ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A People Without a Country

Palestinians search for a homeland seemingly beyond their reach.

Who are the Palestinians? This question looms large in these early years of the 21st century, when newspapers daily recount the horrors in the Holy Land.

The Palestinians are an Arabic-speaking Semitic people who have lived for centuries in the Holy Land. Many families trace their lineage to the Crusades and before. Some – Christian and Muslim – are descended from Jews who lived at the time of Christ. The history of these people fills countless volumes, but this article will be confined to those Palestinians who lived under the British Mandate of Palestine, created by the League of Nations on 29 September 1923.

The mandate extended from the Gulf of Aqaba in the south, through the Negev to the northern tip of the Dead Sea, then north along the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee to Lebanon. Its western border was the Mediterranean. In 1923, Arabs constituted 92 percent of the population and owned 98 percent of the land.

The Palestinian economy was largely agricultural. Relations between Arabs and indigenous Palestinian Jews were amicable, but the Arabs were already wary of Zionist aspirations for Palestine.

Western powers, particularly the British, in seeking to appease both Arabs and Jews through a series of documents and diplomatic maneuvers, only reinforced Arab suspicions; Arab clashes with British authorities and Jewish communities were, therefore, inevitable.

The plight of European Jews who had survived the Holocaust was probably the single most important factor uniting public opinion in favor of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.

The British relinquished their mandate to the United Nations on 2 April 1947. On 29 November, the United Nations General Assembly, acting on a report presented by its Special Commission to Palestine, voted to divide Palestine into a Jewish state comprising 56 percent of the area, an Arab state comprising 43 percent and an international city of Jerusalem, including Bethlehem, administered by the UN.

The British High Commissioner withdrew on 14 May 1948; Jewish authorities immediately declared an independent State of Israel. By that time, some 400,000 Palestinian Arabs had already fled their homes, seeking refuge in neighboring Arab states.

In response, Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian forces attacked Israeli positions, but the well-prepared, well-equipped Israelis routed these combined Arab armies. When the fighting ended on 7 January 1949, an estimated 800,000 exhausted Palestinians had fled their homeland. An additional 300,000 Palestinian Arabs left the West Bank for Jordan a year after the fighting. These Palestinians formed the nucleus of a refugee population that still exists more than half a century later.

To meet the needs of these refugees, Pope Pius XII established the Pontifical Mission for Palestine on 18 June 1949. Six months later the UN created the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

In May 1967, Egypt imposed a blockade of Israeli shipping in the Strait of Tiran, a narrow strip of water separating the Sinai Peninsula from Saudi Arabia. In response, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike that initiated the Six Day War on 5 June. When the war ended, Israel had seized and occupied all of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Some 380,000 Palestinians fled from these areas, more than 350,000 to Jordan alone. Many of these refugees were displaced for the second time.

In the summer of 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, forcing approximately 200,000 Palestinian workers – roughly half the Palestinian population of the oil-rich state – to flee. One year later, following the expulsion of Iraq’s forces, the Kuwaiti government deported many of those Palestinians who had remained in Kuwait, reducing Kuwait’s Palestinian population to 80,000.

In June 2001 UNRWA reported 3,874,738 registered Palestinian refugees (1,235,315 in UNRWA camps) living in Jordan, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria. The largest concentration – 1,639,718 Palestinian refugees – was in Jordan. There were 852,626 in Gaza, 607,770 in the West Bank, 391,651 in Syria and 382,973 in Lebanon.

What is the defining characteristic of these refugees? Basically, they are a people without a country. Although Jordan granted citizenship to Palestinians from the West Bank, once a part of the Hashemite Kingdom (Palestinians from Gaza were not included), the refugees consider themselves citizens of Palestine – a country that does not exist. Many yearn to return to their ancestral homes and therefore tend to resist permanent resettlement. Others, including Queen Rania, who is Palestinian, are fully integrated into Jordanian society.

Jordan has borne the brunt of sheltering three generations of Palestinian refugees. As citizens, these refugees may seek employment and receive health care, but unemployment in Jordan hovers around 14 percent; many refugees lack proper education and job skills.

Although Syria does not offer Palestinians citizenship, Syria does give these refugees many of the benefits of citizenship, including access to government services, education, government hospitals and employment. Refugees can even purchase one parcel of domestic property for their own use. They cannot, however, vote or purchase farmland. Although Palestinian refugees in Syria are allowed to work, job opportunities are scarce as more than 20 percent of the population is unemployed. Many Syrians work as laborers in Lebanon.

Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, on the other hand, must live in camps and have no legal right to work in that country. What little work is available is illegal, sporadic and poorly paid.

According to the first census conducted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there were 2,895,683 Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as of 9 December 1997. Of these, 1,663,267 lived in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, and 1,022,207 lived in the Gaza Strip. An estimated 210,209 Palestinians lived in East Jerusalem. According to the census, 54 percent of the population (excluding 16 percent living in refugee camps) lived in urban areas and 30 percent in rural areas. The World Bank estimates the population of the West Bank and Gaza increased at an average annual rate of 4.5 percent between 1990 and 1998. In mid-2000, the population of the Palestinian territories was estimated at 3,150,056.

Many Palestinians, particularly Christian Palestinians, have emigrated from the Israeli-occupied territories. This emigration has intensified since the onset of the present Intifada. For example, Australian authorities report that 2,004 Palestinians applied for permanent visas between July 2000 and July 2001, reflecting an increase of 1,440 percent over the previous year. At the same time, more than 140 Palestinians asked to be granted refugee status in Australia compared to 19 the previous year, an increase of 637 percent.

Palestinian applications for entry visas to the United States have increased 60 percent, and there has been a concomitant rise in requests for Green Cards. Canada and Great Britain also report notable increases in visa requests during the past year. Emigration has been particularly heavy from Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah, according to church sources.

Long-term difficulties that preceded the present Intifada but have been exacerbated by it are major factors in the decision to emigrate. These include lack of affordable housing, especially for young people wishing to marry; persistent unemployment; movement restrictions and border closures; political uncertainty and threats to personal security.

Well-educated Palestinian emigrants seek specialized job opportunities in advanced fields such as pharmaceutics, medicine and engineering, which are more readily available in the West. These fields contrast sharply with the low-skill, labor-intensive jobs most often available at home.

“The people who are leaving are generally those with an education, people who know the West, who have a culture of human rights,” says the Director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Board, Bassem Eid. “Because they are leaving, I am beginning to doubt that we will have a Palestinian civil society. These are the people our society needs most of all.”

Traditionally, many Palestinians remained in the Israeli-occupied territories, despite harsh living conditions, for reasons that included attachment to the land and hope for a future Palestinian state.

The current Intifada and the violence with which it is met have altered that point of view, perhaps irrevocably. Christians who once felt called to maintain a presence in the Holy Land are now leaving. In Beit Sahour, one of the few towns in the Holy Land that remain primarily Christian, a survey conducted by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem last August disclosed that 51 percent of the respondents were considering emigration. Those Palestinians who remain often lack the education required for jobs in the West as well as the means to emigrate.

What does the future hold for Palestinians? Only time will tell. But whether or not an internationally recognized, independent Palestinian state emerges from the present violence, the Palestinian people will remain. With or without a viable homeland, they will still confront many of the problems they face today, including poverty, identity and isolation in an increasingly strange and foreign world.

Writing from Brooklyn, Peg Maron is CNEWA WORLD’s former Production Editor.

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