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Palestine’s legitimate citizenry

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Do all Palestinians have the right to citizenship in whatever state rules historic Palestine? After all, they or their recent ancestors were bonafide citizens of British-Mandate Palestine. Doesn’t the right of return to their homes now in the state of Israel entail the right of re-enfranchisement? Could citizenship now be declared for all Palestinians in a state claiming legitimate sovereignty over all of historic Palestine? Is a state ruling historic Palestine democratically legitimate which refuses them return-as-citizens return?

These are the questions I addressed in a recent academic article, which Mondoweiss has generously allowed me to summarize, which appeared in a Special Issue of the international-law journal Global Jurist on Israel’s legitimacy, or lack thereof, and which grew out of the conference on that topic that was twice banned, for political reasons, by the University of Southampton but finally held in March 2017 in Cork, Ireland.

The article’s basic idea is that for any territory and any state ruling with sovereignty in that territory we can identify a legitimate citizenry. Which people have a convincing claim to be included, or at least a claim stronger than the rest of humanity in general? Both ethically and legally it is beyond dispute that inclusion, or political belonging, should adhere to those who are tied to that land by family or ethnic ties or by birth – known as jus sanguinis and jus soli. Over the years states customarily accept, in addition, certain immigrants who arrive as workers, refugees or businesspeople.

I look mainly at the ethical, political and historical reasons all Palestinians have sufficient ties to the land of Palestine to be citizens in whatever state rules there, touching only briefly on the international law of state succession which stipulates that when one state replaces another in a given territory, it must accept the previous state’s citizens as its own. In the case of Palestine in 1948, this applied to all resident Palestinians plus the roughly one-third of the immigrant European Jews who had availed themselves of British-Mandate Palestinian citizenship under the Mandate Citizenship Order of 1925. The citizenship-excluding executed by Israel shortly after its founding was thus illegal, meaning that under international law all Palestinians now hold valid but inactive citizenship.

The obligation to grant citizenship to conquered people was indeed recognized by Israel, however reluctantly and incompletely, during its first half-decade when its non-Jewish permanent, historical residents were enfranchised. Today these people and their descendants make up some 20 percent of Israel’s total citizenry and about 13 percent of all Palestinians. A further legal argument dealing with the Palestinian collective rather than with individuals is that the indigenous residents always had the right of self-determination in their territory, a right however denied them, arguably illegally, by the British during the years 1918-1948.

The Gaza seaport, Gaza City, March 26, 2017. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)

The Gaza seaport, Gaza City, March 26, 2017. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)

A further 29 percent of Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. There is increasing support for their inclusion as equal citizens in the state – call it Israel – that now rules the whole territory between the river and the sea. This step would greatly improve the legitimacy of that state’s citizenry, but that state would still have the fatal defect of excluding the 58 percent of Palestinians residing outside historic Palestine.

It is this right to re-enfranchisement of these absentees – variously called refugees, exiles or returnees – which has been absent from the political discussion and which reflects their physical absence from Palestine. Even academic research supporting inclusive citizenship concerns itself exclusively with immigrants already resident in the territory or state in question, whether former slaves, the non-propertied, women, or legal as well as illegal immigrants. This academic and political invisibility should be corrected by placing this right of re-enfranchisement on the agenda right next to the right of return.

Why, after all, are these people outside Palestine, rendering them even less visible and empowered than those in Gaza and the West Bank? Because they were ethnically cleansed – an additional fact reflecting badly on the legitimacy of Israel since exclusion for reasons one cannot help – in this case ethnicity and religion – can with good reason be called racist.

The right of return of Palestinians to their places of origin now in Israel is both well-researched and uncontested in ethics and international law, for instance in many conventions and UN Resolutions (foremost General Assembly Resolution 194 of 11 December 1948). Crucially, the right of return to whatever state rules Palestine entails the right to citizenship in that state, and vice-versa: Return without citizenship would be blatant apartheid, and the right to re-enfranchisement is empty without the possibility of residence in one’s own country.

At any rate, my focus is on this considerable majority of Palestinians, and specifically on their potential citizenship claims in Palestine, not in their present countries of residence, where most are stateless. This vision of a restored citizenry, empowered in all of historic Palestine, does not contradict the several initiatives to unite and register in one citizenry, or nationality, all Palestinians wherever they live – most likely under the aegis of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The state of Palestine after all today exists, both virtually and in the eyes of about 135 other states, however limited its power and territorial extent. The momentarily open yet urgent question is whether this state will revive its claim, pre-1988, to legitimate sovereignty in all of historic Palestine.

Israel is with good reason worried about its democratic legitimacy. The first part of democratic legitimacy judges a state’s relation to those who are already its citizens, and here Israel scores well concerning its Jewish, and very poorly concerning its non-Jewish, citizens. It however utterly fails by the second criterion, noted by political scientists from Aristotle on yet lying on the edges of democratic theory – namely whether its citizenry includes all those who ought to be citizens.

A general principle has emerged within political philosophy that whoever is significantly affected by the laws of a state ought to be included, but what constitutes significant, serious, or existential affectedness? One necessary condition is close ties to the state’s territory, easily fulfilled by Palestinians: They were formerly citizens, they are involuntary exiled, they have relatives and close friends within historic Palestine, and their long unbroken political and cultural history in Palestine is obvious. In their disenfranchised exile they are moreover significantly affected by poverty, political dispossession and psychological yearning. And not least, the need for real atonement for the humiliation and injustice visited upon them has, if anything, grown stronger over the past seven decades and belongs psychologically to the daily life of Palestinians.

For subjective as well as objective reasons, then, it is easy to show that Palestinians are existentially affected by Israel. In a sense they are all its subjects. This is what gives them the right to political belonging between the river and the sea. And to earn democratic legitimacy, whatever state controls Palestine must grant their citizenship claims.

The wheel must not be re-invented, for return as citizens has happened for instance for Huguenots, Germans, Kosovans, Rwandans and even Native Americans, and is today strongly urged for Rohingyas, Armenians and Chagos, and is notably unchallenged in the case of present Syrian refugees.

One caveat is that this does not mean citizenship in a state defining itself as “Jewish.” In fact, should all of the roughly 12 million Palestinians become citizens, they would comprise a majority of the state, and it would both ideologically and practically cease to be Jewish and no longer be called, at least exclusively, Israel.

Since Zionism’s sine qua non is a Jewish majority, this vision of legitimate citizenry must be, and is, argued against by scores of Israeli academics, some of whom regard themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘left’ Zionists. But let us compare the two vying visions of citizenship in Palestine. The one reigning in Israel defines citizens by their ethnicity (race) and/or religion – an apartheid ethnocracy. The other vision is based on ties to the territory, long, uninterrupted and recent ties of livelihood and feeling, regardless of race or creed, including Moslems, Christians and Jews, with separation of religion and ethnicity from the state. Politicians and world opinion must choose between these two.

Israel’s legitimacy can be judged on several grounds, for instance its foundation upon the colonial efforts of Britain and its own military violence, or its dependence for its Jewish identity on its ongoing denial of the non-abrogable right of return. We should now in addition start judging its democratic legitimacy on this question of who belongs in, and to, Palestine.

Finally, my article is an attempt to reach out to academics working in the field of citizenship studies. To date they have almost entirely ignored the Palestinian refugees – a curious phenomenon paralleling their marginal status in trauma and literature studies. After all, in terms of numbers of refugee years (an average of perhaps 3 million per year for 70 years) the Palestinians dwarf all other groups, and the conflicting demands of Palestinians and Western-supported Zionism have meant chronic bloodshed and humiliation for the entire past century. Even the field of refugee studies pays relatively little attention to citizenship aspects – perhaps, of course, because most refugees from other territories do have uncontested citizenship in the countries they have fled.

Political or citizenship theory is a mature field, with human-rights principles firmly in place, but such is academia’s fear of challenging the Jewish state in Palestine that the Palestinian disenfranchised stay under the radar. I hope that other researchers – Masters students, perhaps – will criticize, shore up and further develop the ideas presented here, resulting in a body of work that the relevant academic fields will be obliged to answer.

Blake Alcott

Blake Alcott is a retired Swiss cabinet-maker and ecological economist living in Ayvalik, Turkey, and working for One Democratic State (ODS) in Palestine as Vice-President of the Popular Movement for ODS and Director of ODS in Palestine Ltd. He writes occasionally for the Palestine Chronicle and Counterpunch.

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16 Responses

  1. Blake on May 15, 2019, 4:11 pm

    ALL Palestinian refugees outside of the so called Green Line were entitled to that citizenship – not just the ones left behind:
    “International law is an elusive system. Its modern form was only taking shape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a consequence its doctrines and institutions were somewhat rudimentary….. As international law emerged it was colonialism that was to determine both…. Nor was the intention of partition to dispossess the Palestinians as the proposals made clear that all civil rights and property rights were to be undisturbed. It is thus a myth that the source of the problem was a legal decision to hand over part of Palestine to the Jews at the expense of the Palestinians.” – “Partitioning Palestine: Legal Fundamentalism in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” by Major John Strawson (2010)

  2. Misterioso on May 16, 2019, 10:32 am

    For the record:

    On 11 December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194 (III) of which paragraph 11 resolves “…refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible….”

    After being rejected twice, on 11 May 1949, the General Assembly passed Resolution 273 granting Israel admittance to the UN. As a pre-condition, Israel formally agreed at the UN to obey General Assembly Resolution 194 as well as Resolution 181, the Partition Plan. Along with Arab states and Palestinian representatives, Israel also signed the Lausanne Protocol at the 1949 Lausanne Peace Conference to the same effect.

    Resolution 273: “Recalling [Resolutions 181 and 194] and taking note of the declarations and explanations made by [Israel]…in respect of the implementation of the said resolutions, the General Assembly… decides to admit Israel into membership in the United Nations.” Israel is the only state admitted to the UN on the condition that specific resolutions would be implemented.

    Over the years several UN resolutions have been passed affirming the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. One of the most important is General Assembly Resolution 3236 (22 November 1974) which acknowledges that all those made refugees since 1947 have an inalienable right to return. Paragraph 1 refers to the national inalienable rights of “the Palestinian people” and paragraph 2 provides that the General Assembly “[r]eaffirms also the inalienable rights of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return.”

    Mandatory UN Security Council Resolution 605 (22 December 1987) reaffirmed that all Palestinian refugees, including those of the 1947-48 conflict, have an inalienable right to return to their homes. Resolution 605 refers to “the inalienable rights of all peoples recognized by the Charter of the United Nations and proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

    (BTW, throughout history the right of return was so universally accepted that it was not codified until 1215, in Chapter 42 of the Magna Carta: “It shall be lawful in the future for anyone…to leave our kingdom and to return, safe and secure by land and water….” )

    The right of return was further enshrined in international law when the United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 December 1948) of which Article 13(2) states: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.” The United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948 (Resolution 217 A III), the day before Resolution 194 was passed. By gaining UN membership Israel agreed to abide by the Declaration’s terms.

    Another important document dealing with human rights, including the right of return, was the Fourth Geneva Convention (12 August 1949) of which Article 49 states “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.” Israel is a signatory to the Fourth Geneva Convention.

    (The legality and sanctity of the right of return was further demonstrated by the vigorous diplomatic and military efforts on the part of Western powers to ensure the return of refugees in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor.)

    As the Palestinian refugees’ right of return is an “inalienable” human right, under no circumstances can it be renounced by their leadership. It can only be surrendered on an individual basis. Indeed, it is not only the legal right of Palestinian refugees to insist on their right of return, it is their duty.

    Disregarding its binding pledge to the UN, scores of UN resolutions and a large body of international human rights law, Israel contends that Palestinian refugees of 1947-48 and their descendants cannot return because it would result in Jews being outnumbered in the “Jewish State.”

    International law cannot be subverted in order for Israel to maintain a Jewish majority. There would be no Jewish majority in Israel if 85% of the native Christian and Muslim population had not been violently dispossessed and driven into neighbouring Arab countries and what remained of unoccupied Palestine during the 1947-48 war.

    Obviously, it is long since time that Israel’s UN membership was revoked or suspended.

    • Jon66 on May 16, 2019, 7:15 pm

      At this point your telling of events can’t be called anything but lies.
      “Resolution 273: “Recalling [Resolutions 181 and 194] and taking note of the declarations and explanations made by [Israel]…in respect of the implementation of the said resolutions, the General Assembly… decides to admit Israel into membership in the United Nations.” Israel is the only state admitted to the UN on the condition that specific resolutions would be implemented.”
      At no point in the explanations and declarations made by Israel did she agree to adhere to those resolutions.
      Since your not telling the truth in these statements and refuse to provide support, I think it’s fair to say that the remainder of your statements may not be true either.

      • echinococcus on May 17, 2019, 8:36 pm


        As predicted, the principal pillpulling propagandist shysters, with and without MD, will make soup of the fact that the Zionist Abomination did not explicitly commit to abide by the terms of its admission to the UN, while it was admitted under these express conditions. And of course this sleight of hand was concerted with the colonial powers, duh.

        One has to love it when they defend, as a virtue, skulduggery in the interests of mass murder!

      • Jon66 on May 18, 2019, 10:39 pm

        U.N. ‘Israel do you promise to fulfill 194?’
        Israel ‘No’
        Echi- ‘see how they dissemble’

      • echinococcus on May 19, 2019, 11:57 am

        Note to John66

        I never expected you to understand things too complicated for your pay grade, being charitable, thus reluctant to charge you with criminal dishonesty.

  3. mondonut on May 16, 2019, 2:52 pm

    … Israel formally agreed at the UN to obey General Assembly Resolution 194 as well as Resolution 181

    Israel is the only state admitted to the UN on the condition…

    There is so much BS in this comment its difficult to know where to start, suffice to say both statements above are blatant lies. The only requirement of Israel to enter the UN was to accept the obligations contained in the Charter and is able and willing to carry out those obligations.

    • amigo on May 16, 2019, 5:02 pm

      “There is so much BS in this comment its difficult to know where to start,” mondonut.

      Come now mondonut , surely you can do better than that.You must have been taught how to respond more in depth than accusing your opponent of spouting BS.It is not a very convincing attempt to negate his claims.

      You are letting the side down but we understand that defending the indefensible is a tough road to hoe , not to mention , you are defrauding the nice folks at Hasbara Central.

    • Misterioso on May 16, 2019, 6:56 pm


      Sigh. Yet another desperate and pathetic response from Hasbara Central. You and your fumbling ilk really must do some basic research. The facts I provided are common knowledge to legitimate scholars of the conflict. You are a fraud!!!

      • mondonut on May 17, 2019, 11:33 am

        @Misterioso , The facts I provided…

        The facts you provided? OK then, show the formal agreement to obey General Assembly Resolution 194 as well as Resolution 181. It does not exist in UNGA 273, so you must be referring to something else. Show me these supposed facts of yours.

    • oldgeezer on May 16, 2019, 9:51 pm


      I am certain that Israel is able to carry out the Charter obligations but it has failed to do so within it’s 71 years of existence.

      Israel is a rogue state, at the very least, but should be treated as a pariah state and ejected from the UN.

  4. Nathan on May 16, 2019, 4:12 pm

    The issue of Israel’s legitimacy is not even on the agenda. There might be a couple that has an intensive debate if they want to bring a child into the world. It would be advisable at the child’s bar mitzvah to find some other topic of debate.

    The issue of return is a political issue. In short, there has to be an agreed end of conflict. You can quote UN decisions until the end of time, however if you “forget” to mention that the topic on the agenda is ending the conflict, nothing is going to change.

  5. Citizen on May 16, 2019, 9:27 pm

    273 (III). Admission of Israel to membership in the United Nations

    Having received the report of the Security Council on the application of Israel for membership in the United Nations,1/

    Noting that, in the judgment of the Security Council, Israel is a peace-loving State and is able and willing to carry out the obligations contained in the Charter,

    Noting that the Security Council has recommended to the General Assembly that it admit Israel to membership in the United Nations,

    Noting furthermore the declaration by the State of Israel that it “unreservedly accepts the obligations of the United Nations Charter and undertakes to honour them from the day when it becomes a Member of the United Nations”,2/

    Recalling its resolutions of 29 November 1947 3/ and 11 December 1948 4/ and taking note of the declarations and explanations made by the representative of the Government of Israel 5/ before the ad hoc Political Committee in respect of the implementation of the said resolutions,

    The General Assembly,

    Acting in discharge of its functions under Article 4 of the Charter and rule 125 of its rules of procedure,

    1. Decides that Israel is a peace-loving State which accepts the obligations contained in the Charter and is able and willing to carry out those obligations;

    2. Decides to admit Israel to membership in the United Nations.


    1/ See document A/818.

    2/ See document S/1093.

    3/ See Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly during its second session, pages 131-132.

    4/ See Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly during Part I of its third session, pages 21-25.

    5/ See documents A/AC.24/SR.45-48, 50 and 51.

    • Jon66 on May 17, 2019, 5:58 pm

      From the General Assembly Session as per the Egyptian ambassador, “The representative of the applicant State had failed to give satisfactory answers on any of the three main issues raised in the Ad Hoc Political Committee. It was clear that the applicant State intended to do practically nothing in connexion with the fate of the displaced Arabs.”

      “On two important questions, namely, the return of the Arab refugees and the internationalization of Jerusalem, the Lebanese delegation could draw no satisfactory conclusions from the statements made by the representatives and leaders of Israel. It could not conclude that the refugees would be permitted to return to their homes, if they so desired, to live in peace with their neighbours, nor could it conclude that Israel would not incorporate into its territory the New City of Jerusalem. Yet both those requirements had been specifically laid down by General Assembly resolutions 181 (II) and 194 (III). To admit Israel &t that juncture would be to encourage it to continue to disregard the decisions taken on those two cardinal points.”

  6. jon s on May 17, 2019, 12:57 am

    I would add that all the Arab states at the time rejected and voted against UNGA 181, and went to war to prevent its implementation.
    They also rejected and voted against UNGA 194.

    • pjdude on May 17, 2019, 6:21 pm

      and i note you fail to mention the only reason it passed was the US actively threatened and coerced south american countries into voting in its favor on its third attempt to pass. and to note that it is a blatant violation of the UN charter asseretion that states should be founded by self determination not naked conquest. Im sure that’s just a minor oversight and not deliberate dishonesty on your part?

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