After the major conflicts of the 20th century, the United Nations and its predecessor organizations sought to resettle millions of refugees in new homes. But, as Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf explain in The War of Return, the UN has taken a different approach to those Arabs who fled their homes during Israel’s War of Independence, seeking instead to keep them and their descendants in a permanent state of a homelessness. Matti Friedman writes in his review:
When I started reporting on Israel for the international press, I was made aware of linguistic quirks unique to this particular beat. One good example was the word “settlement,” which, in ordinary usage, means “a small village,” an isolated community out of Little House on the Prairie or perhaps colonial Rhodesia—but which we often used to describe suburban towns of 50,000 in the West Bank or certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem. A typical reader of the English language envisioned one thing, while the reality was another.
Another quirk was our use of the word “capital,” which we refused to apply to Jerusalem, even though Jerusalem is Israel’s official seat of government, and that is the meaning of the word, which has nothing to do with international recognition. Or there was the word “disputed,” which we weren’t allowed to use for the West Bank, even though there’s obviously a dispute over the territory—the word “disputed” would make it seem like Israel might have a case. Our vocabulary was a kind of political code.
One of the most confusing examples was the word “refugee.” In describing the problems associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we regularly referred to “millions of Palestinian refugees,” summoning a clear image for Western readers—tents, camps, displaced people. The word “refugee” means “a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country,” but this wasn’t true of the vast majority of the people we were describing.
Most of them are in fact descendants of refugees, and very many already have citizenship in the countries they live, i.e., they don’t fit any standard definition of the term. Why did Arab governments insist on perpetual refugee status? So they could demand of Israel the “right of return.”
Arab leaders weren’t coy about their plan. “It is well known and understood,” said Egypt’s foreign minister Mohammad Salah al-Din, “that the Arabs, in demanding the return of the refugees to Palestine, mean their return as masters of the homeland and not as its slaves. With greater clarity, they mean the liquidation of the state of Israel.”