The Palestinian Refugees

The United Nations office in Amman that administers to the needs of more than one million Palestinian refugees is situated in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of stone villas, whose roofs are dotted with TV antennas modeled after the Eiffel Tower. The neighborhood is one of several well-to-do suburban developments built in Amman during the oil boom years of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of the residents of these neighborhoods are Palestinian refugees who fled or who were driven from their homes by Jewish forces during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Among the Arab states, only Jordan offered Palestinian refugees citizenship and encouraged them to integrate into Jordanian society. Palestinians now make up more than 60 percent of the population, and they have helped to transform Jordan from a desert backwater to a modern nation-state.

Not all Palestinians in Jordan are prosperous. Some forty years after the Palestinians’ mass exodus, more than 214,000, or about 25 percent of the Palestinians in Jordan, are still living in Jordan’s ten refugee camps, where the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) provides basic services such as housing, health care, and education. Central to UNRWA’s work in Amman is a cramped, musty room filled with rows of battered steel file cabinets containing the case history and current status of each of the refugee families in Jordan. The UNRWA “investigation fact sheets,” as they are called, detail the name, age, and occupation of the family head, the names of his wife and children, if any, and the circumstances of their flight from Palestine. The files are routinely updated to include births, deaths, and marriages as well as the family’s financial status.

Children born to refugee parents are also considered refugees by UNRWA. Therefore, the Palestinian refugee population has grown enormously, now numbering some 2.3 million people in the regions adjoining Israel. More than 800,000, or about 35 percent of the Palestinians registered as refugees with UNRWA, live in sixty-one camps in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Though built in the late 1940s and early 1950s as temporary housing, the camps have turned into permanent shantytowns, in which the atmosphere is one of intense Palestinian nationalism. Palestinian refugee families that are relatively well-off may continue to live in the camps if they choose to do so, but they are not entitled to receive many UNRWA benefits.

In the UNRWA records room in Amman last November I was allowed to read the case files of refugees at random. One case that resembled many others was that of Khamis Kassas, a Jaffa mechanic who was forty in 1948, when he fled his three-room apartment together with his wife and two children, Khalil, thirteen, and Mohammed, eleven. Khalil was accompanied by his twelve-year-old wife, Kamleh.

Jaffa, then the largest Arab city in Palestine with a population of some 70,000, had been designated by the United Nations to become part of the proposed Palestinian-Arab …

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