Why Palestinians must be included in the international refugee protection regime

Israeli airstrikes have destroyed apartment blocks and killed and injured hundreds of people at refugee camps in northern Gaza in the midst of its unrelenting assault on Gazans in the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Refugees represent 81 per cent of Gaza’s population of 2.1 million people. The displacement of these stateless refugees goes back to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, an event known by Palestinians as Al Nakba or “the catastrophe.”

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In 1967, many of these refugees were displaced again by Al Naksa, the war that resulted in Israel occupying the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in addition to parts of Syria’s Golan heights and Egypt’s Sinai desert.

Since Al Naksa, Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have been subjected to a military occupation by Israel. In 1948, Palestinian refugees were displaced from a mandated territory and had no recognized state to represent them.

Today, Palestinians in Gaza are facing the threat of a new forced displacement that will lead them to a similar legal dilemma of 1948. They will likely be displaced from an occupied territory with no authority or state to protect them.

Thousands killed

The continuous Israeli bombardment and invasion of Gaza are resulting in a mounting death toll of civilians. In addition to the military action, Israel has cut off water, electricity and fuel supplies to the region.

Thousands have died, including children. A United Nations expert has warned the attacks amount to ethnic cleansing by Israel and a UNICEF official has said Gaza has become a “graveyard for children.”

Subjecting the people in Gaza to as much killing as possible and forcibly displacing those who survive is the beginning of a new catastrophe for the citizens of Gaza.

In a recent interview, former Israeli diplomat Danny Ayalon discussed Israel’s hopes to displace Palestinians from Gaza to the Sinai desert in Egypt, an idea that was rejected by the Egyptian president.

Israeli calls to force Palestinians out of Gaza in a second nakba have been repeated by other Israeli officials as an integral part of their military operation in the Gaza Strip.

In 2012, an Israeli bulldozer works at the site where Israel ultimately built a barrier along the border with Egypt in the Sinai desert.
(AP Photo/Diaa Hadid)

No access to protection

Since the beginning of their forced displacement in 1948, the plight of Palestinian refugees spurred the formation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, known as UNRWA.

UNRWA was designed to protect the social and economic rights of Palestinian refugees who had no access to international protection. They were excluded from the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and from the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — known as the UNHCR — preventing them from accessing international protection. No alternatives were provided to them.

Their physical security, human dignity and human rights were left to the discretion of their host governments, which to this day subject them to multiple levels of marginalization, violence and precarity whenever a conflict takes place, like in Lebanon and Syria.

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In Gaza, Palestinian refugees live under Israeli military control, now with the threat of being killed in bombings or displaced again.

As a result of their exclusion from the international protection mandate of the UNHCR, Palestinian refugees are left with the UNRWA as the sole international agency responsible for them. But it has no mandate of protection and no authority to facilitate a durable solution to their statelessness.

More importantly, the exclusion of Palestinians from the UNHCR has resulted in the absence of any international strategic or operational structures to implement the recommendations of the UN’s Right to Return resolution. That resolution states that refugees who wish to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest possible date.

Their absence from the UNHCR challenges any international attempt to end their statelessness and multiple displacements since 1948.

People search through massive piles of rubble and destroyed buildings.
Palestinians look for survivors under the rubble of destroyed buildings following Israeli airstrikes on the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza.
(AP Photo/Abed Khaled)

Urgent need for the UNHCR

The ongoing human tragedy in Gaza and the catastrophic living conditions for the Palestinian refugees in the region make it crucial for the international community to act. It must enforce the mandate of the UNRWA and enhance its humanitarian activities as the key relief agency responsible for assisting Palestinian refugees in Gaza.

Amid their enduring statelessness and the ongoing risk of ethnic cleansing, Palestinian refugees should also be included in the UNHCR.

It’s the only international agency that can work towards co-ordinating global protection efforts and facilitating a lasting solution to their displacement, thereby shielding Palestinian refugees from a new wave of displacement, marginalization and death.

It won’t be easy. Israel has systematically rejected such efforts, and multiple global crises involving refugees have strained the resources of the UNHCR.

But this vulnerable group of stateless refugees is in urgent need of sufficient and immediate protection. The time to act is now.

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