Palestinian Refugees in the Gaza Strip, 1948-1967

Palestinian Refugees in the Gaza Strip, 1948-1967
The Political and Social Remodeling of a Cramped Palestinian Space

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Al-Shati' (Beach) Camp


Before the Nakba, the Gaza district was one of the five districts that made up Mandatory Palestine, and it consisted of two subdistricts: Gaza and Bir al-Sabi‘. After the 1948 war, the State of Israel controlled all of Bir al-Sabi‘ and most of Gaza subdistrict. The part of the Gaza subdistrict that remained unoccupied (361 square kilometers, about 1.3 percent of the total area of Palestine) was administered by the Egyptian military and later came to be known as the Gaza Strip. The occupation of the bigger part of the district was accompanied by the destruction of forty-nine villages and the forcible displacement of their residents, many of whom fled as refugees to the Gaza Strip, the initial population of which back then was a mere 80,000. The total number of refugees to the Strip from the rest of Gaza as well as from the Lydda district exceeded 200,000.

At first, refugees were received in mosques, schools, homes, military barracks, and uninhabited open grounds. Upon an agreement with the United Nations, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization, was tasked with refugee aid; it established eight camps on governmental grounds allocated by the Egyptian administration (table 1) and gave them the names of nearby cities and towns. The organization supervised the camps until the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was founded (as called for in General Assembly Resolution 302) on 8 December 1949, officially starting operations on 1 May 1950. Ever since then, the refugee camps have symbolized the continuous suffering experienced by the thousands of men, women, and children forced to share such limited space and resources. This is why the Gaza camps hold such a central place in the narrative of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: they are the site of resistance against the occupation and of the struggle against the very cause of their fate.

Table 1: Refugee Camps in the Gaza Strip

Name of camp


Year of establishment

Initial area upon establishment (in dunams)


North Gaza










599, down to 548

Deir al-Balah



156, down to 132

Khan Yunis

Khan Yunis


549, up to 564












528, down to 478

Source: at unrwa.org


After the freezing winter of 1950, the UNRWA started building houses of brick and stone for refugees to replace the tents they lived in. About 48,000 “shelters” were built (each 150 square meters) in all eight camps, which later expanded to accommodate the rapid increase in population (graph "Number of Refugees in the Gaza Strip). In addition to shelter, UNRWA offered food rations and health services. To contribute to the refugees’ self-reliance, it provided elementary education, vocational training, and, at times, employment. The agency administers its operations through an office in each camp; a camp officer — often chosen from among the camp’s political or intellectual elite —facilitates access to UNRWA services and manages and coordinates other facets of camp life. In the early 1990s, the agency started granting small loans to refugees (including women) with the aim of encouraging them to take up income-generating projects. In certain periods (for example, during the first intifada), the UNRWA also played a remarkable role in protecting refugees from the Israeli military’s arbitrary and punitive actions.



In the early 1950s and with the establishment of the UNRWA, several international entities (led by the United States) attempted to devise projects for resettling refugees, exploiting the harsh conditions they were living under to force them to accept. In 1951, the UNRWA began a program to move 2,500 refugees to Libya, upon Britain’s suggestion and Libya’s approval. Later, after the July 1952 revolution in Egypt, the agency began negotiations with the Egyptian government with the aim of resettling 12,000 refugee families from the Strip on plots of land located in northwestern Sinai. In 1953, both parties reached an agreement concerning the execution of the project, which required the reclamation of the land by redirecting certain portions of Nile water toward it annually. However, the March 1955 outburst, which erupted after an Israeli raid on an Egyptian military camp in Gaza and led to massive popular mobilization and protests against resettlement projects, reflected refugees’ longing to return, their refusal to succumb to a life of misery, and their willingness to sacrifice and to take up arms and join the fedayeen (freedom fighters). The uprising led Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser to suspend the resettlement project and to emphasize the refugee cause as an integral part of the Arab nation’s political struggle, rather than just a humanitarian issue.

The Egyptian authorities did not grant refugees on the Gaza Strip any special legal status. Egypt issued identification documents to Gaza’s refugee and nonrefugee populations. Travel documents carried the name of the All-Palestine Government, even though this entity (which was established in Gaza in September 1948) did not exercise any actual power. In 1961, Egyptian authorities issued new travel documents without the name of the All-Palestine Government, and they were given to all Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

Perhaps the only legal and political acknowledgement of the refugee population was represented in the Basic Law of the Gaza Strip, that was issued by the Egyptian government in 1955 and entered into force 1958. In its third chapter, the Basic Law stipulates the rules governing the formation of the Legislative Council (the power of which was limited in any case), consisting of the ten members of the Executive Council, ten members representing Gaza’s municipalities, seven members representing “the people of the Strip” (selected by the Executive Council), and four refugee members (selected by the Executive Council). The Constitutional Statute for the Gaza Strip, issued in 1962, did not refer to refugees as members of the Legislative Council. The latter was to include members of the Executive Council, ten members appointed by the governor-general, and 22 members elected by members of the Palestinian Arab National Union’s local committees.

Possibly the drafters thought there was no longer a need to allocate a specific number of seats for refugees on the Legislative Council, given their increased opportunities at being appointed, as a result of their growing demographic weight and their gradual integration within social and economic life on the Strip. Many engaged now in vocations such as fishing, opened small commercial businesses, and held official posts within the UNRWA or the directorates under the ruling Executive Council.

When refugees first began to enter the Gaza Strip in 1948, local families hosted many of them until they were able to move to the camps or to move into houses they bought or rented. Tensions inevitably flared between the indigenous population and the refugees but never exceeded verbal “expressions” and negative social practices; for example, the natives would not marry refugee men and women. Over time, however, social bonds grew stronger, a process accelerated by the investment of many refugees in the educational sector, which constituted an adaptation mechanism of sorts. The relations between the two groups will improve further after the 1967 war and the occupation of the Gaza Strip by Israel’s military forces.

Selected Bibliography: 

Cheal, Beryl. “Refugees in the Gaza Strip, December 1948-May 1950,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 18, 1 (Autumn1988): 138-157.

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

Masalha, Nur. Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of "Transfer" in Zionist Political Thought, 1882–1948. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992.

Roy, Sara. The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-development,3d ed. Washington, DC: The Institute for Palestine Studies, 2016.

Takkenberg, Lex. The Status of Palestinian Refugees in International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.