The June 1967 war and Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip, along with other Arab territories, opened a new dramatic page for Gaza refugees. Harsh measures taken by the Israeli military during the first weeks, including curfews, interrogations, detentions and house demolitions, were targeted against them in the first place. Around 45,000 left the Strip, mostly to the East Bank. Those who happened to be outside the Strip during the war were not allowed to return; 13,000 were estimated to be in Egypt.
After June 1967, the Strip’s refugee camps became sites where armed resistance was embraced, and that resistance unleashed a brutal Israeli response. Ariel Sharon—who was in charge of the southern region in the Israeli Defense Forces—led a campaign in 1970–71 that aimed at isolating the Gaza Strip and imposing a strong military grip on the camps. In a massive restructuring of the camps, roads were widened and new ones were paved to allow for army tanks to move easily; thousands of houses were bombed, leaving 16,000 homeless, the majority of whom were then moved to Arish in North Sinai, while hundreds were transferred to the West Bank. Almost 12,000 relatives of freedom fighters were also expelled to new camps in the Sinai Desert.
In addition to imposing a “physical” security control over the camps, Israel’s strategy encompassed a steady, far-reaching policy of what could be described as “fragmentation, dispersion and dislocation.” Between 1972 and 1989 (the year when housing projects were frozen as a result of the intifada), nearly 62,000 refugees were relocated outside the camps to certain allocated land plots or rented apartments with cheap, 99-year leases. In 1989, 24 percent of the camps’ inhabitants and 13 percent of the total number of refugees on the Strip had been relocated. Simultaneously, and with the goal of dissolving the specificity of the camps as “entities” of their own, the Israeli governor-general issued a decree in 1972 that placed the camps within the jurisdiction of nearby municipalities. The municipal council of the city of Gaza refused to implement the decision (which would have meant incorporating al-Shati’ camp within its jurisdiction), and so the council was dissolved by the military authority. The decision, however, was implemented in the case of the Rafah, Khan Yunis, and Deir al-Balah camps. As for al-Bureij, Nuseirat, and al-Maghazi, “local committees” were founded within each to manage services such as water and electricity, and they were transformed into “village councils” in 1987. The Jabaliya camp, meanwhile, remained under the jurisdiction of the Nazleh municipality, founded on 4 February 1952 in accordance with decree number 203.
As to relations between the indigenous population and the refugees, they continued to improve after 1967, a function of ongoing interaction in schools and workplaces, national and popular resistance movements, labor unions, and, in some cases, prison. Both groups faced the same restrictions imposed by political and economic conditions at the time (such as working within Israel, urban expansion, the brutality of the occupational forces). Differences in political affiliation united and created divisions among all residents, whether indigenous or more recent arrivals to the Strip. Invariably, however, the status associated with “living in a camp” rather than that of being a refugee continued to define relations with members of certain wealthy local families, who viewed camp dwellers as they viewed the “poorer” residents of cities or rural provinces.
The first intifada broke out in December 1987, barely twenty years after the military occupation and its disastrous ramifications on the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, who were deprived of any semblance of control over their social, political, and economic development. An entire generation of Palestinians has no memory or experience of anything other than the Israeli occupation. The intifada started in the Jabaliya camp. The camps were the actual incubators of resistance in the many shapes it took against the Israeli occupation, including professional and commercial strikes by employees and craftsmen and women, popular protests, and days of collective mourning. Moreover, the camps witnessed several forms of self-organization, which manifested in the formation of popular committees tasked with supervising and facilitating the residents’ affairs.
With the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, no significant change occurred to the administrative or political representation of refugees. While the UNRWA continued to supervise the camps, the first municipal council was founded in the city of Gaza on 26 July 1994, and this time it included one member from al-Shati’ camp, while the municipalities of Rafah, Khan Yunis, and Deir al-Balah continued to represent refugees in their locales. In 1996, President Yasser Arafat issued a decision to form popular committees in the camps, made up of political organization members and activists, as pushed for by the camps’ Service Club Union. The committees were set to report to the Refugee Affairs Committee in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Also in 1996, the village councils in the camps of al-Bureij, al-Nuseirat, and al-Maghazi became municipalities under the Ministry of Local Governance. Upon a ministerial decision in 1997, “neighborhood committees” were established within the camps to facilitate services by communicating with their corresponding municipalities, the UNRWA, and other service providers. Unlike the position adopted by the representative bodies of refugees in the West Bank, refugees in the Gaza Strip partook in the municipal elections organized by the Palestinian Authority in 2005–6; they did not consider such participation a surrendering of their right of return or an acceptance of their dislocation.
After assuming control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the Hamas movement established alternative or parallel popular committees, attributing its decision to the necessity of “synchronicity among the government and municipal councils and committees” in terms of political affiliation. It also replaced “reform committees” with the Palestinian ‘Ulama’ Council, to deal with conflict resolution among residents.
Today, refugee camps in the Gaza Strip are still overpopulated, with 55,000 inhabitants per square kilometer (almost double the population density of the Strip as a whole); half of the refugees on the Strip still live within the camps. According to a 2017 study by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 54.1 percent of refugees in the Gaza Strip live in poverty, and 33.5 percent live in extreme poverty; the unemployment rate is 54 percent. The socioeconomic conditions of the Gaza Strip have generally been depressed, with the notable exception of the first half of the 1980s, when the camps witnessed an economic boom tied to work opportunities in Israel. The subsequent increase in income led to an improvement in refugees’ living conditions in addition to an “urban leap,” as old houses were demolished and replaced with new, more accommodating structures. In all cases, economic activity in the camps cannot be addressed independently from the economy of the entire Gaza Strip, which is characterized by a lack of resources, rapid population growth, and poor performance. More destructive have been the crippling effects of the Israel’s policy of siege and chronic bombardment. All Gazans have felt the consequences of these policies, but undoubtedly residents of the refugee camps have borne the larger share of suffering.
More than seventy years after the Nakba, refugees in the Gaza Strip insist on their right of return, fostering social alliances that reflect this natural longing, as well as tools of resistance that express their unwavering dedication to that aim. In addition to their integration in the administrative bodies of the UNRWA and their organization of labor unions within them, they also created popular committees, neighborhood committees, service clubs, civil organizations, and charity centers. Their desire to stay in contact with their compatriots in the diaspora remains a priority, despite the challenges posed by the geographical distance, the passage of time, and the varying experiences of Palestinian refugees in the diaspora. Through social media and networks of civil society organizations, universities, and youth groups, refugees in the Strip have participated in programs and training sessions where experiences were shared and exchanged. However, family relations and political affiliations, as well as membership in certain popular organizations, remain the main channels for networking between Gaza and the outside world.
The March of Return, the Friday protests at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel that Gazans launched on 30 March 2018 to reaffirm the right of return and to demand the end of the blockade, also expressed the will to revive popular and peaceful resistance, expand the scope of confrontation, and reject the status quo. The march was inspired by the huge marches that Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip organized toward Israeli borders in May 2011. In March 2018, a number of activists in Gaza founded The High National Committee for the Great March of Return and Breaking the Blockade, which created five tent camps near the Israeli-Gaza barrier, from which protests took off. The association has since organized weekly marches that drew massive participation every Friday. The unarmed protesters are invariably met with a violent Israeli response, and few marches end without at least one protester shot dead. Sometimes the death toll is much higher: The 14 May 2018 march occurred as the opening ceremony of the United States embassy in Jerusalem was taking place, and by the end of the day, 54 unarmed Palestinians had been killed and 27,000 injured.