1st ED: Internal Displacement in Israel: Overview of the issue

While the situation of Palestinian refugees in the Middle East has received substantial international attention, there is a group of people which is generally little known, Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 war, but remained within what became the State of Israel.
There are today over 27 million people in the world who are called internally displaced people (IDPs), who – like these Palestinians – were forced to leave their homes due to conflict or human rights violations. Over the last fifteen years, the UN has started to focus on the plight of these people and have endorsed various policy documents and guidelines to promote a better response to their immediate protection and assistance needs, and foster durable solutions for them. 

This article aims to present the situation of people who have been internally displaced in Israel, in particular the situation of Arabs displaced in the context of the establishment of the state of Israel, the situation of the Bedouin population in the south of the country, and the temporary displacement of the population due to rockets launched from Gaza.

1. Arabs displaced in the context of the establishment of the state of Israel

During or shortly after the conflict which accompanied the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, some 46,000 to 48,000 people lost their homes and subsequently remained in Israel. Many of them found refuge in nearby villages in which they had relatives, family and friends. They subsequently moved from one village to another, mainly to reunite with people from their village of origin.


IDMC/NRC, May 2010, Internal Displacement, Global Overview of Trends and Development in 2009, p.9. For more information on internal displacement by country, see: www.internal-displacement.org

"Internally displaced persons are 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 generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border." (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 1998).

The article does not include information on the temporary displacement of some 300,000 people in northern Israel during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict, as the situation of these people has since been resolved. The article uses the short terms "Arab Israeli" and "Bedouin". During interviews, IDMC encountered people preferring these terms, while others preferred the labels Palestinian citizens of Israel, or Israeli Arabs. Some Bedouin also prefer the label Palestinian rather than Bedouin.

The Association for the Defence of the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel (ADRID), an umbrella organisation uniting thirty local committees of IDPs, quotes the figure of 46,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in the 1950 registry record of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In 1952 the Israeli government reportedly used the figure of 48,000 IDPs, based on a census of its Arab citizens.


Like other Arabs in Israel, IDPs became Israeli citizens. However, their freedom of movement was severely restricted, since the areas in which 90 per cent of Arabs lived were placed under military administration until 1966. Having lost their property and economic resources, these IDPs faced particular difficulties in the first years after their displacement. Most of them had cultivated their land prior to the war, and they now had to compete with people in host communities for employment in a very difficult post-war economic situation.

The government strived to integrate the displaced people into existing Arab communities and villages, rather than rebuilding destroyed villages or establishing new ones. As a result, it started in 1949 to rent land to IDPs in inhabited villages. While in some cases IDPs rented land without problems, in many cases they faced opposition from Jewish neighbours or from host communities. Also, many feared that renting other land would compromise their claim on their own land, and the proposed plots were often of bad quality and very small.

From 1950 to 1952, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) assisted IDPs in Israel until the government agreed under American and UNRWA pressure to take responsibility for them. The government decided that IDPs (called refugees at the time) would be cared for by existing government departments, and that it would temporarily provide them welfare and jobs. It also enacted a series of laws affecting IDPs and their descendants. In particular, the Absentee Property Law of 1950 allowed the State to acquire control of all land and property left behind by people who had fled during the 1948 war. Under the law people who had come back or were still in the country, such as IDPs, were defined as "present absentees" and lost their land.

During the late 1950s, IDPs began to prepare for long-term settlement, and many migrated from villages to urban centres in search of better economic opportunities. Since the 1960s, few IDPs have moved between communities. Economic disparities between them and the Arab communities who had not been uprooted tended to disappear in the following decades, particularly among members of the second generation, who had not experienced the difficulties of flight and settlement and were in general more educated.

In the 1980s, they reportedly stopped seeing their displacement as temporary. However, some continued to demand to return to the homes they lost in 1948. The villagers of Ikrit and Bir'em, when originally ordered from their homes by the Israeli army, had complied with the order and received an explicit promise from the army that they would be allowed to return. In 2003, following six years of hearings, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Ikrit inhabitants could not return to their former homes, and instead had the choice of receiving land elsewhere in the country or monetary compensation. The Court accepted the government's claim that Israeli interests, based on the current security situation and


Al-Haj, Majid, September 1986, "Adjustment Patterns of the Arab Internal Refugees in Israel", in Internal Migration, vol.24(3), pp.656-661.


the Palestinians' persistent demands for the right of return of refugees, could not justify the return of the Ikrit inhabitants, despite explicit promises made by previous governments.

The UN does not consider that there are any IDPs in Israel, nor does the Israeli government. Some academics, Palestinian and Arab Israeli NGOs claim that some 150,000 to 300,000 people should be called IDPs today in Israel. These estimates are based on multiplying the original number of IDPs by the natural growth rate of the Arab population in Israel. As displacement occurred over 60 years ago, most of those included in these estimates are in fact the children and grandchildren of people who were displaced.

2. The situation of the Bedouin population in the south

In 1949 the Israeli authorities forced Bedouin communities in the Negev to move into a smaller area known as the "Siyag", between the town of Beer Sheva and the Israel-Gaza border, where it declared military rule. Other communities were relocated to this zone until 1953. 11 of the 19 Bedouin tribes who remained in Israel became internally displaced; the other eight tribes already inhabited the Siyag.

In the 1960s, state planners mapped all villages and towns to be included in Israel's first "master plan", but did not include Bedouin villages in the plan. As a result, according to Israel's National Planning and Building Law of 1965, the Bedouin settlements were not recognised, and all buildings in these communities became illegal.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Israeli government planned and built seven townships for the Bedouin, which included schools, clinics, and public spaces. About half of those who resettled in them had been displaced in the Siyag. To date, only about half of the Bedouin population in the Negev have agreed to move to the townships, while the other half remains in unrecognised settlements, which look like small shanty towns and generally do not receive municipal services. In the late 1990s, as many Bedouin did not want to move into the new towns, the government set up the "Abu Basma Regional Council" to represent some ten villages, which had until then been unrecognised. Today, some 30,000 people live in the Abu Basma villages, while 60,000 are in the remaining unrecognised villages.

Whether living in recognised or unrecognised villages, the Bedouin are among the poorest and most marginalised citizens, in the worst situation for all socio-economic indicators. The recognised Bedouin localities receive some government support, but not enough to raise its residents out of poverty. While residents of the unrecognised villages pay taxes, they are not eligible for the services, including water and sewers, which are provided to recognised communities. Following appeals by advocates for the Bedouin, the courts have ordered the provision of limited health and education services. Meanwhile, those living in unrecognised villages continue to risk displacement. Their crops are routinely destroyed, and every year the government demolishes some 300 Bedouin homes, most of which are then rebuilt in the same place.

3. Temporary displacement due to rockets launched from Gaza

For years, inhabitants of the town of Sderot in southern Israel, and to a lesser extent other communities, have been the targets of rockets launched from Gaza by Palestinian armed groups, in particular by the armed wing of Hamas. Thousands of rockets have been launched since 2001, killing 15 civilians inside Israel. During the 22-day Gaza conflict in December 2008 and January 2009, rocket attacks from Gaza killed four Israeli civilians and injured hundreds of people. In May 2007, over 250 rockets were fired into southern Israel, killing two civilians and reportedly causing the temporary displacement of some 10,000 people from Sderot to other parts of Israel. Houses and other property were destroyed or damaged in these and similar attacks. Sporadic attacks continued as late 2010.

Submitted by Greta Zeender, Senior Country Analyst, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) of the Norwegian Refugee Centre (NRC) to the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies.

Short Link : https://prc.org.uk/en/post/1299