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Summary Article: Palestinian Refugees
from Immigration and Asylum from 1900 to Present

Two bitter struggles came to a climax in 1948 in the former British-mandated Palestine: One was the birth of the state of Israel; the other was the Nakbah, or Catastrophe, a term used to describe the 1947–1948 War in Palestine, when armed Jewish militias occupied most of Palestine and forced the indigenous people to flee. More than 750,000 Palestinian people left their homes and places of work and took refuge in camps hastily set up by the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.

A special agency was set up in December 1949 by the United Nations, named the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), to manage Palestinian refugee camps and provide health, education, and humanitarian aid. The largest number of Palestinian refugees is found in Jordan, with more than 1.6 million registered with UNRWA. Syria acknowledges 391,651 registered Palestinian refugees. In Lebanon, 382,973 Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA, and 53 percent of them live in official refugee camps. In the West Bank, 37

Table P-1: UNRWA Refugee Camps, 2001
Area of Operations Official Camps Registered Refugees Registered Refugees in Camps
Source: UNRWA
Jordan 10 1,639,718 287,951
Lebanon 12 382,973 214,728
Syria 10 391,651 109,466
West Bank 19 607,770 163,139
Gaza Strip 8 852,626 460,031
UNRWA Totals 59 3,874,738 1,235,315

percent of the population—607,770 Palestinians—is made up of refugees, and in Gaza, 852,626 Palestinian refugees make up 75 percent of the total population (see Table P-1).

Today, Palestinians rank as the largest refugee population after the Afghanis. Globally, one in three refugees is a Palestinian. Despite its dramatic scale and longevity, the Palestinian refugee problem remains poorly comprehended. Understanding why the Palestinian case has remained marginalized and unresolved for more than half a century requires coming to terms with the way their recent history is intertwined with the aspirations of the European Jewish diaspora. This, in turn, calls for a focus on historical events in early twentieth-century Europe, especially the emergence of Zionism as well as the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I, when the League of Nations awarded various European states guardianship, or mandated authority, over the former territory of the Ottoman Empire.

Who Are the Palestinians?

The term “Palestinian” refers to the direct descendants of the ancient Philistines, Canaanites, and Hebrews. With the exception of a brief period in the eleventh and twelve centuries when the Crusaders ruled the region, the Arabs in Palestine maintained an uninterrupted presence as the majority population until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. In 1880, for example, Palestinian Christians and Muslim Arabs represented 94 percent of the population (300,000), while Arab Jews and European Jewish settlers accounted for 6 percent (24,000). Even in 1947, after nearly half a century of European Jewish settlement projects in Palestine, the indigenous Palestinian Arabs still accounted for nearly 70 percent of the total population (Farsoun and Zacharia 1997, 74).

The End of Empires

Between the sixteenth century and the end of World War I, Palestine was an integral part of the Ottoman Empire. As this empire began to crumble prior to the end of World War I, European powers vied for control of the Arab Ottoman provinces. Between July 1915 and March 1916, Sir Henry McMahon corresponded with the sharif of Mecca, al-Amir Hussein. Their exchanges resulted in the McMahon/Hussein Treaty whereby Great Britain agreed to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs, should they revolt against the Ottomans. In May, Sir Mark Sykes, secretary to the British War Cabinet, negotiated a contradictory agreement with France and Russia. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, named after Sykes and French diplomat Georges Picot, would have the lands of the Arab Ottoman Empire divided up so that France would take the territories that would emerge as Syria and Lebanon, Britain would take control of what would become Iraq and Transjordan, and Palestine would be placed under international administration, with Russia agreeing to the management of Jerusalem (Tannous 1988, 62–63). The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, however, undermined that agreement, when Russia withdrew and divulged the Sykes-Picot Agreement to the rest of the world.

The Emergence of European Zionism

Zionism emerged in the dying days of the nineteenth century as a modern political movement. In 1897, the World Zionist Organization was established in Basel, Switzerland, as the brainchild of Theodor Herzl, who became its first head. In his book Der Judenstaat (1896), he proposed the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine or Argentina as a means of solving what was then known as the “Jewish question,” which encompassed the lack of a homeland or state for the Jews in an era of nation-states and rising anti-Semitism in Europe. After some debate, Palestine, through its close association with the Old Testament, became the focus of this effort, and Herzl suggested that such a Jewish state would be like a “rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism” (1896, chapter 2). The objective of this Zionist initiative was to settle Palestine with Jewish immigrants. Success would require the transfer, forced or otherwise, of the indigenous population so as to ensure a majority (European) Jewish population in the predominantly Arab state. Initially, immigration to Palestine was unsystematic and financed by the French banker Baron Edmund de Rothschild. A second phase emerged, however, when the financing of settlements was turned over to the Jewish Colonization Association, a spin-off of the World Zionist Organization, and when Lord Rothschild persuaded James Balfour and the British political elite to support the establishment of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

Jewish protest demonstrations against Palestine White Paper. One of the big posters displayed previous day. 1939. (Library of Congress)

In 1917—less than a year after the Sykes-Picot Agreement had been signed—the Balfour Declaration was revealed. On November 2, 1917, Lord James Balfour, the British foreign secretary, sent Lord Rothschild, a British leader of the Zionist movement in London, a letter pledging support for the establishment in Palestine of a “national home for the Jewish people.”

Foreign Office

November 2, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His majesty’s government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which have been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet. “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,

Arthur James Balfour

With the close of World War I, the League of Nations was established, and in its covenant, signed in 1919, the Palestinian people were recognized as an independent nation placed “provisionally” under British mandate. Other Arab peoples, who were under the rule of the defeated Ottoman Empire, were also placed under mandate, some British and others French. In 1922, the League of Nations issued the British Mandate and incorporated the Balfour Declaration into its articles, perhaps not recognizing that a fundamental inconsistency now existed in its articles of incorporation. On the one hand, the British Mandate required Great Britain to act as “custodian” (in Article 22 of the covenant) to the Palestinian people, who were “not yet able to stand by themselves” as an independent state. On the other, the incorporation of the Balfour Declaration into the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine [Articles 2, 4, 6, and 7] clearly contradicted significant parts of the original covenant. These articles allowed Great Britain to consult with the Jewish Agency (a powerful, autonomous, parastate structure with international reach that the Mandate specifically enjoined the British to establish and assist under terms set out by the League of Nations) on matters pertaining to land, Jewish immigration to Palestine, and settlement, without referring to or consulting with the indigenous Palestinian people.

Over the next three decades, the Jewish percentage of the population of mandated Palestine was to alter dramatically. In 1918, the Arab population of Palestine was estimated at 700,000, including 574,000 Muslims, 70,000 Christians, and 56,000 Jews. By 1944, the number of Jews in Palestine was as much as 135,000 out of a total population of 1,739,624. Between 1946 and 1948, the number of Jews in Palestine increased to 700,000, or about a third of the total population of approximately 2,115,000 (Hadawi 1979, 4; Farsoun and Zacharia 1997, 79).

Much of the land purchase in Palestine during this period was not by individuals but by political agencies of the Zionist movement, such as the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Colonization Association, and took the form of land acquisition from mostly absentee Arab landowners. The land, however, was inhabited mainly by Palestinian tenant farmers, and this constituted a problem for the Jewish Agency. Clearing the land for the newly arriving Jewish settlers became an important goal of the Jewish Agency. Josef Weitz, for example, the director of the Jewish National Fund’s Land Department, wrote in his diary on December 20, 1937: “Among ourselves it must be clear there is no room for both peoples in this country. . . . And the only solution is the land of Israel, or at least the Western land of Israel (Palestine), without Arabs. There is no room for compromise on this point” (Weitz, quoted in Morris 1989, 27).

The 1936–1939 Palestinian Rebellion

The rapid rate at which land was being purchased by the Jewish National Fund and other agencies, as well as the increasing rate of Jewish immigration and settlement, alarmed the Palestinian Arabs, who began to widen their protest against what they perceived as threats to their livelihood and political future (Khalidi 1984, 86). In addition, they began to realize that British military institutions were cooperating with the paramilitary Jewish organizations, such as the Haganah, the Irgun, and the Stern Gang, by providing them with military training and arms, and that they were being prevented from arming themselves or developing self-defense mechanisms. Palestinian resistance to what the Arabs regarded as a colonization of their land was met with British abolition of civil law, whereby Palestinian Arabs, but not Jews, were subjected to emergency law and military courts, and the discharge of arms or carrying of weapons was punishable by death (Tannous 1988, 230). The Palestinian Arabs also gradually came to feel that the British Mandate Authority was not providing them with any assistance in creating civil and political institutions for self-government. On November 2, 1935, the first organized Palestinian Arab military operation, led by Sheikh Izzedine al-Qassim, was carried out near Haifa as a response to what they regarded as efforts to dispossess them. Sheikh Izzedine’s death sparked a protracted Palestinian Arab rebellion that was to last three years. During this period, Palestinian Arab leaders spontaneously formed the Arab Higher Committee and called on various organizations to go on strike until the British allowed them to form a national government.

Following the 1936–1939 rebellion, the British-mandated authority modified its position vis-à-vis the Palestinians. The 1939 White Paper, which followed the Royal Peel Commission of Inquiry, proposed to make Palestine independent in ten years, restricting land transfers and Jewish immigration according to the absorptive capacity of Palestine. The Arab High Commission rejected the White Paper because it did not explicitly include a commitment to the independence of Palestine’s Arab population.

The Zionist leadership also rejected the White Paper, and in 1942, 600 Jewish delegates met in New York to express their opposition to it. The delegates demanded the establishment of a Jewish army, their own flag, and untrammeled immigration to Palestine for the Jews. More important, the White Paper prompted Zionist armed attacks on British targets. The most infamous of these included, in November 1944, the assassination of the British minister of state in Cairo, Lord Moyne, by the Stern Gang, led by Yitzhak Shamir, and in 1946, the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by the Irgun, under the leadership of Menachim Begin. Before long, the British came to perceive the conflict in Palestine as an economic and political burden, and early in 1947 the British government declared the Mandate unworkable and announced the imminent withdrawal of its troops, handing over the conflict to the United Nations to find a solution.

The UN Partition Plan of 1947

In 1947, the United Nations dispatched a Commission of Inquiry by the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to the region. The commission returned and proposed the partition of Palestine, and on November 29, 1947, the United Nations passed General Assembly Resolution 181, also known as the Partition Plan. According to the plan, the Jewish state was to comprise 56.4 percent of the territory, while the area allocated to the Palestinian Arab state would comprise 42.8 percent. Jerusalem was to become an international zone. At the time, Jews owned 7 percent of the total land area in Palestine; Palestinian Arabs owned the rest. By this time, Palestinian Arabs constituted nearly 66 percent of the population of Palestine (Farsoun and Zacharia 1997, 77–80).

The Declaration of the State of Israel, 1948

The day following the rejected UN Partition Plan, armed conflict spread throughout Palestine. Zionist paramilitary organizations—especially the Haganah and the international volunteers who came to assist them—engaged in a system of what David Ben-Gurion called “aggressive defence,” by which every Arab attack would be met with decisive counteraction, destruction of the site, expulsion of its residents, and seizure of the location. In March 1948, “Plan Dalet” was put into effect with the aim of capturing Arab villages, neighborhoods, and towns. The following month, two events sent shockwaves throughout Palestine and the rest of the Arab world: the death of Abd al-Qader al-Husseini while defending the Arab village of Al-Qastal, and the Irgun and Stern Gang massacre at Deir Yassin village. It led the Arab states, assembled in an Arab League, to consider intervention in Palestine with their regular armies (Farsoun and Zacharia 1997, 114).

When the Arab armies decided to intervene, most of the major cities and towns in Palestine had already fallen to the Haganah and other Jewish militias. Among the Jewish fighting force, there were 52,000 men in the Haganah, 14,000 in the Jewish Settlement Police (which had been trained and armed by the British), and 27,000 World War II veterans, as well as numerous paramilitary groups. Benny Morris described the emergence of the Haganah: “In the course of that year [1948], it [the Haganah] emerged and efficiently functioned as a large conventional force, beating first the Palestinian Arab militias and then the combined irregular and regular armies of the Arab states. By April–May 1948, it was conducting brigade-size offensives, by July, multi-brigade operations; and by October, divisional, multi-front offensives” (Morris 1987, 22).

Displaced Palestinians sitting in front of a tent, ca. 1993. (Peter Turnley/Corbis)

The Haganah—soon to be renamed the Israeli Defence Force (IDF)—and other Jewish militias were superior to the local Palestinian forces and Arab armies combined. Most of these Arab states had only just snatched their independence from French or British mandate and were not prepared for international campaigns. Egypt was still in a semicolonial relationship with Great Britain. Lebanon and Syria had only just been granted a grudging independence from France in 1946 and 1943, respectively. And Jordan’s King Abdullah was alleged to have given orders to his British-commanded Arab legion to secure only the part of Palestine—the West Bank—allotted to him in secret talks with the Zionist leadership.

The Palestinian Arabs were defeated, and on Friday, May 15, 1948, Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the state of Israel. Henceforth, 1948 marked two contrasting historical experiences: for the Zionists, it was the culmination of the dream of creating a Jewish state as a means to put an end to European anti-Semitism; for Palestinian Arabs, it was the time of expulsion and destruction of their land and society.

The Palestinian Diaspora

By the middle of 1948, nearly 750,000 Palestinian Arabs had fled their homes and villages. The official state Israeli historiography claims that the refugees fled because they were enticed and encouraged by Arab governments. This claim has been refuted by the new Israeli historians, who have found no evidence to show that either the leaders of the Arab states or the mufti (religious leader) ordered or encouraged the mass exodus of April 1948 (Morris 1989; Pappe 1999; Shlaim 1988; Palumbo 1987).

The dramatic and abrupt dispossession and displacement of Palestinian Arabs in 1948 attracted significant international attention. In June, Joseph Weitz, director of the Jewish National Fund, and David Ben-Gurion met and put forward a plan for preventing the return of refugees to their home. This plan was formalized and adopted by the Israeli Cabinet on June 16. Arab governments refused to integrate Palestinian refugees, maintaining that this would threaten their right of return to their homes in Palestine.

On September 16, the UN mediator in Palestine, Count Folke Bernadotte, submitted his recommendations to the UN General Assembly. His report reaffirmed the refugees’ right to return to their homes as well as their right to restitution and compensation. A day after this submission, he was assassinated by the Stern Gang. Nevertheless, the widely quoted UN Resolution 194, based on his recommendations, was passed on December 11, 1948.

With the transformation of the Haganah into the IDF, the Israeli state moved quickly to consolidate legislation hindering Palestinians from returning and reclaiming their confiscated property. The measures included the Nationality Law of 1952, which placed many restrictions on non-Jews, namely Palestinian Arabs, for the purpose of excluding the largest possible number of 1948 refugees from eligibility for Israeli citizenship, and numerous laws regarding property rights, such as the Absentees Property Law, which allowed the transfer of property of displaced Palestinians to Jewish citizens. This law also applied to Palestinians who were internally displaced and had fled their homes and villages temporarily during the armed conflicts. Others were forcibly evicted. These Palestinians in the state of Israel became the “Present Absentees.” Those who managed to remain in the Palestinian territories that became Israel in 1948 numbered approximately 150,000, and 25 percent of them became internally displaced persons.

Upon their expulsion, Palestinian refugees sought shelter in neighboring countries, primarily in the West Bank and Gaza (which had fallen under the control of Jordan and Egypt, respectively), Lebanon, and Syria. The majority of Palestinians believed their expulsion would end in a matter of days—at most a few weeks. Most had not carried their belongings with them, and many had left their doors open while others took their keys. Today, many hold on to the keys to their homes as a symbol of hope and resistance to exile.

After their initial expulsion during and consequent to the 1947–1948 war, Palestinians were subjected to further displacement. During the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, Israel occupied the remaining 22 percent of Palestine, namely the West Bank and Gaza, as well as other Arab territory. As a result of the 1967 war, approximately 350,000 Palestinians were uprooted from the West Bank and Gaza—over half of them for the second time. The Israeli invasion into Lebanon in 1982 resulted in the death and displacement of thousands of Palestinians in refugee camps in that country. The 1991 Gulf War caused another mass forced migration of Palestinians from Arab countries, estimated at 350,000—mainly from Kuwait. In the middle of the 1990s, Libya evicted its Palestinian community of some 30,000. Many of them straddled the Libyan-Egyptian border for months, and some remained for over a year, unable to return to Palestine or find a country that would allow them in.

Radical Changes and Uprisings

In 1974, the Arab states recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people at a meeting in Rabat, Morocco. They reaffirmed the Palestinian right to self-determination and sovereignty. The PLO, however, was considerably weakened during the 1982 Israeli invasion into Lebanon, and its leadership was sent into exile in Tunisia.

In 1987, a popular uprising (intifada) carried out by Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza eventually led to promises of peace in 1993 as well as to the transformation of elements of the previously exiled PLO into the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in the West Bank and Gaza. The “interim period” of the Oslo peace process (1993–2000) offered hope to the Palestinians for a short period. After the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish fundamentalist in 1995, and a Hamas-led bombing campaign, which helped ensure Shimon Peres’s defeat in the 1996 Israeli elections, succeeding Israeli governments showed little commitment to the peace process. After the failure of the Camp David Summit in July 2000, Palestinians rose up again in a protest that has left more than 1,600 Palestinians dead, with more than 20,000 injured or maimed (more than 600 Israelis have also died and over 4,000 have been injured). Furthermore, thousands of Palestinian homes have been demolished and more than 100,000 olive trees uprooted.

Although the uprising was sparked by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Muslim holy site of the al-Aqsa mosque, the underlying causes of this uprising (the al-Aqsa Intifada) lie in the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and Israel’s disregard for and violation of international law standards as defined in specific UN resolutions. For example, UN General Assembly Resolution 194 resolved that Palestinian refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so. Furthermore, it was resolved that a commission be set up to facilitate repatriation, resettlement, and economic and social rehabilitation of the Palestinian refugees and the payment of compensation. Furthermore, UN Security Council Resolution 242 called for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in 1967 (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) and the termination of all claims or states of belligerency.

See also: Genocide; Israel; Jewish Diaspora; Jewish Immigration (UK); UN Relief Workers Agency and Palestinian Refugees

References and further reading:
  • Abu-Sitta, Salman. 1998. The Palestinian Nakba, 1948: The Register of Depopulated Localities in Palestine. London: Palestine Return Centre.
  • Brand, Laurie. 1988. Palestinians in the Arab World: Institution Building and the Search for Statehood. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Farah, Randa. 1996. “Popular Memory and Reconstructions of Palestinian Identity.” In Palestine, Palestiniens. Territoire national, espaces communautaires. Edited by Destremau, Blandine, Bocco, Riccardo, and Hannoyer, Jean. Amman: CERMOC.
  • Farsoun, Samih, and Zacharia, Christina. 1997. Palestine and the Palestinians. Boulder: Westview.
  • Hadawi, Sami. 1963. Palestine: Loss of Heritage. San Antonio: Naylor.
  • Herzl, Theodor. 1947 [1896]. Der Judensaat [The Jewish State]. Translated by Sylvie D’Avigdor. New York: American Zionist Emergency Council.
  • Hourani, Albert. 1991. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Khalidi, Rashid. 1997. Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Khalidi, Walid. 1984. Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876–1948. Washington, DC: Institute of Palestine Studies.
  • Masalha, Nur. 1997. A Land without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians, 1949–96. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Morris, Benny. 1989. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Nazzal, Nafez. 1978. The Palestinian Exodus from Galilee, 1948. Beirut: Institute of Palestine Studies.
  • Palumbo, Michael. 1987. The Palestinian Catastrophe. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Pappe, Ilan. 1999. The Israel/Palestinian Question: Rewriting Histories. London: Routledge.
  • Rogan, Eugene, and Shlaim, Avi, eds. 2001. The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Said, Edward. 1994. The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969–1994. New York: Pantheon.
  • Sayigh, Rosemary. 1979. Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries. London: Zed.
  • Shlaim, Avi. 1988. Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Tamari, Salim. 1996. Palestinian Refugee Negotiations: From Madrid to Oslo II. Washington, DC: Institute of Palestine Studies.
  • Tannous, Izzat. 1988. The Palestinians: Eyewitness History of Palestine under the British Mandate. New York: I. G. T.
  • Zureik, Elia. 1996. Palestinian Refugees and the Peace Process. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies.
  • Dawn Chatty

    Randa Farah
    Copyright © 2005 by Matthew J. Gibney and Randall Hansen

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