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Palestinians Born in Exile

Palestinians Born in Exile
Diaspora and the Search for a Homeland

This original ethnography records the experiences of Palestinians born in exile who have emigrated to the Palestinian homeland.

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January 2005
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287 pages | 6 x 9 |

In the decade following the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, some 100,000 diasporic Palestinians returned to the West Bank and Gaza. Among them were children and young adults who were born in exile and whose sense of Palestinian identity was shaped not by lived experience but rather through the transmission and re-creation of memories, images, and history. As a result, "returning" to the homeland that had never actually been their home presented challenges and disappointments for these young Palestinians, who found their lifeways and values sometimes at odds with those of their new neighbors in the West Bank and Gaza.

This original ethnography records the experiences of Palestinians born in exile who have emigrated to the Palestinian homeland. Juliane Hammer interviews young adults between the ages of 16 and 35 to learn how their Palestinian identity has been affected by living in various Arab countries or the United States and then moving to the West Bank and Gaza. Their responses underscore how much the experience of living outside of Palestine has become integral to the Palestinian national character, even as Palestinians maintain an overwhelming sense of belonging to one another as a people.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction: Palestinian Migration, Refugees, and Return
  • 2. Palestinian National Identity, Memory, and History
  • 3. The Country of My Dreams
  • 4. Return to Palestine: Dreams and Realities
  • 5. The Return Process in Comparison
  • 6. Rewriting of Identities in the Context of Diaspora and Return
  • 7. Home and the Future of Palestinian Identities
  • Epilogue
  • Appendix. List of Respondents
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Juliane Hammer is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.


Migration in its various forms is a fact of the life of many people in our time. The last fifty years have seen particularly significant changes in numbers of migrants and patterns of migration. An integral part of the modern and postmodern migration debate concerns the relevance of national and local identities vis-à-vis powerful global forces and interests. Do we all live in a "world of movement"? What effect do migratory moves have on the formation and re-formation of groups and people and on their respective identities? Migration studies have analyzed different forms of voluntary and forced migration; economic, political, and social forces affecting emigration and immigration; migration strategies; the decision to migrate; and the influence of war, conflict, and social change. The ongoing globalization process has given an even newer dimension to migration, pushing the boundaries of the world to their extreme and providing the means for faster movement and communication.

Migration can be an enriching experience that introduces new ideas and concepts into a person's worldview and communal identities, opening up horizons and extending the borders of knowledge. At the same time it can lead to confrontation with others because of ethnic, cultural, and religious differences. It can also lead to a rethinking of ethnicity and therefore an interest in preserving this difference that creates boundaries and defines "otherness." Migration creates more-complex societies in which many people are not part of the nation in which they live, thus it partly accounts for the growing interest in finding one's roots and preserving family and cultural traditions (Gonzalez 1992, 27). For some migrants, movement implies transgressing the limits of their own culture and becoming comfortable with living in and between two worlds.

However, and more often, people do not move to other countries out of a desire to learn; migration is seldom a completely voluntary decision. One can identify different pressures that lead a person or family to leave their home or home country. The flight from actual dangers, such as wars, genocide, political persecution, or famine, is qualitatively distinct. However, other situations that are less threatening, if not less urgent, can thus also lead to the decision to migrate.

Migration has affected people around the globe in different ways. Many have a home and/or homeland and consider migration a choice and a blessing, not a burden. Diaspora communities and immigrants are a phenomenon concentrated in the Western world, while refugees are a problem that many Third World countries have to face on a much larger scale than does the West. The presence of others, strangers, in nation-states and societies challenges notions of national and cultural identities and questions the distribution of resources and wealth. More recently, postmodern theory has come to challenge the very notion of nationalism and national identity as historical constructions, while arguing for the relevance of localized and particular identities in the face of globalizing and unifying economic and political processes.

Palestinians look back at more than a century of migration history and more than five decades of displacement. They claim their right to an independent state and insist on their national identity. Where can they fit into this new world? Being at home or going home is something most people take for granted, but for many Palestinians having a homeland and feeling at home are not part of the daily experience. Moving, and living in places other than Palestine, has, throughout the last century, been an important feature of Palestinian life. There is not one Palestinian family that has been unaffected by this experience. Palestinians live in different corners of this world, in larger or smaller communities, but something and someone important is always missing from their lives. The longing for the absentees and communication through old and new means are an integral part of their life experiences. It is the sense of movement, the lack of stability and the quest for it, that this study attempts to capture.

This study describes the search for a homeland by a group of young Palestinians who were born and raised in the diaspora. They grew up outside Palestine and returned to their homeland as a direct or indirect result of the peace process initiated in the early 1990s. Their experiences of returning to Palestine are multifaceted and individual, and they form part of the larger Palestinian migration experience.

There is already a vast literature on Palestine and the Palestinians, so why write another book? While researching Palestinian diaspora communities and communicating with many Palestinians in different locations, I realized that Palestinians do have a sense of a shared national identity, but in reality the different groups of Palestinians know relatively little about each other. Such a situation can be an obstacle for relating to or understanding the problems of diaspora groups other than one's own. Living in different parts of the world, often out of touch with each other, has eliminated the shared daily experience. Living in different countries, cultures, and settings has produced particular lifestyles, value systems, and beliefs. Also, such factors as class, economic and legal status, and political affiliation influence every Palestinian's identity, although each has a self-perception that still pictures Palestine as one unified country with a language and cultural values, whether or not that is true of its present.

The idea for this project was born from my interaction with Palestinians over a period of almost ten years. Relations with the Palestinian community in Germany, and fieldwork in Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza and in the United States gave me insight into different processes within Palestinian society. There are two striking features of Palestinian life, one being the diversity of stories and experiences of Palestinians and the other an overwhelming sense of belonging to one another as a people.

My Palestinian friends, mostly students at that time, were politically involved and always ready to talk about politics and Palestine. Their rooms were plastered with posters and pictures of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, paintings by Palestinian artists, and old stamps and photographs of Palestine from the time of the British Mandate. Many of them had never been to Palestine themselves, but the images obviously meant something to them. I wondered what it was that tied them to a homeland they did not know. Why could they not integrate into and feel at home in any other place? Why was there this sense of bonding whenever they met a Palestinian, no matter where he or she had been raised? Why did they so often talk about loss, suffering, and feelings of homelessness and uncertainty about the future? For me, the pride they took in their material culture, such as music, poetry, dance, embroidery, and food, was unfamiliar and surprising.

Then, in the early 1990s, the peace process started, and many Palestinians abroad had high hopes for returning to their homeland sooner or later. So far, the return of the majority of the Palestinian refugees has not even been negotiated, and chances are that the issue of the right of return will pose the greatest obstacle to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for which the concerns of both the Palestinian and Israeli/Jewish diaspora will have to be taken into consideration.

Since 1993, approximately a hundred thousand Palestinians have returned to the West Bank and Gaza through a process that has disappointed most Palestinians with its premise and implementation. There are different categories of returnees, but none of them includes a large number of Palestinian refugees from the camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, or Egypt. The returnees instead include Palestinians who were working for the PLO and applied to return and work for the Palestinian Authority and/or the police forces and their families; beneficiaries of family-reunification programs; returnees from Kuwait who were expelled in the wake of the Gulf War and could enter the Palestinian territories; and Palestinians with foreign passports who individually decided to resettle in Palestine.

Indeed, the situation of returnees in Palestine is very different from that of those who return to other countries, who are usually integrated into the existing structure of the society. They do not exactly resume the role they left before emigration, but bring in new ideas and worldviews, and, if they were successful migrants, also certain financial means for reintegration. The Palestinian case saw the influx of people with a history of service to the Palestinian national movement outside Palestine who gained much power in the newly established Palestinian National Authority (PA). The debate among Palestinians about the role of the returnees in Palestinian politics, society, and the peace process was clearly an extension of the older conflict between the inside (Palestinians in Palestine) and the outside (the PLO).

The term "returnees," or Aideen, needs explanation in this context. As will become clear throughout the text, there are different types of returnees. The Arabic term `Aidin (colloquial Arabic for returnees) is, in the Palestinian context, applied only to people who returned to work for the PA. The connotation of the term is rather negative, or at least critical. Returnees as well as locals use the term either to convey this pejorative meaning or to debate it. For lack of a better word, I use the term "returnee" for all people of Palestinian origin (that is, having at least one Palestinian parent) who came back to Palestine with the intention of living there for a longer period of time. In the general understanding, the Arabic term does not apply to Palestinians who return from Western countries or from work in the Gulf.

Methodology and Sources

While studying Palestinian migration, I was startled by the fact that Palestinians all over the world have, to different degrees, managed to pass on a sense of Palestinian identity to their children since 1948. Because identity formation is a central feature of childhood and youth, I was especially interested in the experience of younger returnees. I decided to limit the scope of the study to those between sixteen and thirty-five. Another precondition for the sample group was that participants had to have been born outside Palestine.

For this group, using the word "return" is not literally accurate. Palestine is, or is considered, their homeland because one or both parents are Palestinian, but it is not a place to which they could in a physical sense "return," as they had never lived there. To them the very notion of return must be symbolic, and what they know about Palestine—how much attachment they feel to the country, the people, the nation, or the culture—is based on learning, on the transmission and re-creation of memories, images, and history.

Because it took place in other countries, not in Palestine, their youth was to a large extent defined by their migration experiences. Some were born and grew up in one place or one country, and others had a more diverse migration experience. For the former, it is the migration experience of their parents and the degree of integration, acculturation, or segregation that influence their lifestyle the most. They have had a cross-cultural upbringing and developed various degrees of cultural competence in more than one cultural setting. The other group had a migration experience that was their own, whether because their family moved during their lifetime or because they themselves made the decision to move from one place or country to another. In any case, they are distinct from people with a mono-cultural experience of childhood and adolescence in various host countries and from Palestinians in Palestine itself.

This is not a conventional study of refugees. Many Palestinians, even outside the refugee camps in the Arab world, consider themselves refugees, but the group studied here is privileged in a number of ways. Unlike many of the Palestinians in the Arab world, they and their families did not live in refugee camps. And they had the privilege of returning, a fact that contributes to their "problems" with local Palestinians and explains some of the resentment toward them.

That I interviewed teenagers and young adults is also important. All my interviewees have experienced exile mainly as children, thus their stories reflect the experience of migration and living in exile from a child's perspective. The members of this group, now only young adults or adolescents, are still in a formative phase, a stage of development in which ideas, rules, and convictions are constantly being debated and life plans change quickly, largely depending on their parents and families.

It creates a very special type of oral history to interview people of this age group, precisely because of the floating nature of their identities and the various dependencies on family and environment. They have a life ahead of them, with much more time to plan for and less that is already decided and fixed. Their oral history differs considerably from the life stories of older people who look back at a life and see their main task as making sense of what they have done and what happened to them. Younger people are able to be more flexible and to adjust to changing ideas and notions of identity. In older age the longing for stability replaces the young person's quest for change and challenge.

This study is an attempt to show the young faces of the Palestinian diaspora, those who had to create their Palestinian identity without having lived in Palestine. These young people are the generation that will decide the future of Palestine, that will implement or change the agreements and contracts made today, and that will determine whether or not the Palestinian nation as an imagined national community will survive.

I limited the scope of the study to the Ramallah/Jerusalem area for two main reasons. First, focusing on this area, where I was living at the time, provided the depth of observation necessary to evaluate and contextualize the personal interviews I conducted there. Though Palestine is a small geographical area (and the West Bank and Gaza are even smaller), the differences between towns and villages, north and south, the West Bank and Gaza are a fact and are ever-present in the minds of people living there. Second, returnees were concentrated in this area, along with Gaza, Nablus, Jericho, and Hebron, mainly because the offices and institutions of the PA were established in these areas. In addition, the presence of Birzeit University, the most prestigious Palestinian university, motivated some parents to bring their children to the Ramallah area. Many of the returnees with English-speaking children needed schools with English instruction, which existed only in the Ramallah area.

The interviews were half-structured, that is, they were designed to cover a number of topics that I would ask or try to ask about throughout all the interviews to get data that could, to some extent, be compared. The topics included the migration experience and origin of the returnee's family in Palestine; whether and how childhood was spent in one or more host countries and the involvement in a Palestinian community there; language, traditions, food, music, poetry, and fiction; Palestinian friends; the return decision; first impressions of Palestine; an evaluation of the level of integration and satisfaction with life in Palestine; and the returnee's plans for the future.

The interviews were conducted either in Arabic or in English, with the choice left entirely to the interviewees. Many of the interviews were taped, and individuals generally did not hesitate to be interviewed on the topics. Many of the interviews took place in my office in Ramallah, while some others were conducted in public places such as at the university or cafés in the area. When interviews took place in my office, there was a clear hierarchy either created or reinforced by the setting, as it was considered my space, both familiar to me and to some extent official.

I also met with a number of individuals, researchers, political activists, teachers, and returnees of the older generation to gather more background information on the situation and Palestinians' perceptions of the returnees. Officially, returnees were not a topic; thus very little material could be found in newspapers or other Palestinian publications. Only one Palestinian journal had published one issue featuring reflections by returnees (Al-Carmel 55/56, 1998).

In preparation for my fieldwork I had collected what I could find about Palestinians around the world and the developments of Palestinian national identity and the national movement; I also gathered a selection of Palestinian literature, poetry, and music. The limited number of resources on Palestinian Americans inspired me to conduct a number of interviews with young Palestinian Americans in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

A special type of material, neither a secondary source nor an empirical one, came from the Internet. The growth and accessibility of online information and communication has provided Palestinians with the opportunity to post their opinions, information about their cause, and all types of discussions on the Web and has enabled members of the diaspora to communicate across large distances. However, the Internet is not available to everyone, insofar as it requires some technical equipment, computer skills, and a command of English.

No study has yet been conducted on Palestinian representation on the Internet, but observation shows that the Internet's importance as a source of non-scholarly information for both Palestinians and interested others is growing. The Internet turns an oral source into written material in a new and interesting way; one can find memory texts, poems, opinion pieces, and articles by nonprofessional writers. Especially since 1998, the fiftieth anniversary of the Nakba, Palestinian Web sites have provided much material that is printable, but not printed in the classical sense. The Internet has also enabled Palestinians in the diaspora to track events in Palestine and to depend less on international news agencies and their selective coverage of non-domestic events, particularly in the United States.

Research of this type always creates hierarchies and involves imbalances of power. I chose the people for my study and had the power to drop them from my list. I decided what topics to talk about and how much to tell them about my research. At the same time, my potential interviewees could choose to talk to me or not. Palestinians are probably one of the best-studied national groups in contemporary area studies, and, as there are relatively few of them, many of them have experience with being interviewed or asked to participate in research. Palestinians tend to cooperate with researchers because many Palestinians know that research about their situation can help them gain the attention of the international public and thus influence political decisions in such arenas as the United Nations.

I could not totally avoid the danger of "using" the stories I collected, and thus ultimately using the people I talked to, to make my arguments, to generalize, and to draw conclusions. My intention here is to let my interviewees speak for themselves, to give them a voice through my own discursive power.

This study relates general themes and aspects of Palestinian migration to the particular and empirical material gathered during my field research. The empirical material is embedded in the larger picture of Palestinian history, with its political and social developments. It places individual experience in a larger context, thereby framing it, while the individual stories may serve as illustrations to explain more general developments. I describe individuals as actors who, as much as institutions and structures, determine what has happened and what will happen in the future, if not on the higher levels of Palestinian and Middle Eastern politics, at least in their own lives. I believe that social change has individual faces. From the individual's perspective, the objective is to survive—to cope with what happens and make sense of it. Within the framework of historical and political circumstances, subjectivity and awareness of a situation provide humans with the tools to understand and possibly change the situation in which people live. These tools may vary from culture to culture, region to region, and period to period, but they are accessible and comprehensible to others as essentially human experience. Consequently, individual stories can illustrate and help explain larger processes in a society.

From Exile and Diaspora to Palestine

The study revolves around the key terms—identity, migration, homeland, memory, history, diaspora, and return—that are vital to understanding Palestinian migration in the twentieth century, the formation of Palestinian identity, and the social as well as political implications of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Many of these terms will reappear throughout the text and will be discussed in relation to each other. The study connects these themes of Palestinian migration to the return experiences of a particular group of Palestinian migrants. Return is discussed in the larger context of Palestine and is linked to the individual narratives of my interviewees. These narratives are woven into the text. At times they seem to contradict the argument, at other times they clearly support the suggested line of thinking. They always represent the uniqueness and individuality of my respondents and their life stories. These stories are narratives told under particular circumstances, at a particular time, to a particular audience. And in the process of writing, I had to retell them in my own way. Not all stories could be told, although they all deserve attention. My hope is that the stories give the respondents a face and a personality so that the reader can look beyond the theoretical argument and data and recognize the experiences of other human beings.

Return of course requires departure, and the circumstances of departing from one's homeland, as well as the conditions of exile, determine the character of the return process. In order to place the particular experiences of my respondents into a larger framework, the remainder of this chapter presents information on Palestinian migration and the Palestinian refugee problem that is necessary for understanding the particular experiences of the respondents. The Palestinian exile and diaspora communities cannot be understood without an exploration of the historical development of Palestinian national identity, which in turn draws on memory and historiography as important sources (Chapter 2).

The dichotomy of diaspora and homeland, with its inherent tension, is explored in Chapter 3. It relates the discourse on the nature of diasporas in global migration and transnational movements to the notion of a Palestinian diaspora and links it to the image of a homeland as a defining factor for diaspora communities.

The particular return experience of my respondents has to be seen as part of a larger return movement, involving other generations and groups of Palestinian migrants with different experiences and migration histories. Also, the response to returnees by Palestinian society can be understood only by considering the political, economic, and social circumstances of return to Palestine in the period after 1993 (Chapter 4).

The return process in its different stages is described using Turner's concept of liminality, thus defining it as a process of rewriting identities. Chapter 5 compares the two main groups of returnees and their experiences within those stages. In an additional step, by breaking the lineal appearance of the process and linking return to the previous diaspora experience, different aspects of Palestinian identity—namely, political, cultural, and religious ones—are portrayed in the light of changing ideas of identity (Chapter 6). This study claims that the return process is characterized by rewriting these different aspects of identity to adjust to changing circumstances and new experiences.

The liminal character of identities of the Palestinian return migrants I interviewed never truly resolves into full integration, as they constantly have to renegotiate their sense of belonging, ideas of homeland, and definitions of being Palestinian. Thus plans for the future, whether personal, political, or professional, reflect upon their sense of identity and the options for integration into Palestinian society or into the larger frame of a transnational community in a world of global movement (Chapter 7).

Even if physical return to one's place of origin is possible, is it really "return," or is it rather the discovery of a new homeland? Will Palestinians continue to preserve "songs for a country no longer known," or is the question whether they can restore their "sense of self as a people"? How does a country that was "woven from memories, from songs, from stories of elders, from pictures, from old coins and stamps" appear upon return?

The Palestinian Refugee Problem

Who is a refugee?

People who live in camps set up temporarily until they return to their homeland. (Ne'meh Shehadeh)

Someone who has been uprooted from his or her own land, and expelled to another place, and thus was destroyed emotionally and financially. (Taghrid Subhi Najim)

Someone who is lost, he doesn't know where he is. He is unsettled and unable to stay in one location. (Mahmoud Abdul Karim Abu Nahleh)

(Quotes from interviews with Palestinian refugees taken from Yahya 1998, 19)

Emigration is a precondition for return. In order to understand how, when, and why people return to their home country, it is imperative to first understand the circumstances that led them to leave, the aspirations and plans they might have had, and the extent to which their emigration was voluntary. Palestinian migration is inextricably linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Without the war of 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel on the territory of historical Palestine, Palestinians might have become one of the Arab world's post-World War I and II nation-states.

The refugee problem, central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has received the attention of politicians, scholars, and humanitarian organizations. On the humanitarian level, the United Nations and international organizations have attempted to assist the Palestinian refugees living in the Arab world. On the political level, the refugee question and the right of return have been called the core issues of a possible peace process and an end to the conflict.

For Palestinians, it is central to their collective memory, their political life, and their national identity. A solution that ignores Palestinians living in the diaspora is not an acceptable solution for Palestinians in Palestine. For Israelis, it is inconceivable to accept the right of return because it would in practice undermine the Jewish character of the state of Israel, thus they support the settlement of the refugees in the surrounding Arab countries only.

The causes of the Palestinian refugee problem have been well documented, especially in recent years. At the same time, historiography has become one expression of the conflict and is thus a subject of debate among scholars within the two camps.

According to the now commonly accepted version, Palestinians became refugees during the war of 1948 and in its aftermath as a result of pressure to leave their homes. Many were directly forced by the military to leave (these military forces later became the Israeli army); others left out of fear of military intervention. At least 726,000 Arab inhabitants of historical Palestine fled the country during the war, leaving behind their homes, property, and in many cases part of their extended family.

Most of the refugees went to neighboring countries, namely, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. In fact, even today, the majority (80 percent) of Palestinian refugees live within a hundred miles of the border of historical Palestine (Weighill 1999, 15).

Initially, the refugees expected to return as soon as the war was over. They received assistance from Arab host countries before a United Nations agency was established to provide for their initial needs. The United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), founded in 1949, operates in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, as well as in the West Bank and Gaza camps. The official UNRWA definition of Palestinian refugees reads: "persons whose normal residence was Palestine during the period of 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict and took refuge in one of the countries or areas where UNRWA provides relief, and their descendants through the male line" ( UNRWA started to register the refugee population and distribute food and basic equipment for their temporary settlement. Many of the refugees were grouped and settled in camps.

Because of ongoing migration and sometimes unstable conditions in the host countries, a large number of Palestinian refugees are not registered with UNRWA and thus cannot directly receive assistance. Among them are those who failed to register at the required time, those who obtained employment in host countries, those who did not need economic assistance (food, initial housing, health care, and education), and those who refused to register for political reasons. In 1967 only those who were already refugees could retain their status, while first-time refugees were defined as "displaced persons" (Gilen et al. 1994, 24). Palestinians who left Palestine and could not return because their residency permits (issued by Israel) had expired and those expelled for political reasons are also excluded from the official refugee statistics and thus from being recognized or receiving assistance.

UNRWA assistance does not affect the legal status of the refugees in host countries. Moreover, the operation of UNRWA is subject to separate agreements between the agency and each host government. UNRWA does not provide protection; rather, its activity is limited to material assistance, health care, and education.

Palestinian refugees in Arab host countries have been subjected to harsh living conditions. As they developed a distinct national identity and started organizing a national liberation movement, they were at times in direct conflict with host governments. The two main upheavals, "Black September" (1970) in Jordan and the intervention of Israel in the civil war in Lebanon in 1982 directly affected the situation of Palestinian refugees in these countries.

Refugee situations can typically be solved in three ways: repatriation, permanent settlement in the (first) country of asylum, or resettlement in a third country willing to absorb the refugees (Rogge 1994, 16 and Van Hear 1997, 15). In the case of the Palestinians, the Israeli expectation was that the refugees would easily integrate into the neighboring Arab countries, as they shared many features of cultural identity, including language. This assumption, for many reasons, has been proven wrong. One reason was, and is, the political unwillingness of host governments to integrate Palestinians into their societies, mainly based on the insistence of Arab countries on enforcing UN Resolution 194 calling for the return of the refugees to their homes, villages, and towns in Palestine. Full resettlement and citizenship rights, they argue, would jeopardize Palestinian political claims. Lebanon has its own reasons for not permitting the permanent settlement of its refugee population, as the largely Muslim Palestinian community would threaten the fragile sectarian balance in the state; Palestinians are partly blamed for the fifteen years of civil war in Lebanon.

Palestinians themselves have repeatedly refused resettlement and also insist on their right of return according to international law. Many authors have convincingly argued that the concentration of Palestinians in and around the refugee camps has been an important factor in the development of a Palestinian national identity (Sayigh 1977a, 1977b; Sayigh and Sayigh 1987).

Depending on the situation in each host country, the agreements with UNRWA, and changing political climates, Palestinians in various Arab countries experience various living conditions, legal statuses, and civil rights. Although they form one group of refugees, they are formally separated by the different laws and regulations of each host country. Many of them have been repeatedly evacuated from their places of residence because of war or other crises. A study in 1994 identified three main factors influencing the status of Palestinian refugees in host countries: the external character of legal definitions of them; the conflict of interest at the state level, involving the security and benefit of the host state, which can entail civil rights (such as in Jordan) or near-total exclusion (as in Lebanon); and the inherent contradiction between the Palestinians' interest in securing civil rights, and maintaining the refugee identity (Gilen et al. 1994, 40). It is important to stress that most Palestinians see themselves as refugees and victims, even if some of them have found economic stability, secured citizenship in other countries, or developed multiple identities and loyalties.

Patterns of Palestinian Migration

Over the last fifty years the focus on refugees has led to a neglect of other parts of the Palestinian diaspora and has lost sight of the fact that not all Palestinian migration has been a direct result of flight or expulsion. To portray Palestinian migration solely in terms of refugee waves during and after the wars with Israel would do an injustice to the complexity of Palestinian migratory patterns and would prevent a deeper understanding of the Palestinian migration experience.

In the framework of Palestinian migration, one has to consider not only migration from and to Palestine but also the various movements of Palestinians from first countries of refuge and exile to other countries, and subsequent movement among countries. Many Palestinians have experience with more than one migratory move, thus shaping their sense and longing for a place to call home. This also ties them in different ways to the Palestinian-imagined community as well as to different Palestinian diaspora and home communities.

Currently, four main groups of Palestinians can be distinguished on the territory of historical Palestine and in the diaspora: Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians in Israel, Palestinians in Arab countries, and Palestinians in Western countries. They do express unity in their self-declaration as Palestinians, though it is for many of them a part of their multiple identities. Nevertheless, they feel that they are part of the Palestinian-imagined community. At the same time, their experiences over the last century have created diversity among them. Important to their maintaining and reproducing a sense of national identity in successive generations is their having knowledge about other groups of their own people.

One cannot place Palestinians into just one or the other of the above-mentioned groups. Frequent movement between the groups continues to occur. Consequently, migration is an important aspect of Palestinian family life, and the reality of this migration is often a painful one. Palestinians have maintained networks all over the world, and modern means of transportation and communication have allowed them to keep in touch with each other. Of course, access to communications technology and travel is based on the ability to afford them, and there are still many Palestinians, especially refugees in the camps, that do not have the means. The problem is further complicated by the absence of a Palestinian state and the absence of travel documents. The stories about the treatment at borders and airports, the anxiety of traveling, and the denial of visas and travel permits are uncountable and are an indistinguishable feature of Palestinian existence. In the introduction to Palestinian Identity, Rashid Khalidi writes:

The quintessential Palestinian experience, which illustrates some of the most basic issues raised by Palestinian identity, takes place at a border, an airport, a checkpoint: in short, at any of those many modern barriers where identities are checked and verified. What happens to Palestinians at these crossing points brings home to them how much they share in common as a people. For it is at these borders and barriers that the six million Palestinians are singled out for "special treatment," and are forcefully reminded of their identity: of who they are, and of why they are different from others.

(R. Khalidi 1997, 1)

Migration studies have shown that migration is often initially perceived as temporary, especially when it is involuntary. Very few migrants are willing or able to burn all bridges to the homeland, as this notion of the homeland includes family, culture, and everything familiar. Forced migration is neither planned nor wished for, thus it usually strengthens the ties to the homeland that one was forced to leave and creates a wish to return one day. In the Palestinian case, the desire to return was often combined with political activities to achieve this goal through military or political struggle. The aim was not only return but also the liberation of Palestine and the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Emigration from Palestine

The main causes of emigration for most Palestinians in the diaspora were the wars of 1948 and 1967. These wars prompted different forms of conflict migration, but are nevertheless characterized as forceful and involuntary in nature.

During these wars most Palestinians did not leave their villages and towns with the intention of leaving the country. Often they just moved to the next village, into the nearby hills, or to any place considered safe at that time. Consequently, flight involved several moves away from the place of origin (Abu-Sitta 1996; W. Khalidi 1992; Kanaana 1992b; Morris 1987, 1990). Recent studies show in much historical detail that, in the beginning, Palestinian villagers sent women and children from the villages to take refuge in safer places while the men stayed behind to defend the villages. Many people left their homes during the day and tried to return the following night. As a result of these moves, families were split and siblings separated, some of them never to meet again. During the 1967 war, Palestinians fled in a similar pattern. This time many of them became second-time refugees.

Besides during actual war times, Palestinian migration occurred because of political persecution, economic pressure, and the forcible eviction of political activists. With the evolution of the Palestinian national movement and the formation of a Palestinian national awareness, combined with resistance to the Israeli occupation, Israeli pressure to undermine and destroy Palestinian resistance increased. Some prominent community leaders were expelled, and political activists left Palestine after being subjected to torture, interrogation, and long prison terms in Israeli jails (without first being tried).

The economic deterioration of the West Bank and Gaza and the difficulty of making a living pushed many Palestinians to leave those areas. High unemployment rates, economic underdevelopment by Israeli design, and Israeli confiscation of much Palestinian agricultural land left young Palestinians with few job options. Educational facilities were rather poor, and as a consequence many young Palestinians left Palestine to study abroad. Those who migrated for work or study often anticipated only a temporary migration.

The choice of country to which to migrate is related to the reasons that the migrant left Palestine in the first place. While having the financial means to get to a particular country was of course very important, the most important factor in determining to which country a migrant would go was legal access to that country. The absence of legal documents such as a passport or an identity card could make travel extremely complicated. Waiting for visas and travel permits is familiar to Palestinians.

European countries, the United States, Canada, and Australia have accepted limited numbers of Palestinians as refugees or immigrants. Many Palestinian migrants have experience with illegal entry and the complicated ways of legalizing one's status in different countries.

Often, migration to Western countries and the oil-rich Gulf States was based on chain migration, that is, migrants followed relatives already living and working in those countries. Especially where the reasons for emigration were economic and educational, relatives would often help finance a new start by providing jobs and loans, or paying a student's tuition. In addition to the ability to enter a country legally, and the ability to afford going there, there was another consideration in choosing a country. This consideration relates to the migrant's images and knowledge of that country. More research is needed to determine how Palestinians have perceived different countries and how their images have influenced migration choices. Although Palestinians often judge other countries by their stand vis-à-vis the Palestinian problem, we know that many have made pragmatic choices about migration based on the economic and legal situation as much as on culture and politics.

(Relative) Settlement Abroad

Various factors influence the level of integration into a host society, among them the living conditions and place of residence, their legal status, and the reasons for emigrating. One especially important factor for Palestinians' situation in and integration into host societies has been the legal status to which they were entitled. Certainly the worst situation can be found in Lebanon where Palestinians are not entitled to passports but only to a refugee document that grants nothing but the right to residency, while Palestinians are by law excluded from a long list of professions and the right to own real estate. Over the last several years, visa, travel, and reentry regulations for Palestinians have been further tightened. Generally, Lebanon has refused to consider Palestinian refugees for naturalization and resettlement, mainly on political grounds.

In the past, Palestinian refugees have refused to settle in Arab host countries and have insisted on their right of return. Of course the Palestinian-camp situation of refugees is a negation of integration into the host country. It keeps the Palestinian community in confined spaces and reinforces the clear group boundaries. It makes the Palestinians, at least those in the camps, identifiable as an alien minority to themselves as well as to the host society.

The primary reason for emigration is directly linked to the chances and willingness of a Palestinian migrant to integrate or be integrated into a host country. As suggested above, eviction, flight, and deportation during times of conflict strengthen one's connection to the homeland and foster the strong wish to return, as well as the long-term identification with the place of origin.

In such a context, the political attachment of Palestinians to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) has proved influential in keeping a certain distance between migrants and the host societies. Palestinians involved in the national liberation movement, of which the PLO with its various political movements was a symbol for a long time, would often not get involved in the politics of the host society. And when they did, as in the cases of Jordan and Lebanon, the political power and influence of the PLO and its armed forces proved to have disruptive effects on the host country and ultimately led to conflicts.

Economic success, financial stability, and options for the future, as well as the existence of a family in the host country, can help temporary or long-term settlement and integration. In this context, intermarriage with locals or the birth of children in the host country facilitates integration. Here, gender is of particular interest. In Arab countries and other patriarchal societies, the national identity of the father determines that of the child. Palestinian men marrying women of other nationalities would thus have Palestinian children. In the case of Palestinian women marrying other nationals (which occurs less frequently) the children are not "properly" Palestinian. Nevertheless, the experience of the Palestinian people has created an awareness of national identity that connects children of Palestinian mothers to Palestine, even though they are, according to the laws in these Arab countries, not Palestinian.

Another important factor lies in the generational differences of Palestinian migrants. The age of a migrant at the time that he or she left Palestine plays an important role, both for the possibilities and options of adjustment in the host society and for further migration. In the case of second or third generations of Palestinians in the diaspora, the grandparents or parents were refugees or migrants. These young Palestinians may be more integrated into the host societies, especially through intermarriage, while many other Palestinians still turn to Palestine to find a spouse, sometimes from the extended family or village.

For refugees, emigration was an uprooting. It entailed the loss of family members, land, and homes, and it implied fear and insecurity about the future. Their only consolation was in the hope that they might return soon and in the ability to share their traumatic experience with the Palestinian refugee community. Older people in particular struggled from day to day, trying to survive, to not despair totally, and to keep the family and the community together. For them the memory of life in Palestine was all that was left. The younger generation had to focus on daily life as well, but their eyes were also on Palestine. Out of this longing to go back grew a whole discourse of preserving memories of Palestine before the war, of keeping and passing on an eternal image of the country and its people.

Over the years, some groups of refugees were able to move out of the camps. At the same time, the refugee communities grew in size but became more differentiated according to status and economic situation. From the 1960s onward, political commitment to the PLO and its various organizations also differentiated Palestinian communities.

For Palestinians who were children when they became refugees, and even more for the generations born outside Palestine, the loss of the homeland was total, as they could remember little or nothing. Their actual socialization took place, and still takes place, in other countries and contexts. Depending on the country and situation of residence, the children are formed by the surrounding Palestinian community, if they are part of one, as much as by the society and situation in the respective host countries.

Young people who left in search of an education were more eager to take up the challenges involved in making a new life. They planned to get educational degrees that could help them in Palestine, and upon return they wanted to make a home and have a family in Palestine. Despite the fact that many of them did not plan on emigrating for good, a considerable number stayed abroad. The same is true for work migrants, who usually left because of economic depression and lack of employment and who sought jobs and higher wages in other countries.

For Palestinians who left Palestine to study, as well as for those who were born and grew up abroad, the host country's educational system played an important role in their socialization into the host society. Palestinian children who went to the camps' UNRWA schools, founded and maintained especially for Palestinian refugees, did not experience socialization that would facilitate their integration into a host society. Also, in some Arab countries, Palestinians were discriminated against in access to higher education. Others were marginalized by teachers and peers.

While most Palestinians who left Palestine were peasants, there was also a minority of Palestinians who were from the middle class. The distinction is important in studying their ability to participate in the host country's economy and thereby facilitate integration into the host country's society. Upon their flight, peasants lost their main source of livelihood—the land—and became refugees. The poorer of those refugees were a source of manual labor for the host economies or were unemployed. Over the years, some former peasants earned a living as small shopkeepers and city dwellers, catering to the needs of the growing camp community. Others found employment as seasonal agricultural workers. Between 1948 and 1966, the already difficult situation in the agricultural sector of the surrounding Arab countries condemned most of the refugees to a life of poverty (P. A. Smith 1986b, 93).

During this same time, Palestinians with a higher education moved to the oil-rich Arab countries, in whose economies their skills were valued. Also, urban Palestinians and members of the upper and middle classes were able to transfer some of their assets into exile, which helped them establish themselves economically abroad.

After the war of 1967, which created another wave of Palestinian refugees, the number of those depending on financial assistance from UNRWA again rose dramatically. But the following years witnessed a reverse trend: While in 1949 almost 77 percent of the Palestinian population was receiving relief, thirty years later this figure had declined to 41 percent (P. A. Smith 1986b, 99). Those who were able to achieve self-sufficiency often left the camps and thus the relief rolls. Small businesses in shantytowns and urban quarters provided some income, which was often combined with that of women doing sewing, laundry, and agricultural work, and children contributing as street vendors and messenger boys (P. A. Smith 1986b, 99).

At the other end of the social and economic scale, we find the economically successful exile bourgeoisie. Smith has remarked: "Palestinians, stateless and living by their wits, have been among the leading capitalists of the Middle East" (P. A. Smith 1986a, 23). They are affected by statelessness, although to a lesser degree than poor refugees, and have been major financial supporters of the PLO and Palestinian educational institutions.

The richer part of the Palestinian diaspora can be expected to contribute to the creation of an economically viable Palestinian state whether or not they return to Palestine themselves (see Mustafa 1996, 5).

That Palestinians left Palestine, and, in subsequent migrations, left neighboring Arab countries in search of education and economic opportunities invites a number of questions, most notably what effect their economic success and apparent integration had on their identity as Palestinians. On the one hand, many Palestinians have been naturalized elsewhere; on the other hand, many do not consider their country of citizenship to be their home.

As much as economic situation and legal status, the perception and treatment of the migrants by a host society influence integration. Ironically, while economic success can help integration and encourage acceptance by the host society, it can also cause envy on the part of the local population. In every case migrants are highly dependent on the image assigned to them by locals. Identities are developed in a process that entails being labeled, categorized, and named by others, a process equally important to self-perception and identification.

Economically successful Palestinians have to be considered to balance the picture of the impoverished Palestinian-camp refugees. Seeking economic success has been one driving factor for Palestinian migration and has influenced the level of integration into different host countries. It can be assumed that economic integration makes it more likely that the migrant will accept a host country as a more or less permanent settlement solution, while economic disenfranchisement in tandem with other factors supports a strong wish to return and a stronger attachment to the country of origin.

Return Wish

For Palestinians in the diaspora, the cycle of migration would not be complete without the wish or plan to return to Palestine one day.

The intensity of the desire (dream, plan, or "illusion") to return has much to do with the length of time one spends abroad, the degree of integration one achieves there, whether one has moved one or more times, and whether one has actually settled somewhere. Palestinians who have moved many times had less chance to adjust and integrate, and instead developed a strong sense of Palestinian identity and a sense of being different from the people of the host societies.

With each year spent outside Palestine, the distance from the home society widens, and the familiarity with its details and developments and the intimate knowledge of it decreases. Some Palestinians were able to visit Palestine regularly, while others, especially the refugees, never saw their homeland. These issues play a role in the decision to return and in respondents' identification with Palestine as an actual place to live. There is a strong correlation between being prevented from visiting one's homeland and the intensity of the longing for return. Those who had no opportunity to see Palestine during their exile have higher expectations of that homeland than those who did get to visit.

Younger Palestinians often emphasize that the discussion of the right of return no longer means that all Palestinians around the world would actually return to Palestine to settle there. That demand seems unrealistic—the real issue for them revolves around having the right to choose where they want to live. Israel has made even visiting their homeland impossible for many Palestinians over the last fifty years.

To understand the situation that Palestinian returnees find upon arrival in Palestine, as well as the reactions of local Palestinians to them, one has to remember the disruptive effect that migration had on Palestinian family and societal structures. Of course, migration can also have the reverse effect of enriching a society. By bringing in new ideas and influences, migrants can help renew the society as well as bring about stability by challenging values, customs, and traditions, which can consequently produce a stronger conviction of one's own cultural system. Virtually every Palestinian family has experienced migration as separation from family members and the need for long-distance communication. Certainly, return migration is a new challenge to family ties, affection, and relations between people.

Migration not only changes the lives of those who migrate but it also questions those who stay behind about their aspirations in life and their relationship to the migrants. In the Palestinian case, the matter is further complicated by the conflict with Israel and the mutual perceptions of those who stayed behind and those who left—regardless of the reasons for and circumstances of their departure. These emigrants often have to deal with the tension between some Palestinians' image of them as cowards and traitors who left the country alone in difficult circumstances, and their self-image as both fighters and activists for the liberation of Palestine, working from the outside.

Local Palestinians face a similar tension between some diaspora Palestinians' image of them as collaborators who accepted Israeli rule and occupation, and their self-image as people exercising steadfastness, not giving up on the homeland under any circumstances. The events of the Intifada have raised Palestinian "inside" confidence and moved political activity from the outside back to Palestine. Many local Palestinians insist that they have had their share of casualties for initiating the peace process.

Either way, both self-perception and the image of the other as different make sense of one's life experience, but both also produce conflict. Of course these images are negotiable and can be adjusted over time, but they explain, to a certain extent, the clash that occurred when the diaspora Palestinians returned to Palestine.



“Juliane Hammer's book is a welcome addition to the relatively meager literature on Palestinians who were born in exile and "returned" to Palestine....”
Journal of Palestine Studies

“Juliane Hammer has written an excellent book that captures the Palestinian experience of exile, life in the Diaspora, and return to Palestine.”
Philip Mattar, United States Institute for Peace, editor of Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa


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