Palestinian Refugees’ Experiences of Transnational Social Field: Identity, Memory and Connections

Zeynep Ebrar Aras
TUİÇ Göç Çalışmaları Stajyeri


This comprehensive research paper investigates the multifaceted challenges posed by the Palestinian refugee situation, offering a minute perspective that extends beyond immediate humanitarian concerns. By exploring identity, memory and connections, the study highlights the interconnected factors shaping the complex Palestinian refugee predicament. Firstly, navigating the contentious issue of defining Palestinian refugee status, encompassing the historical disagreements between Israelis and Palestinians. Secondly, delving into key milestones shaping Palestinian national identity, the work emphasizes the protracted and deeply rooted nature of the problem. Lastly, an exploration of Palestinian memory underscores the enduring impact of conflict and displacement, urging a historical context-aware approach to sustainable solutions. This paper contributes to a deeper understanding of the Palestinian refugee issue and its broader implications for regional dynamics.

Keywords: Palestinian Refugees, Identity, Memory, Resistance


The Palestinian refugee situation is not only one of the largest refugee groups globally but also a multifaceted challenge. When addressing this issue, it’s important to consider various dimensions, including psychological, social, economic, existential, humanitarian, and political aspects. Furthermore, the political context in which these refugees live significantly shapes the status of Palestinians. These factors are interconnected and collectively shape the complex Palestinian refugee dilemma (Miari, 2012, s.7).

The Palestinian diaspora, dispersed across the world, has developed a unique sense of identity, memory, and connections that transcend geographical boundaries. By navigating these, it is aimed to gain a deeper understanding of the resilience, adaptability, and enduring spirit of a community whose history has been profoundly formed by the diverse factors mentioned earlier.

As prominent Palestinian-American academic and political activist Edward Said stated, “There won’t be peace in the Middle East until we solve the Palestinian problem. It takes time, and we need to look at the history of Palestine and its current situation.” In consideration of this, understanding their situation is a crucial step toward resolving the broader Palestinian problem. By investigating historical and contemporary realities, this paper aims to contribute to the ongoing discourse on the challenges faced by Palestinian refugees and their implications for achieving a just solution.

Defining the Status of Palestinian Refugees 

Israelis and Palestinians have been unable to reach a consensus on the definition of a Palestinian refugee, and this issue was a point of contention during negotiations in the 1990s. Israel advocated for a narrow definition, limited to the first-generation refugees who were displaced in 1948 and 1967. In contrast, Palestinians argued for a more inclusive definition, encompassing not only the original refugees but also their children, spouses, and individuals in similar refugee-like conditions, such as those deported by Israel, those abroad during hostilities, those who lost residency rights, and those who lost their means of livelihood.

The definition of a Palestinian refugee provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is as follows: a person who had their regular residence in Palestine for at least two years prior to the 1948 conflict outbreak and, due to this conflict, lost both their home and means of livelihood. This definition, while commonly used, is more focused on determining criteria for providing aid rather than offering a comprehensive refugee status definition. Previous efforts to provide identity cards to all refugees, regardless of their receipt of international assistance, faced difficulties due to a lack of cooperation among host states (Feldman, 2012, s.159).

In the early 1950s, the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) attempted to develop a working definition of a Palestinian refugee that would encompass all those displaced during the 1948 war, regardless of their ethnic, national, or religious backgrounds. However, due to irreconcilable differences among Israel, the Arab states, and the Palestinians, the Commission’s protection mandate was significantly reduced, and the definition was never officially adopted. The UN failed to provide the UNCCP with the necessary resources and support to fulfill its mandate, leading to its current state of having no budget or staff.

Consequently, the question of who qualifies as a Palestinian refugee is a highly contentious issue with no agreed-upon definition. This lack of consensus is a major challenge in addressing the Palestinian refugee problem, and various attempts to establish a comprehensive definition have faced significant obstacles and limitations (Rempel, 2006, s.2).

Key Milestones in Shaping the Palestinian National Identity

Palestinian nationalism emerged as a response to the challenges posed by Western colonialism and Zionism, driven by the pursuit of political equality and national independence. Rooted in Ottoman doctrine during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Yang & Ma, 2002: 44), , this movement of social thought and political events gained momentum. Prior to the first Middle East war in 1948, Palestine witnessed a significant chapter with a massive armed uprising against British Mandate authorities’ suppression from 1936 to 1939. The aftermath of this conflict left the Palestinian national movement in an unstable state (Lı, 2011, s.108).

Post the first Middle East war, Palestine’s territory was partitioned into three parts, leading to the dispersal of more than 700,000 Palestinians who became refugees in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon. Subsequently, the advocacy of Arab nationalism and unity by figures like Nasser and the Arab Socialist Baath Party took center stage. Palestinian-American professor Nadeem Rouhana noted that the prevailing aspiration among most Arab countries was to stand against Zionism and achieve Palestinian liberation through Arab unity. Despite acknowledging their Arab heritage, Palestinian people, according to Rouhana, pinned their hopes on the collective strength of the Arab nations, leading to a dilution of their national identity (Rouhana, 1977: 67).

Since the mid-20th century, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been a major event caused by nationalism the Middle Eastern history. As the two sides have not considered each other as a real nation and have no right to establish a nation, conflicts, and war have continued. The “Six-Day War” in 1967 had far-reaching impacts on the Middle East situation, one of which has been the decline of secular Arab nationalism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Prior to this, the pan-Arab nationalism represented by Gamul Nasser preached Palestine liberation and modernization by way of national unity and socialism. However, the war demonstrated the bankruptcy of this theory. After the death of Nasser, no one could raise the banner of Arab unity once again. In this situation, Islamic fundamentalists took the opportunity to explain that the reason for the failure was that the Arabs abandoned the purity of their religious path. The outcome was that Islamic fundamentalism began to have increasing influence among the lower classes. The “Muslim Brotherhood” which had been subjected to severe pressure in the era of Nasser’s Egypt rose again and provided moral support to Hamas and Hezbollah. Since the late 1980s, the religious color of the Arab side in the Arab-Israeli conflicts has become increasingly evident. In this process, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other “non-state actors” had replaced the traditional Arab nation regime and became main factors affecting the regional situation (Lı, 2011, s.108).

However, after the Six-Day War in 1967, the Palestinian national consciousness has been greatly enhanced, and the whole nation has awakened, and nationalism has come into a new period of development. Before the war, Palestinians relied heavily on Arab countries to restore their rights, but they decided to rely on their own and indicated their identity and the goal of the political struggle, which was to build an independent Palestinian state. (Lı, 2011, s.109)

From Displacement to Resistance: Tracing Palestinian Memory

In both war and torture, there is a destruction of ‘civilization’ in its most elemental form [. . .] there is a deconstruction not only of a particular ideology but of the primary evidence of the capacity for self-extension itself: one does not only destroy objects, gestures, and thoughts that are culturally stipulated but objects, gestures and thoughts that are human (Scarry, 1985, s.61).

Examining how conflict, trauma, displacement, and violence are the destroyers not only of physical landscapes (homes and heritage) but also of human lives is crucial for having a deeper understanding of Palestinian memory (Butler, 2009, s.1). To the Palestinians this was a compound catastrophe of destruction, dispossession, and dispersal — what they called al-Nakba (‘the disaster’) — which has proved to be an ever-present horizon of meaning within which in famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s haunting phrase, the Palestinian people have been cast into ‘redundant shadows exiled from space and time’. ‘The Nakba’, Darwish wrote over 50 years later, ‘is an extended present that promises to continue’ (Gregory, 2004, s.86).

As Edward Said pointed out, “The lectures I gave always featured the importance of memory for the Palestinian experience.” And he continues: “It’s not an organized memory because we don’t have a state and we don’t have an organized, central authority. But if you look in every Palestinian household, into the third generation after 1948, you’ll find such objects as house keys, letters, titles, deeds, photographs, and newspaper clippings, kept to preserve the memory of a period when our existence was relatively whole. It is a strategy against historical erasure. It is a means of resistance.” At this point, Said illustrates the fragmented yet dedicated nature of attempts by Palestinians to reconstitute a ‘remembered presence’ in which, for example, the household is transformed into a space of archival memory with objects that are ‘kept to preserve the memory of a period when our existence was relatively whole’, and as a strategy ‘against historical erasure’ and a means of resistance’ (Said, 1999, s.182).

Rosemary Sayigh and Lindholm-Schulz used a critical ‘Palestinianness’ to underline the importance of memory work and self-identification and how, therefore, ‘in exile, Palestine is the center of social relations’. As Said has also argued, it is through both intangible (for example, speech, cooking, storytelling) and the creative repetition of tangible ‘national icons’ — from models and pictures of the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque to embroidered dresses — that practices and objects ‘heavy with memory […] form the web of affiliations that we Palestinians use to tie ourselves to our identity and each other’ (Said, 1986, s.14). As Lindholm-Schulz adds, not only do ‘people build little Palestines in their homes’, but she and others have drawn attention to how in refugee camps an archival memory-work and impulse operates in terms of how ‘home’ would be partly recreated ‘by naming clinics, streets, and neighborhoods after places in Palestine; and by reconstituting village, clan, and family ties’ (Lindholm-Schulz, 2003, s.114). And unexpectedly, Palestinian family ties, whether between kin or household members, lost none of their importance in exile; on the contrary, they acquired new meanings: as protection against alienation, as a source of emotional or financial support, as a social value rooted in religion and national identity (Sayigh, 1994, s.105).

What is also highlighted is that to be Palestinian and attempt to articulate ‘Pales- tinianism’ needs to be understood as both deeply felt and contested issues which have too easily been lost to negative stereotyping in both public (notably in the ‘Western’ media) and academic arenas: as Said argues, To be sure, no single Palestinian can be said to feel what most other Palestinians feels: Ours has been too various and scattered a fate for that sort of correspondence. But there is no doubt that we do form a community, if at heart a community built on suffering exile. How, though, to convey it? The thing about our exile is that much of it is invisible and entirely special to us(Said, 1986, s.5-6).


In conclusion, a judicious understanding of the Palestinian refugee issue requires recognition of its multifaceted nature. The conclusion drawn from examining their plight is that it encompasses not only immediate humanitarian concerns but also profound psychological, social, and political dimensions. Delving into the complexities of identity, memory, and connections within the Palestinian diaspora highlights the need for a nuanced approach to grasp the resilience and adaptability of this community. The protracted disagreement between Israelis and Palestinians regarding the definition of a refugee, along with historical milestones shaping Palestinian national identity, signals the deeply rooted and contentious aspects of the problem. Additionally, the exploration of Palestinian memory emphasizes the lasting impact of conflict and displacement, underscoring the necessity of acknowledging the historical context when seeking solutions. In essence, a comprehensive understanding of the Palestinian refugee issue demands a judicious consideration of its intricate layers and a recognition of the lasting implications for the affected community and the broader regional dynamics.



Miari, S. (Ed.). (2012). Palestinian Refugees: Different Generations, but One Identity. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies.

Feldman, I. (2012). The humanitarian condition: Palestinian refugees and the politics of living. Humanity: an international journal of human rights, humanitarianism, and development.

 Rempel, T. M. (2006). Who are Palestinian refugees?. Forced Migration Review.

Yang, H., & Ma, X. (2002). The Orogin and Early Exprerience of the Pakistan Nationalism. dalam West Asia and Afrika, (2)

 LI, Y. (2011). Edward Said’s Thoughts and Palestinian Nationalism. Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (in Asia).

Rouhana, N. (1997). Palestinian citizens in an ethnic Jewish state, New Haven, CT:Yale University Press.

Scarry, E. (1985). The body in pain: the making and unmaking of the world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gregory, D. (2004). The Colonial Present: Afghanistan. Palestine. Iraq. John Wiley & Sons.

Said, E. (1999). Palestine: memory, invention and space. The landscape of Palestine: equivocal poetry, 3-20.

Lindholm-Schulz, H. (2003). The Palestine diaspora: formation of identities and politics of homeland. London: Routledge.

Rosemary, S. (1994). Too many enemies, The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon. Londres, Zed Book.

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