The core perspective of this post is to question what developments in the statelessness field we are missing by sidelining the Palestinians. Before doing so however it is important to make several things clear about the Palestinians. First, approximately 5 million Palestinians are de jure stateless as defined by Article 1(1) of the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (1954 Convention), as “people who are not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law” - the Palestinian Occupied Territories not yet having attained the status of a state. Those Palestinians who have acquired nationality of somewhere else are not included in this definition. (Any reference to ‘the Palestinians’ hereafter will refer exclusively to these five million de jure stateless Palestinians). Second, the Palestinians have remained stateless since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Third, the Palestinians continue to suffer greatly due to their statelessness, though this differs depending on the country in which they find themselves. Their situation is intricate, highly politically charged and emotive.
Despite the Palestinians being such a significant stateless group they are excluded from the statelessness discourse. Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories are in the Middle East, as are most of the states where the majority of the Palestinians can be found. In spite of this they are rarely mentioned in regional reports on statelessness, or they are highlighted as a special case, amalgamated and homogenised into a separate regional issue and detached from the national contexts where they are found. They have even been afforded their own United Nations (UN) body namely the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which facilitates further justification of their exclusion. International organisations, non-governmental organisations and individual advocates specialising on statelessness shy away from the Palestinians for various reasons that shall be left for future posts. Yet, despite these concerns the Palestinians are stateless and they need to be considered as such. As will be drawn out below, this is because by excluding the Palestinians from the statelessness discourse we are missing a significant opportunity to learn from their situation and further develop theoretical and pragmatic aspects of addressing statelessness for the Palestinians as well as other stateless groups. The Palestinians, as such a significant stateless population, should therefore be repositioned to have a more prominent role in the dialogue on statelessness, rather than being continuously pushed to the periphery. While this post is not the place to produce a comprehensive list of the possible opportunities to advance the statelessness field through a better understanding of the Palestinians as seen through the analytical lens of statelessness, a few examples can highlight this perspective.
Let us begin by considering UNRWA. The role of UNRWA has meant that the Palestinians are excluded from assistance and protection under the 1954 Convention in the countries where UNRWA operates and that the Palestinians do not generally receive assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) except when they are outside of UNRWA’s areas of operation. This is a unique opportunity for reflection, as no other stateless population has its own dedicated UN body to identify, assist and protect them. While there are criticisms of the low level of provision, there are also claims that the Palestinians are relatively privileged because of the organisations existence. UNRWA was a response to a refugee situation that turned into a statelessness problem. The organisation has had to adapt to its changing role, how successfully it has done this with regards to the statelessness of the Palestinians needs further analysis. UNRWA is a leviathan, facing a constant struggle to maintain funding levels, while providing assistance and protection to millions of Palestinians and employing a huge number of the stateless population over whom they have a mandate. We should consider what we can learn from UNRWA about having dedicated UN agencies for large stateless populations. How have they performed in terms of identification, assistance, protection and finding a solution to statelessness? Would division of responsibility of the stateless into smaller UN agencies be a suitable and sustainable model for the future of addressing statelessness? I would say that if we critically reflect on UNRWA, the answer would have to be no. If this reflection leads to us discrediting UNRWA in terms of addressing statelessness maybe it is time to consider merging the mandates of the UNHCR and UNRWA. While being aware of the difficulties of taking such drastic action, we have to at least consider the positive outcomes that could arise from this such as reducing duplication of services, reducing funding concerns, and potentially being able to provide greater levels of assistance to the Palestinians as well as other stateless groups.
Second, in terms of addressing statelessness we cannot artificially push the Palestinians to the side because in fact the statelessness of the Palestinians, in many countries, is not neatly compartmentalised, affecting non-Palestinian spouses and children as well as being used in the political discourse to resist progressive nationality laws that would prevent and/or reduce statelessness more broadly. To more holistically approach statelessness in these contexts, should we not integrate the Palestinians situation into our rhetoric on statelessness? Are we harming rather than helping the wider stateless population by excluding them, theoretically as well as pragmatically? We can only begin to fully explore all of our options for addressing statelessness by acknowledging the statelessness of the Palestinians in the general discourse on the issue.
Third, it is worth noting that while two stateless situations never arise out of identical circumstances, and thus the reaction from the international community and non-governmental organisations is always different, it can be generally acknowledged that the response for the Palestinians, in terms of the international community particularly, has been woefully inadequate. On a more theoretical level we can use the case of the protracted statelessness of the Palestinians to consider the mechanisms of how large scale statelessness happens and why nation-states should try to stop this from happening again. For example a better understanding of how statelessness relates to national and regional instability could be a vital advocacy tool to take to governments to encourage changing their nationality laws or to convince them not to denaturalise members of their population. The means by which some of the Palestinians have turned their statelessness into an instrument for empowerment to hold onto their political claims, and how other groups could utilize this strategy would also be an interesting area of research. By looking into the differing conceptions of citizenship and nationality we can also be better placed to address statelessness especially if we compare the Palestinians to other large stateless communities, such as the Bidoon of Kuwait or the Rohingya of Burma. By excluding the Palestinians we are not only doing a disservice to the statelessness discourse, but also to the Palestinians themselves. This disservice can however be reversed through their incorporation into the discourse.
The aforementioned are briefly explored examples of the potential theoretical and pragmatic ideas that we are failing to fully utilise by not embracing the Palestinians for what they are, namely a large and protracted stateless population that should be considered as such. We can not limit our understanding of the tools and methods for addressing statelessness by excluding the Palestinians from the discourse. I argue that through the incorporation of the Palestinians we would be better appointed to tackle statelessness in all its forms, including for the Palestinians themselves.
Jason Tucker, PhD researcher University of Bath and Visiting Scholar at the Statelessness Programme, Tilburg Law School