The Palestinian refugee problem is complicated. When Israel’s war of Independence began in 1947 there were many factors that led the Arabs living within the area known as the British Mandate for Palestine to be dispersed, expelled or moved from their homes and villages. Some Arabs living in the area left due to fear of getting caught in the war, others were encouraged by leaders of the surrounding Arab nations to leave until the newly established Jewish state was destroyed, and others were expelled from their homes due to military operations by the Israeli army. No matter the circumstances, the fact that people were displaced from their homes due to violence (including thousands of Jews from Arab countries after the creation of the State of Israel) is unfortunately a tragic common theme in human history when faced with war.
Since the creation of the United Nations (UN) and specific committees to assist refugees, there has been only one group of people that has not been given the same treatment as other refugee groups– Palestinian refugees.
Before addressing the current status of Palestinian refugees, it is important to understand the historical context of when the United Nations and committees to deal with refugees were created. The first half of the 20th century was one of the bloodiest in human history. World War I and World War II set many negative precedents, yet they also gave birth to many positive humanitarian accomplishments. With the establishment of the United Nations and the adoption of democratic values as guiding principles for this international body, human rights guidelines and humanitarian committees were created based on the experiences of these wars. Arguably, the end of World War II set the precedent that displaced populations should be given tangible solutions to ensure their safety as well as the means to re-establish themselves in either their former country or a new country.
The members of the UN attempted to embody those principles during the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR) and the subsequent creation of committees that deal with refugees. Interestingly though, the committee that deals with all refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) excludes Palestinian refugees from its mandate. Rather, Palestinian refugees must work with a separate UN committee, the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Not only do Palestinian refugees have to work with a separate committee, but they are also treated differently than any other refugee population. For example, Palestinian refugee status is inherited. Therefore, even if a Palestinian is born to parents whom hold citizenship of any other country (U.S., Great Britain, France, Mexico, Canada, etc) or has obtained citizenship of another nation (including Israeli), the individual, under UNRWA, is still considered a Palestinian refugee. This highlights exactly why the number of Palestinian refugees has dramatically increased over the last few decades. Sadly, UNRWA, unlike the UNHCR, does not offer a way to end the conditions in which Palestinians are kept as perpetual refugees.
Some of these refugees and their descendants continue to be forcibly held in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Lebanon even has laws discriminating against Palestinians, prohibiting them from owning land, working in over 70 professions, access to proper health care or ability to travel freely. The real question is, why don’t the pro-Palestinian organizations worldwide demand from the international community that these Arab countries be held accountable for the current status of Palestinian refugees? Do not misunderstand me- I think Israel holds partial responsibility for the current status of Palestinian refugees, nevertheless other nations should also be held accountable.
As we sit down for our Passover meals and begin a week where we reflect on why this night is different from all other nights, I encourage those hosting a Seder to ask why Palestinian refugees are different than other refugees. I hope that one day the global community, pro-Palestinian organizations and other human rights groups wake up and begin demanding that all parties involved be held accountable for the plight of Palestinian refugees and perhaps even demand that the same principles of the UNHCR be applicable to Palestinian refugees, in order to guarantee them a thriving future. When that day arrives, I am certain that the pro-Israel community will rally in support because they too agree that Palestinian refugees deserve better. The truth is that Israel knows and vocally recognizes its faults and is simply sick and tired of being singled out as the only nation that should be held accountable for the status of Palestinian refugees. Shouldn’t the leaders of involved states be held to the same standards?