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A primer on the question of Palestinian refugees

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© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000

JERUSALEM -- For five weeks now, you've seen them on TV and in the newspapers -- Israeli soldiers battling Palestinians, many of them from refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

You've probably seen pictures of the camps, crowded, dirty, dispiriting places.

And you may have wondered:

Why haven't the Palestinian refugees moved to other Arab countries? And why haven't other Arab countries done more to help the refugees?

Jews worldwide often ask those questions, reflecting their frustration, even anger that a seemingly solvable problem is instead a perennial source of turmoil.

But the issue of Palestinian refugees lies at the emotional and legal nexus of the Mideast conflict. So here's a primer, based on interviews with several experts.

* * *

Q: Where does "Palestinian" come from?

A: Almost 2,000 years ago, the Romans called this part of the Middle East "Palestina." The name was revived this century when the British ruled the area.

* * *

Q: What caused the Palestinian refugee problem?

A: To create a homeland for the Jewish people, the United Nations voted in 1947 to divide Palestine between Jews and Arabs. Jews were to get 53.5 percent of the land although they made up about 30 percent of the population. That angered the Arabs and led to Israel's 1948 War of Independence.

During the war, as many as 600,000 Arabs left their homes in what had been Palestine and was to become part of the new nation of Israel. The Arabs -- who began calling themselves Palestinians -- say they were forced out by Israeli soldiers. Israel claims most Palestinians left of their own will.

Either way, the war had two indisputable results: Israel wound up with more land than it had been allotted under the U.N. plan, and many Palestinians wound up in refugee camps, forming the world's longest-lived refugee population.

There are an estimated 600,000 refugees in camps in Gaza, 300,000 in the West Bank and others in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

* * *

Q: Why have the refugees stayed in the camps so long?

A: "The Palestinians are from cities in Palestine, so that's where their roots are, that's where they'd like to return," says Jon Alterman, a Mideast analyst with the United States Institute of Peace. "Jews retained an attachment to the land of Israel for 2,000 years and Palestinians retain an attachment to the towns and cities from which they came."

* * *

Q: Do the Palestinians have any legal claim to the land they left?

A: Yes, they say, citing two U.N. resolutions.

Resolution 194, adopted after the 1948 war, says "Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date."

It also says "compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property."

Resolution 242, adopted after the 1967 Mideast war, affirms "the necessity for achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem."

* * *

Q: Do the Palestinians have any political reasons for keeping the refugee camps?

A: Yes. Their continued existence gives Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a valuable tool in negotiating with Israel over other issues such as the status of Jerusalem.

"If one settles the refugee issue, then you are eliminating one of the major tools for bargaining," says Marius Deeb, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

"Maintaining the politically ambiguous status of the refugees has kept the issue alive," adds Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "You combine that with the fact that many Arab countries don't want refugees, don't want them to be permanent residents."

* * *

Q: Why are other Arab countries so wary of Palestinians?

A: Palestinians have staged attacks against Israel from neighboring Arab countries, causing problems for those regimes. In 1970, King Hussein of Jordan fought a civil war against the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was threatening to seize control of his country. The presence of Palestinian groups has also caused political instability in Lebanon.

* * *

Q: So, other Arab nations have been unwilling to take in Palestinians?

A: No. So many Palestinians have moved to Jordan since 1948 that they now make up as much as 70 percent of its 4.4-million people. Despite its problems with the PLO, Jordan gives full citizenship to Palestinians.

Tens of thousands of other Palestinians live in Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states. They are not citizens -- those countries rarely grant citizenship to outsiders -- but many Palestinians have become successful in business.

* * *

Q: Could Arab countries absorb more Palestinians?

A: Yes, but probably not without economic, social and political disruption. Jordan, Syria and Egypt are poor countries with low standards of living. And until the price of oil soared, even "rich" countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were in economic straits.

Besides, as Alterman notes, the West tends to view all Arabs as alike.

"There's a certain fallacy that everybody is the same if they speak the same language, that there's a single Arab culture," he says. "I think that's as wrong as saying Americans and Britons are identical because we speak the same language, but we're not. We can function more easily together but we still function differently."

* * *

Q: Are Arab countries doing anything to help Palestinians in refugee camps?

A: Yes, but not as much as they could, experts say. The United Arab Emirates is financing a housing project in Gaza. Morocco is building roads. Several Arab countries are providing medical care for those injured in the latest violence.

However, an estimated 80 percent of the projects in the West Bank and Gaza are being paid for by the European Union, Japan and other first-world nations.

* * *

Q: Why aren't the Arab nations doing more?

A: Many Arab leaders are still angry at Arafat, who sided with Iraq's Saddam Hussein against Kuwait and other Arab states in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

There is also a concern that Arafat's regime squanders too much money through corruption, waste and incompetence.

"The Palestinians are really victims of their leaders," Deeb says. "Unfortunately, their leaders do not regard economic development and settlement as their first priorities; their obsessions are almost purely political. . . . Look at Mandela (of South Africa.) His problems were much worse and he overcame everything. Mandela is absolutely a model of how a leader can create a new society from the ashes. Here there are no Mandelas."

And so the Palestinian refugee camps remain, plagued with the kind of squalid conditions that almost invariably breed violence.

"The refugee camp was primarily a Palestinian choice because they were assured by the United Nations that the refugees were going to go home," says John Sigler, a Mideast expert at Canada's Carleton University. "They didn't want to integrate (the refugees) because the world had promised them the right of return."

- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

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