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The Palestinian refugee crisis

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George Washington University

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The Palestinian refugee crisis

The purpose of the Gaza protests

Max Skidelsky

4.22.18

In 1948, Israel declared independence—immediately thereafter, Arab armies declared war and invaded the Jewish state, sparking the first Arab-Israeli War. The result was a resounding Israeli victory, leading to Arab aggression in other major wars throughout the 20th century.

The 1948 War also created the Palestinian refugee crisis—the right for these refugees to return to their homes was a central issue for Arab states. The violent riots staged by Hamas in Gaza the past few weeks were claimed to be protesting for this right.

Origin of the Issue


During the war, Israeli forces expelled Palestinians to take control of strategic areas vital to the war effort. By 1949, an estimated 700,000 Palestinians had been expelled or fled—including approximately 100,000 who fled before the war, as well as many others who chose to leave even after hostilities ended.

The precise number of refugees, as well as definitive reasons for their exodus, is sharply disputed. Available data on Palestinian refugees is lacking due to the absence of a comprehensive registration system and conflicting reports

After the war, Israel offered to repatriate some of the refugees, but Arabs rejected all compromises since they required recognition of Israel. Arabs also rejected a UN resolution calling on states to solve the refugee problem because it required all parties “to live in peace with their neighbors.” Instead, they made repatriation a precondition for negotiations, something Israel rejected.

Arab governments strongly opposed naturalization of Palestinian refugees and severely restrict their civil rights to show them as symbols of Israeli oppression (even though refugees outside Israel are not subject to Israeli policy).

International Attitudes and Status


While refugees across the world receive support under the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Palestinians received their own relief organization. Established in 1949, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), among other UN institutions to support Palestinians, work to provide stability. However, watchdog groups have warned about UNRWA schools in Gaza being used to store munitions for Hamas, and other UN institutions providing funding or supplies.

Initially, the U.S. and Israel outspend Arab pledges to the UNRWA for decades. In 2016, the U.S. provided nearly $400 million in funding to UNRWA, making it the single largest donor. Arab governments largely refrained from contributing to UNRWA budget to keep the Palestinian refugee issue on the international agenda and to press Israel to accept responsibility for them.

The refugee crisis remains an issue because the criteria for qualifying a Palestinian refugee was (and still is) significantly different than the criteria applicable to all others. In fact, no Palestinian has ever lost refugee status—since descendants of refugees are included in the tabulation (regardless of whether the individual is settled), the refugee population will continue to grow without end. Even total repatriation would not rescind the status of these refugees.

Regarding Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967 under the traditional definition, approximately 30,000-50,000 are still alive. However, there are a nearly seven million descendants of refugees worldwide—Hamas presses for a full right of return for all these Palestinians, intent on destroying the Jewish character of Israel, though many have never lived there or owned property there.

The Palestinian right of return is rooted in the sense of national attachment, as well as an individual claim to private property. However, given the realities since 1948, much of the property since 1948 has either been destroyed or inhabited by others born in the area.

Israel has proposed instead to accommodate resettlement in a future Palestinian state as part of a final deal, but Palestinian negotiators have stated that the Palestinian refugee problem, among others, is key in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and a “red line” which they are not allowed to cross. The solution to the Palestinian refugee problem mainly depends on the peace process. Arab countries also play an important role and their cooperation is vital to the resolution of this issue.

This is an opinion piece and does not reflect the views of The Rival.