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  • Human Rights Research Center

War and Colonization: An Introduction to the Palestinian Refugees’ Question

For the safety of the author, this article is being published anonymously.

April 11, 2024

From the estimated worldwide Palestinian population of 13 million, roughly 34% have never been forcibly displaced[1]. The 8.7 million displaced Palestinians are either internally displaced people (IDP’s) living in 1948 occupied Palestine, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, or they are refugees living mostly in neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The vast majority of displaced Palestinians live within 100 km from where they are originally from[2], and have been generally living under degrading conditions in host countries or under Israeli occupation. Their human rights are often violated and their rights under international law to return home and receive reparations, disregarded.


Waves of displacement:

Most of the displacement has occurred during armed aggressions, but hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have also been forcibly transferred in periods of low intensity conflict, or “between wars”. The main waves of displacement have been:


  •  British Mandate (1922-1947): An estimated 150,000 Palestinians were displaced[3]. British authorities enforced laws that granted almost automatic citizenship to migrant Jews while relinquishing it from Palestinians[4]. Jewish settlers acquired land and expelled its inhabitants[5]. The Jewish population of Palestine grew from about 6%[6] (some of which were Palestinian Jews) before the mandate to about 33% (mostly European colonizers)  when the mandate was terminated[7].

  • Nakba (1947 - 1949): Over 750,000 Palestinians, half of the native population, were expelled, and half of the 1,000 villages and cities of the country destroyed[8] by Zionist armed groups.

  • Israel’s military government (1949-1966): Between 35,000 to 45,000 Palestinians out of a total 150,000 who had managed to remain in 1948 Palestine were displaced[9].

  • Arab-Israeli War (1967): Between 400,000 and 450,000 Palestinians were displaced in the context of armed conflict[10].

  • Gaza Genocide (2023-Present)[11]: During the ongoing Israeli genocide in the besieged enclave, some 85% of the total population of Gaza — 1.9 million civilians — have been forcibly displaced[12].


Reasons of the ongoing displacement:

The Israeli government has intentionally used armed conflict to expel Palestinians and seize more land for Jewish settlements. This is clear from official Israeli military and government documentation, statistical evidence, Palestinian and Israeli witness accounts and other historical sources[13]. In addition to the displacement occurring during military aggressions, the Israeli government uses a wide range of policies designed to make the life of Palestinians unbearable to force them to leave.

Below are several of these policies, along with some case studies:

  • Segregation, fragmentation, and isolation: The division of the land of Palestine between the 1948 territories, Gaza and West Bank is a completely artificial creation of the Zionist colonization process, as it didn’t exist before 1948, and even despite the forced division, these territories remain deeply culturally, socially and economically connected. Further, even though the whole territory has been governed by the same entity since 1967, namely the Israeli state, the fragmentation continues to be enforced only for Palestinians in order to “erase Palestinian national identity and deny the Palestinian people their right to self-determination”[14].

Regarding the forced displacement of Palestinians, one of the clearest examples of the use of this policy is Israel’s building of a separation wall [DW1] [WU2] intended to separate the West Bank from the rest of the country while also surrounding Israeli settlements. The wall has cut off 9.4% of the West Bank, severing some 32 communities consisting of thousands of people from the center of their daily life including work, health services, trade, culture, recreation and most importantly their land[15]. Palestinians have found themselves on the other side of the wall from their privately owned land, while Israel effectively prevents them from accessing it. Homes and infrastructure are routinely demolished by the Israeli army for “being built too close to the wall”[16], and thousands of people have been forced to relocate, their livelihoods destroyed by this wall that also cuts through the middle of urban areas such as Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Israel's argument that the wall was built for security purposes is incoherent[17], as tens of thousands of Palestinian workers cross the fence through gaps every day[18], proving that the halt on bombing attacks by Palestinian armed groups is not derived from the segregation created by the wall.

  • Land confiscation and denial of use: Since 1948, when about 90% of the Palestinian population of the Naqab desert was expelled, [19]Israel has been systematically expelling the remaining communities in this area from their land, whose inhabitants hold Israeli citizenship, and cramming them up in urban areas. The government does this by retroactively declaring existing villages illegal, refusing to provide basic services and by demolishing homes and infrastructure. In the past 6 years alone, some 15,000 structures have been demolished[20] in Palestinian communities in the Naqab desert. This is a similar process as the one occurring in areas of the West Bank, like Masafer Yatta where some 12 communities are under imminent threat of expulsion after their land was declared a military training zone[21]. Perhaps the most illustrating example of the policy of pushing displaced Palestinians into crowded urban areas is the Gaza strip, where about 80% of the population is displaced[22], and the lands they once owned are now occupied by lavish, Israeli-exclusive, settlements.

  • Non-state actions (with government consent): Extreme violence from Israeli settlers has proved to be a very effective way of expelling Palestinians. Data shows hundreds of attacks perpetrated by settlers each year[23], and in the last months since the war began in October 2023, 16 villages totaling 151 families have been completely wiped out as a direct consequence of settler harassment and pogroms[24]. The impunity enjoyed by the settlers as well as the well documented support and complicity of the army[25] during the attacks, demonstrate that these incidents are part of the Israeli strategy of ethnic cleansing in the West Bank.

  • Denial of access to natural resources and services: While Israeli citizens (including settlers in the West Bank) use some 247 liters of water a day, Palestinians in the West Bank consume only 82, and in communities that aren't hooked up to the water grid only 26 liters[26]. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended minimum is 100 liters per day. This occurs because in the West Bank only 36% of the Palestinian population has access to running water every day[27]. Israel controls all water reserves in the West Bank, restricts the development of infrastructure and continually demolishes water infrastructure, such as wells built by small rural communities which are their only source of water. The Palestinian Authority is forced to purchase water from the national Israeli water company, Mekorot, at several times the cost. In the Gaza strip the situation is even worse. Before the current war, 90% of the water consumed in Gaza was contaminated[28]. Today Palestinians in Gaza are trying to stay alive with 1.5 liters of water a day on average. The minimum survival quantity according to the WHO is 3 liters per day[29]. Access to water is only one example. The Israeli government also prohibits Palestinians from exploiting rich gas and oil reserves[30], while itself extracting the precious resource from shared pools in the Mediterranean coast next to Gaza. The cost to the Palestinian economy from this restriction is estimated in the billions of US dollars.

  • Discriminatory zoning and planning: Palestinians that hold Israeli citizenship constitute around 20% of the population of the state of Israel, but live in just 2% of the territory[31] after 70% of their land was confiscated or made inaccessible to them[32]. In the West Bank, Israel completely controls what can or cannot be built in 60% of that territory, unsurprisingly the part with more potential for urban, agricultural and economic development. Israel systematically denies building permits or development plans for Palestinians. By one estimate, Israel had only approved 0.03% of the Palestinian development plans in this area[33], while the number of construction projects for Israeli settlers in the West Bank number the tens of thousands in the last years[34]. Israel essentially legislates Palestinian construction to be illegal, and then demolishes it under that pretext. Data shows that since 2009 in the West Bank some 11,000 structures have been demolished, including thousands of homes, leaving some 16,000 people homeless and affecting 680,000 people[35].

  • Denial of residency: Since 1967 Israel has revoked the residency of about 250,000 Palestinians for traveling abroad and not coming back on the timeframe stipulated by Israel[36]. Other laws allow the government to strip Palestinians of their residency for receiving economic support from the Palestinian Authority after being jailed by Israel[37], or prevent Palestinians from even getting temporary residency permits when marrying an Israeli citizen[38].


International Law on Palestinian Refugees:


The Israeli regime denies Palestinian refugees and IDPs their right to reparations, including their right to return to their land. The right of return for Palestinians has been stipulated in UN resolutions 194 (1949)[39] and 3236 (1974)[40]. Other international agreements such as Article 13 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)[41] point out the right of refugees to return to their land, while the legally binding 1951 Refugee Convention[42] which Israel ratified, established additional rights of refugees such as non-discrimination and right to life and security.

Further, states are obliged under international law to provide reparations such as restitution, compensation, rehabilitation and satisfaction[43] when gross violations of human rights have been committed by the state itself or under its jurisdiction. Also, based on the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) considers any descendant of a refugee also to be a refugee until their situation has been resolved. This is done according to the “prima facie” concept used to expedite refugee recognition during large-scale displacement. Prima facie assumes those fleeing widespread violence or persecution likely meet the 1951 Refugee Convention definition of refugee, facilitating protection for the most vulnerable. This is the reason why the descendants of Palestinian refugees are also considered refugees, as they are barred from either voluntarily returning to their land or being voluntarily naturalized in a host country.

Despite this, Israel systematically defies these moral and legal principles by legislating and enforcing laws that explicitly deny Palestinian refugees their right of return while seizing their property[44]. Meanwhile, Palestinians remain stateless and scattered throughout the Middle East.


Current situation of Palestinian Refugees and IDPs:


  • Palestine: In Gaza, the situation before the 2023 war was already dire due to the Israeli-Egyptian imposed blockade since 2007. 81.5% of the population was already living in poverty and the unemployment rate was 46.6%[45]. Now, Gaza is facing a genocide committed by the Israeli army who has also created a famine[46]. In the West Bank, where more than 871,000 registered refugees live[47], the unemployment rate for Palestinians is currently 29%[48], compared to the Israeli unemployment rate of about 3%[49]. The nearly 416,000 internally displaced Palestinians living in 1948 occupied Palestine have also been denied any kind of reparations for their displacement and the unlawful seizing of their property, even though they hold Israeli citizenship. Overall, the Palestinians living under Israeli rule in Palestine, whether refugees or not, suffer from the discriminatory policies of the Israeli apartheid regime[50].

  • Egypt has about 134,000 Palestinian refugees. During the current war, the Egyptian government has been complicit in the exploitation of Palestinians desperate to escape the genocide in Gaza. The few people that manage to raise support funds are being charged 5,000 dollars per person to be able to leave Gaza[51], a staggering amount for the population of the besieged enclave that even before the war suffered from crippling unemployment and poverty.

  • Jordan has the biggest Palestinian population outside of Palestine with some 2.3 million registered refugees. Those displaced in 1948 and 1967 were granted citizenship, but other populations are barred from acquiring it.

  • In Lebanon, another 250,000[52] Palestinian refugees that haven’t escaped poverty and conflict yet are basically 2nd class citizens despite the fact that most of them have been born and raised there. They are denied citizenship and thus are banned from different professions or accessing social services. They are also forbidden from moving out of crowded refugee camps. They have also suffered for decades from Lebanese internal armed conflicts, inner-Palestinian fighting, and ruthless Israeli military aggressions[53].

  • In Syria, some 438,000 remaining refugees also face harsh conditions, being denied citizenship and suffering from poverty and the consequences of war. United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reported that from those who received their assistance, 82%[54] live in absolute poverty. Around 60% have been internally displaced again due to the Syrian civil war, with an additional 120,000 have been forced to leave the country[55].


Is the Return of the Refugees Still Possible?

While Palestinians are barred from returning to their country by the Israeli government, the Israeli “Return Law”[56] allows any person around the world who has at least one Jewish grandparent to automatically receive Israeli citizenship and settle almost anywhere in Palestine, even if the person or their family doesn't have any tangible connection to the country. The Jewish settlers receive subsidies and support from the state, even having their plane ticket covered. Ironically, this law could serve as a model for a future solution to the Palestinian refugee’s question. Throughout the decades, the Israeli government has demonstrated a great capacity to absorb millions of Jewish migrants, including huge waves within a short period of time, such as more than one million citizens from the former Soviet Union states between 1990 to 1995[57], and more recently 68,000 of Russians and Ukrainians during the first months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine[58]. Moreover, “An estimated 77 percent of villages and towns from where Palestinian refugees originate have never been built over and remain vacant land, while 87 percent of the Israeli population lives on just 13 percent of the land that became Israel. In other words, the return of Palestinian refugees would not result in the displacement of the majority of the existing Israeli-Jewish population”.[59]

The absorption of Palestinian refugees and their reparation is only a matter of political will, one that the Israeli government is lacking as they fear the Israeli-Jewish population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea would inevitably become a demographic minority. But the return of the Palestinian refugees, besides being a moral and legal imperative, could be achieved through the establishment of a democratic system that replaces the current apartheid regime in the country, and guarantees that the civil and human rights of every ethnic group inhabiting the land are respected.



[5] (Pappe, 2006, p.42)

[6] (Khalidi, 2020, p.24)

[7] (Pappe, 2006, p. 29)

[8] (Pappe, 2006, p. xii)i

[13] Shlaim, Avi. Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations. Verso, 2010.

Pappe, I. (2006). The ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Oneworld Publications.

Khalidi, R. (2020). The hundred years' war on Palestine: A history of settler colonialism and resistance, 1917-2017. Columbia University Press.

[17] (Shalim, 2010, p. 290)

[31] 2% of the territory 1948 occupied Palestine, which is the territory recognized by part of the international community as the legitimate boundaries of the state of Israel.

[32] Pappe, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine (258-259)

[38] (Pappe, 2006, p.287)

[40] chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

 [DW1]Is this what it’s called?

 [WU2]Israelis including officials usually refer to it as the separation barrier


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