Study of the reasons behind the perpetual grinding cogs of Palestinian/ Israeli conflict reveals they are as convoluted as they are self-serving. Both sides twist history to suit but the core contention that Palestine was a stretch of land barren of intrinsic population is perhaps the most misleading.
A Land Without People
Renowned proponent of the Christian Zionist movement Anthony Ashley Cooper (the 7th Earl of Shaftsbury) was one of the first in the modern era to popularize the idea of Palestine being without legitimate children. In 1853 following years of skirmish and war he could see a land of divided title.
He would write “… these vast and fertile regions will soon be without a ruler, without a known and acknowledged power to claim dominion. The territory must be assigned to some one or other… There is a country without a nation; and God now in his wisdom and mercy, directs us to a nation without a country“. The once vast Ottoman Empire had been sweep from what is today the disputed Palestinian/ Israeli region by an Egypt in search of extending its political grasp.
The writer Israel Zangwill echoed these sentiments many years later when he defined and elaborated, ‘ … in describing Palestine as a country without a people, he was essentially correct, for there is no Arab people living in intimate fusion with the country, utilizing its resources and stamping it with a characteristic impress…’.
War in Palestine, 1947/48
The Palestine War of 1948 was a two pronged entity. Firstly there was conflict (civil war) between Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews following the announcement of a proposed partition plan mooted by the then British governance that controlled the area. The second contributing aggression in May of 1948 saw forces from Transjordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq align with Palestinian Arab factions in rejection of any form of partition.
Decisively triumphing, Palestinian Jewish militants took control of not only their own part of the intended partition but also that of the Palestinian Arabs. Subsequently Transjordan annexed its sovereignty over its domain in the West Bank and the Gaza strip passed to Egyptian rule.
How the Refugee Camps of Gaza Came to Be
It is estimated that of the total Palestinian Arabs fleeing the conflict 200,000 poured into Gaza. Entire communities became emptied of their Arab populations. People of every economic level left behind homes and possessions. Land was abandoned that had, in many cases, for generations been owned within the same families.
It may have been impossible for those escaping the violence too ever imagine not returning to their homes. The ‘right of return’ policy that backbones modern day laws of conflict had in this case become yet another political plaything. Some infer that the Palestinian Arab authorities coerced the populations to flee in anticipation of attack still others relate stories of violent expulsion at the hands of Jewish forces. Whatever the case, it appears that this was indeed not a land void of an entrenched population.
Regardless of Reliable Numbers Many Thousand are Displaced
So it was that, depending on which partisan mindset is to be believed, between 472,000 or upward of 750,000 people became homeless and indeed nation-less. Many Jewish civilians were also caught up in the tide that funneled into surrounding countries. Most of this Jewish populace suffered but were repatriated within the ensuing few years into what would become the state of Israel.
It is hard to imagine a more unsuitable area to place the eight refugee camps that, to this day, still operate within the Gaza strip. This ancient slice of coastline has a total area of just 360 square kms, its total population pre 1948 a mere 80,000.
The massive 1948 human influx placed the strip under intense pressure. Food and essential utilities required to provide for such a number became in very short supply. These ‘temporary’ bases did not repatriate and over the years have swelled in population to earn the label ‘most densely populated camps in the world’.
The Eight Camps of Gaza
Statistics via UNRWA, as of December 2008.
- Largest of the Gaza camps, covering 1.4 square kms
- 35,000 settled in the camp following the 1948 war
- Today’s pop. is in excess of 195,249.
- 18.19% of Gaza’s refugee population
- South Gaza close to Egyptian border
- 1949 pop. placed at 41,000 refugees
- Today’s pop. 173,006 with some of this number (74,134) living in housing projects adjacent to the camp
- Beach-front northern Gaza City
- Est. 1948 to house 23,000
- Today’s pop. 172,436 / 82,009 within the camp and 90,427 living adjacent
- Houses 16.07% of Gaza’s refugee pop. within just 0.52 sq. kms
- Central western Gaza
- A former British military prison that took in 16,000 refugees in 1948
- 83,275 now live at Nuseirat, 62,117 inside the camp and 21,158 living adjacent.
- Houses 7.76% of Gaza’s refugee pop.
- Two kms north of Rafah
- Following 1948 became refuge for 35,000
- Today’s pop. has swelled to 181,570 / 68,324 in camp and 113,246 living in the villages east of Khan Younis town
- Houses 16.92% of Gaza’s refugee pop.
- Est. 1950’s to house 13,000 within former army barracks
- Centre of Gaza Strip west
- Today’s pop 42,042 / 31,360 within camp and 10,682 adjacent.
- Houses 3.92% of Gaza’s refugee pop.
- Central Gaza, south of Bureij Camp
- Est. 1949 to accommodate 9,000 on 0.6 sq. meters of land
- Today’s pop. 47,812 / 23,981 within the camp and 23,831 living adjacent.
- Houses 4.45% of Gaza’s refugee pop.
- Located on the Mediterranean coast, central Gaza
- Initially a tent city, concrete structures were erected in the 1960’s
- Today’s pop. 41,382 / 20,753 within the camp and 20,629 living adjacent.
- Houses 3.86% of Gaza’s total refugee population.
- The Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftsbury; Edwin Hodder, (Cassell & Co,1887)
- A Land Without a People for a People Without a Land; Muir Diana, (Middle East Quarterly), Spring 2008
- Zangwill, Israel (1864-1926); The Department for Jewish Zionist Education
- UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East)
- Documents Relating to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict