After 1948 war Palestinians from the lands conquered by Israel were left homeless and became refugees concentrated in a few refugee camps in Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron but also abroad in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
At the beginning refugees received help from United Nations (UN) such as tents and food supplies. In camps as the one we visited in Bethlehem UN built provisory houses (we saw one – it was 9 square meters big, families of 5 or 6 people were allocated there).
People were also being convinced that their stay in camps is temporary. The common belief was at that time that UN will take responsibility for solving the situation and bringing refugees back to their homes. Weeks and months were passing but nothing was changing. People were living in poor conditions, in tents or these very small houses, with no water or electricity, supplied with food irregularly. After a few years it came out that UN rented the land for refugee camps for 99 years and refugees started to realize that their return home is less and less likely and their situation might last for long. They started to organize life, expand the houses, open schools, etc. Their living conditions were still dramatic, extremely high concentration of people, unemployment, dependence on external support, etc. And you know what? That hasn’t changed until today, although it is the third generation that lives in the camps! And the land stayed in Israeli hands… After years, especially in 1967 Israel captured even more territories, making more people homeless and rising number of refugees in camps up to one million.
We visited one of the camps in Bethlehem called Aida (in Arabic: ‘Return’). This camp is 60000 square meters big and holds 5000 refugees, which means that for one person there is only 12 square meters including streets!
People who live here fled from 27 villages located in Jericho and Hebron surrounding.
This camp is one of three camps in Bethlehem neighborhood. There is only one kindergarten, two schools and one clinic with very few general doctors (someone counted that a visit should last one minute to serve all the patients). There are no open spaces for kids to play, the streets are so narrow that often there is no natural light coming into the houses.
Nowadays houses are connected to electricity but the water supplies are very limited, refugees are allowed to fill their tanks only twice a month. We were given tea in plastic one-time-use cups to save water on dishwashing. UN shortened its help and if a refugee has a job he or she cannot be anymore supported what is against international laws. In 2002 the life of the refugees became a nightmare since the Israeli state started to build a separation wall around the camp.
People started to be regularly harassed and threatened. Israeli soldiers started to enter and search the houses, put inhabitants to jail (also children), beat or even shoot people and animals on the streets. Refugees started to be afraid to leave their houses, especially in the night. We were told by the camp inhabitant that at some point soldiers were being brought by couches to the camp for military training to learn how to take military actions against civilians.
Our interlocutor mentioned a few cases of civilians being killed at their own houses (e.g. through the window). Up to now 27 people were killed only in Aida camp and hundreds were hurt from the hands of Israeli soldiers. We saw many bullet holes in houses or even school facade which was fired during the second Intifada!
We were said that many people in the camp, especially youths who were kids at that time, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder; we don’t believe they get any psychological help to deal with their memories and trauma. The best example can be a boy who was arrested for 2 months at the age of 13 and after being released he was afraid to go out of his room for the next two years… At this moment situation in the camp is calmer but people are still afraid of what can come the next day. They are still bothered by Israeli soldiers from observation towers around the camp. We were told that often people are verbally attacked in Arabic, sometimes through loudspeakers, soldiers throw trash or teargas on the people. One of the main streets of the camp became assigned to area C. When the pope was visiting the camp a few years ago, refugees wanted to welcome him on the podium built on this street but at the last moment they didn’t get permission to do it.
People living in the refugee camps in Palestine are trapped in this situation. They cannot go back to their homeland; most of the houses they possessed were destroyed or are now populated with Israeli people. Already overcrowded camps will not be extended. Finally, these people cannot afford to buy land in Area A (which covers only few percent of the West Bank and is extremely expensive because of that) and in Areas B and C they will not get permission to build.
Our interlocutor was complaining that UN push the responsibility for refugees on the Palestinian Authority, and the Authority does not anything claiming it is responsibility of UN. People do not feel protected by the Palestinian police which serves rather to protect the settlers and when the Israeli army enters the camp’s street Palestinian one disappears in an eye blink. How to get out from this closed circle..? One of the persons who try to change the refugee camp’s reality is one of its inhabitants, who told us the story of the camp and is an leader in the Lajee Center which provides free services to the children from the camp (like playground, library, internet, picnics and trips outside the camp). If you would like to know more or support Lajee Center visit a website www.lajee.org.
The numbers of Palestinians being forcibly displaced since 1948 is terrifying: by the end of 2008 seven million Palestinians were displaced persons (or their descendants) out of 10.5 Palestinians living worldwide. Forced displacement with no right to return (ethnic cleansing) is a basic human right violation. The process of displacement is still ongoing greatly due to support of the international Zionists organizations funding creation of new settlements and places which can be used only by the Jewish people.
Palestinian refugees demand their right to return to their homes and properties. In numerous debates they have clarified that they don’t want to repeat Israeli mistake and build their existence on non-existence of other people. Their intention is to build a society with Israeli Jews based on democracy, equality and dignity. Displacements committed by Israel brake Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law (Hague Regulations, Fourth Geneva Convention), Law of Nations and International Criminal Law.