Shu’afat does not look like a typical refugee camp. There are no tents and no posters advertising the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Its inhabitants own Jerusalem identity cards, and its children attend school in Jerusalem.
Shu’afat, located in East Jerusalem, is the only Palestinian refugee camp within Israeli-occupied territory. Passing through the checkpoint that separates the camp from Israel, for the Palestinian refugees, can take anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours.
Twenty minutes north of Shu’afat’s concrete borders sits Ramallah, the unofficial capital of Palestine. Home to many NGO headquarters, embassies, and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), Ramallah is considered one of the most affluent neighborhoods of the West Bank. It is located in Area A of the West Bank, which is under Palestinian control per the Oslo Accords of the 1990s. On many buildings, posters of PNA President Mahmoud Abbas hang beside those of former President Yasser Arafat. Israeli citizens are not allowed to enter the city.
Despite Ramallah’s improving economy, the somewhat isolated city has been at the center of tense negotiations for peace between Palestine and Israel. Both US Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama went to Jerusalem and Ramallah last spring in attempts to continue the peace process, with Obama notably supporting “an independent, sovereign state of Palestine.” Just last week, Google made a statement by changing its Palestinian homepage to read “Google Palestine,” replacing “Google Palestinian Territories” to reflect the recent UN decision to recognize Palestine as a “non-observer member state.”
As the struggle to find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict has shifted in tone, so has the certainty of the status of the Palestinian people, especially people like those in Shu’afat who fear losing their Jerusalemite identities and becoming totally stateless.
Any Palestinian living in Palestine between 1946 and 1948 is recognized as a Palestinian refugee under the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). According to UNRWA, as of early 2013, many Palestinian refugees remain in the West Bank and Gaza, but approximately five hundred thousand live in Syria. These Palestinian refugees now find themselves fleeing their homes once again—this time as some of more than one million Syrian refugees.
As the Syrian civil war enters its second year, Palestinian refugees have been among its victims, with seventeen casualties, including five children, in February and March alone. At the beginning of the conflict, Palestinians in Syria already made up its poorest communities, and now these refugees find themselves even more vulnerable.
Of the many who are returning to Palestine in the heat of the conflict, more than five hundred have sought refuge in Gaza, a highly disputed strip of land currently claimed by the Palestinian Hamas-dominated government. There are 1.7 million people currently crowded into Gaza’s 139 square miles, and UNRWA is struggling to maintain aid to its eight hundred thousand Palestinian residents.
In late April, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness addressed this issue: “We are acutely aware of the plight of these refugees who have been displaced for the second time—firstly from Palestine, then from Syria.”
And yet UNRWA has fallen through on its promise of a job creation program and has suspended a portion of expected aid checks to many who depend on this money for food. In early April, Gaza’s UNRWA headquarters was temporarily overrun by irritated Palestinians protesting the organization’s failure to provide for its recipients. As a result, all of the area’s food distribution centers were shut down, and the protests are ongoing.
Many of the Palestinian refugees accuse the current director of UNRWA operations, Robert Turner, of irresponsible and unnecessary administrative expenses, such as providing staff with SUVs low on fuel efficiency rather than providing buses, a cheaper option used in the past. Others believe the blame lies with Israel and its supporter, the United States, who they say ultimately limits UNRWA’s power through its domination of the UN.
Regardless of who is responsible, more transparency is needed from all sides, especially now that the issue has been complicated with recent Israeli air strikes on Syria. Although former Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Nuclear Affairs Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio Monday that the attacks were “against Hezbollah and not the Syrian regime,” civilians in Syria—including many Palestinians—are now in the midst of a three way tug of war between Syria’s Assad regime, its opposing rebel forces, and now Israel.
So where does that leave Palestine? Even though hopes for a two-state solution may have become more prevalent, what will become of those members of the Shu’afat community living in East Jerusalem? Will tensions in Ramallah ever dissipate? Will the 3.5 million Palestinians currently living in occupied territory ever feel at peace in a land they can finally call their own? Or will we witness yet another Arab state struggle to achieve the change for which it has fought so hard?
For Palestinian refugees, strife is not just too close to home. It is their home, wherever that may be.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.