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Why are Palestinians still living in refugee camps? Where are they from and why don't they go home?

When Palestinians were expelled from their homes in the 1947-48 War, many fled to neighboring Arab countries, others to the parts of Palestine not yet under the control of the new Israeli army, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In all those places, corrupt and/or impoverished Arab governments had neither the will nor the resources to care for the sudden influx of refugees. The United Nations, recognizing its responsibility for the crisis through its role in dividing Palestine in the first place, took on the work of caring for the new exiles. It created The United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), designed to provide basic housing, food, medical care and education to the Palestinian refugees until they could return home; UNRWA was initially envisioned as a short-term project.

But Israel refused to allow the refugees to return home. Instead the months turned to years, and tent camps were transformed over time into squalid, crowded mini-towns, made up of concrete block houses with tin roofs held down by old tires and sometimes scraps of iron bars. Electricity is sporadic, indoor plumbing often non-existent; streams of raw sewage are a regular feature between tightly-packed houses. But UNRWA schools educated Palestinian children to the extent that Palestinians today have the highest percentage of college educated people in the entire Arab world.

Some have claimed that Arab governments used Palestinian refugees to score propaganda points, or to divert their own people's anger from the regimes to Israel. Certainly the Arab regimes had little interest in serious political defense of Palestinian rights, let alone serious protection of Palestinian refugees. Only Jordan allowed Palestinians to become citizens. Everywhere else, Palestinians were kept segregated. In Lebanon, they were viewed as a potential disruption to the country's delicate confessional system balancing Christians and Muslims. Egypt kept the Palestinians confined to the Gaza Strip.

But the refugee camps remained in place primarily because Israel blocked their right of return, and the Palestinians themselves were determined they wanted to go home--they did not want to be "integrated" into other countries, despite the common language. Palestinians were--and remained--afraid that leaving the camps to integrate into some other part of the Arab world would result in the loss of their homes and their rights.

The Arab world after 1948 was no longer an integrated "Arabia"--nation states had been created, by lines drawn in the sand by colonial powers as in so many places, and ties of nation combined with ties of village or town to create for Palestinians a national cry for returning home.