“A displaced person owns nothing but the spot where he is standing, which is always threatened.” — Murid Barghouti

Israeli power, US backing, Palestinian weakness, Arab complicity — these are the basic ingredients for a coercive settlement of the “refugee problem” based not on refugees’ rights but on their disappearance. The “new Middle East” must be tidied up; states, citizens and borders must correspond; disruptive anomalies must be removed. Because of their centrality to regional instability, eliminating the Palestinian refugees is essential to a pacified Middle East free to fulfill its designated role in the global economy.

Which Palestinians count as refugees? If we include all Palestinians outside historic Palestine — around 3,650,000 in 1995 — and add to them the more than 1,108,767 displaced inside, we reach a figure of more than 4,750,000, or around 70 percent of the total Palestinian population (estimated at 6,838,000 in 1995). [1] But many Palestinians living in exile have assimilated, or become rich, or have forgotten Palestine. Politically more relevant than global figures is the question: How many refugees live in a state of severe poverty and vulnerability? Certainly the percentages living in camps give a sharper idea of real refugeedom: 55.6 percent in Gaza, 53.6 percent in Lebanon, 28.1 percent in Syria, 25.6 percent in the West Bank, 19.6 percent in Jordan — around 1,045,000 people in all. [2] The 1992 FAFO survey of conditions in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem shows that on most indicators — employment, housing, infrastructural services, household assets — camp inhabitants form a distinct and disadvantaged sector. [3] In addition, the survey shows a stratum of refugees living outside camps whose living standards are hardly better. Thus, around 70 percent of camp refugees and nearly 50 percent of refugees outside camps in Gaza fall into the lowest economic status bracket, while in the West Bank, the figures are 40 percent (in-camp) and just over 20 percent (out-of-camp). [4]

In Lebanon, a recent study of 1,500 in-camp and out-of-camp Palestinian women found that 94 percent of respondents’ households had a monthly income less than the sum that the UN Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) considers the basic minimum for a family of five ($700), while in 26 percent of households total income was less than $160 a month (the minimum legal wage), and 53 percent had between $160 and $352 a month. [5] Eight out of ten women workers in the sample were the sole or main breadwinners for their households, most of them (71 percent) earning less than the legal minimum wage. Conditions of refugees in Syria and Jordan may differ marginally since — unlike in Lebanon — Palestinians there have rights to some government services. But it is unlikely that socioeconomic levels show a radically different picture. Especially in better-researched Jordan, it is clear that the majority of in-camp and out-of-camp refugees subsist at the lowest economic level. For them, as for registered refugees elsewhere, previous income sources, such as UNRWA aid, PLO subsidies, family remittances and work migration, have been sharply constricted since the Gulf war of 1991. Economically, nothing sustains this “subsistence mass” beyond occasional labor, petty commerce, family and community solidarity, small, scattered NGO projects and minimal public services.

What creates a political refugee identity is, however, not just poverty, which refugees share with many of the surrounding populations, but a mix of low status, limited opportunity, vulnerability and thwarted national identity. Even when Palestinians have adopted the nationality of a host country, theirs is a lesser citizenship. Targets of suspicion, they are constantly followed, singled out at airports, interrogated and refused entry. Caught breaking the law, they receive especially harsh punishment aimed at intimidating others. [6] In the US, Americans of Palestinian origin are subject to surveillance, Palestinian residents to “quiet” deportation. In Lebanon and Kuwait, citizenship did not protect naturalized Palestinians. For those who still carry “refugee” passports, crossing borders is fraught with humiliating and frustrating security checks. The costs of being a refugee are continually renewed and seared into the consciousness of each new generation. True, Palestinian refugees cannot be considered to be a “class” possessing the potential to disrupt the regional status quo; they are too divided geographically and politically, too constrained by the host regimes, too vulnerable to political patronage. Yet the political refugee identity remains a potent reformative factor as long as objective conditions continue to reproduce it.

Refugees need to be represented in those international institutions whose existence is predicated, as Liisa Malkki shows, on the normality of nation-states and the abnormality of refugees. [7] Palestinian refugees have given rise to a veritable industry of representation, first of all by UNRWA. UNRWA has extended a double-edged privilege; it has kept the destitute alive, educated most and given jobs to some, but it has created definitions and categorizations that have taken on authority, terms like “registered,” “non-registered” and “displaced persons” that have minimized refugee numbers as well as ignoring all those outside its five fields of operation. [8] Its statistics appear to “cover” the refugees in spite of the gaps in its registration system. UNRWA encourages the perception that Palestinians are “looked after” in spite of chronic deficits and cutbacks. Unlike the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, its mandate does not cover human rights abuses. Though Palestinians speak through UNRWA, what they say is constrained by the agency’s accountability to the UN secretary-general and major donors.

Since Madrid and Oslo, a plethora of European and North American institutions undertaken Palestinian refugee studies, conferences and collations in order to serve negotiators’ needs for “facts” and “solutions.” [9] Bibliographies on the refugees proliferate just as rapidly as refugees’ life conditions and political rights deteriorate.

Certain kinds of misrepresentation have become so common in refugee-based discussions that they are scarcely noticed even by specialists. One is a tendency towards static mapping. Whatever different estimates are given as to numbers, whether in 1948 or now, the picture is of two big bangs — 1948 and 1967 — which scattered Palestinians into a limited number of agglomerations where their presence is stable and statistically “known.” For many, however, displacement has been multiple, involving many shades of insecurity and rights violations. A few outstanding instances: Gaza, where between 1971 and 1989 the Israeli authorities coercively rehoused 10,517 camp families (Negev Bedouin have also frequently been relocated); [10] Lebanon, where around 4,000 families, many of them multiply displaced, have not been properly rehoused, and where pressures on refugees to migrate have increased; Kuwait and the Gulf, with most of the Palestinian community of 350,000 expelled from Kuwait during the Gulf war, and 12 families forced to live in the Cairo airport for over five months (expelled by Kuwait, refused entry by Egypt); Libya, where Qaddafi’s threats in 1994-1995 sent many labor migrants back to their host country, stranding some 1,000 Gazans on the Libyan-Egyptian border for 16 months, while Lebanon closed its borders to Palestinians, and enacted new restrictions on their entry and exit; [11] Germany, where the German government recently moved to evict from that country Palestinian refugees; [12] the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza and Israel, where restrictions on movement have become harsher since 1993, while the destruction of “illegal” homes continues; Jerusalem, where some 1,500 Palestinians have been deprived of their ID cards while thousands more are threatened, and where 45 homeless Jerusalem families who set up homes on waqf land have been evicted, [13] and where 65 Sar’ia Bedouin families have been displaced from settlements east of the city, probably to join other Jahileen Bedouin living in crates near Jerusalem’s municipal garbage dump; [14] and in the Galilee, where the destruction of homes of Arab citizens of Israel is increasing, with 12,000 houses threatened. [15] Uncounted numbers are stranded in Libya, Algeria, Iraq and elsewhere. Most of this escalation in insecurity has happened since Oslo.

Against a mass of statistical and policy studies “on” the refugees, those that depict refugees as agents of history, as producers of culture, as needing change, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Paul Cossali and Clive Robson’s Stateless in Gaza is an excellent example of the testimonial genre, unfortunately little known or quoted by refugee specialists. [16] Only recently has the demographic/policy approach begun to be challenged by research undertaken by refugee communities themselves, for example, a study of refugee attitudes to the “peace process”issued by the Campaign for Refugee Rights to Return, [17] and a house-to-house survey conducted by the Women’s Humanitarian Organization of Burj al-Barajna. Needs assessments of camp populations are equally minimal.

The paucity of camp refugee voices in international fora, publishing and film is another kind of misrepresentation, one with class as well as national undertones. Refugees are the objects of speeches, writing, photography, painting and film, but self-representation is only just beginning. Now, 50 years after the nakba (the Palestinian national catastrophe), young people in camps in Lebanon are making video diaries of their lives; the Union of Youth Activity Centers in the West Bank is currently making a film about refugees, [18] and Subhi Zubaydi from Jalazoun camp is making refugee films. [19] Yet it is hard to think of a Palestinian from a camp background who has addressed an international conference. At the September 1996 Oxford conference on “Palestinians in Lebanon,” Palestinian presenters on camp socioeconomic conditions were crammed into a single panel, with less time to speak than “international” and Lebanese speakers. Adopted by nationalist discourse to illustrate crisis, camp refugees have been silenced, their creative and negotiating skills ignored.

Those Palestinian intellectuals who made the figure of the refugee central to their work — Isma‘il Shammout through his early paintings, Edward Said and Jean Mohr in Beyond the Last Sky, Fawwaz Turki’s The Disinherited and above all Ghassan Kanafani’s Men In The Sun, which raised the Palestinian refugee to a universal symbol — belonged to a generation that shared refugeehood. For them, the refugees were the central human expression of the Palestinian crisis. As Lena Jayyusi put it:

The original Palestinian master narrative was about the dispossession of the Palestinians…. it was a narrative of justice that made a claim of restitution. Much of that kind of discourse is now submerged or marginalized…. Our narrative of dispossession, so fundamental to our moral condition, and to our national and collective claims, and to the possibility of genuine restitution, still needs to be spoken and insisted upon. [20]

The spectacle of US unwillingness to pressure Israel to implement accords midwifed by the White House itself has had at least one unintended effect — it has brought the refugee question back into the political arena. With an eye to his former refugee clientele, Yasser Arafat has made moves to restore his legitimacy, reanimating the PLO’s Directorate of Refugee Affairs under As‘ad ‘Abd al-Rahman, and pledging $3.6 million to improve conditions in camps. [21] Jobs for camp shabab (young men) have been found in the security forces. Abu Lutf has visited Damascus and Beirut, and Arafat loyalists in Lebanon have reemerged. It is still unclear, though, whether Arafat, for all his tactical mastery, can recapture the refugees. Though dispersion deprives them of a single voice, there is a widespread refugee belief that if Arafat is mustering them now, it is to be bargained off later against higher priorities — opening the Gaza airport, or a Gaza-West Bank highway. In the “Autonomous Territories,” the Palestinian Authority’s policy of merging camps into municipalities (a move that would dissolve histories, institutions and spokespeople) has aroused opposition, as have attempts to pack camp committees to guarantee Fatah dominance. Arafat’s encouragement of tribal and family associations is seen as a move to diminish the “refugee factor.” The ubiquity of Israeli control dampens internal politics but struggle around local issues remains lively and will be interesting to watch.

The transfer of UNRWA’s headquarters to Gaza has not yet led to the Arafat “takeover” that some Palestinians predicted, though underneath the smooth division of labor between the PA and the agency there is tacit competition for international funds. That each has a different perspective on the development of camp communities may in the current stalemate leave space for non-factional local leaderships to consolidate. But UNRWA’s failing finances are an ever explosive issue, fueling refugee anger against UNRWA, the major donors and the PA itself; which is now seen as powerless to deliver change.

As US pressures for “final status” negotiations intensify, it is useful to imagine the future of refugee camp communities in the aftermath of the settlement that is likely to issue from the present imbalance of power. Would refugees just melt away were UNRWA to be dismantled and tawtin (permanent settlement) imposed, at a price, on the Arab host countries? We cannot but assume that Israel, backed by the US, will reject even token repatriation to Israel, while possibly allowing a trickle of return to the Autonomous Territories. [22] What will be the status of those who stay outside? As refugees, returnees or Palestinians they would remain, from Israel’s perspective, a “destabilizing” element. Hence, Israel is likely to insist on their full and final integration in the host countries. (Lebanon might be assisted in transferring a substantial number elsewhere.) For Israel and the US, a final settlement must mean the end of UNRWA and cancellation of all UN, Arab League and Palestinian declarations that commemorate refugee rights. Only then will their vision of “a Middle East without refugees” be realized.

Will these imagined scenarios of settlement make the political refugee identity disappear? There are many reasons to think not. One is the failure of Israeli relocation of people from Gaza camps to change political attitudes: a characteristically oppositional and Palestinian political identity survived this move. [23]

Even if we discount refugee declarations about raising children to remember Palestine, there are “push” factors that make their full integration in the Arab diaspora unlikely. In Arab as in most other societies, citizenship is hierarchically structured, with access to state resources, jobs and protection weighted by class and “origins.” Even in Syria, where the returnees enjoy full civil rights and can become cadres of the state, an unofficial ceiling exists. In Jordan, where all but a few 1967 refugees are Jordanian, entry to the political class is closely controlled. Though the proportion of Palestinians living in camps in Jordan is the lowest — 19.6 percent — non-statistical evidence suggests harsh socioeconomic conditions for the majority, especially since the Gulf war. [24] Anecdotal evidence from the third generation of refugees in Lebanon indicates marked discrimination in universities, the workplace and social life, and indicate the presence of uncrossable boundaries.

The 1992 FAFO survey gives several signs of the tenacity of refugee/non-refugee boundaries even within Palestinian society.Though survey methods can tell little about social relations and stratification, the FAFO survey shows many indicators of refugee “difference” — in terms of housing, amenities, occupation, home ownership and wealth. Most interesting is the evidence that education makes less difference to occupational status than family background. Though UNRWA refugees have a “significantly higher educational level” than non-refugees, in terms of wealth they are generally less well off. [25] The author comments that “the role of intact kinship groups, and especially the links between these groups and property, are more critical than education in determining the household’s economic position.” Though refugees have large family networks “the connection between these networks and property was to a large extent severed in 1948.” [26]

In spite of dismemberment, Palestinian society has retained a kind of class consciousness manifested most strongly in marriage practices, business dealings and everyday transactions. In Lebanon, marriage between camp and urban middle-class Palestinians has remained much rarer than between same-class Palestinians and Lebanese (who usually ‘Palestinianize”). In Jordan, with the highest absolute number of refugees in camps (252,089), [27] village and family endogamy is still the rule rather than the exception. Hana Jaber notes village endogamy in Wihdat camp, linking it to the desire to conserve memory of origins. [28] Whether based in hierarchy or in local mores, status boundaries work strongly to reproduce “the refugee” as political/social/cutural figure, embodying a powerful collective history of oppression and resistance. Pride in the “refugee identity” — as “strugglers,” as “more Palestinian,” as “refusing to disappear” — renders their marginality a latent form of power. Assumptions of assimilation also ignore the many kinds of non-political solidarities that connect refugees in the diaspora to each other and to Palestine, as well as the political ones that connect them to other oppositional Arabs.

What these linkages suggest is that, for the majority of Palestinians, nationalism, class and refugee status are inextricably intertwined and that, in the absence of any breakthrough toward justice, this majority will maintain an oppositional potential for the foreseeable future. Their weapons are what they have always been: refusal to forget, anger and a remarkable capacity for collective survival.


[1] Figures of refugees/displaced are for 1990-1991, and come from Elia Zureik, “Palestine Refugees and Peace,” Journal of Palestine Studies 24/1 (1994), Table 2. Overall population figures are based on George Kossaifi, “The Palestinian Refugees and the Right of Return,” 1996, unpublished paper, p. 9. Of Palestinians outside, 3,172,641 are registered with UNRWA, 32 percent of whom live in camps.
[2] Kossaifi, p. 13.
[3] Marianne Heiberg et al, Palestinian Society in Gaza, West Bank and Arab Jerusalem (Oslo: Falch, 1993).
[4] lbid., p. 161, Figure 6.4.
[5] Leila Zakharia and Samia Tabari, “Palestinian Women in Lebanon: Health, Work Opportunities and Attitudes,” paper prepared for the “Palestinians in Lebanon” conference, Center for Lebanese Studies/Refugee Studies Program, Oxford, September 1996.
[6] Two recent instances: the sentencing in Britain (December 1996) of two young Palestinians found in possession of materials for making explosives to 20 years imprisonment (to be followed by deportation); and the extradition from Norway (also in 1996) of a woman citizen of Palestinian origin to Germany to be tried for a “crime” for which she had already served a prison sentence.
[7] Liisa Malkki, “Citizens of Humanity: Internationalism and the Imagined Community of Nations,” Diasporo 3/1 (1994).
[8] See Elia Zureik, Palestinian Refugees and the Peace Process (Washington, DC: Institute of Palestine Studies, 1996) on exclusions, including around 150,000 (1995) refugees in Israel (p. 9).
[9] See, for example, the Norwegian Institute of Applied Social Sciences (FAFO), Harvard University, the Rand Corporation, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation (California), McGill University, the Refugee Studies Program (Oxford), Chatham House (London), Warwick University, the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (Tel Aviv), and CERMOC and CEDEJ (France).
[10] UNRWA figures, Norma Hazboun, “Israeli Resettlement Schemes for Palestinian Refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” Al-Shaml Monograph Series 4 (1996), p. 32. On the Bedouin, see Penny Maddrell, The Bedouin of the Negev (London, 1990).
[11] Bassem Sarhan, “Mahnat al-Jaliyya al-Filastiniyya fi Libiya: Aman min al-Azab wa al-Inqab,” Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya (January 1997). Lebanese refugee card carriers must obtain permits to leave the country, as well as reentry visas which must be renewed within six months.
[12] INAMO, July 5, 1997.
[13] Badil press release, Bethlehem, March 2, 1998.
[14] Badil press release, Bethlehem, December 1, 1997.
[15] Reported in Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post, April 6, 1998.
[16] Paul Cossali and Clive Robson, Stateless in Gaza (London: Zed Books, 1986).
[17] Badil press release, Bethlehem, January 7, 1998.
[18] Badil press release, Bethlehem, March 20, 1998.
[19] From “Palestine Report,” FOFOGNET, Montreal, March 4, 1998.
[20] From the series “The Story Crisis in Palestine,” interviews by Toine VanTaeffelen, Jerusalem Times 24 (October 1997).
[21] FOFOGNET, Montreal, January 16, 1998.
[22] For Palestinian positions, see Rashid Khalidi, “Observations on the Right of Return,” Journal of Palestine Studies 21/2 (1992); and Salim Tamari, Return, Resettlement, Repatriation: The Future of Palestinian Refugees in the Peace Negotiations (Institute of Jerusalem Studies, 1996).
[23] Hazboun, p. 38-39.
[24] Kossaifi, p. 13.
[25] Hazboun, pp. 140, 232.
[26] Ibid., p. 141.
[27] Ibid., p. 13.
[28] Hana Jaber, “Le camp de Wihdat entre norme et transgression,” Revue d’etudes palestiniennes 81 (1996).

How to cite this article:

Rosemary Sayigh "Dis/Solving the “Refugee Problem”," Middle East Report 207 (Summer 1998).

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