At the end of 2002, Israel hosted about 2,100 refugees and asylum seekers with pending claims. These included around 1,200 refugees from Lebanon and 92 from other countries, mostly Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, and 760 asylum seekers with cases pending, including 233 pending group status determinations. The latter included 86 from Eritrea, 67 from Liberia, 51 from Ivory Coast, and 29 from Sierra Leone.

An estimated 250,000 Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are internally displaced in Israel and are not allowed to return to their villages; they have been displaced since 1948.

All Jews are eligible to immigrate and become citizens under Israel's Law of Return, regardless of their reasons for leaving their countries of origin. Israel declines to categorize any Jewish immigrants as refugees. In late 2002, the Israeli government was planning to allow around 18,000 Ethiopians (Falash Mura) candidates for aliyah (immigration to Israel) to settle in Israel. Several thousand Argentine Jews also immigrated, fleeing the economic collapse in their home country.

Palestinian Refugees

At the time of Israel's creation in 1948, an estimated 800,000 Palestinians fled their homes in Palestine. By the end of 2002, the global Palestinian population grew to 9.3 million, including 4 million registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and their descendents. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 stated that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date" and that those not wishing to return should receive compensation."

Israel, however, rejects Resolution 194, saying that it is not binding. In a January 17, 2002 letter to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, the Israeli government said that it "considers Resolution 194 not to be relevant to the realities of the Middle East" and that "the change of circumstances over the past 53 years has made the return of Palestinian refugees no longer feasible and practicable."


Israel is a party to the UN Refugee Convention. In January 2002, the Israeli National Status Granting Body (NSGB) took over responsibility of refugee status determination from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The NSGB reviews asylum applications and makes recommendations to the Ministry of Interior, which has the ultimate authority for approval and denial of asylum cases. Denied applicants may appeal. The NSGB made 166 individual recommendations, including 63 approvals. It rejected 103 claims and 9 appeals. Work permits were not issued for asylum seekers in 2002, as they were in 2001.

During 2002, there were no known incidents of refoulement. In April, a group of around 15 Ethiopians and Eritreans who were denied refugee status by Israel went on a hunger strike in Jerusalem. UNHCR had recognized the Africans' refugee status, but the Israeli interior ministry declined to recognize it.

Some asylum seekers were detained, but had access to UNHCR, which received timely information on asylum requests from the authorities. Accelerated procedures were implemented, resulting in speedy status determinations. The authorities usually released asylum seekers who appeared to have valid claims while they were under review for a final decision. While in detention, 30 people requested asylum during 2002.

No refugees voluntarily repatriated, but seven were resettled by the UNHCR to third countries.

Lebanese Militiamen

Following Israel's forced withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, its surrogate South Lebanese Army (SLA) disintegrated. More than 6,000 of its members and their families fled to Israel, fearing retribution from Hizballah guerrillas and the Lebanese government for collaborating with Israel.

Of the original SLA refugees only 1,200 – some 770 families – remained in Israel in 2002, including a sizable community of 115 families whose members continued to live in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona. While most of the refugees may have preferred to leave Israel, their options were limited as other countries were unwilling to resettle them and they still faced punitive measures in Lebanon. By year's end, 5,000 former SLA soldiers were serving prison sentences in Lebanon, and 25 of those living in Israel were sentenced to death in absentia.

In 2002, the Knesset Absorption Committee considered their situation. In early 2002, the Israeli government decided to offer some 242 officers and their families the same benefits as retired Israeli Defense Force officers while another 520 families would receive the same benefits as new immigrants. The veterans objected to the differential treatment and refused to sign any agreement that would place them on a par with new immigrants. Since their arrival in Israel in May 2000, some former SLA members have left Israel permanently, traveling on to other countries. Others have returned to Lebanon, despite the threat of arrest and trial for treason upon return.

Internal Displacement

There were more than 1 million Israelis of Palestinian descent in 2002, close to 20 percent of Israel's population and more than 11 percent of the total Palestinian population worldwide. Of these, as many as 250,000 were originally displaced in 1948 (or are descendents of persons displaced at that time).

Israel used the British Mandates' Emergency Regulations and new laws and regulations to prevent the internally displaced and others from returning without prior permission. The 1950 Absentees' Properties Law categorized internally displaced Palestinians as "Present Absentees." This law effectively transferred Palestinian properties to Jewish Israeli ownership through the Custodian of Absentee Properties who transferred them to the Israeli Development Authority. The National Committee for the Rights of the Internally Displaced Palestinians in Israel called on the Israeli government to respect the right of the displaced to return to their former homes, asserting that a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will not bring a just peace if it does not respect this right.


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