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International Relations: the Palestinian Refugees Problem Case Study

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Updated: May 15th, 2020

It is imperative to find a mutually acceptable solution to provide assistance and a permanent home for Palestinian refugees. The failure to address this problem inevitably creates a negative perception against Israel and other Arab nations that have direct and indirect impact on the said crisis. Israel and its neighbors need to create a positive image in the international stage. At the same time, a quick resolution to the crisis is needed, because terror groups utilize the human drama surrounding the plight of the Palestinian refugees to attract new members, and to encourage terror attacks against Israel. The best way to solve the crisis is to analyze the problem through an International Relations framework, such as, the application of knowledge gleaned from the study of the international system.

What Causes the Crisis?

The crisis was caused by the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict that displaced millions of people in the region. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, one third of the registered Palestine refugees or 1.5 million individuals were scattered in at least 58 Palestine refugee camps located in Lebanon, Jordan, the Syrian Arab Republic, Gaza strip, and the West Bank of Israel (Stewart, 2013). The said UNRWA agency defined the status of the Palestinian refugee as an individual whose normal place of residence was a region called Palestine, in the period between 1946 and 1948 (Stewart, 2013, p.12). During the Arab Israeli conflict that ended on the 15th of May 1948, at least 750, 000 refugees were uprooted from their normal place of residence, and they were scattered in the said refugee camps.

The survivors and the descendants of the less than one million original refugees multiplied and grew to five million individuals (Stewart, 2013, p.12). Without a doubt, it has become a human rights crisis that has without precedence in world history. According to an international humanitarian group, recent statistics about the refugees are disheartening. For example, in Jordan close to two million refugees were registered in the database of the UNRWA (IRIN, 2015). In Lebanon, close to half a million refugees were registered with UNRWA (IRIN, 2015). In Syria, close to 430,000 Palestine refugees were registered with the said UN agency (IRIN, 2015). In Gaza, more than one million refugees were registered with the UNRWA (IRIN, 2015).

More than six decades after the eruption of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948, millions of Palestinian refugees were denied international protection. Furthermore, this group is considered the largest and longest-standing refugee population in the world (Akram, 2011). They suffer from multiple violations of human rights as they are the largest global population of individuals that are known as internally displaced and stateless (Akram, 2011).

It must be pointed out that the many of the problems faced by the Palestinian refugees are not new. In fact, similar problems exist when researchers look into conflict-induced mass exodus (Grayson, 2007). Just like their counterparts in Africa, Asia, and Europe, these refugees were victims of widespread violation of human rights, institutionalized discrimination against nationality, and discrimination against property rights. However, their situation is unique from the point of view of the persistent and severe denial of international protection (Akram, 2011). They also lack access to the resources that lead to the creation of durable solutions, as well as mechanisms that lead to the implementation of the same (Akram, 2011).

What Changes Can be made to Avoid Similar Problems in the Future

It is imperative to use diplomacy and avoid the use of military action to resolve conflicts. It is also important to appreciate the importance of international relations or IR. The search for an effective solution to the Palestinian refugees’ debacle will highlight the importance of international relations. The application of principles gleaned from the study of international relations will reveal its effectiveness in one of the toughest testing grounds in the world (Adler & Crawford, 2013). The displacement of refugees as a direct result of military or ethnic conflict is nothing new. However, the case of the Palestinian refugees is unique and distinct when compared to other conflicts around the world. However, the conflict between Arab nations and the state of Israel is an offshoot of deep-rooted quarrels and a long history political misunderstanding. As a result, “friendly relations between states and national groups are limited and transient” (Adler & Crawford, 2013, p.359) In addition, the impact of outside forces in the region is significant.

Policymakers and national leaders attempting to create reforms using tried and tested strategies in Africa, Asia, and Europe will probably experience discouragement and frustration. However, a more mature look at the issue and the application of principles gleaned from an international relations framework will encourage them to look at the issue from a different perspective. The international relations framework will make them appreciate the importance of looking at small developments. They must not despise small victories, and they need to continue developing cross-national alliances.

Policymakers must learn to consider other keys to success, and they should not rely on big ticket items such as: 1) peace settlement; 2) economic development; 3) international agreements that will ensure the exercise of the full set of human rights as defined in international covenants (Adler & Crawford, 2013). Without a doubt a peace settlement will drastically reduce violence between Palestinians and their neighbors. At the same time, economic development at a massive scale will inevitably improve the social welfare of the Palestinian refugees. In addition, it is imperative to end all forms of human rights violations. However, these big ticket items are unrealistic goals in the next few years.

The correct appreciation of international relations principle encourages national leaders and policymakers to continually pursue state interests, hence the pursuit of an acceptable peace settlement; the pursuit of an egalitarian economic development; and the desire to end human rights violations continues. However, they will also focus on less spectacular goals, such as the reduction of violence, misery and injustice.

The failure to develop a doable solution to the Palestine refugee problem is attributable to the inability to understand the ramifications of certain international relations principle. As a result many were frustrated by the lack of action when the solution seems easy to implement. However, a closer look at international relations principles will reveal that state interests prevail over the rights of ordinary individuals. Consider for instance the need of the Jewish people to establish their homeland after the Holocaust and after Arab nations used military action in the attempt to force them out of their present place of residence. Therefore, the simple solution that calls for the reabsorption of Palestinian refugees to their homeland does not seem like a simple solution after all, especially if it creates the wrong signal to the opponents of the Israeli government. In order to develop a practical solution that addresses the need to pursue national interests and the need of refugees, it is best to view the different factors that play out in the international system.

How Does the Nature/Structure of the International System Contribute to this Situation?

IR is a pragmatic way to study foreign affairs and global issues among states (Wolf & Ericksen, 2013, p.14). IR includes the study of the role of states, inter-governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, and multinational corporations (Wolf & Ericksen, 2013, p.14). In a nutshell, IR is both an academic and public policy field, and one of the important branches of political science (Wolf & Eriksen, 2013, p.14). One of the key principles of international relations is found in the assertion that it is not limited to the politics of the international community and relations among states (Wolf & Ericksen, 2013). International relations or IR also includes the “totality of the relations among peoples and groups in the world society” (Wolf & Ericksen, 2013, p.2). Based on the aforementioned definition of international relations and its expected impact in the lives of ordinary individuals, the need to accomplish short-term goals becomes more urgent. In order to accomplish these goals, it is imperative to learn more about the limitations and obstacles created by the international system under the umbrella of international relations.

One of the most popular view concerning international systems is the perspective developed by proponents of the realist theory of international relations. According to realists, power is the currency of international politics (Mearsheimer, 2006). As a result, international players and national leaders pay careful attention to the amount of military and economic power they have in relation to their neighbors. One of the key goals according to this theory of international relations is to maintain the balance of power. From this point of view, it is critical to develop a solution to the Palestinian refugees’ problem without shifting the balance of power that compromises the national security interests of affected nations. It is also important to develop a solution that does not create a negative perception against another country.

The proponents of the realist theory also stated that the international system is anarchic. This does not mean that chaos characterizes the interaction of the participants in the international political scene; this simply means that there is no authority that exists above the state. As a result, national governments are compelled to look for their own interests above all others. At the same time, this principle implies that there is no political entity or structure that has the power to compel a rogue state to conform to a certain code of conduct.

The application of the realist point of view will enable students to understand the motivation of the Israeli government when it comes to its initial reaction to ban the reabsorption of Palestinian refugees in the aftermath of the military conflict. It means that the Israeli government was unwilling to do anything that will compromise their position from a military or international politics perspective. The admission of refugees back to their homeland was interpreted as the acknowledgement that the Israeli government had no right to occupy the sliver of land given to them by the international community in 1948.

The liberals have a different worldview when it comes to the international system that governs international relations. According to the proponents of the liberalism theory of IR, the state plays a critical role in the international political economy. However, aside from the state, there are other significant players, such as international organizations and multinational corporations. The liberalist view is an important contribution to the discussion of IR, because this particular view offers hope of harmony. The realist view seems to assure the future eruption of conflict; however, the liberals assured the possibility of harmony within the international system.

The application of the liberalist point of view will enable students to understand the motivation behind the change in Israeli policies when it comes to the decision to allow the admission of refugees. This theory enables policymakers to realize that there is a way to compel Israel and neighboring nations to work together and create a mutually acceptable solution to end the Palestine refugee problem.

The radical point of view on the other hand offers a unique perspective about the problem. According to the proponents of radicalism, the root cause of the problem is the class-based struggle between different players and stakeholders in the said conflict. From this perspective, capitalists from highly-industrialized countries have investments that will be affected by the policies created to solve the said refugee problem. In other words, key players will attempt to block or derail the solutions or strategies that will negatively affect the business interests of the said capitalists.

Resolving the Crisis

The different worldviews presented by realism, liberalism, and radicalism enables students of international relations to develop a comprehensive solution to the refugee problem. For example, through the help of the realist perspective, policymakers will understand why the Israeli government refused to allow the re-entry of refugees to their ancestral homeland. It was not the lack of compassion or insensitivity to the needs of the victims of war. The decision not to allow the re-entry of refugees was due to the perceived impact of the said decision. Israel was trying to establish their claim as the rightful owners and residents of a sliver of land found in Palestine. At the same time, the realist perspective enables students to see the problem associated with the absence of a higher power that could serve as an arbiter to resolve the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. The realist theory also helps to understand the motivation of certain Palestinian leaders when they refused the offer of Israel to finally allow the re-entry of refugees. The Palestinian leaders refused the offer of Israel, because they perceived the Israeli initiative as a power play that weakened their political position.

The application of both realism and liberalism encourages the creation of an international organization that will help deal with the problem. From this point of view there is hope that contending parties will solve the problem by dealing with the anarchic issue raised by realist. In other words, it is possible to work with an international organization or an arbiter to deal with some of the thorny issues between Israel and Arab countries.

The radical perspective is also an important contribution, because it enables students of IR to look into other factors that could derail the implementation of solutions or strategies to end the refugee problem in Palestine. At the same time, this perspective puts pressure on international players, specifically influential Western nations like the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia. This theory questions their motives when it comes to their support towards Israel and indifference towards the Palestine refugees (Kinsella, 2012). It enables ordinary individuals to work together and question the discrimination leveled against poor Palestine refugees (Guzzini, 2013). They need to know why Palestine refugees were treated differently than other refugees in other parts of the world (Brynen & El-Rifai, 2007).


There is a solution to the Palestine refugee problem, and that is the careful appreciation and application of insights gleaned from the study of international relations. Policymakers must look into how IR interprets the international system, and how it works in accordance to liberalism, radicalism, and realism. Using these theories, students will understand the motivation behind certain actions. It will also help them develop a comprehensive solution that deals with different aspects of the problem. These insights will help policymakers develop a solution that is mutually acceptable to all stakeholders. These insights will also help them develop short-term solutions to deal with more urgent problems.


Adler, E. & Crawford, B. (2013). Progress in post-war international relations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Akram, S. (2011). International law and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. New York: Routledge.

Baracsay, D. (2011). Palestine liberation organization. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO.

Brynen, R., & El-Rifai, R. (2007). Palestinian refugees. New York: I.B. Tauris.

Grayson, R. (2007). Liberals, international relations and appeasement. New York: Routledge.

Guzzini, S. (2013). Power, realism, and constructivism. New York: Routledge.

IRIN. (2015). Palestinian refugee numbers. Web.

Kinsella, D. (2012). World politics: The menu choice. Los Angeles, CA: Cengage Learning.

Mearsheimer, J. (2006). Structural realism. Web.

Stewart, D. (2009). The Middle East today. New York: Routledge.

Wolf, E., & Eriksen, T. (2010). Europe and the people without history. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

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