Besides mass slaughter and destruction, wars create refugees, millions at times, uprooted, displaced and homeless, on their own somehow to survive. Israel’s “War of Independence” was no different, dispossessing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, a story Western media reports don’t explain or even mention.
In his book, “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story,” Ramzy Baroud recounted his father Mohammed’s story. Born in 1938 in Beit Daras village, he saw it conquered, leveled and erased, except from the memory he took to his grave. A captive in his own land, he lived years as a Gaza Nuseirat camp refugee, raising his family including son Ramzy, dreaming always of going home, struggling as a freedom fighter to end decades of conflict, violence, occupation, and oppression, what Edward Said called “a slow death,” shattered hopes, and inexorable toll of its incalculable horror to so many.
Spanning over seven decades of history and survivor recollections, it tells a powerful firsthand story of those who lived it, not the airbrushed Western version of the new Israeli state, born in blood, mass slaughter, destruction, and displacement of hundreds of thousands of survivors, to this day oppressed, harassed, intimidated, humiliated, attacked and arrested for being Muslims, not Jews on their own land, in their own country, illegally occupied for decades.
In his book “Behind the Wall: Life, Love, and Struggle in Palestine,” Rick Wiles recounts other refugee stories, people he encountered firsthand in the West Bank, connecting them to their original villages, expulsion, daily life and dreams of return.
Abu Gaush shared his own 1967 experience, saying:
During the Six Day War, “My family fled to the mountains as we were frightened that 1948 was happening all over again….The soldiers emptied all the houses in the villages and forced everyone out onto the streets. The only direction left was to Ramallah, and they told us to go there. Other soldiers were saying, ‘Go to Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) – all land before there is ours – and if you stop before (arriving), we will kill you.’ “
Including poignant photos, Wiles’ book includes seven sections, discussing: Memories of Exile, The Wall, The Spirit of Resistance, Purity and Love, Land of Palestine, Strength and Sumoud (steadfastness), and Dreams of Return, including his final image of a grandfather giving his original home’s key to his son, symbolic of the continuing right to return struggle, what won’t ever stop until succeeding.
Numbers of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons
Al Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, says Palestinian refugees today are the world’s “longest suffering and largest refugee population.” In its January 2010 report titled, “Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, 2008 – 2009,” the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights (BRC) calls them “the largest and longest-standing case of forced displacement in the world today,” numbering 9.8 million, increasing by about 100,000 a year.
Most are refugees, another 450,000 internally displaced. For over six decades, they’ve been denied solutions and reparations for their rights under international law and UN resolutions. An earlier article discussed BRC’s report in detail.
Life in Occupied Camps
Besides those internally displaced, Palestinians have lived in forced exile for decades throughout the world, most within 100 km of their original homes. Those in camps comprise about 21% of the total. Hundreds of thousands of others are in 17 unofficial camps in Occupied Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. About 79% live outside UNRWA’s 58 camps, including many in West Bank villages and cities, about 100 locales comprising over half the population.
In 2008, the European University Institute’s Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies published a report titled, “Palestine Refugee Camps: Disciplinary Space and Territory of Exception,” examining daily camp life in 59 camps: 19 in the West Bank, 8 in Gaza, 12 in Lebanon, 10 in Jordan, and 10 in Syria. Saying they’re not “natural” settings, they become “slum areas” or under-developed urban sprawls, some “open spaces,” others “closed.”
In Lebanon, for example, “the gap between the numbers of camp and urban refugee dwellers….is enormous,” compared to Jordan and Syria where differences are minimal, yet even “country-by-country analysis does not in any way suggest internal homogeneity, because the question of camp locations within the different countries matters as well.”
Some are more urban, other peripheral or rural, the differences among them huge, including job discrimination, poverty, and overall conditions. According to Norweigian Institute for Applied Social Science surveys in Jordan and Syria, Palestinian refugee living conditions for those outside camps differ little from host country populations. In camps, however, it’s worse, especially in Lebanon. Education there is one of many problems, 60% of 18 – 29 year old Palestinians not finishing school.
In Lebanon and Jordan, 60% of camp homes lack proper sanitary installations for safe drinking water. Population density is a major issue, too many people occupying too little space, creating an enormous environmental and public health problem. Buildings are crammed together in narrow alleys, with little natural light, exposure to hazardous substances, inadequate temperature control, and poor ventilation. In Lebanon, the infant mortality rate is 239 per 100,000 births, and chronic infant illnesses are up to three times higher than the country’s norm.
The Schuman Centre’s study preceded Cast Lead, so its Gaza analysis needed updating. The war displaced up to 90,000 people and caused mass destruction. Yet little reconstruction is possible with the Strip under siege and virtually all needed materials and spare parts banned. In addition, three years of closure wrecked Gaza’s economy, and sent unemployment and poverty levels soaring – the former up to 65%, the latter 80% with 96% of the Strip’s industrial capacity shuttered, leaving well over 80% of the population aid-dependent. Three-fourths of Gazans live in camps, but all of them get below minimal amounts of everything, struggling daily to survive.
Overall, Palestinians see camps as “symbols of illegitimacy,” a disconnected gray zone under occupation conditions. Of the 4.8 million registered by UNWRA, about 1.2 million live in Gaza, another 800,000 in the West Bank in 27 camps – 19 in the West Bank, 8 in Gaza, the rest in towns and villages.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), their 2009 dependency ratio is 85.3% in Gaza and 72.1% in the West Bank. High unemployment and poverty remain grave in both areas, especially in Gaza. So does public health and malnutrition, causing growing levels of illnesses and chronic diseases.
UNWRA calls the refugee population “victims of health inequalities,” the occupation, of course, the main contributor, resulting in a chronic imbalance between needs and demands on the one hand, and resources and other constraints on the other. Healthcare, personal safety, legal and political protection, and human welfare are fundamental human rights. Under occupation, they’re consistently denied, especially in Gaza under siege.
Despite established laws, no international body has an explicit mandate to protect Palestinian refugees. After the 1948 Nakba, the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine ( UNCCP), UNWRA, and later the UN High Commissioner for Refugees ( UNHCR) were supposed to provide aid, protection, and reparations, but supplied little. In addition, UN agencies, the ICRC, and world community, in deference to Israel, avoided durable solutions, including their obligation to enforce binding international law provisions.
Moreover, refugees are seen more as needing humanitarian aid than having mandated rights, even though international law protects them, including their “inalienable right” of return. As a result, displaced Palestinians remain among the world’s most neglected, abused people, including diaspora ones (the majority) excluded from the political process and peace negotiations.
The Palestinian National Authority (PA) represents those in the Territories alone, but, in fact, given the Hamas/Fatah split, only West Bank and East Jerusalemites. Most Palestinians are thus disenfranchised. As a result, a volunteer Civitas participant, a collective research project on exiled Palestinian communities, expressed her frustration, saying:
“Before the peace treaties, Palestinian political parties were more effective, and we had a voice: we worked properly! We made our voice heard to the entire world. But the world now hears only the voice of the Palestinian president, and his prime minister. As a citizen, I no longer have a voice. His voice is enough, (and he collaborates with Israel. Earlier) my voice was heard. If….peace….silence(s) me then I don’t want it!”
Diaspora and internal refugees demand their legal rights. Those in Gaza and the West Bank can challenge their occupier directly. Those outside cannot. Without legal documents, passports, travel rights, identity papers, electoral involvement, and ownership and inheritance entitlements, they can’t seek redress for decades of injustice, what Israel all along has denied, unchallenged by PA officials. Unless their collective voices are heard, the conflict’s historical roots and their rights will go unaddressed, and they’ll remain the world’s “longest suffering and largest refugee population.”
* Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at email@example.com. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon.