In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Palestinian refugee is a refugee from Palestine created by "the Palestinian Exodus", which Palestinians call the Nakba (نكبة, meaning "disaster").
Most of the refugees had already fled by the time the neighboring Arab states intervened on the side of Palestinians and continued after the armistice that ended the war (see Palestinian Exodus.) These refugees, the great majority of whom had lived there for generations, were generally not able to return home.
The final estimate of their number was 711,000, according to the United Nations Concilation Commission (General Progress Report and Supplementary Report of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine, Covering the Period from 11 December 1949 to 23 October 1950,  (http://domino.un.org/unispal.nsf/9a798adbf322aff38525617b006d88d7/93037e3b939746de8525610200567883!OpenDocument)). However, by 1950, according to United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the number of registered refugees was 914,000 (http://www.un.org/unrwa/refugees/whois.html). The U.N. Conciliation Commission attributed this discrepancy to, among other things, "duplication of ration cards, addition of persons who have been displaced from area other than Israel-held areas and of persons who, although not displaced, are destitute", and the UNWRA (Report of the Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, September 28, 1951) additionally attributed it to the fact that "all births are eagerly announced, the deaths wherever possible are passed over in silence", as well as the fact that "the birthrate is high in any case, a net addition of 30,000 names a year" (the UNWRA figures included descendants of the Palestinian refugees born after the Palestinian exodus up to June, 1951). By June, 1951 the UNWRA had reduced the number or registered refugees to 876,000 after "many false and duplicate registrations weeded out."  (http://domino.un.org/unispal.nsf/181c4bf00c44e5fd85256cef0073c426/8d26108af518ce7e052565a6006e8948!OpenDocument)
During the period mid-1948-53 between 30,000 and 90,000 refugees (according to Benny Morris) made their way from their countries of exile to resettle in their former villages or in other Israeli Arab villages (most, though not all, in contravention of Israeli law). At the Lausanne Conference in 1949, Israel offered to let in up to 75,000 more as part of a wider proposed deal with the surrounding Arab countries, but they rejected it, and Israel withdrew the proposal in 1950. Others emigrated to other countries, such as the US and Canada; most, however, remain in refugee camps in neighboring countries. According to UNRWA, the majority of refugees are located in three Arab countries, Jordan: 1,718,767; Syria: 409,662; Lebanon: 391,679. In addition, areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, have 907,221 and 654,971 refugees respectively  (http://www.un.org/unrwa/publications/statis-01.html). Furthermore, in 1948 and 1949, 46,000-48,000 Palestinians were internally displaced within Israel (http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/0/94249ccc31ca0fb685256b42005c3bbf?OpenDocument); including descendants, they number 150,000-200,000 today, and for the most part have yet to recover their confiscated land.
The Israeli government passed the Absentee Property Law, which cleared the way for the confiscation of the property of refugees. The government also demolished many of the refugees' villages, and resettled many Arab homes in urban communities with Jewish refugees and immigrants.
The situation of the Palestinian Arab refugees is one of the world's largest and most enduring refugee problems. Discussions on allowing them to return to their former homes within Israel, to receive compensation or be resettled in new locations have yet to reach a definite conclusion.
Who is a Palestinian refugee?
Whereas most refugees are the concern of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Palestinian refugees come under the older body UNRWA. On December 11, 1948, UN Resolution 194 was passed in order to protect the rights of Palestinian Arab refugees. Resolution 302 (IV) of 8 December, 1949, set up UNRWA specifically to deal with the Palestinian problem.
The term Palestinian refugee as used by UNRWA was never formally defined by the United Nations. The definition used in practice evolved independently of the UNHCR definition, which was established by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The normative version of the UNRWA definition is of a person "whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict", though it is applied only to those who took refuge in one of the countries where UNRWA provides relief. The UNRWA also registers as refugees descendants in the male line of Palestinian refugees, and persons in need of support who first became refugees as a result of the 1967 conflict. The UNRWA definition in practice is thus both more restrictive and more inclusive than the 1951 definition; for example it excludes persons taking refuge in countries other than Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, yet it includes descendants of refugees as well as the refugees themselves (though UNHCR also provides support for children of refugees in many cases). Persons receiving relief support from UNRWA are explicitly excluded from the 1951 Convention, depriving them of some of the benefits of that convention such as some legal protections. However, a 2002 decision of UNHCR made it clear that the 1951 Convention applies at least to Palestinian refugees who need support but fail to fit the UNRWA working definition.  (http://domino.un.org/unispal.nsf/9a798adbf322aff38525617b006d88d7/68c845adcff3671a85256c85005a4592!OpenDocument&Highlight=2,UNRWA)
Right of return
The Palestinian refugees claim a right of return, based on Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ("Everyone has the right to leave any country including his own, and to return to his country") and United Nations General Assembly Resolution #194, paragraph 11, where the General Assembly:
- Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours 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 the 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...
- Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation.
Many of them also argue that, by the UDHR, this right is an individual and not a collective one, and that it cannot therefore be restricted by any collective agreement between Palestinians and Israel. They also regard as a massive injustice the fact that Jews are allowed to emigrate to Israel under Israel's Law of Return, even if their ancestors have not lived in the area for 2000 years, while people who grew up in the area and whose immediate ancestors had lived there for many generations are forbidden from returning.
The Palestinian National Authority supports this right, although its extent has been a subject of negotiation at the various peace talks; Mahmoud Abbas has promised in November 2004 to continue working towards it if elected president (http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=worldNews&storyID=6898379§ion=news).
Critics of Resolution #194 begin by pointing out that General Assembly Resolutions are not binding, and have no effect in International Law. They also note that the resolution states that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours" should be allowed into Israel. Returning home is predicated on wishing to live at peace, and they see no evidence that Palestinian refugees wish to live at peace with Israelis.
Other objections to the return of the refugees, with their descendants, to Israel include:
- Israel was founded as a Jewish state to provide refuge to Jews, regardless of their previous nationality. To allow all Palestinian Arabs and their descendants to return home, would mean that Israel would cease to exist as a Jewish state, given the majority of the population would be non-Jewish if all of the refugees were to return.
- After the UN partition of Palestine, the Arab countries declared war on Israel. Most supporters of Israel believe that the Arab countries are responsible for the fact that there were refugees on either side, including areas not part of the Jewish state in the partition plan. They believe that the Arab countries should have absorbed the Arab refugees.
- Approximately 900,000 Mizrahi Jews indigenous to Arab Middle East and North Africa emigrated between 1945 and 1956. Israel absorbed about 600,000 of them. Many of these were Jewish refugees who were forced to abandon their property; hence Israel claims there is a quid pro quo, and cite other similar or larger population transfers, such as those between Greek and Turkish populations after the 1922 Greco-Turkish War, the transfer of Sudeten Germans after World War II, or between Muslim and Hindu populations after the 1947 Partition of India. Arabs commonly respond that both Palestinian and Jewish refugees should be allowed return to their native countries, citing other population transfers which were reversed with a various degree of success, such as most of Stalin's population transfers (including, for instance, the Ingush and Kalmyks) and the exile of the Navajos in 1863 (see Long Walk.) One state where Jews' property was confiscated, Libya, has unilaterally invited them to return and receive compensation for their original property, on condition that they leave their property in Israel to Palestinians. (http://www.israelnationalnews.com/news.php3?id=60804). Libyan Jews' reaction to the offer of return has been negative; they view it as a stunt intended to improve Libya's standing in both the Western and Arab worlds, cite concerns about religious freedoms, and point out the lack of human rights and democracy in Libya that make such an offer highy unattractive. However, the compensation offer has attracted guarded interest. (http://www.forward.com/search/greenberg200404291104.php) (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/01/11/wjew11.xml&sSheet=/news/2004/01/11/ixworld.html)
Treatment in Arab countries
Palestinians in Jordan are given full Jordanian citizenship, and have the same rights and duties as any other Jordanians. They are disproportionately represented in business, but underrepresented in the army. Information from the Jordanian censuses which distinguishes between Palestinians and pre-Nakba Jordanians is not publicly available; however, the Palestinian population is estimated to be 50-60%.
An estimated number of 500,000 Palestinians are living in the kingdom of Saudi-Arabia as of December 2004. They are not allowed to hold or even apply for Saudi citizenship, as the new law passed by Saudi Arabia's Council of Ministers in October 2004 ( which entitles expatriates of all nationalities who have resided in the kingdom for ten years to apply for citizenship, with priority being given to holders of degrees in various scientific fields ) has one glaring exception: Palestinians will not be allowed to benefit from the new law because of Arab League instructions barring the Arab states from granting them citizenship in order "to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland".
Palestinians in Lebanon are barred from 73 job categories including professions such as medicine, law and engineering. They are not allowed to own property. Unlike other foreigners in Lebanon, they are denied access to the Lebanese healthcare system. The Lebanese government refuses to grant them work permits or permission to own land. The number of restrictions have been mounting since 1990.  (http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/FE7BEB3D-E5C7-4CE4-8A35-8F62B8DDBB35.htm)