Unfulfilled Promise: Palestinian Family Reunification and the Right of Return

This article argues that Israel substituted the Palestinian refugees’ internationally recognized right of return with a family reunification program during its maneuvering over admission at the United Nations following the creation of the state in May 1948. Israel was granted UN membership in 1949 on the understanding that it would have to comply with legal international requirements to ensure the return of a substantial number of the 750,000 Palestinians dispossessed in the process of establishing the Zionist state, as well as citizenship there as a successor state. However, once the coveted UN membership had been obtained, and armistice agreements signed with neighboring countries, Israel parlayed this commitment into the much vaguer family reunification program, which it proceeded to apply with Kafkaesque absurdity over the next fifty years. As a result, Palestinians made refugees first in 1948, and later in 1967, continue to be deprived of their legally recognized right to return to their homes and their homeland, and the family reunification program remains the unfulfilled promise of the early years of Israeli statehood.

Nabila El-Ahmed is project manager of the University of Ottawa Certificate Program in Community Mobilization in Crisis, and former assistant director of the Immigrants Working Centre.

Nadia Abu-Zahra is associate professor of international development and global studies at the University of Ottawa, and coauthor with Adah Kay of Unfree in Palestine: Registration, Documentation, and Movement Restriction (London: Pluto Press, 2013).