The Growing Problem of Palestinian Internal Displacement

The Growing Problem of Palestinian Internal Displacement

One of the often neglected groups of internally displaced persons in the Middle East is internally displaced Palestinians. The problem of internal displacement has become increasingly more severe due to Israeli military policies to suppress the second Palestinian intifada that began in September 2000. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), an estimated 56,000 Palestinians were forced to change residence during the first 7 months of the second Palestinian intifada due to the proximity of their homes to Israeli military checkpoints and Israeli colonies (i.e., settlements). The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates at as of the end of 2002 some 80,000 Palestinians had been rendered homeless due to the destruction of their homes by Israeli military forces.

Defining Internal Displacement

Poor awareness of the problem of Palestinian internal displacement is related, in part, to the fact that internal displacement is difficult to conceptualize in the context of the Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict, which is rooted in the ongoing struggle over control of land and sovereignty thereon. The defining characteristic of internally displaced persons is that they have not crossed an internationally recognized border. In the course of the more than fifty-year old conflict, however, wars and military occupation have frequently changed cease-fire lines and de facto borders. Where are the international borders, which delineate the difference between refugees and internally displaced persons? What is the relevant entity – i.e., Mandate Palestine, Israel, the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories? Concepts like "Palestinian minority" and "internally displaced Palestinians" can only be applied pragmatically in order to describe the phenomenon of internal displacement in a specific period of time.

A pragmatic categorization of internally displaced Palestinians under current (post-Oslo) conditions would include four primary groups:

(1) “1948 Internally Displaced Palestinians” – The largest group of internally displaced Palestinians is located inside Israel and were originally displaced and dispossessed of their homes and lands during the 1948 war. Israel refers to these internally displaced as ‘present-absentees’ – i.e., they are present physically but absent in relation to their homes and lands of origin. The UNHCR refers to this group of IDPs as “1948 Palestine Refugees.”
(2) “Post-1948 Internally Displaced Palestinians” – A second and smaller group consists of those Palestinians inside Israel who have been displaced since 1948 due, primarily, to internal transfer, land expropriation, and house demolition. A large sector of this group is comprised of Bedouin.
(3) “1967 Internally Displaced Palestinians” – A third category of internally displaced persons is comprised of those Palestinians displaced within the West Bank, including eastern Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip during the 1967 war. This does not include 1967 Palestinian refugees who are often referred to as ‘1967 displaced persons’ due to the fact that at the time of their displacement the West Bank was under Jordanian control – i.e., they did not cross an ‘international border’ by seeking shelter, mainly in Jordan.
(4) “Post-1967 Internally Displaced Palestinians” – The fourth category of internally displaced Palestinians are those Palestinians displaced within the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip after 1967 due to land expropriation, house demolition, revocation of residency rights in Jerusalem, and other forms of internal transfer. This group also includes a large number of Bedouin.

Lack of Data on Internal Displacement

As with other groups of IDPs worldwide, there is a lack of comprehensive and systematic data on internal displacement in 1948 Palestine/Israel and the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories. Early registration and census information exists for 1948 internally displaced Palestinians requiring assistance. Initial registration files for this group of Palestinian IDPs are located in UNRWA archives and include 6 boxes consisting of 11,304 family cards and 5,155 correction cards. Each card contains the names, ages, sex, occupation, past address, and ‘distribution center’ to which the family was attached. Official data on the current status of Palestinians inside Israel and in the 1967 occupied territories does not distinguish between the internally displaced and the general Palestinian population. Data on the current status of Palestinian IDPs is therefore characterized by uneven quality and uncertainty and is derived largely from historical documents, news reports, and human rights documentation.

Estimating the Size of the Palestinian IDP Population

Estimates of the total IDP population inside 1948 Palestine/Israel and in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories vary according to source, available data, and applicable definition of internally displaced persons.

Estimated Palestinian IDPs as of 31st December 2002

Category Population Notes
1948 IDPs 260,000 Derived from initial registration figures from UNRWA in Report of the Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UN Doc. A/1905, 30 June 1951 and the average annual growth rate of the Palestinian population inside Israel between 1950 and 2001.
Post-1948 IDPs 75,000 The majority is Bedouin forced off of large tracts of land in the Naqab and living in ‘unrecognized villages’ or concentrated into so-called development towns. The remaining displaced persons include other Palestinians who were transferred by the government during the late 1940s and early 1950s; Palestinians displaced by land expropriation; and, Palestinians displaced as a result of house demolition.
1967 IDPs 10,000 The majority are persons displaced internally from the villages of Imwas, Yalu, Beit Nuba, Beit Marsam, Beit ‘Awa, Habla and Jifliq, as well as from the city of Qalqilya and the old city of Jerusalem, including the entire Mughrabi quarter.
Post-1967 IDPs 150,000 This figure includes persons deprived of residency status in eastern Jerusalem and Palestinians displaced as a result of land expropriation and house demolition. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, an estimated 56,000 Palestinians were forced to change residence during the first 7 months of the second Palestinian intifada due to the proximity of their homes to Israeli military checkpoints and Israeli colonies (i.e., settlements). Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 2001. Impact of the Israeli Measures. Survey on the Well-being of the Palestinian Children, Women, and the Palestinian Households, June 2001. In addition, some 80,000 Palestinians have been rendered homeless. United Nations, Humanitarian Action Plan of Action 2003. Occupied Palestinian Territory. Geneva and New York, November 2002.
Estimates by BADIL (It is unclear how many IDPs displaced after 1948 have been able to return to their homes of origin and are no longer in need of international protection).

The ‘Protection Gap’

One of the major problems faced by internally displaced persons worldwide is the lack of protection. Internally displaced Palestinians also lack effective national and international protection in relation to protection from displacement, respect for basic human rights during displacement, provision of humanitarian assistance, and the search for durable solutions, including the right of return and housing and property restitution. Israel is able but not willing to extend comprehensive national protection to internally displaced Palestinians inside Israel. Internally displaced Palestinians in the 1967 occupied territories lack national protection by virtue of the absence of a state obligated to provide such protection. Israel, the occupying power, has refused to abide by its legal obligations and responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention to provide protection to the civilian population. The self-governing Palestinian Authority, a non-sovereign entity established during the 1990s under the Oslo political process, has not been able to provide full protection for the civilian population in the occupied territories, including IDPs. Since the second Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, the Authority has come under severe attack by Israeli military forces and is effectively defunct. Israeli practices inside Israel and in the 1967 occupied territories, including land expropriation, house demolition, revocation of residency rights, and military closure continues to generate internal displacement.

The international community has largely ignored the protection needs of internally displaced Palestinians inside Israel and in the 1967 occupied territories. No single international agency is currently recognized as having an explicit protection mandate for internally displaced Palestinians. The United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), mandated to provide international protection for 1948 Palestinian refugees and internally displaced, ceased to provide effective protection in the early 1950s. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) does not have an explicit mandate to provide comprehensive protection to internally displaced Palestinians in the 1967 occupied territories. Various UN organs have addressed the protection needs of the Palestinian population in the 1967 occupied territories, which would include internally displaced persons, but the lack of international political will has prevented an effective response.

Marginalization of Palestinian IDPs

Internally displaced Palestinians thus experience multiple forms of marginalization relative to national and international protection. As with other IDPs worldwide, they experience general marginalization due to shortcomings in the institutional setup and legal framework for international protection of internally displaced persons. Internally displaced Palestinians inside Israel are further marginalized as members of a non-Jewish ethno-national minority in a Jewish state. Internally displaced Palestinians in the 1967 occupied territories are further marginalized by Israel’s illegal occupation and the absence of a state that is obligated, able and willing to provide protection. Generally, Palestinian IDPs have been marginalized due to the exclusion of the issue of internally displaced persons from the Oslo political process. Unlike most other peace agreements, the Oslo agreements do not include provisions for durable solutions for IDPs. No international body or mechanism, moreover, is currently recognized as having an explicit mandate to provide comprehensive protection and search for durable solutions for Palestinian IDPs.

An Agenda for Action

Until recently, major non-governmental and UN agencies did not recognize internally displaced Palestinians. This lack of awareness, however, appears to be slowly changing. The recent inclusion of all categories of Palestinian IDPs in the Global IDP Database sponsored by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) , and the award of the 2002 Body Shop Human Rights Award to the National Society for the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel (See 2002 Body Shop Human Rights Award Focuses Attention of Palestinian IDPs, page #) are positive developments in this regard. A comprehensive, just, and durable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must also include solutions for internally displaced Palestinians. Like Palestinian refugees, durable solutions for Palestinian IDPs must be fully consistent with international law and relevant UN resolutions.

An agenda for action towards durable solutions for Palestinian IDPs should include, at minimum, the following elements:
(1) Awareness raising among civil society organizations, national authorities, and international actors about the problem of Palestinian internal displacement. This should also include education efforts concerning the basic framework for durable solutions for Palestinian IDPs set forth in the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. These principles should be widely circulated in Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli communities.
(2) Local, regional, and international NGOs, UN agencies, and solidarity organizations are encouraged to address the specific situation of internally displaced Palestinians, as a particularly vulnerable category of the Palestinian people. This includes documentation of human rights violations, education, health, employment status, and other socio-economic indicators. Special attention should focus on arbitrary deprivation of property affecting IDPs. Local NGOs and IDP associations should also spear-head efforts, in coordination with international organizations, for the establishment of a comprehensive registration system for internally displaced persons, followed by a comprehensive field survey on the current status of IDPs.
(3) Based on the inter-agency collaborative approach established by the United Nations in response to IDPs worldwide, relevant UN agencies, including the UNHCR, UNRWA, and the UNHCHR should initiate inter-agency discussions to determine the most effective approach to day-to-day protection for internally displaced Palestinians. The situation is particularly critical for internally displaced Palestinians and refugees in the 1967 occupied territories. Further discussion should focus on protection and the search for durable solutions. In particular, these agencies should closely monitor the status of IDPs, as well as refugees, in any future agreements between the PLO and Israel. Critical attention should be given to peace plans and proposals that suggest to solve the Palestinian refugee question on the expense of the right to return and property restitution of Palestinian citizens, including IDPs in Israel, e.g. "land swaps" and refugee resettlement on IDP lands.
(4) International organizations should provide political, capacity building, and financial support to IDP associations and initiatives working to raise awareness and lobbying for durable solutions for internally displaced Palestinians.
(5) Israel should incorporate the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement within its domestic law and remove legal and other obstacles to durable solutions for Palestinian IDPs – e.g. implementation of its obligations under international humanitarian law/Geneva Convention and human rights conventions pertaining to the protection of Palestinian residents in the 1967 occupied territories. Israel should also open all files in state archives relevant to IDPs for public access and scrutiny. Israel should also end its 35-year illegal military occupation of the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, which is the primary source of internal displacement in these territories, and facilitate durable solutions for all Palestinian IDPs.