|Palestinians Need Permanent Homes Now
By Joel Bainerman
Zichron Yaacov, Israel--One of the most important
topics on the agenda of any Middle East peace conference
should be how to improve the socio- economic conditions
of Palestinians in refugee camps in the West Bank
and Gaza Strip.
Unfortunately, for the Palestinians, the PLO rarely
brings up the subject. Getting these families out
of the refugee camps just isn't on their agenda.
Nor is the question as to why the Palestinians have
been forced to live in these camps for more than 50
years is rarely raised in official Palestinian circles.
Who have been keeping the Palestinians in the refugee
camps from being resettled? Not Israel, as there are
refugee camps outside of Israel that Israel has no
The existence of these wretched refugee camps is
a mark of shame on the Palestinian people. Why, then,
do they even still exist?
How many live in the camps? Today less than one
in five Palestinians are classified as a "refugee."
One half of the Gazan and one-quarter of the West
Bank Palestinian refugees live in camps. The United
Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) says there are
450,000 refugees in Gaza and 370,000 in the West Bank.
According to the United Nations' definition, one does
not have to be resident of a camp to be considered
a refugee. Nor does leaving a camp disqualify a resident
from receiving UNWRA benefits such as free education
until the end of junior high school and health care,
but income above a certain level does. Ironically,
since the camps are in fact shantytowns, there is
even an influx of population as rents are half of
those in the surrounding villages or towns.
Many people have this idea of refugee camps of destitute,
underfed people who wait around all day for the UN
relief workers to come to hand out their rations.
The fact is most get up every morning and go to work,
usually in Israel- if they can. Some camp dwellers
even enjoy a higher standard of living than some of
the neighboring villages. For instance, 95% of the
population in refugee camps in Gaza have electricity
around the clock, slightly more than the surrounding
villages and towns. The conditions in many refugee
camps in Gaza exceed those of the most remote villages
in the West Bank. For example, 98% of the towns, but
only 48% of the West Bank villages have electricity
24- hours a day.
Numerous efforts to resettle these refugees have
been tried, but all have failed. In l950, long before
the territories came under Israeli control, UNRWA
suggested moving 150,000 of them to Libya, but Egypt
objected. In l951, UNRWA vetoed a plan to move 50,000
Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip to Northern
Sinai when Egypt refused permission to use the Nile
waters to irrigate proposed agricultural settlements.
In l952, Syria rejected UNRWA's initiative to resettle
85,000 refugees in camps in that country. In l959,
UNRWA reported that of the $250 million fund for rehabilitation
created in l950 to provide homes and jobs for the
refugees outside of the camps, only $7 million was
One approach which was partially successful was
initiated by Israel in the early l970's, called the
'build your own home' program. A half a dunam of land
outside the camps was given to a Palestinian who then
financed the purchase of the building materials, and
usually with friends, erected a home. Israel provided
the infrastructure: sewers, schools, etc. More than
11,000 camp dwellers were resettled into ten different
neighborhoods before the PLO, using their time-honored
tactics of intimidation, ended the program. The Israeli
authorities would say that if the people were able
to stand up to the PLO within eight years every camp
resident could own a single dwelling home in a clean
and uncongested neighborhood.
A major problem in resettlement is that so much
of the land in Gaza is owned by a few large, wealthy
Palestinian families. If this property were available,
Gaza could lower its density of 1,250 persons per
square kilometer. Yet even so there is ample living
space even in the camps to build three or four story
apartment blocks, (building up instead of out is for
some reason not part of the Arab culture). Improving
the quality of the existing homes inside the camps
is a much cheaper undertaking than building entire
If the political climate was right, how much would
it cost to solve the Palestinian refugee problem?
Most Palestinians economists, such as Dr. George
Abed who wrote a book a few years back on the subject,
agree that just to build enough homes, without any
additional investment in infrastructure or job creation,
would cost more than $2 billion just to resettle those
refugees currently residing in the West Bank and Gaza.
So why isn't UNRWA doing just that?
What was regarded as a temporary measure forty years
ago has turned into a quasi-political entity which
although its mandate prohibits it from doing so, oftentimes
claims to speak on behalf of the Palestinians under
their administrative wing to Israel and to the world
at large. If UNRWA changed its charter to include
investments in infrastructure and not strictly in
health and education, then much of its $230 million
operating budget could be used to actually solve the
refugee- resettlement problem.
Political propaganda aside, the inability of the
Palestinians to get themselves out of refugee camps
and into permanent dwellings is their current number
one problem. If the reason why the Arab nations refuse
to solve this problem is because the existence of
the camps serves to "make a political point,"
and if the Palestinians knowingly accept this, then
one wonders with this attitude, how the Palestinians
would ever be expected to build the infrastructure
of a working state? "
The continued existence of the refugee camps should
serve as a reminder to all those who believe that
the moment Israel withdraws from the entire area of
the West Bank the Palestinians' problems will be solved.
In fact, despite their insistence on the 'right of
return' of all Palestinians throughout the world,
this would turn out to be the greatest socio-economic
problem the new state would face. In addition to rehabilitating
the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, if refugees
from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan returned they would
initially have to be fed and housed, and then found
jobs. The rate of increase in the territories is very
high, about 3.5% a year, with 50% of the population
under 15 years of age. More than 15,000 new workers
entering the labor force each year.
And, unlike Israel's experience in absorption which
began at least two decades before the establishment
of the state, the Palestinians have none. Entire infrastructures
will have to be built and expertise obtained, almost
immediately. The Palestinians will also have a problem
the Jews did not face: rehabilitating the mindset
of refugees who have been living in refugee camps
for more than four decades and their resultant hatred
It is time the Palestinian leadership realized that
they can't go on ignoring this crucial issue. It is
one thing to demand that Israel allow Palestinian
refugees the right of return. It is another matter
to be able to absorb and house these people if and
Joel Bainerman writes on Middle
East political and economic affairs from Israel.
POB 387, Zichron Yaacov, Israel