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Palestinian Refugees: Facts and Figures
May 14, 2007

Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons are one of the largest displaced populations in the world today. Approximately one in three refugees worldwide is Palestinian.

Who are Palestinian refugees?

There are five primary groups of Palestinian refugees and displaced persons. The largest group is comprised of those Palestinians displaced/expelled from their places of origin in 1948. This includes Palestinian refugees who receive international assistance from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), i.e., ‘registered refugees’; and Palestinian refugees not eligible for international assistance.

The second major group of Palestinian refugees is comprised of those Palestinians displaced for the first time from their places of origin in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem , and the Gaza Strip (often referred to as ‘1967 displaced persons’).

The third category of refugees includes those Palestinian refugees who are neither 1948 or 1967 refugees and are outside the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967 and unable due to revocation of residency, denial of family reunification, deportation, etc., or unwilling to return there owing to a well-founded fear of persecution.

In addition, there are two groups of internally displaced Palestinians. The first includes internally displaced Palestinians who remained in the area that became the state of Israel in 1948. The second group of internally displaced Palestinians includes Palestinians internally displaced in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem , and the Gaza Strip.

How many refugees are there?

Available data on the Palestinian refugee and displaced population is characterized by uneven quality and uncertainty primarily due to the absence of a comprehensive registration system, frequent migration for political and economic reasons, and the lack of a uniform definition of a Palestine refugee. Generally, most Palestinian refugees are considered to be prima facie refugees (i.e., in the absence of evidence to the contrary).

The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) administers the only registration system for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA records, however, only include those refugees displaced in 1948 (and their descendents) in need of assistance and located in UNRWA areas of operation - West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Estimates of the refugee and displaced population may also be derived from statistics maintained by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); census data from host countries and Israel ; and, population growth projections.

It is estimated that there were more than 7 million Palestinian refugees and displaced persons at the beginning of 2003. This includes Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 and registered for assistance with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) (3.97 million); Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 but not registered for assistance (1.54 million); Palestinian refugees displaced for the first time in 1967 (753,000); 1948 internally displaced Palestinians (274,000); and, 1967 internally displaced Palestinians (150,000).

Where do refugees live?

Palestinian refugees have tended to remain as close as possible to their homes and villages of origin based on the assumption that they will return with the cessation of conflict. In 1948 an estimated 65 percent of Palestinian refugees remained in areas of Palestine not under Israeli control – i.e., the West Bank and Gaza Strip. During the 1967 war the majority of Palestinian refugees found refuge in Jordan . Information on the distribution of Palestinians displaced within and from the occupied territories since 1967 is less well documented.

Despite the changes in the pattern of distribution of Palestinian refugees over the last fifty years, however, the majority of the refugees still live within 100 km of the borders of Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip where their homes of origin are located. Palestinian refugees residing in host states in the region comprise approximately the same percentage of the total combined population (6 percent) of the area as they did following the first wave of massive displacement in 1948. Palestinian refugees have also been displaced within and from host countries.

More than one and a quarter million Palestinian refugees reside in 59 official refugee camps located in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan , Lebanon , and Syria . There are a smaller number of unofficial refugee camps. The large number of Palestinians remaining in camps after more than five decades of exile can be explained by several factors: family and village support structure in the camp; lack of resources to rent or buy alternative accommodation outside the camp; lack of living space outside the camp due to overcrowding; legal, political, and social obstacles which compel refugees to remain in the camp; physical safety; and, the refugee camp as a symbol of the temporary nature of exile and the demand to exercise the right of return.

How did Palestinians become refugees?

The majority of Palestinians became refugees during armed conflict and war in Palestine . Sources of flight include indiscriminate attacks on civilians, massacres, looting, destruction of property (including entire villages), and forced expulsion. Israeli military forces adopted 'shoot to kill' policies along the armistice lines to prevent the return of refugees. In some cases refugees were forced to sign papers that they were leaving voluntarily. In 1948, it is estimated that more than fifty percent fled under direct military assault. Sixty percent of refugees displaced to Jordan in 1967 fled as a result of direct military assault.

In 1948 eighty-five percent of the Palestinians living in the areas that became the state of Israel became refugees. More than 500 Palestinian villages were depopulated and later destroyed to prevent the return of the refugees. These comprised three-quarters of the Palestinian villages inside the areas held by Israeli forces after the end of the war. In the districts of Jaffa , Ramla and Bir Saba' not one Palestinian village was left standing. Approximately thirty-five percent of the Palestinian population of the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem , and Gaza Strip were expelled during the 1967 war. Two percent of villages were destroyed, as well as several refugee camps.

A smaller number of Palestinians have become refugees due to policies and practices akin to low-intensity transfer. These include expulsion, deportation, revocation of residency rights, denial of family reunification, land confiscation, and house demolition. Between 1948 and the mid-1950s Israel expelled around fifteen percent of the Palestinian population that remained after the war. By 1967 it had expropriated half of the land owned by Palestinian citizens of the state. Israel deported more than 6,000 Palestinians from 1967 occupied Palestine between 1967 and the early 1990s, revoked the residency rights of some 100,000, demolished 20,000 homes and refugee shelters, and confiscated several thousand square kilometers of land.

Why are Palestinians still refugees after 50 years?

Palestinian refugees are still refugees because they are unable to exercise their basic human right to return to their homes of origin. Israel refuses to allow the refugees to return to villages, towns and cities inside Israel due to the ethnic, national and religious origin of the refugees. Israel defines itself as a Jewish state and not a state of all its citizens. This self-definition emphasizes the need for a permanent Jewish majority, Jewish control of key resources like land, and the link between Israel and the Jewish diaspora. Jewish citizens, residents and the Jewish diaspora are therefore granted special preferences to citizenship and land ownership.

Israel's laws prevent Palestinian refugees and IDPs from returning to their homes of origin. Palestinians must be able to prove that they were in the state of Israel on or after 14 July 1952, or the offspring of a Palestinian who meets this condition. Due to the fact that most Palestinian refugees were displaced outside the territory of the state of Israel on or after this date, they are unable to resume domicile in their homeland. Israel 's longstanding occupation of the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem , and Gaza Strip and related military orders and administrative procedures prevents refugees from returning to these areas. Emergency regulations, abandoned property laws, military orders and other administrative measures alienate refugees from their land which has been transferred to the state of Israel and the Jewish National Fund as the inalienable property of the Jewish people.

The international community has not exerted sufficient political will to advance durable solutions consistent with international law and relevant UN resolutions. Refugee rights have been absent from the Middle East Peace Process since it began in Madrid in the early 1990s. Unlike peace agreements elsewhere, agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are based solely on an agreed-upon political process between the parties. International law does not provide a framework for conflict resolution and the regulation of future relations between the parties. There is no explicit reference to the right of Palestinian refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes of origin. Nor is there explicit reference to the right to housing and property restitution. The agreements only establish fora in which the parties agree to discuss the future status of Palestinian refugees.

Notes:* Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights

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