“They only started listening to us and showing an interest in the strike after we blocked the main roads,” said a young mother from the Jalazun refugee camp whom I drove to Ramallah this week. That is also what I heard from the camp’s popular committee, which organized the protest demonstration last Sunday, in support of striking UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) employees and that ended in clashes with the Palestinian police.
Following the protest, the Palestinian government in Ramallah indeed made efforts to mediate between the UN agency and the UNRWA workers union, which declared a strike last December due to dismissals and unanswered pay demands.
The young mother also raised another painful aspect of the situation. “The villagers and townspeople look down on us,” she said. “They see us as inferior. They don’t want to marry girls from refugee camps because we have no land.”
The refugees’ right of return is a basic Palestinian demand, but the refugees feel they have been neglected and abandoned by both the authorities and society as a whole. At times, one gets the impression that Palestinians in the West Bank like the right of return for refugees, but not the refugees themselves.
Despite many examples of the refugees’ integration and influence in Palestinian politics and society, the strike has strengthened the sense of neglect. Tens of thousands of students, from 98 UNRWA schools in the West Bank, haven’t been able to study for almost 50 days; 42 health clinics are closed; and garbage is piling up in the streets. The refugees, who expected the government to pressure UNRWA to accept the strikers’ demands, complain of general disinterest in the consequences of the strike.
“Since 1948, the refugees have been feeling betrayed by everyone,” says Dr. Adel Yihye, an anthropologist and native of the Jalazun refugee camp, who has published a number of studies about life in the refugee camps.
“The essence of being a refugee is betrayal,” he says. “You were betrayed, you were a victim and nobody takes any notice of you. That’s a central part of the refugees’ psychology.”
The Palestinians see Israel as chiefly responsible for the refugee problem, but the refugees’ disappointment with the Palestinian Authority is especially great, Yihya says, because “they had expectations of the PA.”
There were 741,409 refugees living in the West Bank by the end of 2012, according to UNRWA figures – 145,494 of them in 19 refugee camps. (Some 2.4 million Palestinians live in the West Bank altogether.) The camps’ areas have not changed since UNRWA first leased them in 1950 from the villages and cities for a period of 99 years, but the number of residents living in them has quadrupled.
UNRWA does not run the camps, which are under the responsibility and control of the “host states” – Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the PA.
The UN agency provides the camps and registered refugees with rudimentary services such as studies, basic medical treatment and aid for needy families. It also runs emergency programs, like rebuilding houses that were destroyed in Israeli military attacks and helping refugees from Syria.
The refugees think the Palestinian Authority should have allocated resources to improve infrastructure, buy land to expand the camps, suggested affirmative action programs in schools and provided job opportunities.
Unemployment rate at 44%
By the end of 2012, the unemployment rate in the camps was 23%, compared to 18% in the entire West Bank. Mahmoud Mubarak, head of the Jalazun camp popular committee, says the unemployment rate among the refugees is actually higher, reaching 44%.
“We also pay the PA taxes – if only through the value-added tax charged on all the products – so why are we discriminated against compared to our neighbors in the villages and cities?” he asks.
When Salam Fayyad was Palestinian prime minister, he earmarked modest funds to the various camp services committees. Among other things, these were aimed at repairing basic infrastructures. But at the end of his term last spring, the special budget was canceled due to the PA’s financial difficulties.
UNRWA’s mandate is to take care of the Palestinian refugees until an agreed solution is found to their eviction from their homes. As long as no political solution is found, the refugees’ descendants are also classified as refugees by the international community. This means UNRWA must continue serving more than 5 million Palestinians.
The Palestinians see the international community’s contributions to UNRWA as natural and just, since the community is directly involved in creating the problem having supported the establishment of the State of Israel back in 1948.
Without publicly admitting it, the PA and UNRWA are competing for the international community’s donations. Both depend on those states’ generosity, their economic situation and political desire. Due to the numerous humanitarian crises in the region, plus the economic crisis in the West, UNRWA is burdened with a chronic deficit, which has now reached $65 million. Meanwhile, the general fund budget for this year is $675 million. Eighty percent of the budget is allocated for wages. But the strikers’ leaders question these figures.
“The economic deterioration among the Palestinians, including refugees, stems directly from Israel’s policy – the blockade on Gaza, the prohibition to develop the West Bank’s Area C,” a source within UNRWA tells Haaretz. “But the donor states would rather pay funds to put out fires and for charity rather than demand that Israel change its policy.”
One of the sparks igniting the strike was the payment of an additional 100 dinars ($141) to the paycheck of some 7,000 UNRWA workers in Jordan, “the darling of some donor states” as the UNRWA source describes it. The West Bank union is demanding the same raise for its staff, as well as a further increase due to the cost of living.
“We get paid Third World wages while we pay First World prices, as in Israel,” says one of the striking teachers.
Even if the number of camp residents in the West Bank is low, their part in the national struggle – i.e. the number of fatalities, wounded and prisoners – is always high. The camp popular committees are identified with PLO organizations, usually Fatah. Quite a few of their members belong to the security organizations – like Mubarak, who works for the Palestinian Intelligence.
“Neglecting the camps shows us there’s clear discrimination between us and the cities-villages’ residents,” he says. “I know how much the rich spend on a night out in Ramallah. The Arab states bear a heavy responsibility. They have a lot of money to arm various groups, but no money to give us for our future and the region’s future. I’m especially referring to the Gulf states.
“Poverty causes radicalism and anyone can exploit our youngsters, who suffer poverty, overcrowding, unemployment and deteriorating education, which makes things even worse. There is also the danger of religious extremism. All we ask is to prevent the accumulation of problems, to avert a disaster similar to the one in Syria,” he adds.
UNRWA officials were asked not to comment on the strike while negotiations are underway to end it.