Palestinian “Double Refugees” Victimized Many Times Over

Publication Date: 
Monday, September 8, 2014
In 2008, Palestinian refugees fleeing violence in Iraq were denied access to Syria and ended up stuck between the Iraqi and Syrian borders in al-Tanf camp. Phil Sands/IRIN

The displacement of Palestinians is not a new phenomenon. Since the 1948, when war led to the founding of the State of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have lived as foreigners in Syria and other neighboring countries. However, as the Syrian conflict enters its third year, thousands have had to flee for a second time.  These twice-displaced Palestinians are finding themselves with fewer rights and protections than those accorded to other refugees. Perversely, this dire situation is the direct result of PLO, Hamas, and UNRWA policies—three groups that purport to act on behalf of the Palestinian diaspora.

Jordan and Lebanon—two relatively stable countries in a sea of instability—have been among the primary destinations of people displaced by the Syrian conflict. In addition to more than 2 million Syrian nationals, Jordan and Lebanon have collectively accepted an estimated 54,000 Palestinians who had been living in Syria.  Yet, in 2013, both countries closed their doors to Palestinians, in contravention of international law, while Lebanon has complicated the process by which Palestinians may renew their residence permits. In Jordan, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour effectively washed his hands of the problem, arguing that Palestinians should return to their place of origin in what is now Israel. In Lebanon, the Ministry of the Interior released a statement saying that the country’s refugee policy does not discriminate against Palestinians; contrary to this claim, Amnesty International has documented the illegal deportation of Palestinians by authorities.

Widely recognized as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) seems uniquely positioned to advocate for these “double refugees.” However, the PLO has made the “right of return”—the right of Palestinians, displaced since 1948, to return to their properties either in Israel or the Palestinian territories—central to its political platform. Fearing it might undermine this right, the PLO has actively opposed the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in any third country. Unfortunately for many Palestinians, being passed over for resettlement has left them stranded in foreign countries that do not want them, and that refuse to grant them the long-term protections of refugee status. In short, the PLO’s commitment to a principle has been allowed to trump its commitment to its people.

Designated a terrorist organization by many, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot that controls the Gaza Strip, is perhaps an unlikely candidate to deliver the Palestinian diaspora. Hamas launched its latest offensive against Israel in July of this year. The ensuing exchange of missiles produced lopsided casualties, with 2,143 Palestinians and 69 Israelis dead as of last week’s ceasefire. Far from interceding on refugees’ behalf, then, Hamas has prolonged their displacement by ensuring that Gaza remains a war zone. Worse, the futility of Hamas’ most recently campaign caused some observers to wonder whether it might have merely been a ploy to arouse international sympathy. To accept this version of events is to accept that the Palestinian people have once again been used as pawns in a political game.

When people cannot rely on a state for their basic protection, United Nations relief agencies may form the last line of defense. Indeed, recognizing the institutional weakness of the Palestinian government, the UN devoted a special agency—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)—to the wellbeing of Palestinian refugees. Fatally, however, UNRWA was conceived as a temporary agency to deal with a temporary problem. As such, its mandate is limited to the provision of relief and the administration of development projects. Unable to offer the more durable solution of resettlement, the agency’s powers have proven to be sorely insufficient.  In a final cruel twist, UNRWA’s existence means Palestinian refugees are not factored into the budget and response plans of UNHCR, the UN’s primary relief agency for refugees. As a result, displaced Syrian nationals benefit from the more comprehensive mandate of UNHCR, while twice-displaced Palestinian nationals make do with more limited options.

Seeking to address the plight of these twice-displaced Palestinians, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for neighboring countries—including Israel and the Palestinian territories—to facilitate the “temporary resettlement [of refugees] without prejudice to their right of return.” In theory, this ought to mollify the PLO, while simultaneously circumventing UNRWA’s bureaucratic shortcomings. As a corollary, ameliorating the suffering of Palestinians may help delegitimize Hamas, whose public relations strategy depends upon it. In light of what seems like an attainable solution, then, the Palestinian leadership cannot, as HRW’s Nadim Houry puts it, persist in “sacrificing Palestinian people in the name of the Palestinian cause.”

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