The term Palestinian refugees refers to those Palestinians and their descendants who fled or were expelled from their homes in Mandatory Palestine during the year that followed the November 1947 passage of the United Nations partition plan resolution and those Palestinians who fled or were driven out during and immediately after the Arab-Israeli War of June 1967. Since the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the Palestine refugee problem has been one of the most intractable and controversial in the Arab-Israeli conflict, with bitter disputes over the causes of the flight, the total number of refugees, and possible solutions to the problem.
Because of ambiguities about the definition of refugees and the fact that there were only estimates of the original number who were in Palestine, there are no precise figures of the total number of Palestinian refugees. The figures provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which was established in 1949, are usually considered the most credible. The following is the UNRWA definition of Palestinian refugees:
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 [sic] home and his means of livelihood and took refuge in one of the countries where UNRWA provides relief. Refugees within this definition and the direct descendants of such refugees are eligible for Agency [UNRWA] assistance if they are: registered with UNRWA, living in the area of UNRWA operations and in need.
UNRWA refugee camps were established in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the West Bank. The number initially provided for by UNRWA in 1950 was 914,000.
By 2003, there were fifty-nine UNRWA camps located in five UNRWA field areas: the West Bank (nineteen camps), the Gaza Strip (eight camps), Jordan (ten), Lebanon (twelve), and Syria (ten). A total of 4,082,300 Palestinians—approximately 50 percent of all Palestinians worldwide—were registered with UNRWA as refugees by 2003. However, nearly a third of the refugees actually lived in camps; in Jordan, about 19 percent of the total refugee population lived in UNRWA camps, and in Lebanon more than 55 percent were camp residents. The largest refugee camps were in Gaza, four of which housed more than 60,000 inhabitants each. By the end of 2015, the number of Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA had grown to more than 5,240,000, of whom 1.5 million lived in fifty-eight recognized Palestine refugee camps.
The refugees who fled during 1947–48 left those parts of Palestine that became the State of Israel within boundaries defined by the 1949 armistice agreements with Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. They constituted about half the estimated 1,380,000 Arab population of Mandatory Palestine in May 1948. Palestinians, the Arab states, and their supporters maintained that the refugees were forced from their homes by Zionist (prior to May 1948) or Israeli military and paramilitary units. The government of Israel denied responsibility for the refugee flight. It blamed Palestinian leaders and the leaders of surrounding Arab countries, which Israel claimed had urged the refugees to flee. However, since 1985, Israeli scholars have documented many instances in which the Israeli military forced Palestinians to leave. Undisputed—and major—causes of the refugee flight were the collapse and near-total disruption of Palestinian society due to the chaos of the first Arab-Israeli war.
A second major refugee exodus followed the June 1967 war, when more than 300,000 Palestinians fled or were forced out of the Jordanian West Bank and the Egyptian-administered Gaza Strip, which were occupied by the Israeli army. Some 120,000 of these Palestinians were second-time refugees who had spent the previous twenty years in camps under Jordanian or Egyptian jurisdiction. In addition to the second-time refugees who had been displaced from their homes, thousands of indigenous West Bankers and Gazans fled. The latter were classified as “displaced persons” although they did receive UNRWA identification cards. In addition to those formally classified as refugees or displaced persons, there are tens of thousands of Palestinians unable to return to their homes in Israel or in the Occupied Territories as a result of restrictions placed on their return by the Israel government.
Since 1949–50 those classified as refugees by UNRWA have received assistance from the international organization, the amount determined by the economic situation of the individual refugee family. Initially, most refugees lived in camps established by U.N. agencies. However, by the 1990s, over 1,700,000 lived in cities, towns, or villages outside the camps, where they received from UNRWA education, health care, food rations, and other social services according to need. Annual expenditures for these services increased from $33.6 million a year in 1950 to over $397 million by 2002. As increasing numbers of refugees found employment or became partially self-sufficient, UNRWA's emphasis shifted from relief to education and technical training, so that more than half the organization's budget went for educational services by the 1990s and more than half its more than 20,000 employees served in the UNRWA school system.
The refugees initially lived in tents, but as it became apparent that they would not return to their homes soon, more permanent living quarters were constructed; by the 1990s, many camps were adjunctive to, or suburbs of, large urban centers such as Amman, Beirut, Damascus, and Jerusalem. Although the number of refugees has increased over five times, most camps have been unable to expand in area, resulting in extremely crowded and uncomfortable living conditions.
In most areas, the internal affairs of camps are run by the Palestinians themselves. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has played an important role in the political organization of the refugees and in establishment of services to supplement those of UNRWA. Refugee frustration with low wages, poor living conditions, and inability to return to Palestine has caused social and political unrest. Life for the refugees in Lebanon is difficult. They have problems in obtaining work permits and in finding employment in other than temporary unskilled jobs. The PLO initiated several projects to enable refugees to sustain themselves; these included handicraft workshops under the Martyrs’ Works Society (samed), a PLO organization for refugee economic rehabilitation. Some refugee camps became bases for Palestinian guerrilla activity, a condition that led to armed conflict between the Palestinians and various Lebanese militias as well as periodic clashes with Israel's armed forces. The refugees were active in the antiestablishment militias during the civil war from 1974 to 1995.
The Gulf crisis, 1990–91, affected Palestinians in two ways. First, more than 300,000 Palestinians, most of them with Jordanian passports, were forced to return to Jordan from Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states. Although they were not technically refugees, the haste of their relocation and their situation in Jordan were essentially those of refugees. The second, and potentially positive, consequence of the Gulf crisis occurred after the Madrid Peace Conference, 1991, when a refugee working group was established as one of five multilateral groups organized to deal with functional problems related to an overall peace settlement. For the first time since the Palestinian refugee problem emerged in 1947–48, this multinational group examined ways to resolve aspects of the refugee question, including the right of return, payment of compensation for Palestinian land left in Israel, refugee economic and social rehabilitation, and political status of refugees unable to return to their homeland. In the Oslo agreements between Israel and the Palestinian authorities, the refugee issue was deferred to the final status negotiations, which still has not taken place.
By 2016, the refugee problem seemed no closer to resolution nearly seventy years after the exodus of 1948. Many refugees who live outside historic Palestine feel that the PLO and the self-governing Palestinian Authority created in 1994 have ignored their plight and needs in order to focus on more specific issues relating to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The destruction of the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp in northern Lebanon in 2008 and the lengthy siege of the Yarmuk camp in Syria from 2012-15 during the Syrian Civil War are emblematic of the tentative nature of refugee life in the surrounding Arab countries. Within Palestine, the total Israeli siege of Gaza since 2006 and the frequent Israeli military assaults on the area have devastated refugee lives and livelihoods. Despite these problems, a number of Palestinian non-governmental organizations have been been very active in raising refugee concerns and demands to international public consciousness in the past twenty years, notably the right of return (see Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement).
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