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A present absentee is an Arab Palestinian who fled or was expelled from his home in Mandatory Palestine by Jewish or Israeli forces, before and during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, but who remained within the area that became the state of Israel. Present absentees are also referred to as internally displaced Palestinians (IDPs). The term applies to the present absentee's descendants too. In 1950, 46,000 out of the 156,000 Israeli Arabs in Israel were considered Present absentees.
Present absentees are not permitted to live in the homes they formerly lived in, even if they were in the same area, the property still exists, and they can show that they own it. They are regarded as absent by the Israeli government because they were absent from their homes on a particular day, even if they did not intend to leave them for more than a few days, and even if they left involuntarily.
If the definition is restricted to those displaced in the 1948 war and its immediate aftermath and their descendants, some 274,000 Arab citizens of Israel - or 1 in 4 Palestinians in Israel - are internally displaced Palestinians.
Organizations defending the rights of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel also generally include the 110,000 Bedouin forced to move in a closed area under military rule in the Negev in 1949 in their estimates of internally displaced Palestinians. Other internally displaced persons included in these counts are those who were displaced by ongoing home demolitions enacted against unlicensed structures or in unrecognized villages. Estimates based on this broader definition place the total population of IDPs at anywhere between 250,000 - 420,000 people.
In recent years, Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories who have been displaced by the construction of the Israeli West Bank barrier have also been referred to as internally displaced Palestinians. They are estimated to number between 24,500 and 57,000 people.
In 1950, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimated that 46,000 of the 156,000 Palestinians who remained inside the borders demarcated as Israel by the 1949 Armistice Agreements were internally displaced refugees.
As it was for most other Palestinian refugees, the homes and properties of internally displaced Palestinians were placed under the control of a government body, the Custodian of Absentees' Property via legislation that includes the 1948 Emergency Regulation Concerning Absentee Property (a temporary measure) and the 1950 Absentee Property Law.
Unlike other Palestinian refugees, the internally displaced Palestinians and others who remained inside what became Israel were made citizens by the Citizenship Law of July 1952. That same year Israel requested that UNRWA transfer responsibility for registering and caring for internally displaced persons to Israel and basic humanitarian assistance was provided to the internally displaced for a time.
Military administrative rule (1948–1966) restricted the movement of Arab citizens of Israel, and it combined with the Absentees' Property Laws to prevent internally displaced citizens from physically returning to their properties to reclaim their homes. According to the Absentees' Property Laws, "absentees" are non-Jewish residents of Palestine who had left their usual places of residence for any place inside or outside the country after the adoption of the partition of Palestine resolution by the UN. Under these laws, "absentee" property owners were required to prove their "presence" in order to gain recognition of their ownership rights by the Israeli government. However, all ownership rights of "absentees" belong to the government-appointed Custodian of Absentee Property, and any person including the "absentee" owner himself found occupying, building, or being "present" on such properties would be violating the law and risk expulsion and demolition.
Refugee rights groups report that Palestinians inside Israel tried to return to their villages of origin, often by sending letters to Israeli ministries. Letters were generally written by village mukhtars and dignitaries, and would emphasize the good relationship between the residents of the village with their Jewish neighbors, and the desire to live in peace under Israeli rule. The Israeli response to these letters was negative.
Some villagers like those of Ghassibiya, Bir'im and Iqrit made petitions to the Israeli High Court to have their property rights recognized which were upheld in the 1950s, but they were physically prevented from reclaiming their properties by military administrative authorities who refused to abide by the court rulings and declared the villages closed military zones.
Because most internally displaced Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel were counted as absent, even though present inside the Israeli state, they are also commonly referred to as present absentees.
Today the internally displaced Bedouins live in 39-46 unrecognized villages in the Negev and the Galilee, while the remaining internally displaced Palestinians live in some 80 towns and villages in the Galilee such as Ein Hawd. There is also the village of Ein Rafa near Jerusalem.
Research on the internal refugees
A few books focus on Palestinian internal refugees in Israel and internally displaced Palestinians across the Green Line.
In 1991, Israeli writer and peace activist David Grossman conducted several interviews with Palestinian citizens of Israel. These were published in a book called in Hebrew נוכחים נפקדים /Nokhehim Nifkadim ( Absent Presentees). The English version was titled Sleeping on a Wire: Conversations with Palestinians in Israel.
As Nur Masalha puts it in his introduction: "Acquiring the paradoxical title of present absentees, the internally displaced had their property and homes taken by the state, making them refugees and exiles within their own homeland." The book uses oral history and interviews with internal refugees to examine Palestinian identity and memory, indigenous rights, international protection, the right of return, and a just solution in Palestine/Israel.
- Davis, 1997, p. 49. "Children of "absentees", whether born inside or outside of the State of Israel, are similarly classified as "absentees"."
- Segev, Tom. 1949: The First Israelis, pp. 68-91.
- Nihad Bokae'e (February 2003). "Palestinian Internally Displaced Persons inside Israel: Challenging the Solid Structures" (PDF). Badil Resource Centre for Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights. Retrieved 2012-04-01.
- "Israel: About 150,000-420,000 internally displaced persons in 2007". Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC). Retrieved 2009-07-23.
- Kassim and Mansour, 2002, p. 76. Provides an estimate of 250,000.
- Internal Displacement Monitoring Center - Palestinian Territories
- The Internally Displaced Refugees
- "Number of Palestinians (In the Palestinian Territories Occupied in 1948) for Selected Years, End Year". Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
- "Dr. Sarah Ozacky-Lazar, Relations between Jews and Arabs during Israel's first decade (in Hebrew)".
- Catastrophe Remembered: Palestine, Israel and the Internal Refugees, edited by Nur Masalha (London: Zed Books 2005). ISBN 978-1-84277-623-0
- Davis, Uri (1997). Citizenship and the state: a comparative study of citizenship legislation in Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Ithaca Press. ISBN 9780863722189.
- Kassim, Anis F.; Mansour, C. (2002). The Palestine Yearbook of International Law 2000-2001. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. ISBN 9789041118172.