Separated and forgotten: the Shu’fat refugee camp

By EA Dave,  Jerusalem

Think about your own town or city. Imagine that your home had no address or postal service. What would it be like if electricity and water was only available for a few hours each day? Imagine that the streets outside were too narrow to allow access by emergency services – or that there are no such services at all. What if the streets, with no pavements, were sometimes overflowing with sewage after heavy rain?

Again, how would you cope if there was no refuse collection? Imagine that there was no regular police force or local government. Finally, how would you feel if the government built a wall around your town or city, so that you needed a permit to go to any other neighbourhood?

If you can imagine all these things, you will have some idea of what it is like to live in the Shu’fat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. Located fewer than four miles from the Old City, which is a destination for hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, is an area that some might even describe as a slum.

The main street into the campThe main street into the camp [Photo: EAPPI/Dave]

I talked with a local community development worker, Ahmad Anati, who grew up there and still lives in the area. He explained that in 1965 the United Nations established the camp for approximately 500 Palestinian refugee families who were moved out of an area in what became the Jewish quarter of the Old City. They, including his own family, were promised a house and a piece of land to farm, but were only given one room, four by four metres, with no toilet, kitchen or water supply. Today, there are approximately 12,500 registered refugees, but an estimated 24,000 residents in the camp. In the whole area, smaller than one square kilometre, the population is unknown, but could be as many as 80,000.

In 2003 Israel built the separation barrier in East Jerusalem; its route meant that although the refugee camp area is part of the Jerusalem municipality, it is located on the West Bank side of the barrier. Even though this means services should be provided by the City Hall, as for any other Jerusalem neighbourhood, the municipality has effectively abandoned the area, while the Palestinian Authority (PA) has no jurisdiction. According to Ahmad, “Whenever the PA tries to do anything to improve the area, the Israeli authorities stop it, saying ‘You can’t come in, this is a Jerusalem area’. And legally they can say this” (see

The separation barrierThe separation barrier [Photo: EAPPI/Dave]

The separation barrier causes many problems in the area. For example, if a resident needs emergency health treatment, an ambulance coming from an Israeli hospital will be stopped at the checkpoint. Ahmad explains, “The Israeli soldier will stop the ambulance at the checkpoint, saying the family needs to get permission so that soldiers can escort the ambulance inside the Camp – which can take hours”.  This contravenes Article 13 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights, which requires Israel to ensure the rights of Palestinians to move freely.

Water is a problem in the area, especially in the summer, but Ahmad thinks this is exacerbated by foul play. He says “because the main pipes that provide the water are near the checkpoint, when the soldiers want to do something for fun, they cut off the water – especially in July and August, when it is 30–35 degrees here, and you need a lot of water for cooking for eating, for showering, etc. Imagine that you don’t have water for 4–5 days, sometimes a week. Four years ago they cut it for the entire month of July”.

Young people leaving the camp to go to schoolYoung people leaving the camp to go to school [Photo: EAPPI/Dave]

UN involvement and funding has continued ever since the camp was opened, but now it is not enough to solve the many problems. It cannot, for example, provide proper refuse collection, only containers in the street (the contents of which are often set on fire if not emptied regularly). It provides three schools for 1,500 pupils, but there are now 6,000 school-age children in the area. This means that thousands have to leave the area, crossing the checkpoint every day, to go to schools elsewhere in the city.

Obviously it is not the UN’s responsibility to provide policing. Ahmad explains that “There is a lot of crime in the camp, but what keeps order is the older, wise people, people from the original families. They all know each other and have a network, so whenever there is an issue, they can easily solve it. However, the problem nowadays is the outsiders, also Palestinians, who came through the West Bank or from Jerusalem to live in the camp. The problem if they commit a crime is not knowing this person, his family, his history”.

Ahmad believes that Israel will never give up responsibility for the Shu’fat camp because there are so many people living there that “they can use in building, construction, restaurants, hotels – work that the Israelis refuse to do, seeing it as low-level work; they would lose 20,000 to 25,000 people who can work in these jobs”. He also feels that young people are encouraged to take such jobs as a way of discouraging them from “having a better life, getting a better education, become an active member of society. You can control them by ensuring that they leave their houses at 5.00am in the morning and come back at 4.00pm with no energy at all to do anything.”

Shu'fat refugee camp area

Shu’fat refugee camp area [Photo: EAPPI/Dave]

Fortunately, people like Ahmad Anati haven’t given up on Shu’fat: he is motivated to take responsibility, to try to improve the life conditions in the area, to take part in social or political events, to share his experience outside the camp with the young people, “To try to show them that you need also to look outside of the box, be aware of what’s going on, not believe whatever is being said, especially in the media”. In practical ways, he has worked to improve the hygiene and environmental system in the camp. “I had the idea to do recycling in the camp: plastic, cartons, nylon; to collect these and sell them to a factory in Jerusalem and get money to do some work with the infrastructure: plant trees, paint the walls, and improve the electricity system”. Palestinians often refer to such actions with the phrase ‘to exist is to resist’. Their everyday actions, against the odds, give them hope to resist the occupation nonviolently.