Palestinian Diaspora

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Palestinian Diaspora





There is an increasing literature that describes as diasporic the twentieth-century dispersion of the Palestinian people from their historical homeland in the Middle East. However, the question arises whether celebrating the hybridity and the challenge to notions of nation-state and the dominant culture inherent in diaspora cultures does not detract from legitimate political claims to the homeland that was lost. This is particularly obvious in the case of the Palestinians. Thus, the literature on Palestinian diaspora communities and their experiences of dispersal and uprootedness demonstrates some unease in using the term diaspora precisely because it implies the possibility of permanence and the denial of return. The terms exile and refugee are more prominent in the discourses on Palestinians and in the Palestinians own usage. Both terms put a much stronger emphasis on the forced nature of the dispersal and the intent to return to the homeland, however symbolic or realistically impossible such a return may be. Using the term diaspora for the Palestinian experience can, on the other hand, allow comparison with other communities in order to contextualize the Palestinian experience in a global political, social, and cultural framework.

The term diaspora has historically been linked exclusively to the experience of the Jewish people and their dispersal from the promised land. The Greek word means the scattering or sowing of seeds. More emotionally charged for Jews than diaspora is exile, linked to suffering, displacement, and physical distance from the homeland, while the term diaspora can connote the potentially beneficial scattering of seeds and thus the possibility of growth and improvement.

It is only in the later twentieth century that the term diaspora came to be used more widely for other groups of migrants with a history of dispersal and global networks of communities. In this more recent usage, it has come to denote a specific field of migration studies, namely diaspora studies. Within this field the exact meaning of the term has been subject to debate concerning the criteria that define a diaspora. The emerging consensus requires the following features: interconnected communities in at least two places in the world; a shared collective attachment to the homeland; and a sense of collective history of displacement or expansion, a common identity combined with a more or less uneasy relationship with the host societies. Some scholars insist that the cause of the dispersal has to be related to force or to another form of trauma; others argue that this would limit the definition too much. Arguably, many of these characteristics can be found in the history and present situation of the Palestinian people.


Palestinian migration from the area of historical Palestine can be traced to the beginning of the twentieth century. Palestine had been one of the remote provinces of the Ottoman Empire, economically underdeveloped but politically touched by ideas of Arab nationalism, which resulted in the emergence of a sense of Palestinian identity parallel and overlapping with other local identities and awareness of being Ottoman subjects. Between the world wars and after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Arabs emigrated from Palestine to Europe and the Americas in search of better employment and fortune, or they sought higher education after being introduced to Western ideas and education through missionary schools.

Regional migration, as well as economic exchange and trade between Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan, was unrestricted, as the area was considered the unified region of Greater Syria. The first major event that caused a larger emigration movement was the 19361939 Arab revolt. In their protest against the British mandate and the increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants (supported by Britain), Palestinians were involved in armed clashes and subject to British persecution, while the economic situation deteriorated further and led especially younger males to seek employment, education, and fortune outside of the Middle East.

The war of 1947 to 1948 and its result, the creation of the State of Israel, simultaneously experienced as An-Nakba (the catastrophe) for Palestinians, created the Palestinian refugee problem, turning approximately 750,000 Palestinians (75 percent of the Palestinian Arab population) into refugees. Many of them fled their villages in fear of massacres and battles; others were forcibly evicted or barred from returning to their homes. Ultimately, most of them were prevented from returning to the territory that became the State of Israel. They took refuge in the West Bank (which was controlled by Jordan during the war and declared Jordanian territory in 1950) or in the Gaza Strip under Egyptian control. Many others fled to Lebanon and Syria.

In 1949, in response to the desperate humanitarian situation and the growing needs of the Palestinian refugees, the United Nations founded the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) with the mandate to administer aid to the Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza. Refugee camps under UNRWA control were set up, for the most part physically separating Palestinian refugees from the surrounding host societies. Arab countries and Palestinians shared political agreement in their refusal to permanently resettle Palestinians in any country other than Palestine.

During the 1950s and 1960s Palestinians left Israel, as well as the West Bank and Gaza, in search of employment. The economic situation was extremely depressed, further complicated by political oppression in Israel, where Arab towns and villages stayed under military control. Palestinians also went from Gaza to Egypt for education, while others sought employment in the Gulf states, where the discovery of oil demanded skilled laborers and professionals. On the political level, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in 1964 by Palestinians outside of Palestine, in the diaspora.

The Six-Day War of 1967, in which Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, turned many Palestinians into refugees for the second time. An estimated 250,000 West Bank residents and 75,000 residents of Gaza were driven from their homes between June 1967 and December 1968. They fled to Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, often moving several times. The rate of emigration slowed between 1969 and 1974 when a strong sense of holding on to the land based on the ideology of sumud (steadfastness) emerged and the Palestinian liberation movement, which had consolidated its organizational structure outside of Palestine, instilled a renewed sense of political pride and Palestinian identity.

Relatively steady numbers of Palestinians left the Occupied Palestinian Territories from the mid-1970s onward. They responded to Israeli policies of political and cultural oppression and land confiscation. Family and chain migration, as well as the immigration policies of potential host countries, became important factors for Palestinian patterns of temporary settlement in countries throughout the world. Major political events, such as the first Intifada (from 1987) and the second Intifada (from 2000), and their negative effects on safety, the political climate, the economy, and education, forced more Palestinians to leave the Occupied Territories and prevented many others from returning.

Palestinians living in Arab countries, however, developed their own patterns of migration, closely linked to political developments inside and outside the region. On one level, such population movement was caused by changes in the relationship between Arab host governments and the Palestinian leadership. In addition, PLO cadres and their families followed the PLO leadership to various Arab countries or were sent to other countries for organizational purposes.

At other times, Palestinians in Arab countries were caught up in larger political and military conflicts, such as the Lebanese Civil War (19751990) and the first Gulf War (1991). The civil war in Lebanon and the forced removal of the PLO and its military units from Lebanon in 1982 after the Israeli invasion was a major cause of migration. During the war, Palestinians who sought safety and wanted to escape the volatile situation were accepted by Western countries as refugees or asylum seekers. In the wake of the 1982 events, PLO officials, their staffs, and their families left for Tunisia, where the PLO had reached an agreement with the government to temporarily establish its headquarters.

The Gulf War of 1991 resulted in the expulsion of a large number of Palestinians and their families from Kuwait, mainly as punishment for the Palestinian support for Iraq during the war. Many attempted to settle into a difficult life in Jordan after losing their livelihood and savings in Kuwait. Some held the necessary documents to return to the Occupied Territories, and others sought a new life elsewhere in the world.

The fall of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003 and subsequent developments in Iraq have contributed to the deterioration of the situation of Palestinians in Iraq who were politically favored by the Iraqi regime. They have experienced severe hardships and marginalization, and many have reportedly attempted to leave Iraq permanently.


In 1947 the Arab population of historical Palestine numbered approximately 1.3 million people. In 2000 estimates of the number of Palestinians in the world ranged from 7.7 to 9 million. In the absence of a Palestinian state to issue passports, Palestinians in Palestine and the diaspora carry refugee travel documents or, where available, passports of current or past host countries. Thus reliable data on Palestinian demographics is scarce. Nevertheless, demographics play an important role in the political discourse on the Palestinian refugee problem and its possible solutions, and thus carry tremendous symbolic weight.

Four main groups of Palestinians can be distinguished according to location: those living in Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza, in Arab countries, and in Western countries. The reason that some of those living in the territory of historical Palestine are included in this overview is the fact that many who were internally displaced during the wars perceive their lives as shaped by a sense of inner diaspora, a temporal and special dislocation from their place of origin. This is a sentiment that should not be discounted and that has shaped various expressions of Palestinian national and cultural identity.

The Palestinians inside Israel number less than one million people and constitute approximately 20 percent of the total population of Israel. A significant number of the Palestinians in Israel are internally displaced and consider themselves internal refugees. Many of them have repeatedly attempted to return to their villages or resettle in close proximity to their place of origin; they live in unrecognized villages without access to Israeli health care, education, or social welfare services.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are divided into refugees and nonrefugees. In June 2005 the total refugee population of the West Bank (registered with UNRWA) was 690,988 with 26 percent (or 182,191) living in nineteen official refugee camps. In the Gaza Strip, UNRWA offered assistance to 969,588 refugees, 49 percent of whom lived in the eight official refugee camps. The number of refugees who need UNRWA assistance has dramatically increased since the beginning of the second Intifada, which led to the Israeli reinvasion of Palestinian territories, economic isolation, and political violence. Since 2000, unprecedented numbers of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza have been pushed into poverty.

The largest of the Palestinian diaspora communities is situated in Jordan and numbers approximately 2.6 million. UNRWA reported 1,795,326 registered refugees in Jordan as of June 2005, 16 percent of whom lived in the ten official refugee camps. They are refugees from both the 1948 and 1967 wars and their descendants. A significant number of Palestinians in Jordan carry Jordanian passports, have the right to vote and hold office, enjoy full rights to public services such as higher education, and can work in the government sector. The legal, economic, and social situation of Palestinians in Jordan can be considered far better than in other countries, and some scholars even speak of a virtual merge of Palestinian and Jordanian identity. The Palestinians in Jordan are widely expected to stay in Jordan, even if the right of return may be achieved during future negotiations. Generally, it is assumed that return to a Palestinian state established in the West Bank and Gaza will be a more likely option for the 1967 refugees, while many of the 1948 refugees insist on the literal right of return to homes and villages now in Israel.

The number of Palestinians in Lebanon is widely debated and the only numbers available are limited to registered refugees (401,071) and the camp population (53%). Palestinians in Lebanon face the harshest socioeconomic conditions: their Lebanese travel documents are not recognized by most countries in the world, and they must obtain work and travel permits issued by the Lebanese authorities and are not allowed to work in the public sector and a long list of other professions. Changes in existing laws are closely linked to Lebanese domestic politics. Lebanon has with very few exceptions rejected any permanent settlement or naturalization of Palestinian refugees.

The exact number of Palestinians in Syria is unknown, but 426,919 Palestinians are registered as refugees, 27 percent of whom live in the ten UNRWA administered camps. Most refugees enjoy rights similar to those of Syrian citizens, but they are not allowed to vote, hold office, or carry Syrian passports. The travel documents issued by the Syrian government are not recognized by most states.

Palestinian refugees living in other countries of the Arab world, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Libya, Egypt, and Iraq, are not assisted by UNRWA. Many of these Palestinians are work migrants who relocated after leaving their initial country of refuge in hope of finding better education and employment.

Palestinians in Western countries are divided into European communities and those in the Americas. The estimated numbers vary widely, but less than 6 percent of the Palestinian people live in Western diaspora communities. Many countries, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, have, because of their status as immigration countries, over the years provided Palestinians with work and residency permits and also citizenship. Others have been accepted as refugees and asylum seekers. European countries tend to accept refugees at times of acute crises, but do not generally favor integration or naturalization of refugees.


A distinct feature of diaspora communities is a sense of collective identity, often linked to the events surrounding the loss of the homeland and the hardships of living separated from its territory and culture. The Palestinian diaspora is characterized by strong intercommunity networks on many levels, such as family ties, global communication, frequent migratory moves, organizational structures, and cultural exchange. These connections facilitate the preservation and negotiation of Palestinian national identities.

On one hand, scholars celebrate the emergence of new hybrid intellectual and cultural dimensions of diaspora communities. Palestinian communities have both features. Case studies of Palestinian diaspora communities in different parts of the world indicate that the more Palestinians are allowed to integrate into a host society on political, social, economic, and cultural levels, the more their Palestinian identity becomes part of a hyphenated set of identities. On the other hand, many Palestinian refugees in Lebanon or Iraq have no other identities to choose from; thus they remain in a sense more strongly Palestinian. The same correlation can be detected for integration and return wishes. The right of return is subject to heated political debate among Palestinians and internationally, and will have to be resolved as part of a final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Discussion of the Palestinian diaspora is not complete without mentioning the importance of Palestinian cultural and intellectual production throughout the world and the significance of commemorating the events (in particular the 1948 war) that led to the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland. In the absence of national museums, school textbooks, and a state, these collective memories have been shaped by memoirs, oral history, and artistic expression. Palestinian writers, visual artists, musicians, and poets have contributed to Palestinian national culture and the cultures of their respective host countries. Palestinian intellectuals and scholars have not only shaped or challenged the field of Palestine studies but have also contributed to many areas of the social and natural sciences without denying their Palestinian diasporic identities. Such identities are by definition in flux, in a constant state of redefinition and adjustment, and one can argue that future generations of Palestinians will have to renegotiate how, where, and to what extent they want to be part of the Palestinian diaspora.

SEE ALSO Intifada, The; Palestinians


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United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Juliane Hammer

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Palestinian Diaspora

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Palestinian Diaspora