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What are the Palestinian refugee camps really like?

UNRWA's close identification to the local population and its ideology makes one conclude that indirectly, UNRWA is actually supporting terrorism.
In order to gain insight into the activities of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), I joined fieldworkers on a trip to the Palestinian refugee camps.

UNRWA was established by the United Nations following the General Assembly's resolution 302, which gave the UN the responsibility for organizing relief and works programs for the Palestinian refugees. Apart from aid, schools, clinics and kindergartens, UNRWA offers work opportunities for Palestinians. Its own international workers constitute another part of this multinational work force, which, as no political solution appears in the horizon, seems to be fated to continue its work in the Middle East for some time. Despite the agency's originally temporary mandate, it has adapted itself to the changing situation and its mandate has been extended until the end of June 2005. UNRWA is the main provider of education, health and relief to about 3.9 million Palestinian refugees in the Middle East.

Since its early beginnings, the organization has been accused of perpetuating the refugee myth, inflating numbers of eligible refugees and, more recently, of allowing terrorism related activities and incitement in its camps, especially in Gaza and the West Bank. United Nations and UNRWA officials travel to the refugee camps every day. On my trip with them, I wanted to see if these accusations were true.

To the West Bank
I left Jerusalem with UNRWA officials early on a Saturday morning when everyone was still asleep and the city streets were silent and empty. We quickly arrived at the first checkpoints that separate Jerusalem from its Palestinian environs. One of the most famous checkpoints is Kalandiya, where Palestinians are forced to wait for hours before they can enter the Israeli side to take care of their affairs.

For Israelis the checkpoints are, undoubtedly, their first line of defense against suicide bombers and terrorists. For Palestinians they are a daily reminder of their humiliation and a big hardship. The truth, of course, lies somewhere between these two remarkably different perceptions. In the many checkpoints we passed, we never saw anything excessive, neither violence from the part of the soldiers nor quarrelling from the Palestinian side. It has to be admitted, though, that the lines were extremely slow and the inspections might be made easier by adding more soldiers to man the checkpoints.

We arrived in Ramallah and visited Arafat's destroyed headquarters. Idyllic tranquility equals deception in Arafat country. Pastoral surroundings hide the truth about the shootings and the lynches that Ramallah has seen so much of. Since the TV cameras seem to focus mainly on Arafat's headquarters, the many new buildings and the sheer size of the city impressed me.

After leaving Ramallah we were forced to wait for about an hour for the inspection at the checkpoint but there seemed to be a rationale: ambulances were allowed through first. Outside the checkpoint the scenery was a continuous chain of Arab villages and new Jewish settlements, which are situated so close to each other that any separation seems absurd, if not downright impossible.

From Ramallah we continued to a refugee camp near Jerusalem in the village of Dir Al-Amar. By UNRWA's own definition, a camp is a plot of land placed at the disposal of UNRWA by a host government. It is definitely interesting that the places we visited are called camps. In fact the refugees live in houses and in many instances it is very hard to tell the villagers apart from the refugees. By the same token, UNRWA clinics are open both to the inhabitants of the village and to the refugees. According to the UNRWA official whom I accompanied, refugees could arrange permanent housing in at least some of the villages if they so desired.

In Dir Al-Amar we also visited an UNRWA clinic, constantly full and with only one doctor who sees hundreds of patients during a day, as the clinic is used by thousands of refugees and village residents. This speaks volumes for UNWA's lack of resources and clearly no one could expect one doctor to effectively treat all of the patients. Nevertheless, the standard answer to any questioning is to blame the "occupation" rather than have a hard look at the actual situations. This became very clear when we visited an UNRWA school for boys in the same village. One could not help but wonder what would become of these children, so politicized from such a young age. The boys recited a poem for the visitors. It so impressed me by its militant tone that I asked the interpreter to translate it to me. Only slightly embarrassed, he did so and confirmed my suspicion that indeed the poem promoted hatred of Israel and violent struggle. Who could not be pessimistic in face of this lecture? The good-natured school principal told us that before the current Intifada, about 90% of the villagers used to work in Israel and things were better economically. Now, as the roadblocks stay closed, about 90% of the village residents and refugees are unemployed.

More roadblocks and more fences are being constructed. Near Kalkilya we saw the separation fence being built by Israel to ward off the ongoing violence. Originally the fence was supposed to follow, more or less, the Green Line and was built merely from security considerations as a main defense against the Palestinian terror. It was thought that physical separation would bring, if not peace, at least security. Following the rampant terrorism of the past years, the whole concept has changed and the fence under construction does not follow the original Green Line - a fact that in the end will hurt the Palestinians more than the Israelis.

The mere name of Jenin invokes powerful images and contexts, only some of which are truthful. Violence, destroyed buildings and rumors of mass murder... When we arrived in Jenin, the town was beaming in sunlight. Despite the bullet holes clearly visible all around, the center was full of life. Shops and restaurants were open to the public - exactly like any other Middle Eastern city. Children were everywhere, greeting us happily. This, in the very center of the city of Jenin. Despite the TV cameras focusing on one quarter of the city, Jenin is actually a large city with many sections.

The quarter the TV cameramen love is the refugee camp. Again, camp seems like a misleading word since the refugees live in proper houses, albeit worse looking than the ones of the city center. This is the part of Jenin where the Israeli soldiers looked for the terrorists in April 2002 and where many houses were completely demolished as a result of the fighting between the soldiers and the terrorists and gunmen. Here pictures of Saddam Hussein are proudly displayed and Iraqi flags blow in the wind. The shahids, the dead suicide bombers, decorate the walls of public and private buildings alike. Interestingly, the UN officer told me that the United Nations has already received the funds to rebuild the destroyed buildings. The donor country would like to build modern streets with children's parks. The refugees won't accept that undoubtedly because nice houses would prevent the perpetuation of the miserable refugee myth. I asked and found out that Palestinians generally consider Jenin a special place because of the scope of resistance that was evidenced there against the Israeli soldiers. The heroic resistance they call it. It turns out that the myth about a massacre has been quietly forgotten.

In Jenin we also visited an UNRWA girls school. Pictures of shahids are often hung on the walls despite it being forbidden. UNRWA obviously uses its member states' tax money for financing these school. Anti-Israel, pro-terrorism propaganda should have no room in these schools. Yet, no maps have a state of Israel in them and the atmosphere is tainted with propaganda. School books and other items of the curriculum are not controlled by UNRWA and contain violent anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda. How can the UNRWA control the schools in a situation where few of its international workers speak Arabic and most local employees sympathize with the Palestinian agenda? Realizing how closely identified UNRWA is to the local population and its ideology, it is easy to conclude that indirectly, UNRWA is actually supporting terrorism.

It can be said that indirectly, UNRWA indeed supports terrorism and, in a similar fashion, perpetuates the myth of the unsettled refugee. The refugees could have been settled a long time ago with the aid of the Arab world and international community. The refugees have little incentive to accept any political solutions when the Arab countries (with the exception of Jordan) do not give them citizenship and UNRWA literally forces them to remain in the refugee camps. Whilst UNRWA has done some good work and many of its employees are motivated by humanitarian feelings, the time may have come to check the general agenda of the agency. Refugee settlement as soon as possible instead of continuous camp life should be the goal of the agency especially when taking into consideration the fact that the camps have become hotbeds of terrorism.

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