The term "Palestine refugees" originally referred to both Arabs and Jews whose normal place of residence had been in Mandatory Palestine but were displaced and lost their livelihoods as a result of the 1948 Palestine war. The UNRWA definition of the term includes the patrilineal descendants of the original "Palestine refugees", but is limited to persons residing in UNRWA's areas of operation in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
|1948 Palestinian exodus:||711,000 (estimated)|
|1948 refugees still alive (2012):||30,000 to 50,000 (estimated)|
|1967 Palestinian exodus:||280,000 to 325,000|
|Descendants (2012):||4,950,000 (estimated)|
For the basis of this figure also see the UNRWA definition
|Regions of operation:||Gaza Strip, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan|
|Total (2014):||97,212 |
|Regions with significant populations:||Gulf States, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, as well as Australia, Europe and America|
In 2012, there were an estimated 4,950,000 registered patrilineal descendants of the original "Palestine refugees", based on the UNRWA registration requirements, of which an estimated 1.5 million lived in UNRWA camps. The number of original refugees "who meet UNRWA's Palestine Refugee criteria" was 711,000 in 1950 of which approximately 30,000–50,000 were still alive in 2012. The term does not include internally displaced Palestinians, who became Israeli citizens and neither displaced Palestinian Jews. According to some estimates, as many as 1,049,848–1,380,714 people, who descend from displaced people of Mandatory Palestine are not registered under UNRWA and neither UNHCR mandates.
During the 1948 Palestine War, around 85% (720,000 people) of the Palestinian Arab population of what became Israel fled or were expelled from their homes, to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and to the countries of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. They, and their descendants, who are also entitled to registration, are assisted by UNWRA in 59 registered camps, 10 of which were established in the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967 to cope with new Palestinian refugees. Being the only refugees in the world to be mainly inherited, including unregistered, displaced persons and refugee descendants, the Palestinian Arab refugee and displaced population has grown to be the second largest in the world, after an estimated 11,000,000 Syrians displaced by the Syrian Civil War. They are also the world's oldest unsettled refugee population, having been under the ongoing governance of Arab states following the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the refugee populations of the West Bank under Israeli governance since the Six-Day War and Palestinian administration since 1994, and the Gaza Strip administered by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) since 2007. Citizenship or legal residency in host countries is denied in Lebanon where the absorption of Palestinians would upset a delicate confessional balance, but available in Jordan where approximately 40% of UNWRA-registered Palestinian refugees have acquired full citizenship rights.
On 11 December 1948, the UN General Assembly in non-binding Resolution 194, Article 11 resolved that the refugees who wish to "live at peace with their neighbors ... should be permitted" to return to their homes at the "earliest practicable date" This forms one basis for the Palestinian political claim for a 'Palestinian right of return'.
An independent poll conducted in 2003 with the Palestinian populations of Gaza, West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon showed that the majority (54%) would accept a financial compensation and a place to live in West Bank or Gaza in place of returning to the exact place in modern-day Israel where they or their ancestors lived (this possibility of settlement is contemplated in the Resolution 194). Only 10% said they would live in Israel if given the option.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is an organ of the United Nations created exclusively for the purpose of aiding those displaced by the Arab–Israeli conflict, with an annual budget of approximately $600 million. It defines a "Palestine refugee" as a person "whose normal place of residence was Mandatory Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab–Israeli conflict". UNRWA aids all "those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance" and those who first became refugees as a result of the Six-Day War, regardless whether they reside in areas designated as Palestine refugee camps or in other permanent communities.
A Palestine refugee camp is "a plot of land placed at the disposal of UNRWA by the host government to accommodate Palestine refugees and to set up facilities to cater to their needs". Only around 1.4 million of registered Palestine refugees, approximately one-third, live in the 58 UNRWA-recognised refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The UNRWA definition does not cover final status.
Registered descendants of UNRWA Palestine refugees, like "Nansen passport" and "Certificate of Eligibility" holders (the documents issued to those displaced by World War II) or like UNHCR refugees, inherit the same Palestine refugee status as their male parent. The patrilineal descendants of the original Palestine refugees "are also eligible for registration." In many cases UNHCR provides support for the children of Palestine refugees too.
Palestinians make several distinctions relating to Palestinian refugees. The 1948 refugees and their descendants are broadly defined as "refugees" (laji'un). The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), especially those who have returned and form part of the PNA, but also Palestinian refugee camp residents in Lebanon, repudiate this term, since it implies being a passive victim, and prefer the autonym of 'returnees' (a'idun). Those who left since 1967, and their descendants, are called nazihun or 'displaced persons', though many may also descend from the 1948 group.
Origin of the Palestine refugees
Most Palestinian refugees have retained their refugee status and continue to reside in refugee camps, including within the State of Palestine in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Their descendants form a sizable portion of the Palestinian diaspora.
Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Palestine War
During the 1948 Palestine War, 711,000 out of around 900,000 Palestine Arabs fled or were expelled from the territories that became the State of Israel. The causes and responsibilities of the exodus are a matter of controversy among historians and commentators of the conflict.
Whereas historians now agree on most of the events of that period, there remains disagreement as to whether the exodus was the result of a plan designed before or during the war by Zionist leaders or was an unintended consequence of the war.
In a study of bias in Palestinian and Zionist sources dealing with the 1948 Palestinian exodus, Steven Glazer lists a number of early Zionist historians and writers, notably Joseph Schechtman, Leo Kohn, Jon Kimche and Maria Syrkin, who considered that:
"...the Arabs in Palestine were asked to stay and live as citizens in the Jewish state. Instead, they chose to leave, either because they were unwilling to live with the Jews, or because they expected an Arab military victory which would annihilate the Zionists. They thought they could leave temporarily and return at their leisure. Later, an additional claim was put forth, namely that the Palestinians were ordered to leave, with radio broadcasts instructing them to quit their homes".
The implication of this position is that the Palestinians chose to leave, and thus forfeited their rights to their land, and must accept their own responsibilities for the plight they find themselves in. According to Benny Morris, between December 1947 and March 1948, around 100,000 Palestine Arabs fled. Among them were many from the higher and middle classes from the cities, who left voluntarily, expecting to return when the Arab states won the war and took control of the country. When the Haganah and then the emerging Israeli army (Israel Defense Forces or IDF) went on the defensive, between April and July, a further 250,000 to 300,000 Palestinian Arabs left or were expelled, mainly from the towns of Haifa, Tiberias, Beit-Shean, Safed, Jaffa and Acre, which lost more than 90 percent of their Arab inhabitants. Expulsions took place in many towns and villages, particularly along the Tel Aviv–Jerusalem road and in Eastern Galilee. About 50,000–70,000 inhabitants of Lydda and Ramle were expelled towards Ramallah by the IDF during Operation Danny, and most others during operations of the IDF in its rear areas. During Operation Dekel, the Arabs of Nazareth and South Galilee were allowed to remain in their homes. Today they form the core of the Arab Israeli population. From October to November 1948, the IDF launched Operation Yoav to remove Egyptian forces from the Negev and Operation Hiram to remove the Arab Liberation Army from North Galilee during which at least nine events named massacres of Arabs were carried out by IDF soldiers. These events generated an exodus of 200,000 to 220,000 Palestinian Arabs. Here, Arabs fled fearing atrocities or were expelled if they had not fled. After the war, from 1948 to 1950, the IDF resettled around 30,000 to 40,000 Arabs from the borderlands of the new Israeli state.
Palestinian refugees from Six-Day War
As a result of the Six-Day War, around 280,000 to 325,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from the territories won in the Six-Day War by Israel, including the demolished Palestinian villages of Imwas, Yalo, Bayt Nuba, Surit, Beit Awwa, Beit Mirsem, Shuyukh, Jiftlik, Agarith and Huseirat, and the "emptying" of the refugee camps of Aqabat Jabr and Ein as-Sultan.
Palestinian exodus from Kuwait (Gulf War)
The Palestinian exodus from Kuwait took place during and after the Gulf War. During the Gulf War, more than 200,000 Palestinians voluntarily fled Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait due to harassment and intimidation by Iraqi security forces, in addition to getting fired from work by Iraqi authority figures in Kuwait. After the Gulf War, Kuwaiti authorities forcibly pressured nearly 200,000 Palestinians to leave Kuwait in 1991. Kuwait's policy, which led to this exodus, was a response to alignment of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) with the dictator Saddam Hussein, who had earlier invaded Kuwait.
Prior to the Gulf War, Palestinians numbered 400,0000 (30%) of Kuwait's population of 2.2 million. The Palestinians who fled Kuwait were Jordanian citizens. In 2013, there were 280,000 Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin in Kuwait. In 2012, 80,000 Palestinians (without Jordanian citizenship) lived in Kuwait. In total, there are 360,000 Palestinians in Kuwait as of 2012–2013.
Palestinian refugees as part of the Syrian refugee crisis
There were reports that Jordan and Lebanon have turned away Palestinian refugees attempting to flee the humanitarian crises in Syria. Jordan has absorbed 126,000 Syrian refugees, but Palestinians fleeing Syria are placed in a separate refugee camp, under stricter conditions and are banned from entering Jordanian cities.
Palestinian refugees from Syria are also immigrating to Europe seeking asylum, especially to Sweden, which has offered asylum to any Syrian refugees that manage to reach its territory, albeit with some conditions. Many do so by finding their way to Egypt and making the journey by sea. In October 2013, the PFLP-GC claimed that some 23,000 Palestinian refugees from the Yarmouk Camp had immigrated to Sweden alone.
The number of Palestine refugees varies depending on the source. For 1948–49 refugees, for example, the Israeli government suggests a number as low as 520,000 as opposed to 850,000 by their Palestinian counterparts. As of January 2015, UNRWA cites 5,149,742 registered refugees in total, of whom 1,603,018 are registered in camps.
|District||Number of depopulated villages||Number of refugees in 1948||Number of refugees in 2000|
|Demography of Palestine|
The number of UNRWA registered Palestine refugees by country or territory in January 2015 were as follows:
In the context of the Arab–Israeli conflict, Jewish refugees were initially resettled in refugee camps known variously as Immigrant camps, Ma'abarot, and "development towns" prior to absorption into mainstream Israeli society. Conversely, many Palestinian refugees remain settled in Palestinian refugee camps, while others have been absorbed into Jordanian society or the Palestinian territories. Since 1948, the sovereign State of Israel has guaranteed asylum and citizenship to Jewish refugees, while the self-declared State of Palestine remains unable to absorb the Palestinian refugees, due to lack of de facto sovereignty over its claimed territories.
"More than 2 million registered Palestine refugees live in Jordan. Most Palestine refugees in Jordan, but not all, have full citizenship", following Jordan's annexation and occupation of the West Bank. The percentage of Palestinian refugees living in refugee camps to those who settled outside the camps is the lowest of all UNRWA fields of operations. Palestine refugees are allowed access to public services and healthcare, as a result, refugee camps are becoming more like poor city suburbs than refugee camps. Most Palestine refugees moved out of the camps to other parts of the country and the number of people registered in refugee camps as of January 2015 is 385,418, who live in ten refugee camps. This caused UNRWA to reduce the budget allocated to Palestine refugee camps in Jordan. Former UNRWA chief-attorney James G. Lindsay says: "In Jordan, where 2 million Palestinian refugees live, all but 167,000 have citizenship, and are fully eligible for government services including education and health care." Lindsay suggests that eliminating services to refugees whose needs are subsidized by Jordan "would reduce the refugee list by 40%".
Palestinians who moved from the West Bank (whether refugees or not) to Jordan, are issued yellow-ID cards to distinguish them from the Palestinians of the "official 10 refugee camps" in Jordan. From 1988 to 2012, thousands of those yellow-ID card Palestinians had their Jordanian citizenship revoked. Jordan's Interior Minister Nayef al-Kadi said:
"Our goal is to prevent Israel from emptying the Palestinian territories of their original inhabitants," the minister explained, confirming that the kingdom had begun revoking the citizenship of Palestinians. "We should be thanked for taking this measure," he said. "We are fulfilling our national duty because Israel wants to expel the Palestinians from their homeland."
Human Rights Watch estimated that about 2,700 Palestinians were stripped of Jordanian nationality between 2004 and 2008. It is estimated that over 40,000 Palestinians were affected by this policy.
In 2012, the Jordanian government promised to stop revoking the citizenship of Palestinians, and restored citizenship to 4,500 Palestinians who had previously lost it.
In a 2007 study, Amnesty International denounced the "appalling social and economic condition" of Palestinians in Lebanon. Until 2005, Palestinians were forbidden to work in over 70 jobs because they do not have Lebanese citizenship, but this was later reduced to around 20 as of 2007 after liberalization laws. In 2010, Palestinians were granted the same rights to work as other foreigners in the country.
Lebanon gave citizenship to about 50,000 Christian Palestinian refugees during the 1950s and 1960s. In the mid-1990s, about 60,000 Shiite Muslim refugees were granted citizenship. This caused a protest from Maronite authorities, leading to citizenship being given to all Christian refugees who were not already citizens.
In the 2010s, many Palestinian refugees in Lebanon began immigrating to Europe, both legally and illegally, as part of the European migrant crisis, due to a deterioration in living conditions there as part of the Syrian civil war. In December 2015, sources told Al Jazeera that thousands of Palestinians were fleeing to Europe by way of Turkey, with about 4,000 having fled the Ain al-Hilweh camp alone in recent months. Many were reaching Germany, with others going to Russia, Sweden, Belgium, and Norway. A census completed in January 2018 found that only around 175,000 Palestinian refugees were living in Lebanon, as opposed to previous UNRWA figures which put the number at between 400,000 and 500,000, as well as other estimates that placed the number between 260,000 and 280,000. 
According to writer and researcher Mudar Zahran, a Jordanian of Palestinian heritage, the media chose to deliberately ignore the conditions of the Palestinians living in Lebanese refugee camps, and that the "tendency to blame Israel for everything" has provided Arab leaders an excuse to deliberately ignore the human rights of the Palestinian in their countries.
As a result of the Syrian civil war, large numbers of Palestinian refugees fled Syria to Europe as part of the European migrant crisis, and to other Arab countries. In September 2015, a Palestinian official said that only 200,000 Palestinian refugees were left in Syria, with 100,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria in Europe and the remainder in other Arab countries.
An estimated 240,000 Palestinians are living in Saudi Arabia. They are not allowed to hold or even apply for Saudi citizenship, because of Arab League instructions barring the Arab states from granting them citizenship; the only other alternative for them is to marry a Saudi national. Palestinians are the sole foreign group that cannot benefit from a 2004 law passed by Saudi Arabia's Council of Ministers, which entitles expatriates of all nationalities who have resided in the kingdom for ten years to apply for citizenship.
There were 34,000 Palestinian refugees living in Iraq prior to the Iraq War. In the aftermath of the war, the majority fled to neighboring Jordan and Syria, or were killed. Thousands lived as internally displaced persons within Iraq or were stranded in camps along Iraq's borders with Jordan and Syria, as no country in the region would accept them, and lived in temporary camps along the no man's land in the border zones.
India agreed to take in 165 refugees, with the first group arriving in March 2006. Generally, they were unable to find work in India as they spoke only Arabic though some found employment with UNHCR's non-governmental partners. All of them were provided with free access to public hospitals. Of the 165 refugees, 137 of them later found clearance for resettlement in Sweden. In November 2006, 54 were granted asylum in Canada, and in 2007, some 200 were accepted for resettlement in Sweden and Iceland, and Brazil agreed to take 100.
In 2009, significant numbers of these refugees were allowed to resettle abroad. More than 1,000 were accepted by various countries in Europe and South America, and an additional 1,350 were cleared for resettlement in the United States. Another 68 were allowed to resettle in Australia. However, the majority of Palestine refugees strongly oppose resettlement and much rather want to return.
Positions on the 'right of return'-claim
On 11 December 1948 the United Nations General Assembly discussed Bernadotte's report and passed a resolution: "that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbour should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date. " This General Assembly article 11 of Resolution 194 has been annually re-affirmed.
The Jewish Agency promised to the UN before 1948 that Palestinian Arabs would become full citizens of the State of Israel, and the Israeli declaration of independence invited the Arab inhabitants of Israel to "full and equal citizenship". In practice, Israel does not grant citizenship to the refugees, as it does to those Arabs who continue to reside in its borders. The 1947 Partition Plan determined citizenship based on residency, such that Arabs and Jews residing in Palestine but not in Jerusalem would obtain citizenship in the state in which they are resident. Professor of Law at Boston University Susan Akram, Omar Barghouti and Ilan Pappé have argued that Palestinian refugees from the envisioned Jewish State were entitled to normal Israeli citizenship based on laws of state succession.
The Arab League has instructed its members to deny citizenship to original Palestine Arab refugees (or their descendants) "to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland".
Tashbih Sayyed, a fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, criticized Arab nations of violating human rights and making the children and grandchildren of Palestinian refugees second class citizens in Lebanon, Syria, or the Gulf States, and said that the UNRWA Palestine refugees "cling to the illusion that defeating the Jews will restore their dignity".
Most Palestine refugees claim a Palestinian right of return. In lack of an own country, their claim is based on Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which declares that "Everyone has the right to leave any country including his own, and to return to his country", although it has been argued that the term only applies to citizens or nationals of that country. Although all Arab League members at the time (1948) - Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen - voted against the resolution, they also cite the non-binding article 11 of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which "Resolves 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 [...]." However it is currently a matter of dispute whether Resolution 194 referred only to the estimated 50,000 remaining Palestine refugees from the 1948 Palestine War, or additionally to their UNRWA-registered 4,950,000 descendants. The Palestinian National Authority supports this claim, and has been prepared to negotiate its implementation at the various peace talks. Both Fatah and Hamas hold a strong position for a claimed right of return, with Fatah being prepared to give ground on the issue while Hamas is not. However, a report in Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper in which Abdullah Muhammad Ibrahim Abdullah, the Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon and the chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council's Political and Parliamentary Affairs committees, said the proposed future Palestinian state would not be issuing Palestinian passports to UNRWA Palestine refugees – even refugees living in the West Bank and Gaza.
In a 2 January 2005 opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Association for Human Rights involving Palestinian refugees in Lebanon:
- 96% refused to give up their right of return
- 3% answered contrary
- 1% did not answer
The Oslo Accords
Upon signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, Israel, the EU and the US recognized PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In return, Yasser Arafat recognized the State of Israel and renounced terrorism. At the time, the accords were celebrated as a historic breakthrough. In accordance with these agreements, the Palestinian refugees began to be governed by an autonomous Palestinian Authority, and the parties agreed to negotiate the permanent status of the refugees, as early as 1996. However, events have halted the phasing process and made the likelihood of a future sovereign Palestinian state uncertain. In another development, a rift developed between Fatah in the West-Bank and Hamas in Gaza after Hamas won the 2006 elections. Among other differences, Fatah officially recognizes the Oslo Accords with Israel, whereas Hamas does not.
The United States considers the original refugees and their descendants to be refugees. In May 2012, the United States Senate Appropriations Committee approved a definition of a Palestine refugee to include only those original Palestine refugees who were actually displaced between June 1946 and May 1948, resulting in an estimated number of 30,000.
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[U.S.] Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides (..) affirmed the State Department's view on the number of Palestinian refugees (..) that the UN and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) "provides essential services for approximately 5 million refugees," (..) Middle East Forum founder Daniel Pipes recently noted in an op-ed for Israel Hayom that only 1 percent of the refugees served by UNRWA fit the agency's definition of "people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict." The other 99 percent are descendants of refugees.
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The term 'refugees' applies to all persons, Arabs, Jews and others who have been displaced from their homes in Palestine. This would include Arabs in Israel who have been shifted from their normal places of residence. It would also include Jews who had their homes in Arab Palestine, such as the inhabitants of the Jewish quarter of the Old City. It would not include Arabs who lost their lands but not their houses, such as the inhabitants of Tulkarm
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