January 5, 2000
Imagine you have grown up as friends of Ahmed and Rami...like them you were born in Balata in Palestine, and like them you have spent all 15 of your birthdays there. After school you play soccer in the alleyways, and do art and photography projects at the Jafa Cultural Center. Though the alleyways are narrow and dark, at least they are paved now. There are not many paints, paper or film available, but at least there is a cultural center. Classes in school may be overcrowded, but at least there are schools available to go to these days. A lot has changed in the past few years.
Your earliest memories were of military soldiers with guns on every street corner. Walking outside on the unpaved streets was dangerous at times when your neighbors would get in angered fights with the soldiers...throwing rocks that were returned with speeding bullets. School was never a sure thing. Unlike students in America or Europe, you did not wish to find school closed in the morning because it was a sign of more trouble. You grew up during the tumultuous years of the intifadah, a frightening time that left many people, even young people, missing - imprisoned or shot.
But, that fizzled down...the graffiti on the walls has been cleaned up, the soldiers don't stand outside, the roads have been paved, water and electricity are even regular amenities. Life isn't perfect, but it's a lot better than it used to be. The biggest thing plaguing your existence today is that you have no home. What? Your family has lived in the same house your entire life right? Isn't that a home?
Well, yes and no. In actuality, Balata is a Refugee Camp. Even though you, your brothers, sisters, and parents were born here, and have built your house here, it is still not your home. Even though you are Palestinian, and your parents were active in the struggle to gain Palestinian independence, you are not a citizen of the Palestinian state. You are a guest on someone else's land. This reality of not belonging is a constant reminder to you.
The War of Independence, which is celebrated in Israel, is known by the Palestinians as Al-Naqba, The Catastrophe. After suffering defeat in 1948, over 700,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes because of the massive influx of Jewish immigrants who had arrived to found the new state of Israel. Today there are over 4.5 million Palestinian refugees, about a quarter of whom live in refugee camps throughout the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. With around 20,000 residents, Balata is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank.
Our new friend Walid, showed Abeja and me around Balata today. Walid is just a few years older than I am, and he has lived his entire life in Balata. His family originally came from the beautiful coastal town of Jafa, but they have lived in this overcrowded refugee camp for the past 51 years. When they first arrived, the camp consisted of tents. When more families arrived, more tents went up. After years of living like this, the refugees realized that they were not going to return home soon, so they started to build more permanent structures. Today, there are paved roads and cement buildings. On the surface, Balata Refugee Camp looks like an extension of Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank. In reality, a definite distinction separates the two.
What is it about the Palestinians of Balata Refugee Camp that separates them from the Palestinians of Nablus? To begin with, the conditions are overcrowded. The 20,000 residents of Balata live in an area less than 1 km squared. When the population of Nablus grows, the city merely extends its city limits, adding on new suburbs and neighborhoods. When the population of Balata grows, more people share a room. Schools are different. Schools in Nablus are controlled by the Ministry of Education of the Palestinian Authority, but the Palestinian Authority does not pay for schools in the camps. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has taken responsibility for the human rights of the Palestinian refugees and created four UNRWA schools for the 3,431 schoolchildren.
The strangest aspect of the situation is that the people of Balata are not considered citizens of Palestine. Some of my new friends tried to explain this to me, but it is still a bit confusing. If Palestine made them citizens, they would no longer be considered 'refugees.' Having over a million people living in refugee camps brings international sympathy to the Palestinian cause. Many of the refugees themselves do not want to be made citizens of Nablus either because they refuse to accept it as their home. After over 50 years, they still dream of returning to their homes.
Since they are not citizens, they are not allowed to vote on regional issues, and they do not receive public funds for schools, roads or sanitation. UNRWA has been helping the refugee camps in most of these areas, but conditions are bad...and possibly worsening. The Oslo Accords signed between Palestine and Israel were hailed as a triumph, a giant step towards achieving peace, so groups like UNRWA think their aid will not be needed much longer. Unfortunately, many of the refugees feel that the accords symbolize the Palestinian Authority turning its back on the refugees.
The accords map out an agreement for Israel to pull out of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to transition these areas into an autonomous Palestinian state. For the millions of Palestinian refugees all over the world, the area they once lived in will remain under Israel's control. Meanwhile the refugee camps they have been living in for the past 50 years have been rented for them temporarily by UNRWA. Thus, the land they once owned belongs to someone else, AND the land they now live on is also not theirs. The more you learn about it the more you can understand just how much of a 'Naqba' the war of independence really was for some.
During our afternoon in Balata, Abeja and I met a number of wonderful people who welcomed us and shared their stories with us. Some of the luckier people have been able to leave the West Bank to visit their families' original homes in Jafa and its surrounding towns. Can you imagine going on a trip to the coast with your grandfather and having him point out to you the house he grew up in? The school he used to attend? And then seeing the new family that lives there, a Jewish family from Europe perhaps, walking in to the house...completely unaware of your family's history in it...this was the very house you probably would have grown up in!
Walid told us about how sad it was for him to visit Jafa and see his family's old home and land. A Jewish family from Yemen lives there now. Many of the refugees still hold on to the hope that they will one day be able to return to their homes. The way the laws are now, even if a refugee had enough money to build a new house or rent an apartment, they would not be allowed by the Israeli government to move back to their land. "My main dream in life is to go back," explains Walid. "If for only one week, that would be enough. Then I could move on. Then, for the first time in my life I would no longer be a refugee."
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