Issue 44 - Article 7

Internal displacement in the occupied Palestinian territory

October 6, 2009
Karine MacAllister and Karim Khalil

Although internal displacement of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) is at least as old as the occupation itself, it has only recently become a subject of concern among national and international organisations. There are several reasons for this. For some, displacement was either not clearly understood or viewed as too sensitive an issue, as its underlying implications would entail a more direct confrontation with Israel as an occupying power. This would call upon the international community to address, not only the humanitarian effects of the occupation, but also an Israeli policy that, as noted by International Court of Justice, is illegally manipulating the demography of the oPt. There was also reluctance to address an issue viewed as outside the parameters of existing mandates, which confined UN agencies to reporting on and responding to the humanitarian situation in the oPt, rather than addressing the policies causing displacement.

The increase in the rate of displacement since the second intifada in 2000 pushed the issue of displacement to the forefront. NGOs highlighted that no effective response was being undertaken to address the needs of displaced people, and many regarded the severity and consistency of displacement patterns as indicative of an undeclared Israeli policy designed to divest Palestinians of property and land under international law and place at risk the notion of a two-state solution.NGOs have been crucial in raising awareness of displacement and advocating for an international response. While humanitarian agencies remain wary of confronting Israel, over the past few years they have taken significant steps to provide a mechanism of response. Such response faces considerable challenges, not least the lack of international will to address the Israeli occupation.

Internal displacement in the oPt

Numerous studies by NGOs and the UN have recognised displacement as a result of a vast array of Israeli policies, including house demolitions and the denial of building permits, forced evictions and land confiscation for settlement expansion and related infrastructure, the construction of the Wall and its associated closure regime and the revocation of residency rights in Jerusalem, along with military operations and settler violence. Under international human rights and humanitarian law, Israel as the occupying power in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has the primary responsibility for safeguarding Palestinians from arbitrary displacement. In fact, Israel is the primary perpetrator of arbitrary displacement and forcible population transfers.  

According to the Palestinian NGO BADIL, an estimated 120,000 people have been displaced over the last four decades. Accurate data on the scale of displacement is, however, scarce, and there are significant information gaps. No one knows how many IDPs there are or their geographical distribution, and the protection concerns they face have not been clearly identified. Generally, displacement occurs near Israeli settlements and related infrastructure, military zones in the West Bank and the ‘buffer zone’ along the boundaries of the Gaza Strip, as well as around areas of Wall construction. Others have been displaced due to military operations, and have sought temporary shelter and protection with relatives, in public buildings or in schools, either until the violence ends or longer-term accommodation with relatives or host communities becomes possible. Displacement entails loss of access to land and property, undermines families, restricts access to social welfare and livelihoods and inflicts wide-ranging physical and psychological damage, including trauma and anxiety.

Responding to internal displacement

Over the past few years, international actors have increasingly come to recognise that forced displacement is taking place in the oPt. Local and international NGOs have played a considerable role in lobbying the international community, particularly the UN. In 2003, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the oPt warned of the effects of the Wall in causing displacement. The following year, the ICJ concluded that the Wall was illegal under international law and was altering the demographic composition of the oPt. UNRWA, UNDP and OCHA (which began operations in 2000) have all addressed the problem of displacement. In February 2009, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was for the first time called upon to monitor and report on human rights violations, including arbitrary displacement. In March 2009 the Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of IDPs, Walter Kalin, declared that Israel’s occupation had resulted in the large-scale, arbitrary displacement of Palestinians.

In line with this growing recognition of displacement, pressure has increased for a more coordinated and comprehensive response. In November 2007, the Inter-Agency Protection Sub-Working Group on Forced Displacement (DWG) was established under the Protection Working Group, led by OHCHR. The DWG is currently under the Protection cluster, which is chaired by OHCHR with the support of OCHA; the cluster was adopted in the oPt in March 2009. The DWG has a broad membership, including UN agencies, international and local (Israeli and Palestinian) NGOs and donors. The working group aims to ensure an effective and transparent inter-agency response to different phases of displacement (before (preventive), during and post), enhancing the analysis and collation of information and encouraging the international community to address forcible and arbitrary displacement. The DWG is currently chaired by OCHA.

UNWRA and UNDP have undertaken projects of shelter reconstruction and repair on behalf of displaced Palestinians (refugees and IDPs). UNWRA also provides emergency humanitarian assistance, including emergency shelter, cash assistance, food and housing kits. The agency makes no distinction between refugees and non-refugees during a crisis, though once the emergency response scales down aid is generally provided only to refugees. ICRC has responded to the immediate emergency needs of IDPs, and has also undertaken projects which are preventive in nature. Palestinian, Israeli and international NGOs have been active in researching and publicising instances of arbitrary displacement. Several NGOs, including NRC and human rights organisations such as the Jerusalem Aid and Human Rights Centre, the Society of Saint Yves, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and BIMKOM, provide legal aid and assistance. Other NGOs, such as the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), have sought to assist communities by providing a physical presence to deter or reverse displacement, as in Hebron and Bil’in, Yanoun and Al Aqaba in the West Bank.

Evaluating responses to displacement

There has been a notable rise in awareness of forced displacement, and responses have become more coordinated. However, there are constraints and a number of shortfalls. The lack of protection for Palestinians in the oPt, including IDPs and those at risk of displacement, is probably the largest challenge facing the DWG, along with the lack of accountability of perpetrators. The operational environment remains constrained by the Israeli legal regime and policies of occupation. As the occupying power, Israel is the de facto if not de jure authority in the oPt. Organisations that do not comply with Israeli laws and regulations risk criminal prosecution or expulsion. Furthermore, most donors will not fund projects which do not respect Israeli military laws and regulations. The UN, NGOs and human rights organisations have faced harassment, intimidation and criminal prosecution.

No one UN agency has the capacity to protect Palestinian IDPs and those at risk of displacement, and until recently no one agency was specifically mandated to address internal displacement and seek durable solutions. The Cluster Approach may address this gap by consolidating inter-agency responses under the cluster lead, but its effectiveness is yet to be determined. Under the cluster mechanism, internal displacement falls under OHCHR’s mandate, with support from OCHA. However, OHCHR has limited capacity and resources.

There are also key limitations in efforts to prevent and respond during the various phases of displacement. No full profiling exercise has been undertaken to determine the number, location and protection needs of IDPs. Currently, the response to internal displacement in the oPt is mainly confined to the emergency phase during which displacement occurs. Few organisations monitor the situation of IDPs in the months following displacement, and programmes targeting IDPs in the post-emergency phase remain limited. The mid- and long-term response is generally limited to shelter reconstruction, although NGOs are paying greater attention to livelihoods, psychosocial support and legal matters.

In the majority of cases where displacement is foreseeable, the DWG and other relevant actors are often unable to prevent it. Although national and international NGOs and UN agencies are active in publicising the problem and raising awareness, the impact of this work on deterring displacement is still unclear. Evaluating the impact of preventive advocacy is difficult. The DWG maintains an emergency warning system of impending situations of forced displacement, which it communicates via its network and to donors and other members of the international community, but demolitions and evictions continue, despite efforts by NGOs and other actors to delay or annul eviction orders.

There are certainly considerable constraints in searching for durable solutions based on the individual and preferred choice of the IDP, such as return and property restitution. Restitution or return in the West Bank has largely been confined to areas under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction (Areas A and B), whereas most displacement is confined to Area C and East Jerusalem. In Gaza, Israeli sanctions on construction materials mean that reconstruction projects for over 15,000 housing units remain at a standstill, and return to the status quo ante is unlikely. For the vast majority of Palestinians displaced in West Bank and Gaza, the return of those forcibly displaced remains tied to reversal of policies of occupation which entails their displacement


Although the DWG has been a leading actor in promoting the mainstreaming of internal displacement responses within international agencies, UN-mandated institutions and the international community more broadly remain reluctant to contextualise the problem and address its root causes, because doing so is perceived as politically sensitive. The international political climate has played a significant role in explaining the hitherto conservative nature of the response, with little diplomatic pressure exerted on Israel to address displacement, and particularly to prevent or put a stop to the policies causing it. Ultimately, the humanitarian community has limited power in the face of Israeli intransigence. The presence of humanitarian actors is tolerated in so far as they mitigate the humanitarian consequences of the occupation, without having the clout to contest the nature of the occupation or the policies of arbitrary displacement taking place under it.

There are a number of ways in which the response to internal displacement in the oPt can be strengthened. First and foremost, the international community, particularly donors, must make a commitment to addressing displacement and its root causes, and challenge Israeli policies which cause displacement and restrict and limit the humanitarian response. This should include supporting and building institutional capacity within UN agencies, NGOs and the Palestinian Authority, in particular in mainstreaming displacement responses. The lack of a comprehensive profile of displaced communities in the oPt continues to limit agencies’ ability to respond adequately to protection needs. This gap should be addressed. Finally, in the absence of international political will efforts to raise awareness of the problem and mitigate the impact of displacement on Palestinians should be further supported and encouraged by the international community.

Karine Mac Allister ( is a doctoral candidate at the University of Montreal, Canada. Karim Khalil ( is country analyst for the oPt at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Geneva, Switzerland


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