Palestine Refugees: 50 Years of Injustice

The Palestine refugee problem is the oldest and largest refugee problem, which has been on the agenda of the United Nations since its inception. For five decades the Palestine refugees have endured great injustices and hardships after having been uprooted from their homes and forced to live in diaspora, deprived of minimum human and national rights. Their plight is on the agenda of the peace process, as one of the issues of the final status negotiations, and is considered to be one of the most difficult and complex issues. Clearly, a just solution to the question of Palestine and a lasting peace in the Middle East cannot be achieved without a just solution to the issue of the Palestine refugees.

The question of Palestine refugees involves a number of complex interrelated elements of great importance, including historical, political, moral, emotional and socio-economic elements, which cannot be ignored and must be addressed. Recognition of the injustice perpetrated against the Palestinian people and acceptance of historical and moral responsibility are necessary preconditions for redressing that injustice, achieving a just and lasting solution and for genuinely rectifying the emotional and socio-economic aspects of the problem.

During the first Arab-Israeli war, and following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, approximately 750,000 Palestinians (almost half of the Palestinian population) were forced to leave their homes. Among the main reasons for this huge exodus of Palestinians from their homes, land, properties and livelihood were the outbreak of war, the forced eviction of Palestinians and the violent campaign of terror and fear waged by Zionist terrorist groups, particularly following the massacre at Deir Yassin, where 254 Palestinian men, women and children were killed by the Jewish Irgun and Stern terrorist groups.

After the outbreak of the second Arab-Israeli war in 1967, another 325,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip were forced to flee their homes, many for the second time. A systematic policy of deportation and forced migration continued for several years after the war, with an annual average of 21,000 Palestinians leaving the occupied Palestinian territories, prevented from returning. Today the number of Palestinian refugees totals approximately 4.7 million persons, of which 3.4 million are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The largest concentration of Palestine refugees is in Jordan, representing more than 40% of those refugees registered with UNRWA, and the refugees in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem, represent 38% of UNRWA’s registration. Lebanon and Syria each host about 10% of the registered refugees and the remainder live in neighboring countries, including Egypt, while others have migrated to Europe, the United States, Canada and South America.

Israel has systematically blocked the return of the Palestinian refugees in blatant violation of early United Nations resolutions and despite the commitments it made before the United Nations when it was admitted as a State Member of that world body. In fact, Israel's intentions were clearly manifested from the very beginning, when the new Jewish State enacted a number of laws blocking any possible return of the Palestinian refugees, including, the "Abandoned Areas Ordinance" (1948), "Emergency Regulations concerning the Cultivation of Waste Lands" (1949), "The Absentees' Property Law" (1950) and "Land Acquisition Law" (1953). Under such laws, Israel "legalized" the expropriation of Arab land and property, some of which even belonged to several Palestinians who had remained in their homes.

At the same time, Israel had enacted the "Law of Return", allowing any Jewish person, regardless of place of birth, origin or nationality, to immigrate to Israel and acquire automatic Israeli citizenship. Since then, Jewish immigrants have continued to come to Israel and have been living on the land and property of the Palestinian refugees. According to the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine, over 80% of Israel's total area represents abandoned Arab lands. Most of the Jewish communities established between 1948 and 1953 were established on former Arab property. Further, over 380 villages and large parts of 94 other towns and cities, including most of their shops and businesses, were taken under Jewish control.

Over the decades, the United Nations has been instrumental in dealing with the Palestine refugee problem, primarily through the establishment of UNRWA, which has been crucial in preventing the exasperation of this human catastrophe, and through the affirmation of the rights of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. There have been numerous U.N. resolutions regarding the Palestine refugees, two of which are fundamental resolutions considered to be the basis for any just and lasting solution of the plight of the 1948 refugees and the 1967 displaced Palestinians. The first is General Assembly resolution 194 (III), which was adopted on 11 December 1948 and has been endorsed annually since then. Resolution 194 (III), inter alia, "resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible."

The second is Security Council resolution 237 (1967), adopted on 14 June 1967, which calls upon the Government of Israel "to facilitate the return of those inhabitants who have fled the areas since the outbreak of hostilities.’ Since then the General Assembly has adopted numerous resolutions reaffirming the basic and inalienable right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, affirming the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 to the territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, as well as resolutions condemning Israel's expulsions and deportations of Palestinians, such as resolution 799 (1992). Another important Security Council resolution is resolution 242 (1967), since it has been the basis of all Arab-Israeli peace talks and agreements. Resolution 242, adopted on 22 November 1967, emphasizes "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" and affirms the necessity for "achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem."

Every year the international community, through the United Nations General Assembly, reaffirms its call for the implementation of resolutions 194(III) and 237 (1967). These resolutions should form the legal and political basis for any solution of the problem of the 1948 refugees and the 1967 displaced persons. The Declaration of Principles, signed in September 1993 by the Government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), deferred the question of the Palestine refugees to the final status negotiations and at the same time established the Continuing Committee (PLO, Israel, Jordan and Egypt) to negotiate modalities for the return of those Palestinians displaced in 1967. However, Israel has effectively blocked any progress on the issue of displaced Palestinians, and Israel's official position regarding the issue of the 1948 Palestine refugees remains intransigent, in defiance of all internationally accepted norms and laws with regard to such an issue.

The question of the Palestinian refugees should be addressed as a national and political issue, involving collective and individual rights, as well as a humanitarian issue. It is imperative that Israel accept its responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem and for the harm it has inflicted upon the Palestinian refugees. This is the course that must be taken if an historical and true conciliation is to be achieved between the two peoples.


Statistical information tables

(UNRWA Report of 1998)

Table 1
Number of registered personsa
(As of 30 June each year)













506 200

613 743

506 038

716 372

799 724

929 097

1 288 197

1 358 706

1 413 252

1 463 064


127 600

136 561

175 958

226 554

263 599

302 049

346 164

352 668

359 005

364 551

Syrian Arab Republic

82 194

115 043

158 717

209 362

244 626

280 731

337 308

347 391

356 739

365 805

West Bank    

272 692

324 035

357 704

414 298

517 412

532 438

542 642

555 057

Gaza Strip

198 227

255 542

311 814

367 995

427 892

496 339

683 560

716 930

746 050

772 653


914 221c

1 120 889

1 425 219

1 844 318

2 093 545

2 422 514

3 172 641

3 308 133

3 417 688

3 521 130


aUNRWA registration figures are based on information voluntarily supplied by refugees primarily for the purpose of obtaining access to Agency services, and hence cannot be considered statistically valid demographic data; the number of registered refugees present in the Agency's area of operations is almost certainly less than the population recorded.

bUntil 1967, the West Bank of Jordan was administered as an integral part of the Jordan field.

c Excluding 45,800 persons receiving relief in Israel, who were the responsibility of UNRWA until June 1952.

Table 2
Distribution of registered population
(As of 30 June 1998)


Registered population

Percentage of total populationa

Number of camps

Registered persons in camps

Registered persons not in camps

Percentage of registered persons not in camps

Jordan 1 463 064 33 10 269 749 1 193 315 81.56
Lebanon 364 551 10 12 198 931 165 620 45.43
Syrian Arab
365 805 3 10 106 748 259 057 70.82
West Bank 555 057 30 19 147 015 408 042 73.51
Gaza Strip 772 653 76 8 423 881 348 772 45.14
Total 3 521 130


59 1 146 324 2 374 806 67.44


aSource for total population figures: Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (1996) and Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (1997); percentages listed are approximate and should be used for comparative purposes only.