What is the first image that springs to your mind when you hear the words refugee camp? I’d guess something along the lines of people crossing borders as they flee war, then ending up living in white UN tents in the desert?
That’s exactly what I picture, for I’ve been to refugee camps in North Africa and on the Turkish/Syrian border. These people are fleeing war and have next to nothing, wearing only the clothes on their backs, if they are lucky.
Well, how about “refugee camps” that are actual brick houses? Refugee camps that have shops and businesses, the homes have running water and electricity, the occupants have food, TVs and many have mobile phones. Some households own cars and many work, often running businesses.
Oh, it’s certainly not pretty in there, and neither you nor I would choose to live there, but the above is true.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees was set up in 1949. It provides aid through education, healthcare and social services. A Palestinian refugee is classed as anyone whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost said residence due to the 1948 Arab/Israeli war.
Roughly 750,000 Palestinians became displaced, thus becoming refugees. There are 58 Palestinian refugee camps in total in such places as the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. I’m not going to quote the total figures as of 2018, as they vary widely and are disputed by many.
In Bethlehem, and partially surrounded by the West Bank barrier, which comes within metres of the houses, stands Aida camp. Established in 1950, it’s home to around 5,500 people who originally came from villages around Jerusalem and west of Hebron.
Due to its unique position of being close up to the wall and just round the corner from checkpoint 300, there are regular incursions into the camp by armed IDF troops. They usually come in the middle of the night and take away those they claim are involved in terrorist activities. Israel often views these camps as a breeding ground for terrorism. There are violent clashes, excessive force is used, and even children have been arrested and taken prisoner. Many get injured during such clashes, and some have died due to their injuries.
Forty UNRWA employees work in Aida camp in education, sanitation and social services. There is one school for 400 pupils; other children go to nearby schools in Beit Jala. The camp has no health centre, but residents can use the one in Bethlehem. While all homes are connected to electricity, water and sewerage, the infrastructures are old and in poor condition.
I walked around Aida and took numerous photos. Poor, run-down, dirty narrow streets, and the wall and watchtowers only metres away in places. It’s not fun, and that’s putting it mildly, but I’ve seen worse. To me it looks like a typical slum area, not a refugee camp.
I got chatting to a young woman who lives in the camp and also works there. We met on the street as I was taking photos of a nearby fire damaged watch tower. She spoke good English, but was very wary indeed as she spotted the Israeli GPO press card hanging round my neck. In a nutshell, she didn’t trust me and thought I was working for Israel in some capacity. I tried to reassure her and even gave her a UK number to call to confirm my UK press card details. I thought I was getting somewhere when she agreed to swap e-mails after I’d asked her for an interview about the daily lives of people in the camp. However, she didn’t reply to any of my e-mails, so the interview never happened.
Later that night, I spoke with Palestinian friends about this subject. One friend who owns a small business in Bethlehem said to me: “They are not real refugees. OK, they were 60 years ago, but not this generation now. They live in real houses. They have running water and they have electricity which they do not pay for. They also don’t pay taxes. Many of them run shops and have businesses. They actually live better than we do as they pay for nothing. A few are in fact millionaires. Don’t believe me? Just go and walk around Dheisheh camp. Many drive expensive western cars. Go and see for yourself.”
Next morning, I walked for about 45 minutes in the fierce sun, away from the centre of Bethlehem, until I came to the entrance of Dheisheh camp. The same idea as Aida, but much bigger in population, 20,000, and thus much more facilities.
The walls of the tiny streets leading into the camp were all covered in political slogans and faces of dead Palestinian martyrs. It’s not threatening to walk these places, as ever, the Palestinians are kind people. Just don’t make them feel like a tourist attraction.
I walked around, people waved and kids in very decent clothes posed for photos. With the weather hot, doors and windows were open, so I managed a discreet sneaky peak into a couple of homes and saw plasma TVs. Many youths hung around street corners with smart phones, yet there were also kids with no shoes on. Dheisheh does seem to be in better condition than Aida, but maybe that’s only because the separation wall is not right up to its door.
For sure, it’s not heaven on Earth, and while there are very poor parts to it, there are also brand-new houses being built. There is money here, for some anyway. I saw quality apartments and expensive cars. Gaza, this is not. Despite the good work it has undoubtedly done, UNRWA is now accused of perpetuating dependency. Many claim it’s high time that the displaced Palestinians were permanently re-settled as opposed to being trapped in a cycle of refugee camps that are now decades old.
Many say that UNRWA has outlived itself and that it should transfer its duties to the Palestinian Authority, for they themselves should shoulder responsibility for their own people and re-house them. And on that note, what is the Palestinian Authority doing? Why can’t it use the millions it spends on new palaces for its leaders to build new permanent homes for its people? It’s also been said to me that Israel itself should cough up to re-house those hundreds of thousands of people it took land from.
UNRWA has been accused of having “far too close” a relationship with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Its relationship with Israel though is not great. For example, Israel claims that during the 2014 war with Hamas, UNRWA facilities in Gaza were used by militants. Israel then classed these places as legitimate targets and bombed them. Dozens died and hundreds more were injured.
Israel also claimed that weapons were stored within UNRWA schools and rockets fired from them into Israel. In 2017, UNRWA admitted it had found militants’ tunnels under a school in Gaza. It complained to Hamas who denied involvement, as did other armed groups, possibly those I have interviewed. As a result of this find, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu said that UNRWA should be dismantled and re-incorporated into other UN agencies. This is basically what president Trump thinks. Most of the funding for UNRWA comes directly from the US government, and it’s thinking why should we keep funding this organisation?
Maybe UNRWA does need to pass over responsibility. But if it did pull out of Palestine tomorrow, there would be a humanitarian disaster. UNRWA has been vital to the very survival of the most vulnerable Palestinians. Its collective heart has no doubt been in the right place and it’s staffed by numerous good people. However, decades later, these refugees, and now their children and grandchildren, find themselves in a position of no change. Surely that can’t be right?
I know that the people of Palestine have suffered immense hardships; I’ve written about it in numerous columns. However, on the subject of these camps, maybe they have indeed turned into a place of perpetual dependency? I’m not blaming the ordinary people for this, it’s the authorities, often with vested interests, whom I’m questioning.
What do you think is the most contentious issue in the Holy Land?
Religion? No. The existence of Israel? No. The walls of division and numerous checkpoints? No. The most contentious issue is undoubtedly the highly controversial Israeli settlements on “Palestinian land”. Settlements that most of the world see as illegal.
Israel of course, denies this. And as a Jewish friend informed me, they are not “settlements”, for that indicates these Jewish people shouldn’t be there. They prefer to call them “communities”.