I was prompted today, for reasons I won't go into, to wonder about the magnitude of the Palestinian "Nakba" of 1948-- the mass fleeing/ expulsion from the new state of Israel-- compared with other population transfers of the late 1940s. The results:
Between 700,000 and 750,000 Palestinians were refugees by the end of 1949. More than 100,000 remained in Israel. Those 750,000 left under very complicated and messy circumstances-- some fleeing attacks and village-razings by Zionist paramilitary groups, some urged to leave by surrounding Arab states or local Arab leaders, some fleeing under fear of local ethnic cleansing that appears to have been justified, some fleeing under fear that appears not to have been.
In 1945/46, three million Sudeten Germans were expelled, by clear and official state action, from Czechoslovakia-- essentially the entire such population. The expulsion was preceded and accompanied by somepretty substantial local violence.
The number of Germans expelled from Poland (partly from areas that were reallocated from Germany to Poland, partly from Danzig, partly from Poland's original territory) is under dispute but seems likely to have been more than 10,000,000-- again, nearly the entirety of the relevant population. Again, there was a great deal of associated violence; more than 1,000,000 Germans may have been killed.
The partition of India in 1947 sent more than tens of millions of refugees across the new borders in all directions-- again, often as part of a spiral of fear about local violence and pre-emptive violence. Millions were killed. While a substantial Muslim minority remained in India, almost no Hindus remained in Pakistan or East Pakistan. (UPDATE: See correction here.
More on this later. But notice that in only one of these cases is there still serious talk about a "right of return." Even if-- as is not true-- the entire group of 750,000 Palestinians had been 1) expelled 2) by deliberate centralized Israeli policy, this would have been a comparatively mild instance of the ethnic politics of the immediate postwar era. Notice, too, that the expelled Germans-- much as they might nurse historical grudges and want public apologies or compensation-- have never engaged in the organized murder of Poles or Czechs, have been received into the German states as citizens, and have thrived in democratic and capitalist settings.
I am very far from being an apologist for forced population transfers. But it is worth remembering how standard a part of international politics they were in 1945-50, and worth insisting on a common principle for addressing the legacies of all such transfers.