Reflections on the Badil “Palestinian Refugees under International Law” Course

Students of the Badil course organized an open-air exhibit at al-Quds University titled "The Right of Return: Not for Sale" (22-23 March 2009) Students of the Badil course organized an open-air exhibit at al-Quds University titled "The Right of Return: Not for Sale" (22-23 March 2009) Badil


Intent on introducing Palestine's future legal cadre to a rights-based approach to the Palestinian refugee question, Badil entered a partnership agreement with al-Quds University in the fall of 2007. Since then, Badil's course on “Palestinian refugees under international law” has been one of the courses offered to law students, with larger numbers enrolling each semester. The target group of the Badil law course is university students, particularly law students interested in human rights. It is expected that law students, as part of the student movement that has historically played a major role in the national struggle, will influence their community and contribute to the right of return movement.


This piece addresses the importance of this law course as part of the broader campaign to defend Palestinian refugee rights. It tries to assess the impact of academic teaching on the right of return movement, specifically how it can strengthen the unity of the refugee return movement and promote self-organized initiatives upholding Palestinian refugee rights.

“… for us, the inclusion of the international law course on Palestinian refugees in the academic program is a distinct step reflecting our duty toward law students, as well as our commitment to Palestine and Palestinian rights. On one hand, it provides students interested in international law and human rights law with new course material. On the other hand, it explores, through the lens of Palestinian refugee rights, the prolonged conflict from a comparative legal perspective.” (Muhammad Shalaldah, Dean of the Al-Quds University Law School, University Press Release, 19 May 2008)
Hamdi Alshaikh, one of the students enrolled in the Fall 2007 semester and himself a refugee, confirmed that he used to see the right of return as one item in a list of “sacred national rights,” together with the right to self- determination, independence and statehood, but never paid attention to the importance of the law underpinning those rights: “When I chose the course, I was expecting a historical and political overview of our plight. I did not imagine that the Palestinian refugee question could be treated legally under so many bodies of law.” For Badil and for the right of return movement, planting and fostering such understanding is essential for building and strengthening the movement promoting solutions that respond to the rights and needs of Palestinian refugees.1
After the Nakba of 1948 which resulted in the largest wave of Palestinian displacement from the homeland, the refugees' right of return was seen by Arab states, political parties and Palestinians themselves as an automatic result of the eventual liberation of Palestine, which was expected to come through the success of the armed struggle. It was then called a national and natural right, one that is inalienable, non-negotiable and one that would be automatically attained upon the liberation of Palestine. Accordingly, there was no perceived need to further explore the legal dimensions of this right, for example, by examining its human rights context or relevant sources in international law. Indeed, the need and benefit of representing the right of return as a human right enshrined in international law have been given priority only in the process of popular mobilization that came in response to the launch of the Oslo process in the early 1990s, a process that was marked by the organization of several refugee popular conferences. (2)2
Since the early 1990s, similar messages and recommendations have been reiterated by all popular conferences: political negotiators are to respect the inalienable right of return when engaging in negotiations on the Palestinian refugee question; awareness must be raised locally and internationally about the rights of Palestinian refugees, and a new generation of Palestinians, especially refugees, must be raised with the capacity and skills required to defend these rights. The Global Right of Return Coalition, which is one of the most important outcomes of the popular conferences, has adopted these same recommendations in its statements and annual action plans. Palestinian parents and students confirm that Badil has succeeded to translate the popular message into a professional agenda of research, legal advocacy and teaching. Abdel Qader Nasser, a Palestinian activist and parent of one of the students enrolled in the Badil law course, said: "the first time I read from Badil that the right of return is an individual and collective right that is legal and possible I felt that this is different from what we heard from officials of the Palestinian Authority. Then I discovered that its meaning is the most accurate expression of my feelings as a refugee.”
The Badil syllabus and course materials
Badil signed the partnership agreement with Al-Quds University less than two months before the start of the Fall semester of 2007, giving us only a few weeks of preparation time. However, the collection of research papers and legal studies already gathered and prepared by Badil on various aspects of the Palestinian refugee issue made it easier to put together the course materials and syllabus. Members of Badil’s Legal Support Network, many of whom teach similar courses at universities abroad, provided valuable input into the design of the the course and contributed to the timely completion of preparations.
The course has been divided into two main parts: the first part explores the concepts and rights related to refugee status, state obligations, and the role of international agencies and mechanisms. Students study the provisions of the 1951 Refugee Convention, documents and recommendations of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, human rights treaty committees and relevant UN guidelines and declarations. Students learn about international standards for the treatment of refugees, and about examples of good and bad state practice. Students also learn how to assess states’ practices in light of the relevant instruments.
The second part of the course examines the genesis of the Palestinian refugee issue, the rights and specific status of Palestinian refugees, and protection gaps resulting from Israel's violation of its legal obligations and the failure of the international community to ensure Israel's respect of international law. In this section students also learn about other cases of displacement and dispossession through specific examples, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Apartheid in South Africa.3 They also examine the implementation of relevant provisions of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Such comparative studies enable students to see the protection gap that affects Palestinian refugees, develop their knowledge of other cases and enhance their understanding of the potential of a rights-based approach for solving the Palestinian case, thereby improving their ability to play an active role in defending Palestinian refugee rights.
From a legal perspective, the course is unique in that it combines various bodies of international law, specifically the Law of Nationality in state succession, international human rights law, and international humanitarian law. It goes beyond highlighting the rights and obligations enshrined in international treaties by encouraging students to discover the links between the various bodies of international law and their connections with the realities on ground. The course emphasizes the importance of applying a broad body of international law rules to conflict analysis, treatment of its consequences and formulating the solution.
“I studied International public law, international humanitarian law, the law of international organizations, and international human rights law, but I had not realized the importance of international law for ending the Israeli occupation before I took the course on Palestinian refugees under international law.” (Kifah Froukh, course of fall 2007)
In political terms, the course deals with the root causes of the conflict, its evolution, and proposed solutions. Although these topics are fundamental for any student of the region, they have been largely absent from the Palestinian curriculum at all levels. As such, Palestinian students have for the most part encountered materials dealing with their own history and struggle in a way that has not sufficiently engaged them to form a nuanced perspective of the various historical, political and legal dimensions of the struggle. By examining these dimensions, the course provides what can be considered a new way of looking at the conflict and an attempt to analyze and overcome the deficit in both, the educational curriculum and the common approach to “solutions” debated in the public sphere which look only at the political dimension while ignoring history and law.
“I have never believed that international law and mechanisms might be of any benefit for the rights of the Palestinian people. Even after I had taken three courses in international law, I could not see in international law any more than a tool in the hands of colonial powers. The course on Palestinian refugees under international law opened my eyes to see the possibility of using the same tool for defending our rights.” (Bader al-Tamimi, course of Spring 2009)
In practice, the course has contributed to mobilizing and advocating for a rights-based approach. Suhair Al Weradat, student of the Spring 2009 semester said, “the course opened my eyes to the importance of advocating for our rights, not only because we need to widen the support at the international level, but also because we need to always strengthen our home front.”
In early 2009, students of the Fall 2008 semester decided to organize a photographic exhibition explaining the ongoing Nakba in cooperation with the university's students union. Their initiative was supported by Badil and welcomed by the Law School faculty. It was developed to include a book fair and two seminars, one on refugee rights and the other on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign. Ahmad Nouba, a student of the Fall 2008 semester, noted that, “the title of the photographic exhibition - ‘Haq Al-Awda Mish Lalbay' (the right of return is not for sale) - which took place in mid March 2009, had a significant impact on the student community at the university. After the exhibition, this title became a slogan that can still be heard in everyday discussions.”
1For more information about the campaign see:
2For more on the evolution of the post-Oslo right of return movement, see Muhammad Jaradat, “Reflections on the Palestine return Movement”, al-Majdal #36-37 (Winter 07-Spring 08).
3Texts used for these examples are Badil's working papers: “The Right to Housing and Property Restitution in Bosnia and Herzegovina: A case Study”, and “Land Restitution in South Africa: Overview of Learned Lessons” accessible at