Present Absentees in Israel

Present Absentees in Israel
Exiled in Their Own Homeland

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Present Abseent

An internally displaced Palestinian of 1948 is picking fruit from cactus trees in the destroyed village of Kafr Bir'im, Galilee.

Alamy Stock Photo

The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 not only resulted in the expulsion of nearly 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland; it also displaced thousands of Palestinians within the new state, expelling them from their home villages and preventing them from returning after the war ended. These people are called internally displaced persons or present absentees. The situation of present absentees cannot be considered simply a legal matter or an inevitable consequence of wartime; it persists to this day and is closely tied to issues of population and land control, the main features of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This essay aims to describe this group of Palestinians, referencing the demographic data available, the areas they were displaced from, and areas in which they found refuge. It also addresses the legal definition of internally displaced persons, Israeli policies toward them, and their response to these policies.

There is still no official definition for Palestinians internally displaced within the State of Israel. Most studies use the term displaced Palestinian in Israel to refer to two groups of “present absentees.” One group (the larger group) was displaced in 1948; they left their villages during the events of the Nakba and remained within Israel. The term is also used to refer to another group of Palestinians, those who, after the end of hostilities, were forcibly expelled from their villages or the villages in which they had taken refuge in the early years.

There is no official, comprehensive, or systematic data on Palestinians displaced in 1948. There are relatively few studies on the subject; each uses a different methodology to estimate the number of displaced persons, and their approximations are not consistent. According to information from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), there were about 46,000 internally displaced persons in 1950, representing 25–30% of the Palestinian population remaining in areas under Israeli control. According to archival sources (Israeli sources, and British surveys from the Mandate Period), in late 1949 there were between 12,000 and 15,000 internally displaced persons, representing 25–30% of the Palestinian population in Israel. Still other approximations based on the same sources estimate that in the early 1950s, there were around 23,000 displaced Palestinians in the Galilee and Triangle areas, representing about 15% of the Palestinian population (not including the population of the Negev region).

Estimating the number of Palestinians displaced after 1948 is more challenging, given the lack of data differentiating between people who were expelled from the country entirely and people who were expelled from their homes but who remained in cities and villages in Israel. These include people from “security belt” villages, Bedouins from the lower Galilee, some residents of the Triangle, and Bedouin tribes in the Negev.

In the Galilee and the Northern District, 162 villages were completely destroyed and all of the inhabitants were expelled. All the residents of 118 villages fled the country. A very small percentage (1–17%) of residents of 33 villages stayed in the country. As for the remaining 11 villages (including al-Mujaydil, al-Damun, al-Birwa, Iqrit, and Kafr Bir‘im), the majority of residents remained in what became the State of Israel. Most of them took refuge in 47 of the 69 nearby Arab villages that remained intact after the Nakba (in addition to cities along the coast). In some of these villages, displaced persons constitute a high percentage of the population.

It is useful to reference the definition of internally displaced persons adopted by the Socio-Economic Survey of Palestinians in Israel, which the Galilee Society has periodically conducted since 2004. The survey includes a table for internally displaced Palestinians, a group it defines as follows:

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. 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.

Individuals who fit this description of displaced persons made up about 14.1% of the Palestinian population in 2015. However, the way individuals self-identify is a further obstacle to estimating the current number of displaced persons. According to a poll conducted in 2005, some people do not identify as displaced even if their father or both of their parents were displaced. Meanwhile, a certain, albeit small, number of people identify as displaced even if only their mother was displaced.

The issue of internally displaced Palestinians has persisted as a result of Israeli authorities’ determination to keep the land where Arab villages once stood under their control and to prevent displaced persons from returning. In late 1948, immediately after the military situation had relatively stabilized, of the following legislative measures were taken in order to authorize Israeli control over the land it had seized:

  • Emergency Regulations (Cultivation of Waste Lands) of 1948: this law authorizes the Minister of Agriculture to place lands at his disposal in order to cultivate them for a period of 35 months if the landowner has not proven that he has begun cultivating and using them for agricultural purposes.
  • Emergency Regulations (Absentees’ Property) Law of 1948: these regulations place all property owned by refugees and displaced persons at the disposal of the Custodian of Absentee Property.
  • Article 125 of the Defense (Emergency) Regulations of Mandatory Palestine of 1945: this article designated certain areas as closed military areas, thus preventing displaced persons from returning there.
  • Emergency Regulations (Security Zones) Law of 1949: this gave the Minister of Defense the authority to designate areas along the border (a protected area) as security zones.
  • Absentees Property Law of 1950: this law, enacted by the Knesset, replaced the Emergency Regulations on Absentees’ Property of 1948 and established the legal character of constant expropriations of refugee property. Absentees were defined in such a way as to designate any Arab who left his place of residence during the war as an absentee, even if he did not leave the newly formed state. This explains why the law was called the “Present Absentee Law.” In effect, the law legalized the expropriation of more than 1 million dunams of land belonging to Arabs who remained in Israel after its creation. Under the law, people who object to being described as absentees are given the burden of proving they are not absentees. It also transferred absentees’ property to the Custodian of Absentee Property and authorized him to transfer it to only one entity: the Development Authority.
  • Development Authority (Transfer of Property) Law of 1950: this law was issued immediately after the Absentee Property Law. It established the Development Authority, a semi-governmental agency, and granted it broad powers, including the authority to purchase, let, and exchange land and the authority to act as landowner. It was also authorized to sell land, so long as it was sold to the state, the Jewish National Fund, or a local authority. In September 1953, the Custodian transferred all properties under its authority to the Development Authority, which subsequently transferred a large part of it to the Jewish National Fund.
  • Land Acquisition (Validation of Acts and Compensation) Law of 1953: this law retroactively legalized expropriations that took place between 14 May 1948 and 1 April 1952, and placed confiscated properties under the Development Authority’s control. It also permitted internally displaced persons to received financial compensation for their properties that had been transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property. The Development Authority, and subsequently the Israel Land Administration, conducted negotiations with many displaced persons with the aim of encouraging them to accept compensation. According to all indications, however, the percentage of people who accepted compensation is very low.

Between late 1948 and the mid-1950s, several international and Israeli committees were actively engaged in the issue of internally displaced persons. International institutions and relief committees like the International Committee of the Red Cross worked to provide aid to internally displaced persons until May 1950, when UNRWA was founded. UNRWA operated in Israel until late 1952, when the Israeli government assumed responsibility for internally displaced persons. In late 1948, the Population Transfer Committee was established, and in early 1949 it merged with another official committee to become the Refugee Rehabilitation Authority. The committees’ goals included searching for “solutions” – including expelling some displaced persons from the country – and rehabilitating refugees – which served the state’s interests and did not conflict with their goals. It permitted some refugees from Haifa and Acre who had taken refuge in Nazareth to return to their cities. It also allowed refugees from villages to enter some areas of the land they fled from, as long as it was not part of their hometowns.

Displaced persons have persisted in resisting Israeli policies to expel them from their towns and tried a variety of ways, individually and collectively, to return to their homes. Displaced persons have tried to physically return – attempts that have been met with violence from authorities and mass evacuations – and also presented official demands to the relevant ministries and military rulers. The Communist Party also raised the subject of displaced persons in the Knesset through parliamentary investigations. Others petitioned the judiciary to annul the decision to expel them from their villages. The Supreme Court of Israel issued judicial decisions stipulating that no legal impediments prevent claimants from returning to their villages, as was the case with the village of Iqrit, and a decision about displaced persons from the village of al-Ghabisiyya. However, the executive branch prevented the Supreme Court’s decision from being carried out; it demolished houses in the village and prevented people from returning.

The early 1990s, shortly after the Oslo Agreement was signed, marked a new stage for displaced persons. A group of activists began institutionalizing displaced persons’ demands of their right to return or be compensated and established the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel. The committee was recognized by the Higher Follow-Up Committee for the Arab Citizens in Israel as an overall organizing framework for displaced persons. It also adopted the right to return as a political slogan and demand of Arab citizens and all their political parties. Since then, the committee has carried out numerous activities related to the issue of displaced persons. Most important among these is the annual commemoration of the Nakba on the anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel according to the Hebrew calendar, to show that the Nakba and displacement are the flip side of Israel’s existence. On this occasion, the committee organizes public demonstrations and marches at the site of one of the villages from which people were displaced, under the slogan “Your Independence is Our Nakba.”

Despite Israel’s claims that internally displaced persons are “present” citizens with the rights of citizens, their situation is similar to that of other Palestinians in at least three ways. First, internally displaced persons share in common with the rest of the diaspora the experience of being expelled from their hometowns, which were destroyed and which the state of Israel tried to wipe off the map. Second, being labeled as “absent” in their homeland – in other words, their symbolic absence from their homeland – is reminiscent of the state of exile that their countrymen abroad endure. Finally, the fact that their land has been seized and settled upon is the common denominator that unites them with fellow Palestinians abroad.

Selected Bibliography: 

Al-Haj, Maji. “Adjustment Patterns of the Arab Internal Refugees in Israel.” Internal Migration 24, no.3 (1986): 651–674.

Cohen, Hillel. “The Internal Refugees in the State of Israel: Israeli Citizens, Palestinian Refugees.” Palestine-Israel Journal 9, no.2 (2002): 43.

The Galilee Society, Rikaz, Mada al-Carmel. “Palestinians in Israel: Socio-Economic Survey, Main Findings.” Shafa ‘Amr: Galilee Society—Arab National Society for Health Research and Services, 2016. (Arabic)

Kamen, Charles. “After the Catastrophe 1: The Arabs in Israel, 1948-1951.” Middle Eastern Studies 23 (1987): 453–493.

Masalha, Nureldeen. Catastrophe Remembered: Palestine, Israel and the Internal Refugees: Essays in Memory of Edward W. Said (1935-2003). London: Zed Books, 2005.

“Readings in the Issue of the Internally Displaced.” Mada Files No. 8. Haifa: Mada al-Carmel, Arab Center for Applied Social Research, 2016 (Arabic); at mada-research.org.

Sabbagh-Khoury, Areej. “The Internally Displaced Palestinians in Israel.” In Nadim N. Rouhana and Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, eds., The Palestinians in Israel: Readings in History, Politics and Society. Haifa: Mada al-Carmel, Arab Center for Applied Social Research, 2011.

Wakim, Wakim. “The 'Internally Displaced': Seeking Return within One's Own Land" (interviewed by Riad Beidas). Journal of Palestine Studies 31, no. 1 (Autumn 2001): 32-38.