One of the most important topics on the agenda of any Middle East peace conference should be how to improve the socio-economic conditions of Palestinians in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Unfortunately, for the Palestinians, the PLO rarely brings up the subject. Getting these families out of the refugee camps just isn’t on their agenda.

Nor is the question as to why the Palestinians have been forced to live in these camps for more than 50 years is rarely raised in official Palestinian circles. Who have been keeping the Palestinians in the refugee camps from being resettled? Not Israel, as there are refugee camps outside of Israel that Israel has no control over.

The existence of these wretched refugee camps is a mark of shame on the Palestinian people. Why, then, do they even still exist?

How many live in the camps? Today less than one in five Palestinians are classified as a “refugee.” One half of the Gazan and one-quarter of the West Bank Palestinian refugees live in camps. The United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) says there are 450,000 refugees in Gaza and 370,000 in the West Bank. According to the United Nations’ definition, one does not have to be resident of a camp to be considered a refugee. Nor does leaving a camp disqualify a resident from receiving UNWRA benefits such as free education until the end of junior high school and health care, but income above a certain level does. Ironically, since the camps are in fact shantytowns, there is even an influx of population as rents are half of those in the surrounding villages or towns.

Many people have this idea of refugee camps of destitute, underfed people who wait around all day for the UN relief workers to come to hand out their rations. The fact is most get up every morning and go to work, usually in Israel- if they can. Some camp dwellers even enjoy a higher standard of living than some of the neighboring villages. For instance, 95% of the population in refugee camps in Gaza have electricity around the clock, slightly more than the surrounding villages and towns. The conditions in many refugee camps in Gaza exceed those of the most remote villages in the West Bank. For example, 98% of the towns, but only 48% of the West Bank villages have electricity 24- hours a day.

Numerous efforts to resettle these refugees have been tried, but all have failed. In l950, long before the territories came under Israeli control, UNRWA suggested moving 150,000 of them to Libya, but Egypt objected. In l951, UNRWA vetoed a plan to move 50,000 Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip to Northern Sinai when Egypt refused permission to use the Nile waters to irrigate proposed agricultural settlements. In l952, Syria rejected UNRWA’s initiative to resettle 85,000 refugees in camps in that country. In l959, UNRWA reported that of the $250 million fund for rehabilitation created in l950 to provide homes and jobs for the refugees outside of the camps, only $7 million was spent.

One approach which was partially successful was initiated by Israel in the early l970’s, called the ‘build your own home’ program. A half a dunam of land outside the camps was given to a Palestinian who then financed the purchase of the building materials, and usually with friends, erected a home. Israel provided the infrastructure: sewers, schools, etc. More than 11,000 camp dwellers were resettled into ten different neighborhoods before the PLO, using their time-honored tactics of intimidation, ended the program. The Israeli authorities would say that if the people were able to stand up to the PLO within eight years every camp resident could own a single dwelling home in a clean and uncongested neighborhood.

A major problem in resettlement is that so much of the land in Gaza is owned by a few large, wealthy Palestinian families. If this property were available, Gaza could lower its density of 1,250 persons per square kilometer. Yet even so there is ample living space even in the camps to build three or four story apartment blocks, (building up instead of out is for some reason not part of the Arab culture). Improving the quality of the existing homes inside the camps is a much cheaper undertaking than building entire new neighborhoods.

If the political climate was right, how much would it cost to solve the Palestinian refugee problem?

Most Palestinians economists, such as Dr. George Abed who wrote a book a few years back on the subject, agree that just to build enough homes, without any additional investment in infrastructure or job creation, would cost more than $2 billion just to resettle those refugees currently residing in the West Bank and Gaza.

So why isn’t UNRWA doing just that?

What was regarded as a temporary measure forty years ago has turned into a quasi-political entity which although its mandate prohibits it from doing so, oftentimes claims to speak on behalf of the Palestinians under their administrative wing to Israel and to the world at large. If UNRWA changed its charter to include investments in infrastructure and not strictly in health and education, then much of its $230 million operating budget could be used to actually solve the refugee- resettlement problem.

Political propaganda aside, the inability of the Palestinians to get themselves out of refugee camps and into permanent dwellings is their current number one problem. If the reason why the Arab nations refuse to solve this problem is because the existence of the camps serves to “make a political point,” and if the Palestinians knowingly accept this, then one wonders with this attitude, how the Palestinians would ever be expected to build the infrastructure of a working state? “

The continued existence of the refugee camps should serve as a reminder to all those who believe that the moment Israel withdraws from the entire area of the West Bank the Palestinians’ problems will be solved. In fact, despite their insistence on the ‘right of return’ of all Palestinians throughout the world, this would turn out to be the greatest socio-economic problem the new state would face. In addition to rehabilitating the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, if refugees from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan returned they would initially have to be fed and housed, and then found jobs. The rate of increase in the territories is very high, about 3.5% a year, with 50% of the population under 15 years of age. More than 15,000 new workers entering the labor force each year.

And, unlike Israel’s experience in absorption which began at least two decades before the establishment of the state, the Palestinians have none. Entire infrastructures will have to be built and expertise obtained, almost immediately. The Palestinians will also have a problem the Jews did not face: rehabilitating the mindset of refugees who have been living in refugee camps for more than four decades and their resultant hatred for Israel.

It is time the Palestinian leadership realized that they can’t go on ignoring this crucial issue. It is one thing to demand that Israel allow Palestinian refugees the right of return. It is another matter to be able to absorb and house these people if and when

Joel Bainerman writes on Middle East political and economic affairs from Israel.

Joel Bainerman
The Israel Technology Letter
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