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Palestinian immigration (Israel)

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Infiltrator 1954

Infiltrator from Gaza Strip caught by Israeli soldiers, 1954

Palestinian immigration refers to the movement of Palestinians into the territory of Israel. Since 1948, most Palestinians crossing into Israel have come to live, reside and/or work, many of them continuing the lives they lived prior to their displacement in the Palestinian exodus. Others have crossed to engage in acts of violence and sabotage against Israelis and the Israeli state, as well as apolitical crime. The Israeli government has tightly restricted legal immigration and resettlement of Palestinian refugees within its boundaries, and consistently opposed their Right of Return.

The period from 1948 to 1956 saw extensive attempts by Palestinians to cross the border, which were met by severe violence by border guards and a corresponding increase in the violence of border-crossers (residential, political and criminal). From 1967 to 1993, a period of mass employment in Israel of Palestinian workers from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip prevailed, although immigration and naturalization remain largely inaccessible. During the 1990s, escalating policies of closure of the Green Line replaced labor mobility. In the 2000s, this policy has been supplemented by physical barriers in the West Bank and Gaza, and increasingly tight restrictions on family reunification.

As with many issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the terminology involved is controversial. Infiltration, immigration, and return each carry particular legal and moral meanings that are sharply disputed.

1948-56: Border wars and "infiltration"

Palestinian infiltration refers to numerous border-crossings by Palestinians considered illegal by the Israeli authorities, during the first years of Israeli statehood. Most of the people in question were refugees attempting to return to their homes inside the new Israeli state.[1] Between 30,000 and 90,000 Palestinian refugees returned to Israel as a result. They wanted to return to what were their homes prior to the Arab-Israeli War, looking for their lost loved ones, harvesting crops from fields that were confiscated, and to reclaim property other than land. There were also Bedouin to whom the concept of newly established borders were foreign.

During the 19491956 period the motivation was social or economic concerns.[1] Between 2,700 and 5,000 Palestinians were killed in the period 19491956, the great majority of them unarmed.[2] The immigrants were in breach of cease-fire agreements concluded by Egypt, Israel and Jordan. During the first years, the Israel and Jordan tried to stop the return. However neither were successful in stopping it entirely (see below). Eventually, the Egyptian (fedayeen) morphed into new constellations, while Jordan managed to contain the border areas.

Arabs declare the infiltration into Israel's territory to have been a direct consequence to the displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian refugees during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (see also: Palestinian exodus)

To Israel, the infiltration was a large problem. Israel's answer to this was to establish new settlements along the border and raze the abandoned Arab villages. A "free fire" policy towards infiltrators was adopted — a policy of shooting those crossing the international armistice line illegally. Eventually, the Israeli leadership came to the conclusion that only retaliatory strikes would be able to create the necessary factor of deterrence, that would convince the Arab armies to prevent infiltration. Although the strikes were sometimes confined to military targets (particularly, at the later stages of the infiltration), numerous civilians were killed, prompting the question whether the strikes were a form of collective punishment.

The first raid was against Falama which were a resounding military failure and the IDF battalion carrying out the strike quickly had to retreat when they encountered resistance from the Jordanian National Guard.

This was the cause for the establishment in August 1953 of Unit 101, an elite commando unit specialised in cross border raids. Initially, the Israeli strategy would allow the targeting of civilians during the strikes; however, following the wave of internal and external criticism after the Qibya operation in October 1953, during which 60–70 Jordanian civilians were killed, the decision was made to confine the strikes to military targets.

During the years 19541956, a number of such raids took place. The reprisals led to more Arab hatred and the infiltrations became increasingly more violent, up to the point of the Fedayeen becoming a formal Egyptian Army unit in 1954. The tactical success of the raids led to the establishment of a very unstable balance of threat, which essentially left Israel in a state of border warfare. The resulting strategic dilemma was one of the reasons for Israel's participation in the 1956 Suez War, after which U.N. peacekeepers were positioned in Gaza, and Jordan tightened security over its border.

Arab governmental responsibility

The Israeli government has accused the Arab governments of supporting and sponsoring the infiltrations, as a means to bring about the collapse of the recently created Israel. The Egyptian formal adoption of the Fedayeen in 1954 seems to support this claim; moreover, Israel points out that after its retaliatory operations, the Arab countries managed to significantly decrease the number of infiltrations by deploying on the borders and by other measures. The non-prevention of armed infiltration (even of non-governmental forces) over an agreed border is widely considered an act of war; therefore Israel argued that their retaliatory strikes, which were also acts of war, were justified.

Israel's neighbours had different means to control the infiltrations: Lebanon transferred refugees farther north to Tyre and Beirut, the Syrian authorities kept a strict control over their 50 kilometer-long border with Israel and infiltrations from there was rare. The Jordanians, on the other hand, had the longest border with Israel. Many civilians lived close to the border on both sides of it. According to the Jordanians, this made preventing all infiltrations an impossible task. Most infiltrations came from Jordan and most retaliatory strikes were executed into it.

The Arabs denied support for infiltration and did not understand the Israeli accusations. King Hussein, who took over the throne in Jordan in May 1953, was very puzzled by the violence of Israel's response to minor incursions over the armistice line. Avi Shlaim (p. 85) writes in an interview with King Hussein of Jordan:

"His puzzlement was all the greater given that the Jordanian authorities had been doing everything that they could 'to prevent infiltration and to prevent access to Israel.'"

Shlaim writes that an Israeli historian and reserve general, Yehoshafat Harkabi, supported this position:

"…having personally made a detailed study of the whole phenomenon of infiltration, he had arrived at the conclusion that Jordanians and especially the [Arab] Legion were doing their best to prevent infiltration, which was a natural, decentralized and sporadic movement." (The Iron Wall p.93, Shlaim)

Other Israeli officials have supported that view. He proceeds by saying that the Israeli claims were unfounded, basing on an interview with an individual named Aryeh Eilan, who is described as an official in the Israeli Ministry of Exterior:

"If Jordanian complicity is a lie, we have to keep lying. If there is no proofs, we have to fabricate them" (Israel's Border Wars p.67, Benny Morris)

Glubb Pasha, the British officer who commanded the Jordan Arab Legion at the time, wrote that

"the Arab Legion was doing its level best to maintain a peaceful border with Israel". (A Soldier with the Arabs 1957, Glubb and Violence of the Jordan-Israel Border: A Jordanian View, Foreign Affairs, 32, no.4, 1954)

A number of documents captured by Israel during the Six-Day War were publicized, such as a letter from the minister of defence wrote to the prime minister demanding drastic steps to prevent infiltration, dated 27 February 1952.

Therefore, it seems that while the Israeli accusations of direct governmental complicity are unfounded, and on the higher level, the Arab governments showed cooperation with Israel and the Mixed Armistice Committee, their policemen and local guards were not always keen about protecting the border, and the Arab governments either lacked the will or the ability to force them to do that. Morris (Righteous Victims p. 270) concludes that:

…the Arab authorities operated with insufficient vigor and means. Often infiltrators and local civil and military authorities collaborated. Many of the latter turned a blind eye in return for bribes, especially the men of the Jordanian National Guard."

1967-1993: Palestinian migrant labor

The Green Line separating Israel from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip remained open and relatively unpatrolled from the 1967 war through the 1990s. Tens and eventually hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became migrant workers in Israel. Their migration was not legalized until 1969, but unpermitted workers formed a major proportion of laborers throughout this period. In attempt to prevent Palestinian residency, workers were required to return home each night, though in practice this requirement was not always followed (Bartram 1998).

See also



  • David V. Bartram, "Foreign Workers in Israel: History and Theory," International Migration Review, Vol. 32, No. 2. (Summer, 1998), pp. 303-325.
  • Benny Morris, Israel’s Border Wars 1948–1956 (1993).

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