Palestinian refugees: The region’s silent victims

The people of Syria are going through years of hell, and this fate has not escaped the Palestinians refugees there

Yossi Mekelberg

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A very necessary reminder of the plight of the Palestinian refugees came this week with a sizeable donation of $50,000 to UNWRA. Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani education activist who survived a Taliban attempt on her life, donated the money to help with the reconstruction of U.N. schools, which were badly damaged during the recent fighting in Gaza. The 17-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner opted to channel the money through UNWRA, the U.N. agency in charge for 65 years for the wellbeing of the Palestinian refugees in the region. This gesture of goodwill highlighted for a brief moment both the desperate and pressing need of the millions of Palestinian refugees for international aid and the extraordinary role of UNWRA in relieving some of their suffering in almost impossible circumstances. The last few years since the beginning of the Arab Spring, especially the civil war in Syria, and the cycle of violence with Israel in Gaza, exacerbated an already wretched situation. Despite this, the voice of the Palestinian refugees is hardly heard on the international stage. Other developments in the region and elsewhere seem to attract more attention, while the refugees themselves are bogged down with their daily predicament of survival.

The plight of the Palestinian refugees is not only humanitarian; it is first and foremost a political one, not to mention a moral one

Yossi Mekelberg

The people of Syria are going through years of hell, and this fate has not escaped the Palestinians refugees there. According to UNWRA reports, half of the approximately 540,000 registered Palestinian refugees have been displaced within Syria, with a further 12 per cent having fled to neighbouring countries. The original refugees and their descendants find themselves once again forced to seek out refuge. They are fleeing mainly to Lebanon and Jordan, but also to Gaza and Egypt, not to mention those who risk their lives by trying to escape by sea. Recent outbreaks of violence in Gaza, where two thirds of the 1.8 million people are registered as refugees, left many dead and injured and the infrastructure, including many schools and hospitals, in ruins. UNWRA is expected to provide for ever increasing needs and demands, despite resources that never match these growing demands, accompanied by intolerable political pressures, especially from Israel and the United States.

Daily suffering

In the wake of the daily suffering of the Palestinian refugees, there is the danger of forgetting that the plight of the Palestinian refugees is not only a humanitarian one; it is first and foremost a political one, not to mention a moral one. Ensuring the well-being of the refugees wherever they are, guaranteeing their security, health and shelter, as well as continued great educational achievements by UNWRA is paramount. However, it is unbearable and unsustainable that generation after generation of people are stateless, live in refugee camps, and have in many cases almost no civil and political rights. Events in Syria and Gaza, particularly illustrate the vulnerability of the lives of refugees with little or no protection from arbitrary acts by governments.

There are major variations in the conditions of Palestinian refugees in their various host countries (Jordan, the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Syria and Lebanon), in terms of citizenship and other rights. Nevertheless, the lack of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians prolongs their state of uncertainty and deprives them of closure, which is badly needed in order to allow them to move on with their lives. The lack of solution constantly increases the magnitude of the Palestinian refugee problem because of natural growth and changing political circumstances. In 1948 there were “only” 750,000 refugees, compared to today’s figures of more than five million. As refugees, especially in times of internal strife, their physical safety and well-being have always been at the mercy of their host countries, or the Israelis in the occupied territories. Their political status is a reflection of the ethnic, religious and political power configuration within the host countries. Jordan, which has the biggest concentration of the Palestinian refugees, has granted most of them full Jordanian citizenship. In Lebanon, on the other hand, they are not only stateless, but deprived of many basic rights, including access to many professions. Under the Israeli occupation, rights are subject to the occupier’s will and capricious behavior.

Deliberate denial

Israel still collectively and deliberately denies its contribution to the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. It might be able to argue that it was not solely responsible, or that other countries in the region did not do their utmost to support and absorb the Palestinian refugees along the years. This, however, does not exonerate Israel from her part in creating the tragedy in the first place, and her moral responsibility in resolving it. One of Israel’s most prominent philosophers, Martin Buber, advised the first Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion already in 1949 that in regards to the Palestinian refugees: "We will have to face the reality that Israel is neither innocent, nor redemptive. And that in its creation, and expansion; we as Jews, have caused what we historically have suffered; a refugee population in Diaspora." Had Ben Gurion or any of his successors acknowledged this notion and acted to rectify it, the state of conflict between the two people might have been less dire.

The Palestinian refugees, as any refugees, have the right to expect some level of restitution. This includes not only addressing the material compensation, as important as it is, but also addressing their psychological needs. A good start would be for Israel to acknowledge and apologise for its part in forcing Palestinians out of their homes. Moreover, recognising that as any other refugees, the Palestinian refugees have a right to return to their old homes inside Israel, even if, as the refugees themselves recognise, the right will not be exercised by the vast majority of them. They would rather, according to the available research, become citizens of a future Palestinian State or of their current host counties. Others would prefer to move into Israel or even emigrate outside the region. Successive Israeli governments have employed scaremongering. The suggestion that millions of Palestinian refugees would move into Israel and take over the Jewish State, has been a tool of abating peace negotiation from reaching a successful conclusion. In addition UNWRA became the punching bag of Israeli politicians. Instead of recognising that UNWRA, by assuming the mantle of caring for the refugees, spares Israel the responsibility, at least in occupied West Bank and Gaza. UNWRA is associated more than any other international organization with helping the Palestinian refugees, a task which has not always been received with the recognition and gratitude it deserves from all sides. It is not UNWRA that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem, as Israeli politicians argue, but the lack of political solution which is to blame.

The Palestinian refugees, and the need for UNWRA to deliver its services for so many decades, are a most striking evidence of the failure to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end. Any peace agreement which does not take into account all the complex issues of the refugees inside and outside the occupied territories would carry very little weight. This should include full citizenship and political rights, recognition of their suffering and adequate compensation. In the meantime, in the absence of such a solution, the Palestinians, regrettably, remain vulnerable wherever they are with very limited prospects for a better future.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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