theory. Both Rwanda and Bosnia, despite great difficulties, have kept the peace since the end of their conflicts, with this right firmly in place.

In one way, the Israeli–Palestinian case is unique. Israel has not only resisted actual return, but denies its role in the history of creating the problem—a twist the other cases do not share. Having made denial into a conflict issue in itself, Israel could advance resolution through a powerful symbolic gesture of recognizing this history. As a goodwill gesture in return, Palestinians could acknowledge Israeli fears that return is, for some, a vehicle for destroying Israel’s national identity, and disavow this idea. This proposal does not mean to suggest that Israeli and Palestinian fears and symbolic recognition are equivalent, but rather accepts that any meaningful negotiation will have to begin by addressing core concerns and reassuring the parties.

Palestinians should acknowledge that binding international law is debatable and not the sole reason to allow return; however, Israel should drop its claim that there is no normative or legal basis for return at all, which is not the case. Both parties’ current positions exacerbate rejectionism; they are factually wrong and unnecessary. The other cases outlined in this report did not depend on international law as a basis for return; they recognized return as a contribution to peacemaking.

Implementation strategies include the following options:

  1. Undistinguished full right of return to all exiles and their descendants including minorities, as in Rwanda. Such an approach rests on the intent to build a shared civic identity, and in practice depends on a military victory for the minority group. Neither will happen in Israel. First, neither side has expressed a desire for a shared civic identity. Israel has always prioritized the Jewish, Zionist-dominated culture as its very raison d’être. The commitment to a Jewish identity is the main motivation for any Israeli leader to support a two-state paradigm in which the Palestinian nation has a separate state; in a Tel Aviv University poll from March 2020, just 12 percent of Israeli Jews supported a single state based on full equality.99 At this point, the leading Palestinian parties, Fatah and Hamas, both support a separate state with a Palestinian identity, and polls show little desire among Palestinians for a common, shared civic national identity—according to one poll conducted this year, just 11 percent support such a situation, a lower proportion than in the past.100
  2. The Balkan model (Bosnia and Kosovo). This option entails the right of return for all, including minorities, while the political solution defines de facto ethnic boundaries and, as a result, countries retain a distinct national character (the “Dayton paradox”). The analysis shows that, in practice, minority return is difficult to implement, due to both the behavior of the receiving countries, and the resultant unwillingness of the refugees themselves. There is a debate over interpretation: in one approach, the policy of minority return can be viewed as a failure in practice. However, the opposite perspective is also possible—that in acknowledging the right, the exiled population is given a sense of historic justice even if it chooses not to exercise the right. Recently hostile parties may ultimately decide to remain apart, but imposed partition, “ethnic cleansing,” or exile maintains a climate of conflict.
  3. The Cyprus model (based on the Annan Plan). This option entails the limited right of return, including for minorities, while engineering or capping the total portion of the minority population within territorial national entities, to return in protracted phases. In Cyprus, this plan was never implemented, so it is hard to judge its effectiveness. On paper, however, it looks achievable. The international courts have largely upheld the broad notion of property rights for the displaced Greek Cypriots, with limitations mainly beginning in 2010, to acknowledge the need to protect current residents, limit generational claims, and seek local redress.

It is important to recall that two of the cases that this report examines (Rwanda and Bosnia) have reached formal resolution of their conflicts, and although both struggle with profound problems, the situation of resolution is preferable to non-resolution. The most pressing problems of those two places have little to do with refugee return. Further, even with all its complications, return has not been the cause of any resurgent violence or political instability.

The Rwandan approach appears to be the least applicable and relevant approach for Israel and Palestine, since it is predicated on a political solution of a single state and a civic identity, with no territorial/ethnic division at all. In contrast, any political solution in Israel and Palestine will ultimately need to acknowledge and reflect distinct national identities.

The Balkan and Cypriot models can be seen as “hybrid” policies regarding refugees: Providing a right to return, in more or less limited ways, while acknowledging the distinct national identities. (In the Balkans, identities are reflected through fragmentation into numerous states; in Cyprus it would be manifested through constituent entities within a single state.) The Balkan model places no structural or formal limitations on return, including of minorities; for this reason, it is far less likely to achieve political support in the Israeli political climate.

The Cypriot model is more structurally limited, making it more feasible on the Israeli side. In general, Palestinian public opinion has been significantly more supportive of the two-state compromise solution for refugees, recognizing the right itself, and limiting return in practice to either a Palestinian state, a capped number in Israel, or compensation. This approach therefore seems most amenable in light of political realities on either side. The principle of the Cyprus approach, which provides for return while acknowledging national identities through the structure of the arrangement, has in fact already been negotiated in practice.

The primary change suggested by this report’s analysis relates to Israel’s starting point, which has been an outright rejection of Palestinian history, rejection of international law and norms regarding return, rejection of claims for redress generations later, and the claim that ethnic minorities whose return poses a political challenge lose the right to return. Israel should change this fundamentally rejectionist position, which is factually wrong and unsupported by other comparable cases. Accepting the legitimacy of these claims—while observing that the two postconflict cases have done exactly that and survived—can free Israel to provide a significant incentive in negotiations on this issue: a non-defensive, symbolic recognition of both the historic experience and the theoretical right. This recognition can be coupled with similar policies that Israel has been prepared to accept in the past, perhaps with somewhat more generous implementation.

At the same time, the Palestinian expectation of full implementation of return for all original refugees and descendants has little precedent except in one fundamentally different situation (Rwanda). A negotiating position committed to recognition of history and the right, with limitations on implementation, would be more favorable to the Palestinian side than previous rounds (which rejected recognition), and the policy solution appears roughly acceptable in Palestinian public opinion. A maximalist public discourse among Palestinians prior to negotiations can constrain and perpetuate unrealistic demands. Changes to this narrative need not wait for the revival of formal negotiations.

The choices are neither ideal nor easy; but refugee return is not unique—nor is the problem intractable.

This report is a part of “The Future of Governance in Eroded States: Managing Fragmentation and Its Consequences in the Middle East,” a multi-year TCF initiative supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

header photo: A Palestinian refugee camp near the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan, in the year following the Israeli War of Independence, which marked the creation of the State of Israel. Source: Charles Hewitt/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


  1. Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
  2. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) currently maintains “active files” for 5.5 million Palestinian refugees, under UNRWA definitions. See “What We Do,” UNRWA,
  3. Tom Segev, 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005), 410. The refugees from 1967 were displaced from the West Bank and Gaza, now occupied by Israel but not under its formal sovereignty; most would seek return to those places. This report mainly addresses the claims of Palestinians to return to sovereign areas of Israel, in the territory it held before 1967.
  4. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also cites other cases of inherited refugee status, including in “multiple generations of Afghan, Bhutanese, Burmese, Nepalese, Thai, Tibetan, and Somali” refugees. Colum Lynch, “For Trump and Co., Few Palestinians Count as Refugees,” Foreign Policy,
    August 9, 2018,
  5. Eyal Benvenisti, “The Right of Return in International Law: An Israeli Perspective,” Stocktaking Conference, 2003.
  6. James Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the 20th Century (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018), 164.
  7. Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz, The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace (New York: Macmillan, 2020). (Available in Hebrew, forthcoming in English.)
  8. Wilf and Schwartz, “The War of Return.”
  9. The issue of the Palestinian exodus has been so extensively documented that the historiography in Israel alone is examined in a meta-analysis. See Rafi Nets Zenghut, “Origins of the Palestinian Refugee Problem: Changes in the Historical Memory of Israelis/Jews 1949–2004,” Journal of Peace Research 48, no. 2 (2011): 235–48. See also Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem.
  10. See Hagar Sheizaf, “Burying the Nakba: How Israel Systematically Hides Evidence of 1948 Expulsion of Arabs,” Haaretz, July 5, 2019, Obstacles to return include physical prevention, as well as laws such as the Absentee’s Property Law (1950),
  11. For a comprehensive summary of Geneva, with reference to previous negotiations, see Rex Brynen, “The Geneva Accord and the Palestinian Refugee Issue,” McGill University, February 29, 2004,
  12. Brynen, “The Geneva Accord; and Dahlia Scheindlin, “The Palestinian Nakba: Are Israelis starting to get it?” +972 Magazine, May 15, 2013,
  13. Jacob Shamir and Khalil Shikaki, Palestinian and Israeli Public Opinion: The Public Imperative and the Second Intifada (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2010).
  14. Yossi Gurvitz, “Rightwing Group Publishes Nakba Denial Booklet,” +972 Magazine, May 14, 2011,
  15. In “Palestine–Israel Pulse,” a survey that ran from 2016 to 2018, 48 percent of Palestinians supported the refugee compromise. See “Poll Summary: Palestine–Israel Pulse,” Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research,
  16. In a 2009 poll, 60 percent of Israelis said that recognizing Palestinian suffering due to the Nakba is unacceptable—even if such a recognition meant most refugees returned to the West Bank and Gaza and just “some” to Israel. See Colin Irwin, “Israel and Palestine: Public Opinion, Public Diplomacy and Peace Making,” March 2009,
  17. Irwin, “Israel and Palestine.”
  18. “Palestine–Israel Pulse.”
  19. Ian Black and Seumas Milne, ”Papers Reveal How Palestinian Leaders Gave Up Fight over Refugees,” The Guardian, January 24, 2011,
  20. For the original statement in 2012, see Asher Zeiger, “Abbas Says He Has No Right to Live in Safed, and No Territorial Demands on Pre-1967 Israel,” November 1, 2012, The later, harder position can be found in Elhanana Miller, “Abbas Hardens His Stance on Palestinian ‘Right of Return,’” January 13, 2014,
  21. For a highly detailed and nuanced review of this process, see Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans.
  22. “The Foundation of International Human Rights Law,” United Nations,;
  23. “Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and Its Annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land. The Hague, 18 October 1907,” International Committee of the Red Cross, International Humanitarian Law Database,
  24. Gail Boling, “Palestinian Refugees and the Right of Return: An International Law Analysis,” BADIL Briefings no. 8, January 2001,
  25. It should also be noted that only some of the sources Boling provides for these norms predate World War II—the main texts she includes are postwar, some codified only decades later. Ibid., 5–6.
  26. Some of the most comprehensive legal studies of this right in relation to Palestinians draw on the Geneva Convention (IV, or GCIV), but for other purposes. Boling, writing for the pro-Palestinian organization BADIL, observes that the term “repatriation” is mentioned in two different articles in GCIV— from which she infers a right of return. See Boling, “Palestinian Refugees and the Right of Return.” Susan M. Akram draws on GCIV as the basis for international humanitarian law, largely already stipulated in the Hague convention of 1907, which applies to Israel’s conduct toward Palestinians in 1948 (although GCIV was ratified in 1949). However, Akram and coauthor Terry Rempel both mention GCIV only in passing, mostly making the case that denationalization was illegal; they ground the legal basis for return starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Susan M. Akram, “Palestinian Refugees and Their Legal Status: Rights, Politics and Implications for a Just Solution,” Journal of Palestine Studies 31, no. 3 (2002): 36–51; and Susan M. Akram and Terry Rempel, “Recommendations for Durable Solutions for Palestinian Refugees: A Challenge to the Oslo Framework,” The Palestine Yearbook of International Law 11 (2000/2001): 1–71.
  27. Boling (“Palestinian Refugees and the Right of Return”) as well as Akram (“Palestinian Refugees and Their Legal Status”) therefore argue that the right of return is grounded, in part, on international laws of state succession—in effect, arguing that Israel should be considered the refugees’ country.
  28. Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans, 144.
  29. “The 1951 Convention Related to the Status of Refugees and Its 1967 Protocol,” UNHCR, 2011,
  30. Geoff Gilbert, “The International Law of Voluntary Repatriation,” University of Essex,
  31. “United Nations Treaty Convention: Chapter IV. The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights,” United Nations, 1967,
  32. Kathleen Lawand, “The Right to Return of Palestinians in International Law,” International Journal of Refugee Law 8, no. 4 (1996): 532–68.
  33. John Quigley, “Displaced Palestinians and a Right of Return,” Harvard International Law Journal 39, no. 1 ( 1998): 196. The full text of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination is hosted on the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights,
  34. “The existence of the right to return, however, is not conditional on involuntary departure from one’s country. Whether the Palestinians left their country of their own volition or against their will is of no relevance to the issue of whether they can claim a right to return pursuant to the international law of freedom of movement, examined below.” Lawand, “Right to Return,” 537.
  35. “Note on Voluntary Repatriation EC/SCP/13,” UNHCR, August 27, 1980,
  36. Most notably, the colossal population transfer of German civilians driven out of Eastern European countries and into Germany at the end of the war.
  37. Katy Long, “Rwanda’s First Refugees: Tutsi Exile and International Response 1959–64,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 6, no. 2 (2012): 211–29.
  38. Wm Cyrus Reed, “Exile, Reform, and the Rise of the Rwandan Patriotic Front,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 34, no. 3 (1996): 479–501.
  39. Long, “Rwanda’s First Refugees,” 215–16.
  40. Reed, “Exile, Reform, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front,” 487.
  41. Jeline Rabideau, “Application of the UNHCR’s ‘Ceased Circumstances’ Cessation Clauses to the Rwandan Refugee Crisis,” Duke University thesis, April 2013,’s%20Ceased%20Circumstances%20Cessation%20Clauses%20and%20Rwandan%20Refugee%20Crisis.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
  42. Catharine Watson, “Exile from Rwanda: Background to an Invasion,” US Committee for Refugees, February 1991,
  43. “International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals: Legacy Website of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda,” United Nations,
  44. “The Expansion of the Mandate of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda and Imposition of an Arms Embargo on Rwanda,” UN Security Council Resolution 918, May 17, 1994,
  45. See the description of this process according to the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda, “The new Government declared its commitment to the 1993 peace agreement and assured UNAMIR that it would cooperate on the return of refugees.” See “UNAMIR,” United Nations Peacekeeping,
  46. Marc Lacey, “A Decade after Massacres, Rwanda Outlaws Ethnicity,” New York Times, April 9, 2004,
  47. Kelly O’Connor, “Repatriation: The Politics of Reconstructing and Contesting Rwandan Citizenship,” Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford Department of International Development University of Oxford, June 2013, O’Connor also specifies that this was one of the largest repatriation efforts in the world up to that time.
  48. While most accounts of Rwanda’s population prior to the genocide assess the population as having been roughly 85 percent Hutu and 14 percent Tutsi, it is almost impossible to find updated postconflict estimates, presumably due to the government policy of removing these designations from official statistics. For the pre-1994 ethnic breakdown, see the Outreach Program on the Rwanda Genocide and the United Nations,
  49. Eric Rosand, “The Right to Return Under International Law Following Mass Dislocation: The Bosnia Precedent?,” Michigan Journal of International Law 19, no. 4 (1998): 1125–26.
  50. “Profile of Internal Displacement: Cyprus,” Norwegian Refugee Council/Global IDP Project, April 27, 2005, 28,
  51. Norwegian Refugee Council, “Cyprus,” 31. The authors observe that the term “population exchange” as used by the Turkish Cypriot leader was more of a legitimizing euphemism and did not appear in the language of the agreement itself. Overall, life was made fairly uncomfortable for the ethnic minorities on each side, de facto leading to broad segregation.
  52. An Ahmet, “How Many Turkish Cypriots Remain in Cyprus?,” UK Parliament: Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, written evidence, 2004–5,
  53. United Nations Security Council Resolution 361, adopted August 30, 1974,
  54. UN General Assembly Resolution 3236 (XXIX), November 22, 1974,
  55. The shift in UN attitudes toward Palestinians during this time is observed by Yaffa Zilbershats, Ruth Gsavison, and Nimra Goren-Amitai, eds., Return of Palestinian Refugees to the State of Israel” (Jerusalem: The Metzilah Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought), 2011, 57.
  56. UN General Assembly Resolution 37/253, May 13, 1983,
  57. Rosand, “The Right to Return,” 1126.
  58. Charis Psaltis et. al, “Internally Displaced Persons and the Cyprus Peace Process,” International Political Science Review 41, no. 1 (2020): 138–54.
  59. Norwegian Refugee Council, “Cyprus,” 5. For the Demopoulos verdict, see “Grand Chamber Decision as to the Admissibility of Demopoulos and Others, versus Turkey,” European Court of Human Rights, March 1, 2010,{%22dmdocnumber%22:[%22864000%22],%22itemid%22:[%22001-97649%22]}.
  60. Norwegian Refugee Council, “Cyprus,” 65.
  61. Costas Mavrides, “Parliamentary Question—Subject: The Right of European Cypriot Refugees to Return to their Homeland,” European Parliament, July 12, 2017,
  62. Rosand, “The Right to Return,” 1126.
  63. Norwegian Refugee Council, “Cyprus,” 42.
  64. See Zilbershats, Gsavison, and Goren-Amitai, “Return of Palestinian Refugees,” Annex B, 103–11. Although this paper is written broadly from the point of view of Israeli interests, the legal summary of the court’s 2010 Demopoulos ruling is presented comprehensively.
  65. Megan Bradley makes a related point about shifting views among refugee resettlement organizations regarding the effectiveness of voluntary repatriation, primarily to less stable or less developed countries. Megan Bradley, “Rethinking Return: Defining Success in Refugee Repatriation,” World Politics Review, December 3, 2013,
  66. “Select Committee on Foreign Affairs: The Annan Plan (Second Report),” Parliament of the United Kingdom, February 1, 2005,
  67. “The Cyprus Stalemate: What Next,” International Crisis Group Europe Report no. 171, March 8, 2006,
  68. Annan Plan, Article 3, Item 7; full text available at “For a transitional period a constituent state may…limit the establishment of residence by persons hailing from the other constituent state. To this effect, it may establish a moratorium until the end of the fifth year after entry into force of the Foundation Agreement, after which limitations are permissible if the number of residents hailing from the other constituent state has reached 6% of the population of a village or municipality between the 6th and 9th years and 12% between the 10th and 14th years and 18% of the population of the relevant constituent state thereafter, until the 19th year or Turkey’s accession to the European Union, whichever is earlier. After the second year, no such limitations shall apply to former inhabitants over the age of 65 accompanied by a spouse or sibling, nor to former inhabitants of specified villages.”
  69. Ibid., 8.
  70. Ibid., Article 16, Clause 8. “These limitations shall not apply to reinstatement of religious sites, or to properties eligible for reinstatement which belong to dispossessed owners who, within six years of entry into force of the Foundation Agreement, make use of their unlimited right of return…” [emphasis added].
  71. See, for example, John Theodore and Jonathan Theodore, Cyprus and the Financial Crisis: The Controversial Bailout and What it Means for the Eurozone (UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). For a Greek Cypriot perspective, see Van Coufoudakis, “Cyprus—The Referendum and Its Aftermath,” The Cyprus Review 16, no. 2 (2004): 67–82; and George Wright, “Greek Cypriot Leaders Reject Annan Plan,” The Guardian, April 22, 2004,
  72. Henry Kamm, “Yugoslav Refugee Crisis Europe’s Worst since 1940s,” New York Times, July 24, 1992,
  73. Djordje Stefanovic and Neophytos Loizides, “Peaceful Returns: Reversing Ethnic Cleansing after the Bosnian War,” International Migration 55, no. 5 (2017): 217–34.
  74. The term “reverse ethnic cleansing” is attributed here to Stefanovic and Loizides, “Peaceful Returns,” though it is used regularly in the discourse about Bosnia’s postwar reconstruction.
  75. The full text of the Dayton Accords is available on the website of the United Nations,
  76. Petr Čermák, “Minority Refugee Return as a Tool to Reverse Ethnic Cleansing: The Case of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” paper for a conference on “National Minorities, Migration and Security in Democratic Societies,” Brijuni, Croatia, May 19–21, 2017, organized by the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Zagreb,
  77. Rebecca Brubaker, “From the Unmixing to the Remixing of Peoples: UNHCR and Minority Returns in Bosnia,” the UN Refugee Agency Policy and Evaluation Service, New Issues in Refugee Research, research paper no. 261, August 2013, 2,
  78. Stefanovic and Loizides, Peaceful Returns;” Čermák, “Minority Refugee Return;” Brubaker, “Remixing of Peoples.”
  79. Čermák, “Minority Refugee Return,” 10.
  80. Richard Black, “Return and Reconstruction in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Missing Link, or Mistaken Priority?” SAIS Review 21, no. 2 (2001): 177–99.
  81. However, as the Bosnia case shows, implementation remains difficult in practice. The author goes on to state: “Most refugees and IDPs still do not benefit in practice from restitution of their lost homes, but efforts to ensure that they do are increasingly common, with massive resources devoted to restitution processes in countries such as Colombia, Iraq and Kosovo.” Bradley, “Rethinking Return.”
  82. Brubaker, “Remixing of Peoples,” 4.
  83. Čermák, “Minority Refugee Return,” 27.
  84. Brubaker, “Remixing of Peoples,” 4
  85. “Kosovar Refugees,” Migration News 6, no. 5 (May 1999),
  86. Milan Radonjic, “Homecoming Kosovo Serbs Face an Uncertain Future,” Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, December 14, 2017,
  87. UN Security Council Resolution 1244, June 10, 1999, Four Yugoslav constituent republics seceded in the early 1990s, prompting the major wars of the early 1990s; what remained was considered a rump state of Yugoslavia consisting only of Serbia and Montenegro—this entity was known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
  88. Helge Brunborg, “Report on the Size and Ethnic Composition of the Population of Kosovo,” Penn State University, August 14, 2002,
  89. “Kosovo Serbs,” Minority Rights Group International (based on OSCE data), March 2018, Note, however, that the number of recognitions has declined over time and may continue to decline due to Serbia’s policy of a “de-recognition” campaign, entreating foreign governments to rescind their recognition.
  90. Department of State, “U.S. Relations with Kosovo,” October 31, 2019,
  91. “Serb Refugees Return to Kosovo,” BBC, August 13, 2001,
  92. Tracy Wilkinson, “Kosovo Serbs Return to Uncertainty,” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 2008,
  93. Agon Demjaha, “Kosovo’s Strategy for Recognition and Engagement,“ in The Politics of Recognition and Engagement: EU Member State Relations with Kosovo, ed. Ioannis Armakolas and James Ker-Lindsay (Switzerland: Springer Nature, 2020), 19–40.
  94. Constitution of the Republic of Kosovo, June 15, 2008,
  95. Radonjic, “Homecoming Kosovo Serbs.”
  96. Estimates vary, but hover around 10 percent. See, for example, Čermák, “Minority Refugee Return;” Wilkinson, “Kosovo Serbs;” Radonjic, “Homecoming Kosovo Serbs;” and “Serb Integration in Kosovo: Taking the Plunge,” International Crisis Group, May 12, 2009,
  97. Čermák, “Minority Refugee Return,” 25. An examination of each case is beyond the scope of this report, but the goal is to survey situations with comparable political, social, and identity dynamics.
  98. Lynch, “For Trump, Few Palestinians Count as Refugees.”
  100. As of December 2019, just one-third of Palestinians in a survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research supported “abandoning the two-state solution in favor of one state for Israelis and Palestinians.” The single state option ranked last among four options tested. Even at a nadir of support for a two-state solution in the shadow of the roundly despised “Trump peace plan” released in January 2020, support for the one-state option rose to 37 percent—still a minority. A survey by the Washington Institute published in February 2020 showed that only 11 percent of West Bank Palestinians and 9 percent of Gazan respondents prioritized a single, equal state; 14 percent favored a two-state solution, and a majority of both West Bank and Gazan (66 percent and 56 percent, respectively) respondents favored full Palestinian dominance of historic Palestine. See “Public Opinion Poll No (73),” Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, September 22, 2019,; and “Palestinian Majority Rejects Two-State Solution, But Backs Tactical Compromises,” The Washington Institute, February 25, 2020,