**Co-Produced with Annie Bergeron-Oliver**
The living conditions in refugee camps across the West Bank have worsened over the last several decades, according to many Palestinian families.
“It’s not easy to put food on the table for the kids three times a day or to wash the kids because of the water shortage,” said Haim Abu Aleish, a mother of 18 children and grandchildren living in a three-bedroom house in Kalandia Refugee Camp.
A weak economy tied to bad infrastructure has made residing in the camps more difficult now than ever.
“All of that makes it hard living in this house with the family,” she added.
In the wake of the 65th commemoration of the Arab-Israeli war, which saw hundreds of thousands of Arabs expelled from their home countries, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) has revealed the Palestinian population has grown by more than 10 million. Of the 11.6 million Palestinians worldwide, more than 45 per cent are refugees.
According to UNRWA, the administrative definition of a Palestinian refugee are people whose normal place of residence was Palestine and lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.
The number of refugees, however, could be a lot lower than what the PCBS and UNRWA calculate. Unlike other refugees around the world, Palestinians pass registered refugee status to their children regardless of whether they have left the camps, or were born and settled in another country.
Abu Aleish is one of more than 15,000 people living in Kalandia Refugee camp located just a few kilometers from the Israel-West Bank border. Abu Aleish and her husband moved from Gaza to a one-room house in Kalandia 30 years ago.
Today, she said, the camp is more crowded than when they first arrived. In many cases building restrictions in the Occupied Territories, set by the Israeli government, has prevented camps from expanding.
To reduce the housing problem, buildings that were constructed to withstand just one floorhave three, four, or even five storey additions; most are built illegally because of the difficulty obtaining a construction permit. Abu Aleish said her family had to add two stories to accommodate her expanding family.
Despite the additions Abu Aleish said there is not enough space to comfortably house 20 people. Every room has multiple purposes. Dusty, thin single mattresses were stacked one-by-one in various bedrooms of her home, waiting to be moved into the living room and kitchen after nightfall.
“There is no place to ride a tricycle outside,” she said looking at her two and a half year old grandson who used the space to ride his plastic bike, which was missing a handle and pedal.
A major problem for most refugee camps is the severe overcrowding faced by the Abu Aleish family. There are no sidewalks, no green space, only small walkways formed by rows and rows of concrete buildings.
Infrastructure was not a priority when the refugee camps were originally created.
The camps were set up by UNRWA and the Red Cross to deal with an influx of people moving to the West Bank and Gaza following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. More than 800,000 Palestinians were expelled from Israel and Arab countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria at the height of the war and forced to find new homes and a new life in unfamiliar territory.
There is debate among Palestinians and Israelis on whether the Arabs were expelled from Israel or decided to leave on their own fruition.
More than 150,000 Arabs chose to leave Israel when the Jewish state was created in 1948, states the the Israeli Project an international non-profit group, despite being given the opportunity to stay in Israel.
Israel Resource News Agency director David Bedein said there is no guilt in Israel when it comes to the Palestinian refugee camps.
“The answer is that they were an adversary,” he said. “They invaded and there’s a price to losing.”
The Arabs, however, are adamant the war and the newly created state forced them to leave their heritage, land, families and money behind for a new life in the West Bank and Gaza.
The UNRWA camps were meant to be a temporary situation, but some families are still in the same homes more than six decades later. For many, the cost of living outside the camps is simply too high. McGill University Political Science Professor Rex Brynen doubts the camps will ever disappear, even if a peace agreement is signed between Israel and Palestine.
Brynen believes the Palestinian Authority (PA) does not have the resources to fit the deteriorating concrete homes. To the PA, he added, rebuilding homes and improving the living conditions, is the responsibility of the United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency (UNRWA), added Bynen.
“That’s been an attitude that’s been sustained by some of the refugees,” Brynen said. “Generally the Palestinian Authority has a slightly hands off attitude to the refugee camps themselves.”
UNRWA said in many cases, those refugees who want to relocate cannot afford to move beyond the camps’ walls. According to UNRWA, approximately 24 per cent of all registered refugees are living in absolute poverty, and another 700,000 are abject poor, unable to meet their basic food requirements. The poverty line for a two adult and three children household stood at just over $600 USD in 2010, according to the PCBS. Families in the refugee camps, however, average around eight to ten people.
RIGHT OF RETURN
Today, the issue of the Palestinian right of return has been of central importance to Palestinians. 12 meters above the main gate of Aida refugee camp rests a two ton metal key adorned with anti-Israeli graffiti. The ‘Key of Return” is an ever-present visual statement expressing what Palestinians believe is their legal right to return to their homeland. It’s a constant reminder of their heritage, but also of their inability to emigrate.
Bedein has participated in investigative studies in which he argues UNRWA produces and manages educational programs and textbooks that reinforce the aims of radical Islamic groups, seeking to destroy the State of Israel.
UNRWA, argues Bedein, keeps Palestinian refugees in poverty under false premises.
“[They’re] telling the people that they’re not allowed to move out of these, they have to stay in the refugee camps because their homes are waiting for them from ‘48,” he said.
Organizations like the Catholic Relief Agency, claims Bedein, has offered a number of the refugee camps the money to move out, but argues UNRWA would not allow the refugees to accept this gesture.
“From UNRWA’s perspective, it violates their right of return,” he said. “They’re offered all the time by Western relief agencies to get out of there. But UNRWA stops it.”
“It’s an atmosphere of fear within the camps.”
UNRWA has previously denied these assertions.
FORCED TO ADAPT; LIVING IN POVERTY
Khaled Hussein Mustafa Khaled and his wife, Itaf Ahmad Mohammed Khaled are one of those couples who emigrated from Syria to the West Bank more than 50 years ago. The quiet elderly couple has lived within the confines of a tiny two-room apartment at Ein Beit el-Ma camp in Nablus, almost all their entire adult life.
Itaf moved to Israel because of the difficulty her family in Syria faced during the Nakba or Arab uprising. Her father was imprisoned for 20 years, and the family was struggling to make ends meet.
“I came from Syria when I was young,” she said. “My parents couldn’t pay for a big family so I came here to get married and be saved from Syria.”
Her father thought she’d be safer living with a husband in Palestine than with her family in Syria. So at age 13, she left homeland to marry 35-year-old Khaled.
One quarter of Palestinians living in Ein Beit el-Ma, including Itaf and Khaled, face high levels of unemployment because of reduced access to the Israeli labor market.
“I think the biggest problem is the fact that there’s sheer restriction and access to services,” said Acting Deputy Director of UNRWA operations, Timothy Henry. “It’s not that there’s an overall restriction movement, it’s that there’s very specific, very definite restrictions according to the situation.”
Israel has implemented several methods to restrict Palestinian access to land and other resources in the West Bank and Gaza since the Israeli occupation began in 1967. As a temporary solution to the conflict Israel divided the West Bank into three areas of jurisdictions of Israeli military control – Area A, B and C. The government anticipated the powers and responsibilities over the West Bank would be gradually transferred to the Palestinian Authority. But Israel continues to control a majority of the land beyond the separation wall.
The Khaled family survives on one income, of which a large portion derives from UNRWA funds. Khaled is unable to work because of a degenerative eye disease that left him blind before his 30th birthday, so Itaf works three months of the year for UNRWA’s job creation program.
Most of their income, Itaf said, goes to pay for her prescription drugs that are not covered by UNRWA’s health care clinic.
Packing thousands of people into relatively small spaces can lead to a series of health issues, especially bacterial infections caused by sewage and unfiltered water.
Palestinian refugee and director of Lajee center at the Aida Refugee Camp, Nidal Al-Azraq said psychological issues plague many families.
“The generation is really losing hope for the future,” he said. “They live with their families,they don’t have savings, they don’t have college degrees…”
Al Azraq believes UNRWA should be doing more to improve the social, emotional and day-to-day wellbeing of refugees, such as building a health care clinic within Aida camp.
“If you come to Aida camp what do they do? They have very bad overcrowded schools and they collect the sanitation and that’s it,” he said.
“…When people get sick they have to go in the car to the town.”
UNRWA attributed the perceived lack of services for Palestinians refugees to Israeli checkpoints, and visa requirements.
“Access to schools, access to health treatment, access to social services – all of this comes down to this restriction in access and movement,” said Henry from UNRWA.
Just transferring UNRWA services such as food, water and medical supplies across the West Bank, added Henry, can be time consuming. On rare occasions UN vehicles are even denied entry across the border and are forced to return to their original destination.
Families living in Aida, said Al Azraq are exhausted and tired. Decades of fighting and living in miserable situations, he added, have taken a toll on their well-being.
In a few years time, Al Azraq believes residents will realize they need to take control of their situation and reduce their reliance on external organizations like the UNRWA.
“They will reach a point in a few years where they will realize that though,” he said. “If you are under occupation you have the absolute right to resist.”
Many refugees fear a time will come in the future when they will no longer be able to accommodate their growing population, especially with their strict area and development restrictions placed upon them. For now, the families are comfortable living close to their immediate family and friends, and hope that one day they will be able move back to the land their ancestors left behind during the Arab-Israeli war.
The Spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Force did not respond for comment on their involvement in the refugee camps and on allegations of unprovoked violence within the camps.