Refugees: Palestinian

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People of Palestine who fled or were driven out in 1948 and 1967; their repatriation remains a controversial issue.

A major consequence of the ArabIsrael War (1948) was the flight of approximately 700,000 members of the indigenous Arab population from their homes in those parts of Mandatory Palestine that became the new state of Israel, 30 percent of whose territory lay beyond the borders of the UN partition plan. Since 1948, the Palestine refugee problem has been one of the most important and controversial issues in the continuing conflict. It has appeared
on the agenda of every UN session since 1948 and has been the subject of numerous UN resolutions calling for repatriation or compensation to the refugees, or sometimes both.

Whereas the Palestinians, the Arab states, their supporters, and many Israelis assert that the refugees were forced by Israeli military or paramilitary units to leave their homes and property, the government of Israel has disclaimed responsibility, placing blame for the flight on Palestinian leaders and the surrounding Arab countries, which, Israel states, urged the refugees to leave. In recent years, several Israeli revisionist accounts have produced evidence that in many instances the Israeli military did force Palestinians to depart. Another cause of the flight was the breakdown of Palestinian Arab society during the war in Palestine, followed by chaos and the total disruption of civil society. The number of original Palestinian refugees is based on estimates rather than an accurate census. The UN estimated in 1949 that more than 700,000 of Palestine's 1948 Arab population could be classified as refugees.

A second major exodus occurred following the June 1967 war, when over 300,000 Palestinians left the West Bank and the Golan area in Syria, many of them second-time refugees who had lived in camps since 1948. By 2003, those classified as refugees by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) had increased to more than 2.4 million. UNRWA considers as refugees individuals and their direct descendants who lived in Palestine a minimum of two years preceding the 1948 conflict, who lost homes and means of livelihood, and who reside in areas where UNRWA services are available. According to this definition, nearly half the total number of Palestinians in the world were refugees in the 1990s.

The largest concentration is in Jordan, with over 1.5 million in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. More than 700,000 live in Jordan, more than 390,000 in Lebanon, and 400,000 in Syria. Initially most refugees lived in camps established by the UN. However, by 2003, 2.7 million lived in other places but received education, health care, and other social services from UNRWA. More than half of UNRWA expenditures were for education. Although the educational and social services provided by UNRWA are of relatively high quality, the area occupied by the refugee camps has not been greatly extended despite the rapid population increase. Thus the camps have become extremely overcrowded, and housing and other public facilities have become greatly overburdened.

In most areas, the internal affairs of the camps are run by the Palestinians themselves. Refugee frustration with low wages, poor living conditions, and their inability to return to their original homes has caused social and political unrest, with the result that some camps in Lebanon have become bases for Palestinian guerrilla activity. Political life in the camps is intense, and refugees are active in nearly every Palestinian political faction and paramilitary organization. On some occasions, the camps have become targets of non-Palestinian military forcesof the Israeli army and various local militias in Lebanon and of the royal army in Jordanresulting in thousands of Palestinian casualties.

The refugee question has long been a focus of attempts to resolve the ArabIsrael conflict, beginning in December 1948 with UN General Assembly Resolution 194(III), stating "that the 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 refugees and the Arab states have emphasized the right to return as fundamental in any peace settlement. However, Israel has opposed any large-scale repatriation, instead emphasizing reset-tlement in the surrounding Arab countries. Attempts at refugee resettlement have not been successful, largely because of refugee insistence on the right of return. By the 1990s, the right to return was interpreted by many refugees and some Arab states as return to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza rather than within the borders of Israel. Following the 1991 Madrid Middle East peace conference, one of the five multilateral groups established to deal with functional problems dealt with the refugee issue.

see also arabisrael conflict; arabisrael war (1948); arabisrael war (1967); madrid conference (1991); united nations and the middle east; united nations relief and works agency for palestine refugees in the near east (unrwa).


Arzt, Donna E. Refugees into Citizens: Palestinians and the End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1997.

Peretz, Don. Palestinians, Refugees, and the Middle East Peace Process. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1993.

Schiff, Benjamin N. Refugees unto the Third Generation: UN Aid to Palestinians. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Takkenberg, Lex. The Status of Palestinian Refugees in International Law. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon, 1998.

Viorst, Milton. Reaching for the Olive Branch: UNRWA and Peace in the Middle East. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

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