Iyad Qadi, a Ramallah resident who fought against Israel during the intifada riots of the late ’80s through early 90s, returned to the Palestinian refugee camps that raged so violently in those years – this time in a different capacity, as assistant public information officer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

At Ramallah’s Jelazoun camp, lifetime inhabitant Ali Shereka, 26, complains about the camp’s dire conditions – the overcrowding, the filthy air and littered streets. Convicted and jailed between 1989-91 for throwing Molotov cocktail bombs at Israeli soldiers, Shereka, now an Arabic language instructor, warns of a renewed intifada.

“By being in the camps, we show people outside the country that we are not living free and not living in peace,” says Shereka, sitting outside his brother’s butcher shop, a hole-in-the-wall with flies swarming the hanging carcasses. “We are living in misery.”

Qadi affirms this line of thinking. “Palestinians strengthen their claim to a right of return,” he says, “by staying in the camps.”

Qadi offered to show me the camps. Shortly after leaving UNRWA’s Jerusalem field office, we reach the Shuwafat camp in eastern Jerusalem, sandwiched between Jewish neighborhoods’ Newe Ya’aqov and French Hill. “You feel very near the situation, then you understand very well what’s going on,” he tells me of his exposure to the volatile refugee issue, now on the agenda of the Oslo peace process.

We pass what he terms a “flying checkpoint” where three armed Israeli soldiers are inspecting passing vehicles. “I believe this checkpoint has to do with the land agents issue,” he said, alluding to the recent attempted kidnappings of Palestinian land dealers from this camp. (Palestinian Authority Justice Minister Freih Abu Medein declared that the punishment for selling land to Jews is death).

“They deserve to be killed,” Qadi claimed, “but it should be through a decision of the courts, not by youths in the streets.”

In Shuwafat, Jerusalem’s little known Arab refugee camp, occupants hold city identity cards that provide them access to jobs in Israel. With lower unemployment – less than half of the inhabitants work – this camp is apparently better off than others. UNRWA supplies housing, schooling, health care and other services to the approximately 8,000 residents.

Started in 1950 as a “temporary relief program,” UNRWA now runs 18 refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Employing a staff of 22,000, 99 percent of whom are Palestinian, the agency spends more than $700 million annually – the United States, the largest contributor, kicks in $64 million a year – on 3,308,133 registered Palestinian Arab refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. A third of the refugees live in the camps.

[Over the years, UN officials say, thousands of registered refugees have passed away and still receive stipends.]

Shuwafat’s population growth has strained the camp’s existing boundaries – the area is jammed with dilapidating concrete buildings, often housing more than a dozen people per unit. Paradoxically, that’s precisely the way residents want it.

“The refugees’ main concern,” Qadi declared, “is to show the whole world that they are still living in the camps, that their situation is very terrible.” In one schoolhouse, a classroom, with potholes in the floor, is so filled with desks that children must climb over them to get to the blackboard.

Essentially, the camp inhabitants want to remain in limbo until a final settlement on refugees is reached with Israel. “Their main goal is to implement United Nations resolution 194,” said Qadi, claiming the internationally-backed resolution entitles “three million” refugees, including those from 1948, 1967 and descendants, to repatriation rights to pre-1948 Palestine. Still in the books, 194 makes no mention of compensation, only the right of return.

“If three million refugees were to return, Israel would not be Israel anymore,” Qadi said, grinning. “For Israel, this is bullshit, but the refugees believe this is their right.”

At a workshop on refugees last April in Jericho, hosted by PA Municipality Minister Saeb Erakat, camp officials rejected a government recommendation to expand the camps, fearing that they would merge with adjacent cities and become part of the current Palestinian entity. The camp refugees also refused a proposal to vote in the next PA municipal elections.

“By voting, they were afraid of being considered part of the country,” said Qadi, who attended the meeting. “They see this as the first step in supporting Israel’s claim – that there is no refugee issue.”

Entering the 7,000-member Jelazoun camp, we pass a one-room UNRWA home that has seemingly been spackled to the side of an older structure, which is deteriorating like most at the camp. Down the street is an exception – a privately funded, two-story home with a $2,000 satellite dish on the rooftop.

Nearby, PLO and Hamas graffiti adorns the front wall of the local UNRWA office. “Fatah, Hamas, the Popular Front – all are very strong here,” Qadi said. This camp was extremely active during the intifada, undergoing curfews for as long as 40 days. “In various camps, Fatah and Hamas have their own clubs, their own social activities in which they focus on the poorest in the camps,” he said. “It’s a way to gain support for their political parties.” The agency is aware of this activity, he added, but “UNRWA can’t act as a police. It’s not in the UN mandate to interfere.”

Around the corner, locals are vegetating outside the butcher shop, sweaty and swatting bugs. Ali Shereka tells me he lives with 14 people, including wife, mother, two brothers and their wives, and seven children. Chatting amiably with a half dozen friends, Shereka senses a calm before the storm. “If Israel continues its present policy,” he predicted, “there is going to be another intifada very soon.”

Muhammad Shereka, Ali’s brother and the butcher, says he feels victimized by all in authority – Israel, the PA and UNRWA, all of whom he claims do nothing for the camps. “The big fish eat the small fish,” he says. “The little man, he can’t get nothing.”

One resident tells me that he’d leave the camp if he had the money – pessimistic that he will ever return to Palestine. “Israel has to give us the West Bank and Gaza, but we can do nothing about the ’48 border because the politicians don’t want to talk about it,” he lamented. “(PA Chairman Yassir) Arafat gave it up.”

The crowds ears perked when one man asked me, matter-of-factly; “Are you with the Mossad?” (as if I’d tell him if I was) He said Israeli secret agents have infiltrated this camp to identify “security threats.” Qadi claims Israeli soldiers routinely raise havoc in the camps, at times rolling in with tanks and throwing tear gas cartridges through windows. “The peace process has not changed the way Israeli soldiers think towards the Palestinians,” he said. “They are still ready to kill anyone easily, to harass anyone easily, for silly reasons. It’s a daily problem.” Last year, UNRWA sent a protest letter to Israel’s civil administration after soldiers “harassed” residents at the Fawa’ar camp outside Hebron, where two suspected suicide bombers lived. On lesser occasions, Qadi said, the Palestine Liberation Army police force has arrested Hamas militants in the camps.

Headed back towards Jerusalem, we make a final sweep past the Ama-ari camp, which blends into the West Bank city of El-Birah. There is no fence and members run a few private businesses that are like any in El-Birah. With overcrowding in this camp too, Qadi fears that inhabitants might seek apartments elsewhere in the city. He looks me sternly in the eyes and says: “It is a very serious and dangerous problem if people start to think about moving out of the camps.”

Qadi, who makes frequent tours for the press, conveys a clear message. People stay in the squalor of refugee camps to advertise the fact that they remain the proverbial fly in the ointment of the peace process. Even if Arafat were to get control of the entire West Bank and Gaza, Qadi makes it clear that the refugees’ demands would press onward.