Wednesday, January 20, 2021

From Aida to Shuafat, Part 2

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By Ruairi Henchy - March 26, 2015
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Life under Occupation]
Tags: [refugee camps] [refugees] [Nablus] [UNRWA]

This is the second segment in a series of articles to be published by the Palestine Monitor focused on the plight of Palestinian refugees throughout occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. Our correspondent, Ruairi Henchy, will be visiting a handful of camps in order to give voice to their grievances and to highlight the distinctly unique character of each camp. To read the first segment in the series, click here. All photos by Ruairy Henchy.

With between 29,000 and 30,000 residents, Balata is the most populated refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. The camp sits on the edge of Nablus, a picturesque city nestled in the center of a steep valley in the northern West Bank. Arriving to Nablus from the main Jerusalem road, the camp lies just below, at the foot of Mount Gerizim.

The United Nations established the camp on just 0.25 km² of land in 1950, to accommodate those who had fled the considerable distance from Jaffa and the surrounding areas in 1948. 

Across the road from Jacob’s well, the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery, a alleyway leads up to two of the camp’s four UNRWA schools and the Jaffa cultural center. Inside the center, I spoke with Abdullah Kharoub about the state of affairs in Balata today as we sipped Arabic coffee at his desk.

He began by detailing the various facilities and small organizations in the camp, but my interest was piqued when he mentioned that the camp has a rehabilitation center. “This is the biggest one and one of the most active organisations in Balata,” he said.

He explained that the rehab center cares for people with disabilities and special needs, but in recent years it has also been catering to residents suffering from drug addiction, as the camp has begun to experience newfound social problems due in large part to a lack of community structures.

“No one is taking care of anyything in the camp because, as you know, UNRWA is cutting their support to the refugees in general, and especially in Palestine. In the last few years until now it was decreased by 80%,” he said.

“Before, most of the people got some support, like food… and some work. Now it’s not the same at all. They are supporting only the most poor people in the camps,” or those living below a “baseline,” as he described it, which has created resentment between the most impoverished families. 

Abdullah went on to say that if somebody in a family has work, or even if the house has a television or a fridge, this was sufficient to disqualify them from receiving further aid. This has been exacerbated by drastic cutbacks to the camp’s job creation program.

“Before the budget was bigger than now, so many youth from the camp had say three or six months of work, but now they are also filtering who deserves this [job creation] program, [and] who doesn’t, so now it’s very difficult for the youth in the camp,” he sighed, going on to say that “nothing fills this gap.”

After a request for comment on Abdullah’s claims, Felipe Sanchez, the director of UNRWA’s West Bank Field Office, said that there has been no reduction in UNRWA basic core services. “Overall, we have managed to safeguard our core programmes and the Agency is fully committed to maintaining and improving its core programming into the future,” he said, although he did not deny the specific claims made by Abdullah that overall spending has been decreased by 80% in recent years and that families are being individually assessed to see who will continue to receive aid.

I asked Abdullah if the deteriorating social situation was linked to the recent turmoil in the camp. Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces had been trying for weeks now to arrest 18 camp residents, some allegedly on suspicion of drug dealing. 

Tensions reached a boiling point last week, as local youth blocked the main road next to the camp with rubble and burning tires. Gunshots were exchanged between the police and some camp residents as the PA moved to clear the road.

“There are too many assumptions about this conflict,” he said, explaining that only a handful of people in the camp are against the PA and that this is not representative. “We can’t get the drug distributors or the people who commit crimes [by ourselves]. Balata will not stand against the courts or the PA to get one or two persons, we are not protecting them,” he said, before explaining that the PA was not blameless either.

“The PA didn’t try to take responsibility of the camp from the beginning… I’m talking about everything—economically, security, services, everything. They didn’t try,” he exclaimed. “The camp is still the camp. Since the PA was established until now, life is still the same and it’s getting worse and worse every day,” he said.

“They are not protecting the camp. When the Israeli military comes to arrest someone, they are not protecting the people,” he added, in reference to the PA’s security coordination with the Israeli army. Ever since the 1993 Oslo accords, with the exception of the second intifada, Palestinian Authority security forces have cooperated with the Israeli military in policing Palestinians in the West Bank.

Although the camp is located relatively far from any Israeli military bases or checkpoints, it is still the scene of frequent clashes, as Jewish Israelis come to the area most weeks under heavy armed guard to pray at the tomb of Joseph, just two kilometres away. When this happens, the camp is routinely surrounded by the Israeli military to protect the worshippers, inevitably leading to confrontations with local youth.

As I left the Jaffa cultural centre, I soon came upon the main thoroughfare of the camp, which could generously be referred to as the camp’s main street. Most of the camp’s shops and small businesses are located here, and the odd car squeezed by me as I walked along. 

However, wandering through the side alleys between the houses, I soon understood the reluctance of the PA security forces to raid the camp more authoritatively. The labyrinthine corridors were no wider than my shoulder blades for large stretches, and some spots were even shrouded in darkness, despite the sunny conditions.

At the edge of the camp I saw a group of teenagers setting fire to rubbish around a makeshift barricade at an entrance to the camp near the Jerusalem road above. The camp youth had again tried to block the road before being dispersed with teargas rounds from a handful of Palestinian security personnel.

They quickly cleared the way and beckoned at me to take photos of the PA personnel holding guns and handheld tear gas canister launchers. Simultaneously, one of the ringleaders, brandishing a knife, instructed me not to photograph the faces of any of the youth holding stones or slingshots.

A few of the younger kids followed me back into the camp, excited with the opportunity to practice their English on me. When I stopped at a shop near Balata’s main entrance for a cup of tea, Mohammed Ehweedi asked me if I was a new volunteer teaching at the camp.

Mohammed explained that he used to work in the social development center in the camp, but now studies business management in al Quds Open University in Nablus. After chatting for a few minutes, he told me that his first trip outside of Palestine left him wholly unsatisfied with life in Balata.

“I would like to visit Dubai to find work. We don’t have a chance to get any work here in the camp,” he said. He had already been to Dubai with the Palestinian national football team to play in a tournament where they faced Qatar, the UAE and Uzbekistan. When I asked if they won any games he laughed “No, no and no!” 

He also travelled to Rome to see a friend who had volunteered in the camp with him. “When I went to Italy I was surprised, everything is different! When I came back, I spent my time in my house because I don’t like to go out… I would like to be free… to do everything without any control, that’s all. But here I can’t do it,” he said in reference to the stifling atmosphere of life in Balata.

As the midday sun reached its highest point, I was relieved to leave the lingering smell of smouldering rubbish and teargas behind as I departed from Nablus. About a dozen masked PA security personnel kept watch over the back entrance to the camp from the main road, ensuring that the grievances of those inside would not spill out onto the street for today at least. 

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