Jerusalem’s refugee camp: Abandoned by the state

Although the Shuafat refugee camp is under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem Municipality, one look at the lack of basic infrastructure, the sewage running in the streets and the unsafe conditions reveal that it is part of a different world.

By Chen Misgav

Jerusalem's refugee camp: Abandoned by the state
Trash piles up in the Shuafat refugee camp, East Jerusalem. (photo: Keren Manor/Activestills)

Several weeks ago, during a late Saturday morning, a group of 20 Jewish-Israelis leave their cars at the entrance to an intimidating military checkpoint outside Shuafat refugee camp. We are meeting with A., a representative of the Jerusalem Committee Against the Wall and the Settlements, who will be giving us a tour of the camp. We walk in line, marching the few hundred meters of narrow road that bypasses the checkpoint, surrounded by wired fences and overlooking the local version of the separation wall. Toward the end of the road, we reach a one-direction turnstile passage – one that only allows entry into the camp.

This is the entrance to Shuafat refugee camp; a part of Jerusalem’s municipal territory, yet hundreds of light years away from the city we know – that same city which is only a few minutes drive from where we currently stand. An Israeli Jew doesn’t just walk into this landscape, as you could tell from the puzzled looks on the faces of the Border Policemen who would watch us leave a few hours later. We are greeted by a man on a motorcycle who shouts at us in Arabic: “What was forcefully taken will only be returned by force!” The man on the motorcycle waits a while to make sure we understand what he has said and then moves on. His cry is understood as a condemnation of all dialogue and cooperation with Israeli Jews. His words spark doubts and hesitation among us.

Shuafat refugee camp[1] was established between 1965 and 1966 by the Jordanian regime and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to house refugees who formerly resided in the Old City of Jerusalem until 1948. Those refugees, from the cities of Lydd and Ramlah, originally numbered 1,500 but were soon joined by refugees who fled the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, raising the camp’s population by a few thousand. The camp was erected near the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and Shuafat, on over 203 dunams that Jordan confiscated from their original Palestinian owners. After the Israeli occupation of 1967, the refugee camp doubled its territory. Today there are different evaluations regarding the precise number of residents. During the tour, we are told that there are currently 60,000 people who live in the refugee camp. However, a 2006 Ir Amim report estimates that are approximately 20,000 people who live in Shuafat refugee camp, while the Jerusalem Municipality claims that the population only 8,000 people.[2]

Shuafat is the only refugee camp within Jerusalem’s municipal territory. Thus, those who live there are Israeli residents who carry blue Israeli IDs and have freedom of movement and occupation within Jerusalem and Israel. At the same time, the Israeli government has erected a giant cement wall that completely encircles the camp, turning it into a secluded island. Furthermore, the government has closed all the access roads that lead in and out of the camp and erected a checkpoint at the main entrance, forcing every resident to pass through it while entering or exiting.[3]

We now return to our tour. What I will describe from here on out fits the quote published in NRG a year and a half prior: “The Shuafat refugee camp is only a few hundred meters away from the southern houses in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, but touring it reveals another world.” The sight revealed to us after the turnstile wasn’t unusual: a neglected square, a dusty main road congested with traffic, and cars heading towards the nearby checkpoint. In the background we see numerous newly built skyscrapers that stand in contrast to the noise, dirt and dust that engulf them. Anyone who has ever crossed the Qalandiya checkpoint near Ramallah or any other checkpoint near a Palestinian city will find the view quite familiar. We begin walking on the main road, listening to A. explain the structure of the camp, its history and its relationship to the municipality. We see and learn about the piles of waste and garbage, the foul smell of sewage rises from every corner, the difficulty that lies in building inadequate infrastructure and the inability to provide basic services to the growing population of the camp, including education, water, electricity, health, transportation, public service buildings (for the young children and elderly population).  The local school is located next to a polluting factory. Not only does the building not have enough room for all the children in the camp, but those who do get to study in it suffer from its poor physical conditions that are below any standard, posing a risk to their health.

Intervention by the municipal authorities or by government bureaus is entirely absent. The tour takes us deep inside the narrow alleys of the refugee camp. We learn about the deep neglect of the authorities and the lack of basic infrastructure. The sewage system isn’t regulated and in certain parts it is visibly running through the alleys. There is a shortage in water supply (water is only provided on certain days of the week), so it is certainly pointless to discuss the absence of regulated streets, roads and public gardens, etc.  There is no “master plan” in a refugee camp where all building is considered illegal, where (as in other Palestinian neighborhoods) planning, or lack thereof, serves only as a means for an oppressive municipal policies that aim to expel the residents, instead of serving as measures to improve the quality of life and provide services.[4]

The camp consists of several identical-looking neighborhoods, patched-together building (originally built by UNRWA as two-story buildings consisting of two-room apartments that were eventually expanded by the residents). The alleys between the dilapidated buildings are very narrow, and crossing them requires one to skip through many staircases and passages filled with cracks, holes and stones, small dark shops, children and motorcycles – the only vehicle that can pass through those alleys. The miserable sight makes me recall a tour I took of the Rio de Janeiro pueblos two years ago; but the sights of Shuafat refugee camp are more difficult to bear, and both the neglect and the odors are worse here. Our tour guide A. leads us through the alleys while explaining the differences between the neighborhoods of the camp, differences which are invisible to us, but are familiar to every resident of the camp. Any resident knows the difference between the UNRWA-maintained neighborhood, the neighborhood under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem Municipality (a responsibility that is of no benefit to the residents) and the neighborhood maintained by the Muslim Waqf. What those neighborhoods have in common is the lack of basic infrastructure, basic services and difficult living conditions.

Jerusalem's refugee camp: Abandoned by the state
Shuafat refugee camp, overlooking the settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev. (photo: Keren Manor/Activestills)

It is difficult not to recall the common Hasbara trope that blames the Arab states for not caring for the Palestinian refugees and for maintaining their difficult condition for political gain. This seems to be an odd explanation, bearing in mind the fact that Jordan gave citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, while Israel has done little to solve the problem and improve the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees residing in Shuafat.

During the tour, A. is asked by one of the participants whether or not it was difficult to organize a tour in the refugee camp for Jewish Israelis. The question seems highly relevant given the fact that the alleys that we pass through are not hospitable for our kind, so much so that even armed Border Police units avoid them as much as possible. Add that to the fact that the tour is guided in Hebrew, drawing a lot of attention from the local people. A. does not ignore the challenging question, but asks us to postpone the discussion to the end of the tour. The tour lasts two hours and is followed by a gathering on the rooftop of a six-story building where A. lives. From the rooftop we can see the view: the entire refugee camp sloping downwards, the wall that surrounds it, and the nearby luxury houses of the Pisgat Ze’ev settlement. As we drink our tea, we wonder what the setters of Pisgat Ze’ev think as they open their windows or sit on their balconies, which open directly to the waste that engulfs the camp.

We resume our conversation with A. and Ismail Khatib, a political activist and chairman of the Jerusalem Committee Against the Wall and the Settlements. A. answers the previously asked question, admitting that our visit required some preparation work. Khatib and A. emphasize that although there are other voices in the camp that resist the possibility of cooperation, as was evidenced the man on the motorcycle who greeted us in the beginning of our tour, these voices come out of despair and a feeling of irreversibility and need to be addressed. The majority of the people, however, seek other solutions – non-militant ones that include cooperation with anti-fascist Israeli Jews.

After being asked by the speakers for our opinion of the tour, the group holds a groundbreaking discussion about the ways we can combine forces and fight a regime of segregation that is harmful to both Jews and Palestinians (although the suffering between the sides is asymmetrical). A local boy leads us through the dusty, congested main road, to a point from which we can take a bus to the exit checkpoint.  The boy takes us through a labyrinth of alleys, steep staircases, built spaces and building compounds, the kind that echoe architect Eyal Weizman‘s[5] insights about IDF marches through the walls of refugee camps: marches that shorten and reconstruct the urban and architectural landscape altogether, but with one significant difference – our walk through the buildings and shortcuts was not meant to oppress and violate the living conditions of the residents. We came in an attempt to understand, learn, and seek alliance with those whose “ windows of life are barred.”[6] It is too soon to estimate the outcome of this visit,  but it is obviously an asset and a step toward a better future and cooperation.

Chen Misgav is PhD candidate in the department of Geography and Human Environment at Tel Aviv University, a city planner and activist.

This piece was first published in Hebrew on Haokets, and was translated into English by Elifelet Sara DerBarambdiker.

[1] Information received from several resources: A.’s oral testimony, the 2006 Ir Amim report and the UNRWA website.

[2] Unsurprisingly, the Jerusalem municipal website does not provide additional information beyond the estimated population of the refugee camp. It does include information about Tel Shaul, a biblical archeological site located nearby, along with a site designated for King Hussein’s palace.

[3] There are many problems that the separation wall causes in the daily living of the camps residents which will not be further expanded upon here. The wall has created a phenomenon of inner emigration into the municipal territory of Jerusalem, a growing numbers of “illegal residents” without  permits, along with immense crowding that places a burden on local infrastructure. See the Ir Amim report for more.

[4] The ways in which Israeli authorities use master planning to discriminate against the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, as well as the ways in which this planning is used to drive Palestinian away from Jerusalem into the West Bank is a topic reviewed by many before. See the Bimkom and B’Tselem reports.

[5] Eyal Weizman, Walking Through Walls, 2008, Mita’am Magazine, issue 15.

[6] Quoted from Shulamit Hareven’s autobiography, “Yamim Rabim”, Bavel Publishing 2002.