The plight of Palestine refugees has been a serious concern of the UN ever since the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. When a cease-fire came into effect early in 1949, hundreds of thousands of Arabs who lived in the territory that is now Israel were stranded on the other side of the armistice line from their homes. The Arab states claim that the refugees were driven out by the Israelis or fled in fear of reprisals. Israel, on the other hand, asserts that the Arab states told the Arab population to evacuate the area temporarily so that their armies could more easily drive the Israelis into the sea. (For the political background, see the section on the Middle East in the chapter on International Peace and Security.)
The refugees were given emergency relief at first by the ICRC, the League of Red Cross Societies, and the American Friends Service Committee, using money and supplies provided by the temporary UN Relief for Palestine Refugees, established in December 1948. In December 1949, the General Assembly created a special agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), to provide relief and works projects in collaboration with the local governments. In the following year, the General Assembly extended UNRWA's mandate to June 1952 and instructed it to carry out development projects that would enable the refugees to be absorbed into the economy of the region. As originally conceived, UNRWA was a large-scale but definitely temporary operation, to be terminated by the end of 1952. The General Assembly accordingly asked Israel and its neighbors to secure "the permanent reestablishment of the refugees and their removal from relief." In carrying out programs of resettlement, however, all parties concerned, including UNRWA, were to act without prejudice to the rights of those refugees who "wished to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors." These were to "be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date"; those who chose not to do so were to be compensated for their losses.
These goals were not achieved by 1952 and have not been met since then. Large-scale development projects to induce the refugees to leave the camps and enable them to become self-supporting in their host countries were approved by the General Assembly but never realized. Since 1952, UNRWA's mandate has been repeatedly extended.
For more information on UNRWA, see the chapter on International Peace and Security.