Arbitrary displacement has characterized the life of the Palestinian people since 1948. Arbitrary displacement, in particular internal displacement, is ongoing in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, namely the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
The most common forms of arbitrary displacement are identified in Principle 6 of theUN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which considers a displacement arbitrary – that is, illegal – when it is:
- based on policies of apartheid, “ethnic cleansing” or similar practices aimed at or resulting in alteration of the ethnic, religious or racial composition of the affected population;
- in situations of armed conflict, unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand;
- in cases of large-scale development projects that are not justified by compelling and overriding public interests;
- in cases of disasters, unless the safety and health of those affected requires their evacuation;
- used as a collective punishment. 1
In Palestine, arbitrary displacement is caused by the Israeli government policy of:
- Land acquisition and forced evictions;
- revocation of residency, in particular in East Jerusalem;
- building restrictions and home demolitions for lack of permit or on punitive grounds;
- settlement construction and expansion;
- settler violence;
- military operations and military training exercises;
- closed military areas (buffer zones). 2
Arbitrary displacement is a daily occurrence in the occupied Palestinian Territory. The ongoing transfer of Palestinians was recognized by the International Court of Justice in its 2004 Advisory Opinion the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory:
a significant number of Palestinians have already been compelled by the construction of the wall and its associated regime to depart from certain areas, a process that will continue as more of the wall is built, that construction, coupled with the establishment of the Israeli settlements […] is tending to alter the demographic composition of the [occupied Palestinian territory]. 3
By 2013, there were over half a million settlers, controlling around 43 percent of the land in the West Bank. 4 The 2013 UN independent Fact-Finding Mission found that “the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people, including the right to determine how to implement self-determination, the right to have a demographic and territorial presence in the [OPT] and the right to permanent sovereignty over natural resources, is clearly being violated by Israel through the existence and ongoing expansion of the settlements.” 5 In addition to belligerent occupation, the legal situation in the West Bank is characterised by colonialism and apartheid. 6
In the Gaza Strip, the eight-year long siege and the three major escalations of hostilities in the last six years have increased the vulnerability of displaced Palestinians and detrimentally affected their livelihoods and coping mechanisms. This is compounded by the fact that two thirds of the population of the Gaza Strip (1.8 million) is made of 1948 refugees (1.2 million).
The largest displacement of Palestinians since 1967 took place during the 2014 military offensive as nearly 500,000 Palestinians were internally displaced persons (IDP) – that is about 30 percent of the Gaza population. 7 This recent displacement adds up to other instances of previous hostilities and the Occupying Power’s military enforcement of the ‘buffer zone’: a ‘no go’ area along the border with Israel.
The Strip cannot provide a safe flight alternative for its population as there is nowhere safe during hostilities. The fundamental principles of necessity, proportionality and precaution were flouted by the Israeli army during “Operation Protective Edge”, causing the death of more than 2,200 Palestinians, the majority of whom were civilians and refugees, and injuring 11,000 more. UN installations were directly targeted, including six UNRWA schools sheltering displaced civilians. 8
Palestinians cannot evacuate during hostilities as entry points are closed and the border is sealed. Palestinian civilians are literally trapped, ‘stuck in’ or ‘locked in’, denied free access and confined amidst combat in contravention of IHL.
The unprecedented destruction of homes (18,000 homes made uninhabitable) in the 2014 war affected at least 100,000 people. 9 As of April 2016, only 16 percent (3,000 homes) have been reconstructed or repaired. 10 Many displaced Palestinians cannot rebuild or repair their homes, as less than 1 percent of the required construction material has entered Gaza. 11 As of April 2016, 90,000 Palestinians were still displaced and had moved multiple times in the past two years. 12 They live in harsh conditions in rented apartments, tents and makeshift shelters and around a quarter (23 percent) still live in the rubble of their previous home. 13
Palestinians need greater international protection against arbitrary displacement, a right recognized in the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement whereby those displaced internally are entitled to a durable solution, including the right to return home. 14
Palestinian refugees also have the right to return to their homes of origin and should benefit from international protection. However, no UN organization is searching for a durable solution to the plight of 1948 Palestinian refugees.
In fact, the search for a solution to the question of Palestinian refugees has moved outside the realm of international refugee law to hinge instead on a power game of political negotiation and an ever-elusive peace accord. As a document produced jointly by UNRWA and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) makes clear, “the task of finding a comprehensive solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Palestine refugee problem, however, is not part of UNRWA’s mandate but is rather the responsibility of the parties to the conflict and other political actors.” 15