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Refugees in Jerusalem: An Overview

Palestinian refugees are indigenous inhabitants of the 1948 territory who were forced to flee their homes at some point since the 1920s due first to British, and then Israeli, military presence and occupation. The issue of Palestinian refugees is the largest and longest-standing unresolved refugee case in the world - of an approximate total population of 11.2 million Palestinians worldwide, more than 7.4 million have experienced forced displacement  (2011).1 Taking over as much Palestinian land as possible with as few as possible non-Jewish residents are fundamental to Israeli Zionism, the ideology which guides state policies. To this day, the actions of the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) continue to force Palestinians off their lands and contribute to the ever-increasing number of refugees.

While Palestinian refugees living in camps and/or exile are barred from returning to the homes and lands from which they were expelled, the 1959 Israeli Law of Return grants anyone in the world with Jewish ancestry the right to ‘Jewish nationality,’ allowing them to immigrate into the 1948 territory and acquire Israeli citizenship. The right of return for refugees is considered to be an inalienable basic human right, and the denial of the right of return for Palestinian refugees remains a core issue in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In spite of this, Palestinian refugees have been politically neglected and marginalized, even by the Palestinian Authority.


Historical Background

In recent decades, two events have shaped the lives of Palestinians in Jerusalem more than any others: The comprehensive ethnic cleansing of the city’s western neighbourhoods and villages by Jewish militias in 1948 and the occupation of the eastern part of the city in 1967. Since 1948, more than half a million Palestinians and their descendants have been forcibly displaced from Jerusalem.2


Nakba: 1947-1949

The Nakba (Catastrophe) began after Zionist Jews declared their intention to establish a Jewish state on Palestinian lands during the time of the British Mandate of Palestine and began to forcibly remove the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants. Palestinian militias, supported by forces from neighbouring Arab nations, were overwhelmed by the more numerous and better equipped (due to military supplies from the Soviet Union and Eastern Communist Bloc) Zionist factions. At its conclusion, Zionists claimed 78% of Palestine for their state, occupied what is internationally known as “West Jerusalem,” and had cleansed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their land. Jordan controlled what became known as the West Bank and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip.  Consequently, more than 7.4 million Palestinians now live as refugees around the world, barred from returning to their homeland. Most found shelter in neighbouring states such as Jordan, Lebanon or Syria and others live in the West Bank or Gaza. Others still live in Qalandia Refugee Camp or Shu’fat Refugee Camp within Jerusalem. Palestinians annually commemorate the Nakba on May 15. 

Today, western areas of Jerusalem have been transformed from mixed Palestinian neighbourhoods such as Tall al-Hamam and Beit Mazmil into mostly Jewish colonies. In order to rewrite the egregious history and create the impression of long-established neighborhoods, Zionist cartographers have Hebraised the names into Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and Kiryat HaYovel. The homes of Palestinian refugees are now being used to house Jewish immigrants.4


Naksa: June 1967

The Naksa (Setback) began on June 5, 1967 when Israeli occupation forces launched a surprise attack on Egypt in the Gaza Strip.  In the following days, they spread the offensive to the Jordanian-governed West Bank.  By June 10, they had complete control over both territories (along with Syria’s Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai).  Thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands made refugees.5 The result of the Naksa was the occupation of the rest of Palestine, namely the Gaza Strip and the West Bank including the eastern part of Jerusalem.

In September of 1967, an Israeli Census in East Jerusalem – where Palestinians continued to constitute the majority – was held. Only those Palestinians who were present that day were accorded residency in the city; Palestinians temporarily outside of Jerusalem, some fleeing the war to other cities in the West Bank, were neither registered in the census nor allowed residency status. Thus, their right to return to Jerusalem was denied. In addition, Palestinians who were granted residency in 1967 but stay abroad for a specific period of time or are unable to prove that Jerusalem continues to be their “centre of life” face the threat of losing their residency status. According to Israeli law, this regulation is not applied to Jewish residents of Jerusalem. Palestinians annually commemorate the Naksa on June 5. 


The Ongoing Nakba (1967–Present)

Due to Israel’s strategic plans to displace the Palestinian population and settle Israelis in Jerusalem, a Jewish majority was achieved in the mid 1990s. This majority is not only a result of the denial of refugees' right to return to their homes, government investments and colonies, but also a result of significant constraints placed upon Palestinians. These include residency revocation, land expropriation, land planning and development restrictions. Homes of Palestinians in neighbourhoods such as a-Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan or a-Tur (Mount of Olives) are being evicted by Israeli settlers, authorities, and courts. The Israeli government takes advantage of a law that allows claims for pre-1948 properties in the eastern part Jerusalem, but not in the western part where the properties of refugees are located.6 These policies create more Palestinian refugees every day.


‘Right of Return’ under International Law

The 'right of return' for Palestinian refugees is the right to return to their homes and lands out of which they were displaced during the Nakba, also in areas that are currently within the 1948 territory. This principle is represented in international law, such as the UN Resolution 194, the International Human Rights law or the Geneva Convention to which “Israel” is signatory, as well as other international treaties. The right of return is an inalienable and basic human right and the Israeli government is in violation of numerous international treaties and conventions in neglecting this right.

In addition, under the ‘Law of State Responsibility’ a state is held responsible for a breach of an international obligation. In case of an illegal act, the state has to provide reparation which ‘must, as far as possible, wipe out all the consequences of the illegal act and re-establish the situation which would, in all probability, have existed if that act had not been committed.’7  The Israeli government is obligated to return unlawfully taken properties to its owners and civilians must be compensated for their losses.


Nakba Displaced Villages and Neighbourhoods in Jerusalem

About 417 Palestinian towns and villages were depopulated during the 1948 Palestinian Nakba.8 Some of them were entirely destroyed by Jewish terrorist groups such as Haganah, Irgun or Stern and left uninhabitable and others were left with a few hundred residents. The strategic depopulation and destruction of Palestinian villages around Jerusalem was part of ‘Plan Dalet,’ a political-military strategy of expulsion. Massacres, such as the Deir Yassin Massacre on April 9, 1949, were used as a method to force civilians to flee from their homes. The villages were usually repopulated by Jewish immigrants and renamed with Jewish and Zionist names.

In the area of Jerusalem, 39 villages were uprooted and depopulated. Lifta and Qalunya, located in the Jerusalem district, are two of these villages. They represent two of more than 400 destroyed Palestinian villages. What is left of them is a testament to the existence of once prosperous, bustling Palestinian communities. These legacies must be preserved in order to challenge the Israeli regime of erasure and denial of the Palestinian Nakba.


Local Community Initiatives

In Jerusalem, local community initiatives are actively campaigning for refugees' right of return. As a part of their struggle, they work to preserve the memory, history and identity of their destroyed villages. Here are two examples.


A village situated at the western entrance of Jerusalem, Lifta had been inhabited for over 2,000 years. In 1947, the village was attacked and occupied by Jewish militias. As a result, most residents fled into the West Bank. Those remaining were forcibly driven to the eastern part of Jerusalem and not allowed to return.10 11 Unlike other villages, Lifta was neither totally destroyed nor turned into a Jewish colony. Of the 450 original houses, 55 are still standing today.12 That makes the preservation of Lifta crucial as an important testimony of Palestinian history. Today, as part of the Israeli government’s development plan for Jerusalem, the Land Administration plans to sell this cultural heritage to private entrepreneurs. If the plans are realised, most existing houses will be demolished and replaced by luxury housing for Jews.13

The Lifta Society

The Lifta Society was formed by a group of activists in order to preserve what is left of the village and fight for their return.  Former residents of Lifta are part of the coalition which aims to maintain their property rights and right to return to Lifta. The movement seeks to counteract the erasure and denial of the Palestinian people enacted during the Nakba. In addition, it can be seen as part of broader memory work by Palestinian Liftawis. Because of Lifta's location in the western part of Jerusalem and the occupation's permit regime, many of its refugees are unable to reach their village.


Qalunya is a village on a mountain slope 6 km west of Jerusalem. In the 1930s, there were more than 600 residents. By 1945, the population had grown to 1,260 inhabitants of which 350 were Jewish settlers. By 1948, the majority of residents had already fled because of nearby massacres. On April 2, 1948, after being militarily occupied, the village was depopulated completely and totally destroyed. The Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi describes what is left of the village:

‘Only a few houses still stand, in the southwestern part of the site, by the cemetery. They have arched doors and windows. One of the houses is now occupied by a Jewish family. Stone rubble, parts of collapsed cement roofs, and iron window frames are scattered throughout the site. An old synagogue, built in 1871, still stands; it has arched gates and windows. The wild grass that grows on the site is burned off every year to clear the approaches to the nearby colony. The village terraces have been preserved.’14

Shabab ‘Aaidun (Returning Youth)

Shabab 'Aaisun was formed in 2010 by a group of Qalunya refugee youth living in Jerusalem who want to transform the rhetoric about the return of refugees to their villages into real action. The group has organised various activities in the lands of their destroyed village: informative tours, work days (cleaning the village cemetery, etc), iftars (fast-breaking meals) during the month of Ramadan, and even weddings. In addition, the group organises events such as exhibitions and conferences at cultural centres in Jerusalem.


Pre-1948 Jerusalem



Badil.Survey of Palestinian Refuges and Internally Displaced Persons.

BADIL Working Paper (1999): Return and the Economic Integration of Palestinian Refugees/Displaced Persons in Jerusalem, p. 7

According demographic studies by Abu-Lughod, Janet, „The Demographic Transformation of Palestine.” In The transformation of Palestine by Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, pp. 139 – 163. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

BADIL Working Paper (1999): Return and the Economic Integration of Palestinian Refugees/Displaced Persons in Jerusalem, p. 5

CCDPRJ.From Diversity to Racial Segregation and Domination Palestinians in Jerusalem.

BADIL Working Paper (1999): Return and the Economic Integration of Palestinian Refugees/Displaced Persons in Jerusalem, p. 6

CCDPRJ. From Diversity to Racial Segregation and Domination Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Badil.Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Dispalced Persons. 2010-2012.

Pace Jacob, Electronic Intifada Ethnic Cleansing101:The Case of Lifta Village.March 2, 2005.

10 Especially Lifta, since Qalunya's very few remains are almost entirely absent now due to the construction of the new train rail between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

11 Pace Jacob, Electronic Intifada Ethnic Cleansing101:The Case of Lifta Village.March 2, 2005.

12 Daphna Golan, Zvika Orr, Sami Erished. Lifta and the Regime of Forgetting Memomry Work and Conversation.


14 Ibid

15 Welcome to Qalunya District of Jerusalem.