“…the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and… compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property…”
UN General Assembly Resolution 194 on the situation in Palestine, December 1948
2019 marks 71 years since the expulsion and displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, villages and cities during the one-year conflict that created Israel in 1948. Since then, the Nakba (catastrophe), as it is known in Arabic to Palestinians, has been engraved in Palestinian collective consciousness as a story of relentless dispossession.
With currently more than 5.2 million registered refugees, Palestinians are one of the world’s largest refugee populations. The vast majority live in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), often not much farther than 100km away from their original homes and towns. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which operates exclusively in these countries and territories, estimates that more than 1.5 million of the more than 5.1 million refugees registered with it live in 58 recognized refugee camps, while the rest live in cities and towns. Some 100,000 others fall under the mandate of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and live in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Libya. Many Palestinian refugees face poverty and systematic human rights violations.
Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel, along with those of their descendants who have maintained genuine links with the area, have a right to return in line with international law. However, they have virtually no prospect of being allowed to return to their homes – many of which have been destroyed – or the villages and cities from where they come. Israel has never recognized their rights. They have never received compensation for their losses, and have virtually no prospect of being allowed to return. The vast majority of them do not have access to resettlement, which could alleviate their plight, particularly in places where their situation is precarious, such as Syria and the Gaza Strip, or where they face systematic discrimination, such as in Lebanon.
Over the decades, Palestinian refugees have faced multiple waves of displacement, with some losing their homes several times. In 1967, some 300,000 Palestinians were displaced following Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories – the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Since then, tens of thousands of others in the OPT have been made homeless or forcibly displaced again because of Israel’s aggressive land-grabbing and illegal settlement policies, home demolitions and forced evictions. Military offensives, particularly in the Gaza Strip, have further exacerbated displacement and dispossession. Elsewhere in the region, including in Jordan, Lebanon and more recently Syria, Palestinian refugees have been forced out of their homes as a result of armed conflicts and other violence.
More than 2 million Palestinians living in the OPT are registered as refugees with UNRWA: nearly 775,000 in the West Bank, and 1.26 million in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s 12-year-long blockade of the Gaza Strip – as well as Egypt’s closure of the Rafah border crossing, and destruction of cross-border tunnels – has badly affected refugees there, crippling the economy and leading to one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, consistently above 40%. Repeated armed conflicts between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza have seen thousands of civilians, the majority of them refugees, killed and injured in Israeli air strikes and shelling. Amnesty International believes that some of the attacks have amounted to war crimes. In the West Bank, Israeli forces frequently raid refugee camps and communities to arrest or collectively punish residents for protests or acts of violence carried out by a few. Excessive and unjustified force is commonly used during such raids, and refugees have been frequently injured and killed.
In Lebanon, most Palestinian refugees have had little choice but to live in overcrowded and deteriorating conditions in camps and informal “gatherings” – unofficial camps that lack basic infrastructure. Although most of the Palestinian refugees who are long-term residents of Lebanon were born there and have lived there all their lives, they cannot acquire Lebanese nationality and many remain stateless. Palestinian refugees are subjected to discriminatory laws and regulations that deny them the rights to own and inherit property, and prevent them from working in 39 professions, such as general medicine, law, engineering and fishing.
Palestinian refugees from Syria have been severely affected by the ongoing armed conflict and limited humanitarian access. According to UNRWA, almost all the 560,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria require assistance. Of these, some 120,000 have fled to neighbouring countries, including Lebanon and Jordan – both of which have imposed tight restrictions on their entry – and to Europe. The majority of those who have remained in Syria have been displaced multiple times and have been disproportionately affected by the conflict, due to their proximity to conflict areas inside Syria and high rates of poverty.
Some 2.1 million Palestinian refugees live in Jordan. According to UNRWA, approximately 370,000 of them live in 10 camps across the country, many in sub-standard conditions, often in poverty. The vast majority of Palestinian refugees have full Jordanian citizenship and, as a result, have the same access to health care and education as other Jordanian citizens. However, some 158,000 Palestinian refugees who fled to Jordan from the Gaza Strip following the 1967 Israeli-Arab armed conflict were not naturalized. In addition, the Jordanian authorities have withdrawn Jordanian nationality from thousands of citizens of Palestinian origin with roots in the West Bank since 1988. These Palestinians without Jordanian nationality are only able to obtain a temporary passport, renewable every two years, and are denied the right to work, own property and access public health care and education.
Meanwhile, UNRWA, which provides essential services, including health care, education, emergency assistance and jobs, to millions of Palestinian refugees, has been struggling for years to find funding for its operations. The recent decision by the US administration to cut funding has only exacerbated the crisis, threatening the delivery of UNRWA’s emergency assistance.
Seventy years on from their expulsion, the suffering and displacement of Palestinian refugees are ongoing realities. Amnesty International recognizes that the responsibility for this suffering goes beyond that of the host states and is rooted in the Palestinian exodus of 1948 and Israel’s denial of their right to return. However, host states must protect and fulfil the rights of Palestinian refugees within their jurisdiction. These states must repeal or revise all laws and policies that discriminate against Palestinian refugees and immediately take steps to improve conditions in the Palestinian refugee camps and informal “gatherings”.