The enduring Palestine refugee crisis: from Nakba to Sheikh Jarrah to Gaza

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Seventy-three years after more than 700,000 Palestinians became refugees following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, the loss of their homeland and dispossession of their property continues. The consequences of what the Palestinians consider as the “Nakba “ - and the plight of Palestine refugees - is not only ongoing but exacerbated by the complex political environments where they have taken refuge, pending a just solution. As of 14 May 2021, following the recent escalation in hostilities, more than 38,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are internally displaced as they flee Israeli airstrikes and seek shelter in UNRWA schools and elsewhere, while Palestinian casualties, including children, have climbed past 180 (UN OCHA oPt).

At the same time, eight Palestine refugee families who have lived for decades in in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, within the occupied Palestinian territory, continue to face imminent forced eviction, placing them at higher risk of forced transfer.

This latest escalation of violence and threat of dispossession is part of the ongoing Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic. For the last 73 years, Palestine refugees have remained a scattered people, further displaced by conflicts, blockaded and living under occupation, deprived of rights and fervently longing for a resolution of their exile and dispossession.

Neither the imminent forced evictions of the Sheikh Jarrah residents nor the ongoing airstrikes on Gaza—one of the most densely populated areas on earth—are isolated incidents.

Across East Jerusalem, nearly a thousand Palestinians, almost half of whom are children, are at risk of forced eviction (UN OCHA). In many of those cases, including the case of Sheikh Jarrah, the forced eviction of Palestinians is occurring within the context of Israeli settlement construction and expansion, illegal under international humanitarian law.

In the Gaza Strip, where approximately 70 per cent of the population are Palestine refugees, the latest bombardment is being carried out as the besieged coastal enclave enters the 14th year of a blockade, which may amount to collective punishment contrary international law. The blockade has devastated lives, infrastructure and the economy through the restriction of movement of people and goods. This is exacerbated by the closures and restrictions at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Israel. This is also the fourth major escalation in hostilities since 2008 on the Gaza Strip. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially among children, are astronomical. Physical infrastructure, including power plants and hospitals, have either been destroyed or disabled by past bombing campaigns, leaving the trapped population virtually resourceless in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As the number of casualties and internally displaced people climbs, they are left to shelter in UNRWA schools, in mosques and other places during a global COVID-19 pandemic with limited access to water, food, hygiene, and health services (UN OCHA oPt).

With UNRWA schools opened to shelter and assist Gazans fleeing bombardment or who became homeless overnight. The Agency yet again appeals to all parties to exercise maximum restraint and comply with their obligations under International Law in the strictest terms, including with regard to protecting the inherent right to life of Palestinians and respecting the inviolability and neutrality of UNRWA premises to ensure the safety of all those sheltering there.

UNRWA remains unwavering in our commitment to serving Palestine refugees in this time of crisis. In the coming days and weeks, we will work to deliver vital food and health services, including psychosocial support, to those who need it most. Please support Palestine refugees. Please donate today.