BETHLEHEM - Three generations of Palestinians displaced by
the founding of Israel in 1948 know only life in UN refugee camps, going
to schools beneath the blue-and-white UN flag and drawing their food
stocks from UN warehouses.
For these Palestinians whose
long-cherished goal is "right of return" to the lands they lost 64 years
ago, the camps must be seen as temporary no matter how permanent they
might seem to others.
Which explains why the latest program by
the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to upgrade
the camps' dilapidated facilities is such a delicate operation.
United Nations and other agencies have been providing essential
services in the camps for decades without implementing permanent
institutions, but say the time has come to do more for the growing
populations of residents.
"People have a right to be proud of
where they are...," said Sandi Hilal, the director of UNRWA's carefully
named "camp improvement program" in the West Bank, adding that providing
just basic needs "is not enough when we consider people have been
living in a place for 60 years".
"Improving the daily life of
refugees doesn't jeopardize their right to return back home. Living in
dignity is the main goal of the improvement program," she said.
700,000 people fled or were driven from their homes when Israel was
created after the 1948 war, but now as many as five million refugees and
their descendants live in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Gaza Strip and
the West Bank, many of them in squalid camps.
Founded in 1949,
UNRWA is almost as old as the UN itself. Given that prospects for a
resolution to Israel's disputes in the Middle East continue to be
dismal, it appears to have a long future ahead.
With the help of
German government funding, the agency is improving health clinics,
sanitation and advanced education in coordination with local committees
in five camps in the West Bank and two in Jordan.Clinging to hope
13,000 residents of Bethlehem's Deheishe camp, a warren of cinder block
hovels clogged with traffic and electrical wires, are a focus of
The agency leased the site months after some 2,000 original refugees quit towns and villages around Jerusalem in 1949.
fate of refugees clinging to the right of return has been one of the
toughest issues facing negotiators in two decades of on-off talks aimed
at creating an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.
says the demand for a right to return is a deal breaker in any peace
accord, arguing that allowing the refugees into Israel would increase
the proportion of Palestinian Arabs living within its borders and thus
undermine its nature as a Jewish state.
It also disputes the
legal basis of the right of return set out in a UN resolution of
December 1948 and says the world has not taken into account the plight
of Jews forced from their homes across the Arab world in the last 65
Peace talks have been frozen since 2010, with the
Palestinians saying they will not re-engage until there is a halt to
Jewish settlement building in the Palestinian territories.
dejection found in Deheishe has not been reversed by the UNRWA plan to
improve it or by the work of 20 non-governmental organizations in its
As walls turned from felt to cinder block
over decades, houses squashed together, pushing community life out into
the surreally narrow streets. With no parks for children to play in and
few jobs to keep youths busy, people of all ages mingle in its crowded
"Standards of living here are plunging," lamented part-time labourer Othman Abu Omar, puffing idly on a cigarette.
"We hope one day to be done with dependence. Everybody should depend on himself," he said.Hoping to 'Disappear'
residents complain that the decades of UN sponsorship have amounted to
nothing more than charity, without addressing the underlying political
cause of their plight.
"We've gotten health and basic services,
but there is no end to the crisis," said Habis al-Aisa, a camp dweller
whose family hails from Zakariyya, a town in what is now central Israel.
refugees, and the UN should be totally responsible for our needs and
our situation, because our status is an international political issue."
United Nations recognizes as refugees those who registered with UNRWA
after fleeing their homes and their descendants. They are covered by the
UN resolutions and eligible to receive the agency's services even if
not resident in the camps, but not if they attain citizenship or asylum
in another country.
Historically weak and cash-strapped
governments in Palestinian-governed Gaza and the West Bank have provided
little in the way of infrastructure or subsidies to the camps or their
inhabitants. Many remain in the camps for lack of better options.
is the only UN organization devoted to the refugee problem of a single
people. Its spokesman, Chris Gunness, said it has no set policy on where
the refugees are to go, or how the Middle East crisis might end.
would like nothing more than to disappear and not be needed anymore. It
provides services pending a just and durable solution to the conflict,"
The agency's current improvement scheme, subsidized by
19.5 million euros from the German government, stresses close
coordination with local parties.
A gleaming new clinic aims to
provide services to sufferers of diabetes and hypertension, which
afflicts around a sixth of refugees in the West Bank, who previously had
few options for treatment.
Living conditions will be improved by shoring up collapsing houses, mending roofs and improving sewage and trash collection.
a college-level education program, dubbed the "House of Wisdom" after a
Baghdad library in the Islamic golden age, young camp dwellers choose
their own curriculum and are visited by guest lecturers in small,
Socratic learning circles.
"194, 242, 338," student Alaa al-Homuz
rattles in staccato, naming UN Security Council resolutions dealing
with Palestinian refugees which he is studying in a class on
These students disagreed that improving the
conditions in the camps would interfere with the concept of the right of
return or dull their determination to return to their ancestral homes.
you live better and have your essential needs met, it leads to a better
way of thinking and to finding better strategies to get our rights,"