The Palestinian refugee question

by Kjersti G. Berg and Mezna Qato

The Palestinian refugee question is one of the oldest unresolved refugee plights. Today 5.8 million Palestinian refugees are registered as “Palestine refugees”, and many live in refugee camps across the Middle East. Those who are not officially registered are nonetheless stateless, dispersed throughout every continent, and nearly every country.

The international community, manifested first in the League of Nations, and later in the United Nations, was complicit in creating the Palestinian refugee problem, producing the legal and political conditions of territorial expansionism and imperial domination, under which such a problem was bound to emerge. After the First World War, European victors divided the ruins of the vast and multi-ethnic Ottoman empire between them into new states where no national borders had previously existed. This initiated British colonial rule over Palestine. Next, in 1917, the British signed the Balfour Declaration, supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine at a time when 90 per cent of the local population was Arab Palestinian, and without their consent or recognition of their claims.

The Balfour Declaration was incorporated into the British mandate over Palestine, facilitating the rise of the Zionist movement and increasing Jewish immigration to Palestine. Zionism, as ideology and movement, emerged as a response to rising antisemitism and fascism in Europe and Russia. It regarded the settler-colonial formation of a Jewish state in Palestine as a solution to “the Jewish Question.”

In British-ruled Palestine, tensions between local Palestinian communities and the Zionist movement intensified with increasing Jewish immigration and land grabs. The backdrop for this Jewish influx included the fact that many European countries had closed their doors to persecuted Jewish refugees, despite knowledge of virulent Nazi antisemitism and rising Nazi persecution during the inter-war period—antisemitism and persecution that culminated in the industrial genocide of six million Jews during the Second World War.

In 1947 the British announced their plans to withdraw and to transfer their mandate over Palestine to the newly established United Nations. As an attempt to solve the “question of Palestine”, in November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into two states, a Jewish and an Arab state, Resolution 181. This Resolution, however, did not lead to any solutions, but rather signalled the start of war. The first phase of the war raged between Zionist troops, the British and local Palestinians, and the second phase was a regional war. The neighbouring countries entered the fray the day after David Ben Gurion, a prominent Jewish leader, proclaimed the establishment of the new state of Israel on May 14th 1948.

During the war, some 750,000 Palestinians fled their homes to areas outside of what became the new state of Israel. In historical scholarship, there is consensus that Israel was mainly to blame for this displacement, through violence, massacres, propaganda and direct deportations. Close to two thirds of the local Palestinian population was dispersed in the region, many to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the new geographic entities of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians refer to this experience as “the Nakba”, or “the catastrophe”.

In 1949, when the war ended, Palestine ceased to exist on any map. Though the UN partition plan of 1947 had defined 56 per cent of Mandate Palestine for the Jewish state, during the war Israeli forces conquered territories beyond the majority set aside for them, colonising 78 per cent of Mandate Palestine. Less than ten per cent of the original inhabitants of those lands remained in their homes, and thus the Palestinians became a refugee nation.