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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Palestinian Displacement in the Age of Climate Chaos

Already under assault by Israeli occupation and injustice, a warming world makes the situation even more unfriendly for those living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Gaza City


By Harrison Watson, Common Dreams


Thirty years ago this month, the Oslo Accords were signed by then-leaders of Israel and Palestine to recognize Palestinian sovereignty and nativity and bring about peace between the nations.


But the Oslo Accords failed and Israel continues to encroach on Palestinian communities. Palestinian communities displaced by Israeli settlements have largely relied on support by the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), like the generations of Palestinians before them.


Unfortunately, the UNRWA is on the verge of collapse, said the Commissioner-General of UNRWA in June. The agency needs $105 million to feed over 1.5 million Palestinian refugees between the Gaza Strip and beyond into the broader Middle East-North Africa region, else it “might implode.”


The agency, thus, is cash-strapped without any way of protecting stranded Palestinian refugees from the rapidly intensifying impacts of climate change.


Since 1950, the UNRWA has served nearly 6 million Palestinians refugees from the Gaza Strip and West Bank to Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The agency provides support for food and health, education, microfinancing, and emergency assistance.


Still, it cannot provide resettlement services to refugees since they are not included in the mandate of the UN High Commission for Refugees. This is because many Palestinians today are descendants of the original refugees displaced from their ancestral lands between 1946 and 1948.


More than 95% of Palestinian refugees remain in countries in the Middle East-North Africa region. Countries in this region are warming faster than anywhere else on the planet—indeed by 2.7oF (1.5oC) since measurements began in 1950.


Across this region Palestinian refugees equally struggle for rights and protections. For example, in Lebanon, Palestinians are denied access to work in several high-paying professions including engineering and law, and are relegated to impoverished and outdated camps. Still, the cost of living in Lebanon increases while the number of Palestinian refugees living in poverty rises concurrently, notes the Migrant Policy Institute.


In Syria, refugees, as recently as May 2023, still do not have access to full citizenship and the protections therein. Most refugees live in camps, though many have been displaced by civil war and earthquakes.


According to the World Bank between 1980 and 2011 the number of natural disasters—floods, droughts, and earthquakes —increased in the Middle East-North Africa region three-fold.


In both Lebanon and Syria, this summer’s wildfires have been particularly severe (the effects of which are unknown to those outside of the government) and the complications they cause are only exacerbated by the ongoing financial crises taking their toll on both countries. In Syria, firefighters are paid pennies and in Lebanon the government has struggled to find funds and effectively organize a workforce to protect communities in increasingly fire-prone areas.

Jordan, home to the largest number of Palestinian refugees outside of the Gaza Strip and West Bank (2.4 million) and expecting more from Syria soon, faces a water shortage due to drought in the region.


To protect the Palestinian refugees that rely on UNRWA funding and now face future displacement due to the worsening climate crisis, the agency will need to be reinforced substantially.


By virtue of a mandate, the UNRWA needs to be given the authority to resettle Palestinian refugees. While many Palestinians rightly fear the loss of shared identity that would come from assuming new nationalities or, worse yet, caught in limbo amid a slow and inefficient bureaucratic process of finding a new home, many live without rights and protections in temporary settlements, especially those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip forgotten by the Oslo accords.


Even without a resettlement mandate, the UNRWA is a government agency providing government services and needs to receive the institutional means to do their work. Currently, 93 percent of UNRWA funding comes from donations, but the UNRWA’s operations have been stretched too far for modest donations to sustain the agency and, by extension, the Palestinian communities that depend on it for support.


Protecting refugee populations, especially the world’s largest refugee population, should not rely on discretionary funding as it has. These communities are on the frontlines of climate change, and effectively protecting them protects us all. Therefore, going forward the UNRWA needs to be included in mandatory funding, via the peacekeeping budget, with disproportionate contributions from the Israeli government that continues to benefit -- economically, socially, and culturally -- from living on Palestinian ancestral lands.


Without mandatory assistance, millions of descendants of those originally displaced will live whipped along the shifting currents of climate change -- beyond the Jordan River, beyond the Mediterranean Sea.


Harrison Watson is a Ph.D. student in Ecology at Princeton University. He is also a Public Voices Fellow of the Op-Ed Project and Yale Program for Climate Change Communication and a Conservation and Justice Fellow with the American Bird Conservancy.


This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

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