United Nations Creates an Agency to Aid Palestinian Refugees Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Lack of political will to find a permanent solution to the problems of Palestinian refugees led to the establishment of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. The agency attempted to ameliorate the suffering caused by the Palestinians’ refugee status.

Summary of Event

The Palestinian refugees are a primarily Arab population who have been uprooted from their homes and land by the wars and political problems that have plagued the Middle East since the partition of Palestine in 1947. Of more than one million people in Palestine at that time, approximately two-thirds were rural peasants and one-third were professionals, landlords, small traders, and artisans. Refugees;Palestinians UNRWA United Nations;refugee aid programs Palestinian diaspora Israel;displacement of Palestinians [kw]United Nations Creates an Agency to Aid Palestinian Refugees (Dec. 9, 1949) [kw]Agency to Aid Palestinian Refugees, United Nations Creates an (Dec. 9, 1949) [kw]Palestinian Refugees, United Nations Creates an Agency to Aid (Dec. 9, 1949) [kw]Refugees, United Nations Creates an Agency to Aid Palestinian (Dec. 9, 1949) Refugees;Palestinians UNRWA United Nations;refugee aid programs Palestinian diaspora Israel;displacement of Palestinians [g]North America;Dec. 9, 1949: United Nations Creates an Agency to Aid Palestinian Refugees[03040] [g]United States;Dec. 9, 1949: United Nations Creates an Agency to Aid Palestinian Refugees[03040] [c]United Nations;Dec. 9, 1949: United Nations Creates an Agency to Aid Palestinian Refugees[03040] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 9, 1949: United Nations Creates an Agency to Aid Palestinian Refugees[03040] [c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;Dec. 9, 1949: United Nations Creates an Agency to Aid Palestinian Refugees[03040] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Dec. 9, 1949: United Nations Creates an Agency to Aid Palestinian Refugees[03040] Balfour, Arthur Bernadotte, Folke Bunche, Ralph Shertok, Moshe

The area that is now Israel came under the control of the United Kingdom through a mandate Palestinian mandate Mandates, territorial of the League of Nations League of Nations after World War I. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, designed by British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, promised a national home to world Jewry at an unspecified future date. The United Kingdom continued to control the area under the mandate until 1948. On May 14, 1948, the British terminated the mandate and left the newly created United Nations with the problem of creating a Jewish state amid the Palestinian Arabs. There had been U.N. discussion of the problem prior to termination of the British mandate. The United Nations decided in November, 1947, to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and a much larger Arab state.

Palestinian Arabs feared for their safety within a Jewish state. Hostilities between Israeli and Arab forces began in 1948. The initial exodus of refugees that began in November, 1947, continued until March. Middle- and upper-class Arabs fled from Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa. This flight triggered exodus from rural areas as well. Arabs became increasingly unsure that the Arab forces that had intruded into Palestine would be able to protect them from Jewish forces, which in turn attempted to preserve Jewish populations from Arab attacks.

In the second phase of the mass exodus, from April, 1948, to May 14, 1948—the expiration of the British mandate—between 200,000 and 300,000 Arabs left. Jewish defense plans called for securing the rear of their state’s territory and its main roads against subversion. During this time, Israel received somewhere near 300,000 Jewish immigrants, whose resettlement in Arab property coincided with the mass exodus of Arabs.

Israeli military operations against Arab forces in mid-July created a third surge of about 100,000 refugees. This group went mainly to eastern Palestine, upper Galilee, Lebanon, and the Egyptian portion of the Gaza Strip. The fourth major exodus of Arabs took place in October and November amid Israeli military operations in the Negev Desert and Galilee, when some 150,000 fled to Transjordan, the Gaza Strip, and the Hebron Hills. Israeli forces apparently had never been given a definite order to expel Arabs, but wartime uncertainties, atrocities, and Israeli cleanup operations achieved the same effect.

In the exodus as a whole, most northern Palestinians, from the areas surrounding Haifa, Acre, and Galilee, fled north into Syria and Lebanon. Those from the south—from Jaffa, Gaza, and the Beersheha district—crowded into the narrow Gaza Strip bordering Egypt. By the end of 1948, about 726,000 Arabs had fled, leaving another 150,000 in the new state of Israel. Another 200,000 to 250,000 who did not need relief found refuge in Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the United Arab Republic, and Syria.

The United Nations had appointed Folke Bernadotte, a Swede, as a mediator in the area on the eve of the British mandate’s expiration. He was to supervise a cease-fire between the Arabs and Israelis and promote a peaceful resolution of their dispute. Almost from the date of the British mandate’s expiration, Bernadotte pressured the Israeli government to admit the right of return to a substantial number of refugees.

Repatriation and resettlement of refugees quickly became a major problem for the United Nations. Only Transjordan, where most of the refugees (about one-half million) took refuge, granted them citizenship. Other governments, such as those of Lebanon and Egypt, did not want to incorporate large bodies of foreigners into their systems, for political and other reasons.

There were fundamental differences of belief between the Israelis and the United Nations concerning the causes and solution of the mass exodus. Israeli foreign minister Moshe Shertok told Bernadotte in July, 1948, that war had brought the refugee problem in its wake. Bernadotte, though, reported to the United Nations in September that he believed the exodus to have been a result of panic caused by fighting in Arab countries and by rumors of alleged or real acts of Israeli terrorism and expulsion. Bernadotte thought that the solution to the problem lay in repatriating refugees. The Israeli government, however, denied having expelled the Arabs and consequently refused to shoulder the responsibility of repatriation. The Israeli government stood ready to aid in the resettlement of refugees in neighboring countries, rather than in Israel itself.

By October, the refugee situation was critical, according to Ralph Bunche, who had become the acting mediator after Bernadotte’s assassination by a Jewish terrorist group that objected to his support of the Arab refugees. Urgent measures were needed to avert starvation and other distress. Voluntary relief organizations, Humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and America Friends Service Committee, and U.N. agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N. International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) were already active. On November 19, the United Nations created the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees (UNRPR) program for the purposes of coordinating relief activities and raising funds for relief operations. Relief operations themselves were left, as before, to the voluntary agencies.

A potentially far more important decision was made by the U.N. General Assembly. Basing its decision on Bernadotte’s final progress report, it recognized the right of refugees to return to their land, now part of Israel, or to receive compensation for their property if they chose not to return. To attend to the problems of compensation or repatriation of refugees, the General Assembly on December 11 created the Conciliation Commission for Palestine Conciliation Commission for Palestine (CCP). The CCP was to work for conciliation between the Arabs and Israel and to form plans for economic development, repatriation, and rehabilitation of refugees or for payment of compensation. Few refugees, however, had ever been ready to take compensation. On the other hand, Israel rejected all appeals for refugee resettlement in its territory or land it had subsequently annexed. This was the primary impasse necessitating a permanent U.N. agency to attend to long-term needs of refugees. The United Nations had no enforcement mechanism behind its demands.

For all practical purposes, any long-term solution to the refugee problem meant a gradual integration of refugees into the economic life of their host countries, many of whom themselves occupied areas of Palestine formerly slated for independence. In August, 1949, the CCP set up the U.N. Economic Survey Mission Economic Survey Mission, U.N. Clapp Mission (the Clapp Mission) to survey the prospects of such a long-term solution. The Clapp Mission recommended the establishment of a new agency to attend to the long-term objectives of the refugees. This agency would formulate its own plans and execute them with proper funding and would not simply coordinate the activities of other relief organizations. Such an agency could concern itself directly with the affairs of the refugees.

The General Assembly voted to establish the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) on December 9, 1949. The UNRWA was to be a specialized organization separate from other relief agencies and headed by a director appointed by the secretary-general of the United Nations in consultation with an advisory commission comprising representatives of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Turkey. The agency’s director was to report annually to the General Assembly on progress in the agency’s mission of negotiating to obtain employment for refugees within their host countries, among other resettlement aims.


Few problems in international affairs proved as intractable as the resettlement of Palestinian refugees. The United Nations foresaw the difficulties in the way of a quick settlement of the problem when it entrusted the UNRWA first to attend to urgent relief work and then to evolve its works and rehabilitation program.

When early resolution of the problem became recognized as an unrealistic goal, the UNRWA concentrated its energies on long-term educational projects for refugees—general education for youngsters and technical, vocational, and teachers’ training for adults. These projects would continue for more than forty years. More than 60 percent of the UNRWA budget was allocated to such projects, with relief and health services accounting for about 30 percent. The UNRWA depended for its smooth operation on regular financing, mostly through voluntary contributions, and peaceful conditions. Both of these conditions failed to be met on occasion, forcing the agency temporarily to suspend or curtail operations.

Refugees at first took shelter in temporary camps and housing. Many had moved out of Palestine in communities and migrated as such to towns and villages, taking refuge in mosques, churches, schools, and abandoned buildings. They settled in overcrowded, often unsanitary housing with poor ventilation and little privacy. Often, several families were housed in one room, with nothing more than sacks or similar hangings partitioning them in their corners. All activities of daily life were performed in these cramped spaces.

The physical condition of the refugees improved once housing, relief, and sanitation projects of the UNRWA were put into organized operation in different host countries. Basic rations were distributed and medical services rendered in clinics and hospitals set up by the UNRWA.

The physical loss of the refugees’ homes and land has been compounded by their fear about the future. The refusal of the Israeli government to resettle the refugees in its territory has been only one side of the problem. The other side has been that the refugees are reluctant to settle permanently in their host countries for fear of losing their right to their homes. For the Palestinian leadership the continuation of refugee camps served as a visible and useful political tool in its propaganda war. Logistically, nothing prevented their resettlement or improvement of their condition. This has kept the crisis alive into a second and third generation of refugees. Their realization that a solution will be harder to find as time passes has added to their bitterness and frustration, which has erupted from time to time into open revolt and violence directed against the Israeli government.

In spite of financial constraints and political uncertainties, the UNRWA has by and large fulfilled its limited mission. It has managed a situation of seemingly permanent crisis. The resolution of the crisis, which depends on political will, has lain outside the scope of its operation. Refugees;Palestinians UNRWA United Nations;refugee aid programs Palestinian diaspora Israel;displacement of Palestinians

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernadotte, Folke. To Jerusalem. London: Fodder & Stoughton, 1951. Posthumously published diary of the principal U.N. mediator. Shows his determination to succeed in the difficult task of monitoring the cease-fire during the turbulent times between July and September, 1948. Appendixes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chaliand, Gerard. The Palestine Resistance. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1972. Although mainly dealing with Palestinian resistance efforts against Israeli authorities, this work includes an informative chapter on the refugees and the role of the UNRWA in Arab countries outside Palestine. Includes an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frank, Mitch. Understanding the Holy Land: Answering Questions About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. New York: Viking Press, 2005. An introductory overview of the conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis, placed in the context of Middle East politics. Includes many relevant maps, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fullerton, Maryellen. “The International and National Protection of Refugees.” In Guide to International Human Rights Practice, edited by Hurst Hannum. 4th ed. Ardsley, N.Y.: Transnational, 2004. Examines the international community’s role in protecting political and other refugees. Recommended for study of the legal implications of refugee status and human rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hadawi, Sami. Bitter Harvest: A History of Modern Palestine. New York: Olive Branch Press, 1983. Historical account of the Palestinian problem from the expiration of the British mandate until the start of the West Bank uprising. Contains a useful chapter on refugees. The narration is charged with emotion, and is forceful yet judiciously documented. The author, an Arab activist, has firsthand experience of the refugee problem. Bibliography, index, and appendix containing important documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. In-depth study of the origins and development of the refugee problem, largely documented from both official and unofficial Israeli sources. Holds a different view of the origin of the refugee problem from that of Michael Palumbo, namely that it was a result of the Arab-Israeli war and later accelerated by deliberate expulsion. Contains an important note on the controversy over the number of refugees, bibliography of primary and secondary sources, maps, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______.“Operation Dani and the Palestinian Exodus from Lydda and Ramle in 1948.” Middle Eastern Journal 40 (1986): 82-109. A graphic account of how two towns in Palestine were attacked in July, 1948, and their people expelled. Morris exonerates the Israeli cabinet, laying the blame largely on defense forces.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Palumbo, Michael. The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1949 Expulsion of a People from Their Homeland. London: Faber & Faber, 1987. A forceful narration of how the Palestinian problem arose, with a brief note on the developments during the years before World War II. According to Palumbo, displacement of Palestinians was done in a planned way to make room for a Jewish state. Contains extensive notes on primary sources, maps, sketches, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quigley, John. Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990. The author takes a stand on the refugee question similar to Palumbo’s, but he adds emphasis on implications of the refugees’ status in international law. Includes developments such as the uprising on the West Bank and suggestions on the United Nations’ role in the refugees’ right of self-determination. Bibliography, notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Charles D. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. A chronological history of Palestine from Roman times to Camp David and beyond. The refugee problem is put in the historical context of international politics. The author finds no possible solution. Valuable for historical perspective. Select bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    The State of the World’s Refugees, 2006: Human Displacement in the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. A 237-page report by the UNHCR. Focuses on the ongoing task of the agency for the new century and beyond.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thicknesse, S. G. Arab Refugees. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1949. Dated but useful survey of the refugee problem, written soon after the initial conflict in Palestine between Arabs and Israelis. In view of the difficulties of resettling refugees in Palestine, the author considers the possibility of resettlement in Jordan and other friendly Arab countries. Maps and appendix.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations. The Right of Return of the Palestinian Refugees. New York: Author, 1978. Brief and cogent argument from the United Nations, based on refugee rights in international law and according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other documents. Gives a brief overview of the origins of the Palestinian exodus and the role of the Conciliation Commission in attaining the refugee rehabilitation. Section on the legal and political obstacles of refugee return. List of U.N. resolutions from 1950 to 1977 affirming the right of return. Appendix and bibliography.

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Palestinian Refugees Form the Palestine Liberation Organization

Categories: History