Homelessness in Israel/Palestine

The land of Israel/Palestine is usually thought of in the context of the decades-long occupation of the Palestinians by Israel and the various hostilities that have erupted between its two peoples in recent years. However, just like other countries, the so-called Holy Land also suffers from more mundane problems, and, yes, these include poverty and homelessness. The circumstances that usually lead to homelessness elsewhere are compounded by the political turmoil in the country. Homelessness affects the Jewish and Palestinian populations alike; what differs is the scale to which it affects them, and the causes. The land that is known as Historic Palestine is divided into three main areas: Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Today, most Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza, and about one million live inside Israel proper as "Arab" citizens of Israel. Similarly, most Israelis live in Israel, and a smaller number (550,000) live inside illegal settlements within the West Bank. The two peoples are therefore largely mixed across the entirety of the land. Despite this, and despite the fact that the Israeli state has ultimate authority over both groups of people, Israelis and Palestinians live under two systems of law.  That is precisely why there are vast differences in the levels of poverty experienced by the two societies. The number of Israeli citizens that are homeless is 2,300, according to a 2016 study by Israel's Welfare Ministry. Half of these rough sleepers hail from the former Soviet Union. They are part of an influx of Russian Jews who emigrated to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s. Initially Russian Jews immigrated because Israel encouraged them to do so in order to bolster the state's Jewish character. Later they came for economic reasons and to flee economic uncertainty in 1990s Russia. Although initially given state aid to cope with the expenses of assimilating to their new country, their new immigrant status meant that they were at a higher risk of falling on hard times once the global economic recession of 2008 impacted the region.  This may be why today Russian-Israelis represent a high proportion of Israel's homeless relative to their ratio in the population. The other half of the approximately 2300 Israelis who sleep rough are variously Israel-born Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel and Ethiopian-born Israelis. The most common reasons for why these people ended up on the streets are substance addiction, economic problems, and mental or physical illness. Israel's income inequality and poverty rates are among the highest of OECD countries, but the reasons its citizens have become vulnerable to homelessness are common to other OECD countries.  


What is less common is the path that leads Palestinians into homelessness. In their case the picture is more complex. Outright poverty is a leading factor and its causes can be traced to the ongoing military occupation of Palestinian areas and the physical blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza. Palestinians who do not hold Israeli citizenship - that is, the majority - are not only deprived of the Israeli state welfare programs that Israeli citizens have access to, but are also deprived of the freedom of movement necessary to find jobs that can pay a living wage. A comparison of the average annual income of West Bank Palestinians ($4300) and that of Israeli citizens ($34,800) reveals the very different lots of each group. Restrictions on the movement of people and goods, and the separation of the Palestinian economy from international markets (Israel controls all Palestinian borders) are largely responsible for the West Bank's low GDP. Other reasons for the generalized impoverishment of the population is the confiscation by the Israeli state - or in some case by settlers - of Palestinian land, olive groves, natural resources and the destruction of productive assets, including homes that Israel demolishes in its ongoing effort to rid certain areas of their Palestinian populations. In 2016 alone, Israeli authorities demolished 88 residential buildings and 48 other structures in Jerusalem. Elsewhere in the West Bank it demolished 274 residential buildings and 372 non-residential buildings. Those lucky enough to have family able to take them in find some shelter, though others are less fortunate. In Gaza, the situation is even worse. Since the last round of hostilities between Israel and militant groups in the summer of 2014, which saw Israeli airstrikes destroy the homes of 100,000 Palestinians, nearly every family in Gaza is dependent on international aid for survival. Many thousands of families live in shacks or in the ruins of their bombed homes, without electricity or running water. Despite this grim situation, there are reasons to be optimistic. A 2016 UN report found that if the obstacles of occupation were removed, the GDP of the Palestinian Territories would double almost immediately, significantly reducing unemployment and poverty. The report showed that if the political will is found to end the current two-tier system under which Israelis and Palestinians live, a brighter future is within grasp. This could come in the form of a two-state solution, whereby the Palestinians are finally granted autonomy over their economy and borders, or it could come in the form of a single democratic state in which all those who live within Israel/Palestine are given equal voting rights under a single government. Such a "one state" solution to the conflict has been gaining more traction in recent years, however idealistic it may at first appear.  If it is achieved it would carry the advantage of freer movement of goods and people since fewer borders would be needed, and this in turn would strengthen the economy of the entire country. US aid to Israel, which currently stands at $3 billion a year, would no longer be used for military expenditure and instead diverted to creating a better safety net for all citizens living in a new, inclusive and truly democratic country. Photo caption: Scene of a market in Gaza City, Gaza, January 2013. About the author: Dr. Claudia Saba is a lecturer in International Relations in Barcelona's Blanquerna School of International Relations. Note from #HomelessEntrepreneur. If you'd like to make a donation to help us improve our blog and build our network of journalists who contribute by writing about issues related to homelessness around the world to help speed up the process of eliminating homeless, please do so via #HomelessEntrepreneur's bank account, IBAN No ES78 0081-1699-53-0001058408 Swift: BSABESBB, and write #HomelessBlog as the transfer concept. Thanks!