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PoliticsMiddle East

Palestinians in the Middle East: Where and how do they live?

November 29, 2023

While Palestinians in the Middle East have different legal statuses and integration levels, for the majority, the common pursuit remains a two-state solution and the ability to exercise a right to return.

 A Palestinian refugee girl stands at a fence with drying laundry in south Lebanon
Palestinian refugees receive a very different welcome depending on where they live — even in the fourth and fifth generationImage: Ali Hashisho/Xinhua/IMAGO

Palestinians in the Middle East make up a diverse populace of an estimated 7 million people with different legal statuses who live mainly in Israel, the Gaza Strip, the occupied West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and other countries.

"Neither Middle Eastern host countries nor countries in Europe have accurate numbers," Kelly Petillo, a Middle East researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

The United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA)states that it provided assistance this year to some 5.9 million people in 58 refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including east Jerusalem.

The UNRWA, however, is not present in all Arab countries and not every Palestinian is a refugee. The UN body says those whose "normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict" qualify for registration as refugees along with their descendants. It also provides services to people displaced in the region and in serious need of assistance as a result of the Six-Day-War in Israel in 1967.

During the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe, in 1948, around 700,000 people fled or were forced from their homes. To this day, many Palestinian refugees abroad remain stateless and uphold their demand for a right to return.

"The pursuit of the right to return has become a central marker of the Palestinian identity," Peter Lintl, an associate in the Africa and Middle East Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW.

While a right to return was included in the UN Resolution 3236 from 1974, and in the 1951 Geneva Convention, it ceased to play a prominent role in the 1994 Oslo negotiations, and it does not feature in UN Security Council resolutions on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians at all, Petillo said.

Displaced Palestinians go to check on their homes in the Gaza Strip
In Gaza, the majority of the 2.2 million Palestinians are considered to be refugees by UNRWAImage: Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu/picture alliance

Palestinians in Lebanon

According to UNRWA, around 250,000 Palestinian refugees were estimated to be in Lebanon as of July. "Other calculations account for almost 500,000 Palestinian refugees," Petillo said, adding that Lebanon has not carried out a census for almost 100 years.

"It fears that an accurate read of the population might change the demographic considerations which, in turn, constitute the foundation of the politics there," she explained.

Since 1943, Lebanon has been sticking to a power distribution system based on religious proportional representation, namely, the prime minister has to be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Christian and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim.

"I would say Lebanon is the most hostile country to Palestinians and actually all refugees that it hosts," Petillo said.

According to the UNRWA, some 80% of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live below the national poverty line. Decades of structural discrimination related to employment and a denial of the right to own property have been exacerbated by the current economic crisis.

A general view of the only majority-Christian Palestinian refugee camp in Dbayeh
A census would likely change Lebanon's demographic structure and the political systemImage: Bilal Hussein/AP/picture alliance

Palestinians in Jordan

The Hashemite Kingdom is the only Arab country that has granted citizenship to Palestinians who came during the Nakba.

"More than half of Jordan's population is of Palestinian origins, Queen Rania herself has Palestinian roots and the issue of Palestinian statehood sees huge support from the population and the government," Petillo said.

Around 2.3 million people are registered as Palestinian refugees in Jordan.

However, Jordan's King Abdullah II has made it clear that Jordan won't take in more refugees as a consequence of the war in Gaza, which was prompted by deadly attacks on Israel on October 7 by Hamas, a militant, Islamist, Palestinian group classified as a terrorist organization by the European Union as well as the United States, Germany and several other countries.

A general view of the 'Jerash Camp', also known as the 'Gaza Camp', in which 35,000 Palestinian refugees live, in Jerash
Half of Jordan's population has Palestinian roots, and around 2.3 million Palestinians are refugees, most of them with Jordanian citizenshipImage: Laith Al-jnaidi/Anadolu/picture alliance

Palestinians in Egypt

"The situation for Palestinian refugees in Egypt is the most uncertain," Petillo said. "They live in a legal limbo," she added.

"Egypt is not an UNRWA country, and statistics on Palestinian refugees vary between 70,000 and 134,000 people," she said, adding that "of course, this may change."

Egypt has the only border crossing with the Gaza Strip that does not lead into Israel, however, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has repeatedly said the Rafah Border Crossing will not become an entry gate for Palestinians from Gaza.

A Palestinian student crosses via Rafah Border Crossing into Egypt
Almost only foreigners, dual-nationals, newborns and a few wounded people have crossed into Egypt at the Rafah Border Crossing since the war startedImage: Gehad Hamdy/dpa/picture alliance

Palestinians in Syria

UNRWA runs nine official and three unofficial refugee camps for 438,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria.

The Syrian civil war has exacerbated the situation for the refugees in the past 12 years, and aid infrastructure has been considerably damaged.

In 2021, a UNRWA survey showed that 82% of people who received its cash assistance live in absolute poverty, and around 120,000 Palestinian refugees have once more sought refuge in neighboring countries.

Israeli soldiers and an ambulance in the West Bank city of Nablus
Clashes with Israeli religious settlers in the occupied West Bank are on the rise Image: picture-alliance

Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza 

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, or PCBS, 154,900 Palestinians remained in Israel after the Nakba in 1948.

By 2020, this number had increased tenfold to over 1.5 million people, around 17% of Israel's citizens, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics.

There are various terms for these Palestinians, often referred to as Israeli Arabs or Arab citizens of Israel.

An Israeli Palestinian pharmacist in her pharmacy in Jerusalem
Palestinian citizens of Israel, or Arab Israelis, are increasingly integrated in the job market, and make up a large proportion of pharmacists and nurses in IsraelImage: Andrej David/Le Pictorium/MAXPPP/dpa/picture alliance

For some, the "preference is Palestinian citizens of Israel," Amjad Iraqi, a senior editor at the Israeli +972 Magazine and political analyst at the Palestinian Policy Network Al Shabaka, and himself a Palestinian citizen, told DW.

"'Israeli Arab' has a history of being deliberately used to negate the Palestinian-ness," Iraqi explained.

However, in comparison to the around 3 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza —  most of them are UNRWA-recognized refugees — the Arab citizens of Israel are "legally privileged," Iraqi said, even though they retain "second-class status" vis-a-vis Jewish citizens.

"We do see increased economic and socio-political integration, but political conflicts between Jewish and Arab Israelis are escalating as Israel's radical right gains strength," Lintl said.

He said he regards it as "remarkable that after October 7, within the Arab world, the Palestinians in Israel distanced themselves most clearly from the terrorist attacks by Hamas."

Why Egypt and Jordan don't want Palestinian refugees

Edited by: Rob Mudge

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa