Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

“Palestine” Refugees or “Palestinian” Refugees?

Filed under: International Law, Palestinians

“Palestine” Refugees or “Palestinian” Refugees?
UN General Assembly meeting, 1949. (UN Library) For the “relief of Palestine refugees of all communities.”

Andi Pacurar and Adir Bar Yohanan

UNRWA was founded in 1949 as the “United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees” through UN General Assembly Resolution 302 as a direct continuation of the “United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees” (UNRPR), itself founded similarly just a year previously.

The express purpose for which the UNRPR and UNRWA were constituted is the “relief of Palestine refugees of all communities“ (UNGA 212 (III), para 1).

The wording of the General Assembly is, as usual, a highly negotiated element and, as such, care should be maintained as to its proper citation. In this sense, while popular, it is incorrect to refer to UNRWA as “established for the benefit of Palestinian refugees” since the founding document never used the adjective “Palestinian” but rather the proper noun ”Palestine.”

This is particularly important as the adjective has since become a noun itself ­– “Palestinian,” “Palestinians” – and, moreover, has changed its meaning from “an inhabitant of Mandate Palestine” (of whatever creed or ethnicity) to “a person or descendant of an Arab/Muslim inhabitant of Mandate Palestine.”

This change in meaning has occurred over time – and possibly operated not without intent by a series of individuals and bodies whose aim was to cover up the diversion of funds dedicated to the UNRPR/UNRWA for relief of all communities to the exclusive benefit of the Arabs of Mandate Palestine. The process has also had the possibly similarly not unintended consequence of attempting to deny indigenousness to Mandate (or historic) Palestine to all other communities but the Arab/Muslim one.

In order to correct this, the proper terminology, “Palestine refugees”, should be reinstated and any reference to UNRWA should include, or possibly even highlight, a recall of its mandate to care for the relief of “all communities,” including Jews, Druze, Circassians, Assyrians, Armenians, etc.

* * *

Amb. Alan Baker Responds

The reason we have consistently refrained from using the word “Palestine” in any context, at least since the mid-1950s, is the connotation given to it, meaning the Palestinian state. If we use the term, it’s tantamount to our acceptance and recognition of the state.

Even the 10 September 1993 Rabin letter to Arafat accompanying the Oslo Accords refers to the “Palestinian Liberation Organization” in order to avoid using the word Palestine. There was considerable discussion about this with Rabin and Peres.

For this reason, while theoretically Andi Pacurar and Adir Bar Yochanan are correct in their observation, Abu Mazen, Saeb Erekat and their ilk would be the first to welcome it.

In any event, Resolution 242 refers to “the just solution to the refugee problem,” which we in Israel have always claimed to mean all refugees – Jewish ones as well.

It should always be remembered that a Palestinian state has never existed. Prior to 1967 the West Bank was under Jordanian rule while the Gaza Strip was run by the Egyptian military. Using the term “Palestine” leads to confusion about that fact.