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How Many People are Still Displaced? 100,000? Or 650,000?

The United Nation’s reports that Operation Protective Edge led to an unprecedented level of displacement forcing around 520,000 Palestinians – 28% of the Gaza Strip’s population –to flee their homes at the height of the war. They say that four times more people were displaced during operation Protective Edge than during operation Cast Lead, the Israeli assault on Gaza carried out between December 2008 and January 2009.

Displacement is important as an indicator of violation of rights and as a proxy measure for other hardships. Palestinian displacement is both ongoing and protracted producing multiple layers of violations. It is important to have an accurate picture of how many people are displaced and why in order to target short- and long-term interventions.

Residents of Gaza are displaced because of damage to housing, and also because homes are made unlivable due to poor water, electricity, sanitation or risk of violence. These elements and the destruction to public facilities like hospitals, schools or sewage treatment plants are as important to understanding displacement as inhabitable housing. Moreover, Israel has revoked the residency rights of over 100,000 Palestinians in Gaza contributing to the forced displacement of Palestinians internally and outside of the Gaza Strip. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) keeps count of registered refugees, but because no organization systematically tracks and compiles data on the full effect of forced migration, estimates of displaced Palestinians in Gaza should be understood as incomplete. The unresolved and compounding effect of Palestinian displacement beginning at least since 1948 is an essential factor that is neglected in much of the aid discourse and the international community’s responses.

Despite the importance of displacement, and despite the tremendous amount of aid money dedicated to the issue, it is surprisingly difficult to understand the current situation in Gaza. The Shelter Cluster is a global coordination mechanism that in Palestine is led by Norwegian Refugee Council. Their August 2015 Fact Sheet says:

• 12,580 housing units were totally destroyed and 6,503 housing units were severely damaged, both these categories are uninhabitable structures.
• It can be assumed that about 17,863 families (100,000 individuals) are still displaced, as they would represent families with totally destroyed and severally damaged uninhabitable houses.

But these numbers raise some questions. First, 12,580 + 6,503 add up to 19,083, not 17,863. Why the difference? Second, the figure 100,000 individuals is reached by multiplying 17,863 by 5.5 individuals per family, although the average family size in Gaza seems to be 6.5. Using this one example, if we used the larger figure of 19,083 and multiplied by 6.5, the estimated displacement figure would be 124,000, not 100,000.

If we then add those still displaced from the last Gaza war (4,400 housing units) and those displaced due to natural growth housing deficit (75,000), both figures acknowledged on p. 1 of the August report, then we have an additional 79,400 housing units (defined as at least one family but possibly more), which means a minimum of 516,000 additional people. Why are these displaced Palestinians not counted when aid actors and media cite “100,000 still displaced?”

There may be very good answers to these questions and we should seek to get them. We should also demand better analysis of data (not necessarily better counting) and clearer reporting. Even the Shelter Cluster can’t seem to get aid actors to synchronize definitions. Some report on “housing units” and some report on “families” and others don’t provide full information about their activities, while others (for example, the private sector) aren’t included at all. Of course, all this information should be provided in Arabic so that the intended beneficiaries can be informed and empowered to participate.