Most Palestinians living in the camps of Baqa’a, in Jordan, and Jaramana, in Syria, share the experience of being twice refugees, from the Israeli-Arab wars of 1948 and 1967. Everyone longs to return to their homeland. (Read more…)
Ilham, 10-year-old, tries to explain me the abstract idea of what she calls her homeland: “My father says Palestine is a very beautiful place, much nicer than the camp”.
Living in Jaramana, a camp sheltering more than 8,000 refugees (official numbers), 10 kilometres southeast of Damascus, Syria, Ilham has the same expressive eyes of other Palestinian children, whether they live in Qalandiya camp in Jerusalem or in Jabalya camp in the Gaza Strip. But her submissive look contrasts with the constant attitude of defiance of the shabab who throughout the Occupied Territories throw stones at Israeli soldiers.
Baqa’a camp, 20 km north of Amman, the Jordanian capital, has the largest concentration of Palestinian refugees in the entire Middle East. Here, with approximately 100,000 residents who fled the Israeli-Arab wars of 1948 and 1967, and the 1991 Gulf war, the youngsters at the United Nations school glance timidly towards a group of journalists who have just entered the classroom.
Two years ago, when I visited Jabalya, the Gaza camp that was the Intifada birthplace, Palestinian children gave the victory sign with their fingers, proudly displaying the slingshots they used for throwing stones at the occupying troops.
Brave, they tested the visitors, greeting them with the best-known Hebrew salutation: “Shalom!” (Peace). The welcome depended on the response, which had to be given preferably in Arabic (“Salam”) or in English.
Despite their being victimised and dehumanised by the occupation, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip appear freer than their brothers and sisters confined to the refugee camps scattered around the Arab world which, up to the Intifada, in December 1987, were one of the main power bases of the PLO.
There is no question that, under Israeli domination, Palestinians are divided citizens. Their minds struggle to preserve the Palestinian identity (when they insist, for examples, on wearing T-shirts and key-rings with the emblems and colours of Palestine). But their bodies have been “assimilated” by Israel (as when they imitate certain values of the occupiers or consume Israeli products).
On the contrary, the Palestinians living in the refugee camps in Syria and Jordan look like prisoners in both body and soul, resigned to a situation of wretchedness and oppression.
In Jordan and in Lebanon, most Palestinians were originally from towns such as Haifa, Jaffa and Galilee, which were incorporated within the Israeli borders in 1948. They have always dreamed of returning to their homes and lands, and thus they never accepted the existence of Israel.
Of the approximately 1,7 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, about one third are also 1948 refugees and live in camps. But the majority are connected with families having roots in those two territories. For this reason, their immediate problem is not so much the existence of Israel, but the Israeli occupation.
These Palestinians have been more receptive to a two-state solution because living together with the occupier has shown them that Israel is too powerful to be eradicated.
Forced to accept the advice of the Palestinians in the territories, Yasser Arafat and the PLO recognized, in 1988, the right of existence of Israel. Nevertheless, they did so without explicitly telling the meaning of this concession to the refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon: that they would no longer be able to return to their homes and to their lands. The dream remained. The hope is vain.
“Here, we go on living in despair, but at least those living in the occupied territories have the opportunity to fight”, Hana, a 21-year-old nurse, said, her voice in distress. Hana was born in the Jaramana camp, where she shares a tiny dwelling with her 10 brothers and sisters.
Jaramana, like all refugee camps, is a labyrinth of ramshackle houses. The familiar odor of spices, fruits and vegetables combines in the air with a sensation of oppression. “The Syrians are all around, watching us controlling us, repressing us”, a Palestinian who required anonymity confessed during a secret interview.
It is not difficult to find them. Seated on the ground, his legs crossed, Ibrahim, a Syrian, sells T-shirts, socks, skirts, trousers, their colors faded by the sun. He is a simple merchant, he says, looking for the right customers for his goods. “They’re poor here, you know, and I sell things cheap”, he explains, not very convincingly.
The argument of Hasan Rahmoun, a corpulent Syrian who never takes off his dark glasses, is still more unlikely: “I’m so fond of the Palestinians, I decided to live close to them.”
Mahmoud Chada, father of 14 and twice a refugee, nods his head affirmatively when I ask him whether the PLO is “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. Then why don’t we see any pictures of Yasser Arafat posted in the camp, as we do in Amman, in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip?
He glances around him, as if fearing being heard, and tells me embarrassed: “You know, there are a few differences among groups, but things are returning to normal. It’s a leaders problem. We’re not involved in this.”
In Jaramana, “Arafat” and “PLO” are almost forbidden words. There are no photographs of the “President of the State of Palestine”, nor are there any graffiti saluting the movement of which he is the leader.
Samantha Fox, the British singer of dubious talent and porn film actress, is the favorite in a camp dominated by pro-Syrian Palestinian factions that split from the PLO and are hostile to Arafat.
In Syria there are at least 10 camps, with a total of 289,920 refugees registered [until 1991] with UNRWA, the relief agency created by the United Nations to assist persons expelled from their homes and Palestinians displaced by the Middle East wars.
The camps are under control of the General Administration of Arab Palestinian Refugees, an organization created by the Syrian Government in 1949. Its members are appointed by presidential decree, and the salaries they receive are paid out of funds set aside in the budget of the Syrian state. Of the 10 members of this administration only three are Palestinians.
“The Syrian Government takes care of the Palestinians as if they were Syrian citizens”, says Mohammed Abu Zarad, the director. “There is no discrimination.”. It is a strange way of presenting the situation, especially when we remember what Syrian President Hafez al-Assad said in April 1976, that sent chills down the spines of many Palestinians.
“There is no Palestinian people”, said the “Lion of Damascus”, the so-called defender of the “unity of the Arab nation” – under the rule of “Greater Syria”. Former Israeli prime Minister Golda Meir, also said: “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people”.
In Jaramana, the Palestinianas come for the most part from the Golan Heights, Syrian territory that the Israelis conquered in 1967 and annexed in 1981. Some in the Golan were already refugees from the 1948 war. Their former villages are now part of Israel.
“I was born in the Golan Heights, but I am a Palestinian”, says, with a mixture of pride and indignation, Mahmoun Abura’as, a 32-year-old public official in Damascus who lives in Jaramana. “My family was one of the oldest and most prominent in Gaza. We were scattered by the French, by the English and by the Israelis.”
“My parents fled in 1948”, the young Hana added. “They lived in Safed [now Israeli territory]. Our life here [in Syria] is very sad. The children are in school for some months and then they drop out. They sell cigarettes in order to survive.”
Anxiously, the inhabitants of the camp reply to all questions. But when comes the time for them to confront the journalists, they pose harder questions. Silence is the answer.
“For 50 years we’ve received missions, and nothing has changed”, Masr, a 74-year-old refugee from 1948 and 1967, shouts, gesticulates and grieves. No pause in his diatribe against world leaders. “We’re tired. Is it possible they still haven’t seen what’s going on? What more will it take? Even Vietnam, that was a problem without solution, was solved… If America wanted to return us to our homeland, it could do so in five minutes.”
In the house that looks like a cubicle where he eats and sleeps in Jaramana, far from the eyes of the Syrians, who control every single movement, the old refugee cannot resist telling his story.
“In Palestine, I was a farmer. The Jews confiscated my property. They pretended they bought the land from us, but I still have documents to prove that I am the owner.”
Like Masri, Hajji Ata a-Weheidi still keeps the key of his house in a village in Palestine that is today part of the State of Israel. His first name indicates that he has been in Mecca, in fulfillment of the last precept of Islam [“Hajj” means pilgrimage and “Hajji” is the pilgrim].
Mr. Weheidi, the Services Committee chief of the Baqa’a camp, 20 km north of Amman, is a devout Muslim. “We are governed by three moral principles: land, honor and blood [ties].”
“The land always comes first and it would be a grave injustice and a crime if they deprived me of the right of going back – it is a human right”, said Mr. Weheidi, a refugee from the 1948 Israeli-Arab war who demands the right of return, as provided in the UN Resolution 194.
Wearing a long tunic and a cape over his shoulders, with a kaffiyeh covering his head, fingering a string of beads, Mr. Weheidi has a proud bearing that reminds one of Merlin, the magician of King Arthur’s court. He is the camp’s notable, a wise man, who arbitrates disputes and solves community problems.
His words, heard in silence, are interspersed with Arabic proverbs: “Rights will never be lost if they are always demanded.”
Mohammed al-Nuseirat, an engineer who belongs to the Services Committee, is desperate: “We want to return to our land, to our homes, even under an Israeli political regime. I am convinced that in the future there will be no borders separating Palestine, Israel and Jordan. There will be freedom of movement for all persons.”
Baqa’a is the largest refugee camp in the Middle East, with 100,000 persons living in an area of 1,8 square kilometres. It is a combination of a rural village and suburban borough, with carts selling fruit and vegetables, with bookstores and pharmacies, with shops vending household appliances, with poultry fish and meat markets – even a bank and a video club.
There are also schools, built with foreign governments aid, and a clinic where six doctors and eight nurses care for 699 patients a day, treating anything from a simple wound to the most frequent aliment: nervous breakdowns.
The careless construction of the houses suggests that they should have been temporary, but they turned to be permanent. “The saddest thing is that the refugees became accustomed to this miserable situation and do nothing to change their condition as poor people”, said Franke de Jonge, Director of UNRWA in Amman.
“The camps are the cheapest place to live”. Mr. Jonge added. “Officially, the refugees are not supposed to pay rent, yet they do. And whenever someone moves out of the camp, immediately another one takes his place, usually someone belonging to the same family.”
Ahmad Mahmoud Hussein Jaber perfectly exemplifies a life of resignation. Aged 72 years, this farmer originally from Rafah, in the Jordan Valley, a refugee of the 1948 war, shares two rooms and a kitchen at Baqa’a with his two wives and a widowed daughter.
The walls are damp and ice-cold in winter. In summer, the heat is stifling. The plywood roofing is so twisted that it looks as though it may tumble down at any moment. The windows are so small they look like peepholes. The concrete floor is full of cracks.
During the day, Jaber’s room looks spacious. The tattered, worn mattresses have been stowed vertically in a corner. In the tiny room where meals are prepared, the intense odor of kerosene from the lamp and of the gas from the stove makes one fear an imminent explosion.
In the midst of such misery, the old Palestinian still manages to smile.
This article, now revised and updated, was originally published in the Portuguese newspaper PÚBLICO on December 12, 1991 – the translation, slightly changed here, was published in a UN special edition called “Peace in the News”