On July 22, when 100,000 Palestinians had been displaced in Gaza from fighting between Israel and Hamas, I wrote that displacement could be the defining characteristic of this conflict. Little did I know how true this would be. As of yesterday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 485,000 people had been displaced in the nearly four weeks since the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Protective Edge, 254,000 of whom were living in UN Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA) shelters. This means that 25 percent of Gaza’s 1.8 million population is displaced within a very small territory. As UNRWA facilities are limited (and many of those are damaged), most of the displaced are likely living with families and friends, squeezing into already-overcrowded flats which had little extra space to begin with. This displacement, plus the gathering of extended families to celebrate breaking Ramadan fasts, has resulted in many instances of families losing large numbers in single strikes.
Almost all of the Palestinians displaced in this current conflict have been refugees all of their lives – so this displacement is a ‘double displacement.’ Or in the case of Syrian Palestinian refugees who had sought protection in Gaza, this is triple or even quadruple displacement.
In many ways, Gaza’s Palestinians are unique. Palestinians have been refugees in Gaza for 62 years, since 1948 – the world’s oldest and largest protracted refugee crisis. The children of registered refugees are recognized as Palestinian refugees. Unlike every other refugee group in the world, the Palestinians have a UN agency dedicated exclusively to them, the UN Relief and Works Administration. With 33,000 staff – all but a handful of whom are Palestinian refugees themselves – UNRWA has provided a level of education and health services that would be the envy of most of the world’s refugees. What UNRWA hasn’t been able to do is protect refugees living in its areas of operation. Unlike the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNRWA does not have a formal mandate to protect refugees, although it has steadily sought ways to provide operational protection in the course of its work.
Even when they are warned by Israelis to evacuate before an attack, people in Gaza have no places to hide or feel safe.
Gaza also differs from other tragic displacement situations in the small size of its territory and its largely closed borders. For example, while Syrian internally displaced persons (IDPs) can move elsewhere in the country if their situation becomes desperate, or seek safety in a neighboring country, Gaza’s Palestinian refugees have almost no options to move to a safe place. Even when they are warned by Israelis to evacuate before an attack, people in Gaza have no places to hide or feel safe. Even schools are not safe for Palestinian refugee children.
There are some similarities between those currently displaced in Gaza and the world’s other 50 million or so refugees and IDPs. Protracted displacement is unfortunately common. People are typically forced to flee their homes at a day or a week’s notice, usually expecting their displacement to be temporary and that they will be able to return home soon. But conflicts have a way of dragging on, and even when active hostilities have come to an end people often remain displaced for years, as witnessed in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Côte d’Ivoire and dozens of other places. Newly displaced people often seek safety in areas populated by those displaced in previous conflicts. In Iraq, more than one million people remained displaced after the violence of 2006 and northern Iraq is now experiencing yet another new wave of mass displacement.
Experiences from other long-standing displacement crises suggest three relevant lessons for Gaza:
1) Support for families hosting Palestinian IDPs will be critical. While much attention is focused on those sheltering in UNRWA facilities, assisting people who are dispersed within communities is more difficult.
2) The effects of displacement include psychological trauma (what does it mean for families when parents cannot keep their children safe and when schools are attacked?). Psychological trauma is debilitating and specialized support is needed – but in Gaza, many of the trauma specialists are themselves traumatized.
3) The displacement that has occurred over the past few weeks will likely take months – if not years – to resolve. Rebuilding homes, livelihoods and infrastructure takes much longer than the time needed for people to abandon their homes.