Week Seven: Palestine

In partnership with the University of Central Florida


Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University

Dr. Yara Asi, School of Global Health Management and Informatics, University of Central Florida


Overview of the Conflict

The Ottoman Empire ruled over much of the lands of the Middle East and North African region for hundreds of years before it collapsed at the end of World War I. As a result, much of their land was ceded to the British, including the land known as Palestine, which became temporarily administered by the British Mandate for Palestine from 1917-1947. However, in 1917 the British agreed to establish a “national home for the Jewish people” in parts of Palestine, bolstered by the burgeoning Zionist movement but seen as a betrayal by both the local Palestinian populations and the surrounding Arab populations who were convinced to help the British by rebelling against the Ottomans. At the same time, Jewish migration to Palestine was significantly increasing, especially in light of the rise of antisemitism and violence in Europe before and during the Holocaust.

In 1947, the British turned over responsibility of Palestine to the newly formed United Nations, which, without the consideration or consultation of local populations, passed General Assembly Resolution 181, with a Plan of Partition for Palestine that would result in a Palestinian Arab state next to a Jewish state, to be known as Israel. Palestinians rejected this plan to forcibly carve up their land and resisted with the support of militaries from nearby Arab states. However, the Israeli forces, bolstered by arms and rhetorical support from the West and the Soviet Union, overcame the Arab armies and prevailed, claiming almost 80% of the land designated for partition (including much of the city of Jerusalem). This period, known as the Nakba (catastrophe) by Palestinians, resulted in the displacement of an estimated 780,000 Palestinians (more than half of the Arab population in Palestine at the time), many of whom fled to nearby Arab states or to other areas within Palestine, like Gaza. Some went voluntarily, assuming they would be able to return home within days or weeks. Yet hundreds of Palestinian villages were destroyed or emptied, and dozens of acts of organized violence by Israeli forces and militias killed thousands of Palestinians, which spurred further migration by Palestinians whose homes and livelihoods were gone or who feared violence. Indeed, countless records by Israeli policymakers and military personnel uncovered in the decades since make clear that this policy of mass population transfer and expulsion was not only well known and recognized at the time, but was a core tenant of Israeli military action in this period.

For nearly two decades, what remained of Palestinian territory, the West Bank (the land to the west of the Jordan River) and the Gaza Strip (formally the Gaza district, but now with artificial borders that limited its geographical span to a small strip of land) were occupied and administered by Jordan and Egypt, respectively. In 1967, as a result of years of tension, ongoing border skirmishes, land disputes, shifts in regional dynamics, and lingering resentment from 1948, the Six-Day War broke out, as Israel attacked Egypt on June 5, and it did not take long for the other Arab armies, including Syria and Jordan, to step in. Israel, which had spent years building up their military personnel and supplies, easily defeated their disorganized and distracted antagonists, and used the opportunity to capture even more land, including the Egyptian Sinai, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were newly displaced and millions more now lived under Israeli military occupation, in what Palestinians referred to as the Naksa (setback).

The decades since the beginning of the occupation have only been more disastrous for the Palestinians, who continue to lose land claimed by the Israelis, and became subject to destructive Israeli policies and practices like home demolitions, raids, an intricate system of movement restrictions (including checkpoints, dozens of different types of permits, physical barriers like gates and ditches, and a separation wall), population fragmentation, and ongoing physical violence.

Displacement in Numbers

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the UN agency charged with serving this population, Palestinian refugees are defined as “persons 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.”  With the chaos and violence of the Nakba, it is difficult to quantify just how many people worldwide might fit that definition. Not all Palestinians who fled registered as refugees, and those who had the financial means attempted to make lives for themselves in their new homes across the Middle East. Further, many Palestinians have fled in the decades since, especially around 1967, and may not be captured in some refugee counts. It is estimated that more than half of the global Palestinian population live outside of historic Palestine, primarily in Arab countries (about 6 million) and around 700,000 throughout the rest of the world. The number of these people who might be considered refugees by standard means is unknown.

While it is estimated that around 750,000 Palestinians fled in and around 1948, today nearly 5 million Palestinian refugees are eligible for UNRWA services, the descendents of those originally displaced. Almost half of the population within the Palestinian territories (around 42%) are considered refugees due to their displacement from their original homes and inability to return to them (especially those from villages in what is modern-day Israel), despite being on what is ostensibly Palestinian land.

Realities in Host Countries

Palestinian refugees live in four main locations: (1) Gaza, (2) the West Bank, (3) Lebanon and (4) Jordan. Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, Syria and Lebanon are home to fifty-eight official Palestinian refugee camps. More than 2 million registered Palestine refugees reside in Jordan. Approximately 18% live in the ten recognized Palestine refugee camps throughout the country. Tens of thousands of Palestine refugees from Syria (PRS) have also sought refuge in Jordan. The majority of them suffer from abject poverty and continue to have precarious legal status. In Jordan, Palestine refugees who are registered with UNRWA enjoy broad inclusion in social and economic life. The vast majority have Jordanian nationality, with the exception of some 158,000 ‘ex-Gazan’ refugees – Palestinians who fled from Gaza to Jordan in the aftermath of the June 1967 hostilities.

More than 470,000 refugees are registered with UNRWA in Lebanon. About 45% of them live in the country’s twelve refugee camps. Conditions in the camps are dire and characterized by overcrowding, poor housing conditions, unemployment, poverty and lack of access to justice. According to UNICEF, 89% of PRS are in poverty, with 9% living in extreme poverty; and 65% of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon (PRL) are in poverty, while 3% live in extreme poverty. Amid Lebanon’s ongoing economic and financial crisis, these numbers have been exacerbated.

Palestinians in Lebanon do not enjoy several important rights. They cannot work in as many as thirty-nine professions and cannot own any property. Because they are not formally citizens of another state, Palestine refugees are unable to claim the same rights as other foreigners living and working in Lebanon. Prior to the Syria crisis, Palestine refugee camp populations were amongst the most vulnerable populations in Lebanon. Those camps now hosting PRS and Syrian refugees, in addition to Palestine refugees already living in Lebanon, endure compounded difficulties such as increased rents, decreased wages and increasing strains on camp infrastructure. The traditional social network in camps has been significantly challenged by the influx of refugees, leading to an increase in internal tensions.

International Political, Legal and Humanitarian Efforts

Since the 1970s, there has been a parallel effort made to find terms upon which peace can be agreed to in both the Arab–Israeli conflict and in the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. Some countries have signed peace treaties with the country, such as Egypt (1979), Jordan (1994) and most recently the UAE (2020) and Bahrain (2020), whereas some have not yet found a mutual basis to do so, nor have aligned with the country on a strategic political level. Multiple peace processes led by western or multilateral powers have been initiated. The Oslo Accords in the mid-90s cemented Israel’s role as the dominant power in control of Palestinian movement, the Palestinian economy, and increasingly, Palestinian land. Since the 2003 road map for peace, the current outline for a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement has been a two-state solution; however a number of Israeli and US interpretations of this propose a series of non-contiguous Palestinian enclaves. The principles of the plan were first outlined by the US President George W. Bush in a speech on 24 June 2002, in which he called for an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace. A draft version from the Bush administration was published as early as 14 November 2002. The final text was released in April 2003. The process reached a deadlock early in phase I and the plan was never implemented. As of 2022, the destabilizing deterioration of the situation in the Palestinian Territories continues in the absence of political solutions that would “reset the trajectory,” according to the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.

Presently, UNRWA continues to take care of the educational, health and welfare needs of close to 6 million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Funded almost completely by voluntary donations from UN member nations, it has been in financially strained circumstances since 2018, when then-US President Donald Trump cut all funding to the UN Agency. UNRWA has since grappled to sustain itself in the aftermath, as current US President Joe Biden reinstated funding at the beginning of his term. The US has also resumed security assistance programs with the Palestinians. In 2021, the US served as UNRWA’s largest donor (USD 338M), followed by Germany (USD 176M) and the EU (USD 117M). In recent years, human rights groups like B’Tselem, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other prominent organizations have likened Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to that of a system of apartheid.