Today there are four million registered Palestinian refugees, not much less than the entire Jewish population in Israel. About 1.3 million live in 59 refugee camps that are located throughout the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

This number is significantly higher than the number of original refugees created by the birth of the state of Israel, which is estimated at somewhere between 540,000 and 740,000. The reason for this is the unique way that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East defines a Palestinian refugee. According to UNRWA, a Palestinian refugee is any person whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” This includes spouses and anyone who is descended from a father who was a refugee.

UNRWA, created in 1949 as an entity of the United Nations, is separate from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee resettlement arm. All other refugees in the world are cared for by UNHCR. UNHCR’s definition of refugees does not include generations to come.

How did the Palestinian refugee situation come about? In the months before Israel was established on May 15, 1948, Jews tried to convince Arabs to stay. “In the midst of wanton aggression, we yet call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve the ways of peace and play their part in the development of the State, on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its bodies and institutions,” says Israel’s Proclamation of Independence.

Nevertheless, during the conflict that followed Israel’s creation, many Arabs evacuated their homes. At first the wealthiest left- 30,000 fled to neighboring countries. These were followed by the less affluent who usually moved to Arab towns within Israel. Some left out of fear; others on orders from Arab leaders. Most assumed they would return when the Jews were defeated. A sizable number of Arabs were forcibly expelled from their homes by the Haganah, the pre-state army that became the Israel Defense Forces. By the end of 1948, the Palestine Arab Higher Committee, concerned about the large number of Arabs fleeing Israel, asked neighboring countries to stem the tide by refusing visas to refugees and sealing their borders.

More Arabs left following key military battles. When Jewish forces took Tiberias on April 19, 1949, all 6,000 of the city’s Arabs were evacuated under British military supervision. Later in Haifa, 50,000 Arabs fled following an offensive by Arab forces and rumors of Arab bombing. Again, the Jews tried to convince the Arabs to stay. However, by the 1949 census, only 160,000 Arabs remained in Israel.

UNRWA relocated Arabs who had left Israel to refugee camps that were built – at the request of Arab and Palestinian leaders – as temporary structures. Entire villages were moved into the camps in which sections and road were named for streets and locations in the original villages. In 1959, Dag Hammarskjold, then secretary-general of the United Nations, tried to advance a plan to resettle Middle Eastern refugees, but it collapsed under the weight of Arab and Palestinian pressure. No Arab country surrounding Israel – with the exception of Jordan – could be convinced to permanently resettle the Palestinians and grant them citizenship.

As a result, those Palestinians who reside in the refugee camps remain in a state of permanent impermanence. UNRWA provides refugees with free food, education, social services and health care as part of its mission is to “carry out…direct relief and works programs.” UNRWA does not own, administer or police the camps; that is the role of whatever host country in which the camp is located. As a result conditions vary dramatically from country to country.

Palestinians who fled to Jordan and now comprise half of its four and a half million population, have had the most opportunity to resettle. Only 17 percent remain in the country’s ten official refugee camps. Another 48 percent live in three “unofficial” camps or near those camps. Many of Jordan’s camps have been encompassed by residential areas and resemble those areas, thanks to investment in infrastructure by the Jordanian government.

Syria has also been relatively accepting of its Palestinian refugees, offering those who live in its 10 official camps access to services such as schools, universities, and hospitals. The situation in Lebanon has been much more complicated. When expelled from Jordan in 1970, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) moved its headquarters to the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon where oversight was negligible due to the long civil war. In 1982, the PLO was forced out of Lebanon and fled to Tunis. Those Palestinians who remain in the 12 official camps in Lebanon (ten percent of the country’s population) do not possess social or civil rights. Considered foreigners, they are prohibited by law from working in more than 70 trades and professions. The Lebanese camps are overcrowded and rife with poverty and unemployment.

No camps were located within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. However, after the Six-Day War, 27 fell under Israeli control, 19 in the West Bank which had previously been under Jordanian control and eight in Gaza which had previously been under Egyptian control. As a result of the Oslo peace process, all of the Gaza camps and 13 of the 19 West Bank camps – including Deheisheh – were placed under Palestinian Authority control. Two camps, Shufat, near Jerusalem, and Kalandia, near Ramallah, were considered part of greater Jerusalem and remained under Israeli control. Four camps remain under joint Palestinian-Israeli control.

Of the 1.8 million Palestinians living today in the West Bank, about 600,000 live in the 19 recognized refugee camps, the rest in towns like Bethlehem or in villages. In the Gaza Strip, most of the residents are official refugees, and more than half live in the region’s eight camps. The camps in the Gaza Strip have one of the highest population densities in the world.

The role of UNRWA – which has grown into a $300 million per year bureaucracy that employs 20,000, 98 percent of whom are Palestinian – has come under scrutiny. Many believe that UNRWA has done everything it can to overlook terrorist cells and to foster a culture than binds Palestinians forever to the camp, rather than helping them to create new lives. UNRWA’s position on the refugees has been bolstered by the official policy of the Palestinian Authority, which has played a crucial role in encouraging people to hold on to rusty keys in the hope they might one day open a door that no longer exists. A document issued in 2000 by the Department of Refugee Affairs in Ramallah put it candidly- “The Arab countries decided to preserve Palestinian identity by maintaining the Palestinians’ refugee status in order to keep the refugee issue alive and to prevent Israel from shirking it s responsibility.”