The forgotten story of Palestine’s refugee camps

By EA Sandra, East Jerusalem

Our view of refugee camps is perhaps shaped by the many crises we see on the news – rows of tents, or shacks, hastily erected to provide some assistance. The situation in Palestine, and in the camps for Palestinian refugees, is different.

A special UN body was created to assist the Palestinian refugees from 1948: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The displacement was hoped to be short term but this has not been the case, and the original camps, many tented, are now cramped and deprived townships.

Palestinian refugees are defined by UNRWA as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict”. In addition, in the aftermath of the hostilities of June 1967 and the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, UNRWA found itself assisting a new wave of displaced persons.

The descendants of Palestine’s males refugees, including adopted children, are also eligible for registration. When UNRWA began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestinian refugees. Today, some five million Palestinian refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.

According to UNRWA, nearly one-third of the registered Palestinian refugees, more than 1.5m individuals, live in 58 recognised Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

The Shu’fat Refugee Camp is the only West Bank camp which lies within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. It is a later camp having been established in 1965, its residents coming from 55 Palestinian villages which are now in Israel. The camp covers only 0.2 square kilometres. UNRWA estimates the population to be around 18,000 but it may be many more – no one knows.

You can read a local view of Shu’fat and its issues in this article.

The photo below shows part of the camp.

Shu’fat.Credit: Photo EAPPI S.Horne

Shu’fat Refugee Camp [Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]

The EAPPI team here monitors the checkpoint at Shu’fat which was opened in 2012. Although Shu’fat is officially in East Jerusalem, it is actually on the West Bank side of the Separation Barrier.

The children have to pass through the checkpoint to reach their school buses. There have been many complaints about harassment by the troops.

Credit:Photo EAPPI.N.Oom

EAs on duty at Shu’fat. For the children waiting for their bus, discussion with EA Christopher on Real Madrid v Barcelona was more interesting than EAs Sandra and Joan counting school buses! [Photo: EAPPI/N.Oom]

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School children, having come through the military checkpoint, make their way to their school buses [Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]

Shu’fat is in the Jerusalem Municipality and registered residents pay taxes. All the homes or shelters are connected to public water and electricity, but not all are connected to the sewage system. The Municipality could not be said to attend much to Shu’fat and the situation on the streets is pretty bad.

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Rubbish piling up in Shu’fat [Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]

The water situation is also bad, with frequent cuts in supply. This Guardian article reports on last summer’s problems.

Because people have nowhere else to go, they can only build up. Thus Shu’fat is a warren of tall and small buildings, adapted and extended without building control or regulation, as people try to accommodate the families which have grown since 1965.

Unsurprisingly there is often trouble in Shu’fat. The population is one of displaced people, and nearly 60% of the population is under 24. Because the camp is in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian police cannot enter. The Israeli police do not, and Israeli soldiers seem to stay on the edge.

A few weeks ago Israeli soldiers used rubber bullets on children throwing stones, and one little boy was shot in the eye. This seems to have triggered more stone throwing by young boys and children. The school holidays have just started and there are few facilities for the young people.

Over the past week, EAs Ninna and Hans visited and took the photos below. A few days later when EAs Joan and Markus were visiting, they saw tear gas used by the troops on the children.

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Boys throwing stones [Photo: EAPPI/N.Oom]

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Soldiers responding to stone throwing with tear gas. The Separation Barrier is in the background [Photo: EAPPI/N.Oom]

EA Ninna reported from the day above:

“At one point my colleague Hans and I were in the way of the stones and had to retreat. The soldiers came closer to us putting us at risk of the stones as well. We moved away, and the soldiers walked after, and it seemed a kind of game had started. When Hans brought out his camera the soldiers decided to step away. As Hans said, ‘I didn’t come here to be a human shield’.”

Stone throwing is much in the news here as a new law is being debated to increase the possible sentence for stone throwing to ten years. The UK’s Telegraph newspaper has described the proposal as “Draconian”.

EA Ninna has been teaching dance classes weekly. In the streets she is greeted with cries of “Ninna, Ninna” by so many girls.

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EA Ninna teaching dance [Photo: EAPPI/H.Jonsson]

Ninna assists Ola the dance teacher in the camp’s Palestinian Child Centre. Twice a week, Ola goes directly from her work as a teacher to work with the girls. Ola is opposed to fighting the Israeli occupation by force. She sees dance as a means of resistance: “Some people use stones,” she says, “but we do not. We are fighting through dance”.

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Two Shu’fat dancers doing the traditional Dubka dance – a tradition of storytelling through dance [Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]

Of course, many make the best of the grim situation, and the older people at least still hope to return to their villages. The sign of the key can be seen in many places, signifying the Palestinians’ “right to return” which was officially recognised by the UN in Resolution 194.

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A painting of a key at the Women’s Centre in Shu’fat camp [Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]

The Palestinians we meet feel strongly about what they see as an injustice. Any Jewish person, anywhere in the world, has the right to come to Israel to be a citizen and to live, perhaps even in a settlement on land which international law deems to be part of occupied Palestine. Meanwhile Palestinians are denied the right to return to their homes from which they fled, were evicted, or felt they had no choice but to leave. In many cases they cannot even travel freely to see those homes.

The plight of these Palestinian refugees is often totally forgotten. When the camps make the news it is often for grim reasons. You may have seen reports from the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp in Syria recently.

I hope you will be able to think about these camps, and the real connection with the ‘Right of Return’. This issue is very high on the Palestinian agenda in any peace talks.

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A campaign poster in Ramallah with the symbol of the key [Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]