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Balata Refugee Camp: The Heart of the Resistance

May 13, 2009

The Balata Refugee Camp near Nablus is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank by population—but it is the smallest in size.  Today, 20-25,000 people live in a camp which is one square kilometer in size.  The buildings are so close together and so tall that sunlight does not even reach the ground in many areas of the camp.  And in order to get through some alleyways it is necessary to turn sideways or else you will not be able to pass through. 

 Residents of the camp recall a raid by Israeli soldiers in the camp when a soldier tried to chase a Palestinian man through the alleyways and actually became lodged in between the walls and unable to move.  The Palestinian man was able to escape, and in order to protect the soldier who was stuck the rest of the raiding soldiers had to take positions in the surrounding houses and cover the soldier on the ground.  In order to understand why the Balata camp is so overcrowded, it is necessary to learn the history of the camp. 

 In 1948, there was a mass exodus of Palestinians because of massacres and the destruction caused by the Israeli military.  According to Mahmoud Subuh, the director of International Relations for the Yafa Cultural Center in Balata, “500,000 people became instantly refugees.”  The refugees fled wherever they could.  Some went to Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank.  Others lived in caves, mountains, and in fields until the violence decreased. 

 Most of the residents of Balata camp were originally from Yafa and surrounding villages.  In 1948, the villages were attacked by Israelis and many of the men were murdered.  These villages are now ruins, and have been replaced by Israeli settlements. 

 During the 1950’s, the refugees were still scattered and had been left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.  UNRWA was created in this period to gather the refugees and establish what they thought would be temporary refugee camps.  The original state of the Balata camp was simply rows and rows of tents with one public bathroom per row of tents.  At this time, there were approximately 5-6,000 people living in the one square kilometer camp.  And of course, this number was increasing all the time as children grew up, got married, and had their own families. 

 In the 1960’s, the tent camp began to evolve as it became clear that this was not going to be a temporary situation.  The population of the camp had risen to almost 9,000 people by this time.  The tents were replaced by a 3 by 3 cement block room for each family.  The bathrooms were doubled to allow men and women to have their own, separate facilities.  The UN had been providing food, blankets and other basic supplies because the refugees had nothing.  Gradually, families began building onto the 3 by 3 rooms and creating houses for their families. 

 Finally, in the 1970’s a sewage system was put into the camp and each family finally got their own bathrooms.  Water and electricity were introduced, which meant the people did not have to walk to a nearby spring and carry all of their water back and forth anymore.  The population was still increasing, but because the camp could never be expanded horizontally, people built their homes extremely close together.  And when all of the ground space was used they built upwards—creating 3 and 4 storey houses. 

 Throughout the years, the refugees in Balata have hoped that one day they would be allowed the ‘right of return’ afforded to them by the UN Security Council Resolution 194.  According to Subuh, this means the “right to get compensation for the time and suffering and loss, and the reclaiming property, the lost property; or stolen or taken—whatever you want to name it.”

 Now, there are between 20 and 25,000 people living in the Balata Refugee Camp.  The camp area includes all of the houses, activity centers, mosques, three schools, cemetery, and markets.  The camp is extremely overcrowded and the houses are built almost on top of each other—there is no such thing as privacy in Balata.  In each house, there can be as many as 8 families.  One of the most crowded houses has 85 people in a 4 storey house.  Each floor is divided into two ‘apartments’ each housing a large family.  “Its crowded inside the house, it’s crowded on the streets, it’s crowded inside the schools in the classrooms—any place they go it’s overcrowded.”

 The extreme over crowdedness of the camp causes many health problems.  First of all, because there is very little sunlight in the camp because of how close together and how tall the buildings are, many residents have vitamin D deficiency and resulting depression.  The noise, crowdedness and lack of privacy cause many different psychological problems. 

 Another big problem in the camp that also results in psychological problems is the fact that the “night belongs to the Israelis” in Balata.  Almost every night, the camp is raided by the Israeli military.  They break into houses and destroy things, beat people, arrest people suspected of being ‘militants’ and basically just terrify the people at night—which is especially hard on the children which make up 70% of the population of the camp.

 The kids in Balata have no place to play.  The houses are too crowded and the parents need quiet time, so they send the kids out into the streets and alleyways to play.  There are no parks or playgrounds.  The three schools in Balata are also overcrowded.  There is a minimum of 50 students per class, and many times the number is much higher.  Most of the children in Balata are not motivated to study; they see their situation as hopeless and do not see a future for themselves.  Most of the boys believe that they will be arrested or killed by Israelis, and that even if they do well in school and finish university they will be unemployed because of the economy.  With these realities in mind, it is easy to see why there is little motivation for school.

 The economic situation in the Balata camp is dismal.  Before the Intifadas, about 60% of the camp worked in Israel providing cheap labor—but now the permits to work in Israel are rarely given out and only about 5% of the residents are still allowed to work in Israel.  The closures and checkpoints around Nablus and Balata have also had a devastating effect on the economy.  Because of the difficulty in getting through the checkpoints for work, there is 70% unemployment in Balata camp and 50% unemployment in Nablus.  

 The intensity of the raids in Balata and the closures and checkpoints on the area around Nablus is caused by the fact that it is the center of the resistance and very political.  Subuh recalls that “the first Intifada was initiated in Balata camp.  The first people killed, the first martyrs, the first people whose houses were destroyed for ‘security reasons’ and punishment was in Balata.  The second Intifada also was huge and began in Balata.  The military wing of the Al-Aqsa brigades was established in Balata.”

 Since then there has been a big Israeli military presence in Balata.  Imposed curfews, assassinations, and arrests have become almost routine.  For the residents of Balata, violence and death are every day events.  All of the kids have seen “people killed in front of them, people explode in front of them…body parts scattered all over the place, they were collecting pieces of the flesh…that is something normal.”  Between this violence and the night raids that occur every night, life is a living hell for the people of Balata.  There is no sleep and no rest. 

 Recently, some of the residents noticed that the children were becoming extremely aggressive, unmotivated, and hopeless and decided to do something about it.  The Yafa Cultural Center was formed in 1996 through an initiative by the Committee for the Defense of Palestinian Refugee Rights.  It is an activity center for children, teens, and young mothers. 

 The children and teens are described as “hard to deal with” but anyone would be if they were born into the Intifada in Balata camp.  Blood, military raids and killing are normal to them.  Subuh says that many of the children are “depressed, they are very aggressive…some of them wet their beds, have nightmares, they don’t sleep at night.  Anything you can imagine you can find in the kids at Balata.”

 The center provides many different activities for the children and teens.  According to Subuh, “the main thing is to try to provide something interesting and fun for the kids; because they need to get a lot of stuff inside, out.”  They have music, dabke (traditional Palestinian dance) lessons, a renowned theater group, a children’s library, a computer lab (donated by an American group after the original lab was destroyed by Israelis in a raid), and much more. 

 For the teens, there are workshops on leadership, human rights, gender equality, history, journalism, and film-making.  The center runs with the help of international volunteers but mostly by the residents themselves. 

 The center provides activities for almost 1,000 of the 6,000 children in the camp.  Subuh says he wishes that he could provide for all of the children and teens, but the lack of space for larger facilities does not allow for that. 

 All of the children and teens in the youth center appear to be happy and motivated.  Some were busy with school work or lessons in the computer lab, and others were trying to choose music for Dabke.  There is already a generation of children brought up in the Yafa center that has successfully entered or finished university. 

 They return to the center to help motivate and prepare the younger children to succeed in school.  They are an example for the children—proving to them that they can overcome their circumstances and live happy and successful lives.  The main goal of the Yafa center is to change the outlook of the children of Balata. Subuh admits that “its bad now, but things will change.  And if they don’t change, then we will find a way.  We are survivors.  We are the people of the camps.”

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