Last Updated: Friday, 02 October 2015, 13:27 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Palestine : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date August 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Palestine : Overview, August 2009, available at: [accessed 4 October 2015]
Comments Updated August 2009
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Although all Israel and the Occupied Territories form geographical Palestine, the definition here refers to all those areas of Palestine occupied by Israel in 1967, namely the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip.


Palestine currently consists of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. The West Bank has a total area of 5,860 km2 and shares borders with Israel and Jordan. The Gaza Strip has a total area of 360 km2 and borders the Mediterranean Sea between Egypt and Israel.


Main languages: Arabic, Hebrew

Main religions: Islam, Judaism, Christianity

Main indigenous and minority groups: indigenous Palestinians 3.9 million (89%), Christians (most of whom are Palestinians) 200,000 (4.5%), Jews 500,000 (11.4%), Jewish settlers (a subset of Jews) 364,000 (8.2%), Samaritans 400 (.009%)

The overall indigenous Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is 3.9 million. Their main language is Arabic although many also speak Hebrew, English and French.

Most Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, but some are Christians of various denominations. About 400 Arab Samaritans live mostly near the West Bank town of Nablus.

After 1967, Jewish settlers increasingly moved into the occupied territories. In 2007 there were 177,000 settlers in East Jerusalem and another 187,000 in the rest of the West Bank. Settlers belong to two broad categories: those who have settled for ideological reasons, often in the least hospitable areas, and a larger number of those who settled in the metropolitan commuter areas of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv because of the opportunity to inhabit good housing much more cheaply than inside Israel. There is broad overlap between the two categories, with a general attitude that Arabs may stay only if they 'behave'.

The presence of Jewish settlers violates the requirements of the Fourth Geneva Convention regarding protection of civilian populations under occupation. Settlers are subject to Israeli law, not to the laws applying to the occupied territories. Settlers are armed and may shoot unarmed Palestinians when they believe the circumstances justify this. Settlers have used this authority to carry out attacks on Palestinians, and settlers are also targeted for violence by Palestinian militants. The international community has taken few effective steps to persuade Israel to terminate settler violation of the Geneva Convention. In 2004 and 2005, the Israeli government removed around 9,000 settlers from all 21 settlements in Gaza and four small settlements in the West Bank, but other settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, continued to expand.


Jewish nationalist ideology, Zionism, led to claims on Palestine for the Jewish people. Zionism began in Europe, in reaction to pogroms in the east and assimilation in the west. Early in the 20th century, Zionist leaders began planning for Jewish settlement in Palestine, and the removal of the indigenous population. After Britain captured Palestine from the Ottomans in 1917, UK Foreign Secretary Balfour made a declaration promising to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. This pledge was enshrined in the UK's Mandate for Palestine under the League of Nations, which granted to the Jewish Agency the task of Palestine's economic development.

At the time, Palestine was a highly decentralized village society composed mainly of Sunni Muslims and about ten per cent Christians. Fear of dispossession began to create a sense of national identity, but Palestinian society was ill-prepared to oppose the highly organized and well funded settlement plans of European settlers.

The Holocaust transformed international attitudes on Palestine by creating substantial sympathy and support for the aspirations of surviving European Jews. In November 1947 the United Nations partitioned Palestine, awarding Jews – who were then only one-third of the population – over half of the territory. Arabs rejected the plan and fighting erupted almost immediately. Jewish forces were better organized and equipped; they quickly prevailed, expelling a majority of the Palestinian population in the process.

Expulsion of the Palestinian population was a premeditated strategy. When Britain withdrew on 15 May 1948, over 200,000 Arabs had already been compelled to abandon their homes. Neighbouring Arab states now entered Palestine but were defeated by the new Jewish state. By the end of hostilities Israel controlled 72 per cent of Palestine, and 750,000 out of approximately 1 million Palestinians had been made refugees. Israel claimed that the refugees had abandoned their homes 'voluntarily', refused to allow them back and razed most of their villages. From 1948, refugee camps and communities became a permanent feature of the Arab-held portion of Palestine and neighbouring countries. Egypt administered the Gaza Strip and Jordan annexed the West Bank. The Palestine question destabilized the region.

In 1967 Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against a planned attack by its Arab neighbours, who had the support of other Arab countries. At the end of the Six-Day War, Israel had expanded its borders to include Gaza, parts of Syria, the West Bank, as well as all of East Jerusalem. Israeli forces drove into exile another 300,000 Palestinians and created new sources of Arab resentment that in turn served to propagate Israel's sense of vulnerability. Egypt and Syria attempted to regain lost territory through a surprise attack in October 1973, but were defeated by the Israeli military. A peace process begun in the wake of the 'Yom Kippur War' led to the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt that established a framework for peace negotiations and Palestinian self rule in the occupied territories. The Palestinians had formed their own resistance movement beginning in the 1960s, as they began despairing of deliverance by the Arab states. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) conducted a guerrilla war and committed attacks on civilian targets. Civil conflict in Jordan and Lebanon became a by-product of its guerrilla war. In 1982 Israel tried to extirpate the PLO in Lebanon, killing 19,000 people, mainly civilians, in the process. Israel and Egypt signed a formal peace treaty in 1979. Palestinian frustration grew with a weakening of support from Arab countries, and culminated in the first intifada (uprising) in the occupied territories from 1987 to 1991.

To consolidate control over the occupied territories, by 1995 Israel progressively expropriated 60 per cent of the West Bank and 40 per cent of the Gaza Strip. It carried out a major settlement programme throughout the territories, designed to retain strategic control and to ring Palestinian population areas. It also illegally annexed East Jerusalem, took total control of all water resources and changed the demographic balance by building massive settlements around the Old City. It changed the body of law regarding the occupied territories with well over 1,000 of its own administrative orders. By stifling economic development in the occupied territories and dumping excess produce on a captive market, Israel made its military occupation profitable. Civil as well as armed resistance was crushed through collective punishment, including curfews, home demolitions and indefinite detention without charge or trial. All these measures violated the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. Israel denied it was bound by this convention.

The first intifada made occupation costly, but it failed to force Israel out of the territories. The PLO formally recognized the Israeli state in November 1988, hoping it would no longer be treated as an international pariah. It was disappointed. International action to uphold Palestinian rights or secure a just solution remained frustrated by unquestioning American support for Israel and the repeated use of its veto power in the UN Security Council against proposed resolutions that attempted to uphold international law and norms.

A regional peace process launched in Madrid in 1991 led to the 1993 Oslo Accords, signed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yassir Arafat. The Palestinians recognized Israel's right to exist and Israel agreed to the creation of a Palestinian Authority to govern the occupied territories, the staged withdrawal of Israeli forces, and a process toward establishment of a Palestinian state. One year later, Israel and Jordan concluded a formal peace agreement.

Dissatisfaction with the Accords led a radical right-wing Israeli Jew to massacre a group of Palestinians praying at a mosque in Hebron in 1994 and another to assassinate Rabin in November 1995. Following the Hebron incident, Palestinian militants conducted the first of many suicide bomb attacks on Israeli civilians.

Israeli voters elected a new government in 1996 led by Oslo opponent Binyamin Netanyahu, who pursued the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Amid Palestinian suicide terror attacks on Israel and Israeli military and political provocations, further negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis broke down. A Camp David summit convened by outgoing US President Bill Clinton in July 2000 between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (who had been elected in 1999) and Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat also failed. That September right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon and other members of his Likud Party paid a highly provocative visit by to the Temple Mount, a site holy to both Judaism and Islam. Surrounded by hundreds of armed guards, Sharon was ostensibly asserting the right of Jews to visit the site. The following day riots erupted in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and a second intifada began. Increasing resistance to Israeli occupation was met by increased repression and heavy-handed military responses. This in turn elicited greater numbers of terrorist attacks on Israel, which led to even greater military responses, often costing the lives of Palestinian civilians. In 2001 Ariel Sharon became Israeli Prime Minister.

In 2002 Israel re-occupied almost all of the territory abandoned under the Oslo accords and began erecting a separation wall in the West Bank with the stated intent of enhancing its defences against terrorist attacks. By late 2006 it had reached a length of 670 km. But the wall did not follow the boundary between Israel and the West Bank in all places, instead carving off ten per cent of the West Bank to the Israeli side, including Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. In July 2004 the International Court of Justice found that the wall gravely infringed Palestinian rights. 200,000 Palestinians found themselves on the western side of the wall, separated from friends and family in the rest of the West Bank, and subject to strict curfews.

In 2004 and 2005, Israel withdrew all settlers and its forces from the Gaza strip and handed control to the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, settlement activity in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, continued. Following the abduction of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants and repeated and indiscriminate firing of home-made missiles from the occupied territories into Israel, Israel launched a new military incursion into Gaza in June 2006. Israeli forces bombed Gaza's only independent power station, and the sustained assault resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties.

In 2008 Israeli forces launched the 'Cast Lead' air strike causing the highest level of Palestinian fatalities and casualties of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It said its aim was to stop Hamas militants firing rockets into the Jewish state after Hamas unilaterally called off a six-month truce in December 2008. According to media reports, in one of the deadliest offensives in the Gaza Strip launched on 27 December 2008, 1300 Palestinians died and thousands were left wounded and homeless. Israel's stated goal with the offensive was to destroy the rocket arsenal of Hamas and kill its soldiers as well as to cut off some of the tunnels belonging to an underground network of smuggling routes between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. After the three-week long Israeli offensive a ceasefire could be achieved by mid-January but sporadic violence continued, including the killing of two gunmen in the Gaza strip and a 16 year-old Beduin girl, who opened fire at a police station in the southern part of Israel on 4 April 2009. A Human Rights Watch report of March 2009 accused the Israeli military of firing white phosphorus over civilian-crowded areas of Gaza repeatedly and indiscriminately killing and injuring civilians and committing war crimes. In one case, the report says, Israel even ignored repeated warnings from UN staff before hitting the main UN compound in Gaza with white phosphorus shells on 15 January. Israeli forces first denied using white phosphorus against civilians and later announced that an inquiry would be held.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations and the UN have demanded a comprehensive investigation into all alleged serious abuses of international human and humanitarian laws and international criminal law during the conflict in Gaza. A Board of Inquiry was set up by the UN reviewing and investigating the incidents in which death and injuries occurred at, and damage was done to UN premises during the Gaza Strip offensive. According to the UN News Agency, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was briefed on the interim findings on 8 April and the full report is expected by the end of April 2009. However, in an open letter sent to the UN Secretary General on 16 March entitled 'Find the truth about Gaza war' by a group of 16 of the world's leading war crime judges and investigators (including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and judge Richard Goldstone, former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda) and supported by Amnesty International, stated that the UN investigation was not sufficient in examining grave human rights violations by both sides, Hamas and the Israeli military. The group called for an establishment of an UN commission of inquiry that has the mandate to carry out an independent, thorough and impartial investigation and can provide recommendations as to the appropriate prosecution of those responsible for gross human rights violations.


Since 1994 the Palestinian Authority has exercised partial control over some of the Israeli occupied territories, although Israel has retained ultimate control. The Palestinian Authority has a Basic Law in place of a constitution that provides for a directly elected president, a parliament, and an independent judiciary. In reality, these structures are only weakly developed and Palestinian officials often lack the capacity to carry out their jobs.

The Oslo accords deliberately left certain contentious issues for a final settlement: the status of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, right of refugee return and water resources. By 1996 Israel handed over 60 per cent of the Gaza Strip and five per cent of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. But these populated areas under Palestinian control remained ringed by Israeli-occupied zones, thus fragmenting Palestinian areas into a captive mosaic. The Palestinian Authority was held responsible for Palestinian 'good behaviour', and frequently acted in an autocratic manner towards its subject population. The administration remained strapped for cash, and its people almost wholly dependent on Israel to provide them employment and income.

Both Palestinian and Israeli authorities have been responsible for abuses against the indigenous Palestinian people, who form the bulk of the population in the occupied territories but suffer extensive marginalization. The first Palestinian elections in 1996 resulted in a victory for Yassir Arafat and his Fatah Party, the largest faction of the PLO. Corruption flourished under the new government, angering many Palestinians and strengthening the rival militant Hamas faction. Palestinian President Arafat died in 2004, and the following year his former prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas – also of the Fatah party – was elected president. With the withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlements from Gaza in 2005, the territory passed to the control of the Palestinian Authority.

Entrenched corruption under Fatah leadership and its seeming inability to move the political process forward fuelled the political rise of Hamas, which won elections in January 2006. The victory by Hamas, whose militant wing had carried out numerous terrorist attacks, was met by new western policies designed to isolate the Palestinian Authority. Western countries imposed strict economic sanctions in an attempt to bring about its recognition of Israel, acceptance of past peace agreements and renunciation of violence.

Violence between the Hamas and Fatah factions worsened over the course of 2006. In February 2007 the two sides met in Mecca, Saudi Arabia and agreed to form a government of national unity. However, tensions again escalated and in June 2007 Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. During the fighting, in which militias allied with both factions carried out summary executions of captured opposing militants in violation of the laws of war, 140 died and 1,000 were wounded. Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas immediately dissolved the government, but real authority was now geographically divided, with Hamas retaining de facto control of Gaza, and Fatah governing only the West Bank. Hamas and Israel reached a cease-fire agreement in June 2008, but after an Israeli incursion into Gaza, Hamas resumed indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel in November 2008. At the end of the year, Israel launched a major air and ground offensive in Gaza with the goal of weakening Hamas. Significant civilian casualties in Gaza, however, appeared to rally Palestinians around the militant group, at least in the immediate term. In the midst of the crisis, there were moves to unite the divided Palestinian leadership.

In February 2009 Israel's President, Shimon Peres gave the mandate to Binyamin Netanyahu, a long opponent of the 1993 Oslo accords, to form a new government. So far Netanyahu has criticised the current rounds of peace talks with Palestinians and stopped short of endorsing the two-state solution that would see the creation of an independent Palestine. After initial talks both, the Labour party and the Tzipi Livni lead Kadima decided to go into opposition, making it likely that Netanyahu will lead a narrow right-wing coalition.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Although they form a strong numerical majority in Palestine, indigenous Palestinians remain deeply marginalized. The participation of many Palestinians in a cycle of violence with Israel, and the frequent targeting of civilians, has done nothing to shake off Israeli repression, and has reduced international sympathy for their cause.

In 2007 Palestinian militants continued to fire locally-made rockets from Gaza into Israel. A July report from Human Rights Watch found that both these indiscriminate attacks and Israeli retaliatory shelling of Gaza violated the laws of war. In 2006 the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) had reduced the 'safety zone' between military targets and civilian areas to 100 metres, resulting in higher civilian casualty rates. A stated IDF moratorium on shelling Gaza took effect in November 2006, but shelling continued nonetheless and the moratorium formally ended in August 2007 when IDF tanks shelled ostensible artillery pieces, killing five small Palestinian children in two separate incidents. In September Israel threatened an economic blockade of Gaza in response to continued rocket fire, including access to fuel and electricity, which would affect Palestinian civilians along with combatants. In the full-scale offensive on Gaza launched by Israel in December 2008, there were again accusations of war crimes on both sides.

Despite the relatively better relationship between Israel and the Fatah government in the West Bank, Israeli policies continued to impose severe hardship on the Palestinian population. The separation wall has isolated Palestinian communities and had a devastating economic and cultural impact. For example, in autumn the government prevented many olive farmers living in the town of Jayus from accessing their olive groves on the western side of the barrier, denying permits foreseen by regulations allowing these Palestinians access to their land through doors in the wall.

In October the Israeli government confirmed that it was constructing a new road for Palestinians that conforms to a proposed section of the separation wall designed to consolidate Israeli control over disputed East Jerusalem. The so-called 'Jerusalem Envelope' would incorporate expanding Jewish settlements and expropriate ten per cent of the West Bank, which Israel says it will compensate with other land. The road begun in October adds to emerging networks of separate Israeli and Palestinian roads. According to an August report by the Israeli NGO B'Tselem, there are now 47 checkpoints on West Bank roads and Palestinian drivers are prevented from using long stretches of highway; the report found that the controls go beyond legitimate Israeli security needs and constitute collective punishment. Palestinians claim that by nearly bisecting the West Bank, the latest road calls into question the viability of a future Palestinian state. Likewise, Israel is constructing a large new police headquarters in the West Bank, slated to be in use by the end of 2007, despite US objections that it would hinder the viability of a Palestinian state.

Hundreds of thousands of indigenous Palestinian refugees and their descendents remain dispersed among countries in the region and living in camps within the occupied territories.

As will be seen in a separate section below, the bleak security situation in Palestine, accompanied by economic decline and religious radicalization, has created increasing difficulties for minority Palestinian Christians.

Bedouins and herders in the West Bank have felt the double impact of politics and environmental hardship. In July 2008, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that the estimated 50,000 Bedouins and herders of the West Bank were 'on the brink of an emergency' after three years of drought and cold winters. The ICRC stated that Israeli policies had aggravated the problem by preventing herds from being moved to water sources and fresh grazing land. The ICRC cited Israeli settlements, roads, military zones and nature reserves as all presenting obstacles to the livelihood of Bedouins and herders.

According to media reports, at the backdrop of the national elections in Israel, the fallout from the three-week war between Hamas and Israel is exacerbating tensions between the Jewish majority and the country's one-fifth Arab minority. Even though tens of thousands of Arab citizens in the south of Israel found themselves within the range of Hamas rocket fire, they still expressed opposition to the war and sympathy with the Palestinians trapped in the Gaza conflict in a series of demonstrations. In a rare show of solidarity, a 16 year old Bedouin teenager opened fire at a guard post in Southern Israel and was gunned down by police there. In February 2009, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that after more than a month after the end of the war people in the Gaza Strip were still struggling to rebuild their lives. According to the results of assessments that the ICRC and the Palestine Red Crescent Society conducted in the hardest hit areas of the Gaza Strip, the conflict destroyed more than 2,800 houses completely and almost 1,900 partially, leaving tens of thousands homeless, while thousands remain without access to running water. The assessment estimates that emergency assistance for those who suffered the greatest loss during the conflict will not suffice, commercial imports of goods for rebuilding are sorely needed, as are machinery and spare parts, however construction materials from Israel at the time of writing were still not allowed into Gaza.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld