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Palestinian Refugees

"Palestine refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict"
- UNRWA's operational definition.

Palestinians are the largest single group of refugees in the world. Their fate is one of continual controversy further complicated by disputes on how to define a ‘displaced’ Palestinian. Thus far, no progress on a solution has been made whilst the fate of the 1948 refugees is widely ignored.

  • Who are the Palestinian Refugees?

Over the course of the 20th century, the Palestinian people have experienced several periods of major displacement, beginning in 1947-48 during the first Arab-Zionist/Israeli war, followed by a second major displacement in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and again as recently as 1991 when some 350,000 Palestinians were displaced from Kuwait during the Gulf War. Additional displacement has resulted from Israeli government policies and practices inside Israel and in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories, including land confiscation, house demolition, revocation of residency status, and deportation, as well as government policies and armed conflict in various countries of asylum in the region.

Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendents comprise the bulk of the Palestinian refugee population today numbering over 5 million persons and constituting nearly two-thirds of the Palestinian people. If one includes Palestinians displaced for the first time in the 1967 war and internally displaced Palestinians inside Israel, approximately three-quarters of the Palestinian people have been uprooted from their traditional lands over the past five decades, making Palestinian refugees the largest and one of the longest standing unresolved refugee cases in the world today. The majority of these refugees reside within 100 miles of their places of origin inside Israel and in the occupied West Bank (including eastern Jerusalem), and the Gaza Strip but are unable to exercise their right to return to their homes and lands of origin. The state of Israel opposes the return of Palestinian refugees based on the desire to maintain Israel as a "Jewish state" characterized by a solid demographic Jewish majority and Jewish control of the land.

  • Today’s Facts

The work of UNRWA, the Agency of the United Nations charged with the welfare of the Palestine refugees, has provided much of the humanitarian services essential to the welfare of the refugees, particularly in the fields of education, health, relief, services and employment opportunities. Today over 3.9 million Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA, of these some one third live inside one of the 59 UNRWA camps. The other two-thirds of the registered refugees live in and around the cities and towns of the host countries, and in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, often in the environs of official camps. Socio-economic conditions in the camps are generally poor with a high population density, cramped living conditions and inadequate basic infrastructure such as roads and sewers. Every year the population amount of refugees increases by almost 3%

The UNRWA definition of a ‘Palestine refugee’ was developed to meet a condition, not to satisfy a theory. It was elaborated for operational purposes to determine which persons were eligible for UNRWA assistance. Displaced persons are people who fled in 1967; they are not regarded as registered refugee by UNWRA, or as refugees by the United Nations’ definition. For the Israeli, the term refugee, referring to the Arabs who fled, is wrongly applied; they were merely considered to be migrants who should have been absorbed by the neighbouring Arab states in the same way that the newly created state of Israel absorbed more than 500,000 Jews from all over the Middle East

General Assembly Resolution 194 adopted in December 1948, although not defining the term ‘Palestinian refugee’, under this resolution the refugees and their descendants have a right to compensation and repatriation to their original homes and land, because they have suffered “loss of or damage to property, which, under principles of international law or in equity should be made good by the government or authorities responsible”

  • Background

The Palestinian refugee problem arose not from a conflict in which, as claimed, the Zionist forces overcame overwhelming odds against the Arab armies and the Palestinian population voluntarily left. But from a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing. The results of which are apparent in the Palestinian refugee camps across the Arab world and in the Palestinian Diaspora. The policies continue to this day in Jerusalem and across the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

In November 1917 while the territory was under British occupation, the British declared they would support the establishment in Palestine of ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ providing there were proper safeguards for ‘the existing non-Jewish communities’. Thereby acceding to Zionist demands. Many making up the historic Jewish population in Palestine did not necessarily support these demands; in fact, one indigenous Jewish leader described Zionism as evil.

Terror and Dispossession: Jewish underground terrorist groups such as Haganah, Irgun and Stern were commanded to terrorise the Palestinian streets, destroy villages and slaughter entire Palestinian families. 34 massacres were committed within a few months: Al-Abbasiyya, Beit Daras, Bir Al-Saba', Al-Kabri, Haifa, Qisarya… These attacks aimed to annihilate the entire Palestinian territory and population (so-called Plan D), 50% of the Palestinian villages were destroyed in 1948 and many cities were cleared from its Palestinian population: Aker, Bir Al-Saba', Bisan, Al-Lod, Al-Majdal, Nazareth, Haifa, Tiberias, Jaffa, West-Jerusalem…Israeli forces killed an estimated 13,000 Palestinians. They forcibly evicted 737,166 Palestinians from the homes and land. 418 Palestinian villages were entirely depopulated and destroyed. The Palestinian populations in Aker, Bir Al-Saba', Haifa, Jaffa, Lydda, Al-Majdal, Al Ramla, Safad, Tiberias, and West Jerusalem were almost entirely removed. A conservative total, almost three-quarters of a million Palestinians were made refugees.

1967 War: the tragedy of the refugees continued in 1967 with the outbreak of the war creating a new wave of refugees. That year Israel occupied the rest of the Palestinian territories and many Palestinians were uprooted for the second time: 15,000 fled from the West Bank, 38,000 fled from the Gaza Strip and 16,000 fled from the Golan Heights. They found shelter in surrounding countries, such as Jordan, Syria and Egypt.

Prohibition of return: After the establishment of Israel, legislation followed that firstly denied the Palestinians the right to return home and secondly took away their homes and land. These laws continue to be in force. Israel has legislated to deny Palestinians the opportunity to return to their homes and Jewish settlers took over all what was left from Palestinian facilities, such as schools, hospitals, houses and abandoned lands. Settlements were built on the remains of the destroyed villages and the properties of these villages were given to the newly arrived Jewish immigrants that settled in the empty Arab housing. Israel has refused to offer adequate compensation or restitution, yet at the same time, Israel has discriminated in favour of Jews by allowing them to migrate to Israel without having established any previous connection with the country. The Law of Return is a keystone of Israeli policy. Jews, regardless of their nationality, are offered Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. The Law of Return is also open to those related by marriage or birth to a Jew, including the grandchildren of a Jew. In other words, a non-Jew may claim Israeli citizenship. 2,585,000 have invoked the Law or Return to migrate to Israel. Palestinians, however, who may still have homes in what is now Israel, have been denied the right to return. The Law of Return directly discriminates against Palestinians even though under international law they the right to be repatriated. The denial of the right of return is a continuing breach of Article 2 and Article 5(d) of Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. The continuing refusal by Israel to grant nationality to Palestinians who resided in Palestine prior to 1948 breaches Article 5(d)(iii). The failure to provide legal means to pursue compensation and restitution is a violation of Article 5(a) of the same treaty. It is also a violation of Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.

The Absentees: Israel has passed a series of laws in which the property of Palestinians has been expropriated, in breach of international norms, and transferred to Jewish ownership. Following the Nakba in 1948 Israel passed the Absentees’ Property Law of 1950. This created an office known as the Custodian for Absentee Property, in which the legal and equitable title of absentee property was entirely divested from the property’s Palestinian owners. An absentee is set out in Section 1 of the statute: It is a national or citizen of Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Trans-Jordan, Iraq, or the Yemen, (Section 1(b)(1)(i)), or was in any part of Palestine or a neighbouring country, (Section 1(b)(1)(ii)); or a Palestinian citizen. (Section 1(b)(1)(iii)), and, who was absent from his property after 29 November 1947, (Section 1(b)(1)), and if a Palestinian had left for a neighbouring country (Section 1(b)(1)(iii)(a)) or in an area controlled by an enemy force of Israel (Section 1(b)(1)(iii)(b)). An absentee could see the return of his property if he could prove he had left his place of residence only “for fear that the enemies of Israel might cause him harm”, (Section 27(1)), or, “otherwise than by reason or of fear of military operations”. (Section 27(2)). The law then excludes the majority of Palestinians and other nationals of neighbouring countries who had, it is commonly stated, fled in fear of attack from Israeli forces. It has been estimated that some 75,000 “Present Absentees” (i.e. they were resident in what is now Israel but not residing at the temporarily absentee property) had their property confiscated by the Israeli Government. Moreover, Palestinian institutions were also affected. Legal persons, including associations and corporations, were declared absentee and had their lands confiscated by the Custodian. The land expropriated under this legislation has been estimated at some 3.25 million dunums.

Land Acquisition: The Israeli Government introduced a second land law that had a similarly devastating impact on Palestinian landholding. The Land Acquisition (Validation of Acts and Compensation) Law 1953 permitted the confiscation of land for military purposes or for Jewish settlement. This expropriation (at the time of writing) was placed at 1,255,174 dunums. Although compensation is supposed to be paid out, a very small proportion of funds have been disbursed for compensation. By the end of March 1998, 14,364 persons had claimed compensation. Settlements had been reached on 197,984 dunums of land. Payments were made of NIS 2,724,137 and 53,710 dunums in compensation. The objective of the law is simple: to ensure that Palestinians have no entitlement to their former homes. Although there is no patent right to property in human rights law, the Absentee Property Law defies international law by confiscating property of third party nationals without adequate compensation. Moreover, state practice on the right of return, and the right to a standard of living in the International Bill of Human Rights would indicate that the Absentees’ Property Law is contrary to the principles of international human rights law.

Since June 1967 the Israeli occupation authorities have expropriated at least 5.839.000 dunums (73% of the West Bank & Gaza territory): 5.473.000 in the West Bank (incl. East Jerusalem) and 366.000 dunums in the Gaza Strip. Today, on average 8.630 dunums of land are confiscated every month for the purpose of settlement.

(Source: http://www.miftah.org - Palestinian refugees, October 15, 1999; http://www.badil.org; http://www.un.org/unrwa/; )

 

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