Palestinian Emigration (I)

Palestinian Emigration (I)

Butros Touma and Jabra Barham in front of His Shop

Butros Touma in front of a shop near Jabra Jeries Barham, as well as some customers. It is mentioned that one of Butros Touma's friends had taken the photograph, to be sent later by Butros with a message on the back to his family in the town of Beit Jala. 

27 August 1954
The Palestinian Museum Digital Archive, Khalil Tuma Collection

Palestine has seen waves of emigration since the middle of the nineteenth century, as have Lebanon , Syria , and other neighboring countries. Emigration differs from refugee movements or forced migration in that emigrants are usually individuals or families seeking to improve their standard of living or obtain a better education; they choose where they want to go and can return to their country of birth. In the case of refugee movements or forced migrations, large numbers of people leave their country as a result of compelling political circumstances or natural disasters, they have little choice of destination, and they may not be able to return.

The Palestinian waves of emigration intensified in the first third of the twentieth century and initially focused on the Americas , especially on Latin American countries. It increased rapidly after the Nakba toward the Gulf states and was generally linked to the political situation and the colonial context in Palestine. The forms and effects of this migration changed from period to period. This overview will examine Palestinian emigration before the Nakba and in the aftermath of the Nakba, up to the year 1967.

Emigration before 1948

In the first four decades of the twentieth century, many push factors gave Palestinians incentives to seek better jobs overseas, in order to improve their standard of living. The incentives included the scarcity of land in mountain villages, limited productivity from rain-fed subsistence farming, an Islamic land tenure system that fragmented agricultural holdings, and the rising political and economic pressures imposed on the Palestinian countryside since the late Ottoman period (especially the compulsory conscription campaigns launched by the Ottoman state during World War I ), increased taxation of the peasantry, and the rising danger from the Zionist project with growing Zionist immigration and the expansion of Jewish settlements during the British Mandate period. Political instability, uprisings against the Zionist movement and against the policies of the British Mandate authorities, and the consequent campaigns of repression and mistreatment of the peasantry also played important roles in encouraging early emigration.

Emigration in the first decades of the twentieth century had several fundamental features:

  1. Most of the first Palestinian emigrants, like the emigrants from Lebanon, came from the poorest rural areas, such as the villages around Bethlehem and the neighbouring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahur , the towns of Ramallah and al-Bireh and their northeastern villages, such as Baytin , al-Mazra'a ash-Sharqiya , Turmusayya , Ayn Yabrud , Deir Dibwan , and Nazareth . The emigrants headed for the United States , Mexico , Australia , and countries in South and Central America, especially Brazil , Chile , Peru , Venezuela , and Honduras , and to the Caribbean islands , including Cuba . Some studies estimate that the first wave of emigration from Palestine to Mexico was between 1900 and 1910, while the first emigration to Chile was in about 1870.
  2. In the initial period, males emigrated alone. Even when only one member of a family planned to emigrate, the decision was taken by the family as a whole, with all adult family members taking part. Middle-class and affluent families sometimes emigrated. For poor families, the costs of emigration were major obstacles, because they had little savings, which forced some aspiring emigrants to borrow from wealthy people or from moneylenders, using their land as security until they came back and paid off their debt. But as time passed and emigrants managed to save money and invest it in commercial or industrial enterprises, emigration started to shift from an individual to a family basis, as wives joined their husbands or as emigrants set up families abroad, often by marrying women of Palestinian or other Arab origin.
  3. Early emigrants relied on family and kinship networks for deciding whether to emigrate and where to go, without any advance communication with the institutions of the host country. Little information was available to potential migrants about the nature of the work or business opportunities in any particular country, though these opportunities were the primary motive for emigrating. Most of the first Palestinian emigrants came from the countryside and went to the Americas, although most of them did not know their final destination precisely. They asked travel agents to book them tickets on boats without knowing where the boats were going. The only assurance the travel agents gave them was that they would be put on a boat that would take them to somewhere in the New World. So early emigrants arrived at various ports in North or South America, and sometimes even in places outside the Americas. A few young people from wealthy and educated families in Palestinian towns also went to European countries, especially to Britain , for higher education.
  4.  Although most of the emigrants came from rural Palestine, most of them went into commercial activities, since agriculture required substantial capital to buy or rent the land, and this was not available to them. Agriculture also required long-term stability; itinerant commerce was temporary, which suited the nature of their migration. In Latin American countries, because the emigrants did not know the local language or the customs of the inhabitants, most of the emigrants went into trade in the coastal cities in which they disembarked, moving to other cities later and then into the villages and countryside—places that a variety of commodities had not yet reached. These emigrants started opening shops, making their migration more permanent, and gradually gave up the dream of going back to their home country with capital to set up a business that would provide them with a better standard of living. On the contrary, they started bringing over their relatives to help them expand their businesses and to work as salesmen for them in the suburbs and in rural areas, increasing the pace of what is known as “chain migration.” Some emigrants later became wholesalers and big importers of goods. Others went into the textile industry: in some Latin American countries such as Bolivia , Chile, and Peru, industrial establishments were set up with Palestinian capital early in the twentieth century.
  5. The most successful first emigrants to North America worked as itinerant salesmen. Factories, farms, and infrastructure projects such as paving roads offered low-paid jobs that did not enable the emigrants to build up their capital to fulfil their ambitions. Peddling could generate a reasonable income, especially for salesmen with an austere lifestyle. They worked long hours and shared their housing with a relatively large number of migrants, and this allowed them to save and make the transition from peddlers to big businessmen, founders of banks, trading companies and factories. Examples include Abd al-Hamid Shuman from Beit Hanina , who returned to Palestine before the Nakba to establish the Arab Bank ; Hamdan Ghannam and his brothers from Deir Dibwan; Isa al-Batih , Hanna Hishmeh , and Aziz Shahin from Ramallah; and Abdallah al-Joudah and Ali al-Joudah from al-Bireh.

The Economic and Social Effects of the Early Migrations

The fruits of this early migration started to appear in the 1950s and the early 1960s in some Palestinian towns and villages, especially in the West Bank . Returning emigrants began to buy land and build houses and grand buildings, as family homes in the villages and as investments in the towns, either for housing or commerce, as hotels, and so on. The emigrants’ transfers and investments helped to create new jobs in building and in services, as well as improving the living standards of their families through the transfers and the direct financial assistance that came to them to cover their basic daily needs.

This migration and the investments of the migrants contributed to urban development and helped improve the infrastructure and public service institutions in some of the towns, especially Ramallah, al-Bireh, Bethlehem, and the towns and village around them. The appearance of these West Bank towns gradually changed and the transfers by emigrants became the most obvious evidence of the “American dream.”

In addition to restructuring the economy, emigration and successful returning emigrants played a role in restructuring local society. Nouveau riche sectors of society emerged; they were seen as symbols of new wealth that was not based on family origins, traditional status, or land ownership, but rather on the economic status that results from their investments. These sectors become the principal owners of land and other real estate. This change in land ownership affected social situations, especially as some of these emigrants wanted to express their new economic power politically and socially. This rise to the top of the social pyramid and the appearance of a new leadership led to unprecedented social mobility in the hilly areas and gave rise to large class disparities within societies that had been relatively harmonious before migration.

Emigration picks up after 1948

After the Nakba in 1948, the pace of emigration from the West Bank picked up. After the state of Israel was established, all the towns and villages in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were cut off from growing urban centers such as Haifa , Jaffa , Acre , and the other more developed coastal areas, which had previously drawn Palestinian labor from these areas. The fragmentation of Palestinian society after the Nakba, and the accompanying destruction and forcible displacement of half the Palestinian population, exacerbated the crisis in the towns and villages in the hilly interior, especially Bethlehem, Ramallah, al-Bireh, East Jerusalem , Nablus , and Hebron , as well as Gaza . It also contributed to the severe impoverishment of most of the population in Palestine and in countries of refuge and to their growing sense of insecurity, which produced more waves of rapid emigration.

After the Nakba, emigration was a strategy for survival, reuniting Palestinian families, renewing family relationships, and reinforcing the life chances of Palestinian families under troubled and extremely grave social, economic, and political conditions, whether in Palestine or in refugee camps. It was also seen as an effective mechanism for upward social mobility, leading to improvements in the economic and social circumstances of the emigrants and giving them better options compared to their previous situation. At the same time this improvement coincided with an increase in interdependence between emigrants and their families. 

The number of West Bank Palestinians who emigrated during the period of Jordanian rule (1948–1967) is estimated to be about 170,000. This is a large number, given that the population of the West Bank was 742,000 in 1952 and 803,000 in 1967. In Gaza, where refugees made up more than two thirds of the population, emigration was limited compared with the West Bank, and the population of the Gaza Strip rose from 290,000 in 1952 to 434,000 in 1967. Unlike the inhabitants of the West Bank, for whom emigration was an option and one mechanism for dealing with poverty and economic decline, the Gaza Palestinians did not have such an option or had it only to a reduced extent.

Emigrants from the West Bank went to the Americas, to the Arabian Gulf, and even to Lebanon. The migration to the Americas was from the villages and towns in the central West Bank, in the form of chain migration based on kinship networks: the first emigrants settled in Western countries “pulled” other members of their families by arranging their travel documents and finding jobs for them when they arrived. Most of the emigrants from the towns in the north and south of the West Bank and from Gaza headed to the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia , and Libya, in what could be called “contract migration” in the sense that these emigrants had skills and understood in advance the kind of work they would be doing and the situation in these countries, which had been labor-importing states since the economic boom produced by the oil industry and associated industries. Lebanon also saw significant economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in construction and tourism.

Some of the Palestinian refugees in the eastern Arab world, particularly in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan , were forced to emigrate in search of work or better living conditions. The first waves of Palestinian emigration from these countries began in the 1950s toward the Gulf countries, especially Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates ; the emigrants had skills needed by these countries. A small number went to the United States or to Europe, and this was also a migration based on skills.

The Palestinian migrants to the Gulf states, whether they came from countries of refuge, from the West Bank, or from the Gaza Strip, contributed to economic development in the host countries. They took on government jobs and had a visible role in the development of education and in building the governmental and non-governmental institutions of these states, especially in Kuwait . They engaged with the communities of the host states in numerous ways, according to the policies of each state and based on their class status and the cultural and ideological tendencies that decided whether they were well integrated or isolated from the host community. Some of them concentrated on preserving their identity (whether national, ethnic, or religious) and on political work in the diaspora. They took part in political resistance activities, made an important contribution to supporting the Palestinian movement materially and morally, and helped form political elites that assumed senior positions in resistance organizations.

As for the Palestinians who stayed in the Palestinian territories on which the state of Israel was set up in 1948, they were subjected to strict military rule until 1966. Their movements were restricted and their ability to emigrate was limited. They could not emigrate to Arab countries, including the Gulf states, because they held Israeli passports.

On the whole, emigration was a new phenomenon for Palestinian society, and it has been linked to a number of social, cultural, economic, and political factors, as it has been in many Arab countries that experience emigration. But the specificity of the Palestinian case lies in the weight and importance of the political factors, which have been the basis of this phenomenon historically, conferring on it aspects of an existential nature related to the cause of the Palestinian people, the extent of their attachment to its land, and their determination to resist displacement. The remittances sent by the first Palestinian emigrants have been an important economic resource for broad sectors of the population, before the Nakba and in its aftermath. They later laid the groundwork, socially and economically, for ongoing emigration, especially after 1967 and during the successive political crises that have afflicted the Palestinian people wherever they live.

Selected Bibliography: 

Baeza, Cecilia. “Palestinians in Latin America: Between Assimilation and Long-Distance Nationalism.” Journal of Palestine Studies 43, no.2 (Winter 2014): 59–72.

Lutfiyye, Abdulla. “Baytin, a Jordanian Village: A Study of Social Institutions and Social Change in a Folk Society.” Ph.D. diss., Michigan State University, 1961.

Serhan, Randa. “Suspended Community: An Ethnographic Study of Palestinian-Americans in New York and New Jersey.” Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2009.

Tamari, Salim. “The Dislocation and Re-Constitution of Peasantry: The Social Economy of Agrarian Palestine in the Central Highlands and the Jordan Valley, 1960–1980.” Ph.D. diss., University of Manchester, Faculty of Economic and Social Studies, 1983.

Tamari, Salim. “The Transformation of Palestinian Society: Fragmentation and Occupation.” In Palestinian Society in Gaza, West Bank and Arab Jerusalem: A Survey of Living Conditions. Fafo Report Number 151. Oslo: Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies, 1993.