The Internally Displaced Palestinians in Israel | Areej Sabbagh-Khoury

[Nakba survivors - Jaffa, 2012 (© RW/BADIL)] Nakba survivors - Jaffa, 2012 (© RW/BADIL)

The category “internally displaced in Israel” includes Palestinians who were driven out from their homes by the Jewish forces (subsequently Israeli) prior to the foundation of the State of Israel, or by institutions under the authority of the State of Israel following its establishment, and who remained within the borders of the State of Israel most starkly in the period between November 1947 and July 1949, but also continuing into the present. Today, Israel continues to prevent these internally displaced persons (IDPs) from returning to their homes.1

The internal composition of this group can be analyzed according to definitions introduced by the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugees’ Rights. BADIL distinguishes between two groups of IDPs: those who were displaced in 1948, and those who were displaced after 1948. The first group – the 1948 internally displaced Palestinians – who constitute the majority of displaced persons that remained inside Israel, consists of those Palestinians who were expelled from their homes during the 1948 Nakba under Israeli law; they are classified as “present absentees.”2

The members of post-1948 internally displaced Palestinians are fewer in number than those displaced before and during 1948 and were forcibly displaced during the years that followed Israel’s establishment through internal transfer operations or expulsion (and also beyond the borders of the State of Israel). A large portion of this group is Palestinian Bedouin3, some of whom live in what are today known as “unrecognized” villages.

According to these definitions, displacement did not take place only during the Nakba, but continued in the aftermath of the 1948 war and following the 1949 Armistice Agreements.4 In addition to internal displacement, Israel also expelled Palestinians from several towns and villages to outside its borders, as in the case of the expulsion of the remaining residents of the town of al-Majdal-Asqalan (known today as Ashkelon), who numbered approximately 2,700  down from 10,000 pre-1948. In 1950, these residents received expulsion orders, according to which they were evacuated to the borders of the Gaza Strip over the course of a few weeks, because Israel’s leaders needed al-Majdal and its land to settle Jewish immigrants.5

During the early years following the establishment of Israel, the Israeli authorities refrained from declaring their intention to prevent the return of the IDPs to their towns and villages,6 but used various means to bar their return. The most important of these means was the imposition of “military rule” over the Palestinians between 1948 and 1966. Military rule authorized Israel’s military commanders to proclaim Arab areas as closed zones in accordance with Article 125 of the Emergency Regulations and it was necessary for Arab residents to acquire movement permits in order to enter and leave their zones.7 The Israeli authorities took other steps to preclude the return of the IDPs, such as demolishing houses in some towns and villages, expelling residents beyond the borders of what was declared to be the State of Israel, settling some Jewish immigrants in the homes of the refugees and establishing Jewish towns on the land of destroyed towns and villages.8

The Internally Displaced: Between Return and Settlement

Like other refugees, IDPs dealt with their new situation as if it was temporary and waited to return to their villages. Like the rest of the Palestinian refugees in the refugee camps, the IDPs also received assistance from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). However, this assistance was discontinued in the early 1950s because the Israeli government regarded the issue of the IDPs an internal Israeli issue. The Israeli government allocated a budget to ensure that they gained employment in some of the Arab towns and villages that were still standing following the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel.9

Al-Haj (1988) states that in the period following 1948, the lives of the IDPs can be characterized as falling into three phases. The first phase, which lasted from 1948 to 1951, was a period during which IDPs searched for a safe place of refuge. During this period families migrated from one village to another in search of a safe haven. Most of the IDPs settled in towns and villages located close to their villages of origin, and with which, in some cases, they had social and economic ties, and in other cases because they wanted to remain near their villages of origin to make it easier for them to return. The second phase, which lasted from 1952 to 1956, was a period of waiting and expectation. The IDPs viewed their situation as a temporary one and hoped to return to their villages once calm had been restored. Some of the IDPs, despite their success in rebuilding their lives in the towns and villages in which they had sought refuge, continued to view – and still view – their lives in these towns and villages as temporary (this sentiment is also shared by many second and third-generationIDPs who were born in the towns and villages where their families had taken refuge), and awaited their return to their villages of origin.10 It is therefore difficult to contend that the period of waiting and expectation has come to an end. However, in my opinion it is possible to argue that there are certain factors that led the IDPs to take practical steps to settle down – if only temporarily – in the villages in which they had taken refuge. Majid Al Haj (1988) attempts to explain some of these factors, and points to the 1956 war between Israel and Egypt and the defeat of the latter as one of the factors that ended the period of waiting among Palestinians in Israel (including the IDPs), during which Palestinians dealt with the establishment of the State of Israel as a temporary matter that would inevitably come to an end. In addition, during the 1950s the Israeli authorities put pressure on the IDPs to settle in the places where they had taken refuge and set up various committees to implement settlement plans, including the Refugee Housing Authority and the Population Transfer Committee, which offered to buy or exchange the property of the IDPs.11 Al Haj (1988) further indicates that the absence of a national organization dashed hopes of return among the internally displaced and led, among other things, to the end of the period of expectation. According to Al Haj, the third phase was a phase of resettlement that began in 1957. During this phase, some of the IDPs started to buy land and to build houses for their families in the towns and villages where they had taken refuge.

The Internally Displaced: Demographic Data and Places of Refuge

The number and demographic characteristics of the IDPs do not appear in the annual Statistical Abstract of Israel. In the first and second population censuses that were undertaken by the State of Israel in 1948 and 1961 respectively, the IDPs were not categorized as a group separate from the rest of the Palestinians who had remained in their homeland after the Nakba. According to Kamen, the fact that this categorization does not appear can be attributed to two possible causes: first, that the neglect of the issue of the IDPs was related to the general neglect of the Palestinians in Israel following the establishment of the State of Israel; and second, the fact that the authorities did not wish to draw attention to an issue of this kind by providing the means and mechanisms of categorizing them, since providing such information, according to Kamen, could act as a reminder that the problem of the refugees created by the Nakbawas also present within Israel, albeit on a smaller scale and of a different nature.12

Wakim (2001) in referring to estimates of the IDP population numbers, states that in 1950 UNRWA estimated their numbers at 46,000 people,13 i.e. 30% of the Arab citizens who remained in Israel during that period (156,000 persons). This estimation refers only to those who were displaced in 1948 and not to the Palestinian citizens who were displaced after 1948, and who were not included in UNRWA’s statistics. Some estimates put the number of persons who were displaced following the establishment of the State of Israel at approximately 75,000 Palestinians in Israel.14

The first population survey to include details of the number of IDPs in Israel was that carried out by The Galilee Society: The Arab National Society for Health Research and Services, Mada al-Carmel: Arab Center for Applied Social Research and Rikaz: The Databank for the Palestinian Minority in Israel at the end of 2004. The survey defined IDPs as “the Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes and relocate to other places of residence inside Israel as a result of any war and/or as a result of policies of the government of Israel or any other body. The definition of displacement applies to the internally displaced persons and their families, and is inherited by their male descendants; i.e. children follow their fathers in displacement, and the children of a displaced father are displaced persons. This definition does not include the Palestinians who were displaced from their villages and who later returned to them, despite the fact that the Present Absentee Law still applies to them today”.15 In accordance with this definition, the 2004 survey found that 15.1% of the Palestinian population in Israel to be IDPs.

The relative distribution of IDPs according to region indicates that 12.8% of the northern Palestinian population is internally displaced, as is 20.5% of the population of the central area, and 22.7% of the population living in the southern area; i.e. the largest proportion of the IDP population is located in the southern area.

The relative distribution of internally displaced persons according to gender indicates that 15.2% of males are displaced, which is statistically equivalent to the proportion of females, at 15.1%. According to the definition that was adopted, the IDPs are the sons and daughters of displaced fathers, and not the sons and daughters of displaced mothers. This is a problematic definition because there is a group that is not included within the definition of an IDP (and which may view itself as being internally displaced), namely the sons and daughters of displaced women. From the data it may be inferred that if the definition included the sons and daughters of displaced mothers, the number of IDPs within the Palestinian population would rise, and consequently the proportion of IDPsaccording to the various categorizations would increase.

The Legal Status of the IDPs and Their Property

The Israeli authorities prevented IDPs from returning to their homes and appropriated their land and property16 under various laws, most importantly the Emergency Regulations (Absentees’ Property) – 1948, and the Absentees’ Property Law – 1950.17 The Palestinians internally displaced in Israel are considered to be “absentees” under Israeli law, despite the fact that they remained in their homeland, on the ground that they left their villages of origin, regardless of their reasons for doing so. Although they were granted Israeli citizenship under the Israeli Nationality Law – 1952, they were systematically blocked from returning to their homes and land and from recovering their property.18 In accordance with the Emergency Regulations (Absentees’ Property) – 1948, everything owned by the IDPs was placed at the disposal of the Custodian of Absentees’ Property. The definition of absentees in these regulations included Palestinian IDPs. The regulations granted the Custodian of Absentees’ Property “only temporary authority over the absentees’ property”.19 The executive authority therefore acted to seal the “legal aspect” of seizing their property, enacting the Absentees’ Property Law in 1950. The law authorizes the Custodian of Absentees’ Property to take care of and manage absentee property and to expel those residing on it. Thus, the Custodian of Absentees’ Property is considered under this law to be the owner of these properties unless the “absentee” can prove that he or she was not absent or that he or she is not considered to be as an absentee in the eyes of the law. This is a near-impossible task, given the existing legal precedents in this regard.20 Thus the law does not afford “absentees” – be they refugees or IDPs – the right to recover their property. The law was formulated specifically so as to include IDPs who are Israeli citizens, in order to prevent them from returning to their villages and their homes.

The Demand to Return and the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel

The IDPs began to demand to return to their villages from the time of their displacement. Local committees for the IDPs of the various villages were formed to demand their return to their towns and villages (like the internally displaced committees of Iqrit, Kafr Bir’im, Ghabisiya and Saffuriyya, among others). The demand for return was not made on a countrywide level, but locally through the judicial channels (as was the case with the villages of Iqrit and Kafr Bir’im, as well as Ghabisiya), or via the attempts of some IDPs to correspond with various ministries to demand to return to their villages, including the IDPs of ed-Damun, al-Ruweis, Wa’arat al-Sarris, Tira (Tirat el-Carmel), Tiberias and Qisarya.21 The absence of national, collective organization and the fact that it only began to take shape in the early 1970s can be attributed to a set of factors, including: firstly, the military regime. “Military rule”, which banned Palestinian movement from one village to another without a permit limited the possibility of political organization among Palestinians in Israel in general. In this case, it prevented the IDPs from organizing at a countrywide level. The second factor was the geographical placement of the populations of these villages. Most IDPs of a destroyed village took refuge in the same town, which encouraged them to frame their issue within local committees. The third reason for their organization at the local and not the national political level was the power of the local collective memory, which was reflected in their local political organization. For instance, the people who were displaced from Ma’lul were united by their memory of Ma’lul as the village in which they lived and their social and political experience, and were connected by relations of proximity and kinship, and they came together and organized themselves to return to the village when that became possible. The collective memory of Palestine as a homeland was less articulated than the local memory of the village. 

From the early 1990s, countrywide, popular, organized action aimed at securing the return of the IDPs to their villages and reconstructing the collective memory began to emerge. The majority of local IDP committees were subsumed within the framework of the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel (ADRID) in 1995. It should be noted that the two committees of Iqrit and Kafr Bir’im did not affiliate themselves with ADRID because their members regard their cases as unique: the Supreme Court has delivered various decisions instructing their return,22 the first in 1951, and they are therefore demanding to return to their villages through the judicial process, a route which ADRID has not pursued. The idea to establish an association for the internally displaced was born following the Madrid Conference of 1992 and the Israeli-Palestinian talks, when the IDPs decided that their case did not fall within the context of the negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

ADRID demands that the State of Israel abolish the laws that regard the IDPs as “absentees”, as well as return IDPs and refugees to their towns and villages in accordance with UN Resolution 194, which calls for the return of the refugees and their compensation. ADRID keeps the memory of the destroyed villages alive by organizing marches to these villages as part of the annual commemoration of the Nakba, and specifically on the day of the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel, known as “Independence Day”, in order to highlight the Nakba of the Palestinian people.23 It should be pointed out that the activities and political discourse of the IDPs has made a major contribution to the discussion of the Nakba and displacement among Palestinians in Israel, a subject that was not a part of the Palestinian political discourse in Israel for a long period of time.24

ADRID arranges seminars for schools and various associations, maintains holy sites in destroyed villages and holds courses training guides in touring destroyed towns and villages in order to raise political awareness of the Nakba and the refugee issue. These programs address the historical, geographical and political dimensions of the issue of the destroyed villages, the refugees, and the IDPs in particular, and acquaint the younger generation (the third generation since the Nakba) with the issues of displacement, the refugees and the IDPs, particularly given the relentless efforts made by the Israeli establishment to erase them from the collective Palestinian memory.

The arrival of ADRID has helped to place the issue of the IDPs within the Palestinian context both inside and outside Israel. It has strengthened contacts between the Palestinians in Israel and Palestinians in exile by connecting their issue to that of the refugees, regardless of the fact that Israel deals with the refugees within its borders in isolation from the other issues, and views their issue as an internal Israeli affair.


Original article published June 18, 2012 on Badil, Available here.

The pictures rights belongs to: [Nakba survivors - Jaffa, 2012 (© RW/BADIL)] Nakba survivors – Jaffa, 2012 © RW/BADIL.

Areej Sabbagh-Khoury is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel-Aviv University. She is an associate at Mada al-Carmel, Arab Center for Applied Social Research.


Regrettably, due to an editorial error the following note did not appear in the print version.

This article is a shortened version of “The Internally Displaced Palestinians in Israel” originally published in: Rouhana, N. N. and Sabbagh-Khoury, A. “The Palestinians in Israel: Readings in history, politics and society.” Mada al-Carmel – Arab Center for Applied Social Research, Haifa, 2011. For the full article please see:

1. Other names have been used to describe this segment within the Palestinian academic and political discourses in Israel, such as “refugees in their homeland,” “internal refugees,” “refugees in Israel,” and “1948 refugees.” In this paper, I will use the designation “the internally displaced in Israel,” which is how the IDPs have referred to themselves when naming the “Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel”.

2. Internally displaced Palestinians, international protection and durable solutions, BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugees’ Rights, Bethlehem, 2003.

3. Ibid.

4. See Jiryis, S. The Arabs in Israel. Jerusalem: The League of Arab States in Jerusalem (1967); Kamen, C. After the catastrophe II: The Arabs in Israel, 1948-1951. Middle Eastern Studies, 24(1), 68-109 (1988). Masalha, N. More land, fewer Arabs: The implementation of the Israeli policy of “transfer”, 1949-1996. Beirut: Institute for Palestinian Studies (1997); and Masalha, N. Israel and the politics of denial: Zionism and the Palestinian refugees. Ramallah:

5. Madar–The Palestinian Center for Israeli Studies (2003).

6. This example and others (see Sabbagh-Khoury, A, (2011). “The Internally Displaced Palestinians in Israel,” in Rouhana, N. and Sabbagh-Khoury, A, The Palestinians in Israel: Readings in history, politics and society, Mada al-Carmel: The Arab Center for Applied Social Research, and Masalha, 1997, p.27) provide support for the argument that the expulsion and displacement operations did not take place only in the context of the war between the Palestinians and the Jews in Palestine, but were also linked to the Zionist ideology itself, which sought to gain control over the largest possible area of land in Palestine, leaving the least number of Arabs on it.

7. Kamen, C. After the catastrophe I: The Arabs in Israel, 1948-1951. Middle Eastern Studies, 23(1), 453-493, (1987).

8. The declared aims of the military regime were to enforce the law and the military administration over Palestine for security purposes. In addition, the military regime had undeclared aims, many of which were related to preventing the return of the refugees and the IDPs to their towns and villages of origin. According to Nur Masalha, these aims were as follows: firstly, to prevent the Palestinian refugees from returning to their towns and villages in Israel; secondly, to displace and evacuate the displaced persons from semi-abandoned Arab towns and villages and expel them to other areas in the country; thirdly, to reduce the number of IDPs who remained in Israel by expelling them to beyond the borders of the state; and fourthly, to impose surveillance on the Palestinian citizens and isolate them from the Jewish population (Masalha, 1997, 2003; Segev, T, 1949 – The First Israelis, The Free Press (New York), 1986.).

9. Kamen, 1987.

10. See Al-Haj, M. The Arab internal refugees in Israel: The emergence of a minority within the minority. Immigrants and Minorities, 2, 149-16 (1988); and Kamen 1987.

11. See, for example, Kabha, M., & Barzilai, R. Refugees in their land: The internal refugees in Israel 1948-1996. Givat Haviva: Institute for Peace Studies, 1996.

12. Wakim, W. “Refugees in their homeland: The present-absentees in Israel,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 45/46, 90-104, and Kabha and Barzilai (1996) state that a small percentage of IDPs accepted the offer made by the Israeli authorities, which, for many of them, can perhaps be attributed to their difficult circumstances following the Nakba.

13. Kamen, 1987.

14. Al-Haj (1986) states that estimates of the number of post-1948 IDPs range between 31,000 and 50,000 persons (p. 654).

15. BADIL, 2003.

16. The Galilee Society, Mada al-Carmel & Rikaz, The Palestinians in Israel: Socio-economic Survey, (2005), p. 36.

17. The property of the IDPs in Israel is estimated at 300,000 dunams of land, which Israel has declared to be “absentee property” (Masalha, 2003, p. 159).

18. The State of Israel has enacted approximately 30 laws in accordance with which private land (for the most part Arab-owned) has been transferred to state ownership, in practice, for the benefit and use of the “Jewish people,” thereby excluding Palestinian citizens from the ownership and use of this land. Under the enacted laws – in particular the Basic Law – Israel Lands, and the Development Authority Law – almost all of this land (close to 93%) became state property (Masalha, 2003; Yiftachel, 2001).

19. Masalha, 2003.

20. Jiryis, 1967,

21. See Cohen, H. “The present-absentees:” Palestinian refugees in Israel since 1948. Jerusalem: Center for the

22. Study of Arab Society in Israel, 2002; Jiryis, 1967; and Masalha, 2003.

23. Cohen, 2000, p. 491-492; and Kamen, 1987.

24. See the High Court petitions regarding Ikrit and Bir’am: HCJ 64/51, Mabda Hana Daud et al. v. Minister of Defense et al., P. D. 5 1117, given on 31 July 1951; HCJ 239/51, Mabda Hana Daud et al. v. Appeals Committee for Security Areas et al., P. D. 6 229, given on 25 February 1952; HCJ 141/81, Committee of Uprooted Persons of Ikrit v. Government of Israel et al., given on 23 December 1981; and the last judgment, HCJ 840/97, ‘Aani Sabit et al. vs. Government of Israel et al., given on 26 June 2003; and the High Court judgment regarding Bir’am, HCJ 195/51.

25. Cohen, 2000.

26. See, for example, “Statement by the Preparatory Committee for the Return and Just Peace Conference” – (the conference was held in cooperation with organizations Ittijah, Zochrot and the Emile Touma Institute, for the third consecutive year): “Another year has passed since the Nakba of the Palestinian people, the repercussions of which have continued day after day since 1948. For us, the Nakba is not a passing event or occasion, but a reality that is based on the tragedy and historical injustices that continue to be the founding event in the modern history of the Palestinian people.” Retrieved July 10, 2008 from (in Arabic).

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