No strategy or vision that aims to end internal displacement

No strategy or vision that aims to end internal displacement

Assessing the response to situations of internal displacement in the OPT

This article presents some of the main findings and recommendations emerging from an assessment of the response to situations of internal displacement in the OPT conducted by Badil with the cooperation of communities affected and members of the Inter-Agency Displacement Working Group and the financial support of Oxfam-Québec. The assessment stemmed from the identified need to better understand how we – UN agencies, local and international NGOs, donor governments and the Palestinian Authority – assist and protect internally displaced persons (IDPs) and people at risk of displacement in the OPT. It stemmed also from the desire to implement the Collaborative Response to Situations of Internal Displacement in the OPT in a manner that respects international law and best practices.

Internal displacement is the forced displacement of people from their homes or places of habitual residence within an internationally recognized state border. Internal displacement encompasses the forcible movement of people as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters. Central to the concept of internal displacement is the involuntary character of movement within national borders.

  Although internal displacement is not recent in the OPT, and only a subset of the forms of displacements affecting the Palestinian people, which has historically been characterised more by external rather than internal displacement, it only recently became a subject of concern among local and international organizations. This increasing awareness about internal displacement, also described as a component of the ongoing forced displacement of Palestinians, results partly from the reports of a number of observers, most notably John Dugard, former UN Special Rapporteur to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the construction of the Wall in the occupied West Bank and the work of a number of local and international NGOs, also warned in their reports about the role of the Wall and its associated regime and other elements of Israel’s regime in the OPT, such as the colonies (settlements), are forcibly displacing Palestinians and changing the demographic composition of the occupied territory. This recent interest in internal displacement also results from the emerging and evolving body of soft law and policy documents that have been developed in the last 10 years, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (1998), the Collaborative Response to Situations of Internal Displacement (2005), and the UN Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons (2005). These instruments undoubtedly gave tools to advocates of the rights of displaced persons, including internally displaced persons (IDPs).

 In January 2008, organizations concerned with internal displacement n the OPT formed the Inter-Agency Displacement Working Group (hereinafter DWG) under the auspices of the protection sector (now called the Protection Cluster) of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in the OPT. The DWG was established after nearly two years of efforts by a small number of local and international NGOs, who worked to raise awareness of the problem and its solutions. At first, most international organizations did not recognize internal displacement as a problem or Palestinians as IDPs; in fact, they considered displaced Palestinians as "migrants" or focused on house demolition and land confiscation and not on the people before and after they lose their homes and their land. Moreover, the displacement of Palestinians was not understood within the overall legal, political and historical context of the conflict, but as one element that could be dealt with by the current humanitarian programmatic response. It took numerous meetings to convince UN agencies and NGOs to take internal displacement seriously and look into developing a specific response. An important, albeit short impetus, was provided by the Norwegian Refugee Council, who helped kick-start the DWG.

At the end of July 2008, the DWG included over one hundred members, such as UN agencies, international and local Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, and donors. The DWG has recognized that forced displacement is both a root cause and consequence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has endorsed the working definition provided by the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which defines internally displaced persons (IDPs) as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.” The DWG aims to respond to situations of internal displacement by implementing the Collaborative Response to Situations of Internal Displacement (hereinafter Collaborative Response) in a manner that is efficient, predictable and accountable.

But implementing the Collaborative Response in the OPT is challenging.

 The traditional protection agency, UNHCR, is absent in the territory and most organizations, apart from UNICEF, ICRC, and increasingly UNRWA, do not have a protection mandate. And even if the UN agencies have a protection mandate, they undertake very limited, usually nonconfrontational and rarely politically sensitive activities. In fact, the lack of protection has been one of the main problems affecting the Palestinian people, including displaced Palestinians, and once again, re-emerges as one of the main gaps affecting IDPs in the OPT.

 The DWG also realized that in order to efficiently implement the Collaborative Response, it needed more information on internal displacement and IDPs in the OPT, including on the current response to situations of internal displacement. And although it was widely believed that the current response was ad hoc and ineffective, it was also recognized that more information was needed in order to identify its strengths and weaknesses. The assessment thus aims to fill part of this gap by contributing to a better understanding of the ways in which we address situations of internal displacement in the OPT.

 The assessment was conducted between December 2007 and June 2008 and is based on a review of five cases of internal displacement; two in the Gaza Strip and three in the West Bank. In the Gaza Strip, the evaluation comprises the responses to the displacement of between 1,000 and 3,400 persons in the neighbourhood of al Shoka (Rafah) in August 2006 as a result of an Israeli military operation/collective punishment, and of about 1,450 persons in Um al Nasser (Beit Hanoun) on 27 March 2007 as a result of a human-made disaster. In the West Bank, the assessment included the responses to the displacement of around 200 persons in Qassa (south Hebron) on 29-30 October 2007 because of the construction of the Wall and its associated regime, in particular Tarqumiya terminal; 70 persons in al Nuqar neighbourhood (Qalqilya) on 29 August 2007 as a result of collective punishment/military operations; and 39 persons on two occasions (3 January and 11 March 2008) in Furush Beit Dajan (Jordan Valley) as a result of Israeli pressures to limit Palestinian control over land in Area C and facilitate the expansion of settlements and other related infrastructure.

 The population of al Shoka in Rafah is mainly composed of Bedouin communities who were expelled from Beersheba in 1948 (Nakba). The total population of al Shoka varies between 9,000 and 14,000 (12,000 according to the Palestinian Population Center) according to estimates and 79% are registered with UNRWA. The population was repeatedly displaced after Israel launched “Operation Summer Rain” in June 2006 after Gilad Shalit was taken prisoner. More than 3,400 persons were displaced and found refuge in three UNRWA schools in Rafah. Al Shoka was invaded three times in less than a month, leading to repeated displacement. The community generally feels they have been collectively punished because Gilad Shalit was taken prisoner. Although some of the development needs of the community remain, their overall situation, especially economic, social and psychological, has continuously deteriorated since the invasion. In general, members of the community and village council felt that the consequences of the military operation were bigger than the capacity of organizations to respond, especially in the intermediate and long-term periods. Representatives of the community denounced the fact that the ongoing emphasis on emergency assistance and "crisis management" is creating a "culture of coupons." They are highly aware of the fact that this situation has led to the de-development of their society; making them go "backward" instead of "forward." The destruction caused by the invasion has seriously affected the self-reliance and development of the community and the response provided has been unable to address the new needs of the people.

Um al Nasser is a Bedouin community of approximately 2,500 persons originating from Yibna and Rubin in historic Palestine. They are 1948 refugees and the majority are registered with UNRWA. In addition to their displacement in 1948, residents of Um al Nasser were forcibly displaced in the mid-1990s by the Palestinian Authority to make way for the construction of the town of Sheikh Zayed, an urban development project for needy families. The risk of flooding was known, expected and documented.

 Israel refused to allow work on the water treatment plant, which created leakages as well as unsanitary and insecure sewage lakes around Um al Nasser. The community had clearly identified their three main protection risks as: (1) sewage lake/basins; (2) Israeli incursions, in particular the arrest of young men at night; (3) and Qassam rockets, which have in the past fallen on the community. Despite the active involvement of the community and efforts of local and international organizations, at 9:30 am on 27 March 2007, two months after the beginning of its operations, a newly built emergency basin collapsed and flooded 30,000 cubic metres of sewage unto the village. Two children and three women were killed and 18 to 30 injured[1] while approximately 110 houses were totally and partially destroyed and damaged.[2]

As a result, over 250 families, 1,450 persons, fled a few metres away on to higher ground where a temporary emergency camp was set up by UNRWA. A number of animals (goats, sheep and chicken) died, and water, electricity and telephone networks were destroyed. A resident of Um al Nasser felt that organizational responses centered on reporting about the sewage lake and its basins, which he believes “does not make a difference in our lives; people in the community do not see any results from these efforts, there is no justice. The PA and Israel should be held accountable.”

 In Qassa, the majority of people are refugees registered with UNRWA and originate from Beit Jibrin and Zakaria. They lost land in 1948, 1967 and more recently because of the construction of the Wall (parts of Qassa are located on the other side of the Wall). The herders and their families depend on the land and its resources to support their 3,000 animals, their main source of income. Qassa is the perfect location for grazing because it has water (spring), caves and land. In February 2007, construction of the Wall in the area was completed, severing Qassa from the rest of the West Bank (Qassa is now located within the "seam zone" [closed area]). In May 2007, the community received an eviction order.

On 24 October 2007, the community received a notification of eviction and demolition orders; they were given three days to contest the orders. They refused to leave the area. On 29 October 2007, the army, along with a private contractor, came and destroyed the properties and forcibly evicted the people from Qassa. The entire community and their 3,000 animals were physically and violently displaced to the other side of the Wall. Their forced eviction and displacement on 29 October is directly linked with the opening of the newly rebuilt Tarqumiya checkpoint/terminal (30 October 2007). All people consulted were adamant that the people of Qassa were displaced because of the Wall and the new Tarqumiya terminal. One of them said, “we should not wait until people are displaced before we react” because in doing so, “we are helping the Israelis to implement their plan.” As one displaced man explained, “I am now 38 years old, we never asked for anything because we were happy, but we lost our life.”


In al Nuqar neighborhood in Qalqilia, most inhabitants, as is the case in the city, are refugees. The army not only completely destroyed five houses and damaged two others, but also destroyed the sewage and water system, agricultural land as well as shops and cars. Families consulted said that they lost everything; most if not all of their savings had been invested in their houses. They also lost a place to call home, a place where they can feel secure and safe. The destruction took everyone by surprise because it was the result of a military operation during which the army decided to punish the residents for allegedly allowing wanted persons to pass through their property.

These allegations were never proven and the army did not find any evidence confirming their accusations. The army occupied one house which they used as an interrogation center. A woman who was interrogated by the army captain recalls that he wanted information about wanted men and told her: “I will flatten the whole neighborhood even the mosque.” During her interrogation, another woman remembers that the captain told her: “we have information that wanted people entered your house, if you don’t tell us everything, we will destroy your house.” As she was still detained, she saw the bulldozer approaching from the window and piling earth on top of two houses, nearly covering them, after which they were destroyed; a practice that was until then unknown to people.


Aware of the dynamics and power imbalance that characterizes the conflict, the municipality and families consulted said that for them, the biggest and most important challenge was justice; justice for what has been done to them and at the broader, wider level, calling on international organizations to address the "bigger picture" of Israel’s regime. According to them, the use of soft diplomacy will not impact Israel’s regime and policies in the OPT; it requires more robust pressure.

According to some field staff, Israel’s sophisticated policy of displacement (population transfer and demographic engineering) is a well-known and understood phenomenon sur le terrain, but for political reasons, is not taken up by the heads of agencies and international organizations operating in the OPT. People also denounced the cycle that results from the dynamic created by the international response, whereby Israeli authorities destroy and the international community rebuilds, without ever addressing the practice, its cause or enforcing international law. In other words, the international community pays the price of reconstruction because it is unwilling to challenge the cause of the destruction.

At the time of the research, no house had been rebuilt and when the rental assistance from the municipality expires, most families will have nowhere to go. The acting mayor of Qalqilia said, “in the end, it is the victims who pay for the poor and slow response.” For people, it is also crucial that they rebuild their house in the same place, on their land, and that the destruction of homes does not serve to impose a de facto reality, preventing people from returning to their land and rebuilding there.

In Furush Beit Dajan in the Jordan Valley, most inhabitants are Bedouin or of Bedouin origin and came to the area after being expelled from the village of Yattir in the Naqab in the 1950s or Samoa and other villages in Hebron as a result of the 1967 War. Around 15 percent are registered refugees with UNRWA. They are farmers and/or graze sheep and goats. Around 1,500 persons live in the village, where much of the land has been declared a military area and is thus inaccessible. Most people do not have proof of ownership; they use the land according to traditional customs.

The village is also located in Area C. Therefore, no proper planning has been done by the Israeli military’s Civil Administration, and the village has no master zoning plan. As a result, most structures have no building permits and can be demolished at any moment while residents can be evicted from their land and home. The majority of the structures and houses in the village are made out of zinco (corrugated metal sheet) and makeshift tents. Residents explained the situation in these terms: “we cannot dig deeper to get water, they don’t want people to get water so that they will leave”; “water access for us diminishes each year”; “water is the artery of life, once the water is gone, that's it.”[3]

According to OCHA, which has compiled statistics on house demolitions since it became operational in the OPT, UNRWA built houses were demolished in Furush Beit Dajan in September 2005 (5 demolitions and 33 persons displaced), January and August 2007 (3 demolitions and an unknown number of displaced people), and January and March 2008 (22 demolitions and 39 and 22 persons displaced respectively). On 23 January 2008, nine families (39 persons) had their homes, mainly makeshift tents and barracks, demolished. The demolitions were carried out by Israeli soldiers and with bulldozers. Of the nine families affected, four are registered refugees. Two months later, on 11 March 2008, the army came back and re-destroyed some of the homes it had destroyed in January as well as new ones. Again as part of a series of demolitions in the area, the Israeli army destroyed houses in Furush Beit Dajan.[4]

 Five families (22 persons) were displaced, three of whom are registered refugee families. The homes of these five families, two of which had already been demolished in January, were destroyed. Their tents, which were given to them by the ICRC after the demolition in January 2008 were taken away, with all their belongings as well as water tanks for personal consumption and for animals. The tents and barracks were picked up by the army and taken away in a truck. When the truck was full, all other properties were destroyed by the bulldozer and buried.

This displacement was much more violent, as people received no notice or warning and were prohibited from removing their personal belongings before the demolitions took place. Despite repeated demolitions, one person affected said, “we have to live this life, to sleep here, because we have no choice” because “who is right, fights for his rights.” Others, however, are said to have moved out of the village because they cannot build a house. The long-term needs identified by people are basic; they want to get married and have a family in their village, build a house and other public infrastructure, dig wells, plant trees, access their land and move freely without harassment.

 These cases have been selected to cover urban and rural communities, including Bedouin, as well as situations of mass and localised displacement. Information was collected through field visits and interviews with families and communities affected, as well as by responding to local and international NGOs and UN agencies. Throughout the research, priority was given to the positions and perceptions of people affected by forced displacement.

 There are, however, a number of limits to the assessment, chief among which is the difficulty to re-create exactly the response to a particular event, because of the subjective and partial nature of such exercise and the often numerous actors involved. It is also limited because it covers only cases where there was a clear instance of displacement, generally as a result of house demolitions, thus excluding "silent" displacement, whereby people moved by themselves because their situation had become unbearable or in order to avoid such conditions.

 Nevertheless, interesting and useful findings emerge from the assessment. The major component of the current response is at the emergency stage (within one month); prevention or protection from, i.e. before, displacement and medium-to-long term responses (one month after and until a durable solution is found) are often very limited, and usually non-existent.

 Prevention of displacement or protection from displacement is based on the right to freedom of movement and to choose one’s residence. It reflects the duty of states to respect international law and avoid situations that may lead to displacement. It is also founded on the right not to be arbitrarily displaced.

One of the main conclusions of the assessment is that prevention of displacement, or protection of those at risk of displacement, is inadequate in the OPT. In all cases where displacement was foreseeable (Umm al Nasser, Qassa and Furush Beit Dajan) prevention was ineffective or very limited, indeed practically inexistent. In no case reviewed has prevention managed to stop displacement. Moreover, prevention efforts did not focus on internal displacement, the rights of people not to be displaced and on the pattern of abuse (violations of human rights and humanitarian law) leading to displacement. This can be attributed to a number of factors:

 First, the personnel of most responding organizations are not familiar with the international framework pertaining to internal displacement, in particular international law relating to the right not to be displaced and the right to be protected against arbitrary displacement.

 Second, while it was agreed by members of the DWG that forced, and often arbitrary, displacement is a root cause and consequence of the conflict; the cause(s) and consequences of internal displacement have not been defined nor strategically integrated into the communication or advocacy strategies of most organisations. This may explain why practically no organization undertakes high-level advocacy activities that aim to prevent or stop internal displacement with key stakeholders. In addition, most organizations are reluctant to contextualize internal displacement – to identify the root cause(s) and consequences of internal displacement -- because it is perceived as outside their "humanitarian" mandate; in other words, it is deemed to be too political. This is especially true of international NGOs and UN agencies. These organizations are consequently reluctant to put forward a rights-based approach and tend to focus solely on non-political humanitarian aspects, thus limiting their ability to prevent or put a stop to a specific pattern of rights violations and abuse.

 Third, most organizations tend to react post-factum rather than preventively. Hence, while they may know of persons or communities at risk of displacement through monitoring, they will only intervene once displacement occurs. For instance, projects or aid that could be implemented or channelled strategically to help people sustain pressures that may lead to displacement – in other words, to resist displacement – have not been integrated into the programmatic response of most organizations.

 This is directly related to point four, whereby the majority of organizations are unwilling to challenge Israeli rules and regulations that directly affect their work, such as the provision of humanitarian assistance and development projects. This is particularly true in Area C, where the majority of organizations have complied with Israeli restrictions concerning access and building permits and, as a result, have failed to respond to the basic needs and fundamental rights of the most vulnerable, many of whom are at risk of displacement.

 Fifth, many organizations lack preparedness or contingency plans to deal with cases of displacement and are thus unable to provide immediate emergency reponse (within hours) and in a coordinated manner. This last observation is particularly true in the West Bank, where coordination to prevent and alleviate the effects of displacement has undermined the effectiveness of the emergency response.

 The emergency response is a response that takes place during and immediately after displacement and which aims to alleviate the effects of displacement. The Guiding Principles calls on organizations to “give due regard to the protection needs and human rights of internally displaced persons and take appropriate measures in this regard.”[5] The emergency response is the core of the current response, yet, it is lacking in important ways. In the West Bank, in particular, the emergency response is inconsistent, uneven, and insufficient with respect to alleviating the effects of displacement and accountability. The response is inconsistent, or unpredictable, because it lacks a preparedness plan and a coordinated emergency response mechanism.

 This is probably why most organizations say they are often taken by surprise when people are displaced and are unable to respond to the basic needs of people in a timely fashion (with the notable exception of the ICRC). The response is also uneven in a number of ways. For instance, in some cases, a distinction is made between UNRWA registered refugees and non-registered persons (Qassa, Al Nuqar, Furush Beit Dajan and al Shoka) while in others, no such distinction exist and all displaced persons are assisted equally (Um al Nasser). Moreover, the distinction between UNRWA registered refugees and non-registered persons has had discriminatory effects, albeit unintentionally, because in some cases registered refugees have received more, albeit insufficient, assistance than non-registered persons. For instance, registered-refugees have received cash and/or rental assistance while non-registered persons, who should be getting similar assistance from the Palestinian Authority, received very little or nothing.

 Assistance provided by the Palestinian Authority depends on available funding, which is very limited, in particular in the Gaza Strip. It has also been alleged that the Palestinian Authority throughout the OPT provides assistance based on political affiliations, which is also discriminatory. The response is unaccountable in two ways, first organizations tend to make many promises and pledges to displaced persons, but few ever come through with concrete results. Second, during or immediately following a situation of displacement, organizations are generally silent; they do not, for instance, send a letter of complaint/concern to relevant authorities or undertake actions to hold the perpetrator(s) into account. Although displaced persons and a number of local NGOs have systematically requested that responding organizations publicly denounce the fact that they were displaced, often in an arbitrary manner, and take actions to hold the perpetrator into account. Lastly, and on a positive note, in the Gaza Strip, many responding organisations have drawn lessons from and improved their emergency response, including to situations of internal displacement. The response in the Gaza Strip should be more transparent, accountable and adapted to the different needs of IDPs.

 According to the Guiding Principles, the medium-long term protection response should restore people's dignity and ensure adequate living conditions through reparation, restitution, and rehabilitation. This includes the duty to ensure that a durable solution is found, as the UN Guiding Principles stipulate that “competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country.”[6]

 The medium-long term response to situations of internal displacement in the OPT is however extremely limited. In fact, the response often ends when the emergency phase is scaled-down or in some cases (Qassa and Furush Beit Dajan in particular) a partially delayed emergency response becomes the medium-term response.

 The limited medium-long term response is imputable to two main factors. First, it seems that few organizations have programs targeting IDPs and few stay in contact with displaced persons to monitor their situation and needs in the months following displacement, despite the fact that distress and trauma often emerge during that period. In some cases (al Shoka, Furush Beit Dajan) displaced persons have not regained, or only partially regained, their source of livelihood (e.g., chicken farms, greenhouses, fruit trees, etc.). Others are seeing their way of life changing (as in the case of Qassa). Many have sold their possessions and exhausted all coping strategies and are unable to cover basic needs, in particular in the Gaza Strip. Second, and this is the main weakness of the medium-long term response, is the absence of a search for durable solutions based on the preferred choice of IDPs. The only exceptions are cases involving house demolitions, whereby destroyed houses are sometimes rebuilt with the support of the Palestinian Authority, by UNRWA or local NGOs. Most IDPs (Qassa, al Shoka, al Nuqar, Furush Beit Dajan), however, do not return to their habitual place of residence.

 In conclusion and in order to strengthen the response to situations of internal displacement in the OPT, some recommendations for responding organizations include:

(1) Jointly prioritizing issues relating to internal displacement at the highest institutional level;

(2) Building institutional capacity, in particular protection expertise;

(3) Making operational the UN Guiding Principles by incorporating them into policies and most critically programs relevant to displacement;

(4) Defining and challenging the cause(s) and/or the policies that have led to internal displacement;

(5) Developing joint strategic communication/advocacy campaigns and programs in consultation with affected communities in order to prevent their displacement, in particular when arbitrary, and identifing its causes and consequences on their rights;

(6) Mapping communities at risk of displacement and creating an online database monitoring internal displacement;

(7) Improving coordination at all levels, in particular by developing preparedness plans and a coordinated response mechanism;

(8) Providing the same response to all those at risk of displacement regardless of status (refugee or otherwise);

(9) Registering IDPs, including refugees registered with UNRWA;

(10) Searching for and working to implement durable solutions for and with IDPs, in particular return and property restitution;

(11) Activating efforts pertaining to the accountability of the occupying power, Israel.

 Lastly, while the current response is limited to the OPT, because most organizational members of the DWG have a mandate limited to this area, responses and madates should nevertheless be adapted to address internal displacement inside Israel.


[1] Statistics on the number of injured persons vary between UN sources and the Palestinian Ministry of Health. UN OCHA OPT, "Beit Lahia Waste Water Treatment Plant, Humanitarian Situation Report" #3, 3 April 2007, East Jerusalem.

[2] Five houses were totally destroyed, 6 severely destroyed and 93 totally destroyed. In addition, 33 were in need of cleaning.

[3] "Israel-OPT: Villagers face evacuation orders, movement restrictions, IRIN News, 8 August 2007.

[4] Amnesty International, “Palestinian homes demolished without warning,” 11 March 2008.

[5] Principle 27, UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 1998.

[6] Principle 28, UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 1998.