The Issue of Palestinian Refugees: Present and Future

By Mahmoud al-Khatib (1-2)

Palestine Times Sept. 1998

The issue of the Palestinian refugees appears to be one of the most complex human and political issues still awaiting a solution in the context of the "final status" negotiations due to be held next year between the Israeli government and the PLO. It is a problem which arose initially out of organized Jewish terrorism against Palestinians in the form of massacres which were carried out by Jewish terrorist gangs in a number of Arab villages and cities with the purpose of frightening their inhabitants and forcing them to leave their lands and possessions behind.These massacres took place during the period prior to and immediately following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

The essential problem which faces these refugees lies in the fact that the Jewish state rests on confiscated Palestinian lands, while their possessions were stolen from them to become a source of power and a resource for building up the state of Israel. Moreover, added to this problem is the frustration which surrounds the Palestinians' cause, a frustration resulting from the manner in which the international community has dealt with this issue, considering it to be merely a humanitarian concern without taking into account its fundamentally political nature.

At the present time, more than 3.5 million Palestinian refugees live in refugee camps. Over the past fifty years, many of these refugees have endured social and economic conditions about which the least that may be said is that they are utterly miserable. As the Jewish occupiers live lives of ease on lands belonging to Palestinian refugees, and as they enjoy possessions taken from them, they ask the international community to provide them security and to guarantee the survival of their state through the imposition of peace agreements which are unjust to the Palestinians as well as to other Arabs involved.

And even as these things take place, Palestinian refugees are denied the protection enjoyed by virtually all other refugees in the world. It is not only peculiar, but positively deplorable, that all refugees in the world should enjoy the right of protection represented by efforts to return them to their homelands while Palestinian refugees alone are deprived of this right.

The PLO committed a serious error when it signed the Oslo accords with the Israeli government in 1993 before arriving at a solution to critical issues such as the situation of Palestinian refugees, of occupied Jerusalem and of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Instead, these matters were postponed until what is known as the "final status talks" due to begin next year. In so doing, the PLO granted the Jewish state a "lease" on peace and safety without giving the Palestinians themselves a sense of hope for a just, lasting, comprehensive solution to their critical concerns. In order to clarify the problem of the Palestinian refugees, a problem which does not receive sufficient attention on the part of the international community, we are presenting this paper in a humble attempt to shed light on the size of the problem, the conditions in which refugees live in the camps, and proposed solutions to the problem.

One - Definition

The "Palestinian refugee" is defined by the UN as follows: "A Palestine refugee is a person whose normal residence was Palestine for a minimum of two years preceding the conflict in 1948 and who, as a result of this conflict, lost both his home and his means of livelihood and took refuge in 1948 in one of the countries where UNRWA provides relief. Refugees within this definition and the direct descendants of such refugees are eligible for Agency assistance if they are: registered with UNRWA; living in the area of UNRWA operations; and in need."

Two: Numbers and Locations of Refugees

There are no precise statistics concerning the numbers of Palestinian refugees due to their being dispersed throughout a large number of countries of the world. Moreover, the statistics which are available are those provided by UNRWA on the refugees registered with it.

There are many other refugees, however, who are not registered with UNRWA, as UNRWA figures do not include those who emigrated to Iraq, Egypt, Europe or America after the war of 1948. Rather, they include only those refugees registered within its five fields of operation, namely: the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

The number of Palestinian refugees who left their lands before, during and after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 came to approximately 800,000 persons, more than half of whom left prior to the end of the British mandate over Palestine in May, 1948.

These Palestinians were forced to leave their villages and cities after terrorist Jewish gangs carried out massacres estimated by some sources at 33 massacres during the year 1948 alone. Lawyer Wakim Wakim, an activist in defense of refugees' rights in occupied Palestinian territories, recounts a Jewish testimony given in 1948 to the effect that Jewish gangs carried out more than 90 massacres similar to that at Deir Yasin. Zionist gangs were in fact carrying on a psychological war the purpose of which was to force the inhabitants of cities and villages located near those in which massacres had occurred to leave their homes and possessions.

In addition, some Palestinians were obliged to leave their homeland on direct orders from some of the Arab armies which were present in Palestine during the 1948 war. The majority of Palestinian refugees sought refuge in areas not far from their original towns and villages in hopes of returning once the war had died down. Hence, those living in north Palestine fled for protection to Lebanon and Syria, while those living in the central and southern parts of Palestine fled to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jordan.

According to the most recently available official UNRWA statistics, the number of Palestinian refugees registered with it comes to approximately 3.5 million, a figure which represents the natural growth in their numbers. These refugees are found in 59 different camps in UNRWA's five fields of operation. This does not mean, of course, that all Palestinian refugees live in UNRWA-administered refugee camps. Approximately 67% of them live outside the camps, either in one of the five fields of operation or somewhere else in the world.

Numbers of Refugees Registered with UNRWA

Location &Camps.... Refugees........... Refugees Total No. in camps..... Outside camps of refugees

Jordan 10 .................264,322 ............1,148,930 .................................1,413,252

Lebanon 12..............195,692..............163,313 .....................................359.005

Syria 10 ...................104,011 .............252,728......................................356,739

The West Bank 19.....142,780..............399,862.....................................542,642

The Gaza Strip 8 ........410,762 ............335,288 .....................................746,050

Totals: 59....................1,117,567..........2,300,121...................................3,417,688

Four: Refugees' Conditions

Approximately 33% of the refugees registered with UNRWA live in refugee camps located in various areas within the five fields of operation. These refugees endure pitiable living conditions, making their homes in small houses of mud or cement. Many of these houses, termed "shelters", have roofs of tin or asbestos, as a result of which those living in such houses are exposed to the elements all year round. Entire families, some of which number more than 20 members, have to live cramped inside such dwellings, which generally cover an area of no more than 80-100 square meters. The reason for this is that the area designated for each refugee camp is limited, with expansion being made impossible by the fact that the camps are generally surrounded on all sides by urban areas.

Moreover, if one of the family members wishes to marry, he is obliged in many cases to live in the same house as his parents and siblings due to refugees' difficult economic conditions. As for those financially capable of moving out, they may live outside the camps provided that the laws of the host country concerned permit this.

The Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have lived since 1967 under Israeli occupation. Hence they, like other residents of the West Bank and Gaza, are subject to the arbitrary practices of the Israeli occupation forces such as arbitrary detention, raids, closure of checkpoints leading to places of work inside Israel (such work being their primary source of livelihood), and travel bans.

Due to Israeli security policies and constant closures, the unemployment rate among Palestinians in the occupied territories, among them refugees, sometimes soars to more than 60%. Palestinian refugees living on the West Bank carry temporary Jordanian passports which enable them to travel to Jordan or various other countries despite the difficulties imposed upon them by various governments in response to this type of passport.

As for refugees living in the Gaza Strip, they carry Egyptian travel documents due to the fact that the Gaza Strip was, until its occupation by Israel in 1967, under Egyptian administration.

Refugees living in Jordan, who represent up to 40% of the total number of refugees registered with UNRWA, are considered Jordanian citizens and enjoy all the rights enjoyed by Jordanian citizens themselves. They carry regular Jordanian passports, and have the right to vote and to hold office, both in local precincts and in Parliament. Moreover, they enjoy full rights to public services provided by the Jordanian government to its own citizens, such as higher education and the opportunity to work in the government sector.

Those residing in Lebanon, by contrast, face the harshest economic and social conditions of all Palestinian refugees. They carry Lebanese travel documents which are not recognized by most countries in the world. In addition, the Lebanese government requires these refugees to obtain permits to return to Lebanon if they travel outside the country, and in some cases they have been denied permission to reenter Lebanon, something which has caused them severe difficulties. An example may be seen in what happened to the Palestinians holding Lebanese travel documents who had been living in Libya and who were then ousted by the Libyan government in September, 1995. These refugees have suffered the effects of the Lebanese civil war and of the constant Israeli aggression against Palestinian camps in Lebanon, not to mention the massacres carried out by Israeli forces in collaboration with Christian Lebanese forces such as those which occurred in the Tell al-Za'tar camp in 1976 and at Sabra and Shatila in the summer of 1982. The Lebanese government does not permit Palestinian refugees to work without a work permit issued by the Lebanese authorities. They are not permitted to work in the public sector under any circumstances, nor may they be employed in more than seventy professions in the private sector. For this reason, the social and economic circumstances facing Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are more difficult than those faced by refugees in any of the other fields of operation.

In Syria, refugees enjoy the same rights as those enjoyed by Syrian citizens with the exception of the right to vote or hold office. They hold not Syrian passports but Syrian travel documents, a fact which poses grave difficulties for them if they do travel abroad due to the refusal of many governments to recognize such documents. Regarding those refugees not registered with UNRWA, insufficient information is available for us to comment upon them here. However, there are believed to be approximately 250,000 Palestinian refugees living in Iraq since 1948 and who were not registered with UNRWA at that time due to the fact that the Iraqi government committed itself to take them under its wing and to guarantee them the right to reside there. Most of them carry Iraqi travel documents and enjoy full rights of citizenship with the exception of the right to vote.

* This paper was presented to the seminar on Palestine held by The Institute of Islamic & Arabic Studies, New Delhi, India between 13 and 14 June, 1998.