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Refugees are people who were forced to leave their home countries, due to war or a natural disaster. Yet Arab-Israeli cases seem to necessitate a more nuanced definition of “refugee”, due to the conventional one being ambiguous. For example, after the founding of Israel in 1948, the ensuing war resulted in the eviction of 900,000 Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, 72% of whom resettled in Israel. To my knowledge, these groups and their descendants are not considered refugees by the international community.


Descendants of Palestinians are considered refugees in Lebanon, Syria, and in minor quantities in other Arab countries, even though they may have never lived in territory controlled by Israel, and were born in the host country. Their families have been living in the country for generations. In Lebanon, according to Al-Jazeera:

It started with the Nakba of 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from Palestine during the creation of Israel, and has continued since, as resistance leaders and refugees alike sought shelter from Israeli attacks.

But while Lebanon has hosted these refugees, they have faced systemic discrimination – and the Palestinian community and its leaders have constantly lived under the threat of Israeli attacks… Most Palestinians are precluded from obtaining the identity cards needed to access most jobs or social services. Instead, as Lebanon seeks to preserve its own fragile sectarian balance, they must rely upon the UNRWA to provide them with many of the necessities of daily life.

In Syria, Palestinians are treated somewhat better:

Children born in Syria to fathers who are Palestinian nationals, even if they themselves were born in Syria, are considered Palestinian not Syrian nationals. "Only in very limited circumstances, such as the absence or statelessness of a father, could the mother grant her child Syrian citizenship." Instead of a passport, Palestinians are given specific travel documents.

Palestinians in Syria have the right to own more than one business or commercial enterprise as well as the right to lease properties, to join unions, to travel with Syria and to establish residence in Syrian villages and cities. They are also eligible for drafting into the Syrian Armed Forces.

There is, however, a prominent gap between Palestinians' and nationals' right in home and land ownership laws: unlike Syrian nationals, Palestinians may not own more than one home or purchase arable land. And in terms of political rights, Palestinian refugees do not have the right to vote or stand as candidates for the People's Assembly of Syria (the Syrian parliament of representatives) or Presidency.

Treatment of Palestinians in Syria seems more in accordance with the Arab League Casablanca Protocol:

The Arab League's 1965 Casablanca Protocol provides the framework for the treatment of Palestinians living in the Arab States. It consisted of the following regulations: (1) Whilst retaining their Palestinian nationality, Palestinians have the right of employment on par with its citizens. (2) Palestinians have the right to leave and return to their state of residence. (3) Palestinians residing in other Arab states have the right to enter and depart from other Arab states, but their right of entry only gives them the right to stay for the permitted period and for the purpose they entered for, so long as the authorities do not agree to the contrary. (4) Palestinians are given, upon request, valid travel documents; authorities must issue these documents or renew them without delay. (5) Bearers of these travel documents residing in Arab League states receive the same treatment as all other LAS state citizens, regarding visa and residency applications.

Regarding Palestinians in Jordan,

…most Palestinians and their descendants in Jordan are fully naturalized, making Jordan the only Arab country to fully integrate the Palestinian refugees of 1948.

In Jordan, there is no official census data for how many inhabitants are Palestinians and it rather depends on the definition of who is a Palestinian. Some 2.18 million Palestinians were registered as refugees in 2016. As of 2014, around 370,000 live in ten refugee camps, with the biggest one being Baqa'a refugee camp with over 104,000 residents, followed by Amman New Camp (Wihdat) with over 51,500 residents.

Finally, there are Palestinian refugees living in the refugee camps in Gaza and West Bank (unlike the Palestinians who had always lived in these territories.) E.g., it was a relevant distinction in the context of the August 2023 anti-Hamas protests in Gaza:

Rami Aman explained that “Khan Younis is somewhat an exception in the Strip, as its residents are mostly native Gazans.” This contrasts with the rest of the enclave, where about two-thirds of the population are descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948. “Khan Younis has historically been opposed to the rule of Hamas,” Aman noted.


One could draw a distinction between the Jews in Israel, and Palestinians in Western countries, vs. the Palestinians in Lebanon, as a matter of getting citizenship from the host country, and being integrated into their society.

However, Jordanian Palestinians (who make more than a third of the 5,6 million Palestinian refugees) do have citizenship in Jordan, and yet are still considered as refugees - which seems to make the definition a matter of self-identification, where anyone can claim to be a refugee, if their ancestors lived in a different place.

So, the question deals with particular aspects of the refugee status - its transition to descendants, its loss or not when obtaining citizenship of another state, and possibly differences in how the related rules are applied to the Palestinian and Jewish refugees.

Is there a definition of what constitutes a refugee coming from international law which can disambiguate which of the above scenarios would qualify someone as being a “refugee”? If this is not being upheld, why is their inconsistency in how the legal definition of a “refugee” is being applied?

Further reading:

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/1/6/why-is-lebanon-home-to-so-many-palestinian-refugees-and-leaders

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The 1951 Refugee Convention adopted by the UN clearly states:

A. For the purposes of the present Convention, the term "refugee", shall apply to any person who:

... (2) ... owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. In the case of a person who has more than one nationality, the term "the country of his nationality" shall mean each of the countries of which he is a national, and a person shall not be deemed to be lacking the protection of the country of his nationality if, without any valid reason based on well-founded fear, he has not availed himself of the protection of one of the countries of which he is a national. (Ref. 1)

In much simpler terms:

Who is a refugee?

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.

Who is an internally displaced person?

An internally displaced person, or IDP, is someone who has been forced to flee their home but never cross an international border. These individuals seek safety anywhere they can find it—in nearby towns, schools, settlements, internal camps, even forests and fields. IDPs, which include people displaced by internal strife and natural disasters, are the largest group that UNHCR assists. Unlike refugees, IDPs are not protected by international law or eligible to receive many types of aid because they are legally under the protection of their own government.

Who is a stateless person?

A stateless person is someone who is not a citizen of any country. Citizenship is the legal bond between a government and an individual, and allows for certain political, economic, social and other rights of the individual, as well as the responsibilities of both government and citizen. A person can become stateless due to a variety of reasons, including sovereign, legal, technical or administrative decisions or oversights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights underlines that “Everyone has the right to a nationality.” (Ref. 2)

The Refugee convention also states when a person ceases to be a refugee:

C. This Convention shall cease to apply to any person falling under the terms of section A if:

  1. He has voluntarily re-availed himself of the protection of the country of his nationality; or
  2. Having lost his nationality, he has voluntarily reacquired it; or
  3. He has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality; or
  4. He has voluntarily re-established himself in the country which he left or outside which he remained owing to fear of persecution; or
  5. He can no longer, because the circumstances in connection with which he has been recognized as a refugee have ceased to exist, continue to refuse to avail himself of the protection of the country of his nationality ...
  6. Being a person who has no nationality he is, because the circumstances in connection with which he has been recognized as a refugee have ceased to exist, able to return to the country of his former habitual residence ...

... E. This Convention shall not apply to a person who is recognized by the competent authorities of the country in which he has taken residence as having the rights and obligations which are attached to the possession of the nationality of that country.

F. The provisions of this Convention shall not apply to any person with respect to whom there are serious reasons for considering that: (a) He has committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity, as defined in the international instruments drawn up to make provision in respect of such crimes; (b) He has committed a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge prior to his admission to that country as a refugee; (c) He has been guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. (Ref. 1)

Now let's consider how all this applies to Jewish refugees and the Palestinian refugees. (For simplicity, let's ignore that the convention started from 1951). Note that Israel is recognized as a state by the United Nations.

  1. The jews became refugees when they fled from their country where they were nationals, fearing persecution (let us ignore whether they were indeed persecuted in these countries, and assume they had legitimate fears of persecution).

  2. As per the the Refugee Conventions, when these Jews arrived in the State of Israel, they were recognized as refugees, and Israel had the duty to protect and care for them.

  3. The State of Israel granted citizenship to nearly all the jewish refugees.

  4. Before the State of Israel was recognized by the UN, such grant of citizenship was meaningless. But after Israel was recognized as a state by UN, the grant of citizenship was internationally valid.

  5. Thus, as per the Refugee Convention section C, clauses (3), (4) when the jewish refugees acquired Israeli citizenship, and voluntarily became nationals of the State of Israel, they ceased to be refugees. As such, descendants of these naturalised jewish refugees are considered as Israeli citizens. If any jewish refugee has not chosen to become an Israeli citizen, they retain their refugee status and their descendants will also be considered refugees (provided they cannot return back to their country of origin).

Is the situation of the Palestinian refugees the same?

The State of Palestine is also recognized by the United Nations. But due to the dispute between the State of Israel and Palestine, and the occupation of Palestinian land by Israelis, Palestinian sovereignty over their economic, political or national affairs is severely curtailed by the Israelis.

  1. Palestinians thus consider themselves as a colony, with Israelis as their colonial oppressor.

  2. Due to the oppression the Palestinians face from Israelis, they are both internally displaced and refugees when they cross borders to seek refuge.

  3. As per the Refugee Convention, the descendants of refugees, especially stateless refugees (which earlier Palestinians refugees in Jordan and Syria were before Palestine was recognized as a state by the UN) are considered as refugees too. And they will continue to be recognized as refugees till they can return back to Palestine or their host countries grants them unconditional citizenship.

  4. Arab countries refuse to grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees because they know that Israel wants to drive out Arabs until they become a minority in their own land, and they want tp capture and occupy Palestinian lands. They fear that granting citizenships to Palestinian refugees will encourage Israeli persecution of Palestinians to drive them away and grab more of their land.

  5. Since the host country refuse citizenship to Palestinian refugees, and the refugees fear going back to Israel (which, it should be noted that Israel also does not permit), these Palestinian and their descendants retain their refugee status.

Hope you are now clear about the distinction of jewish refugees (who no longer can be considered as refugees) and Palestinian refugees.

Additional notes:

  1. The United Nations explicitly says that descendants of refugees also get refugee status under international law, and this is not particular to Palestinian refugees alone:

    Descendants of refugees retain refugee status

    Under international law and the principle of family unity, the children of refugees and their descendants are also considered refugees until a durable solution is found. Both UNRWA and UNHCR recognize descendants as refugees on this basis, a practice that has been widely accepted by the international community, including both donors and refugee hosting countries.

    Palestine refugees are not distinct from other protracted refugee situations such as those from Afghanistan or Somalia, where there are multiple generations of refugees, considered by UNHCR as refugees and supported as such. Protracted refugee situations are the result of the failure to find political solutions to their underlying political crises. (Ref. 3)

    (For more details on Palestinian UN refugee status I recommend this excellent answer).

  2. The source for the claim that "Arab countries refuse to grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees because they know that Israel wants to drive out Arabs ...":

    Jordan and Egypt will not accept Palestinian refugees fleeing Gaza amid the war between Israel and Hamas, Jordanian King Abdullah II said Tuesday. “That is a red line, because I think that is the plan by certain of the usual suspects to try and create de facto issues on the ground. No refugees in Jordan, no refugees in Egypt,” Abdullah said at a news conference following a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. (Ref. 4)

    ... Jordan’s fear had been building even before the October 7 Hamas attack, thanks to another major yet often overlooked factor: demography. The number of Palestinians in areas under Israel’s control has now exceeded the number of Israeli Jews: 7.4 million Palestinians, some of them Israeli citizens, to 7.2 million Israelis ... From Jordan’s perspective, mass transfer has become a real possibility, not just a theoretical argument. If Israel does not want either a Palestinian state or a Palestinian majority, then the only alternative is to try to affect a mass transfer of as many Palestinians as possible.

    ... Palestinians and neighboring host states have history as their guide, too. In 1948, 750,000 Palestinians left or were expelled from the resulting new state of Israel, with only 150,000 remaining. Despite UN Resolution 194 affirming that refugees should be able to return to their homes, no Palestinian has officially able to do so. Today, Israel will not readmit any Palestinian who leaves because of war conditions outside Palestinian territory...

    The closing of Jordan’s border to Palestinians—while on the surface appearing to be insensitive to Palestinian suffering—enjoys wide domestic and Arab support. It is viewed in the region as an attempt to block Israel’s desire to get rid of its Palestinian majority “problem,” and thus as a nationalistic move. It is also a position supported by the Palestinians themselves, despite their current and potential suffering at the hands of the Israeli occupation. A redline with such wide domestic, Palestinian, and Arab support is unlikely to change, even if the Hamas war spreads. (Ref. 5)

  3. "Palestinian refugees with Jordanian citizenship are 'self-identifying' as refugees even if they aren't refugees any more."

    No. An important point to note here is that all this happened before 1951 - before the Refugee Convention was created and adopted by the UN.

    Palestinian refugees in Jordan have a unique legal position. Unlike the other states hosting Palestinians within the UNRWA mandate area, many Palestinians in Jordan have full citizenship rights, including the right to vote. ... UN General Assembly Resolution 194 recognizes only repatriation or compensation as permanent solutions to the Palestinian refugee problem. Citizenship in another country, therefore, does not terminate refugee status as it would for other refugee groups covered by the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol. The UN Refugee Convention excludes Palestinians who were already under UNRWA's mandate in 1951. (Ref. 6)

    It is true that Jordan granted Palestinian refugees Jordanian citizenship. But it was a conditional citizenship because many Palestinian refugees didn't want to become Jordanian citizens. They worried that becoming a Jordanian citizen meant giving up their Palestinian identity and the right to return back to Palestine. To allay these fear, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolutions 194 that explicitly recognized the right of the refugees to return back to Palestine:

    1. Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible; (Ref. 7)

    Jordan's grant of citizenship to Palestinian is very much conditionally tied to this UN Resolution as the Jordan government themselves clearly say:

    The Jordanian position in this regard derives its specificity based on the unity agreement between the two banks in 1950, according to which the Palestinian refugees enjoyed Jordanian citizenship while stressing the need to preserve all Arab rights in Palestine and not to waive the rights of refugees. In this context, Jordanian citizenship was not imposed on Palestinian refugees and was not granted to them in exchange for waiving their rights as refugees.

    ... the decision to disengage from the West Bank in 1988 stressed the commitment of the Jordanian state to take care of the full rights of its citizens of refugee origin as Jordanian citizens with full citizenship rights and obligations without detracting from their rights as refugees, and to uphold their right to return and/or compensation or both in accordance with the relevant resolutions of international legitimacy.

    ... Jordan's position on the issue of Palestinian refugees is based on the principles of international legitimacy endorsed by the charters, resolutions and customs of the United Nations in its various bodies, and demands Jordan to implement UN Resolution No. 194 " The Return and compensation of Palestinian refugees or as the refugees themselves choose ". (Ref. 8)

    That the Jordanian citizenship is conditional is apparent as Jordan has withdrawn the citizenship granted to many Palestinian refugees for various reasons, and has even invited criticism from Human Rights organisation for this:

    In July 1988, at the height of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli military occupation, the late King Hussein decided to sever "administrative and legal" ties with the West Bank ... One consequence of this severing of ties with the West Bank was that Jordanians of Palestinian origin residing in the West Bank at that time lost their Jordanian nationality ... Hundreds of thousands of Jordanians of Palestinian origin appear liable to have their national number revoked ... Officials base withdrawal of nationality on the 1988 severance of ties with the West Bank. They also claim that League of Arab States decisions prohibit dual Arab nationality and that Palestinians may thus not hold Jordanian nationality too. (Ref. 9)

    (Interview: Jordan revoking citizenship from Palestinian refugees offers more insight on the revocation of citizenship of Palestinian refugees in Jordan).

    The Jordan - Israel peace agreement also includes a clause that Israel will not block the return of the refugees. But later Israeli governments changed their mind on this, and one of their major diplomatic goals has been to somehow force Jordan to de-recognize the refugee status of Palestinians in Jordan so that Jordan is forced to absorb them into their country. Jordan has repeatedly refused to do so:

    US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace envoy and son-in-law Jared Kushner has reportedly asked Jordan to withdraw the refugee status of the more than two million Palestinians living in the country. The revelations prompted condemnation in Jordan on Saturday ... Several Palestinian-Jordanian community leaders refused to comment ... They said surrendering the right of return of Palestinian refugees, enshrined not only by the UN but by a declaration by King Abdullah I in 1948, is so objectionable to the Arab public across the region it is “political suicide”. (Ref. 10)

References:

  1. 1951 Refugee Convention
  2. Refugee Facts (UN)
  3. Refugees
  4. Jordan, Egypt Won’t Take Palestinian Refugees, King Says
  5. Jordan’s Redline on Admitting Palestinians Is Unlikely to Change
  6. U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Jordan
  7. UNGA Resolution 194 (III)
  8. Jordan's position on Palestinian Refugee's issue
  9. Stateless Again - Palestinian-Origin Jordanians Deprived of their Nationality
  10. Jordan warns of 'serious consequences' of revoking Palestinian refugee status
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    The State of Palestine is also recognized by the United Nations. - apart from non-binding resolutions, Palestinian state has only observer status. Unrelated, but worth noting is that the Palestinian application for the UN membership is based in 1967 borders, and the UN considers PA as the sole representative of the Palestinian people - all this is rejected by Hamas. Jan 8 at 11:59
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    For the last list could you add some references, especially where intentions are stated. For example the statement "Arab countries refuse to grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees because they know Israel wants to drive out Arabs...." could have many other proposed reasons for why Arab countries refuse citizenship to Palestinians. It would be nice to have a citation to prove this is the reason given by all Arab countries that do this. Jan 8 at 12:09
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    @LioElbammalf For the original question, namely whether these people are refugees or not, it doesn't matter why Arab countries refuse to grant citizenship but only that they do.
    – quarague
    Jan 8 at 12:55
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    @quarague Certainly it isn't necessary, but if it is stated it should be backed up. For example if someone posted an identical answer but saying Arab countries don't grant citizenship because they view Palestinians as less valuable members of society (or some similar opinion) perhaps you could see how we would want to know where that claim was stemming from. Jan 8 at 13:14
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    @quarague citizenship is obviously not the decisive factor here - 2 millions of Palestinians in Jordan do have citizenship, but still considered refugees, as discussed in the OP. Jan 8 at 13:14
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To understand why, Arab/Palestinian refugees are so special, we need to understand that these refugees have the special UN agency UNRWA, different from all the other refugees being handled by UNHCR.

The concept of the Arab (and after 1964, Palestinian) refugee is a tool created to put political and economic pressure on Israel. Unfortunately, it has adversely affected the refugee people themselves, as they can not obtain citizenship of their neighboring countries.

By migrating further to non-Arab countries, the refugee status is lost, and the "refugees" become regular citizens in those countries (e.g., and a longer list).

These are the only types of refugees in the world who get to pass refugee status from one generation to the next.

Palestinians do not fear Israel. In fact, many Palestinians marry Israel citizens and eventually obtain Israeli citizenship (see Al-Jazeera). Then, I assume, they lose their refugee status.

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    added link to Wikipedia, which also states "During the period of the British Mandate, the term Palestinian was also used to describe the Jewish community living in Palestine. "
    – dEmigOd
    Jan 8 at 19:59
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    Voting to delete - Please refrain from commenting on other answers in your post as SEs are not a discussion platform but a Q&A platform. If you have issues with any answer, use the comments to convey them. See this answer to learn more - tex.meta.stackexchange.com/a/8986
    – sfxedit
    Jan 9 at 0:26
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    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review
    – sfxedit
    Jan 9 at 0:26
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    @sfxedit Referencing and taking into account the content of other answers in your answer is perfectly valid. Even though we are not a discussion forum, material in other parts of this site is a source as any other source. On the contrary, comments should only be used for clarification, not for discussing contents (although they are often used as such). But one should pay attention to not create ad hominem attacks, i.e. I often concentrate on statements in other answers if for example I think they are wrong. Jan 9 at 7:42
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    @NoDataDumpNoContribution Referencing and taking into account the content of other answers in your answer is perfectly valid. I agree it is acceptable, if done appropriately. If a large part of your answer is actually in the referenced answer, then it is just better to mark the question as a duplicate. Mostly, SE prefers that an answer should be an independent resource of its own. I often concentrate on statements in other answers if ... I think they are wrong - I do too but first I comment on the answer to create awareness, and if OP disagree or doesn't change, then I post a new answer.
    – sfxedit
    Jan 9 at 17:05

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