The Palestinian Refugee Issue: Origins and Solution

Whether or not a Palestinian state is unilaterally declared in the future, crucial differences between Israel and any Palestinian authority remain.  The most controversial of these is the refugee question, which has political and legal as well as humanitarian dimensions, not to mention touches on collective guilt feelings.  The controversy over Palestinian refugees is the longest, most deliberately protracted, and most discussed of refugee problems in the world.  After sixty years, it remains unresolved.

World War II ended with some 40 million refugees in Europe.  Central Europe was a site of "displaced persons" (DPs) -- those forced to flee their homeland, prisoners of war, individuals who had been deported or had been in forced labor camps, and Jews who had survived the Holocaust.  In 1947, about nine hundred camps of DPs were administered by the Allied occupation forces, by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation (UNRRA), and then by the international organization for refugees (UNHCR), originally set up in December 1950 for three years, to protect and assist refugees.

These refugees were settled in various countries.  Germany and Poland exchanged millions.  Similar relocations, involving 14 million, took place between the countries of India and Pakistan in 1947; less than two percent of these returned to their original home or recovered their property.  Solutions were found for others who were dislocated: Hungarians in 1956; Czechs in 1968; Cubans from the 1960s; Algerians and French pieds-noirs after the French-Algerian war; the million and a half "boat people" persecuted by Vietnamese communists; those fleeing the Balkan war, 1991-95; the three million fleeing the Rwanda genocide in 1994; the Afghans escaping from the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979.

However, as a result of the Cold War and recent wars, over 15 million are now refugees, and another 27 million are internally displaced all over the world.  Over half are in Asia, and about a quarter are in Africa.  But the international community still focuses more on Palestinians than it has on others who were displaced.

Wherefore are Palestinian refugees different from all other refugees, and why have they drawn so much attention and comment compared with others?  First is the problem of definition.  In the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of July 1951 (Article 1A[2]), a refugee is one who, for various reasons, "is outside the country of his nationality and is unable to avail himself of the protection of that country ... or is unwilling to return to it."  In 2011, 147 states are parties to the Convention.  But this definition does not apply to Palestinian refugees.  Article I(D) states that the Convention "shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance."

The United Nations set up the UNHCR to deal with refugees throughout the world, but it also established a special unit, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), on December 8, 1949, whose mandate was to provide relief and assistance only to Palestinian refugees in what is now the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.  Its mandate did not define a "refugee," but in practice, UNRWA uses a broad definition: those who resided in Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, those who lost home and property because of the 1948 war, and the descendants of such persons.

Over 70 percent of those regarded by UNRWA as Palestinian refugees reside in the areas in which UNRWA operates.  With a local staff of over 23,000, most of whom are Palestinians, working in its camps, UNWRA is clearly political in its support for the Arab cause.  The essential question is why those camps still exist.  The Arab states have not contributed any significant amount to the operation of UNRWA.  (Most of the funding comes from the United States and the member-states of the European Union.)  They have done little to solve the refugee problem.

Who is to be considered a refugee?  Logically, only first-generation refugees -- those resulting from the 1948 and 1967 wars -- should be so considered.  Palestinians insist on a more extensive definition, including spouses, children, and grandchildren of refugees, even though Israel is not the state of origin of the vast majority of these refugees.

Differences arise over the numbers of those displaced in 1948 -- either several hundred thousand, as Israel suggests, or a million in the Palestinian formula -- and in 1967, either 100,000 (Israeli view) or 300,000 (Palestinian).  There is thus legitimate skepticism over the meaningfulness of the figures of 4.25 million Palestinian refugees given by UNRWA.  These include 1.7 million in Jordan, 1 million in Gaza, 0.6 million in the West Bank, 0.4 million in Syria, and 0.4 million in Lebanon.

The crucial issue centers on the Palestinian demand for the right of return for those who claim they would be returning to their homes that they left sixty years ago.  The demographic figures consequent on any large-scale entry of Palestinians into Israel show clearly that such an event would be a threat to the nature of the Jewish state.  The right of return is argued on the basis of U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of December 11, 1948, but this Resolution does not state there is an unconditional right for Palestinians to enter Israel.  Ironically, it was the Arab states -- Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen -- which voted against 194.  Moreover, any such claim for return does not rest on any accepted principle of international law. 

The Palestinian demand for the right of return is a political maneuver rather than a genuine humanitarian concern.  This interpretation is substantiated by the reluctance of Arab states to aid their fellow Arabs in any meaningful way.  Most significant has been their general refusal to grant citizenship to refugees except in two instances.  Lebanon did grant citizenship to some Christian Palestinians, and Jordan granted citizenship to Palestinians living in the area of the West Bank after it unilaterally annexed the area in 1950.

At best, the Arab states have paid scant attention to the League of Arab States Casablanca Protocol of September 1965 that agreed on the right of Palestinian refugees to work, to have freedom of movement, and full residency rights.  These rights have often not been observed, and indeed to some extent have been revoked.  The conclusion is justified that the Arab states have wanted to maintain the separate status of Palestinians to use as a weapon, a political football, against Israel.

An issue that will never be conclusively resolved to the satisfaction of all parties is responsibility for the existence of the Palestinian refugee problem in the first place.  Yet the answer is at the heart of the moral issue concerning the refugees.  Their displacement largely stems from the consequences of the war started by Arab leaders who refused to accept the U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 (II) of November 29, 1947, which called for the creation of two states, one Jewish, the other Arab.  Instead, these leaders attacked the newly created state of Israel and lost the consequent war.

The historical evidence is that, while Israeli forces committed some blunders in the heat of war, Palestinians fled from their homes in 1948-9 mostly on orders from their own military and civilian leaders and as a result of fear and panic, hoping to return when the Arabs had won the war.  The Palestinian narrative, viewing the establishment of Israel and the 1948-9 war as the Nakba or catastrophe, lacks veracity in arguing that Israeli military or officials deliberately planned to expel the Palestinian population.  The instructions by the Arab Higher Committee and Arab community leaders in ordering Palestinians to leave Haifa, Tiberias, Jaffa, and Jerusalem, and other places, are thoroughly recorded.

What is to be done?  According to the Oslo Accords, the refugee issue would be resolved through the final status negotiations.  Palestinians have options: resettlement in a country other than Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza; integration into the country in which they are living; or voluntary repatriation.  A logical conclusion is for the Arab states to absorb and grant citizenship to a considerable number of the refugees in their midst, but in view of the past and present discord in the Arab world, this solution is hardly likely to be implemented.  Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait in 1991 and from Libya in 1995.  Israel might take a small number of those prepared to live in peace.  The most likely outcome would be payment of reparations for lost property and damages.  Yet fairness suggests that such a solution should be paralleled by similar payments for those Jews forced to leave the Arab countries after 1948, an episode that has received less attention than the fate of the Palestinians.

Michael Curtis is a distinguished professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University.