This past week I had the chance to spend two days in the city of Nablus.  My goal was to understand one of the biggest points of contention in the road towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The issue? Palestinian refugees.

Nablus is home to two of the West Bank’s largest refugee camps, and through a friend of a friend, I was given the chance to get an inside look at what life was really like there…

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Downtown Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank.

My connection point was a young man named Khalil Abu Hamdeh, an aspiring Palestinian photojournalist working with the Nablus Association for Social and Community Development.  Khalil and his friend Abed Masimi graciously spent their day off from work to show me around the town.

After meeting them in downtown Nablus, we started getting to know each other a bit.

Palestinian refugees fleeing their homes in 1948. (public domain)

“So where are you from?” I asked Khalil as we looked for a taxi.

“I’m from Jaffa,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, confused. Jaffa is a city in Israel.  We were in the West Bank. “But where do you live?”

“I live in Askar Camp,” he told me.

Suddenly it became clear… something I hadn’t actually considered before.  Khalil and Abed weren’t just going to show me around a couple of refugee camps.  Khalil and Abed were refugees.

This came as a bit of a surprise.  They didn’t look like refugees.  They had both gone to college. Both spoke English very well.  After meeting refugees in places like Haiti and Kenya, I thought I knew what refugees looked like.  I was understandably a bit confused.

As I learned more about the situation of Palestinian refugees, however, it all began to make a lot more sense…

Askar Refugee Camp today.

Taking Flight

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (a.k.a. Israel’s “War of Independence”), roughly 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes (whether by choice or by force is a matter of debate).  Many settled in areas that became today’s West Bank and Gaza Strip, while many others fled to countries all over the world.

Today, the original 700,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendents number more than 4.5 million people, nearly half of which still live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Many of the refugees that remained in the Palestinian territories were placed into vast tent camps outside of existing cities.  Over time, as the refugees realized that they would not be returning home anytime soon, their tents were replaced by more permanent housing.

One of the many cramped alleyways between homes in Balata.

Today, as great-grandchildren of the original refugees are starting to be born, these Palestinian refugee camps have become concrete and cinderblock slums, overcrowded and facing all the problems that normally go along with urban squalor.

Crowded

During my time in Nablus, we spent time in two of these camps, Askar and Balata.  Both camps were built in the wake of the 1948 war to house refugees from the coastal city of Jaffa.

Balata is the most highly populated refugee camp in the West Bank, home to more than 25,000 people living on just 0.5 square miles (take a look at this satellite image to see just how tight it is).

To get a sense of what life is like there, Khalil and Abed took me through the labyrinth of tight concrete corridors between the houses.  Most of the pathways were so tiny that we had to walk in single file.  Some were so narrow that they never even receive direct sunlight.

When we finally emerged onto a larger road, I was struck by a sight that clearly illustrated just how many people live in the camp.  A school for girls in the camp had just ended for the day, so I watched, mouth agape, as a seemingly endless crowd of students walked past us… hundreds and hundreds of girls, all from a single school.  All refugees.

Hundreds of girls leaving school.

After walking in and around the community and speaking to a few of its residents, it seemed to me that the camp is much like many slum communities I have visited around the world.  Impoverished residents, living together with no privacy, inadequate water, spotty electricity and overloaded sewage systems toughing it out in a daily struggle to put food on the table…

A Nagging Question

But there was one question that kept nagging at me as we toured the camp.  Why don’t the people just leave?  Looking around, I could see miles and miles of open countryside to the east and south. Why live in such squalor when there is so much available land?

A bit baffled, I decided to search for an answer…

Click here to read Part II!

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Next Steps
    • If you want to learn more about the plight of Palestinian refugees, I strongly encourage you to pick up the book Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour. It is a fantastic account of hope and reconciliation in the midst of horrible circumstances.
    • Sign up for Musalaha’s newsletter to hear amazing stories of reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.
    • Please pray for Palestinian refugees around the world. No matter which way the peace negotiations go over the next few years, they will have a tough time as the ones caught in the middle.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    May 2nd, 2011 at 8:42 am  

    In light of today’s news this incredibly complex situation becomes even more mind numbing. Looking forward to Part 2. Wondering if our world will ever recover.

  2. yousef said... 

    Reply

    May 2nd, 2011 at 10:51 am  

    im one of whom born and live in this camp since 1966 ny family came from yafa leave one hundred donom of land to live in asmall land for unrwa.
    hope that all read and know about refujees

  3. James Sinkinson said... 

    Reply

    July 6th, 2011 at 5:52 pm  

    One reason Khalil and Abed don’t look like refugees is that they’re not—they’re descendents of refugees. This is just more evidence of the debilitating victim mentality of so many Palestinians. No other people ever has extended refugee status to children and grandchildren of actual refugees. It’s time to move on. Israel is a permanent fact of life, and refugees’ descendents are not moving back to Jaffa. Now what? Forget the past and focus on building a new Palestinian state? Create a nation instead of nurturing futile Jew hatred and unattainable fantasies? Good idea.

  4. Barry Rodriguez said... 

    Reply

    July 7th, 2011 at 12:34 am  

    James, thank you for sharing your opinion. I’m wondering… Did you get a chance to read Part II of this article? I touched on a bit of what you pointed out.

    “It’s time to move on” is a very logical sentiment to an outsider. I admit feeling the same way from time to time. But we need to remember that Palestinians come from a much more communal (less individualistic) culture than most Westerners. From that perspective, an injustice perpetrated against an ancestor is an injustice perpetrated against you. I’m not saying this is right or wrong… Just that it’s a way of viewing things that is different.

    Also, let’s not forget the many pains endured by Palestinian refugees today. I wrote a bit about that perspective in the following article about terrorism (http://www.worldnextdoor.org/an-eye-for-an-eye/). If you haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to check it out.

    Thanks again for sharing!

  5. Jessica said... 

    Reply

    July 7th, 2011 at 10:59 pm  

    These comments made me wonder about refugees in other situations. Right now I am working with refugees in Indianapolis who come from Burma. Some of them were born in refugee camps in Thailand, and they also have refugee status. It’s incredible how long lasting these conflicts are. I’m amazed at the people though. Just this week one of these refugees (a college graduate) talked to me about his dreams to study peacebuilding and rebuild his country. I’m glad this is the goal and not revenge!

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