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Uprooted by Israel — Abandoned by the World: The Plight of Palestine’s Refugees

Stateless Palestinian refugees, 1948. (Photo provided by Blatant World)
Stateless Palestinian refugees, 1948. (Photo provided by Blatant World)
By Charlotte Silver
Hisham has spent his 23 years in Aida refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. He lives there with his parents, and has watched all but one of his seven siblings grow up, marry and make their own lives and homes.

Living in a camp run by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, Hisham and his family receive basic assistance: a monthly food subsidy, education and medical services. They do not receive the protections to which refugees are entitled under international law.

That much became clear when Hisham tried to move to Canada five years ago.

After his brother, Muhammad, married a Canadian woman, Hisham sought to join them in Vancouver.

Hisham applied for asylum in Canada on the basis that he is a Palestinian refugee. When making his application, he produced a certificate issued by UNRWA. Yet the Canadian government turned down his application, arguing that the certificate was not proof that he was recognized as a refugee.

The episode illustrates how Palestinians are afforded less protection than refugees from other countries, a longstanding problem analyzed in a new publication by the Palestinian refugee advocacy group Badil.

For decades there have been two separate UN agencies for the world’s refugees: one for Palestinians, the other for everybody else. UNRWA is tasked with providing basic services to refugees from Palestine. Issues relating to other refugees are handled by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The establishment of two separate agencies occurred at the middle of the twentieth century amid fiery debate. Europe was reeling from mass displacement created by the Second World War. Arab states insisted that a separate agency dedicated solely to Palestinians be formed to ensure Palestinians wouldn’t be lost in the chaos of Europe’s post-war upheaval.

The right of Palestinians to return to their homes was supposed to be guaranteed.
Loss of safeguard

In September 1948, Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat, recommended the establishment of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP). One day after making that recommendation, Bernadotte, the UN Security Council’s first mediator in Palestine, was assassinated by the Zionist militia group Lehi.

The UNCCP was tasked with facilitating a permanent solution for refugees via repatriation, resettlement or compensation. UNRWA was to provide essential humanitarian assistance in the meantime.

In the early years, the UNCCP attempted to facilitate the return of some Palestinian refugees and intervened when Israel passed property and citizenship laws aimed at preempting any such return.

But Israel persisted in its refusal to offer any kind of repatriation, and soon the United Nations capitulated. The scope of the UNCCP’s mandate was made narrower as early as 1951.

The UNCCP’s funding was soon reduced, and by 1952 it was left tabulating refugees’ lost property in case Israel agreed to pay compensation in the future.

It finished this massive task by 1964 and all that is known of its work since then is that every year it publishes a one-page report stating “it has nothing new to report.”

The collapse of the UNCCP has meant Palestinian refugees have lost an essential safeguard.

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