In January 2014, the West Bank was home to 754,000 refugees registered with UNRWA, the agency created in 1949 to provide relief and promote the socioeconomic integration of “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” (Their descendants are also eligible for registration.) Also serviced by UNRWA were 160,000 “other registered persons,” namely persons who had lost their means of livelihood, such as the “Frontier Villagers” whose farming lands fell under Israeli sovereignty in 1948. In addition, the West Bank recorded some 50,000 refugees who were never registered with UNRWA. Overall, 36 percent of the present West Bank population are persons directly affected by the 1948 war and their descendants.
The situation of the Palestinian refugees in the West Bank is difficult to assess. Since 1949, they have been granted the same legal status as indigenous West Bankers; yet their political and socioeconomic aspirations have varied according to specific, vested rights and to the evolution of the conflict with Israel.
The Legal and Political Status of the Palestinian Refugee on the West Bank (1950s–1960s)
In 1949, the 280,000 Palestinian refugees residing in the West Bank then under the control of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan were granted Jordanian citizenship. They thus bore two political identities. As refugees, they were covered by UN General Assembly Resolution 194 that resolves “that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so … and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return … .” As Jordanian citizens, they were submitted to the same rights and obligations as other citizens of the Kingdom, including the indigenous Jordanians.
Refugee activism aimed at preserving the right of return on the basis of Resolution 194 continued unabated at two levels: at community level through the memory of the “lost Palestine” and, at the national level, through an opposition to any assistance programs perceived as undermining that right, such as UNRWA’s integrative “works” program and large-scale camp improvement projects of the 1950s. The West Bank’s eighteen camps that today host the poorest refugees (one-quarter of the refugee population in the West Bank) became the symbol of a specific “refugee” identity and of the struggle to recover the lost homes.
The Evolution of the Refugee Issue on the West Bank (1960s–1980s)
In the late 1960s most refugees supported the PLO’s nationalist agenda articulated around the liberation of Palestine. In the West Bank, this agenda competed with the influence of Jordan, which maintained its civil administration after its defeat in the 1967 war, and entailed the refugee participation in a steadfastness movement against Israel’s occupation policies. The first general uprising (the intifada, also commonly referred to as the “revolution of stones”) that epitomized the steadfastness movement erupted from the Gaza Strip refugee camps in 1987 and expanded to the West Bank’s camps, towns, and villages. The intifada contributed to Jordan’s disengagement (July 1988) and to the adoption of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence (November 1988), which proclaims a Palestinian state on Palestinian territory. Yet, little was said about the refugees’ future. How to reconcile the concept of a state limited to the West Bank and Gaza and the right of return to homes located in Israel? What status would the refugees have in a Palestinian entity?
These issues were downplayed by PLO leaders, who were now wholly focused on the establishment of a state adjacent with Israel. By the late 1980s, they admitted that a total return of the refugees was not feasible, advocating instead a return of diaspora refugees to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Surprisingly, few West Bank refugees initially resented such “reformist” stances. Although they still called for their right of return, the second and third generation was different from the first generation of refugees: Few of them had a direct memory of pre-1948 Palestine and, being better-off because of job opportunities in Israel and the Gulf countries, they nurtured higher socioeconomic ambitions. Accordingly, they were more amenable to pragmatic initiatives aimed at improving their status. Putting an end to statelessness and occupation were positive steps in that direction; moreover, the state would also be theirs and may promote theirs rights according to Resolution 194. In the camps, refugees also expressed readiness to accept initiatives aimed at durably improving their living conditions under the slogan that ta’hil (socioeconomic rehabilitation) did not necessarily mean tawtin (permanent resettlement): on the contrary, ta’hil became considered a prerequisite for the preservation of the camps. Accordingly, since the late 1980s, upgrading programs implemented by UNRWA with the participation of refugee communities have significantly improved the camps’ physical infrastructure.
The (Camp) Refugees as the Last Bastion of Resistance to Normalization (since 1993)
After the signing of the Oslo Agreement of 1993, refugees raised concerns that the Palestinian Authority could give up their rights in exchange for the recognition by Israel of a sovereign state. Their concerns were based on (a) the disappearance of references to the right of return from official Palestinian statements and (b) the Palestinian Authority’s assumption of the role of UNRWA toward the refugees (the rationale being that the interim self-government applied to the entire Palestinian population living in the autonomous areas, irrespective of refugee status). Under the initiative of community-based organizations, camp refugees were the first to oppose their leadership’s plans, staging demonstrations aimed at re-inscribing their rights (including the preservation of UNRWA) high on the national agenda. They also sought to have recognized the camps’ specificity as sociopolitical entities that embody the refugee issue by demanding that camp refugees do not participate in municipal elections: they advocated the creation of camp committees that would carry out municipal services in cooperation with UNRWA. With the first setbacks in the peace process in the mid-late 1990s, the Palestinian Authority responded positively to these claims, especially regarding the management of the camps and UNRWA, but this owed more to Israel’s non-conciliatory stances than to a genuine belief in the practical relevance of the right of return, six decades after the Nakba.
The failure of the Israeli-Palestinian summit in Camp David in July 2000, together with Israeli provocations in the occupied territories, was instrumental in the outbreak of the second uprising (the al-Aqsa intifada) against the Israeli occupation. Again, the camp refugees were at the forefront of the political mobilization and the armed struggle, as best illustrated by the battle of Jenin camp, when several hundred Palestinian fighters battled the Israeli army from 1 to 11 April 2002. Yet, this did little to bolster the political salience of the right of return, both as a negotiation item and as a national claim. Moreover, the apparent intractability of the refugee issue has also contributed to widen the social gap between urban West Bankers (including noncamp refugees) who aspire to development and modernization, and camp refugees who still carry the stigma of poverty, social conservatism, restiveness (including against Palestinian authorities), and relative political disenfranchisement. The latter’s capacity for resilience supported by the right of return ideology and UNRWA’s material support against adverse local and regional contexts will be instrumental in determining the future of the West Bank and that of the Palestinian nation-building process as a whole.
Al Husseini, Jalal. “UNRWA and the Palestinian Nation-Building Process.” Journal of Palestine Studies 29, no.2 (Winter 2000): 51–64.
International Crisis Group. Bringing back the Palestinian Refugee Question. Middle East Report no. 156. Brussels, 2014, at crisisgroup.org
al-Maliki, Majdi. “La transformation de l’identité politique des réfugiés dans les camps de Cisjordanie et de la bande de Gaza.” In Roger Heacock, ed., Temps et Espaces en Palestine: Flux et résistances identitaires, 259–272. Beirut: Institut français du Proche-Orient, 2008.
PLO, Department of Refugee Affairs. The Palestinian Refugees Factfile. Ramallah, 2000.
UNRWA. UNRWA In Figures, at unrwa.org
UNRWA. UNRWA and the Transitional Period: A Five-Year Perspective on the Role of the Agency and its Financial Requirements. Vienna: Author, 1995.