The creation of Israel in 1948 resulted in the geographic scattering of the Palestinian people. The displacement of around 700,000 Palestinians from the newly created state of Israel is commemorated by Palestinians as the Nakba (Catastrophe). Many of these refugees arrived in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighbouring countries (Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan).

Palestinian geography was further fragmented following the Arab defeat by Israel during the June 1967 (Six Day) war which saw Israeli forces occupy the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. This sent a second wave of approximately 300,000 Palestinian refugees (half of whom were already refugees from 1948) towards neighbouring countries.

A third phase in Palestine’s territorial fragmentation occurred during the Oslo peace process which carved up the West Bank according to various complex jurisdictional schemes under continued Israeli military control, and led to further Palestinian dispossession in East Jerusalem and Area C of the West Bank where Israeli settlements have steadily swallowed up Palestinian land.

These geographic divisions were accentuated by the intra-Palestinian fighting between Hamas and Fatah that erupted following the 2006 legislative election, and the subsequent imposition of a joint Egyptian-Israeli blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza, limiting trade and movement with the West Bank.

Today, around 3 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants are scattered among refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. A further estimated 2.5 million live elsewhere as a diaspora, particularly Europe, the United States, and Latin America. This is in addition to 1.8 million Palestinians in Israel, and a further 4.5 million in the OPT (2 million of whom are refugees) – for a total of 12 million Palestinians worldwide.     

The Palestinian liberation movement – and its embodiment in the PLO – has reflected these geographical shifts and divisions. Since the 1967 war, the PLO has been variously headquartered in Amman, then Beirut, then Tunis, before returning to the OPT as part of the Oslo peace process. Doing this time, the centre of gravity within the Palestinian liberation movement has shifted from neighbouring refugee camps to the West Bank and Gaza.

As a result, distinct sociopolitical dynamics have arisen throughout the Palestinian population, depending on location. While some groups are now headquartered in the West Bank or Gaza, others such as Hamas continue to base a large portion of their leadership in the diaspora. Others still, such as the Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), have been heavily co-opted by host governments. Meanwhile, in areas such as East Jerusalem and refugee camps, where the Palestinian Authority/PLO exercises either weak or non-existent control, autonomous leaderships have risen, creating their own distinct political dynamics. This political complexity combined with enduring physical separation and different socio-economic backgrounds have weakened the Palestinian polity, making it harder for a unified and representative body to take root or articulate a coherent liberation strategy.