Friday, 28 January. 2022
Your Key to Palestine
The Palestinian Initiatives for The Promotoion of Global Dialogue and Democracy

How did Palestinians become refugees?

The majority of Palestinians became refugees during the wars of 1948 and 1967. The indigenous inhabitants of Palestine, most Palestinians were dispossessed, forced to flee or were expelled when the state of Israel was created in 1948. Jewish terrorist groups such as Haganah, Irgun and the Stern Gang terrorized and destroyed Palestinian villages, killing entire Palestinian families. Thirty-four massacres were documented by Zionist historian Benny Morris to have occurred within just a few months, including in Al-Abbasiyya, Beit Daras, Bir Al-Saba', Al-Kabri, Haifa, and Qisarya. These attacks were part of Plan Dalet (also known as Plan D), which aimed to expel as much of the Palestinian population as possible. Zionist militants killed an estimated 13,000 Palestinians and forcibly evicted 737,166 Palestinians from their homes and land. Five hundred and thirty-one Palestinian villages, approximately 50% of all the Palestinian villages, were entirely depopulated and destroyed. By 1948, 85% of the Palestinians living in the areas that became the state of Israel had become refugees.

This dispossession and expulsion occurred again during the 1967 War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Approximately 35% of the Palestinian population of the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip were expelled during this war. Two percent of villages were destroyed, as well as several refugee camps.

During both wars, sources of flight included indiscriminate attacks on civilians, massacres, looting, destruction of property, and forced expulsion. Israeli military forces also adopted a 'shoot to kill' policy along the armistice lines to prevent the return of refugees. In some cases refugees were forced to sign papers that they were leaving voluntarily.

Categories of Palestinian Refugees:

There are three primary groups of Palestinian refugees:

The largest group is comprised of those Palestinians displaced/expelled from their homes in 1948. These 1948 refugees include Palestinian refugees who receive international assistance from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), i.e., ‘registered refugees’, as well as the refugees who did not register at the time. UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees as “any person whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period June 1, 1946 to May 15, 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

The second major group of Palestinian refugees is comprised of those Palestinians displaced from their places of origin in the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in 1967, otherwise known as the 1967 refugees.

The third group includes those Palestinian refugees who are neither 1948 or 1967 refugees and have been outside the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967 and unable to return due to revocation of residency, denial of family reunification, deportation, etc.

In addition to these three main groups, there are internally displaced Palestinians who remained in the area that became the state of Israel in 1948 but were expelled from their original villages, which were most often destroyed, as well as Palestinians internally displaced within the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

How many refugees are there today?

The latest figures from 2008 suggest that there are well over 7 million Palestinian refugees displaced around the world. Approximately 4.6 million were registered with UNRWA as of June 2008. UNRWA, which was created in 1950 to provide emergency assistance to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, possesses refugee registration records from 1950 onwards, when roughly 914,000 refugees registered for humanitarian assistance after the 1948 War. That number has quintupled since then. There are also another 1.7 million Palestinian refugees and their descendents who were displaced in 1948 but did not register with UNRWA, possibly because they did not need assistance at the time.

In addition, there are about 950,000 Palestinian refugees who were displaced after the 1967 War. The refugees who were/are displaced within the borders of what is today Israel are referred to as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Their exact number is unknown due to the absence of a comprehensive registration system, but they are considered to be around 450,000.

Where are they now?

The majority of Palestinian refugees are displaced within their own homeland or in neighboring countries. Nearly 42% of the refugee population (UNRWA registered) lives in Jordan. Approximately 39% live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, comprising nearly 50% of the population in those areas, and about 18% live in Syria and Lebanon. UNRWA today has 61 refugee camps operating throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and unfortunately more than a third of registered Palestinian refugees still live in those camps today. The remaining refugee population is scattered throughout the world, including other Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Kuwait, and European countries such as Germany.

CountryNumber of Refugees*
West Bank754,263
Saudi Arabia240,000
Internally within Israel450,000

*Gaza, WB, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon: UNRWA registered, as of June 2008. Egypt, SA: as of 2005, not registered by UNRWA.

What are their living conditions like? What rights do they have in Arab states?

On the September 11 1965, members of the League of Arab States (LAS) signed what became known as the Casablanca Protocol, or the Protocol for the Treatment of Palestinians in Arab States, agreeing to the following commitments:

  1. Whilst retaining their Palestinian nationality, Palestinians currently residing in the land of ………. have the right of employment on par with its citizens.
  2. Palestinians residing at the moment in …………. in accordance with the dictates of their interests, have the right to leave and return to this state.
  3. Palestinians residing in other Arab states have the right to enter the land of ……… and to depart from it, in accordance with their interests. Their right of entry only gives them the right to stay for the permitted period and for the purpose they entered for, so long as the authorities do not agree to the contrary.
  4. Palestinians who are at the moment in …………., as well as those who were residing and left to the Diaspora, are given, upon request, valid travel documents. The concerned authorities must, wherever they be, issue these documents or renew them without delay.
  5. Bearers of these travel documents residing in LAS states receive the same treatment as all other LAS state citizens, regarding visa, and residency applications.

Despite these pledges, on a practical level the Casablanca Protocol has not always been implemented. Policies of Arab countries tended to fluctuate based on certain political events and particular stances taken by the PLO at the time. This jeopardised the rights of Palestinians in host countries. In addition, most Arab governments strongly opposed naturalization of the refugees and claimed to adopt policies aimed at preserving the Palestinian identity of the individuals and their status as refugees.

According to various surveys conducted in Palestinian refugee camps, Palestinian refugees living in Jordan experience the highest standard of living. In Jordan, most of the Palestinian refugees were granted citizenship (mainly to be used for travel purposes) and are well integrated socially and economically, although some 278,678 are still living in camps.

In Syria, Palestinians have not been given citizenship, but they have been afforded the same economic and social rights enjoyed by Syrian citizens. As a consequence, only about 111,208 refugees live in camps. However, they do not have the right to vote, and have limited civil rights.

In sharp contrast, Lebanon, according to research conducted by Amnesty International in late 2007, has the highest percentage of refugees who are living in abject poverty and who are registered with UNRWA’s special hardship program. With more than 300,000 Palestinian refugees residing in camps, they make up roughly 10% of the total population. However, they are not granted citizenship, nor are they allowed to own land or start businesses. There are severe restrictions on building and the use of building materials. They do not have access to health care, and are limited to certain types of employment. As a result, attempts to access higher education are discouraged and considered useless in light of their current situation. Crime is also rife and clashes between rival Palestinian factions are common.

In Egypt, Palestinian refugees received sympathetic treatment from the Egyptian government for many years, especially in terms of free education and employment, though they were not granted citizenship. However, after the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords in 1978 and the consequent assassination of the Egyptian minister of culture by a Palestinian faction, the Egyptian government began to slowly impose restrictions on Palestinians, requiring foreign student tuition fees and banning them from joining colleges of medicine, pharmacy, economics, political science, and journalism. Articles were enacted to set up quotas on the number of foreigners (including Palestinians) hired, as well as to prohibit the practice of professions unless a residency permit and a permit issued by the Labor Ministry was granted. Today, Palestinians continue to suffer restrictions on employment and education. However, in terms of land ownership, Palestinians are permitted to own land and buildings under certain conditions.

Positions on Palestinian Refugees:

There are numerous international conventions protecting the basic human right of all refugees to return to their homelands:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” (Article 13(2)).

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination:

“…State Parties undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, color, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law, notably in the enjoyment of…the right to leave any country, including one’s own, and to return to one’s country.” (Article 5(d)(ii)).

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

“No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.” (Article 12(4)).

And most important of all:

UN Resolution 194 (passed on 11 December 1948 and reaffirmed every year since 1948):

“…the [Palestinian] 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 Palestinian Position on Refugees

According to the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department (NAD), Palestinian refugees must be given the option to exercise their right of return (as well as receive compensation for their losses arising from their dispossession and displacement), though refugees may prefer other options such as: (i) resettlement in third countries, (ii) resettlement in a newly independent Palestine (even though they originate from that part of Palestine which became Israel) or (iii) normalization of their legal status in the host country where they currently reside. What is important is that individual refugees decide for themselves which option they prefer – a decision must not be imposed upon them.

In Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Rwanda and elsewhere, refugees have had their right of return honored. In fact, in Kosovo, the right of return was considered a “non-negotiable” issue. Israel is not above the law and must honor these international conventions on universal basic human rights.

The Israeli Position on Palestinian Refugees

Israel’s own law of return grants every Jew who wishes so immediate citizenship; however, this law does not apply to non-Jews. Israel’s official stance is that it does not bear any responsibility for the creation or the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel ‘is not practicable’.

The Palestinian refugee question is considered to be a permanent status issue and negotiations in this area have been postponed until a permanent settlement between the two parties is discussed and finalized. Essentially, past agreements have only established that certain fora will be created in the future in which the parties will agree to discuss the status of Palestinian refugees. It is important to note however that Palestinian refugee rights have been absent from the Middle East peace process since it began in the 1990s. There is no specific reference to the rights of Palestinian refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes of origin, nor is there specific reference to the right to housing and property restitution.

There is no doubt that a just and permanent settlement to the refugee issue needs to be found. Under no circumstances can it be swept aside, and Palestinians will never accept a peace that does not satisfactorily resolve this issue.


  • Amnesty International
  • United Nations
  • Badil Resource Center
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Al-Awda
  • PLO Negotiations Affairs Department (NAD)
  • Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)
  • BBC
  • Reuters
  • League of Arab States (LAS)
  • “How Israel was Won: A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict”; Baylis Thomas, Thomas A. Baylis; Lexington Books, 1999.

By the Same Author
Contact us
Rimawi Bldg, 3rd floor
14 Emil Touma Street,
Al Massayef, Ramallah
Postcode W607

Mailing address:
P.O.Box 69647
972-2-298 9490/1
972-2-298 9492

Subscribe to MIFTAH's mailing list
* indicates required