Much of the information on this page – and many footnotes documenting that information – can be found in the AFSC resource: Forced Displacement in Palestine and Israel. Source text has been edited or supplemented by Palestine Portal, and emphasis with bold text, italics or underlining has been added.
The Beginning of Forced Displacement of Palestinians
Forced displacement – i.e. the loss of one’s home and land – is at the heart of the conflict. At the start of the 20th century less than 5 percent of the population of historic Palestine was Jewish. By 1948 the Jewish population in the area had grown to over 30 percent of the total population as a result of mass immigration from Europe, with most immigrants arriving from Europe after 1920.
When the partition plan was proposed by the UN in 1947, this Jewish population owned approximately 7 percent of the land of historic Palestine and constituted only a slim majority (55 percent) of the population in the area designated for the new Jewish state. Even within this area, only one of the sub-districts allocated for the Jewish state had a majority Jewish population.
Forcibly displacing the Palestinian population was thus the only way to ensure a sustainable Jewish majority in the new state and plans to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian population were therefore developed.
During 1947 and 1948, Israel systematically demolished 531 Palestinian villages inside the area that became Israel. More than 200 of these villages were destroyed, and between 250,000 and 350,000 people were displaced before May 1948 when the first Arab-Israeli war officially began.
Ultimately, approximately 750,000 Palestinians were displaced in 1948 as a result of the war and the systematic demolition of Palestinian towns and villages. This is known as the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe.” [See more on The Nakba in our History section.] In 1967, after the Six Day War, Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza, displacing even more Palestinians.
All of these refugees’ rights to compensation and return were never fulfilled, and they and their descendants remain refugees today. Resolving the conflict requires acknowledging and addressing this historic injustice. [See more about this on our Refugees page.]
LEGAL STATUS OF THE OCCUPIED PALESTINIAN TERRITORY
The West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem are all considered militarily occupied territories under international law. Their status as occupied territory is universally acknowledged by the international community, including the U.S. government. While Israel has argued that it ceased occupying Gaza in 2005 when it redeployed its troops and withdrew settlers from Gaza, it remains the position of the international community including the U.S., the EU, and the UN that Gaza remains occupied. Within occupied territory, international humanitarian law (particularly the 4th Geneva Convention) regulates and outlines the rights and duties of both the occupied people (Palestinians) and the occupying power (Israel). Virtually all aspects of Israel’s occupation regime, including home demolitions and forced displacement, are severe violations of international law on occupation.
Home demolitions are the leading cause of forced displacement in the occupied Palestinian territory. According to the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD), since 1967, Israel has demolished more than 26,000 Palestinian-owned structures in the occupied Palestinian territory. These demolitions have made hundreds of thousands of Palestinians homeless.
The most recent information from ICAHD:
ICAHD estimates that some 48,038 Palestinian structures have been demolished in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 1967, based on information collected from the Israeli Ministry of Interior, the Jerusalem Municipality, the Civil Administration, UN bodies and agencies, Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights groups, our field monitoring, and other sources.
There are three main types of demolitions:
Punitive demolitions are carried out to “punish” people who have been accused of taking part in actions considered illegal by Israel, i.e. political organizing or acts of violence. Demolished homes are often not owned by those accused of taking part in these actions, but rather by their extended family. The Israeli military temporarily halted punitive demolitions in 2005, but resumed this practice in 2009.
Punitive demolitions account for approximately 6 percent of all home demolitions in the occupied Palestinian territory.
Administrative demolitions are carried out against buildings or structures built without the proper permits in Area C of the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Administrative demolitions account for approximately 23 percent of all demolitions in the occupied Palestinian territory.
MILITARY / LAND CLEARING DEMOLITIONS
Military or Land Clearing Demolitions include the demolition and destruction of Palestinian homes and structures during military operations. During the second Intifada (a Palestinian uprising, resisting the Israeli occupation), between 4,000 and 5,000 Palestinian homes were demolished in the course of military operations, including more than 2,500 structures in Gaza. Israel’s systematic destruction of homes in the Rafah area of Gaza alone displaced as many as 50,000 people. During the same period, hundreds of homes were also destroyed in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, and other locations.
The UN agency OCHA also estimates that 4,247 homes were demolished and nearly 15,000 were damaged during Israel’s invasion of Gaza from December 2008 to January 2009 (Operation Cast Lead), displacing more than 150,000 people. Nearly 16,000 Gaza residents remain displaced as a result of these demolitions.
Information on Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014:
According OCHA, as of August 25, 2014, it was estimated that 17,200 housing units had been severely damaged or completely destroyed. A further 37,650 had been damaged to the extent that they were uninhabitable. This temporarily displaced at least 475,000 people and more than 100,000 will remain displaced for an extended period.
Both international and local human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’tselem, Al-Mezan, and Al-Haq along with UN agencies, have carefully documented these mass demolitions and have repeatedly held that they are carried out in flagrant violation of international humanitarian and human rights law.
About Demolitions in Area C
Under the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, the West Bank was divided into three administrative areas (Areas A, B, and C). Area C is 61 percent of the West Bank, and is under the full control of the Israeli government. Israel has designated 70 percent of Area C unavailable to Palestinians; it is for illegal Israeli settlements, nature reserves, closed military zones, and a restricted access area near the Wall. The remaining 30 percent of Area C is theoretically available for Palestinian use, but of this area only 1 percent is zoned for building and nearly all of this zoned area is already built up. This means that nearly all building in Area C must be done “illegally” in areas where building is not allowed by Israel.
Even when Palestinians apply for permission, they are rarely granted building permits; only a tiny percentage of applications for building permits are approved. Obviously, Palestinians’ families grow and must have space to live in. also, homes need improvements after many years. However, any building or remodeling of structures in Area C carried out without a permit will result in the renovated or newly built structure receiving a demolition order. Palestinians in these areas therefore effectively have only two choices: 1. build or remodel illegally and risk their homes being destroyed, or 2. move out of Area C and into Areas A or B, where building is regulated by the Palestinian Authority.
About Demolitions in East Jerusalem
East Jerusalem was taken by the Israeli military in the 1967 war, and it is considered occupied territory under international law. Israel’s claim that all of Jerusalem belongs to it and is its capital has no validity and Israel’s colonization and forced displacement of the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem is a continuing violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and other articles of international law by which Israel is bound.
As a result of land confiscation for settlements, missing municipal planning schemes, and closed “green space” areas, only 13 percent of East Jerusalem land is available for Palestinian construction. Much of this area is already built up, and in the areas where open land is available for construction, building permits are rarely approved. According to the Jerusalem municipality at least 1,500 new housing units are needed each year in East Jerusalem to meet natural growth needs. In 2008, only 125 building permits were approved, allowing for the building of only 400 new units. This difference between needs and what is legally allowed leads to illegal building. Any home built or renovated without a permit is at risk of demolition. Between 2001 and 2010, an average of 82 Palestinian homes were demolished in East Jerusalem each year and at least 1,500 home demolition orders have been issued but not yet enforced. It is estimated that 20 percent of all Palestinian buildings in East Jerusalem have been constructed or renovated without permits, leaving as many as 60,000 Palestinians at risk of displacement.
About Demolitions in the Gaza Restricted Access Area
The Gaza “restricted access area” is an area along the separation wall between Gaza and Israel where any Palestinian can be shot on sight by the Israeli military. The restricted access area was first created during the second Intifada when Israel began enforcing a 150-meter no-go zone along the Eastern border of Gaza. At that time Israel also began systematically demolishing homes and structures in areas near the Gaza borders in the north and south of the Gaza Strip.
In May 2009, the Israeli military announced an expansion of the restricted access area in leaflets they dropped on Gaza warning people that anyone coming within 300 meters of the border could be shot. Additional homes and structures in this area were subsequently destroyed. In addition to the official 300-meter restricted access area, Israeli forces conduct regular raids one and two kilometers into Gaza and constantly monitor all areas up to two kilometers into Gaza. The land included in the restricted access area accounts for 17 percent of the total Gaza land area and includes 35% of Gaza’s agricultural land. Research conducted by Save the Children UK in 2009 found that up to 70 percent of all households living near the restricted access area had been displaced at least once since 2000.
More Causes for Forced Displacement
While home demolitions are the primary cause of displacement in the occupied Palestinian territory, they are not the sole cause.
Palestinians in Area C and also in Jerusalem are also displaced by being denied freedom of movement, access to health services, basic sanitation, water and electricity, educational facilities and religious institutions.
Palestinians are also at risk of displacement as a result of their residency rights being revoked. In 1967, Israel unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem, although its right to control the area has not been recognized by the international community. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem were given Permanent Resident Status in the city but not full Israeli citizenship (which they have never sought). To maintain their status as “permanent residents” of the city, Palestinians from Jerusalem must prove that their “center of life” is in the city. Any Palestinian resident of Jerusalem who moves out of the city, either to another part of the occupied Palestinian territory or abroad (even temporarily), can have their residency rights revoked.
Between 1967 and 2011 over 14,000 Palestinians had their residency rights in Jerusalem revoked and have permanently lost their right to live in or even to visit the city of their birth. According to the Israeli government, as many as 140,000 residents of the West Bank and Gaza (not including East Jerusalem) also had their residency rights revoked between 1967 and 1994 for political reasons or because they left the country for an extended period of time. This is another method of ethnic cleansing, a crime against the indigenous people of this land.
Forced Displacement Within Israel
Forced displacement is not limited to the occupied Palestinian territory. Within Israel, nearly 100,000 Palestinian “internal refugees” from 1948 live in more than 100 unrecognized villages. These communities are provided with no state services and all homes within them face a constant threat of demolition. As of May 2013, the unrecognized Palestinian village of Al-Araqib had been demolished 50 times as part of an Israeli government effort to displace its residents to established cities.
The Palestinian Bedouin population in the Negev is also at constant risk of displacement. In September 2011, the Israeli government approved the “Prawar Plan” which if implemented would result in the destruction of 35 Bedouin communities in the Negev and the forced displacement/relocation of the nearly 70,000 people who reside in these villages. A revised version of this plan, known as the “Prawar-Begin Plan” is being implemented by Israel today.
Caterpillar is the company most directly complicit in Israel’s home demolition policy. Caterpillar sells its bulldozers to the Israeli army through the United States Foreign Military Sales Program, despite knowing that its equipment is used in the commission of systematic human rights abuses. These sales are separate from the company’s regular supply chain for products sold to the general Israeli market. Once in Israel, D9 bulldozers are armored and modified to include machine gun mounts and grenade launchers.
In 2004, Amnesty International explained:
“More than 3,000 homes, hundreds of public buildings and private commercial properties, and vast areas of agricultural land have been destroyed by the Israeli army and security forces in Israel and the Occupied Territories in the past three and a half years. Tens of thousands of men, women and children have been forcibly evicted from their homes and made homeless or have lost their source of livelihood.
Thousands of other houses and properties have been damaged, many beyond repair. In addition, tens of thousands of other homes are under threat of demolition, their occupants living in fear of forced eviction and homelessness … Thousands of families have had their homes and possessions destroyed under the blades of the Israeli army’s U.S.-made Caterpillar bulldozers.”
As a result, Amnesty International recommended that, “Caterpillar Inc., the U.S. company which produces the bulldozers used by the Israeli army, should take measures—within the company’s sphere of influence—to guarantee that its bulldozers are not used to commit human rights violations, including the destruction of homes, land and other properties.” Human Rights Watch, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, War on Want, and the Presbyterian Church USA, among others, have all made similar recommendations to Caterpillar, to no avail.
Church engagement with Caterpillar was conducted by an ecumenical group comprised of leaders from the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ and other denominations. See the history of that corporate engagment here.
The following organizations in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel address and
challenge Israel’s forced displacement policy.
• Al-Haq: http://www.alhaq.org/
• Al-Mezan: http://www.mezan.org/en/
• Badil: http://www.badil.org/
• The Civic Coalition for Defending Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem:
• Ma’an Development Center: http://www.maan-ctr.org/
• The Palestinian Counseling Center: http://www.pcc-jer.org/english/
• Jordan Valley Solidarity: http://www.jordanvalleysolidarity.org/
• B’Tselem: http://www.btselem.org/
• Adallah: http://adalah.org/eng/
• The Association for Civil Rights in Israel: http://www.acri.org.il/en/
• Bimkom: http://bimkom.org.il/eng/
• Ir Amin: http://eng.ir-amim.org.il/
• Zochrot: http://zochrot.org/en
PDF: Expel and Exploit: Taking Over Rural Palestinian Land, Full (2016) – 37 pp.
PDF: Expel and Exploit: Taking Over Rural Palestinian Land, Summary (2016) – 4 pp.
PDF: Acting the Landlord: Israel’s Policy in Area C, Full – 105 pp.
PDF: Acting the Landlord: Israel’s Policy in Area C, Summary – 3 pp.
PDF: Background on Jordan Valley – 6 pp.
PDF: Non-development in Area C – 3 pp.
PDF: Planning and Construction Policy in Area C – 2 pp.
PDF: Taking Land: Declaring State Land – 2 pp.
PDF: Taking Land: Off Limits to Palestinian Use – 3 pp.
PDF: Thousands in Area C Face Expulsion – 2 pp.
EAPPI – PDF: Silently Displaced – 96 pp.
ICAHD – PDF: FAQs: Home Demolitions – 2 pp.
IMEMC – PDF: Family Demolishes Own Home to Avoid Penalties – 1 pg.
IPMN – PDF: Steadfast Hope Fact Sheet 3: House Demolition – 4 pp.
Middle East Eye – PDF: Demolition of Palestinian Homes Ongoing Nakba – 4 pp.
Negotiations Affairs Dept (NAD), State of Palestine
PDF: Annexation Policies, Jordan Valley, Sept 2013 – 7 pp.
PDF: Bedouin Communities, Displacement & Ethnic Cleansing – 4 pp.
PDF: Ethnic Cleansing of Bedouins, East Jerusalem, June 2014 – 7 pp.
PDF: Home Demolition Policy, East Jerusalem, Aug. 2013 – 2 pp.
PDF: Home Demolitions 2015 – 2 pp.
PDF: Home Demolitions, Qalendia – 4 pp.
PDF: Home Demolitions in the Name of Security, Hebron – 6 pp.
PDF: Land Confiscation: Absentee Property Law – 4 pp.
NY Times – PDF: Israel Bulldozes Democracy – 3 pp.
PNN – PDF: Umm Al-Hiran: New Tactics, Same Forcible Displacement – 2 pp.
Stop The Wall – PDF: Palestinian Periphery: Demolitions, Colonialism-Jordan Valley, South Hebron Hills – 17 pp.
Journeyman Pictures – Caterpillar Bulldozer – Israel/Palestine
Caterpillar bulldozers have come to symbolize foreign involvement in Israel’s occupation; they are used to destroy Palestinian homes, uproot orchards, and build illegal settlements. An Israeli general has described these bulldozers as “the iron fist” of the Israeli army.