On the anniversary of World Refugee Day, and one month after the 69th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, or “catastrophe,” it is estimated that 66 percent of Palestinians who were living in British-Mandate Palestine in 1948 were expelled from historic Palestine and displaced, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS).
“The human plight and tragedy that has befallen on the Palestinian people” resulted in approximately 957,000 Palestinian refugees -- 66 percent of the total population of Palestinian who were living in historic Palestine on the eve of the war in 1948, PCBS said in a statement Tuesday.
Today, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the UN agency responsible for providing services to millions of Palestinian refugees, estimates that the number of registered Palestinian refugees in 2016 amounted to about 5.9 million, PCBS noted, highlighting that this figure was representative of a minimum number.
Palestinian legal NGO BADIL has previously estimated the number to be around 7.2 million.
As of 2016, Palestinian refugees in the West Bank registered with UNRWA accounted for 17 percent of the total refugees registered with the organization, while refugees in Gaza accounted for 24.5 percent.
According to UNRWA, 42 percent of the total population of the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip are internally displaced refugees from historic Palestine, with data indicated that Palestinian refugees living in the occupied territory and Gaza have an overall unemployment rate of 33.3 percent in 2016, compared to 22.3 percent among non-refugees.
Meanwhile, Gaza, which has often been compared to an “open air prison” for its 1.9 million inhabitants crowded into 365 square kilometers, has suffered from a decade of isolation and deprivation, made all the worse by three devastating Israeli military operations, and persistent intra-Palestinian political strife.
Across the diaspora, the percentage of Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA in Jordan amounted to 39.1 percent of the total refugees registered, while the percentage of Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon and Syria numbered at 8.8 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively.
According to UNRWA, while Palestinian refugees in Lebanon represent an estimated 10 percent of the population of Lebanon, they lack many basic rights, as they are not formally citizens of another state and are unable to claim the same rights as other foreigners living in Lebanon. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, for example, are prevented from working in up to 20 highly-skilled professions.
As a result, “among the five UNRWA fields, Lebanon has the highest percentage of Palestine refugees living in abject poverty,” the group said, adding that around 53 percent of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live in 12 recognized refugee camps, “all of which suffer from serious problems, including poverty, overcrowding, unemployment, poor housing conditions and lack of infrastructure.”
Meanwhile, the ongoing conflict in Syria has forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from the country, including men, women and children, to flee to surrounding countries and other areas in Syria in search of safety.
The Hamas movement’s Office for Refugees’ Affairs in Lebanon released a statement Tuesday, saying that the “Right to Return is a basic human right issue stated by international resolutions and guaranteed by heavenly laws.”
The office lauded UNRWA for its work with Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, but highlighted the dire and deteriorating humanitarian conditions of Palestinian refugees grows as UNRWA cannot adequately service nearly all 5.9 million registered refugees.
In the statement, the group called upon the international community to “uphold its responsibilities towards the refugees’ cause” and called upon the hosting Arab countries, especially Lebanon, “to provide decent living to Palestinian refugees by giving them their civil, social and humanitarian rights without connecting those to localization.”
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the dismantlement of UNRWA, saying “UNRWA, to a large degree, by its very existence, perpetuates -- and does not solve -- the Palestinian refugee problem.”
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee Member Dr. Hanan Ashrawi condemned Netanyahu, saying his statements were “the epitome of arrogance, particularly since Israel itself is responsible for creating the Palestinian refugee problem.”
“Israel should not be allowed to dictate how to change the legal system and to persist with its unlawful unilateralism,” Ashrawi said, adding that the Israeli government “bears a moral and legal responsibility for Palestinian refugees and the serious injustices of the past.”
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness responded to Netanyahu’s comments at the time, saying that the issue of Palestinian refugees could only be resolved through a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian refugee conflict, instead of shuttering an aid agency catering to their humanitarian needs.
While UNRWA has been the target of Palestinian criticism on a number of occasions, Palestinian refugees, notably in the occupied Palestinian territory, see the preservation of their status as refugees as maintaining their claim to their right of return to the villages in historic Palestine from which their ancestors fled during the creation of the state of Israel.
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