Although the current refugee crisis in Gaza has sparked global concern over Palestinian displacement, this is not the first time Palestinians have suffered the hardships of forced migration. Long before the last upheaval, Palestinians living in Gaza today And throughout the Middle East were forced or fled their homes in what became the State of Israel. Today, there are approximately 5.9 million refugees, almost half of the world’s Palestinian population.
Over the past 20 years, my research as an anthropologist, he focused on the situation of Palestinian displacement in the Middle East. Having explored some of the daunting challenges faced by millions of Palestinians as stateless refugees deprived of the opportunity to return to their country of origin or right to compensationI believe it is essential to understand their history and the issues for those trapped in indefinite exile.
Fear, violence and exodus: the Nakba of 1948
The majority of Palestinian refugees today receive aid from United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA. Scattered throughout the region, including Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territoriesabout a third of all Palestinian refugees live in UNRWA refugee campswhile the rest live in the surrounding towns and villages.
The origins of Palestinian displacement are recurrent and cannot be reduced to a single cause. However, most Palestinian refugees can trace their roots to two important events in Palestinian history: the “Nakba” and the “Naksa.”
THE main event in modern Palestinian history and memory is the Nakba, or what roughly translates to the catastrophe.” The term refers to the massive movement of approximately 700,000 Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the creation of the State of Israel.
The majority of Palestine’s Arab population fled their homes during the war, seeking temporary refuge across the Middle East, but hoping to come back after the end of hostilities.
The mass exodus of Palestinians in 1948 gave birth to two realities that have marked the region ever since. The first involved about 25,000 Palestinians displaced within the borders of what became Israel. Known as Internally displaced Palestinians, this community has not crossed any official borders and has therefore never obtained refugee status under international law. Instead, they became Israeli citizens, distinguished by their legal designation in Israel as “absent present.”
Through the Law of absentee property the Israeli state proceeded confiscate the properties of displaced Palestinians And deny their right to return to their homes and native villages.
The second event involved more than 700,000 Palestinians fleeing beyond what became de facto borders of Israel And obtained official refugee status with the United Nations. This group of refugees sought refuge in areas of Palestine not conquered by Jewish forcessuch as Nablus and Jenin, and in neighboring states including Jordan, Syria and Lebanon and Egypt.
Immediately after their displacement, these Palestinians benefited from occasional support from various international organizations until the creation in 1949 of UNRWAwho assumed official responsibility for the management of direct relief operations and infrastructure of refugee camps throughout the Middle East.
In addition to providing education, health and other services, including microfinancing and vocational training, UNRWA supports refugee camp improvement projects through construction of roads and rehabilitation of housing in the camps.
Refugees in Jordan, Egypt and Syria: the Naksa of 1967
The second largest displacement of Palestinians took place in 1967 the Arab-Israeli war known to Palestinians as Al Naksa or the “reverse”.
Fought between Israel on one side and Syria, Egypt and Jordan on the other, the war ended with Israel occupies territory in all three countries, including the remaining areas of Palestine: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. During the war, approximately 400,000 Palestinians have been displaced from the West Bank and Gaza, mainly to Jordan and housed in one of the six new UNRWA refugee camps.
Others found refuge in Egypt and Syria. More than a third of the Palestinians displaced in 1967 were already 1948 refugees and therefore underwent a second forced migration. Just like in 1948, at the end of the 1967 war, The Israeli government blocked the return of all refugees and carried out the destruction of several Palestinian villages in the occupied territory, including Emmaus, Yula and Beit Yuba. After their destruction, these areas were leased to Israeli Jews.
Beyond Al-Nakba and Al-Naksa
Although the tragedies of the Nakba and Naksa turned the vast majority of Palestinians into refugees, many events since then have increased their numbers. One of the most significant causes of Palestinian displacement today is the Israeli practice of house demolitions.
Whether a punitive measure or the result of a permit system that rights groups say systematically discriminates against Palestiniansbetween 2009 and 2023 this practice has destroyed more than 9,000 homes and left around 14,000 Palestinians homeless.
The new displacements of Palestinians are also the result of regional wars involving neither Palestinians nor Israelis. After the end of Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990, more than 300,000 Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait in in retaliation for the support offered by the main Palestinian national organization, the Palestine Liberation Organizationto Saddam Hussein.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, more than 120,000 Palestinian refugees have fled the country, mainly in Turkey and Jordan, while another 200,000 people were displaced internally. More recently, the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip already has in-house more than 1.4 million Palestinians displaced.
Many refugees, many exiles
Because Palestinians live under different governments various circumstances, no single experience can explain their experience of exile. In Jordan, for example, where I conducted researchPalestinian refugees can be divided into many groups, each with their own set of opportunities and challenges.
There are Palestinians displaced in 1948 who became citizens of Jordan, but rely on UNRWA for basic services like education and health care. There is also refugees displaced from the Gaza Strip in 1967 who do not have citizenship and are therefore deprived of certain civil and political rights. More recently, there is Palestinians displaced from Syria for whom travel and work opportunities have been severely restricted in Jordan.
Palestinians living beyond Jordan also face distinct situations. In the West Bank, approximately 900,000 Palestinian refugees live under Israeli occupation, subject to a discriminatory system that human rights organizations have called “apartheid.”
Palestinian refugees in the Led by Hamas Gaza strip, who today number around a million and a half, currently live under a blockade established by Israel for 16 years but supported by the Egyptian government. Since the closure began in 2007, restrictions on the importation of goods, the movement of people and access to basic resources like electricity have created dire conditions for Palestinians, including 45% unemployment And food insecurity among 70% of households.
Since 1948, Palestinians in Lebanon faced severe restrictions in work, education and health. Treated as an unwanted population in the country, their presence has been a source of significant divisions in Lebanon and a factor in numerous conflicts, including the Lebanese Civil War and the War of the camps between Syrian-backed militias and factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Permanent exile or return?
Palestinian refugees represent the longest refugee situation in modern history. For 75 years now, they have been forced to live like stateless population without the possibility of returning to their country of origin.
The duration of their difficult situation is undoubtedly linked to the unique nature of their displacement. The Palestinians fled a homeland that had become the state of another population, in this case Jewish, whose leaders treating the return of Palestinians as a demographic threat.
Any solution to Palestinian displacement that involves return to the territory of contemporary Israel therefore faces the problem of overcoming the idea of Israel as an exclusively Jewish state. And yet, that is the challenge. Whatever the outcome of the peace negotiations, there will be no permanent solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can avoid answering the return question.