Palestinian Refugees in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Summer 1998
This report was prepared by Gerhard Pulfer, whose internship with BADIL is sponsered by the EU Young Volunteer Program.
The Gaza Strip
Many Palestinians arrived in the Gaza Strip the way Abu Yusuf did -- a refugee. Abu Yusuf was born in a village near Asqalan, now Israeli Ashkelon, in 1938. During the war of 1948, with Asqalan under constant bombardment of Zionist planes and the news of the Deir Yassin massacre causing panic and fear, the family fled to Gaza for shelter. But there was none to be found. The Zionist army continued to chase the refugees to the southern regions of Gaza. "We were bombed even in Khan Younis, the planes came from the sea," Abu Yusuf remembers. In 1952, the family moved to the Shati Beach Camp, next to Gaza City, and there the family remained, until today. At first, the area of the beach camp was covered with trees and plants, "it looked like a jungle," says Abu Yusuf but now the entire northern Strip is covered by shelters and unplastered homes. Refugee camps grew into the suburbs of Gaza City, giving the whole area the appearance of a vast chaos of people and cement buildings.
Today, more than three quarters of the Gaza Strip's population are refugees. According to UNRWA statistics, 417,228 of the 759,564 refugees registered in their eight Palestinian refugee camps are located in the Gaza Strip. These numbers make Gaza the largest and most expensive UNRWA Palestinian refugee operation in any of its regions including Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank. In fact, UNRWA's Peace Implementation Program channels more funds into Gaza than all the other regions combined, US$136.9 million in pledges and contributions since 1993; Gaza also receives the biggest share of UNRWA's General Fund, US $98.8 million. Despite the disproportional distribution of wealth in its favor, Gaza remains chronically poor and home to the second largest percentage (8.6%) of Palestinian refugees in special need, just behind the infamous conditions of Lebanon. This percentage is configured by UNRWA's Special Hardship Case criteria, which allots those who qualify for additional benefits and aid relief. Paradoxically, while the UNRWA services continue to decline in the face of growing need, the criteria for qualifying for Special Hardship Case benefits is becoming stricter and it is increasingly difficult for those in special need to get appropriate supplements. [Source: UNRWA Public Information Office, UNRWA HQ (Gaza), February 1998; all figures as of 31 December 1997.]
In violation of Article IV
of the Declaration of Principles, DOP, Israel does not permit free passage
between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The military closure between
Gaza and the Israeli state territory, introduced in the late 1980s, has
remained in force. The issuance of passage permits to Palestinians is the
exception not the norm and is considered an exceptional privilege not a
right by the Israeli authorities. The absolute control on Palestinian's
freedom of movement, upheld throughout Oslo, has led to an almost complete
separation of the two Palestinian societies. Israel has further isolated
the Gaza Strip by constructing a "security fence", complete with powerful
electrical currents, barb wire, and watch towers. This isolation and virtual
economic embargo on Gaza has caused a dramatic drop in local service and
production price levels, as well as a massive drop in family income.
In the past, the construction of multi-floor buildings in the camps was forbidden by the Israeli occupation in order that the soldiers could easily overlook the camps. Today, no legal prohibition against building additional floors exists, but most people lack the funds for construction. The only ones able to build new multi-floor homes are either those who earn money outside Gaza, in Israel or in the Gulf States, or those who obtained a well paid position in the PA. Interestingly, modern apartment buildings have been erected outside the camps since the arrival of the PA to alleviate the crowded conditions but many remain half empty as the rent costs far exceed the average Gazan income.
Economic imperatives play a large role in dictating housing and family planning. Unemployment remains alarmingly high all over the Gaza Strip, with refugees in the camps enduring additional hardships because of the lack of workable agricultural land and the lack of real estate to serve as collateral for loans. It is not uncommon that an extended family depends on the income of only one or two of its members. There are many nuclear families with five or six children just getting by with 400-500 NIS (US$110-144) per month.
With the permanent general
closure of the Gaza Strip continuing unchanged, the economic situation
in the Gaza Strip has deteriorated dramatically during the past five years.
Like many in Gaza, Abu Yusuf and his family have little choice but to endure
the hardships and continue to dream of better days
Many camp residents recount a feeling of euphoria when they first heard about the agreement signed between Israel and the PLO, in September 1993. Finally, an end to the conflict and a return to some kind of normal life was in sight. Unfortunately, this euphoria was short lived and the reality of the agreement was soon realized. The following are personal accounts of Gazan residents experiences as they came to terms with Oslo.
A 63 year old refugee from Maghazi Camp hoped that he would finally, after years of being denied an entry permit to Jerusalem, return to pray in the al-Aqsa mosque. To pray in this mosque, one of the most important Islamic sites in the world, is a duty of every muslim. But Oslo turned up only empty promises and now he is not even able to visit his daughter in Jericho.
For Jihad Okasha, from Jabalya Camp, a dream came true when the DOP was signed on the White Lawn. A teenager when the Accord was signed in Washington, he thought that Palestinian soldiers would come to defend the rights of the people and the new Palestinian borders. Jihad was sure that the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 would be returned, and he also was looking forward to praying in al-Aqsa. In the spring of 1994, after having spent all of his life in Jabalya and Gaza City, he visited the southern Gaza Strip for the first time. He went to see the vacated Israeli prisons and remembered how people cried when they saw the cells where their relatives had been held for interrogation and torture. An active member of Fatah since the age of 10, Jihad is now 20 years old and deeply disappointed with the results of the agreement. Oslo has not allowed him to return to his original land or proposed any kind of reintegration plan. Even his hope to study at the West Bank University of Birzeit was crushed when the Israeli officials refused to issue him a permit. Like many of his friends, Jihad currently studies at Gaza's al-Azhar University and, as of yet, is still waiting to leave the Gaza Strip.
For many of the refugees, yesterday's wars were better than today's peace. "They promised us that the economy would improve, but it became worse," comments a refugee from Khan Younis Camp. "The economic situation was better even in the hard years of the Intifada, when more Gazans were able to work outside the Strip and trade was easier", states a merchant at Jabalya's market. The desperate economic situation, the absence of progress in the negotiations, together with the feeling of living in a prison have added to the disappointment in the "peace process" among Gaza Strip refugees. "Our expectations about the peace were destroyed. We want to live in peace and security, but we feel like in a war. Israel just wants the Palestinians to shoot first," Jihad Okasha comments.
Few refugees are aware of the exact implications of the Oslo Accords on the refugee question. However, they are aware of the current unequal balance of power: "Neither Arafat nor any other Palestinian leader can bring me back now because they are too weak, but maybe in the future my children or grandchildren will be able to return. Anyway, no matter what they sign, the PA has no right to give up my land," explains a teacher from Beach Camp. Moreover, refugees clearly perceive that their issue is not a priority of PA politics at this stage. "Arafat has a minimalist approach. He thinks only about the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, he does not even think about Jerusalem. The PA does not fight for the rights of the refugees," summarizes a refugee from Swedish Camp. Four years of experience with the PA have also caused people to doubt its commitment to the principles of democracy and equality, and its ability to revive the economy. Criticisms of corruption, nepotism, and bribery are widespread.
Among the few positive developments
mentioned by refugees is the improved security situation in the Strip.
This holds true especially for Jabalya Camp which suffered from heavy Israeli
military presence during the Intifada. Now, there are no more Israeli soldiers
and no more curfews. People enjoy the newly won freedom to stay out at
night and have all night wedding parties in the streets of Jabalya. Some
streets are paved, small parks have been set up, a new market place came
to replace the overcrowded old market, and people are allowed to additional
levels to their houses. Youth clubs and camp institutions are no longer
forced to work underground. However, most people hardly recognize these
improvements, as they cannot outweigh the serious decline in their personal
standard of living. What is a newly paved street, a new park, or some new
class rooms compared to rising unemployment, the spread of poverty, and
the inability to leave the Gaza Strip? For the refugees in Gaza,
there is no substitute for freedom.
Abu Yusuf is now 60 years old and has four sons and four daughters. He continues to live at the Beach Camp with his four sons, all of whom are unable to find work, with an income of NIS 400 per month which he gets by renting out an apartment. From this meager income, good food is hard to come by and he has difficulty improving their shelter or buying clean drinking water. Since the water pollution is a major problem in Gaza and Abu Yusuf cannot afford clean water, he has developed severe kidney problems.
Widowed in 1989, Umm Mustafa was left with ten children, seven daughters, and three sons. Only one of the sons is able to find work but only contributes some NIS 200 monthly to the family household. The only other source of income is a NIS 180 monthly allowance which Umm Mustafa receives from the PA Department for Social Affairs and UNRWA food rations. Electricity and water bills, on the other hand, amount to NIS 200, and when the family's roof needed repair and Umm Mustafa's application to UNRWA's Shelter Rehabilitation Program was rejected, only the goodwill of her neighbors saved her house.
Mahmoud A. originates from
al-Jiya near Asqalan but now lives in Khan Younis Camp. He is 34 years
old and holds a bachelor degree in accounting. Since Mahmoud could not
find employment in the Gaza Strip, he obtained an Israeli work permit and
has worked in Israel from February until June 1998. However, his Israeli
employer refused to pay his salary, which has accumulated to over
NIS 10,000. "He knows that I am from the Gaza Strip and that there is nobody
to defend my rights, not the Palestinian union, and not the Israeli Histadrut,"
Mahmoud says. Desperately short of money, Mahmoud, his wife and their two
children can only afford one light meal a day. He explains that he is not
the only one whose salary is being withheld, some 30 of his colleagues
face the same problem.
Swedish Camp/Gaza Strip
Swedish Camp, called "Block R" by UNRWA, is a part of Rafah refugee camp, located in the southern Gaza Strip, next to the Egyptian border. The border line, drawn in 1982 as a result of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, ceded a section of Rafah Camp, known as the Canada Camp, to the Egyptian side. Residents living in Canada Camp are now unable to unite with their relatives on the Israeli side of the border.
The 1994 maps, drawn on the basis of the Oslo Accords, brought yet more divisions as Swedish Camp found itself in Israeli controlled area C, part of the Israeli Gush Katif settlement bloc. Here, Israeli pressure to cleanse the area of Palestinians is strong. UNRWA is not permitted to provide any services to the camp with the exception of cleaning services. The nearest UNRWA institutions (schools, medical center) are about three kilometers away, and children must, on a daily basis, cross an Israeli checkpoint to arrive at their school in Rafah.
Checkpoints remain a visible sign of occupation at Swedish Camp and are a constant harassment to the people. For instance, while construction materials are difficult to get into the Camp, vegetables and fruits are often prevented from leaving. "Sometimes the Israelis prevent us from selling our products at the Rafah market, sometimes not. To sell on the Egyptian side is not possible at all", explains one resident.
Moreover, Swedish Camp is not connected to the electricity grid nor to a water system, due to the Israeli refusal. A generator now provides electricity but only during some hours at evening, and the only running water in the Camp comes from a well close to the sea dug by the Camp residents. Until recently the Israeli government also denied any construction activity and made renovation a difficult administrative procedure until the residents went up to the Israeli High Court and succeeded finally. Despite these hardships, the residents of Swedish Camp have refused to be resettled in nearby Tel al-Sultan - part of Palestinian controlled Rafah - in the framework of an Israeli resettlement scheme for the well founded fear of loosing their refugee status.
The West Bank
In the West Bank, refugees make up "only" some 30% of the population. Out of the 550,000 refugees approximately 145 000 live in 19 refugee camps scattered all over the West Bank. Although the economic situation has also deteriorated in the West Bank, it is still better than in Gaza. West Bank camps are also overcrowded, but many of the original UNRWA concrete shelters have been replaced by multi-floor private homes.
Although the level of poverty in refugee camps is difficult to quantify, UNRWA's data on Special Hardship Cases for the West Bank and Gaza reveals the disparity in the levels of economic hardship in the two regions. In 1997, UNRWA listed 5.4% of the refugees in the West Bank under this status. The fact that poverty among refugees is less striking in the West Bank than in the Gaza Strip is commonly explained by the comparatively stronger and more developed West Bank economy which is able to absorb a larger percentage of refugee workers, and by the fact that, even workers who cannot obtain a permit, have the option of working in Israel "illegally" due to the fact that the hermetic closure between the West Bank and Israeli state territory is extremely difficult to enforce.
Primarily, problems resulting from the political conflict define the lives of the refugees in the West Bank. While direct contact with the Israeli occupation forces has decreased drastically in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian self-ruled clusters are disconnected and surrounded by areas under Israeli control and encounters with the Israeli occupation system are frequent. As a result of the Oslo map, refugee camps are found in areas A, B, and C, as well as in occupied East Jerusalem, meaning while some refugee camps are located in areas fully controlled by the PA, other camps are still directly exposed to Israeli military rule.
Framed by the Bethlehem-Hebron road and shadowed by the illegal Israeli Gush Etzion settlement bloc, Al-Arroub had the misfortune of being placed in Area C during the Oslo accords and thus Israel still controls all its civil and security affairs. The establishment of the Oslo map in this region has not ended direct military occupation for the approximately 6,600 camp (UNRWA registered) residents. Israeli soldiers guard the adjacent road, patrol the camp, harass people at its entrance, and continue to chase after stone-throwing children.
As in Gaza, the water shortage in Arroub Camp has deteriorated in recent years. The summer of 1998 was especially harsh. The discriminatory Israeli system of water distribution continues to amply supply the Israeli settlements with water while insufficient amounts are allocated to the growing Palestinian population. Thus, "lucky" residents of Arroub Camp, specifically those living in the lower regions of the slope, receive water every one or two months, while the taps of the residents higher up on the hill can remain dry for up to four months at a time due to the low water pressure. The occasional UNRWA water supply does not adequately compensate and residents are often forced to purchase water from private suppliers. A black market has even begun to develop around this unfortunate circumstances.
Located north of Jerusalem on the main Jerusalem-Ramallah road, Kalandia Camp is in an area classified as Area B on the Oslo map. Israel is solely responsible for "security affairs" in Area B and has used this power to block the camp's main entrance with a six meter high wall of concrete blocks to prevent children and youth from throwing stones at Israeli settler cars passing on the main road. The approximately 6,800 camp residents (UNRWA statistics) have been living behind the blocked entrance for some seven months now. All people, garbage trucks, UNRWA and commercial traffic are forced to move through the small side entrances of the camp.
Shu’fat is the only Palestinian refugee camp located inside the municipal borders of Israeli occupied East Jerusalem. The camp suffers from tremendous overcrowding and houses are now being constructed literally on top of each other. Some buildings are now six or seven floors high and even some of the narrow alley spaces between buildings are being roofed to create more living space. The camp's main street is now too narrow to allow for two cars to pass. A bad smell lingers over the camp as the sanitary system collapses under the pressure of the population. Residents unable to obtain building space in the camp began building outside, on the other side of the street encircling the camp. However, no construction permits are issued by the Israeli authorities for this area, which is reserved for the expansion of the nearby Pisgat Ze'ev settlement, and are in danger of being demolished. In 1997, five such homes were destroyed by Israel.
The reason for the enormous overcrowding of Shu'fat Camp is Israel's policy of ID card confiscation in East Jerusalem. In the past, many refugees who wished to improve their standard of living left the camp for the West Bank, where the cost of living is cheaper. However, since Israel began to increase ID card confiscations in 1996 with the requirement that residents provide documents of "permanent domicile" in the city, the stream has been reversed. Thousands of refugees and non-refugees have returned to the camp so as to protect their residency rights in the city. Thus, according to residents' estimates, Shu'fat Camp has become the home of some 20-25,000 people, while UNRWA statistics list only 7,700.
West Bank refugees appear more outspoken about their personal conclusions drawn from their destroyed expectations. "If there is no hope for return, I would accept compensation to improve my living conditions" is a position already voiced by some younger, higher educated refugees in the West Bank. Still the vast majority of West Bank refugees maintain and believe in their right of return.
Despite all the differences between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip both refugee populations are very disappointed by the "peace process". Even refugees living in camps located in Area A (PA areas) have little good to say about the Oslo Accords. In Balata Camp, located in Area A, in the Nablus district, a memorial honors the 43 local martyrs killed by Israeli soldiers during the Intifada and 270 of the 380 patients under treatment in the camp's Disabled Center were injured during the uprising. Both remind the people of the violence and brutality of life under Israeli military occupation and the sacrifices they made to gain their freedom.
Nevertheless only a few of Balata's 16,500 residents (UNRWA statistics), mention personal freedom, the absence of curfews, or the absence of Israeli soldiers when they speak about life in the post-Oslo era. On the contrary, personal freedom is perceived as even more restricted due to the division of the West Bank into Areas A, B, C, and the Israeli closure policy. The Israeli army is no longer in town or in the camp, but it is surrounding the Palestinian communities, and Palestinians feel as if they were under siege. West Bank refugees share the frustration of Gaza refugees in the UNRWA service cuts, the growing unemployment, and the lack of progress on the refugee question in the political negotiations