A refugee camp seethes with anger — against the PA
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A refugee camp seethes with anger — against the PA

Residents of Balata, near Nablus, feel abandoned by both Abbas and the UN; meanwhile, the youth are recruited by terrorists and drug dealers

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A view of the crowded Balata refugee camp in Nablus. Balata is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, housing some 30 000 people. (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/FLASH90)
A view of the crowded Balata refugee camp in Nablus. Balata is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, housing some 30 000 people. (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

Another winter in the Balata refugee camp. And as the years go by, nothing here changes for the better. The same poor infrastructure, overcrowding, and poverty.

Dozens of people fill the streets. It’s not a holiday, just a day like any other. Overwhelming youth unemployment rates — 56 percent, according to Palestinian Authority statistics — explain why there are so many people idly wandering the alleyways.

The largest and one of most notorious of the camps, central to the anti-Israel violence and terrorism of the first and second intifadas, Balata sits only a few kilometers from the heart of Nablus. But the gap between the camp’s 30,000 residents and the city’s has never been greater.

Every time I’ve been here in the last 14 years, I have heard harsh statements against Israel, against the occupation. But this time, most of the complaints are directed against the Palestinian Authority and its head, Mahmoud Abbas. Even the Israeli occupation has lost its loathed primacy to the PA in the minds of the residents.

Ahmed, 30, points at the vegetable merchant who has set up shop across from his store. “You see the crates of vegetables?” he asks. “They have been sitting there for two days. He leaves them like that at night, and sells what is left during the day. These are not vegetables that are fit for humans, and still, people don’t have money to buy anything else. No one here has a permit to work in Israel, and the PA isn’t helping us. Try to get a bank loan. They won’t give them to camp residents.”

‘What happens to the outside financial help the PA is receiving? Why doesn’t it give any to the camp residents?’

“I blame Abbas for this situation,” he adds. “There are tons of drugs. Why doesn’t the PA deal with it?” he asks angrily.

His friend Samir joins our conversation. “There is no police, and there is no law. People walk around with pistols because they fear for themselves, not because of the Israelis. I ask, what happens to the outside financial help the PA is receiving? Why doesn’t it give any to the camp residents? Why doesn’t it invest in them? If things stay like this, if the PA continues to ignore us, the situation will ultimately lead to an explosion.”

Everyone here is talking about a conspiracy, muwamra in Arabic: a joint Israeli-PA conspiracy to weaken the camps.

Alaa, 43, says that the camp is supposed to be run by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. “But they have scaled back their activities in the camp drastically. They are helping the residents less, and we feel it. But the PA refuses to invest here, because they claim it is the responsibility of UNRWA and the UN. So we get screwed. We have been abandoned. The PA supports the residents of the cities and villages. But it ignores us.

‘This is no way to live; death is better… Every kind of drug you’ve ever heard of can be found here: hydra, ecstasy, cocaine, hashish. Whatever anyone offers the youth, they’ll take’

“Every youth who is working here is supporting at least five, six families. That’s impossible. The anger against the PA is vast, and people don’t have anything to lose,” Alaa goes on. “Crime is rampant, drug dealers have popped up in every corner. So everyone who wants to take advantage of the situation comes to the youths and asks them to join. Whether it’s Hamas, [Islamic] Jihad and other groups that want to carry out attacks, or criminals who want to enlist drug dealers.”

The tension and the sense of injustice are not new. Over decades, the residents here have developed a unique, separate sense of identity — as the most disadvantaged and oppressed members of Palestinian society. But whereas, in the past, it was Israel that oppressed them, now it is the PA. In one breath, they complain of the absence of the PA as an operating body in the camp, but in the next they emphasize that, because of locals’ hostility, the PA security services cannot function in the camp as they please.

Mahmoud Abu Jima says the situation has never been this bad. “This is no way to live; death is better. I promise you that if you give people here a salary of 3,000 shekels a month (about $780), no one will make trouble. But look at what is happening now as a result of our abandonment by the PA. Every kind of drug you’ve ever heard of can be found here: hydra, ecstasy, cocaine, hashish. Whatever anyone offers the youth, they’ll take.”

Akhsin Kandil, 27, is an unemployed father of two. He has tried twice to get a job with the PA security services. “They said I wasn’t acceptable, because I was in an Israeli prison” — he doesn’t say what for — “and I am a resident of a camp. We live by Allah’s will alone. We don’t have salaries, we don’t have help from the PA. There’s nothing. We are at a dead end, and no one in the PA will listen. It wants the situation to remain like this. In the days of Arafat it wasn’t like this. But with Abu Mazen [Abbas], it’s different.”

No man’s land

Just ten days ago, something minor happened here that underlined how tense the relationship is between Balata residents and the PA. A camp resident kidnapped a Palestinian from nearby Kfar Kalil over a monetary dispute. The kidnap victim was held for a few hours, and the PA security services learned about it in real time.

In order to avoid a PA police raid that would inevitably lead to violence, one of the Fatah heads in the camp, Jamal Tirawi, got involved. Tirawi is a parliamentarian who was freed from an Israeli prison 18 months ago after a six-year term (convicted as an accomplice in a 2002 suicide attack, in which the bomber left from his home to blow up Tel Aviv’s Bialik Café, killing Rachel Tcherkhi and injuring 29 others). He arrived at the kidnapper’s house and reached an agreement with him. The victim was returned safely to his family.

But the PA governor of Nablus, Ikhram Rajoub, would not let the incident end there. He decided that the security services must arrest the kidnapper.

Palestinians walk through an alley of the West Bank refugee camp of Balata, near Nablus (Photo credit: Bernat Armangue/AP)
Palestinians walk through an alley of the West Bank refugee camp of Balata, near Nablus (Photo credit: Bernat Armangue/AP)

“I tried to convince the governor not to do this,” Jamal Tirawi said this week in his office in Nablus. “But he insisted.”

Predictably, the entrance of police into the camp led to violent clashes with the residents, including massive stone-throwing at the Palestinian officers.

“The situation in the camps is especially bad,” Tirawi explained. “UNRWA’s activities in the Palestinian territories have been cut back by 80 percent. In addition, the [PA] government doesn’t take care of the camp’s residents. We do not feature in the plans of the government or of the municipalities. Why? That’s a political question: Who will take care of the camps, the PA government or the UN? The donor nations give money to the government, but it doesn’t take care of the camps, and we suffer the consequences.”

It is no secret that Tirawi is seen as a rival figure to the Fatah mainstream, and perhaps to Abbas himself. He, of course, denies it. “I am not an opposition to Abbas or Fatah. I am part of the movement. I accept and respect its leadership and its legitimacy. He is our leader. We love the rais and we are his soldiers. I help connect between him and the refugee camps, and I want him to lead the Palestinian public. I personally coordinated a meeting of all the representatives of the camps who passed their demands on to Abbas. I am only trying to improve the relationship between those in charge and the citizens.”

“Mistakes were made in the past, mainly on the executive level, and we want the PA and the public to be together, in the same place, so that we will not see what happened in Gaza repeat itself,” Tirawi emphasized, referring to the violent June 2007 Hamas takeover of the Strip. “But if someone wants to paint me as the opposition, go right ahead.”

So what happened with the Palestinian police ten days ago? Why were they attacked in the camp?

“I said it in the past and I’ll say it again: We need to improve the relationship between the security forces and the citizens. Especially in the camps,” said Tirawi. “The security services are supposed to serve us, the civilians, and therefore we need to establish better relations.

I ask if he understands that for the average Israeli, the perpetuation of the refugee problem and the demand for a “right of return” for potentially millions of Palestinians to Israel are proof that there won’t be peace here.

“The refugee issue is part of the broader solution between Israel and the Palestinians,” Tirawi answered. Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t recite the familiar slogans about returning to Jaffa and Ramle, Haifa and Lod. Rather, he asserted, “The issue of return became an excuse for Israel not to reach a peace deal. If we reach a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, I am telling you, the right of return will not prevent the agreement. This will not be a reason for a peace deal’s failure. For now, the negotiations between Israel and the PA are a joke. But if we reach the situation of a historic solution to the problem and not a situation of managing the conflict, the right of return will not be a barrier. This is the position of many here,” he asserted.

Still, he concluded, “if you expect me to give up on this right before the negotiations, you are mistaken.”

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