The Unprecedented Internal Displacement in Gaza

Conflicts always produce more internally displaced individuals than refugees. While there are approximately 32 million refugees worldwide, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) globally is nearly double at 63 million. The internal displacement situation in Gaza today is unprecedented, however. This is not only because of the scale of displacement, with 80 percent of the Strip’s residents—1.9 million people—forced to leave their homes. It is also unique in that Gaza residents have, quite literally, nowhere to go.

Gaza has been subject to a blockade by Israel and Egypt since the enclave came under Hamas rule in 2007. Palestinians in Gaza cannot enter Israel, to the north and east, or Egypt, to the south, without special permits from the two governments. Since the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel and the subsequent Israeli bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza, only some 400 dual-national Gazans and a handful of critically injured Palestinians have been able to cross into Egypt.

Displaced Again and Again

The vast majority of the Strip’s two million inhabitants were first forced to flee into its southern half in November 2023, after being told via leaflets dropped by Israeli warplanes to abandon their homes and, in some cases, sick or elderly family members. Thousands made the journey south in crowded trucks or on foot, bringing with them only what they could carry, and staying with family members in overcrowded shelters and makeshift tents, or on the streets, especially in Khan Younis, the Strip’s second largest city. For many Palestinians—both in Gaza and abroad—photos of the tens of thousands of individuals forced to flee from the north to the south revived images of the 1948 Nakba during which 750,000 Palestinians fled from what is today the state of Israel; some seventy percent of Gazans are refugees or their descendants from that original displacement.

Palestinians in Gaza have been unable to flee due to Israel’s and Egypt’s refusal to allow them to leave and because the entirety of the Strip has been under bombardment.

In early December 2023, the Israeli Army’s ground offensive forced hundreds of thousands of Gazans to flee Khan Younis. Under pressure from the US government to avoid civilian harm, Israel issued an Artificial Intelligence-generated “Evacuation Zone Map” that divided the Strip into grids and told displaced Palestinians which zones to move to and when. The map was extremely difficult to read on computers and cellphones—especially with the periodic cuts to electricity and cell service in Gaza—and the map instructions proved hard to understand or contradictory, with areas allegedly considered safe still subject to aerial bombardment.

Later in December and in January 2024, Israel directed Palestinians to flee even further south from Khan Younis to Rafah Governorate, which is now hosting more than half the Strip’s population, or 1.3 million people. The city of Rafah, which is on the Egyptian border, was home to 280,000 residents prior to the war, and its current overcrowding has led to a severe shortage of shelter, food, water, and sanitation facilities. Rafah has been subjected to airstrikes throughout the war, but Israel’s anticipated ground invasion will put an already vulnerable population at extreme risk. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the military to prepare a plan to evacuate individuals sheltering in Rafah, but the city was already the last bastion for those who fled other parts of Gaza, leaving these people nowhere to flee.

A Trapped Population

It is difficult to think of situations from recent history that are comparable to the circumstances in Gaza, in which a civilian population was trapped in a small, enclosed space with no escape while being subjected to bombardment and armed attack from a state power. One comparison that comes to mind is the siege of Hama, Syria. In 1982, President Hafez al-Assad sealed off the city after Muslim Brotherhood members there attacked regime forces and attempted to take control. Twelve thousand Syrian troops surrounded Hama, cutting off communications and preventing escape, and leveled the city  over the course of three weeks, subsequently going door-to-door looking for any remaining Brotherhood members, while killing tens of thousands of civilians. One difference with today’s situation in Gaza, however, is that in the weeks prior to the siege of Hama, al-Assad announced that anyone remaining in the city would be considered a Muslim Brotherhood member and gave residents the chance to flee. In contrast, Palestinians in Gaza have been unable to flee due to Israel’s and Egypt’s refusal to allow them to leave, and because the entirety of the Strip has been subjected to Israeli bombardment and much of it has seen ground combat.

Beyond the Middle East, the Serbian Army’s 1992-1996 siege of Sarajevo also entrapped a civilian population, predominantly ethnic Bosniaks, and subjected them to shelling and targeted sniper killings. Like Gaza today, Sarajevo endured months without gas, electricity, or water during various stages of the war, and ultimately nearly 10,000 people are estimated to have been killed during the siege. Unlike in Gaza, however, Sarajevo’s “Tunnel of Hope”—an underground passageway that led from inside the city, beneath its airport, to beyond the besieged area—allowed injured individuals and others to flee to safety.

Other episodes of ethnic cleansing in recent decades, such as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s 1987-88 Anfal campaigns against Kurds in northern Iraq or the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, produced hundreds of thousands of refugees, in addition to the many people who were internally displaced or killed. But the scale of those displaced in Gaza compared to the Strip’s overall population, coupled with Gazans’ complete inability to cross an international border to safety, makes the situation unique.

The Absence of Refugees

Since October 7, suggestions have been made that Palestinians should be provided temporary protection in neighboring Egypt or other countries of the Middle East, or that they could be resettled outside the region. These suggestions have come both from those concerned over Palestinians’ safety as well as from those who might wish to see Palestinians permanently removed from Gaza.

In October, media reports stated that Israel proposed paying off Egypt’s World Bank debt in exchange for hosting refugees from Gaza. In November, Israel’s intelligence minister, Gila Gamliel, proposed a “worldwide refugee resettlement scheme” whereby funding directed to UNRWA or for rebuilding Gaza would instead be used to “voluntarily” resettle the entire Palestinian population to countries around the globe.

Scholars of forced migration have questioned Egypt’s unwillingness to open its border to Palestinians wanting to flee, claiming that maintaining closure amounts to refoulement— the forcible return of a refugee to a country in which their life is threatened—which is illegal under international law. There are certainly political reasons why Egypt does not wish to welcome more Palestinians, in light of the country’s ​​complicated history with the Arab-Israeli conflict, its support for Palestinians’ right of return, and the perceived security risks of hosting new Palestinian refugees. But the calculus is also related to Israel’s historic attempts to permanently displace Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza as part of a larger strategy of using forced migration to achieve the country’s military and diplomatic aims.

Desperate families are paying exorbitant sums in order to be permitted to cross into Egypt.

Israel has long sought to depopulate both the West Bank and Gaza after gaining control over those areas in 1967. In 1968, with approval from US President Lyndon Johnson, Israel set up “emigration offices” in refugee camps in Gaza and offered money and foreign passports to refugees who agreed to permanently relocate abroad, primarily to Canada, Australia, and Brazil. Policies involving the “transfer” of Palestinians intensified in the 1970s under military commander Ariel Sharon, whereby 38,000 refugees who were displaced during the Nakba were uprooted again and resettled elsewhere—with 12,000 sent to encampments in Sinai (then under Israeli occupation), a smaller portion sent to Dheisheh refugee camp in the West Bank, and others displaced to towns and cities in different parts of Gaza. As part of the 1967 Allon Plan, which went through various permutations but was never implemented, Palestinians would have been transferred to the West Bank and Sinai, while Gaza would have been absorbed into Israel.

The current bombardment and impending ground invasion of Rafah has Egypt worried that Palestinians will attempt to break through border fortifications and cross irregularly into Sinai. As fighting has intensified and as Palestinians have been forced further south, Egypt’s response has been to intensify its border fortifications, allegedly constructing a buffer zone that parallels the Gaza Strip. Most recently, Egypt reportedly even threatened to renege on its 1979 peace treaty with Israel if the latter invades Rafah, though on February 13 Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry took pains to say that Egypt remains “committed” to the peace treaty.

But with Egypt’s insistence on securing its border, leaving via Rafah, the only official entry point into Egypt, has been impossible for Gazans. Reports emerged in January that desperate families were paying exorbitant sums to brokers with connections to Egyptian intelligence officials in order to have their names added to lists of individuals permitted to exit and cross into Egypt. Some Palestinians also attempted to cross irregularly by boat to Greece but were pushed back by the Greek coast guard, according to a watch-dog organization. Such infrequent attempts to irregularly seek safety aside, the vast majority of the Strip’s population—with children making up about half of IDPs—remains internally displaced.

Prospects for Return Post-Conflict

Questions abound regarding the political future of Gaza, but its humanitarian future is equally unclear. The return of IDPs to their homes is the United Nations’ preferred solution post-conflict, but it is not always feasible or desirable in practice. For Palestinians in Gaza, returning to parts of the Strip, especially the north, may be impossible.

It is difficult to know the full extent of the damage to Gaza City, the Strip’s largest municipality, because there is still active fighting in the area and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has not allowed free access to the Strip to international journalists, although local reporters have been able to document some of the damage to the city. According to an analysis of satellite data, as many as 80 percent of the buildings in northern Gaza are damaged or destroyed. The pace and level of Israel’s destruction in Gaza exceeds that in any other recent conflict, with more buildings destroyed than during the Syrian regime’s three year battle for Aleppo in the 2010s, or in the US-led 2017 campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. The World Bank estimated that by mid-December, 77 percent of health facilities, 68 percent of telecommunications infrastructure, and more than half of all roads in Gaza had been damaged or destroyed. The World Food Programme stated in late December that no functioning hospitals remained in north Gaza.

Beyond housing and infrastructure, the war has also devastated Gaza’s ecosystems and environment. Gaza had been experiencing environmental degradation for decades, compounded by Israel’s blockade, but without enough fuel and electricity since October 7, Gaza’s water treatment, sewage, and desalinization facilities cannot function to support the population. Critical water treatment facilities were also destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, and the Strip’s coastal aquifer was polluted due to over-pumping and sewage. Many Palestinians were consequently forced to rely on unclean water, which increases the risk for communicable diseases including cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis. The Israeli army has also been pumping seawater into tunnels in northern Gaza with the aim of flooding out any Hamas operatives and further weakening their ability to fight. This will have long-term consequences for the habitability of the Strip, with sewage-filled seawater potentially contaminating the soil and preventing the re-introduction of agriculture.

The question of return is looming for those who have already been displaced once, if not twice, during this conflict. The Israeli Army first told Gazans to flee south, then further south, and now will perhaps instruct them to flee into the Mediterranean Sea, if not north again. Each displacement brings the questions of where individuals can shelter, what they can bring with them, what services will be available, and how they will feed themselves. The United Nations and aid organizations have described the provision of assistance to IDPs as “impossible,” and each new forced movement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians brings additional challenges. When even those fleeing to areas deemed safe by Israel are killed, and as the death toll approaches 30,000 individuals in just five months, one can understand why Palestinians feel they have run out of options of where to go.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Twitter