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March 10, 2023 1:15 pm

The Palestinian Refugees: 1948 to Today

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avatar by Chaim Lax


Palestinians pass by the gate of an UNRWA-run school in Nablus in the West Bank. Photo: Reuters/Abed Omar Qusini.

In discussions about the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict, one of the most heavily debated topics is that of the Palestinian refugees.

Even today, almost eight decades after the Palestinian exodus, the issue of the refugees continues to be examined at academic conferences, analyzed in scholarly texts, and profiled by mainstream media organizations.

But despite the continued attention given to the Palestinian refugees, how much does the average person know about the complexities and controversies surrounding this issue?

In this piece, we will take a look at the origins of the Palestinian refugees, their continued exploitation for political purposes, and their unique status vis-a-vis other refugee populations.

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Who Are the Palestinian Refugees?

The Palestinian refugees are Palestinian Arabs who were evacuated (either voluntarily or by force) in the British Mandate of Palestine/ State of Israel between the end of 1947 and the beginning of 1949.

The Palestinian Arab exodus began following the UN vote in favor of partition on November 29, 1947, when the Jewish community accepted the two-state idea and the Arab world violently rejected it.

This first wave of refugees was composed primarily of wealthy Palestinians who left their homes in anticipation of a violent confrontation between the Jewish residents of the British Mandate and the Mandate’s Arab population, as well as Arabs from surrounding nations. These Palestinian Arabs assumed that the Jews would be quickly overtaken and that they would be able to return following a swift Arab victory.

By January 1948, the number of Palestinian Arabs leaving for neighboring Arab countries was growing so rapidly that the Palestine Arab Higher Committee requested that these countries seal their borders in order to stem the tide of Palestinian emigrants.

As the British Mandate was coming to a close and Palestinian Jews and Palestinian Arabs were fighting for control of areas evacuated by the British, more and more Palestinian Arabs fled the fighting by crossing the border into neighboring Arab countries.

Prior to the declaration of Israeli independence on May 14, 1948, approximately 200,000 Arabs had fled the British Mandate.

Following Israeli Declaration of Independence and the subsequent War of Independence, an additional 300,000 Palestinian Arabs evacuated the nascent Jewish state.

By the end of the war, approximately 160,000 Palestinian Arabs remained within the newly-formed State of Israel and gained full citizenship.

What Caused the Palestinian Exodus?

As opposed to what some might believe, there was no single cause for the Palestinian exodus between 1947 and 1949.

The following are some of the reasons that Palestinian Arabs left their homes during this period:

  • As mentioned earlier, some Palestinian Arabs initially left their homes in order to avoid the upcoming violent confrontation between the Palestinian Arab and Jewish communities.
  • Some Palestinian Arabs fled their villages during battles between Arab and Jewish/Israeli forces.
  • Some Palestinian Arabs fled due to rumors of Israeli atrocities (these rumors were spread separately by Arab propagandists as well as Israelis as a form of psychological warfare).
  • Some Palestinian Arabs fled at the behest of Arab military leaders who promised their return following a quick victory.
  • Some Palestinian Arabs fled for fear of being labeled traitors if they remained behind in the nascent Jewish state, and some Palestinian Arabs were forced from their homes by Jewish/Israeli forces due to their location in militarily strategic areas.

How Many Palestinians Fled Between 1947 and 1949?

Currently, there is no consensus as to how many Palestinian Arabs fled the region between 1947 and 1949.

The estimated number of initial Palestinian Arab refugees range from between 450,000 and 500,000 (according to a 1948 report by the United Nations and Israeli sources) to 750,000 (according to UNRWA), with some even claiming upwards of one million.

Part of the reason that the number of initial Palestinian refugees is not definitively known is that some Jordanian and Lebanese residents registered as Palestinian refugees, nomadic Bedouin Arabs registered as refugees, and some refugees were registered more than once as they moved from one refugee camp to the next.

The Eternal Refugees: The Political Manipulation of the Palestinian Refugees

The creation of the Palestinian refugees was not a unique chapter in world history, with the mid-to-late 1940s witness to the flight and expulsion of millions of people in India/Pakistan, eastern Europe, and China.

What separates the Palestinian refugees from these other refugee populations is that, until today, the Palestinians retain their refugee status and have never been allowed to fully integrate into the neighboring countries to which they fled.

During the Palestinian exodus, two-thirds of the refugees fled to the nearby West Bank (under Jordanian control) and Gaza Strip (under Egyptian control) while the rest fled to the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

Having just been defeated in their attempt to destroy Israel, these Arab states viewed the Palestinian refugees as a powerful political tool in their fight against the nascent Jewish state.

For these states, by refusing to integrate the Palestinian refugees into their societies, they hoped to apply pressure and have the international community force Israel to accept the return of the refugees, effectively creating a fifth column within the Jewish state’s borders.

Therefore, many of the Palestinian refugees were forced to live in squalid refugee camps (as opposed to already-established towns and cities) and were not granted equal rights.

Today, almost eight decades later, many of these refugees’ descendants live in the same refugee camps, continuing to serve as political tools for those who seek Israel’s destruction.

As well, even today, Palestinians in Syria are not granted citizenship or voting rights while those in Lebanon are barred from many professions, cannot access health services and public schools and are forbidden from owning property.

The only country to grant its Palestinian population citizenship was Jordan, after it took control of the West Bank in 1949.

At the same time as the Palestinian exodus, a Jewish refugee crisis also developed in the British Mandate/State of Israel. Thousands of Jews (estimates range from 10,000 to 70,000) fled and were expelled by Arab forces from Jewish communities like the Etzion Bloc, Old City of Jerusalem, and Beit Ha’Arava as hundreds of thousands of Jews fled to the nascent Jewish state following persecution in a variety of North African and Middle Eastern states.

However, these Jewish refugees were quickly resettled by the Israeli government and became fully integrated citizens.

Thus, while two refugee problems developed alongside the end of the British Mandate and the creation of the State of Israel, the Jewish refugee problem was quickly solved by the newly-formed Israel government while the Palestinian refugees have been condemned by their political leadership and the leadership of neighboring Arab countries to remain as eternal refugees, serving as political tools in a quixotic struggle against the Jewish state.

In December 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Association (UNRWA) was established by the United Nations General Assembly as a means by which to provide services and relief to Palestinian Arab and Jewish refugees displaced by the violence during the waning days of the British Mandate and the Israeli War of Independence.

However, by 1950, the Israeli government had taken full responsibility for the Jewish refugees and UNRWA’s attention became solely focused on the Palestinian Arab refugees living in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon (including those living in the refugee camps).

According to UNRWA, a Palestinian refugee is defined as someone who had lived in the British Mandate of Palestine between June 1, 1946, and May 15, 1948 (the day after the establishment of the State of Israel), and was displaced by the conflict.

Thus, for someone to claim refugee status, they need only have lived in the British Mandate of Palestine for a short period of time.

In addition, this definition also grants refugee status to those who were outside the country but were unable to return to their homes.

What separates the Palestinian refugees the most from other refugee populations are the special dispensations granted them by UNRWA.

For most international refugees, whose status is determined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the refugee status is held by the displaced person and can also be granted to their immediate family members as part of “family unity.”

However, under the special arrangement granted to Palestinian refugees by UNRWA resolutions in 1965 and 1982, all descendants of male Palestinian refugees are automatically granted refugee status. This includes grandchildren (which is not granted under the UNHCR) and adopted children.

In addition, the original Palestinian refugee does not need to be alive for their descendants to be granted refugee status. This dispensation does not exist under the UNHCR.

A further difference between Palestinian refugees and other refugees is that the UNHCR only allows those who have not been granted citizenship or been given the rights of a citizen (even without citizenship) by their places of refuge to claim refugee status.

However, this does not exist under UNRWA’s definition of a Palestinian refugee.

Thus, a Palestinian living in Jordan with Jordanian citizenship is still considered to be a Palestinian refugee.

Similarly, even though a Palestinian refugee living under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank or Gaza is treated no differently than the non-refugee population, they still maintain their refugee status.

Since 80% of registered Palestinian refugees live in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan, that means that a huge proportion of those claiming refugee status are only able to do so under UNRWA, not the normative UNHCR.

Following efforts by HonestReporting, the American government announced in January 2021 that approximately 200,000 Palestinian Arabs who were displaced in the 1940s were still alive, a far cry from the over five million (!) Palestinian refugees that UNRWA continues to support with over a billion dollars in international funding.

The inflated number of Palestinian refugees is not only a concern for those states that currently fund UNRWA.  As the future of the Palestinian refugees is one of the issues intended to be resolved by a final status agreement under the Oslo Accords, it is important that a proper number of refugees be determined in order to have good faith negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

UNRWA’s claim of more than five million refugees is seemingly the latest cynical manipulation of the Palestinian refugee issue in an effort to undermine the security and interests of the State of Israel.

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

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