The Palestinian Diaspora

The Palestinian Diaspora: A History of Dispossession











The Palestinian refugee population is one of the largest in the world. There are now at least 6 million refugees, the oldest of whom have been waiting for more than 50 years to return home.

The forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 resulted from the birth of the state of Israel and is a core injury at the heart of the dispute between Palestinians and Israelis. Acknowledgement and a just resolution of these injuries will be at the heart of any lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

The tragic history of the Palestinian refugees persisted through the latter half of the 20th century and is far from resolution at the start of the new century.

Below you will find an outline of the history and present situation of the Palestinian refugees, provided with the humble recognition of the abundant scholarship, commentary, and complexity that are perforce absent from any summary.

Historical Background & Current Conditions

Conflict between Palestinians and Israelis stems from the conflicting claims of the two groups to the same territory. In light of post-WWII tensions in British controlled Palestine, the newborn United Nations passed Resolution 181 in 1947: a partition plan to divide the territory between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish immigrants. Palestinians resisted the partition plan, which assigned the smaller Jewish population a larger territory. This partition would eventually lead to the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, an event is known as Al-Nakba or "the catastrophe." Palestinians argued that neither Roman era Jewish history nor the recent Nazi genocide against the Jews voided their rights as legal residents and landowners in Palestine.

During this time, Jewish terror groups intensified their attacks on Palestinian civilians and began driving them from their homes and villages. In 1948, Zionist leaders declared the new state of Israel and aggressively seized the offensive in guerrilla warfare against the Palestinians. Subsequent Israeli attacks on Palestinian towns and villages during this first Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49 served to expand the territory under Jewish control and drastically reduce the Palestinian population in its interior.

For example:

  • Israeli forces committed at least 34 atrocities (i) , including the massacre at Deir Yasin, which killed 254 men, women, and children. (ii)
  • 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes between 1947 and 1949. In addition, 13,000 Palestinians were killed, 418 Palestinian villages were completely depopulated, and half of all villages in Palestine were physically destroyed. (iii)
  • By 1949, only 150,000 of the pre-1947 Palestinian population remained in Israel. (iv) Two thirds of the refugees who fled Israel went to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The remaining third scattered throughout Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and other parts of the world. (v)

In 1967 Palestinians were once again forced to flee war as victorious Israeli forces occupied portions of Palestinian territory that were captured by Jordanian and Egyptian forces in the 1948 war. The 1967 War impacted refugees living within areas attacked and/or annexed by Israel: the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula.

Since the so-called "Six Day War," Israel's actions in the occupied territories have maximized territorial gains while reducing the numbers of, or altogether displacing, Palestinian residents via annexations and an ongoing settlement policy that violates both UN Security Council resolutions and the Geneva Convention.


  • In 1967, 325,000 Palestinians, many of them refugees originally displaced in 1948, sought refuge in neighboring Arab states. (vi)
  • During the next decade, an average of 21,000 Palestinians per year was forced out of Israeli-controlled areas. (vii)

The pattern of Palestinian flight continued during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

  • During the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut, about 2000 Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatilla Refugee Camps were massacred by right wing Lebanese militias in areas controlled by Israeli forces under the command of Ariel Sharon, who was Minister of Defense at the time. In response to the massacre and under pressure from its own peace movement, the Israeli government set up the Kahan Commission to investigate. The commission reported that, "Mr. Sharon was found responsible for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge when he approved the entry of the Phalangists [right-wing militias] into the camps as well as not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed."
  • 312,000 Palestinians were working and living in Kuwait in 1990, but as a result of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, the vast majority of those refugees were displaced and are still without secure residency. Only 30,000 Palestinians were living in Kuwait in 2000. (ix)

Since the Israeli occupation began in 1967, Palestinians have been subject to brutal repression and Israeli government attempts to resolve the "refugee issue" by expelling refugees not in camps. Displays of Palestinian nationalism are often met with collective punishments, including the closure of communities, measures preventing Palestinians from holding steady employment, curfews (which sometimes place whole refugee camps under house arrest for months at a time), and the denial of basic utilities such as electricity and water service.


  • Since 1987, the Israeli government has destroyed over 2,650 homes in the West Bank for not obtaining building permits. Thousands of acres owned by Palestinians have been confiscated to construct Israeli settlements. (x)

In the 1970s and 1980s, Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories was designed to suppress political activity and isolate the population from Palestinian organizations and activists abroad. Despite systematic Israeli repression, the occupied population nevertheless established themselves as leaders of the Palestinian struggle for national liberation when, in 1987, they launched the first Palestinian Intifada ("shaking-off" in Arabic), which lasted until 1991.

International Recognition of Palestinian Refugee Rights

During the past 50 years, the international community has repeatedly called for a resolution to the refugee problem. The most important and explicit support for the rights of Palestinian refugees is UN resolution 194 signed in 1948. Resolution 194 was adopted only six months before Israel's admission as a member of the United Nations (GA Resolution 273, 11 May 1949). Israel's admission was conditioned by an Israeli commitment to carry out the obligations under the UN charter and United Nation resolutions, including Resolution 194. (xi)

According to Paragraph 11 of the resolution, recognition of the refugees' right of return to their homes is stated as follows: "Refugees who wish to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical 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."

Since 1949, Resolution 194 has been reaffirmed more than 110 times by the General Assembly. (xii)

A general support for the concept of refugee rights is found in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 13: "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." (xiii)

UN Humanitarian Support for Palestinian Refugees

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established by United Nations General Assembly resolution 302 (IV) on December 8, 1949 to provide relief aid and works programs for Palestinian refugees. The Agency began operations on May 1, 1950. In the absence of a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem by the international community, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate, most recently extending it until June 30, 2005.

The experience of refugee life in the UNRWA camps has proven pivotal in the emergence of a distinct camp culture and a Palestinian identity. In "the permanence of transience" that defines refugee life, a new value is placed on older ties of family, clan, and village. Although some refugees possess the economic means to establish themselves in their host countries, many remain in the camps. The situation of refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon, where refugees are denied basic civil rights, is particularly harsh. Population density and unemployment rates within Palestinian refugee camps are among the highest in the world, resulting in chronic poverty, overcrowding, a low standard of living, and a general sense of powerlessness and despair.

Palestinians are scattered around the world. This dispersion has made it difficult to determine exactly how many Palestinians there are worldwide, but the bulk live in the West Bank & Gaza and the neighboring countries of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The legal status, social class, and standard of living of Palestinians vary enormously depending on local conditions.

Below you will find a summary of some of the best survey data we have been able to find on where and how Palestinians live. (xvi)

Gaza Strip

Twenty two percent of all registered Palestinian refugees live in the Gaza Strip. In an area of only 360 square kilometers, three quarters of the current estimated population of 1.2 million people are refugees. Over half of the refugees live in eight camps. Most of the people who fled to the Gaza Strip as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war were from Jaffa, towns and villages south of Jaffa, and from the Beersheva area in the Negev Desert. Under occupation and after the Oslo process alike, camp refugees have suffered tremendously from poverty, a shortage of services, and unemployment. UNRWA has been the prime provider of services, but Israeli authorities have undermined economic and civic development through closures, checkpoints, curfews, and harassment.

West Bank

The West Bank covers 5,500 square kilometers with an estimated population of 1.8 million people. According to UNRWA's 2002 figures, there are 626,532 registered refugees. While one quarter of West Bank refugees live in nineteen recognized refugee camps, the majority live in towns and villages. Like their Gaza counterparts, camp residents have been hit hard by closures imposed on the West Bank by the Israeli authorities. Subsequently, unemployment has risen and socio-economic conditions in the camps have deteriorated.


Jordan has received the largest number of Palestinian refugees. An estimated 100,000 of all refugees fled across the Jordan River in 1948. A large majority of Palestinians are Jordanian citizens. Since the return of over 300,000 Palestinians from Kuwait in 1991, between 45% and 70% of all Jordanians are Palestinians from the West Bank. Although Palestinians suffer from discrimination and a large number still live in camps, Jordan has granted full citizenship to the Palestinian refugees and their descendents.


According to UNRWA 2002 figures, there are 387,043 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, which constitutes 11% of the total number of Palestinian refugees. Lebanon is the host country that is least hospitable to Palestinian refugees. Unlike the Jordanian government, the Lebanese government prevents Palestinians from being absorbed into the community. Palestinians in Lebanon, who constitute about ten percent of the total population there, have faced unique problems since their arrival in 1948. They do not have social and civil rights, and they have a very limited access to the government's public health and educational facilities. The majority of Palestinians rely entirely on UNRWA as the sole provider of education, health, relief, and social services. Considered foreigners, Palestinian refugees are prohibited by law from working in more than 70 trades and professions. This has led to a very high rate of unemployment amongst the refugee population. The vast majority of Palestinians in Lebanon are stateless, which means that they have been granted travel documents but not Lebanese citizenship.


There are 626,532 registered refugees with UNRWA in Syria. Most fled to Syria during the 1948 war and were originally from northern Palestine, mainly from Safad and the cities of Haifa and Jaffa. In 1967, over 100,000 people (including Palestinian refugees) fled from the Golan Heights to other parts of Syria when the area was occupied by Israel. Because Palestinians account for less than three percent of Syria's total population, their visibility is less than in Jordan or Lebanon. Palestinians in Syria are well integrated into the country's economy, social, and political life. Palestinians have opened shops, established business, and formed companies on their own.

Palestinians Worldwide:

In 1948, thousands of refugees also went to other Arab states such as Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Kuwait, and other Gulf countries. Refugees who fled to other Arab countries, particularly to the Gulf States, played a crucial role in building modern Kuwait. They were widely represented in banking, as technical workers in the oil industry, and as educators. The number of Palestinian refugees in the Gulf region declined drastically after their expulsion from Kuwait in 1991 following the U.S. led Persian Gulf War.

There is surprisingly little solid information available about the Palestinian communities in the West and other countries. Reports on census data are not based on nationality or religion in some countries. For example, Arabs are reported as white or Caucasian in the United States Census.

About 450,000 Palestinians are scattered as far as Australia, Brazil, Denmark, and Canada. However, the largest community outside the Middle East is in the U.S.


The two long-term solutions to the refugee problem that have been debated for the last half-century are Repatriation and Compensation.

Right to Return

The right of return derives from UN General Assembly Resolution 194 passed in December of 1948. The part of the resolution concerning Palestinian refugees was one of fifteen paragraphs dealing with various aspects of the conflict. The contents of Resolution 194 were adopted from the recommendations of the UN Conciliation Committee (CCP) progress report created in September 1948 by Count Folke Beradotte, the UN mediator in Palestine. According to Paragraph 11 of the resolution, recognition of the Palestinians' right to return to their homes is stated as follows: "refugees who wish to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical 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 UN Has reaffirmed this resolution nearly every year since its adoption. (xv)


The idea of compensating Palestinians for their property left in Israel is also derived from the recommendations of UN mediator Count Beradotte and UN Resolution 194 (III). The resolution called for two types of compensation to refugees "choosing not to return to their homes, and for loss of or damage of property, which under principles of international law or equity should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible." The issue of compensation has been debated since the beginning of the conflict and little progress has been made to resolve it.


i "Palestinian Refugees Fact Sheet," Shaml Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee Centre, link (28 Nov. 2002)

ii "Palestine Refugees: 50 Years of Injustice," The Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations," (28 Nov. 2002)

iii "Question of Palestine Glossary," United Nations Department of Political Affairs, (28 Nov. 2002)

iv Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999, Knopf, New York, 1999, pg. 252-258 as excerpted by link (28 Nov. 2002)

v "Palestinian Refugees: An Overview," Palestinian Refugee Research Net, (28 Nov. 2002)

vi "Palestine Refugees: 50 Years of Injustice," The Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations," (28 Nov. 2002)

vii "Palestine Refugees: 50 Years of Injustice," The Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations," (28 Nov. 2002)

viii "Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut, 8 February 1983," as posted on the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, (28 Nov. 2002) McCarthy, Justin.

ix "Palestine's Population During the Ottoman and the British Mandate Periods," Encyclopedia of the Palestinians, ed. Philip Mattar, Facts on File Inc., New York, 2000 as excerpted by link (28 Nov. 2002)

x "Demolition and Dispossession: The Destruction of Palestinian Homes," Amnesty International, (28 Nov. 2002)

xi "On the Occasion of the 52nd Anniversary of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194: THE RIGHT OF RETURN Joint Statement Issued by Palestine Right-of-Return Initiatives in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Canada-USA, London," The BADIL Resource Center, (28 Nov. 2002)

xii "Right of Return Petition,", (28 Nov. 2002)

xiii "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights," The United Nations, (28 Nov. 2002)

xiv The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, (28 Nov. 2002)

xv United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, link (28 Nov. 2002)



Websites Related to Refugees

Al-Awda Palestine Right to Return Coalition

Badil Center for Palestinian Rights

Eye to Eye

MADRE, An International Women's Human Rights Organization

Palestine Refugee Research Network

Palestine Remembered

Shaml Center

United Nations Relief & Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

United States Committee for Refugees