At a time when the issue of Palestinian refugees surfaces on the agenda of the peace process, a visit to the one Palestinian refugee camp in Jerusalem can provide you with some understanding of the comlexity of the refugee issue at hand.
A three minute ride from Mount Scopus, traveling north, well within the city limits of Jerusalem, you will find the only UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) Arab refugee camp in Jerusalem, in Shuafat. This is part of Jerusalem, and closures of the west bank do not affect Shuafat.
The Shuafat refugee camp gets into the news now and then when you hear about riots in the camp or stones hurled at passing vehicles. It remains a mystery to most people as to why there must be so much anger and tension in the camp.
I went to Shuafat to find out.
It would seem that some 5,500 Palestinian Arab refugees live in the Shuafat camp. 3,000 are children. They are descended from Arabs who in 1948 left what is now the Ashkelon region, and were initially settled in the hovels of the burnt out Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, from where they were abruptly relocated by King Hussein to Shuafat in 1966. Jordan had Arab renovation in mind for the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem at the time. Little did the Jordanian king realize that his “Project Removal” to Shuafat would allow the IDF to enter an abandoned Jewish Quarter in 1967.
Ahmed, the volunteer head of the “committee for the disabled” in Shuafat, seems to be a one man greeting committee for Shuafat.
Ahmed introduces himself as the man who was elected by the residents of Shuafat to run programs for disabled Shuafat residents. The term disabled defines anyone from handicapped people to children with learning disabilities. Unlike other Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem where some professional services exist in this regard, they do not exist except on a voluntary basis in Shuafat.
Without receiving a salary for his work with the disabled, Ahmed, who works as a school teacher at Shuafat’s elementary school, says that he devotes all of his spare time to work at the center for the disabled in the Shuafat camp. While Ahmed describes programs and centers in other areas of East Jerusalem that provide professional paid staff for the disabled, he explains that, “Well, UNRWA simply does not provide such services… People in the camp hate the UN and UNRWA. They strike them at work and when they come to visit the camp”.
Palestinians who were interviewed by IPCRI (Israeli/Palestinian Center For Research and Information) described UNRWA’s assistance as “meaningless”, while describing tensions between camp residents and UNRWA.
“We believe that UNRWA wants to withdraw from this camp and give it to the Palestinian Authority”, said Omar, Ahmed’s colleague on the ad hoc “PR committee for Shuafat”.
The PR committee, Omar says, figures that this is why UNRWA is not supplying services to the best of its ability.
Not that Omar is thrilled about the PA running things, either, since Omar claims that the PA does not have funds allocated to help UNRWA camps. “As far as the PA is concerned, Shuafat people have homes to go back to, in the villages that they left back in 1948”, says Omar.
Omar is correct. One of the first decisions of the Palestine Authority back in 1994 was to deny aid to the UNRWA refugee camps, because this would violate the right of return of Palestinian Arab refugees, as proscribed by UN resolution #194.
So much for the expectations of the Oslo process that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs living in refugee camps would be taken care of by an autonomous Palestinian entity.
Omar comments that when he walks around the camp every day, that he sees ” a look of abandonment upon the faces of the men sitting around me. UNRWA wants to desert them and they do not want to be under ownership of the Palestinian Authority. Their lives lay in the hands of ruthless politicians. As a result of this, the refugees maintain an unstable relationship between the UNRWA representatives and the residents in the camp”.
When Shuafat refugee camp opened in 1966, camp residents say, UNRWA was eagerly providing education, medical care, food, and social services.
That was then. Now, the reality is much harsher. The refugees of Shuafat camp wake up to the smell of urine breezing through their tiny apartments and winter flood steams that rush through their narrow alleyways. streets. Every year, there is talk of a new plan to pave streets and create sidewalks. Aid for this purpose is rejected from the Jerusalem municipality. The City of Jerusalem maintains a standard offer to help with sewage and paving the streets. Yet UNRWA will not allow this, since Israel is not recognized as a “host country”.
Children and the elderly meanwhile try to deal with the decline in services which were previously provided by UNRWA.
“Our children do not even have a playground,” Omar said, as he walked past a group of Shuafat children kicking around a plastic bottle.
Back in 1966, Shuafat camp was large enough to house all of its then 1,000 inhabitants. Not anymore.
In Shuafat, as in other UNRWA camps, there is not enough room in the area to expand the housing. Therefore, UNRWA builds upward. Apartments are stacked like blocks, one on top of each other. Families of ten are often packed in three bedroom apartments in the Shuafat camp.
Palestinian refugees have one of the largest population growth rates in the world, almost 5 per cent a year. In total, The 650,000 Arab refugees from 1948 have swelled to more than three million, confined by UNRWA since 1949 in fifty nine refugee camps. One million Arab refugees live in the UNRWA camps in the west bank and in Gaza.
The figures may be somewhat inflated, said one UNRWA health official, who asked not to be identified, “because some identity cards of deceased UNRWA residents get used again”.
“UNRWA promised us 12 sanitation workers and the exact number that work here is five,” barked an angry public relations committee member named Hadr. The lack of sanitation employment within the camp is evident by the piles of garbage and sewage that clog the streets of Shuafat. The small number of UNRWA sanitation employees are unable to stop the garbage from piling up. This is probably why Shuafat looks more like a trash dump than anything else.
Meanwhile, the refugees of Shuafat also complain about the UNRWA health care services. Some of the camp’s residents leave to find heath care outside of the camp because they feel that it better serves their needs
“Clinics within the camps are equal if not better than hospitals in the surrounding area,” responds Ibrahim Jibril, Public Information Assistant for UNRWA at UNRWA headquarters in Jerusalem.
Yet many UNRWA refugee camp residents receive health care insurance through their jobs outside of the camp, through Israel National Insurance Institute employment benefits. Yet many residents have to pay the full price to get reasonable medical care.
“When I go the UNRWA doctor for a stomachache he gives me parasetamol. When I go to the doctor because I have a headache he gives me parasetamol. When I ask him why he always gives me that same medicine, he says because UNRWA does not have money for medicine,” Omar said in a distressed voice.
Omar took out a blue card case and proudly presented it proudly to me.
That is because camp residents with blue cards, which are equivalent to Palestinian work permits, are able to seek medical care outside of the camp. However, there are hundreds of Shuafat residents who do not carry a blue card and therefore have to suffer miserably when they need real medical assistance.
“There are only two doctors who work in our Shuafat clinic: a general doctor and a dentist. The dentist never comes to work. When we ask to see him they (UNRWA) tells us to go to a private doctor or to go to Jerusalem,” Hadr said. Hadr, who recently needed a root canal, went to see if he could make an appointment with the dentist at the UNRWA clinic. The dentist was not in his office, he said. Hadr ran out of patience. Because of his extreme pain, he went to an Israeli dentist and paid a fee that he could not afford.
Anger in the UNRWA schools of Shuafat is demonstrated quite differently. One of the UNRWA perks is free education to twelfth grade. When you walk into a Shuafat school, it looks like any other modern school that you might see in Jerusalem. Indeed, the plaques on the adjacent boys and girls schools in Shuafat indicate that these schools were built from recent contributions of Saudi Arabia, which also constructed an adjoining mosque. The schools are much cleaner than the rest of the camp. The children seem well fed and well dressed in their neat school uniforms.
Yet the ascetic quality of the school contrasts with the curriculum. In an eighth grade English class, you hear the teacher proudly proclaim the words “occupation”, “land” and “return”, and asks the children to loudly repeat them. And then they sing their daily English song, a rendition of “We Shall Overcome… in Palestine”. When asked what the kids mean by the song, everyone of them spoke of returning to their homes in the area that is now Ashkelon. None spoke about living in the Palestinian entity in the west bank or Gaza. And one child introduced his grandfather, Mohamad, who offered to provide a personal escort to the village where they “will soon be returning to”, even though it no longer exists.
An UNRWA school official explains matter of factly that the Shuafat school curriculum is in keeping with the UNRWA mandate and the 1949 UN resolution #194 that is reaffirmed every two years which supports “the inalienable right of return” of all Palestinian refugee to be repatriated to the homes that they left in 1948.
Between the garbage, the reduced health facilities, the discouragement with UNRWA and the expectation of the right of return, it might be fair to say that Shuafat, the one refugee camp in Jerusalem is seething in expectation.
The Shuafat camp residents are well aware of the fact that the issue of “refugees” is now on the agenda of the Oslo process, as the final step in a peace process that has so far excluded them.
You can well expect the Shuafat camp residents, well educated and quite literate, to conduct further riots if their physical situation does not improve or if they do not have assurances that they will indeed return to Ashkelon very soon.
Meanwhile, the camp resident expectation that the Palestine Authority may soon take over official control of the Shuafat camp will represent a new headache to the city of Jerusalem and Israeli security services, which already copes with a dozen institutions of the Palestine Authority in its midst.