Palestinian Refugees

Excerpt from The Problem: the Palestinians as Refugees, The Palestinian Exodus 1948-1998, ed. Ghada Karmi and Eugene Cotran, Ithaca Press, 1999:

In 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.

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