United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine RefugeesIn the years since the war of 1948, the Palestinians have become the most significant refugee population in existence. There are currently 3,308,133 registered refugees under the protection of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Palestinians are also among the “oldest” refugee groups, having received sustained assistance and protection for 47 years. Since their status is inherited, the number of Palestinian refugees rises yearly. Fewer than 15 per cent of all those bearing the designation “Palestinian refugee” have any meaningful recollections of pre-1948 Palestine. Yet succeeding generations continue to be born as refugees, with all the political ramifications and social obstacles that designation brings.

The symbol of Palestinian refugee status is the existence of a United Nations Agency solely devoted to their assistance and support. UNRWA is, however, a somewhat ambiguous protector. Its most serious shortcoming in the current situation is the extent to which it offers assistance but not the security of an internationally recognised legal status. At the heart of UNRWA’s relationship with Palestinian refugees is a fundamental clash between how the Agency defines its role and the expectations of the refugees – a clash which has existed since the establishment of UNRWA in 1950. From the start, refugees saw the UN’s job as helping them to return to their homes. UNRWA’s mandate, however, was essentially to keep them alive until a peace agreement could be reached.

In the case of UNRWA, this tension was exacerbated by its unique legal role which left it responsible for assistance to, but not protection of, the refugees. Palestinians explain their possession of a UN Agency solely responsible for them by pointing out that the United Nations is uniquely responsible for their situation. The point was forcefully articulated in 1950 by the Lebanese delegate to the United Nations.

In all other [refugee] cases persons had become refugees as a result of action taken contrary to the principles of the United Nations, and the obligation of the Organisation towards them was a moral one only. The existence of the Palestine refugees, on the other hand, was the direct result of a decision taken by the United Nations itself with full knowledge of the consequences. The Palestine refugees were therefore a direct responsibility on the part of the United Nations and could not be placed in the general category of refugees without betrayal of that responsibility.3

The United Nations’ responsibility for the Palestinian people derives from its role in 1947 in promoting the partition of Mandatory Palestine, preparing the way for the creation of the State of Israel and the ensuing dispossession of the Palestinians. The UN’s failure to impose the implementation of UN Resolution 194 on the Israelis meant that the Palestinians were forced to remain in exile. UNRWA itself was born of the failure of the United Nations Palestine Conciliation Commission to – in the terms of its mandate – “facilitate the repatriation and rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation.”

When UNRWA was established in December 1949, it was assumed that assistance “to prevent conditions of starvation and distress” would be temporary. Forty-seven years on, UNRWA continues to have its mandate regularly renewed and to operate as an assistance organization to the third and fourth generations of Palestinian refugees born outside Palestine. The continued existence of UNRWA represents for Palestinians proof of the world’s refusal to enforce their legal right to return to their homes.

UNRWA’s own unique position as a UN agency responsible for a discrete set of specifically defined refugees has contributed to the tension between Palestinian perceptions of their rights and the UN’s obligation on the one hand, and UNRWA’s limited mandate and capacity for action on the other. Palestinians are famously excluded from the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees. Covering all other refugees in the world, the Convention states in Paragraph D of Article 1 that its provisions-…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 implications of this for both the legal rights and the nature of assistance provided for refugees have been intently debated.4 While the continuing existence of UNRWA represents for some an acceptance of international concern and responsibility for the Palestinians’ rights, exclusion from the Convention definition has resulted in Palestinians being denied key civil and social rights in the country of asylum as refugees – rights which are accorded to other refugee groups who fall under the aegis of the UNHCR.

Pages 9-11…
3 See Paul Weis (ed.), Travaux Preparatoires of the Refugee Convention, 1951 (Cambridge- Grotius, 1995), p. 257.
4 See, for example, Khadija Elmadad, “Appropriate Solutions for the Palestinian Refugees”, paper presented to the IGCC Conference on “Promoting Regional Cooperation in the Middle East”, Vouliagmeni (Greece), November 1994 (via IGCC). Internet on- gopher-//gopher-igcc.ucsd.edu-70/OF-1%3A78291%3AElmadad-Refugees.

Insecurity of Status

Without the protection of an internationally agreed convention, Palestinian refugees’ legal rights in exile have been at the mercy of political developments, both regional and domestic, over which they have no control. As will be shown below, Palestinian refugees have in the past five decades been subjected to a steady assault on their legal status which has left them in an increasingly marginal and vulnerable position.

The legal position of Palestinian refugees in the host countries (Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) has altered over time. The security of a refugee in the host countries is dependent on how valid his or her legal status is seen to be and residency can be changed, seemingly arbitrarily, by the host government. If a refugee community’s right to remain in aparticular country is uncertain, the host government is less likely to sanction any assistance programmes – such as improvement of living conditions or the provision of income-generating projects – which seem to establish that community more firmly in the country.

The initial response of host states to the Palestinian exodus was to offer them refuge and protection. This was based on the assumption that the refugees’ stay would be temporary and that the Palestine Conciliation Commission (PCC) would find a solution. When this did not occur, it became necessary to define clearly the status of the refugees. Any such definition was, however, never intended to form the framework for the refugees’ integration into the host community, but rather was intended to establish a viable means of indentifying entitlement to assistance. Two central and intrinsically incompatible policies were adopted. First, Palestinians would be given full residency rights, and second, governments would oppose plans for the resettlement of the refugees.

The former principle was established in the Casablanca Protocol adopted by members of the League of Arab States in 1956, which referred in particular to the Palestinians’ right to work, freedom of movement, and full residency status. Since then, successive collective and individual resolutions by Arab states have reiterated this position. Simultaneously, however, the Arab government refused to consider permanent settlement of the refugees and insisted on the implementation of the options contained in UN Resolution 194 (II), namely repatriation to Palestine or full compensation for losses incurred during the war of 1948. Reflecting the importance of the latter principle, Arab governments, with the exception of Jordan, have refused to give the refugees citizenship. Most Arab states (Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and most recently Yemen) have instead issued Palestinians living within their borders with special refugee documentation (RD) or travel documents.

The definition of a refugee, fixed during the 1950s, has not been altered or extended to meet the developments of 40 years in exile. The legal image of a refugee remains one of an individual living in a camp entitled to work and protection but not to property or economic rights. The institutionalization of a definition originally intended to address a fluid and temporary situation has resulted in major anomalies, notably the difficulty Palestinian refugees face in transferring their status from one country to another or in establishing themselves as independent economic actors. The commitment of the host states to allowing the Palestinian refugees full residency status and civil rights has weakened over time. After the Gulf War, Arab states officially revoked the 1965 Protocol, declaring it superseded by the internal law of each state. Various restrictions were imposed on Palestinians in the Arab states, especially RD holders. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, refugees in the host countries, particularly Lebanon,8 have seen even tighter restrictions on their status and freedoms. Disenfranchised by the stripping away of their rights in exile and deprived of support and representation by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) – which increasingly concentrates on the situation inside the West Bank and Gaza – Palestinian refugees in the host countries face an uncertain future.

Pages 13-14
8 S. Al-Natour, “The Legal Status of Palestinian Refugees”, Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 10, no. 3 (1997), pp. 360-78.

Diversity within the Palestinian Diaspora

The image of Palestinians eking out a dependent existence in dusty, shack-filled refugee camps is very far from the truth. Refugees live in villas in Amman and slums in south Beirut; some refugee camps contain two-storey stone houses, while other refugees live in extreme poverty amongst the host community. Similarly, there are communities of Palestinians living in America, Australia, Canada and Europe, as well as all over the Arab world. However, over 80 per cent of the Palestinian refugees still live either within historical Palestine (Israel and the West Bank and Gaza) or within 100 miles of its borders.


According to UNRWA estimates, Palestinian refugees constitute 28.2 per cent of Jordan’s population. The major influxes of Palestinians to Jordan followed the 1948 and 1967 Wars, which brought an estimated 400,000 and 350,000 respectively to the kingdom. Others came from Lebanon in 1982 and from the West Bank since 1967. As a result of the Gulf War in 1991, an estimated 300,000 Palestinians returned from the Gulf to Jordan- around half are registered UNRWA refugees.

There are ten UNRWA camps in Jordan- four were established after 1948, and six after 1967.

The Current Israeli Official Line of Argument

The principal factor was the flight of the urban upper class, who had already begun leaving in September 1947. This was a voluntary exodus of about 70,000 Palestinians, mainly from the mixed towns of Palestine. For Teveth, the departure of this group is crucial to understanding what happened next. He has no doubt, as he states clearly in the article, that had the elite stayed, the picture would have been different. But how different? Teveth sees the elite’s behaviour as setting a code of conduct for the rest of the population. Here Teveth reproduces the “domino effect” put forward by Ben-Gurion in 1961 and mentioned above. It started a series of flights, as he calls it. The elite’s departure undermined the moral and economic foundations of the society as a whole. The elite evacuated vital civil service positions in the economic infrastructure of the towns. The collapse occurred around March and April 1948, and it was the fall of Haifa (on 21 April 1948) which played a particularly important role in accelerating the process.

This line of argument accounts for the flight of a tenth of the whole refugee population. It plays with “what if?” history – had the elite stayed, things would have been different – never an easy causal connection to make. Nor is the “voluntary” exodus argument so convincing. Some of the 70,000 left when the fighting had already begun. One cannot argue with the accusation that the elite did not show enough resilience or commitment to the cause. Thus, Teveth presents us with a harsh verdict on the Palestinian elite’s behaviour. He may or may not have a point, but what has this to do with the question of whether or not the Israelis were responsible for the exodus? Does it mean that with such an elite, the rest of the Palestinians deserved expulsion? Or does it mean that had they stayed – as ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni did, for instance – and fought, they could have changed the balance of power or foiled Zionist intentions? Elites leave their communities on the eve of disasters and can be condemned for that, but the important point here is who brought the calamity upon the community in the first place.

Page 43.

Revisiting the “New History” and its Palestinian Critiques

Khalidi and Morris agree that there was a mass expulsion later on in June 1948 and until April 1949. But Khalidi is more interested in what happened in April and May, and not later on. The reason is that Morris and Khalidi agree that 70,000 refugees fled in the first wave, and that about 250,000 were expelled in the final stages of the war – but this accounts for only half of the refugee population. The argument is about the 350,000 or so who left Palestine between March and June 1948. While Morris thinks this half left of its own accord, Khalidi argues that it was expelled as well (a particularly heated argument has been going on about the refugees of Haifa, around 65,000 in number). Zionist historiography cited Haifa as an example of a Jewish effort to persuade Arabs to stay – Morris, in this case, accepts the official version. Khalidi does not – he describes, as does Nur Masalha more elaborately, the means by which the Haifa population was driven out. Haifa was evacuated in the wake of Plan D, as was the Palestinian population of the mixed towns of Jaffa, Safad and Tiberias.27

Page 48.
27 Pappe, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, p. 94.

Compensation and the Palestinian Case

At the same time, Israel ahs avoided making any meaningful restitution or compensation for the losses incurred by the displaced Palestinians. In 1949, an offer was made by the Israeli government of a single compensation payment for refugee property in rural areas, for undamaged urban property and for Palestinian bank accounts left behind. However, this payment would only be made in the context of an overall settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. No compensation would be made for state land or to refugees on an individual basis. Speaking in a Knesset debate on the issue in 1951, Moshe Sharett made clear that any offer of compensation to be made by Israel was predicated on several assumptions. First, that the abandoned Arab property was a legacy of the war of 1948-9, which had been forced on Israel. The war had resulted in damage to Israel and loss of life and hence had impaired its ability to pay. Second, Israel would look to the international community for help in making any such payment. Third, the payment would be final and Israel could not be subject to further demands thereafter. Fourth, that the Israel compensation paid would be deducted from frozen assets belonging to Iraqi Jews who had settled in Israel. And fifth, and most importantly, that fulfillment of its obligations in the matter of compensation would free Israel from any obligation towards refugee repatriation.14

However, in 1949, absentee property was released on a small scale to refugees who had never left Israel. This amounted to 100,000 dunums of land which was returned to 5,000 families.15 in other cases, families were not allowed to return to their original homes but were resettled in other villages, which the government promoted as a positive step in the process of solving the problem of displaced persons in Israel. In 1953, 2,000 urban dwellings were returned to “absentee” Arab owners, and in the same year, the Land Acquisition law was passed. This promised to pay compensation for 300,000 dumuns of land belonging to Israeli citizens who were Arabs, but no provisions were to be made for land belonging to Arab refugees who had left the country.

For these, in 1950 Israel proposed a resettlement scheme to be administered by the recently established United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) with a so-called “reintegration fund”. Israel offered the sum of one million Israeli pounds to this fund as the first instalment of its compensation for abandoned property.16 Soon after, however, it was arguing that it would have to curtail its payment because of the need to rehabilitate Iraqi Jews who had arrived in Israel and, by 1951, it cited the Egyptian closure of the Suez Canal and the Arab economic boycott as further obstacles to its ability to pay.17 The Conciliation Commission for Palestine (CCP), originally set up in 1949 by the UN to overse the repatriation of refugees and their compensation, recognised Israel’s difficulties in meeting its financial obligations and stated that it would require help to do so. In 1955, the American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, offered US assistance in funding the compensation costs through an international loan to Israel. The CCP urged the Israelis to take up the offer, but the latter replied that nothing could be done outside the general context of Arab-Israeli relations and a removal of the Arab economic blockade of Israel. As a result, nothing came of the American proposal, nor indeed of any other.18

Pages 201-202.
14 J.B. Schechtman, The Arab Refugee Problem (New York- The Philosophical Library, 1952), pp. 109-111.
15 Peretz, Israel, p. 183.
16 E.H. Buehrig, The UN and the Palestinian Refugees (Bloomington, Ind.- Indiana University Press, 1971), p. 23.
17 Ibid., pp. 23-4
18 Peretz, Israel, p. 218.

The Legal Basis for Compensation

The Israelis justified this legislation on the basis of precedent in the agreements reached between India and Pakistan following partition.33 The 1947 partition of India had resulted in an exchange of populations with the loss of large areas of land and property owned by each side. The governments of India and Pakistan, when faced with the need to resettle their respective refugees, had been forced to do so in the abandoned property of each side. They had each appointed Custodians of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh property to supervise the task. The Israelis argued that they were in a similar situation, since they had had to accept a large influx of Jewish refugees who needed resettlement. Between the middle of 1948 and the end of 1951, 684,000 Jews came into Israel from Europe and the Arab countries, all of whom had to be housed and supported. Precedents other than the situation in India/Pakistan also justified the Israeli position, they argued. These were the population transfers which had taken place between Turkey and Greece, between Turkey and Romania, and between Romania and Bulgaria.34 In each of these cases, the property belonging to each population group had been ceded to the government, which handled all compensation on a state-to-state basis. In no case had individual compensation been made tot eh owners. Israel argued that it was in a similar position vis-à-vis the Jewish refugees from Arab countries and that what had taken place with the Palestinians was in fact no more than an exchange of populations. This argument has never been accepted, either by the Arabs or by the international community.

Pages 208-209
33 Schechtman, Arab Refugee Problem, pp. 98-101.
34 Ibid., pp. 105-7

The Assessment of Palestinian Losses

The task of assessing the extent of Palestinian losses for the purposes of drawing up claims for compensation is obviously quite complex by now, and even at the time, there was no agreed final figure. This was not least in part due to the fact that the Israeli government kept details of the Arab land and property it had appropriated secret. Throughout the early years of Israel’s statehood, the UN has considerable difficulty in obtaining accurate information about Israel’s disposition of Arab property, despite numerous requests to this effect from the CCP. The latter therefore had to come up with an estimated figure derived from indirect sources, which in 1951 it put at 16,324,000 dunums lost, worth P£100,383,784.40 Thus, more than 80 per cent of Israel’s total area was land belonging to the refugees, although only a quarter of this was said to be cultivatable.41 Of the 370 new Jewish settlements set up between 1948 and 1953, 350 were built on absentee land. The CCP detailed the number of properties, shops and businesses left by Arabs and which fell into Jewish hands- everything in the cities of Jaffa, Acre, Lydda, Ramleh, Beisan and Majdal; large parts of 94 other cities and towns; and 388 villages and 10,000 shops and businesses. Most of the Arab citrus groves were taken over by the Custodian of Absentee Property, as were the olive groves. In 1951, the fruit produce of former Arab groves provided 10 per cent of Israel’s foreign currency earnings and olives were its third-largest export. In addition, a third of Israel’s stone production was obtained from 52 Arab quarries which had also been appropriated by the Custodian.

Pages 210-211
40 Fischbach, “Settling Historical Land Claims”, pp. 39-40.
41 Peretz, Israel, pp. 143 ff.