At the turn of 2015, Muslims (whether in the Middle East, Paris or in Nigeria) have been monopolising the headlines. Sometimes, though, it’s worth thinking of those we have forgotten. One enclave is found in Nablus, in the northern West Bank, only a few kilometres from where I was staying with fellow olive-harvesters in Burin (pic below).
Luckily for us, last October the infamous Huwwara checkpoint was open and unmanned, as this would have added a couple of hours to the short taxi-ride. About 5 weeks later, in late November 2014, the checkpoint was again closed by the IDF (Israeli Defence Force), so preventing the movement of Palestinians in and out of Nablus, whether to attend the largest Palestinian university, to sell produce at the market or quite simply for a rare night ‘in town’. Checkpoints materialise without notice throughout the occupied territories – giving rise to the term ‘flying checkpoints’ and leading to humiliating searches as well as injuries.
Our share-taxis (services) dropped us at the southern end of Nablus, at the site of the legendary Jacob’s Well, a symbolic place in the Bible where Jesus allegedly declared his Messiah card to the Samaritan woman. In fact a community of a few hundred Samaritans still live on a hilltop above. After a quick look at the well in the crypt of the Greek Orthodox Church, we moved on. Around us the city buzzed – Nablus is prospering, despite the crushing occupation (see my article here).
Immediately opposite the church (what an irony) is the entrance to Balata Refugee Camp, the largest of 19 camps in the West Bank that have existed for over 60 years. We were met by Abdullah, who acts as a communications officer for the camp. In a meeting room of the Yafa Cultural Centre, close to the entrance, he started with some facts and figures. As I write this, I find them scandalous – and immensely depressing.
Balata was established in the early 1950s for 5 – 7,000 refugees, a tiny percentage of the 800,000 Palestinians who became refugees in 1948 as a result of the nakba (catastrophe), when Israel took over Palestinian land and homes to create their new state. A total of 60 Palestinian camps were set up throughout the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria* and Lebanon. Today it is estimated there are 8 – 10 million Palestinian refugees worldwide, the majority Muslims, plus some Christians.
Intended as temporary, Balata was given a plot of land measuring 0.25 sq. km. On the wall of our meeting-room, a framed faded photo (above) showed this original camp: neat lines of basic tents with an exotic-looking man and camel in the foreground. That was nearly 65 years ago. How different it is today.
According to Abdullah, although many have managed to leave, Balata has a burgeoning population of 30,000, with 65% unemployment and appalling poverty levels. The health care unit and its two doctors (run by UNRWA) see 500 patients daily; the four schools have to cater for some 5,000 children, with class sizes of over 50. Social problems are therefore colossal, with drugs, domestic violence and school absenteeism at the top of the list. None of this is helped by the fact that the average family has 10 children.
Such social issues compound the total absence of vision for the future; bleak is hardly the word. This graffiti (below) spells it out: “If you’re not willing 2 die 4 it, take the word freedom out of your vocabulary”. So for some, armed aggression (see second pic below) becomes the solution.
Nor do these refugees live in peace even now, as incursions by the IDF happen two or three times a week. Such typical shows of force are due to their wariness of Balata residents who played a major role in the first Intifada (which started here) and again in the second. The latter confrontation, just over a decade ago, resulted in the entire camp being surrounded and put under army curfew. 227 residents were killed, while dozens of others were arrested and imprisoned in Israel.
After a quick tour of the impressive Yafa cultural centre, founded inside the camp in 1996 with help from foreign NGOs (one positive move at least), with its theatre, computer lab, media centre, psychosocial unit and library, we were taken outside to get an idea of the reality for camp-dwellers.
It was shocking. Inhabitants live in cramped, crowded houses, dark and humid, mainly of concrete breeze blocks built one on top of each other; they cannot expand sideways. The result is an unplanned jumble of precarious, towering blocks, with slits of dank, gloomy alleyways in between.
“Coffins have to be passed from one window to the next” commented Abdullah wryly. There is no space, no privacy, no light and certainly nothing to alleviate the utter grimness of the surroudings. Street-art appears to be the one expression of hope – sometimes.
With ongoing turmoil, tragedy and massacres to the north, in Syria and Iraq, as well as over 3 million Syrian refugees living in even more horrendous conditions, have Palestinian refugees become the forgotten people of the Middle East?
*In 2014, Syria’s civil war brought notoriety to Yarmouk, the Palestinian camp in Damascus, when it was besieged by the Free Syrian Army under horrific conditions.