This guide was created by the team at the Interactive Encyclopedia of the Palestine Question and curated by Slingshot Media’s advocacy team
Before the Nakba , the District of Gaza was one of the five districts that made up Mandate Palestine , and it consisted of two subdistricts: Gaza and Bir al-Sabi’ . After the 1948 War , the State of Israel controlled all of Bir al-Sabi‘ and most of Gaza subdistrict. The part of the Gaza subdistrict that remained unoccupied (361 square kilometers, about 1.3 percent of the total area of Palestine) was administered by the Egyptian military and later came to be known as the Gaza Strip. The occupation of the bigger part of the district was accompanied by the destruction of forty-nine villages and the forcible displacement of their residents, many of whom fled as refugees to the Gaza Strip, the initial population of which back then was a mere 80,000. The total number of refugees to the Strip from the rest of Gaza as well as from the Lydda district exceeded 200,000.
At first, refugees were received in mosques, schools, homes, military barracks, and uninhabited open grounds. Upon an agreement with the United Nations , the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization, was tasked with refugee aid; it established eight camps on governmental grounds allocated by the Egyptian administration (table 1) and gave them the names of nearby cities and towns. The organization supervised the camps until the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was founded (as called for in General Assembly Resolution 302) on 8 December 1949, officially starting operations on 1 May 1950. Ever since then, the refugee camps have symbolized the continuous suffering experienced by the thousands of men, women, and children forced to share such limited space and resources. This is why the Gaza camps hold such a central place in the narrative of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: they are the site of resistance against the occupation and of the struggle against the very cause of their fate.
Table 1: Refugee Camps in the Gaza Strip
Name of camp
Year of establishment
Initial area upon establishment (in dunams)
599, down to 548
156, down to 132
549, up to 564
528, down to 478
Source: at unrwa.org
After the freezing winter of 1950, the UNRWA started building houses of brick and stone for refugees to replace the tents they lived in. About 48,000 “shelters” were built (each 150 square meters) in all eight camps, which later expanded to accommodate the rapid increase in population (graph “Number of Refugees in the Gaza Strip). In addition to shelter, UNRWA offered food rations and health services. To contribute to the refugees’ self-reliance, it provided elementary education, vocational training, and, at times, employment. The agency administers its operations through an office in each camp; a camp officer — often chosen from among the camp’s political or intellectual elite —facilitates access to UNRWA services and manages and coordinates other facets of camp life. In the early 1990s, the agency started granting small loans to refugees (including women) with the aim of encouraging them to take up income-generating projects. In certain periods (for example, during the First Intifada ), the UNRWA also played a remarkable role in protecting refugees from the Israeli military’s arbitrary and punitive actions.