Palestinians queuing for food in the wrecked Yarmouk camp, in Damascus, Syria, 2014. Since then all but 8,000 of the area's previous 160,000 Palestinian population have been driven out
The global Palestinian population is estimated at around thirteen million. There are big Palestinian communities in some countries of the Americas – half a million in Chile, over 250,000 in the United States, 250,000 in Honduras, and 200,000 in Guatamala – but most Palestinians live in countries in the Middle East.
Nearly two million live in Israel, around the same number in the Gaza Strip, and nearly three million in the West Bank.
Some three million live in Jordan, 300,000 or more in Lebanon, over 50,000 in Egypt and, despite a large-scale exodus because of the ongoing military conflict, around 400,000 to 450,000 in Syria.
But the latter figures in particular should be treated with caution. Different sources provide sometimes very different estimates of the size of the Palestinian populations in the countries bordering Israel.
There are also substantial Palestinian communities in Saudi Arabia (over 250,000), Qatar (100,000) and Kuwait (80,000 – down from around 400,000 prior to the first Iraq War).
These figures should also be treated with caution. Palestinians in these countries are predominantly migrant labour and may be working invisibly in the "black economy", resulting in underestimates of the size of the populations.
Out of the global Palestinian population of thirteen million, around nine million are classed as displaced.
Most displaced Palestinians (6.7 million) are descendants of the 700,000 or more Palestinians who fled or were expelled from Israel in the 1948 war. Those 700,000 were nearly two thirds of the pre-war Palestinian population of what became Israel.
Another 1.25 million displaced Palestinians are Palestinians (and their descendants) displaced as a result of the 1967 war. Some 350 to 400,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced at the time, and a further 60,000 who were outside the area during the conflict were prevented from returning.
A further 350,000 Palestinians are internally displaced in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
5.7 million Palestinians are registered as “Palestine Refugees” with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
A Palestine Refugee is someone, or a descendant of someone, but only through the male line of descent, 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."
UNRWA now has a database of some 17 million documents – mainly birth certificates, property deeds, family ledgers and registration documents, often dating back to before 1948 – confirming that holders of Palestine Refugee status meet this criterion (or that their male ancestors did).
When UNRWA commenced operations in 1950, it had a "client base of 875,000, the number of Palestine Refugees registered after a UNRWA census carried out in 1950/51.
Today, it is the fourth and fifth generations of the victims of the 1948 war who are being registered as Palestine Refugees. In 2019, for example, 100,000 descendants of first-generation Palestine Refugees were registered by UNRWA.
Conversely, in the same year new registrations (i.e. someone who had not previously registered in their own right, nor was a descendant of an already registered Palestine Refugee) were in single figures. Anyone who presents themselves to a UNRWA registration office and produces valid documentation confirming that they – or their male ancestors – meet the Palestine Refugee definition can still be registered.
Because the status is passed on only through the male line of descent, the non-Palestine-Refugee husband and children of a female Palestine Refugee are not entitled to recognition as Palestine Refugees.
Palestine Refugees can, and do, live anywhere in the world. All that counts is where they or their male ancestors lived in 1948, not where they live now or under what conditions.
Any Palestine Refugee living in one of the five UNRWA areas of operations (Gaza, West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan) can access basic education and primary health care through UNRWA. UNRWA schools, though overcrowded and cash-strapped, are often considered to be better than local public provision.
But access to financial support, food packages and hospitalisation support from UNRWA is, so to speak, means-tested and targeted at those most in need.
A further 700,000 Palestinians who do not meet the definition of Palestine Refugee receive services, such as health and education, and material support, such as money and food, from UNRWA. They comprise:
• Palestinians displaced by the 1967 war (other than those already recognised as Palestine Refugees).
• The husband and children of a female Palestine Refugee (although this policy was adopted only in 2006).
• Non-Palestine-Refugee females married to a Palestine Refugee. But entitlement to services continues only as long as the marriage. In the event of divorce, entitlement is withdrawn.
• The Jerusalem Poor and Gaza Poor: Persons who normally resided in East Jerusalem or Gaza City until 15 May 1948, and who lost their work or property and suffered hardship as a result of the 1948 war. Entitlement to services is passed on through the male line of descent.
• Frontier Villagers: Persons who lived in towns or villages along the 1949 armistice lines in the West Bank and who lost farming properties or suffered other hardship as a result of the 1948 war. Entitlement to services is passed on through the male line of descent.
Palestine Refugees are a separate category from refugees recognised as such under the terms of the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951. In fact, Palestine Refugees were explicitly excluded from the UN Refugee Convention from the outset.
Article 1(d) of the Convention states: “This Convention shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance.”
The only group of people receiving “protection or assistance” from another UN agency were Palestine Refugees recognised by UNRWA. With the brief exception of Korean War refugees in the mid-1950s, that has also been the case ever since.
Article 1(d) was included in the Convention at the initiative of Arab governments. They regarded the post-1948 displacement of Palestinians as a temporary affair – because they regarded Israel's existence as a temporary affair. Once Israel had been defeated, the Palestinians would be able to return. Allowing Palestinians access to the protection of the UN Refugee Convention was at odds with this: If Palestinians came within the ambit of the Refugee Convention, then, instead of returning, they might exercise their right to settle permanently in their host state.
This "logic" was taken a stage further at the 1959 conference of the Arab League.
Resolution 1547 urged the member-states of the Arab League to protect Palestinian national identity (“to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their rights to return to their homeland”) by refusing to grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees on their territory.
Thus, for example, the Saudi Arabian naturalisation law of 2004 grants Saudi citizenship to foreigners who have lived in the country for ten years, are fluent in Arabic, are self-supporting, and have no criminal record. But there is one group to whom the law does not apply: Palestinians.
For some seventy years, therefore, the Palestinian victims of the 1948 war and their descendants have been denied a just settlement by successive Israeli governments, treated as political pawns and civic pariahs by Arab states, and largely abandoned by the "international community".
This combination of intransigence, cynicism and indifference, along with the human cost of competing imperialist and regional sub-imperialist ambitions, has proved to be a disaster for the millions of Palestinians scattered across the countries of the Middle East.
1.2 million Palestinians residing in the UNRWA areas of operations live in absolute poverty, and 700,000 in abject poverty. 1.5 million Palestinians live in one of UNRWA's 58 refugee camps.
Initially akin to "tent cities", the camps have evolved over subsequent decades into collections of substandard multi-storey buildings, characterised by high levels of poverty and overcrowding. The camps are now amongst the most densely populated urban centres in the world.
In the Gaza Strip over 75% of the population are registered with UNRWA, most of them either as Palestine Refugees or as Palestinians displaced by the 1967 War. But the situation facing all Palestinians in the Strip is equally dire.
The unemployment rate is 49%, and youth unemployment 60%. More than a million of its inhabitants are classed as “moderately to severely food-insecure”. Between 2000 and today the number of Palestine Refugees needing food assistance from UNRWA increased from 80,000 to a million.
Clean water is unavailable for 95% of the population. In recent years electricity has been available for only four to five hours a day on average, although this has now periodically improved to 14 hours per day.
Fourteen years of the blockade imposed by Israel (and Egypt) on Gaza have resulted in what the UN has called a “de-development” of the Strip. The blockade has led to shortages of basic consumer goods such as food and fuel and created an economy in a state of regression.
Since the blockade was imposed in 2007 Israel has carried out four military assaults on the Gaza Strip – in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2021. The attacks have resulted in thousands of deaths and the destruction of homes and public buildings, as well as further undermining all efforts at economic reconstruction.
In the West Bank nearly three million Palestinians, over a million of whom are registered with UNRWA, live alongside of some 400,000 Israeli settlers, and a further 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem.
The ongoing military occupation of the West Bank by Israel has resulted in decades of violence against Palestinians by the Israeli Security Forces (ISF), military incursions into UNRWA camps by the ISF, home demolitions and forced displacement, collective punishments, impunity for settler attacks on Palestinians, prolonged detentions without charge or trial, and restrictions on freedom of movement and access for Palestinians.
Israeli settlers, by contrast, enjoy the status of Israeli citizens and the same rights and liberties as other Israelis.
Like the rule of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the (partial) jurisdiction exercised by the notoriously corrupt Palestinian Authority in the West Bank provides another layer of oppression of the Palestinian population: attacks on the media, restrictions on the right to protest, arbitrary arrests and detention, and torture in custody.
And, as in the Gaza Strip, no elections have taken place in the West Bank since 2006.
Prior to the outbreak of civil war in 2011 some 600,000 Palestinians lived in Syria, mainly refugees, or descendants of refugees, from the 1948 war and the 1967 war, but also including several thousand Palestinians who fled the civil war in Lebanon in the early 1980s.
As in other Arab states, Palestinians were denied citizenship (in order to "protect their Palestinian identity"). But in Syria they had in most other respects equality of rights with Syrian citizens, including the right to work and access to social services.
Although 70% of the Palestinian population lived in UNRWA refugee camps, the camps were often integrated into the surrounding areas and urban conglomerations, including the Syrian capital Damascus itself.
But since 2011 over 20% of Syria's Palestinian population has fled the country. Or been killed: 4,000 had been killed by 2018, including 462 tortured to death in the regime's prisons.
Although 560,000 Palestine Refugees are registered with UNRWA in Syria, the actual number living in the country is estimated at around 438,000. More than half of them have been internally displaced, and in many cases repeatedly internally displaced.
95% are classed as being in “critical need” of humanitarian assistance. 75% live in absolute poverty. 420,000 depend on UNRWA food handouts, and 136,000 receive some financial support from UNRWA.
But UNRWA's ability to provide support has been undermined by the conflict. 40% of its schools have been destroyed, and 25% of its health centres are unusable. Nor can it even access all its refugee camps.
In 2011 Syria's largest Palestinian community – around 160,000 – lived in the Yarmouk refugee camp, a district in the suburbs of Damascus. Conditions there were not as bad as in other refugee camps.
But by 2018, after successive waves of attacks on the camp by the different parties to the conflict, Yarmouk was the seventh most destroyed neighbourhood in the civil war (80% destruction), and only 8,000 Palestinians continued to live there.
Palestinians who have fled the country or been internally displaced have also been deprived of their properties, seized by the regime under legislation passed in 2018. This required owners to provide proof of ownership by May of that year or forfeit ownership.
For the 120,000 Palestinians who had fled Syria and the quarter of a million internally displaced Palestinians, this was an impossible criterion to fulfil. Their (former) home areas have now begun to be repopulated by Assad-loyalists.
Around 30,000 of the Palestinians who fled Syria migrated to Lebanon, mostly prior to the Lebanese government's clampdown of 2014 on refugees from Syria attempting to cross the border.
PRSs (Palestinian refugees from Syria) face even worse conditions in Lebanon than the country's "established" Palestinian population.
Nearly 90% of PRSs live below the poverty line and 95% are food-insecure. PRS families receive a UNRWA cash grant of $100 a month, and a further UNRWA grant of $27 per family member per month to help with food costs.
546,000 Palestinians are registered with UNRWA in Lebanon. But other estimates put the number of Palestinians living in Lebanon as low as 300,000, or even 200,000 (according to UNICEF), with the remainder working in other countries of the Middle East as migrant labour.
Palestinians in Lebanon are banned from owning property, banned from working in 39 (decent-paying) professions or trades, banned from owning businesses, and banned from obtaining Lebanese citizenship (in case this should "threaten" their Palestinian identity).
66% of Lebanon's Palestinians live in poverty. 56% are unemployed. 45% live in overcrowded refugee camps, sometimes surrounded by segregation walls, barbed wire and military surveillance.
Many camps lack basic services such as electricity and waste disposal. 78% of homes in the camps suffer from dampness, and 62% from water leakage.
In Jordan, by contrast, most of the three million or so Palestinians living in the country (when not working abroad) have Jordanian nationality – Jordan does not abide by Arab League Resolution 1547 – and are integrated into Jordanian social and economic life.
But recent years have seen an increasing number of Palestinians deprived of Jordanian citizenship (although only a small proportion of the overall Palestinian population) on often arbitrary grounds and with no right of appeal.
Elections laws adopted in 1993 also discriminate against Palestinians. The laws diluted representation from the cities (where most Palestinians live) in favour of representation from rural areas (the base of the monarchy's non-Palestinian support).
Nearly 2.5 million of the country's Palestinian population are registered with UNRWA as Palestine Refugees. But only 18% live in refugee camps (now effectively poor city suburbs with some UNRWA services, rather than "traditional" refugee camps), the lowest proportion of in any of UNRWA's areas of operations.
Many Jordanian Palestinians work abroad. Prior to the first Gulf War, for example, most of the 400,000 Palestinians working in Kuwait were Jordanian. Half were expelled by the Iraqi occupation, and half by the restored Kuwaiti monarchy, resulting in a 30% increase in the unemployment rate for Jordanian Palestinians.
Jordan is also "home" to around 170,000 “ex-Gazan” Palestinians and their descendants, victims of the 1967 war, and around 20,000 Palestinians who have fled the fighting in Syria.
These Palestinians are not granted Jordanian citizenship and live in similar conditions to Palestinians in other Arab states.
They are denied free education, banned from entering professions such as law and engineering (which require Jordanian citizenship), cannot buy or sell property, are banned from entering Jordanian cities (in the case of Palestinians who have fled Syria), and are three times more likely than other Jordanian Palestinians to be living in poverty.
Most estimates of Egypt's Palestinian population vary between 50,000 and 75,000, although some give a figure of 250,000. Most of the first generation of these Palestinians arrived (or were already in the country but unable to return) after the wars of 1948, 1956 and 1967.
Palestinians in Egypt, including those who meet the definition of a Palestine Refugee, receive no support from UNRWA. The Egyptian authorities do not allow UNRWA to operate in the country (nor the UNHCR, the main UN refugee agency).
Under Nasser Palestinians were treated as virtually the equals of Egyptians (albeit with no right to Egyptian citizenship). But this changed, for the worse, as relations between the Egyptian government and various factions of the PLO worsened in the 1970s.
Egypt is now the only Arab state which requires Palestinians to regularly renew, and pay for, their residence status. A re-entry visa must also be obtained, and paid for, before travel abroad. With few exceptions, any Palestinian who spends more than six months outside of Egypt loses their residency rights.
Palestinians who had fled the 1948 war were initially banned from working. Work would “make the Palestinians forget their homeland” claimed the then Egyptian Prime Minister. Under Nasser this policy was dropped and Palestinians were given the right to work.
But since the legislation of 1978 which redefined Palestinians as foreigners, Palestinians are barred from working in the public sector. Private sector employers need to obtain work permits to employ Palestinians, and legislation restricts the number of foreigners in any company to 10%.
From 1978 onwards Palestinians were also banned from attending public (state) schools, fees for university studies were introduced for Palestinians, and restrictions imposed on which university faculty they could attend (if they could afford to attend university at all).
And since 1978 Palestinians in Egypt have been barred from owning buildings and land, although, like other foreigners, Palestinians can be minority partners in Egyptian-run landowning partnerships.
Laws passed in 1963 banned foreigners from owning land but made an exception for Palestinians “until the Palestinian territories are liberated from the occupiers and Palestinians return to their homeland.” That exception was annulled by the 1978 legislation.
Officially, the nearly two million Palestinian citizens of Israel (around 16% of whom self-define as Israeli Arabs rather than as Israeli Palestinians) enjoy equality with its Jewish citizens.
In practice, they suffer discrimination in a variety of forms, and have done so ever since the creation of Israel. For the first 18 years of the state's existence they were subject to martial law, unlike Israel's Jewish population.
According to Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, there are currently 65 Israeli laws that discriminate against Israeli Palestinians and Palestinians in the West Bank.
Estimates of the poverty rate among Israeli Palestinians range from 36% to 50%, around twice as high as among Israeli Jews. The unemployment rate for Israeli Palestinian males is also twice as high as for Israeli Jewish males.
Since 1948 some 900 new towns inhabited by Jewish populations have been built, but not a single one for the country's Palestinians. Although the latter account for about 20% of the country's population, only 1.7% of state funds for local government are allocated to areas with predominantly Palestinian populations.
Likewise only 1% of Israel's Health Ministry spending is allocated for the development of healthcare facilities in predominantly Palestinian areas. And average state spending on a Palestinian school student is only 20% of spending on a Jewish school student.
Relative state spending on Palestinian areas has increased recently; the number of Palestinians in "mixed cities" like Haifa has risen; and Arab numbers in Israeli universities have increased from almost zero in the 1950s to 17% of all undergraduate students by 2019; "ethnic" identification has been removed from Israeli identity cards since 2015; but the second-class status of the Israel's Palestinian minority was underlined by the Basic Law of 2018.
This defined Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people”, and defined Hebrew as its official language (while Arabic, formerly the country's second official language, was downgraded to a language with “special status”). Official use of Arabic was slight in the early years, and has increased since 2000, but that may change. The 2018 Law accorded Jews a unique right to national self-determination, and tasked the government to promote Jewish settlement in Israel “as a national interest”.
Palestinian solidarity campaigns, Palestinian organisations and Arab governments raise the slogan of the “right of return” as the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the fate of the Palestinian diaspora.
More often than not, the “right of return” is packaged as simply being the implementation of Resolution 194 adopted by the UN General Assembly in December of 1948, clause 11 of which stated:
“Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property.”
Clause 11 also provides the basis for the existence of UNRWA. Its role is to provide support, assistance and protection to Palestine Refugees (and other displaced Palestinians and their descendants) until clause 11 has been implemented and the Palestine Refugees have been able to return.
Ironically, when the General Assembly voted on Resolution 194, all six member-states of the Arab League voted against the Resolution. Palestinian organisations also uniformly campaigned against its adoption.
Their reason for doing so was that although the Resolution did not actually mention Israel, it implicitly recognised Israel's right to exist as an independent state. But this ran counter to the denialism of the Arab governments and Palestinian organisations.
The Stalinist states also voted against the Resolution – it was passed by 35 votes to 15, with eight abstentions – but for very different reasons. At the time of the vote, Stalin's policy was still to be pro-Israel.
Moreover, clause 11 of the Resolution referred to refugees from the conflict in general, not specifically Palestinian refugees. Nor did the Resolution as a whole even mention Israel.
The war was still underway in December of 1948 and Jews had suffered expulsions as well, although on a smaller scale than Palestinians (as a result of Jewish military successes). 20,000 Jews had been expelled by Arab militias, for example, from Hebron, Jerusalem, Jenin and Gaza.
Resolution 194 was a comprehensive attempt to lay down conditions for an end to the conflict then underway, including proposals (in clause 11) to deal with the refugee question, both Palestinian and Jewish.
Only in later years – although Arab League member-states changed their position as early as 1949, after they had failed to destroy Israel militarily – did Resolution194 come to be "reduced" to clause 11.
The clause itself also came to be portrayed as applying solely to Palestinian refugees, with no reference made to the 900,000 Jews expelled from Arab countries in the years following 1948.
Any resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict must include a resolution of the refugee question. That must include compensation for properties lost during the 1948 war and some element of "return".
At the Lausanne Conference of 1949 Israel was prepared to agree to the return of 100,000 refugees, although the offer was subsequently withdrawn. At the Camp David Summit of 2000 Israel again proposed the figure of 100,000 returnees.
But 70 years of invocations of the “right of return” have achieved nothing – other than to provide a pretext for Arab states, with the partial exception of Jordan, to deny Palestinian refugees and their descendants the most basic rights: to work, to travel, to enjoy an education, to live in decent accommodation, and to acquire citizenship.
Even on a pragmatic level the denial of basic rights to Palestinians in the name of helping to preserve their Palestinian identity – albeit at their expense – does not "work".
The gross discrimination suffered by Palestinians in Arab states has led to Palestinians concealing their national identity in an attempt to evade that discrimination.
The past 70 years, especially recent years, have seen a drastic worsening of the situation of the Palestinian diaspora in the Middle East.
Palestinians in Egypt were welcome under Nasser but are now discriminated against as foreigners. Palestinians in Syria enjoyed a panoply of civic rights but are now subject to collective punishment (for Hamas's support for anti-regime rebels).
Since 1967 Palestinian refugees arriving in Jordan have not been granted citizenship, and in 1988 Jordanian citizenship was withdrawn from Palestinians living in the West Bank. In Lebanon conditions in the camps continue to deteriorate, especially for Palestinians who have fled Syria.
80% of Palestinians resident in Kuwait were expelled in the early 1990s. Some 30,000 Palestinians were expelled from Libya in the mid-1990s, in the name of building a new Palestinian homeland. Gaddafi said: "The Zionist plan is to create a Palestine without Palestinians. Other Arab countries are taking part in this Zionist plan by allowing the Palestinians to stay in their land." Gaddafi called on all Arab states to expel all Palestinians.
Since 2003 thousands of Palestinians in Iraq – seen as a group favoured by Sadam Hussein – have fled the country to escape growing discrimination and physical attacks on their home neighbourhoods.
Conditions for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip continue to worsen because of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Ongoing Israeli settler expansion in the West Bank brings with it even greater repression of Palestinians there. And in Israel itself the recent welcome upsurge of political self-assertion by Palestinian Israelis has come alongside an unprecedented rise of inter-communal violence.
Taken literally, the “right of return” does not actually mean anything.
What existed in pre-partition Palestine in 1948 simply no longer exists (including Mandatory Palestine itself). In fact, Israel has been transformed over the past 70 years even more than most countries in the world.
The socio-economic transformation of what is now the "Palestine Refugee" population has also been drastic. In 1948 most of the refugees were peasants. As they moved to refugee camps most of them became, and most of them are today, urbanised. "Returning" to being peasants could not be progress.
And no Palestine Refugee under the age of 73 can “return” to somewhere they have never been. Today it is the fourth and fifth generations of descendants of the 1948 refugees who are being registered as Palestine Refugees.
In the Ein El Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon, for example, different sections are named after the towns and villages from which the camp's original residents came. But 97% of the camp's current residents have never set foot in those villages. And what is now "there" is in almost all cases very different from what the other 3% remember as "there's
Yearnings for a disappeared "there" help not at all with the wall and checkpoints which the Lebanese authorities have in recent years put round the camp; with the huge unemployment rate in the camp; and with those in the camp who want to live as part of a Palestinian nation with its own territory and state are blocked from doing so.
And also partly in the sense that the “return” of some six million Palestinians to Israel would mean the dissolution of independent statehood by the world's biggest Jewish community. (In fact that dissolution is what some campaigners for "return" explicitly seek).
The original Palestinian refugees of 1948 suffered a major injustice. They and their descendants have continued to suffer major injustices ever since. Those injustices are getting worse over time. They need:
• Equal rights where they live
• The right for those who wish to reassemble as a national community in compact territory of their own, i.e. a real independent Palestinian state alongside Israel
• Compensation and aid.
But empty posturing about the “right of return” on the basis of a misinterpretation and misrepresentation of a clause in a UN Resolution passed some 70 years ago will only perpetuate the injustices for future generations of Palestinians.
Without doubt, the major obstacle to peace and a resolution of the "refugee question" in the Middle East has been Israeli policies (i.e. the policies pursued by successive governments, not its existence). But the Arab states' policies towards the Palestinians have also been a large part of it.
Seventy years of demanding the “right of return” has done nothing to clear the way for a lasting peace, and has helped perpetuate rather than resolve the fate of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and their descendants.