According to the The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, Palestinian refugees are people whose normal place of residence was Palestine and who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.
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 the 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, have prevented camps from expanding.
To reduce the housing problem, buildings that were constructed to withstand just one floor have three-, four-, or even five-story additions; most are built illegally because the Israeli government issues few building permits for new construction in the West Bank.
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 are stacked up each day in the three 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 inside space to ride his plastic bike, which was missing a handle and pedal.
The severe overcrowding faced by the Abu Aleish family is common common in the Palestinian refugee camps. 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.
Palestinians and Israelis still debate whether the Arabs were expelled from Israel or decided to leave on their own. More than 150,000 Arabs chose to leave Israel when the Jewish state was created in 1948, according to 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.
“There are not enough resources anywhere to suddenly relocate that number of people,” Brynen said. “The refugee camps are essentially becoming semi-permanent neighborhoods.”
Brynen believes the Palestinian Authority does not have the resources to maintain 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, 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.”
In many cases, those refugees who want to relocate cannot afford to move beyond the camps’ walls. According to UNRWA, approximately 24 percent 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 household of two adults and three children stood at just over $600 U.S. in 2010, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Families in the refugee camps, however, average around eight to 10 people.
Right of Return
Today, the issue of the Palestinian right of return remains of central importance to Palestinians. Twelve meters above the main gate of the Aida refugee camp rests a 2-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 Palestinian refugee families the money to move out, but UNRWA would not allow the refugees to accept these gestures.
“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.”
UNRWA has previously denied these assertions.
Forced to adapt; living in poverty
Khaled Hussein Mustafa Khaled and his wife, Itaf Ahmad Mohammed Khaled are among those 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 lives.
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 her 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 Timothy Henry, acting deputy director of UNRWA operations. “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 small income, most of which comes 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 health problems, especially bacterial infections caused by sewage and unfiltered water.
Nidal Al-Azraq, a Palestinian refugee and director of the Lajee Center at the Aida Refugee Camp, 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 well-being of refugees, such as building a health care clinic within the 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.”
Henry of UNRWA blamed the lack of services for Palestinians refugees on 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,” he said.
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.
Al Azraq believes residents will eventually 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 the 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.
A spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces did not respond for comment on IDF involvement in the refugee camps.
For more about life in a Palestinian refugee camps see To Fight or Flee.
“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, who lives with her 18 children and grandchildren in a three-bedroom house in Kalandia Refugee Camp.