The Exiled: Refugees in their Homeland Refugees in their Homeland
This study deals with internal refugees - a small sector of the Palestinian refugees, driven out of their homes by Zionist military organizations, who fled to nearby towns and villages. They were later given Israeli nationality, but not full rights, as stipulated within all international conventions, including the principle of the right to return. There are no official statistics for the total number of internal refugees driven from their homes in 1948 and there are conflicting estimates among researchers. In 1950 UNRWA estimated that 46,000 Palestinians remained in their own villages - 30 percent of the total 156,000 Arabs who remained in Israel. Of the 162 villages that were completely demolished within Galilee and the north, refugees from only 44 villages remained. The inhabitants of the other 118 destroyed villages were driven out of the country. In his article "After the Catastrophe the Arabs in Israel 1948-1950", Charles Kayman adds that of the 69 Arab villages that remained after the Nakba, 47 absorbed refugees (in addition to the towns of Lod, Jaffa and Abu Ghosh).
In some villages the refugees constitute a high percentage of the population. In Majd el Kurum, Jish and Tamra a third of the population is made up of refugees. In Nazareth and Kufur Yaseef a quarter of inhabitants are refugees and in Yafet Al-Nasra, Makr and Jedeida more than 50 percent are refugees. Research done by Mahmoud Sa'eed on a sample of refugees demonstrates that they exhibit a strong adherence to the right of return to their original villages, even though they believe that this will not be easy and had become for many a distant dream. Most did not sell or exchange their lands within the demolished villages and consider any move to do so as high treason. Most refugees settled within the villages where they took refuge, but visit their former villages as frequently as possible.
Additionally, it should be noted that in most villages where there are refugees the original inhabitants treat them as refugees. They are identified according to the names of their villages, such as Al Barawnah, or Al Akarthah. In some villages, lanes are named after the refugees living in them, such as Al Ma'ayrah Lane in Arrabeh and Al Barawnah Lane in Jedeideh.
Internal refugees have bequeathed their adherence to the right of return to their children and grandchildren. In the past, Israeli Independence Day was an appropriate opportunity for the refugees to visit the destroyed villages as the Israeli authorities treated this leniently despite the fact that all these villages are, even now, considered closed military areas under emergency mandatory laws.
Many first generation refugees refused to visit their villages for some time after hearing of the comprehensive destruction of their houses and the hallmarks of their home towns. Some old houses have been left standing, but mostly, cactus plants and palm trees are the only tell-tale signs of the location of a destroyed village.
Some of the remaining houses have been occupied by settlers and in most of the villages and towns, Muslim and Christian graveyards have been purposefully left to deteriorate by the Ministry of Religion. Many mosques and churches have been used by settlers as cowsheds and even as centers for drug distribution or prostitution. Complaints have been filed to request police action against the desecration of religious sites, but these have been ignored, while individuals who have tried to maintain or renovate holy sites have been harassed and arrested by the police at the behest of the Israeli Land Authority. This institution has closed down some sites, such as Al-Ghabisiyyah mosque in the Acre area, to prevent Palestinian Israelis from praying there or renovating it.

Legal Measures Taken Against Internal Refugees

As the military situation normalized after the 1948 war, the Isreali authorities took steps to consolidate their expropriation of Arab lands and villages, driven by the fear that the Palestinian refugees would return to their villages. They implemented the practical plan of setting up Jewish settlements on Arab lands and demolishing the Arab villages nearby in a bid to erase their memory from the Palestinian villagers' consciousness. They also enacted emergency regulations, such as imposing military closure on these areas.

Emergency Regulations (Use of Uncultivated Land) of 1948

On October 15, 1948 the Ministry of Agriculture warned land owners with uncultivated fields that unless they began to farm their land, the ministry would have the right to place it under its jurisdiction and exploit it for agricultural purposes, in the interests of the "young state". According to these regulations the ministry could take over the land for a period of 35 months.

Emergency Regulations Concerning Absentees' Property of 1948

All the refugees' property was placed under the control of the Custodian of Absentee Property. According to these regulations the definition of an absentee included Palestinians driven out of their original villages. However, the Custodian's authority was limited to preservation of this property during an interim period with no authority to transfer or sell it to others.
This hindered the Israeli authorities in transferring property to new settlers, so they worked to take permanent control over "absentee" lands by passing more new legislation.

The Absentee Property Law of 1950

This law was issued on March 14, 1950. Under it, the Custodian was considered the owner until an "absentee" could prove that he was not absent or not considered legally absent (which has no legal precedence). This law also prevented the Custodian from transferring ownership to any party other than the "development authority".
After the establishment of this authority, land ownership was transferred to it. However this was a slow process, so under a government decision issued on September 29, 1953 the Custodian agreed to transfer everything still under his control to the "development authority", which in turn handed over large tracts of land to the Israeli Land Administration (ILA).

The Land Aquisition Law of 1953

According to this law, the Israeli authorities offered financial compensation to the "absentees" whose property was transferred to the Custodian. The ILA took over all appropriated lands with the aim of coercing the "absentees" into accepting compensation. However, indications are that only a very small percentage accepted compensation; not because the sums offered were too low, but because they insisted on returning to their lands and refused to recognise any of these laws.

The Practical Steps

The Israeli government took a number of practical steps to close this "file", including attempts at resettlement. A total of 4,478 refugees were living in Nazareth, with 5,222 in the surrounding villages. The Israeli authorities considered it dangerous to have such a large Arab concentration in one area, so they allowed some refugees from Haifa to return - on condition that they did not return to their own homes. They also allowed 560 of the 1,430 inhabitants of 'Aylut village to return, on the recommendations of a ministerial committee dated March 4, 1949 (file no. c/302 in the government archives). The same file contains recommendations for resettling the inhabitants of Tarshiha in Mi'ilya and Al Rihana village in Kufur Kamma, in addition to a comprehensive plan to resettle refugees in Majd el Kurum.
Consecutive Israeli governments established a number of official bodies such as "The Refugee Housing Authority" and "The Population Transfer Committee" which received recommendations from the military authorities to move refugees, and even some residents of surviving villages, from one place to another, to facilitate Jewish settlement on their lands.
Illustrative of this government policy of encouraging the refugees to forget their original villages and live in the villages of refuge was a letter sent by the Israeli government to the inhabitants of Kufur Bir'im stating that they may now live in the houses of other refugees from Jish and Kanounya. These houses were also considered absentee property and owned by the government.
Under article 125 of the emergency regulations - which are still valid today - army governors declared certain areas containing destroyed villages as military zones, which the refugees were prohibited from entering without a permit. These regulations were also used to impede the Israeli High Court of Justice decisions ratifying the refugees from Iqrit, Bir'im and Ghabsiya's right to return to their villages.
Most of the houses in the evacuated Arab villages were destroyed a few years after the declaration of the state of Israel. The Israeli authorities carried out an active campaign to establish settlements on that land, building more than 109 between October 1948 and August 1949, although most were built in the vicinity of these villages rather than directly on them. The settlements were given the names of the destroyed villages nearby. Beit Dajan was warped into Beit Djoun (the settlement's name), the village of Sa'sa' became Kibutz Sasa, Al-Bassa was distorted into Betset (a moshav) and Saffouryeh into Tsefouri (also a moshav), while 'Amqa was altered to Moshav Emka. This policy was aimed at reversing reality - giving the erroneous impression that the Arab names were derived from Hebrew.


Despite the national, historic and geographical bonds between the Palestinian people and the refugees, one should emphasize the peculiarities of the situation for the refugees that remained within their homeland. Unlike refugees elsewhere, they carry the Israeli nationality. The Israeli authorities and law consider them Israeli citizens upon whom Israeli laws should be applied; but in effect they face racial discrimination and national subjugation, despite their right, as citizens, to complete equality. Some would like to see the refugee issue in general and the internal refugee issue in particular closed, never to be heard of again. However, I believe the time is ripe for new initiatives in the struggle to secure the legal and civil rights of the internal refugees.


Cohen, Hillel. 2000. Presentee Absentees, Palestinian Refugees in Israel since 1948. Jerusalem. The Center for Research on Arab Society
Kayman, Charles. 1948. After the Catastrophe - The Arabs in the State of Israel 1948-1950.
Sae'ed, Mahmoud. 1997. "The Exiled Refugees in their Homeland", a study presented at the conference on equality in Nazareth