Israel’s Policy toward Refugees in the Gaza Strip

Israel’s Policy toward Refugees in the Gaza Strip
A Site of Continual Displacement

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Gaza Strip

25 September 2014
Medios Públicos EP

Displacement has driven the modern history of the Gaza Strip, a 360-square-kilometer territory on the eastern Mediterranean. The Strip was part of Mandate Palestine’s Gaza subdistrict but became an administrative and political unit after 1948. The Nakba not only established the Gaza Strip’s contemporary borders but also initiated its modern history as the site of continual Israeli displacement policies, which began in the late 1940s and continue to this day.

In upturning the Palestinian people, the Nakba also remade Gaza. Of the 750,000 Palestinians driven into exile between 1947 and 1949, around 200,000, predominantly from southern and central Palestine, sought refuge in the Gaza Strip. Previously home to 80,000 people, the population of the Gaza Strip more than tripled. Today, these refugees and their descendants comprise almost 80 percent of the Gaza Strip’s population. The modern-day overcrowding of the Gaza Strip—believed to be the most densely populated place on earth—can therefore be directly traced to the Israeli expulsions of the late 1940s. 

The Strip was administered by Egypt from 1948 to 1967. During the tripartite aggression against Egypt, Israel militarily occupied Gaza from November 1956 to March 1957; during that time between 930 and 1,200 Palestinians were killed, half of them noncombatants and many Palestinians were displaced, as the Israeli government encouraged their permanent resettlement elsewhere. Israeli finance minister Levi Eshkol allocated half a million dollars to fund the emigration of 200 Palestinian refugee families from Gaza in 1956–57.

Ten years later, Israel attacked Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Over the course of six days in June 1967, Israel occupied the Golan Heights, Sinai, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and the Gaza Strip, placing these areas under military rule. Around 300,000 Palestinians became refugees as they fled the occupying Israeli army, some for the second time. While the majority of those displaced in 1967 came from the West Bank, around 45,000 fled the Gaza Strip, with the vast majority going to Jordan.   

After 1967, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip became known as the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). Yet the standardization of this term obscured the reality that Israel pursued very different policies in each territory. In short, Israel saw the West Bank as a far more desirable acquisition than Gaza; the former was home to a number of sacred religious sites and could also provide significant strategic depth. Accordingly, in the late 1960s the Israeli government held ongoing discussions about whether to annex the West Bank, where the first Israeli settlement was built soon after the occupation began. By contrast, the Gaza Strip had no holy sites and minimal strategic value, making it much less desirable as a site of possible annexation. Moreover, there was a long-standing view in Israeli governmental circles that Gaza was more militant and radical than the West Bank, a view shaped by the Strip’s population density and high proportion of refugees. Refugees tended to form a disproportionately high number of the fedayeen, many of whom came from the camps that housed the poorest strata of society.

Israel’s policy in Gaza therefore focused on removing what it saw as the hubs of political extremism: the refugee camps. While its operations in the West Bank consisted of closures and curfews, in Gaza it sought to dismantle the refugee camps altogether. Successive Israeli governments pursued this objective through a combination of policies. In order to “dilute” the concentration of refugees that was seen as a direct cause of radicalization, Israel annexed some camps to towns and sought to integrate the refugees into local neighborhoods. In the most crowded camps, the Israeli army demolished housing and shelters and widened the roads to facilitate patrolling.  The UN estimated that more than 15,000 refugees were affected by demolitions in the summer of 1971 alone, which including the destruction of more than 2,500 houses in Jabaliya, Rafah, and Shati’ camps.

Most significantly—and most controversially—the Israeli government also used forced migration as a strategy for fortifying its control over Gaza in the early years of the occupation. In the period after 1967, Israel underpinned its attempts to disperse the camps by forcibly resettling some of Gaza’s refugee population in the West Bank, Jordan, Sinai, or even further afield. It initially carried out collective deportations, but this practice quickly ran into trouble. On 14 December 1967, the Jordanian authorities refused to allow a group of several hundred Palestinians to enter through Israel-controlled West Bank, on the grounds that they were being transferred against their will. Jordan eventually banned deportations across the Jordan River altogether, meaning that after 1970 expellees from Gaza were sent to Southern Jordan across Wadi Araba.

In the late 1960s, the Israeli occupying forces implemented a multipronged strategy to encourage people to leave. They set up “emigration offices” in the Gaza refugee camps, offering money to those who agreed to permanently relocate abroad and taking care of the logistical arrangements for their departure. This financial promise was coupled with measures to diminish the standard of living in Gaza, as a way of encouraging people to leave. In the first six months of 1968, approximately 20,000 people emigrated from the Gaza Strip, 80 percent of them Nakba refugees. Israel’s financial incentives were a key factor in their departure. 

At the same time, Palestinians who had already left the Gaza Strip—including those who had been out of the country during the 1967 War—were not allowed to return. From the onset of the occupation, departing emigrants were required to sign a declaration of understanding that they would not be able to return to Gaza without a special permit. Those who tried to slip back in without permission were deported and sometimes shot dead; in the three-month period from June to September 1967, as many as 146 people were killed trying to cross the Jordan River westwards, and more than 1,000 were arrested and deported. As a result of both Israeli policies and the June War, the population of Gaza fell dramatically from 385,000 in 1967 to 334,000 the following year. It did not return to the prewar level until the mid-1970s.

Israel’s transfer policies in Gaza intensified in the early 1970s, together with the dismantling of the refugee camps. Under the policies of military commander Ariel Sharon, 38,000 Nakba refugees were uprooted for the second time and resettled elsewhere in 1971; 12,000 of these were sent to encampments in Sinai, while the others were dispersed between Dheisheh refugee camp in the West Bank, and towns and cities elsewhere in Gaza. The Israeli government claimed that this forced displacement was necessary to counter terrorism, but the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the US Embassy on 16 August 1971 that the moves were part of a plan to “thin out” the population of Gaza and thus reduce its perceived propensity for political activism. As the most densely populated spaces, the refugee camps lay at the heart of this. Many Palestinians saw direct links between the policies and the Nakba, as part of a plan to dissolve the refugees’ political identity and undermine their right of return. Moreover, the policies were implemented while Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip continued to expand—along with those in the West Bank—causing more displacement by way of demolitions and evictions. By the time the first intifada broke out, twenty years after the beginning of the occupation, twenty-one settlements had been built in Gaza, housing an estimated 2,200 settlers, who controlled 40 percent of the territory.

While Israel unilaterally withdrew its settlements from Gaza in 2005, this did not mark the end of its displacement practices there. The occupation continues to foment emigration by way of push factors, particularly the continuing blockade and siege of the Gaza Strip, imposed by Israel and Egypt since 2007. The blockade has strangulated the Gazan economy, severely impaired healthcare services, and created surging unemployment and poverty. The economic strangulation is coupled with military assaults; Israel has conducted regular airstrikes in Gaza, most notably in 2008–9, 2012, 2014, 2018 and 2021. In 2012, the UN estimated that the impact would render the Gaza Strip unliveable by 2020.

Forced migration has also shaped Gaza’s history in another way in recent years. Since 2011, a new wave of refugees have appeared in Gaza, this time from Syria. The outbreak of the Syrian civil war has devastated the country’s Palestinian community of 550,000, a community itself established by Nakba refugees in the late 1940s. About 120,000 Palestinians have now left Syria, becoming twice-displaced as a population. A small number of these have fled to Gaza, meaning that the long-term structural impact of the Nakba has come full circle. It is estimated that around 250 Palestinian families from Syria now live in Gaza.

More Israeli displacement practices in the Gaza Strip may lie ahead. In August 2019, journalist Amichai Stein reported that the Israeli government plans to foster the permanent emigration of Palestinians from Gaza. While details of the plan remain unknown, it includes overtures to other states to accept Palestinian emigrants in exchange for Israel covering the costs. Thus far, none of the governments approached have accepted the offer.


Selected Bibliography: 

Abusalim, Jehad. “How Gaza Came to Be Trapped ‘from Fence to Fence.’” In Helga Tawil-Souri and Dina Matar, ed., Gaza As Metaphor. London: Hurst, 2016.

Baroud, Ramzy. My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. London: Pluto Press, 2010.

Feldman, Ilana. Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Feldman, Ilana. “Home as a Refrain: Remembering and Living Displacement in Gaza.” History and Memory 18, no.2 (Fall–Winter 2006): 10–47.

Filiu, Jean-Pierre. Gaza: A History. London: Hurst, 2014.

Pappe, Ilan. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oxford: Oneworld, 2006.

Roy, Sara. The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2016.

Segev, Tom. “The June 1967 War and the Palestinian Refugee Problem.” Journal of Palestine Studies 36, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 6–22.