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13 APR 2024

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  • Daniel Karny

The Tragically Complex History of Palestinian Refugees  

Palestinians’ insecurity beyond the diasporic borders of Gaza and the West Bank    

Palestinian Refugees

Image source, Government Press Office (Israel), shared under, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

  • The original mass displacement of approximately 700,000 Palestinians occurred between 1947-1949 in an event known as the Nakba (“great catastrophe”). 

  • 5.9 million Palestinians are classified as refugees, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 2022. 

  • 80-plus percent of Palestinians have been internally displaced in Gaza since the beginning of the war on October 7, 203. 

The classification of Palestinian refugees - who they are and where they reside - is critical for gaining insight into the complexity of the Palestinian Question. 

Palestinian refugees were forcefully reshuffled and redistributed during the 20th Century, not only throughout Israel’s borders but also around and within the nations of the Arab world following political struggles and power upheavals. 


Palestinian Refugees During the Nakba  

At the end of Israel's War of Independence in 1948, approximately 700,000 Palestinians - suddenly refugees - fled their homes to neighboring Egypt and other surrounding Arab countries. They settled on the outskirts of cities such as Damascus, Beirut, and Amman. Those places would ultimately become permanent homes to stateless Palestinians since Israel prohibited these refugees from returning to the country.  

At the same time, Israel's independence produced a mass exodus of Jewish refugees living throughout the Arab world. Approximately 600,000 Jews left their homes in neighboring Muslim countries for Israel (with 300,000 moving to the US or Europe). Jews from large cities, including Fez, Cairo, Tripoli, Baghdad, and Aleppo fled to Israel. The Jewish exodus from Arab countries would continue into the second half of the 20th Century when Yemen, Tunisia, and Algeria gained their independence. 

While some inhabitants of Palestine became full citizens in Arab countries, such as Jordan, other nations such as Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq did not grant them citizenship or naturalization. Hostility to and laws against citizenship in host countries where Palestinians fled exacerbated their instability abroad. 

The 150,000 Palestinians who stayed in their homes until the end of the 1948 war were given Israeli citizenship in the new Jewish state, although many were displaced from their original homes during the fighting. 

Privileges given to Palestinian newcomers were often looked down upon by the native inhabitants of the countries to which they immigrated. The citizens of those countries considered it unfair that Palestinians were given housing or that they received tax or military exemptions. This led to tremendous discontent between the host Arab residents and their refugee neighbors. As large numbers of Palestinian refugees flooded surrounding states, they were also considered a political threat

In other circumstances, however, Palestinian refugees were made to pay taxes, for example in Lebanon, without receiving benefits such as social security eligibility. In many cases, Palestinians were barred from working in government jobs even though they lived in the country for years. 

Iraqi Jews suffered a similar fate to those of Palestinians, having their citizenship status revoked as anti-Israel animus spread across the country. In 1948, there were 135,000 Iraqi Jews, but a decade later, only 6,000 Jews would remain there. Jews who had lived in Iraq and other Arab countries for more than 2,500 years began to experience mob violence, imprisonment, and exile in the wake of Israel's independence. 

Unequal treatment, rescinding citizenship, and deportation were experiences felt by both Palestinians and Jews in the wake of the Arab-Israeli conflict as massive population exchanges in the Middle East uprooted thousands of years of heritage and history. 

History of Palestinian Refugees: Who They Are, Where They Are, and How They Are Represented 

In 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) was established with a temporary mandate to assist Palestinian refugees with housing, education, food, and healthcare. Over the course of its existence, 58 refugee camps have been designated in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza for Palestinians. 

Of  UNRWA’s 5.9 million classified Palestinian refugees, 81% are the children and grandchildren of originally exiled inhabitants from British-occupied Palestine. UNRWA is not sanctioned to resettle Palestinian refugees but only to care for them until a lasting solution to the Palestinian problem is found.  

The inclusion of Palestinian children and third-generation descendants is separate from the 1951 definition adopted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in its guidebook for the determination of refugees:

UNHCR definition:

“As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

UNRWA definition:

A Palestinian refugee is a person whose normal residence was Palestine for a minimum of two years preceding the conflict in 1948, and who, as a result of this conflict, lost both his home and his means of livelihood and took refuge in one of the countries where UNRWA provides relief. Refugees within this definition and the direct descendants of such refugees are eligible for Agency assistance if they are: registered with UNRWA; living in the area of UNRWA operations; and in need.”

The inconsistency between these two definitions arose from Arab states’ assertions that the Palestinian refugee crisis is distinct, due to its continued insistence on the right of return and the obligation to provide reliable aid by international actors. The right of return was enshrined as international law by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 through Resolution 194. Palestinians believe the right of return to be sacred.

Securing the right of return is elemental to Palestinian refugees and their supporters, although the idea is highly disputed by scholars who feel a mass return of Palestinian refugees poses legitimate security issues to Israeli citizens and would destroy the notion of Jewish self-determination. Advocates of the right of return say Israel is bound to accept its responsibility and resettle refugees for its role in the Nakba.   

A variety of scenarios exist for the right of return that do not include the 5.9 million Palestinian refugees coming into Israel’s territory. Some proposals involve varying levels of repatriation for families displaced in 1948, while others suggest the right of return merely includes the founding of a Palestinian state.  

Whereas UNRWA is responsible for the well-being of Palestinian refugees, it is  the Arab League that has historically been in charge of Palestinians’ status throughout the Arab world. The effectiveness of the Arab League’s support of Palestinian statehood has wavered over the years, but its influence in the 20th Century has had pivotal significance. 

Many international agencies and organizations have mobilized to support Palestinians. In the decades following the Nakba, the United Nations would make payments to finance UNRWA. In 1952, the UN paid more than $70 million a year to UNRWA, the largest single expenditure worldwide at that time. Today, the US is the largest donor to UNRWA.

Some organizations challenge the legitimacy of UNRWA, questioning whether its existence as a welfare organization perpetuates Palestinians’ dependence on international benefactors. Others, however, contend that without the services that UNRWA provides, millions of Palestinian refugees would be left searching for basic human needs such as food and medicine. For example, UNRWA currently provides food to 1 million residents in the Gaza Strip. 

A History of Palestinian Refugee-dom In Arab Lands

The Nakba, followed by Israel's territorial acquisitions in the wake of the 1967 (“Six Day”) War, are the quintessential markers for Palestinian refugees. Yet, the passage of Palestinians into surrounding Arab nations, their migration to the Gulf States, and their arrival in other parts of the world were not the impetus of these events alone. 

Inequality, war, and discrimination pervade the history of Palestinian refugees in a handful of diasporic countries such as Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. Against the backdrop of nationalist revolutions in several Arab nations, Palestinian refugees have often borne the brunt of political realignments and shifting global dynamics.  


From 1948 to 1960, Amman, the capital of Jordan, increased its Palestinian population from 30,000 to 250,000, due to the massive influx of refugees from the so-named occupied territories. Additionally, Palestinians were incorporated into Jordan when the West Bank was annexed in 1950 following an Israeli/Jordanian armistice agreement. Another wave of Palestinian refugees would come to live in Jordan after the 1967 war when Israel annexed the West Bank. 

Palestinians soon became the majority of the population in Jordan, allowing the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to increase its involvement in Jordanian affairs politically and militarily. An imbalance of political power permeated the Hashemite Kingdom as Yasser Arafat built up support for Fatah within Jordan, leading to a “state within a state.” 

In fact, the PLO began to act independently of King Hussein's regime in Jordan, unilaterally organizing cross-border raids and missile assaults into Israel. These assaults later resulted in a Syrian incursion to aid the guerillas (“fedayeen”). Syria’s ruler Hafez Assad wanted to make up for Syrians’ discontent following their defeat in 1967. The Syrians sought to also protect Palestinians from annihilation by the Jordanian army. 

Other countries, including Russia, had influence in the region, aligning with the Cold War of the time. Soviet backers in satellite states such as East Germany trained Palestinian guerrilla groups. The lives of Palestinian refugees were often shaped by the global environment of Cold War rivalries. 


Tensions boiled over in 1970 when PLO guerilla fighters fought the Jordanian army, ending in the expulsion of Palestinian leaders to Lebanon. In a period known as Black September, a sizable portion of Palestinian civilians were killed in Jordan. Black September complicated the safety of Palestinians in Jordan, resulting in many uprooting to Lebanon and Syria. 

Palestinian terrorist groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) were also a part of the Black September narrative. Plane hijackings and other terrorist acts, led by a variety of Palestinian terror organizations such as the PLO and Fatah, marked much of the early 1970s and added to the deteriorating status of Palestinian refugees in Jordan.  

In 1974 alone, terrorists killed Jews living in Kiryat Shmona, Maalot, Kibbutz Shamir, and Nahariya in Israel. These events and others further complicated the lives of refugees who were disconnected from the political sphere, with many living in poor conditions. 

Caught in the fray of global feuds and Middle Eastern countries vying for supremacy in the region - via each nation's self-professed obligation to pan-Arab unity - Palestinian refugees were, once again, displaced to their next uncertain destination. 


While approximately 110,000 Palestinians fled to Lebanon in the initial exodus of 1948, Black September and the 1967 war sent additional waves of Palestinians to the country. Palestinian militants began hosting attacks in Southern Lebanon against Israel while participating in the broader Lebanese Civil War. 

During that period, the PLO used Lebanon as a staging ground to train and network with various Arab nations such as Iran. The PLO and Iranian leaders met to discuss guerilla warfare tactics, to advance revolutionary ideologies such as Marxism, and to promote Jihad as a viable combat tactic. Israel's relationship with Iran (largely predicated on oil and assisting in rescuing Jews from Iraq) was strained and eventually severed by Tehran’s new ties with the PLO. 

The Christian faction of Lebanon, the Kata’ib (Phalanges), attempted to gain control of the country while Muslims were trying to do the same. Intense fighting and displacement occurred between 1975-1976, with Israel and the US siding with the Phalanges, while Iraq and Libya sent troops to support the Muslims. 

Palestinians were also divided in their allegiances during Lebanon’s war, which also included Syrian forces. As the Syrians left Beirut and Sidon, they left an opportunity for Phalanges militias to massacre PLO-supporting Palestinians in the refugee camp of Tell al-Za’atar. 

With the Camp David Peace Accords of 1978 providing stability in southern Israel, the new Israeli government then sought to protect its northern borders like Lebanon. For its part, Palestinians saw the Israeli-Egypt peace agreement as a betrayal of Arabs' armed struggle against the Zionist state. 

On June 3, 1982, PLO units in the south of Lebanon began shelling towns and villages in northern Israel, prompting Prime Minister Menachem Begin to order troops to enter Lebanon the following week with the objective of ridding its neighbor of the PLO. 

During the period in which Israel's military gained control of Lebanon, a member of the Syrian Social National Party (SSNP) assassinated the new President of Lebanon, Bashir Jumayyil, of the Kata’ib movement. This led to a bloody retribution by the Christian Kata’ib militia which supported Jumayyil’s government. A massacre by the Kata’ib of civilians in the Palestinian-Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila resulted in approximately 2,300 Palestinian men, women, and children being killed. 

In response, 350,000 Israelis gathered to express outrage over its government’s inability to foresee the massacres at Sabra and Shatila since Israeli forces had worked closely with the Phalanges during the conflict. It was, at the time, the largest demonstration in Israel since its founding. 

It is estimated that throughout the Lebanese Civil War (1976-1991), 100,000 Palestinians left the country. Some refugee fighters and their families headed for Tunis, where Yasser Arafat had gone when he and other PLO leaders and fighters were forced out of Lebanon. Other Palestinians living in Lebanon fled back to Jordan, where they had lived only two decades earlier. 

Many Palestinian refugees found themselves traveling en masse to Turkey and other Balkan states in the next stage of their global diaspora. Palestinians remaining in Lebanon continued to struggle after the Civil War, having been barred from white-collar jobs and owning property


Syria has played a central role in the lives of Palestinian refugees. After 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lived in refugee camps on the outskirts of Damascus. Palestinians also came to Syria following their conflict in Jordan in the 1970s and after the Lebanese Civil War. 

The Ba’th (Resurrection) Party, which grew prominent in Syria in the 1950s, promoted socialism and Arab nationalism. Ba’athism would dominate the Syrian political landscape for decades and lent support to terrorist groups, including modern-day Hezbollah. Israeli retaliation for Hezbollah strikes, in 1993 for example, resulted in the displacement of 300,000 civilians, many of whom were Palestinians. 

Another calamity for Palestinian refugees came in the wake of the 2011 Syrian Civil War. Since then, of Syria's 560,000-strong Palestinian refugees, approximately 120,000 have fled the country. 

In 2015, when the Yarmouk refugee camp was carpet bombed by Syrian and Russian planes, approximately 160,000 Palestinians were forced to find new homes. 

Some have dubbed the continued displacement, expulsion, and imprisonment of Palestinians in Syria the “New Nakba.” Thousands of Palestinians have made their way to Turkey. They are part of the approximately 100,000 Palestinians who have also sought refuge in Egypt, Lebanon, (again) Jordan, and European countries. 

The Nakba in Syria added a new dimension to the Palestinian Question, which is fraught with seeking refuge in different lands every few years. 


Even before Kuwait gained its independence from the British in 1961, Palestinians had been coming there for decades to work in the oil industry, as revenue from exports modernized the nation. Kuwait's population was too small to produce its oil on its own, which necessitated the migration of Palestinians. By 1989, 400,000 Palestinians were living in Kuwait. 

Although Palestinians never enjoyed full citizenship and were denied many of the same privileges of Kuwaitis, circumstances drastically changed when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. With Arafat and the PLO’s support of Hussein, the situation for Palestinians in Kuwait significantly deteriorated and led to their exile back to Jordan and surrounding states. Palestinian government employees lost their jobs and many were deported to Iraq, where 34,000 had previously gone after the 1967 war in Israel. 

Just 30,000 Palestinians would remain in Kuwait after the Gulf War. 

Conclusion: Palestinian Refugees' Future for Regional Stability

The history of Palestinian refugees has been a result of its conflicts with Israel and, to a larger extent, within other Arab lands. The Palestinian refugee crisis has not been limited to a single country but rather spans across multiple nations and generations.

Palestinians have been caught in the crossfire of political realignments, as in the Lebanese Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, which have further exacerbated their plight beyond the exodus from territory in and surrounding Israel. 

The rate of Palestinian population growth within the countries they are living has also raised concerns and impacted the responses by those nations to these refugees in their countries, including in Europe and the United States

The Israel-Palestine conflict, prompted most recently by the October 7 attack by Hamas, has created a new humanitarian crisis for Palestinians now living in Gaza. Yet, one must also not overlook developments in the Arab world that contributed and may still contribute to the continued displacement of Palestinians. 



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Daniel Karny

Daniel Karny is an alumnus of Rutgers University with a degree in Political Science, he now teaches middle school social studies. 


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