There are two categories of Palestinian refugees. The first wave, about 750,000 at the time, were expelled by force or driven out by fear before, during and after the 1947-48 hostilities. Some were physically driven out, others heard stories of massacres, such as that at the village of Deir Yassin outside of Jerusalem, in April 1948, in which 254 Palestinian civilians were killed by soldiers from the pre-state Zionist militias. Following the massacre, soldiers drove trucks through other Palestinian villages using loudspeakers to threaten "Deir Yassin, Deir Yassin!" in a kind of psychological warfare warning to any Palestinians who remained. Many fled the campaign of ethnic cleansing, believing the onslaught by the Jewish militias would end within a few weeks and they would return home. Of those, many carried with them the keys to their houses, believing their return was imminent, and thus the key has become a symbol of Palestinian refugee rights. Many of that first generation of refugees are still alive, clinging to the keys and the hope that they will be allowed to go home.
For many years Israeli officials and many defenders of Israel claimed that the Palestinians who left did so only because they were ordered to by Arab leaders broadcasting on local radio, who allegedly promised them they would be able to return victorious. But throughout the 1990s, an increasingly large number of Israeli academics, the "new historians," carefully researched and completely debunked that myth. There were no such radio broadcasts. Some of the civilians fled because they were attacked by the Haganah, Palmach and Irgun militias. Others were afraid and believed they would eventually come home because it is a longstanding tenet of international law that war-time refugees have the right to return home.
In the fall of 1948, the United Nations recognized the particular plight of the Palestinian refugees. In response, the world body did two things. It created UNRWA to provide basic food, medicine, housing and education to the desperate and impoverished refugees. And second, it passed resolution 194, which went beyond customary international law that protects all refugees, to provide special protection for the Palestinians. The resolution reaffirmed that Palestinian "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return." The UN even made Israel's own entry to the world body contingent on Israeli acceptance of resolution 194.
Many of the 1948 refugees fled from their homes in what had just become Israel to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where large portions of the populations still live in the refugee camps established at that time. When the West Bank and Gaza were occupied in 1967, many of those refugees fled the fighting again, and were made refugees for a second time, finding homes in already overcrowded refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. There was discussion at the Camp David summit about allowing some of the 1967 refugees to return to their homes in a future Palestinian state, but there was no resolution. (Israel would remain in control of Palestine's borders, determining who would or would not be allowed to enter the ostensibly "independent" country.)
The 1948 refugees and their descendants, now numbering about 5 million world-wide, have the right under international law to return to their homes inside what is now Israel. But despite international law and the specific requirements of Resolution 194, Israel has never allowed Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Israel maintains that allowing the Palestinian refugees to return would change its demographic balance, more than doubling Israel's current 19 percent Palestinian population. Israelis sometimes use the expression "demographic bomb" to describe the effect of large-scale immigration of Palestinians to Israel. However, international law does not allow a country to violate UN resolutions and international principles in order to protect its ethnic or religious composition. The parallel would be if Rwanda's new Tutsi-dominated government, after the 1994 genocide, announced that they would not allow the overwhelmingly Hutu refugees to return home, because it would disrupt the ethnic balance in their country. The United Nations and the world, appropriately, would have make very clear that such a prohibition was unacceptable. Palestinian refugees, despite the passage of time, have the same rights as their Rwandan counterparts.
Most Palestinians recognize that while rights themselves are absolute, implementation of rights is always negotiable. It is likely that once their right to return has been recognized, a certain segment of Palestinian refugees will choose options other than permanent return to their mostly-demolished villages. But the key factor will be the ability of Palestinians to choose for themselves what to do. Some may choose to go home, some may wish to go only for short visits, some may wish to accept compensation and build new lives in a new Palestinian state, many may choose to accept compensation and citizenship in their place of refuge or in third countries. Some, most likely among the most impoverished and disempowered Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, may indeed choose to return to their homes in Israel. But discussion of how to implement this right of return (in a way that creates the least, rather than the greatest, disruption to Israeli society) cannot begin until Israel acknowledges its responsibility for the refugee crisis, and recognizes the internationally recognized right of return as a right.