This study was commissioned by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and financed by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung; BMZ) in response to an acute need for an analysis of diasporas in Germany.
The Evolution of the Palestinian Diaspora in Germany
The Palestinian diaspora primarily originated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; before 1948, Palestinians did not leave the country in significant numbers. As a result of the conflict, huge waves of people left the Palestinian Territory, especially in 1948 and, to a lesser extent, also in 1967. Even though Palestinian communities were established throughout Western Europe and the United States as a result of this emigration, the majority live in the Arab countries (Di Bartolomeo, Jaulin, & Perrin, 2011).
With regard to Germany, different waves and patterns of Palestinian migration contributed to the creation of an immigrant population which, among other elements, is marked by great diversity in terms of places of origin, socioeconomic factors, religion, political affiliations, and reasons for migration. Palestinian migration to Germany started in the 1950s, when predominantly low-skilled migrants were admitted under agreements for temporary workers. Since the 1960s, there has been an increasing trend in higher skilled migration, mainly for the purpose of study in Germany. Conflicts in Lebanon caused mass displacement in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, with high numbers of Palestinian refugees residing in the country seeking protection in Germany. Given the lack of educational opportunities for displaced Palestinians in Lebanon, this wave was mainly composed of lower-skilled refugees (Wari, 2015). More recently, the conflicts in Libya and Syria, which erupted in 2010 and 2011 respectively, led to another wave of forced displacement of Palestinians, with a considerable number again seeking protection in Germany (Bolongaro, 2016). The configuration of different factors, including various distinctively patterned waves of migration, led to the creation of a very diverse, heterogenous, and multilayered
population and has contributed to a dynamic pattern of diaspora mobilization.
The emergence and evolution of the Palestinian diaspora mobilization in Germany must be analyzed in the light of the broader Palestinian resistance movement. This movement initially sparked by the creation of the PLO after 1964 and its transition after 1967 war from a traditional political organisation to an umbrella of the armed resistance organizations before the PLO abandoned armed struggle and opted to the political solution accepting UNSCR resolutions 242 and 338 in its PNC meeting in Algeria in November 1988. Even though the aim of liberation was shared by most
Palestinians, the PLO largely operated in centers of the diaspora, which became the main feature for the Palestinian national project. This period was characterized by a remarkable institutional evolution in which the PLO created a representative worldwide structure. The size and strength of the movement was attained by the formation of professional associations, political groups, independent intellectuals, and think tanks, which then formed the broader national movement (Bamyeh, 2007). According to some of the older generations of respondents, Germany could be considered an important base of the PLO at the time; among the leading individuals who founded the organization were some – such as Hani Al-Hassan and Abdallah Frangi – lived and studied in Germany. Student networks, professional organizations, and workers’ associations connected the Palestinian diaspora in Germany into global structures of PLO activism:
“The PLO was always the big house for us, in the sense everyone identified with the PLO, not necessarily with the leadership, but
with the PLO as such. That is, we all considered the PLO to be the only legitimate representative of our people without exception.
We worked for the PLO for days and nights.” (IN18, personal interview, Cologne, December 2017)
The PLO provided not just a political home by mobilizing Palestinians in Germany to support their acts of resistance but also a social-cultural one as it contributed, through its structures, to the creation of a collective identity based on a shared consciousness:
“The people were also enthusiastic after all, also very moved by their history. They celebrated a lot of festivals, there was a strong
sense of community, they also invited groups from Palestine, PLO representatives came to Germany. […] And despite any
criticism of the political attitude or distance, but it was a life in the diaspora. You felt that. We hold together.” (IN10, personal
interview, Munich, November 2017)
According to Koinova (2017), the Oslo Accords in 1993 can be considered a critical juncture as they shifted the center of gravity of the Palestinian struggle from the diaspora to the homeland territory. The creation of the Palestinian National Authorities (PNA), responsible for the self-government in the West Bank and Gaza, moved the focus toward the project of state-building and away from the right of return, one of the key concerns of Palestinians in the diaspora. Many interview respondents highlighted that the Oslo Accords marked a turning point in Palestinian diaspora mobilization in Germany. Emotionally, people were frustrated and dissatisfied with the PLO leadership, as the right of return and other fundamental refugee rights were neglected in the negotiations. At the same time, organizational structures that were constructed by the PLO tended to receive far less support, which led to the creation of more independent diaspora associations and networks in Germany that tried to unify the different political views under one umbrella.
While the first intifada in 1987 was mainly characterized by peaceful uprisings against the Israeli occupation, the second intifada in 2001 saw the rise of armed resistance, largely propelled by the militant group Hamas, which consolidated its power over the Gaza Strip as a result of the elections in 2006. Due to the escalation of violence between the two factions as of August 2007, the Palestinian Territory eventually became politically, ideologically, and geographically divided between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled West Bank (Koinova, 2014). Although united on a common ground, their different ideas, strategies, and divergent solutions to the Palestinian question, which became manifested through the internal conflict, were also reproduced in the Palestinian diaspora:
“Before the conflict in Gaza between Hamas and Fatah, we agreed that we only represent our interests here in Germany and use the
community here as a stage to represent our activities. Even this micro-project was an example to us that we Palestinians can come
together, even if we are not politically unified […] Until this conflict occurred in the Gaza Strip. The people were no longer in
agreement.” (IN1, skype interview, October 2017)
Hence, the Palestinian diaspora tends to be fragmented across Germany and, for a large part, divided because of different political opinions that mirror the schisms on the ground in the Palestinian Territory to a certain extent. This also led to the diversification of the organised diaspora, with associations and networks emerging that tended to be affiliated with the different factions of the Palestinian polities. At the same time, other dichotomies were entrenched along secular and religious divides, generations, and different experiences of displacement, to mention a few:
“In any case, there are fragmentations, that does not mean that there cannot be cooperation sometimes [...] But I do not believe
that this is always possible or even necessary, because the visions are just different. And if the visions differ, then you do not work
towards the same goal and therefore do not pull together.” (IN11, personal interview, Siegen, November 2017)
This, however, does not mean that the conflict lines are intractable, as a space for dialogue, rapprochement, and collective action among Palestinian diaspora groups has been identified throughout the interviews. In particular, in times of crisis due to reoccurring phases of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (such as Israeli bombing campaigns in Gaza in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2014), Palestinian diaspora groups in Germany tended to bundle their resources to respond more effectively to the needs of the Palestinian population. In addition to organizing joint demonstrations to raise awareness of the situation in the Palestinian Territory, organizations collectively engaged in providing humanitarian aid to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians most affected by the conflict. Moreover, many articulated a strong desire for unification and reconciliation between the two political factions in the Palestinian Territory but also within the diaspora, as a strong collective voice seems needed to find a political solution to the enduring conflict.
Key Opportunities, Challenges, and Avenues for Cooperation
A strong desire for peace was clearly articulated throughout the interviews, though there are divergent ideas, strategies, and solutions to the Palestinian question. On the one hand, some interviewees advocate for a two-state solution within the borders of 1967. On the other hand, there is an increasing opinion among diaspora activists interviewed that a lasting and just peace in the region can ultimately be achieved only in a common,
democratic state where every person, regardless of his or her religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, or place of residence, has the same obligations and rights to live in freedom and dignity:
“Basically, everyone is welcome. If the Jews say, ‘this is our home,’ then please stay. But that is also my historical home. Let's
live together and make the best out of it. It is my wish that we will reach this someday. So, a common state, a democratic, secular
state.” (IN10, personal interview, Munich, November 2017)
In general, there seems to be a strong commitment and willingness to contribute to peace and development in the Palestinian Territory through activities both in the host country and in the Palestinian Territory. The Palestinian diaspora in Germany is also seen as very resourceful and as able to make positive contributions due to its expertise, knowledge, and skills. Supporting Di Bartolomeo, Jaulin, & Perrin’s argument (2011) that Palestinian engagement is partially driven by their high socioeconomic and educational background, one of the interviewees voiced that:
“The topic of education was very, very important. It is said that this is the only weapon we have, if we may call it that. And the
topic has played a huge role. And also, integration in the end, we are part of this society.” (IN6, phone interview, October 2017)
As transnational social agents, Palestinian diaspora groups play an important role in matching resources across spaces and in growing the network of institutions and individuals who work in (post-)conflict environments. Through their networks and context-specific knowledge about structures in Germany, Palestinian organizations are able to support the inclusion of newcomers in the labor market, education, and society. At the same time,Palestinian diaspora groups are confronted with several challenges in the country of origin, the host country, and within the diaspora
which hinder them from realizing their full potential.
Despite the tremendous needs of the population in the Palestinian Territory, the Israeli occupation is seen as the major obstacle that profoundly limits the development potential of the Palestinian diaspora in Germany. Given the Gaza blockade, Israeli procedures at border crossings, and other restrictions, many interview respondents perceive it as difficult to get access to the Territory and carry out activities there:
“So, the access to Palestine is simply not given. This is so difficult to get to their own country and ultimately to offer our help there.”
(IN15, phone interview, November 2017)
Some organizations faced difficulties and bureaucratic hurdles in getting permits to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza or to implement development-oriented activities in the Palestinian Territory. In addition to restrictive measures by the Israeli state, there also seems to be a general feeling of mistrust toward the Palestinian Authority, further limiting the willingness to engage in the Palestinian context. The overall fragile political context characterized by weak political institutions and corrupt practices is, hence, perceived by some interviewees as another obstacle to conducting development-related activities.
Moreover, some organizations mentioned that, despite the aspiration of supporting the Palestinians in the Territory, they lack the capacity to become actively engaged in the context of the country of origin. The protracted nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along with the complex and diverse needs of the Palestinian population, makes it difficult for some organizations to identify fields of development-orientated engagement and to make positive contributions from a distance. These patterns highlight the needs and opportunities for capacity development among Palestinian diaspora organisations in Germany.
When it comes to the host country context, the Palestinian diaspora groups experience their positionality as rather weak, in particular due to the unique German-Israeli history:
“At the moment, there is the problem of anti-Semitism in Germany. Every criticism of the state of Israel is viewed as anti-Semitic […]
Of course we are against any kind of anti-Semitism and racism and discrimination. But the criticism [of the state] is justified. At
the moments the rights of Palestinians are being violated.” (IN19, personal interview, Stuttgart, December 2017)
Many diasporic political activists perceive it as a balancing act to express criticism of Israel as a state or Israeli policies in their advocacy work without finding themselves confronted with accusations of anti-Semitism. In recent years, several city councils in Germany passed legislation that prohibits any public support of or cooperation with supporters of the Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS). For many, this not only limits the discursive opportunities to engage in open discussions and an exchange of facts and opinions about the Israel-Palestine conflict but also poses a practical challenge to the realization of activities. Many organizations frequently experience difficulties in finding venues for their political and cultural events or even have to deal with the cancellation of locations due to external pressure. Islamophobic or anti-Arab attitudes as well as racist and xenophobic resentment, amplified by rising right-wing movements and parties in Germany, were mentioned as another challenge in the German context.
Many Palestinian diaspora associations state that they face difficulties in mobilizing Palestinians to take action for a common cause. Reasons for this are seen in the fragmented nature of the Palestinian diaspora, in which diverse aspirations, opinions, and solutions to the Palestinian question make
it difficult to create a strong collective voice:
“The Palestinians are in agreement, or they have a consensus, because they want to put an end to the occupation. All Palestinians
are in favor of this, of course. But if it continues, where the border of Palestine should be, then we already start to have problems. And
that is why there is not necessarily a consensus now. The political cleavages are also visible in the Palestinian communities […] And
to reach an agreement on that now will be very, very difficult.” (IN2, phone interview, October 2017)
Moreover, the protracted nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose solution many consider to be out of the hands of the Palestinian population, can be seen as a major discouraging factor for diaspora mobilization. As a result, a lack of human capital was frequently mentioned as a major challenge since, in the majority of cases, work is mainly done on a voluntary basis and largely relies on the initiative of very few active individuals. This is often perceived as a heavy burden, causing frustration, exhaustion, and sometimes even the dissolution of associations.
Next to human resources, a lack of capacity due to limited infrastructure and scarce financial resources is also clearly visible among Palestinian diaspora organizations in Germany. The majority of organizations lack necessary working equipment, such as office space and supplies, and also heavily rely on donations, membership fees, and volunteer work to conduct their activities. Only a few organizations were able to access public funding. Thus, a strong commitment and sense of ownership on the part of the founders as well as time investment to build a trustful relationship with local authorities are seen as crucial success factors. The project-based nature of funding makes it difficult to develop strategic management and long-term planning, posing an additional challenge to organizational capacity building:
“Of course, you can plant something in the desert, but the likelihood that it will grow and eventually bear fruit is lower
than planting it on fertile ground.” (IN16, personal interview, Hannover, December 2017)
Diaspora organization capacity development: While there seems to be a strong willingness of Palestinian diaspora organizations to actively engage in development-orientated activities in the country of origin, a general lack of capacity of many associations has been identified as one of the main barriers in this regard. In order to ensure more long-term and strategic capacity development of diaspora organizations, funding should move from a project-based nature toward providing more structural funding opportunities. In addition, providing training in capacity development could address potential obstacles related to organizational leadership, fundraising, project management, and strategic planning. Moreover, the protracted nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along with the complex and diverse needs of the Palestinian population, constitute major obstacles to the identification of potential development-related fields of diaspora engagement. Scenariobuilding workshops on potential fields of action, including mapping of different stakeholders and potential partners in the country of origin, could promote and facilitate more strategic and long-term development efforts on the part of the Palestinian diaspora in Germany.
Return programs: The narrative of the Palestinian diaspora strongly carries the notion of an ancestral homeland and the longing for return. Although an emotional and symbolic return is a central desire among participants of this study, this does not necessarily translate into practice on the ground, even if there is a possibility of repatriation due to possession of a German passport. A lack of personal and political freedom, limited economic perspectives, as well as reoccurring phases of instability and conflict may be potential factors negatively influencing the willingness for permanent return.
Investment promotion programs: Such programs can provide important channels to transfer the knowledge and skills as well as foreign direct investments by Palestinian diaspora entrepreneurs and businesses to boost the struggling economy, which tends to be characterized by high unemployment rates (particularly among youth) and low economic growth. At the same time, external restrictions such as procedures at border crossings, the Gaza blockade, and access restrictions to Area C of the West Bank, as well as internal constraints of weak governance and institutions, have been identified as major barriers to economic development (World Bank, 2017). These factors may also negatively affect the potential and opportunities of Palestinian diaspora economic entrepreneurs.
Acknowledging the politicized nature of diaspora involvement: It has been shown that the Palestinian diaspora is highly politicized, since both external and internal dynamics of the conflict are reflected and reproduced in the Palestinian diaspora in Germany. The politicized nature of diaspora
involvement can represent a challenge for international development cooperation, as development and humanitarian organizations have to maintain principles of neutrality, independency, and impartiality. Instead of aiming at depoliticizing diaspora action, however, Horst (2013) argues that development cooperation should acknowledge the political nature of such engagement and understand diaspora involvement as a form of civic participation in the host country, which is characterized by diversity, differences, and contestations: “civic participation always takes place from a particular position, and it is in the debate between different positions and in contestations of the status quo in which societal change occurs.” (p.243)
This also means that development actors should not search for a unified voice and representation within the Palestinian diaspora but rather create a space for discussion and debates, in which diversity (instead of uniformity) leads to future ways of cooperation and action. This requires a more long-term approach of cooperation, as time and contact are needed to create a trustful and constructive environment for discussions and exchange.
Promoting involvement of women and (second-generation) youth: In line with other studies revealing that collective action of diaspora groups tends to be a result of the mobilization of a small elite of political activists (Portes, Escobar, & Arana, 2008; Guarnizo, Portes, & Haller, 2003), the profile of the diaspora organizations interviewed was comprised primarily of males belonging to the older generation. This does not necessarily mean that Palestinian women or youth in Germany do not participate in diaspora mobilization but, rather, that their engagement might be more difficult to capture in the framework of this study. For instance, interviews with the younger generation indicated that their engagement tends to be characterized by more informal, loose structures and networks. At the same time, diverse structures and processes may produce social positions based, among other things, on hierarchies of class, profession, generation, and gender within the diaspora mobilization, risking the reproduction of pre-existing societal power asymmetries. Reaching out to Palestinian women, student, and youth organizations, as well as implementing joint workshops on how to promote engagement among these target groups, can be a way to promote diversity in the cooperation with Palestinian diaspora groups.
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