“There is no future here, only the past”

There are still some 664,000 Palestinians living in refugee camps. A reportage

Life in the 27 refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is bleak: Built on land leased from neighboring communities and private individuals, mulling, electricity, gas and water supplies function poorly and often not at all. Since the Israeli army has repeatedly hermetically sealed off the Palestinian territories, there is also a lack of jobs and thus of money. In this way, militant groups such as Hamas find their base here – and thus make the camps the target of Israeli air strikes time and again. The only relief is provided by the United Nations, whose relief organization UNRWA has been supplying the refugees with schools and hospitals since 1948 and has thus become an economic factor in its own right.

They sit and kill time, day in and day out, drinking tea, talking, discussing, not admitting to themselves or to each other that once again this month the money will not be enough for the children’s clothes or the wife’s medical treatment. Tel Aviv and its modern office towers are hardly more than an hour’s drive away. But it has been a long time since the men last saw them.

"Everyone wants to get away from this place"

Loud Arabic music blares through the teahouse. On the edge of an almost empty street children play soccer. With an old cola can. "Time is abundant here", says 28-year-old Khaled. "But unfortunately no money." Those who live in the Tul Karem refugee camp on the western edge of the northern West Bank depend on finding work in the Israeli coastal plain just a few kilometers away. But the Israeli army very rarely allows Palestinians to enter the country since the conflict has escalated to ever new heights. Guest workers from the Far East have filled the gaps.

"Everyone here wants to get away from this place", says Khaled. "Often we have no electricity; there are days when the water is scarce." Like almost all of the 27 refugee camps in the Palestinian territories, this one has a poor infrastructure. When the camps were established in the early 1950s on what was then Jordanian or Egyptian territory, they were intended as a temporary solution until the residents could return to their homes. However, the shelters became permanent facilities that still look like emergency solutions: In the place of the tents that spanned the camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the first months after the 1949 armistice, a haphazard collection of walls has sprung up that are really more like better sheds.

This is because, in terms of planning law, the refugee camps are consistently located in no-man’s land: The land on which they are built either belongs to the municipalities on whose territory they are located or has been leased from private owners. To build a real house, to settle down for eternity, is not possible for the inhabitants. If they want to do so at all. "Look around you", says Khaled. "There is no future for my family here, only the past." And that is above all a dream. That of returning to the village in the north of what is now Israel from which his grandparents once fled.

It is a scene that has become a hackneyed cliche through countless television reports: Khaled has agreed to show how his family of four lives and now sits on a sofa in a female-tuned room that is living room, dining room and kitchen all in one. In the two rooms next door are the bedrooms of parents and children. There are rugs on the stone floor, and a picture of the Temple Mount hangs in a golden frame on the wall. Suddenly he holds a rough, old-fashioned key in his hand: "This once opened the door to our house", he explains. "We keep it so that when we return we can prove that it is ours." The reality is different: the village was destroyed in the battles at the end of the 40’s; its remains are now covered by a dense forest.

Living memorials

But it is dreams like this that make life easier for the people here. Leaving is not as easy as it seems at first glance: Of the 1.588 million Palestinians registered as refugees with UNRWA in the West Bank and Gaza Strip at the end of 2003, only about 664,000 still live in camps. But space is scarce in the Palestinian territories. And the poverty created by unemployment has further limited opportunities to move elsewhere. Western embassies are piling up visa applications from Palestinians. But only a few of them have a chance to get one of the coveted tickets to a better life.

It is not that no one feels responsible for the refugee camps. It is rather a lack of political will. For the governments of the Arab world, the refugees are living memorials: The world should see that they exist, the Arabs who have been driven from their homes; the international community should remember that the right of return is not just a phrase.

It is little consolation that Palestinians with refugee status, whether they live in camps or not, are at least better off than their neighbors when it comes to health care: those who have a refugee card can receive free treatment in the hospitals of UNRWA, a sub-organization of the United Nations. Palestinians who are not refugees generally have to pay for health care.

From the beginning, no Arab state was willing to improve living conditions in the camps, so the United Nations stepped in and created UNRWA. Over the decades, the organization has built up the medical and social infrastructure as well as schools for around four million refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. Thus, wherever it operates, it has become an economic factor in its own right: The organization’s multi-million dollar budget is spent almost entirely in the countries in which it operates . UNRWA itself has become an economic factor that none of these states can do without – too many local businesses depend on daily business with the organization.

Deep rift between the refugees and the Arab world

But not everyone who fled at the end of the 1940s fared the same: Those who found their way to Jordan were granted citizenship, were able to participate in public life, engage in trade and become the driving force behind the economy in the structurally weak kingdom. And yet: they are no more fully integrated there than in Syria or Lebanon. Although the Palestinian population in Jordan is now estimated at up to 60 percent, Palestinian members of the government are still a rarity.

Even if it doesn’t seem so at first glance: the rift between the Palestinian refugees and the Arab world runs deep, and it runs deepest in Jordan. When the Kingdom succeeded in holding the West Bank in 1948, the Palestinians expected to be given the opportunity to establish their own state. However, King Abdullah, who is said to have told one of his British advisors in 1946 that he had "of this trans-Jordanian unity", had other plans: He annexed the territory – and paid for it with his life in 1951, when he was shot dead on the Temple Mount by a Palestinian assassin. The conflict between the refugees, to whom the concept of a monarchy legitimized by God is alien, reached critical mass in 1970, when the Jordanian army took extremely brutal action against the Palestinian guerrilla groups, who had succeeded in establishing a kind of "state within a state" in the refugee camps.

The journey from Tul Karem to Jenin is arduous, even for foreigners. For Palestinians, it is often even impossible. Several checkpoints of the Israeli military have to be passed; press is not welcome. For good reason: in the refugee camp near Jenin, the consequences of the Israeli military operation in the spring of 2002 are still clearly visible: Barely repaired buildings, bullet holes – silent witnesses to a war that continues to stir tempers and give rise to speculation to this day. On the grounds that the camp was a terrorist "terror nest" Israel’s military sealed off the camp for weeks, shooting at it and searching it. Hundreds of the 15,000 inhabitants were arrested, many injured, dozens killed. The number of those who lost their few possessions is difficult to estimate. There must have been many. According to UNRWA estimates, ten percent of the camp was destroyed, including some of the organization’s facilities.

Hatred that opens hearts to militant ideas

Here, too, people report problems with electricity and water supply; however, some of them have found work in agriculture. Whether Hamas is really as active here as the Israeli government claims, no one wants to say. "The people here are very suspicious", says Ala Ziadi, who acts as a liaison in investigations such as these. "People are afraid that the Israelis will come again." But the employee points to graffiti that can be seen on walls all over the place: "They come from Hamas."

The influence of organizations like this does not come by chance. Hamas is strong wherever people are unhappy. With kindergartens, schools and social services, the organization appeals to those in need, who, with the red roofs of Israeli settlements and army checkpoints in sight, blame Israel for their situation. The hatred that this creates opens hearts to the militant ideas of such organizations. "And gives rise to new military operations", Ziadi adds. "It is a vicious circle."

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