No More Palestinian Refugees!

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to symbolize human suffering and unresolved grievances, particularly the plight of Palestinian refugees. For decades, generations of Palestinians have endured displacement, dispossession, and violation of human rights. Yet, despite numerous attempts at peace negotiations and international initiatives, their status as refugees persists, as hopes for a lasting solution for their plight dissipates. The whole situation has been exacerbated after the October 7 attack, as desperate Palestinians in besieged Gaza try to find refuge under Israel’s relentless bombardment.

Palestinians were previously being directed by Israel’s military to the southernmost governorate of Rafah in Gaza but even in the Southern part and Rafah, the bombardment is becoming more intense, compelling them to escape their homes. The Israeli leadership has indicated that the only option available to the Palestinians is to cross the border into Egypt’s Sinai Desert. The two nations that border Gaza and the occupied West Bank, respectively, Jordan and Egypt, have responded that will not be taking any new refugees from Gaza. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, in his remarks, made it apparent in his statements that the war was about more than just defeating Hamas, adding that it was also an effort to force civilian residents to migrate to Egypt. A similar message was delivered by King Abdullah II of Jordan, who declared, “No refugees in Jordan, no refugees in Egypt.” Their reluctance stems from their concern that Israel intends to compel Palestinians to permanently leave their nations and undermine their aspirations for independence.

A Story of Atrocities and Endless Suffering

Each major wartime outbreak, even before the events of October 7, sparked enormous waves of Palestinian displacement and exodus, which resulted in the eventual displacement of two-thirds of the population. The majority of Palestinian refugees reside close to their native country, although some of them left the area and traveled vast distances.  As of 2020 UNRWA surveys, about 40% of Palestinian refugees reside in Jordan. Around 41% of them reside in Gaza and the West Bank. Nearly 19% of them live in Syria and Lebanon. There are around 355,000 Palestinians who are internally displaced and currently reside in Israel, making up 43% of the Palestinian population that is still residing across historic Palestine. According to U.N. data, Egypt currently hosts 9 million refugees. The remaining Palestinian refugees and their offspring have dispersed over the world, taking sanctuary wherever they can.

The number of registered Palestinian refugees in the Middle East is estimated to be 5.9 million, residing there 75 years after the onset of the mass displacement of Palestinians. Restrictions on humanitarian access and the ongoing armed war have had a significant impact on Palestinian refugees from Syria. There are nearly 560,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria. Of these, about 120,000 have migrated to Europe and neighboring countries like Jordan and Lebanon, both of which have placed severe entry restrictions on them. Due to their proximity to war zones within Syria and high rates of poverty, the bulk of individuals who have stayed in the country have experienced several displacements and have been disproportionately affected by the conflict.

Regarding living conditions, health, education, and poverty, the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are frequently considered to be the worst in the region. Families living in cramped quarters that were intended to be temporary housing must contend with winding alleys and streets that are tiny and congested, with open sewer channels and heaps of trash. There aren’t many hospitals and clinics to care for the ill. Exposed electrical wire tangles frequently hang perilously low over dark streets, occasionally within children’s reach. Electrocution deaths are not unusual. With startlingly high unemployment rates, Palestinian refugees attempting to better their lot in life in Lebanon encounter challenges and convoluted paperwork in the job market. They are not allowed to work in most white-collar jobs. In the last decade, some 50,000 Palestinian refugees relocated to Lebanon. In already packed camps, they had to find places to live and fight for few supplies and services.

Instead of focusing on strategies to repatriate the existing Palestinian refugees, the United Nations has rather focused on creating bodies to provide the refugees with some fundamental rights.  On December 8, 1949, the UN General Assembly established UNRWA intending to give tens of thousands of Palestinian refugee’s accesses to essential services like food, medical care, and education. Israel opposes UNRWA’s resettlement of Palestine refugees, despite the organization’s humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. Israel has long argued that UNRWA should be disbanded because its purpose has been outmoded. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, claimed that UNRWA is “perforated with Hamas.” The allegations made by Netanyahu against UNRWA are unfounded. Israel has long pushed for the termination of UNRWA, claiming that the organization “perpetuated” the Palestinian refugee problem by enabling Palestinians to pass refugee status down through the generations and by refusing to grant these refugees the right of return.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are not allowed to legally receive public benefits because they are considered outsiders. They are expressly prohibited from working in dozens of professions, including many of the highest-paying and most prestigious ones, including law and medicine. Many of the Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon have left the country due to the numerous restrictions imposed by the government on them that severely limit many aspects of daily life, the violent conflicts that have occurred there over the years, and the recent sharp decline in the country’s economic conditions. The housing in Gaza’s and the West Bank’s refugee camps is frequently inadequate and claustrophobic. The labor market is as difficult for refugees as it is for other Palestinians. In fact, 1.6 million Palestinians are food insecure, 20% of displaced Palestinians living in the West Bank and more than half of Gaza’s refugees are unemployed.

Israel has been ambiguous about its aims in Gaza and the population’s exodus and fears have risen in the neighborhood of this uncertainty. Egypt has pressured Israel to permit the entry of humanitarian supplies into Gaza. Nine million refugees and migrants currently reside in Egypt, which is experiencing a severe economic crisis. Of them, almost 300,000 are Sudanese nationals who fled their country’s conflict and arrived in 2023. However, many Palestinians and Arab nations fear that Israel would take advantage of this chance to impose long-term demographic shifts to undermine Palestinian aspirations for statehood in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem—which Israel also annexed in 1967. El-Sissi reiterated his threats to “eliminate the Palestinian cause and if a demilitarized Palestinian state had been created long ago in negotiations, there would not be war now” in the event of a Gaza evacuation. Egypt is unconvinced. El-Sissi stated that if Israel claims it has not fully defeated militants, then conflict may rage for years and suggested that until Israel’s military operations end, it should shelter Palestinians in the Negev Desert, which borders the Gaza Strip.

Every historical precedent indicates that Palestinians are not permitted to return to Palestinian territory once they are compelled to leave. Although, Egypt has refused to permit a flood from Gaza, citing worries about Palestinians being uprooted and security concerns in the area, Israel still deems it as a possibility. However, moving Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to tent encampments in northern Sinai and eventually constructing permanent towns has been discussed as a suggestion in a “concept paper” written by Israeli intelligence shortly after the conflict began in October 2023. The report, according to the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is merely a suggestion.

Egypt claims that a large-scale withdrawal from Gaza would allow Hamas or other Palestinian militants to enter its territory. That might be unstable in Sinai, where Egypt’s military battled Islamic extremists for years, accusing Hamas of supporting them at one point. Since Hamas seized control of the region in 2007, Egypt has supported Israel’s blockade of Gaza, strictly regulating the flow of civilians in and out of the area. Additionally, it demolished the system of tunnels beneath the border that were used by Palestinian organizations like Hamas to smuggle commodities into Gaza. Given that the Sinai insurgency has been mostly contained, Cairo would prefer not to be faced with another security issue in this unstable area. El-Sissi warned about the collapse of the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, which would now be even more unstable. He said that a large exodus from Gaza could potentially transport militants into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, from where they may launch assaults on Israel. Israel would be able to defend itself, and it would attack Egyptian land. The Egyptian president claims that the attainment of long-lasting peace would disappear from our grasp and the neighboring countries must not allow this migration for the sole purpose of protecting the Palestinian cause. Cairo, is also facing an increasingly dire debt problem and will require at least $41.5 billion in foreign funding to get through the 23-24 fiscal year and it may not be ready to take in more refugees.

What Lies in The Future?

What transpired after Israel was established as a state and once more in 1967 amply demonstrates a pattern in which Palestinians were driven from their homes and never allowed to return. Is the Egyptian regime able to house new refugees in Sinai if they manage to cross the border there? Given that the majority of the Gaza Strip has already been devastated, where is the guarantee that they will return? There does not seem to be a concrete plan in place to make this happen at this time.

Given Israel’s ceaseless atrocities and indiscriminate murders, there might not be any homes in Gaza left to return to. There might not be life left to return to their homes. With the sole intention of achieving what they refer to as “voluntary migration,” which is a euphemism for forcible displacement, the IDF is ensuring Gaza is no longer habitable. The Palestinians can either choose to be dead in Gaza or live in another country. But, the resistance of the Gazans has always been indestructible. They would choose to remain on their soil and accept the looming danger of death rather than leave their land and live somewhere else.

Given the history and recent developments, it is quite clear that the world will not be welcoming any more Palestinian refugees. On one hand, the Israeli leadership is doing everything, using every tool at arm’s length to drive Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip, forced migration repackaged as voluntary migration. They do not see a future where Gzan can continue to live o their homeland, much to the dismay of its Western allies. On the other hand, neighboring countries have maintained that letting more Palestinians into their border cannot be a reality. But, after all the gruesome realities generations of Palestinians have faced both inside and outside of Palestinians, as refugees and as unwelcomed in their very own motherland by the Israeli settlers, more Palestinian refugees forced out of their homes is just not an option. For the sake of humanity, even an ounce of it, this situation cannot afford to get worse.

It is time for the world to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians and affirm their right to dignity, self-determination, and a homeland of their own. If we envision a world where Palestinians get to live in a liberated safe homeland, the rest of the world needs to commit itself to the principles of justice, compassion, and human rights. The root causes of the Palestinian refugee crisis need to be drawn out, and global authority with Israel’s collaboration needs to facilitate meaningful repatriation and restitution and ensure the socioeconomic integration and empowerment of refugees in their host communities.

– Tahia Afra Jannati is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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