(The following information comes from BADIL Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights)

Brief History of the Palestinian Refugee & IDP Case

historical overviewPalestinian refugees and internally displaced Palestinians (IDPs) represent the largest and longest-standing case of forced displacement in the world today. On the 60th anniversary of the Nakba (or ‘Catastrophe’), the destruction of Palestine and the massive displacement of Palestinians by Israel in 1948, two out of every five refugees in the world are Palestinian. At the beginning of 2007, there were approximately seven million Palestinian refugees and 450,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), representing 70% of the entire Palestinian population worldwide (9.8 million).

Palestinian refugees include those who became refugees following the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and the second Arab-Israeli war in 1967, as well as those who are neither 1948 nor 1967 refugees, but outside the area of former Palestine and unable or unwilling to return owing to a well-founded fear of persecution.

The largest group of Palestinian refugees is made up of those who were displaced or expelled from their places of origin as a result of the Nakba. IDPs include Palestinians who were displaced within Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT).

Internal displacement continues unabated in the OPT today. Thousands have been forcibly displaced in the Jordan Valley as a result of closure, home demolition and eviction orders, and the threat of displacement hangs over those who remain. Similar patterns of forced displacement are found in Israel, where urban development plans for the exclusive benefit of Jewish communities are displacing indigenous Palestinian communities in the Naqab (Negev) and Galilee.

Palestinian refugees in host countries are also vulnerable to forced displacement. For instance, as a result of the US-led aggression and occupation of Iraq since 2003, persecution has forced over half of the approximately 34,000 Palestinian refugees residing in Iraq to leave the country. Over 31,000 people were displaced from Nahr al-Bared camp in Lebanon in 2007 and most have not returned.

Six decades after their initial forced displacement from their homeland, Palestinian refugees and IDPs still lack access to voluntary durable solutions and reparations (which include return, restitution, compensation) based on international law, UN resolutions and best practice.

Assistance, Protection & Reparations for Palestinian Refugees & Internally Displaced Persons

RefugeeandIDPrightsRefugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) have the right to assistance and protection. International assistance and protections are required when national authorities are unable or unwilling to act on their obligations. The right of refugees and the obligations of states are set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Assistance includes provision of food, shelter, health and education. Protection activities include ensuring asylum, securing basic human rights, provision of travel documents, and facilitating voluntary durable solutions (repatriation, resettlement, and integration).

Repatriation is the only solution that is a right. All persons displaced as a result of gross violations of human rights law and war crimes are also entitled to remedies and reparations. The right to a remedy and reparation is enshrined in the law of state responsibility.

In the aftermath of the 1948 Nakba, a special regime for assistance, protection and reparations was set up for Palestinian refugees. The regime was initially composed of the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) and the UN Relief and Works Agency in the Near East (UNRWA) and eventually included the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UNCCP was mandated to provide protection to Palestinian refugees, including the search for durable solutions and reparations, but failed and effectively ceased to operate in the mid-1950s. UNRWA is mandated to provide assistance to 1948 and, on an emergency and temporary basis, 1967 Palestinian refugees and to those displaced as a result of subsequent hostilities. Although UNRWA has enhanced its protection activities by means of a rights-based approach to assistance and emergency operations, there remains a lack of protection for Palestinian refugees, especially for those living in UNRWA’s area of operation (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the OPT).

UNRWA faces many difficulties in implementing its mandate due to funding shortages and armed conflicts in the region, in particular Israel’s military occupation. Outside UNRWA’s area of operations, UNHCR is the international agency responsible for providing both assistance and protection to Palestinian refugees. Palestinian refugees are often denied the rights guaranteed under the 1951 Refugee Convention when they seek asylum. National protection of 1948 and 1967 Palestinian refugees in particular has been ineffective as a result of non-application or misinterpretation of Article 1D of the 1951 Refugee Convention by national authorities and courts.

No international agency has a mandate to provide assistance and protection for internally displaced Palestinians in Israel. In the OPT, UNRWA and other international organizations may provide limited temporary emergency assistance to some IDPs but no comprehensive and predictable response exists. No international agency, moreover, is searching for comprehensive durable solutions, including reparations, for Palestinian refugees. UNHCR and UNRWA believe that the search for durable solutions should be undertaken by parties to the conflict.

Unlike most refugees and displaced persons, who usually seek protection against refoulement (forcible return), the primary problem facing Palestinian refugees is Israel’s denial of their right to reparations, including return, to their homes of origin. Although this right is enshrined in international law and affirmed by many UN resolutions, in particular UN resolutions 194 (1948) and 237 (1967), it has not been enforced. Displaced Palestinians have no access to courts that could provide effective remedies and reparations.




  • Childers, Erskine B. “The Wordless Wish: From Citizens to Refugees “. Published in Transformation of Palestine. Edited by Ibrahim Abu-Lughud. Published by Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL (1987).
  • Khalidi, Walid (editor). “All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948“. Institute for Palestinian Studies, Washington DC (1992).
  • Masalha, Nur. “Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of ‘Transfer’ in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948″. Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington DC (1992).
  • Morris, Benny. “Israel’s Border Wars, 1949-1956″. Oxford University Press, UK (1993).
  • Morris, Benny. “Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001″, .2nd Edition. Vintage Books, NY (2001).
  • Morris, Benny. “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited”, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press, UK (2004).

    ABUZAYD, Karen: “Palestine Refugees in Global Context: Issues and Prospects” - Commissioner General, UNRWA, 14Dec09
    ABUZAYD, Karen: “Confronting dispossession: Creating facts in the mind” – Commissioner General, United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)  -  The People’s Voice -   7 December 2009
    ABU SITTA, Salman: “Dividing war spoils”, Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 17-23 September 2009

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    FAQs on Refugees

    Who are the Palestinian refugees?

    Palestinian refugees are the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine, the majority of whom were dispossessed, were forced to run away or were expelled when the state of Israel was created in 1948. This dispossession and expulsion has continued since with the second largest such event in Palestine taking place during the 1967 war, which Israel launched on its Arab neighbors and which resulted in the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

    Palestinian refugees generally fall into three main groups: Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948, internally displaced Palestinians who remained within the areas that became the state of Israel, and Palestinian refugees displaced in 1967 from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For the past 58 years, Israel has continued to deny Palestinian refugees their right to return to their ancenstral towns, villages and homes.

    How did the Palestinian refugee problem arise?

    The Palestinian refugee problem arose from a systematic policy of ethnic dispossession and elimination, the results of which are apparent in the Palestinian refugee camps and in the Palestinian Shatat (exile). These policies continue to this day.

    Zionist policy sought to create an exclusive homeland for Jews in Palestine, a region that already had an indigenous population with a history stretching back thousands of years. The characterization of Palestine as “a land without a people for a people without a land” was a myth created to suggest that Palestine was waiting to be populated. Nothing was further from the truth and this has been evidenced by the atrocities of 1948 and since.

    How did Israel expel Palestinians from their land?

    Jewish terrorist groups such as Haganah, Irgun and Stern terrorized the Palestinian street, destroyed villages and slaughtered entire Palestinian families. Thirty four massacres were documented by Zionist historian Benny Morris to have occured within a few months: Al-Abbasiyya, Beit Daras, Bir Al-Saba’, Al-Kabri, Haifa, Qisarya. These attacks were part of Plan Dalet and aimed to annihilate the Palestinian population. Approxiamtely 50% of all Palestinian villages were destroyed in 1948 and many cities were cleared from their Palestinian population including Akka, Bir Al-Saba’, Bisan, Lod, Al-Majdal, Nazareth, Haifa, Tabaria, Yaffa, and West-Jerusalem among others.

    Israeli forces killed an estimated 13,000 Palestinians and forcibly evicted 737,166 Palestinians from their homes and land. Five hundred and thirty one Palestinian villages were entirely depopulated and destroyed.

    The tragedy of the refugees continued in 1967. That year, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and many Palestinians were uprooted for the second time. The refugees found shelter in surrounding countries including Jordan, Syria and Egypt.

    How many Palestinian refugees are there today?

    Palestinians are the largest and longest suffering group of refugees in the world. One in three refugees world wide is Palestinian. There are about 7.2 million Palestinian refugees worldwide. More than 4.3 million Palestinian refugees and their descendents displaced in 1948 are registered for humanitarian assistance with the United Nations. Another 1.7 million Palestinian refugees and their descendents, also displaced in 1948, are not registered with the UN. About 355,000 Palestinians and their descendents are internally displaced i.e. inside present-day “Israel”. When the West Bank and Gaza Strip were occupied in 1967, the UN reported that approximately 200,000 Palestinians fled their homes. These 1967 refugees and their descendants today number about 834,000 persons. As a result of house demolition, revocation of residency rights and construction of illegal settlements on confiscated Palestinian owned-land, at least 57,000 Palestinians have become internally displaced in the occupied West Bank. This number includes 15,000 people so far displaced by the construction of Israel’s Annexation Wall. Such dispossession of the Palestinian population continues today.

    Where do Palestinian refugees reside today?

    The majority of Palestinian refugees live not far from their homes of origin either in their own homeland or in neighboring countries. More than half the refugee population lives in Jordan. Approximately 37.7% live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, comprising about 50 percent of the population in those areas. About 15% live in almost equal numbers in Syria and Lebanon. About 355,000 internally displaced Palestinians reside in present-day Israel. The remaining refugee population lives throughout the world, including the rest of the Arab world. Of the 4.3 million refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), 33% live in UNRWA’s 59 refugee camps throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

    What are the basic rights of refugees?

    According to international law, refugees have the right to return to their homes of origin, receive real property restitution, and compensation for losses and damages. The UN General Assembly set forth the framework for resolving the Palestinian refugee case in UN Resolution 194 (III) which provides: repatriation for those refugees “wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors,” or compensation for those choosing not to return. On November 22, 1974, Resolution 3236 clarified the right to return as an “inalienable right”. In Res. 302 (IV), the UN General Assembly created UNRWA and assigned the agency the task of caring for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA defined Palestinian refugees as persons who resided in Palestine two years prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1948 and who lost their homes and livelihoods as a result of that war.

    Why are Palestinian refugees excluded from coverage under UNHCR’s mandate?

    When the UN adopted the Refugee Convention and established the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, it excluded those falling within the UNRWA mandate from coverage under UNHCR’s mandate. In effect, this has meant that UNHCR does not concern itself with (or count) Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, or the West Bank and Gaza Strip, although the agency assists Palestinian refugees outside the UNRWA-mandate area. Although unintended, the effect has been that Palestinian refugees have enjoyed fewer protections than other refugees because UNRWA only has a mandate to provide Palestinian refugees with humanitarian assistance, and, unlike UNHCR, does not have a specific protection mandate.

    Is something being done to rectify this exclusion?

    Since the beginning of the last Palestinian uprising, the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, and some independent refugee experts have argued that the fact that many Palestinian refugees lack effective protection should trigger the applicability of the UN Refugee Convention to Palestinians in the UNRWA mandate area. These organizations and individuals cite Article 1D of the Refugee Convention, which effectively states that whenever protection or assistance for Palestinian refugees has ceased for any reason before their situation is resolved in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions, they shall “be entitled to the benefits of this Convention.” Proponents of this view contend that UNHCR should have begun to exercise its protection mandate for Palestinian refugees long ago when it became clear that the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine, which was concerned with protection for Palestinians, was unable to carry out its responsibilities.

    Why have Palestinian refugees not returned to their homes?

    The state of Israel refuses to allow Palestinian refugees to exercise their natural, legal and historic right to return citing three main arguments; first, that there is no space in Israel for the refugees to return, second, that the return of Palestinian refugees would threaten security and lead to conflict, and finally, that the return of the refugees would jeopardize the Jewish nature of the state. With regards to the first argument, recent research shows that 80% of the Jewish population of present-day ‘Israel’ resides on 15% of the land. The areas where Palestinian villages were demolished lie mainly uninhabited. Hence there is space. As for security concerns, Palestinian refugees broadly accept that exercising their right to return would not be based on the eviction of Jewish citizens but on the principles of equality and human rights. The final argument though is a testament to Israel’s false claim that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. Israel is a democracy for Jews only, and this religion-based discrimination or oxymoron should not be confused with real democracy.

    Is there a durable solution?

    There can be no comprehensive solution without honoring the rights of Palestinian refugees. Three UN human rights treaty committees have found key aspects of Israel’s nationality, citizenship, and land legislation which effectively bar Palestinian refugees from exercising their inalienable right to return to be incompatible with the rights codified in relevant human rights conventions. Israel’s ongoing aggression against the Palestinian people and continued pursuit of population transfer are incompatibel with the quest for peace.


    Adapted from The Palestinian Dispossession – Frequently Asked Questions
    May 15, 2003 By MIFTAH

    Badil Resource Center for Refugee Rights
    Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding
    Shaml – Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee Center
    United Nations Relief and Works Agency
    U.S. Committee for Refugees

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    See also Background Resource: The Crisis of Palestinian Refugees and the Right of Return for a more detailed expose on refugee issues.


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