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  • Negotiating Rights:Palestinian Refugees and the Protection Gap
  • Nell Gabiam


It is common knowledge that vulnerable populations such as refugees, minorities and the poor are usually at a disadvantage when it comes to the protection of their rights as human beings in the face of imminent danger (recent media-grabbing examples are the victims of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the violence in Darfur). The American invasion of Iraq in March of 2003 has led the country into a spiral of violence that has swept up Iraqi citizens as well as foreign nationals. Among those considered "foreigners" are Palestinian refugees, who are encountering growing hostility from some sections of the Iraqi population and have become the target of violence from Iraqi militias. To make the situation worse, it has now become extremely hard—almost impossible—for Palestinians fleeing growing threats and danger in Iraq to receive asylum in neighboring countries. The current situation of Palestinians in Iraq is particularly illustrative of the way in which politics, identity and the concept of international human rights have colluded to create what has been referred to by some as a "protection gap" for Palestinian refugees (Akram and Rempel 2004). In the following pages, I attempt to disentangle the above mentioned triad and use it as an analytical tool for reflection [End Page 717] on the place of human rights in the current world system, especially as it relates to Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian Refugees and Protection: A Historical Overview

During the period of 1947 to 1949 which saw the creation of the state of Israel and fighting of Palestinians and neighboring Arab states against Zionist armies, roughly 750,0001 Palestinian inhabitants of Mandate Palestine became refugees. Leaving their homes and most of their possessions behind, the majority of refugees feld to the neighboring states of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, as well as to other parts of Mandate Palestine, namely the West Bank and Gaza. A small number went to Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya and Saudi Arabia. There are now more than 4 million registered Palestinian refugees, most of whom continue to live in Arab host states.2

In May of 1948, the United Nations General Assembly tried to facilitate a political solution between the parties involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to provide a resolution of the refugee issue by appointing Count Folke Bernadotte as UN Mediator for Palestine. In September of that year, Bernadotte concluded that the exodus of Palestinian Arabs resulted from "the panic created by fighting in their communities, by rumors concerning real or alleged acts of terrorism, or expulsion" (quoted in Takkenberg 1998:14).3 After Bernadotte's assassination in September 1948, the United Nations adopted Resolution 194 in December of that same year, recognizing the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and to compensation for their lost or damaged property. However, Israel refused to allow the mass repatriation of Palestinian refugees (Morris 1987; Takkenberg 1998). On December 11th 1948, the UN established the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP). The UNCCP had a protection mandate with regard to Palestinian refugees and was to continue with political mediation towards a resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and the ensuing refugee crisis. UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, was established a year later in December 1949, to assist refugees with their immediate needs, while the UNCCP continued to look for durable solutions for their plight (Takkenberg 1998).

Although the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, was established in December 1950 to assist all refugees, Palestinian refugees were not absorbed into it. Delegates from the international community, writing what would become known as the 1951 Refugee Convention on [End Page 718] the Status of Refugees, felt that "it was both unnecessary and unadvisable" to include Palestinian refugees into the Convention (Akram and Rempel 2004:56). The delegates pointed to the fact that Palestinian refugees were already benefiting from a special protection regime through their ties with UNRWA and the UNCCP. They also believed the Palestinian case to be so unique that including Palestinians into general refugee protection policy would actually award...


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