Palestinian society and politics: General introduction

Page last updated  24 October  2018

General Introduction

In 1948 an emergent Palestinian nation pressing for decolonisation and independence, suffered the nakba, the catastrophe, in which around four-fifths of the population in the part of mandate Palestine that became green-line Israel were expelled or left in fear, never to be allowed to return. Palestinian society was fragmented, divided among those living as “full” citizens within Israel; those in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, subject initially to Egyptian and Jordanian rule, to be followed from June 1967 by Israeli occupation; and those in the Palestinian diaspora.

Much of what has happened to those in Israel and in the occupied territories is covered elsewhere in these background pages, but it is important to see things in the round. Palestinian society, despite its tragedies and traumas, is nonetheless held together by a strong sense of national identity and at the very least by a strong moral commitment to the right of return, even if many Palestinians in Western Europe and north America are well integrated into other societies and would probably not choose to return. This does not apply to those still living in appalling conditions in refugee camps in the wider Middle East and provided for by the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (Unwra).

There is very good general introduction available in Joel S. Migdal & Baruch Kimmerling’s The Palestinian People: A History (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003), but none of it appears to be available online. Indeed this is true of a number of academic volumes dealing with different aspects of Palestinian life.

What we will be attempting to do in these pages is to assemble links to articles dealing with the complicated realities of a Palestinian nation dispersed and living in very varied conditions in different countries. Most writings on the Palestinian question focus, perhaps inevitably, on the condition of those under Israeli occupation and secondarily on those discriminated against in Israel. Fewer focus on the miserable conditions of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Lebanon and Syria.

The material we have in this section is currently organised under these headings:

Palestinian political institutions
Palestinian civil society
Palestinian refugees

It is complemented by a whole lot of material  bearing directly on the conflict, the occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel. This is scattered throughout, but see these sections and subsections in particular:

Origins and background to the conflict (where there is a page dealing with the issue)
The occupation
Palestinian citizens of Israel
The nature of the nakba

If you come across material you think should be in this section please let us know.


Palestinian political institutions

1.a) The Palestine Liberation Organization
Official webpage of “The Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine to the United Nations

“The PLO was established in 1964 and has been the embodiment of the Palestinian national movement. It is a broad national front, or an umbrella organization, comprised of numerous organizations of the resistance movement, political parties, popular organizations, and independent personalities and figures from all sectors of life. The Arab Summit in 1974 recognized the PLO as the ‘sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people’ and since then the PLO has represented Palestine at the United Nations, the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries (NAM), the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and in many other fora. In addition to its broad national and political goals, the PLO has dealt with numerous tasks with regard to the life of the Palestinian people in their main communities and throughout the world through the establishment of several institutions in such realms as health, education and social services. As such, the PLO is more than a national liberation movement striving to achieve the national goals of the Palestinian people, including the independence of the State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

b) Palestine Liberation Organization
Glenn E. Robinson, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, nd


Palestinian civil society

1. PASSIA – The Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of international Affairs

A research website that provides a large amount of useful information about Palestinian society including a Dictionary of Palestinian Political Terms, running from the Absentee Property Law to the Wye Valley Memorandum; and a Facts and Figures section, covering a wide range of topics in the oPt such as geography, economy, education, health, government & administration and more.

The information here has been recently updated (2015) so these pages should be a first port of call for statistical and factual information about any aspect of Palestinian society.


2. Civil Society in Palestine: Approaches, Historical Context and the Role of the NGOs
Walid Salem, Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol. 18 No. 2 & 3, 2012 / Civil Society Challenges 2012

A critical overview of the role of Palestinian NGOs, arguing that they need to develop a clear-cut political position and direct it toward both the issue of the occupation and the splits and divisions within Palestinian society


4. Civil Society and Political Elites in Palestine and the Role of International Donors: A Palestinian View
Salah Abdel Shafi, Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), Jul 2004

An appraisal of the development, functioning and role of Palestinian civil society, and suggestions for its future direction.


5. Rule of Law in Palestinian Society and Politics
Raja Bahlul, Jura Gentium, 2002

“Having no state of their own, and being ruled by non-Palestinian government throughout the entirety of their modern history, the Palestinians were in no position to initiate the social and political developments which could have hastened the transition of society form the traditional phase to the somewhat more modern phase, as was the case in neighboring Arab societies. It is not surprising that the ‘notable class’ (consisting of the heads of traditionally powerful clans and families) retained its superior position in Palestinian society, whereas it was overthrown in much of the Arab world in the post-independence period.”


6. Clans and Militias in Palestinian Politics
Prof. Dror Ze’evi, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University, c.2–7, Feb 2008

“In sum, if it is to succeed in establishing a functioning government and in concluding an agreement, the Palestinian Authority may find it necessary to ally itself with the families of the West Bank and Gaza—and, in a sense, to share governmental power with them. Indeed, efficient incorporation of some clans may be critical for success. Yet, we should also bear in mind that sharing power with the clans comes at a steep price.”


7. Changes in Palestinian society
Ehud Ein Gil and Aryeh Finkelstein, Khamsin no 6, May 1977

An analysis of the institutions of Palestinian village society, written three decades after the nakba, but still with contemporary relevance. It argued that such institutions had drawn their strength from specific economic conditions, conditions now destroyed. But Zionist policy aimed to preserve the traditional hamoulah structure of village society, in order to make it easier to keep the Palestinians under control. On the other hand, by expropriating the Palestinians’ lands, it has destroyed the economic basis of that very same traditional structure it wanted to preserve. Despite all this, the hamoulah had not collapsed and the authors saw it, religion, tradition and the conservative customs as enemies of Palestinian liberation.


8. Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent

Human Rights Watch reports endemic, serious repression of internal dissent on both Gaza and the West Bank. 23 October 2018

Summary since Palestinians gained a degree of self-rule over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, their authorities have established of repression to crush dissent, including through the use of torture.

Both the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in Gaza have in recent years carried out scores of arbitrary arrests for peaceful criticism of the authorities, particularly on social media, among independent journalists, on university campuses, and at demonstrations. As the Fatah-Hamas feud deepened despite attempts at reconciliation, PA security services have targeted supporters of Hamas and vice versa. Relying primarily on overly broad laws that criminalize activity such as causing “sectarian strife” or insulting “higher authorities,” the PA and Hamas use detention to punish critics and deter them and others from further activism. In detention, security forces routinely taunt, threaten, beat, and force detainees into painful stress positions for hours at a time.”


9. Palestinian Christians issue a cry for hope, to end ‘exclusivity and apartheid’, Global Kairos for Justice, June 2023

In a decisive document released earlier this month, Palestinian Christians insist that churches around the world bring their influence to what is happening in the cradle of Christianity, urging, “We cannot serve God while remaining silent about the oppression of the Palestinians.” Global Kairos for Justice, a community of human rights advocates—Palestinian Christians, their friends and supporters around the world—released “Cry for Hope: A Decisive Call for Action,” asking Christian supporters to sign onto the pledge and take actions to end Israel’s occupation, including boycotts against Israel.

As followers of Jesus, our response to ideologies of exclusivity and apartheid is to uphold a vision of inclusivity and equality for all peoples of the land and to persistently struggle to bring this about,” the proclamation reads.

This document follows the tradition of German pastor Dietrich Bonfhoeffer’s declaration—or a status confessionis—in 1933 when he argued that the Nazis’ denial of the rights of Jews presented the German church with a choice to either stand up and resist the Nazi regime or stand by and lose its claim to follow the teachings of Jesus. Throughout history, the term status confessionis has been used by the church to describe a moral crisis and the church’s response, which determines its faithfulness.



Palestinian refugees

1. Palestinian refugees
UNWRA (United National Works and Relief Agency)

Palestinian refugees are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

UNRWA services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance.

This is UNRWA’s offical website.


2. Palestinian Refugees
Palestinian Refugees ResearchNet, based at McGill Unviersity

A website that provides an overview of the refugee situation in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well as in the West Bank and Gaza with links to pages on Refugees in the Middle East Peace Process and Resolving the Refugee Question: Key Issues


3. MIDDLE EAST: Palestinian refugee numbers/whereabouts
IRIN, an independent, non-profit media organisation, June 2010.

“For the past 62 years, millions of Palestinians have been living as refugees in areas of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) and in surrounding host countries – mostly in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has described their plight as ‘by far the most protracted and largest of all refugee problems in the world today’. IRIN takes a fresh look at their number and whereabouts.

The overwhelming majority of Palestinians live in the Middle East. UNRWA operates in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory. There are also sizeable numbers of refugees living in Iraq, Egypt and outside the Middle East…”

4. Compromise is possible on Palestinian right of return

Akiva Eldar in Al Monitor, 24 May 2018

5. Survey of Palestinian refugees preferred options under various potential refugee scenarios in a peace agreement.

Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, 2003

The Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research conducted three surveys between January and June 2003. The results showed that refugees were realistic about the options that would be available. Among other things, the surveys showed that very few would want to return to Israel if they would have to accept Israeli citizenship.

6.  Greek Cypriots’ right of return 

Decision of the European Court of Human Rights, March 2010

“In a landmark ruling the ECtHR held last week (Demopoulos et al. v. Turkey) that Greek refugees who had fled northern Cyprus during the Turkish invasion in 1974 do not have an automatic, unqualified right of return to their ancestral land. The majority opinion accepted the Turkish position that the passage of time and the reality on the ground may override “family roots” and other such sentiments, practically holding that the rights of the de facto long term tenant may outweigh those of the original individual owner. Instead of actual return, material compensation may be sought. Turkey had established a remedial apparatus to address such claims by Greek Cypriots. The court took it to be an effective course of action.”

“The court stated that: “It is not enough for an applicant to claim that a particular place or property is a ‘home’; he or she must show that they enjoy concrete and persisting links with the property concerned. Some 35 years have elapsed since the applicants lost possession of their property in Northern Cyprus in 1974. Generations have passed. The local population has not remained static. Turkish Cypriots who inhabited the north have migrated elsewhere; Turkish-Cypriot refugees from the south have settled in the north; Turkish settlers from Turkey have arrived in large numbers and established homes. Much Greek-Cypriot property has changed hands at least once, whether by sale, donation or inheritance.”

This decision could prove to be a precedent for Palestinian refugees’ rights.


See also the page The Palestinian refugees in the Origins of and Background to the Conflict section.


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