Welcome to Occupied Palestine: Balata Refugee Camp

November 3, 2013 by cosmoakacitizensmith

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As soon as a bunch of us arrive outside Balata refugee camp in Nablus, we are greeted by a sort of welcoming committee. A man in a blue shirt with a group of youngsters starts randomly talking to the four of us as soon as we step out the cab. No one is quite sure what he’s saying, but before anyone can say anything he’s bought a large bottle of mango juice and dishes it out to all of us in plastic glasses.

“Welcome! Welcome!” he keeps saying. This is the one word I hear from Palestinians all the time, even if they can’t speak any other words of English. “Welcome!”

One of the youngsters in the group translates. “We’re all very excited because today the football team from Balata refugee camp is playing in Jericho. If we win, we’re all gonna eat knafeh!” This is a specialty dish from Nablus made of sugar and cheese. “What’s your favourite football team?” he asks.

Jonas and Sylvia from France in our group are a bit stumped. I say West Ham, (of course!), but it turns out all the Palestinians are big fans of Real Madrid.

“Real!!!!!” they all shout. “Welcome, welcome!”

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We start wandering through the camp trying to find the Yafa cultural centre. The main drag looks like any other, except it is notably poor. It certainly doesn’t look like a shantytown. People smile at us and some of the children want to talk English. “Hello! What’s your name?” says one girl who must have been about eight.

A young man sees we are lost and takes us directly to the centre. This is another thing I’ve noticed here: if you ask the way somewhere, most times people will actually take you to wherever you want to go.

The Yafa Cultural Centre is funded by the United Nations body UNWRA, and forms the cultural hub of Balata. Its director, Abdullah Kharoub sits us down and calmly explains the history of the camp.

“The refugees here come originally from the area near Jaffa, [now in Israel]. They were forced to leave their towns and villages which were destroyed in 1948 after Zionist paramilitary forces attacked them. 5000 refugees fled to Nablus where the camp was established in 1952. There were only tents to start with, and Balata had only one square kilometre of land. Later, some houses were built.” Gharoub pauses. “We still only have 1 square kilometre of land, but now we have a population of 28,000.” Blimey.

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The camp has four basic schools with 45 – 50 students in a class. There are three doctors on the camp and they see up to 500 patients a day.  It is funded by UNWRA and other NGOs such as Oxfam, and there is an exchange programme with a Norwegian University.

The refugees number amongst 5 million scattered around Palestine and neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon. They maintain their right to return to the land and property that their grandparents were driven from in 1948 and they are supported by a UN resolution. However, the Israeli government does not recognise it. The Right of Return is a very emotive issue for both sides. Many Palestinian refugees and their descendants hold onto the keys for their properties they were driven from in 1948 as a symbolic representation of their claim.

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Afterwards we are given a short tour of the narrow, winding back street of the camp where 28,000 people are crammed into one square kilometre.

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Outside, the footie fans are in high spirits as they await the return of their team. I venture off with a couple of French volunteers to see if we can find some booze up at a Samaritan village in the hills. Nablus is mainly Muslim and dry, but Samaritans follow what they consider to be a pure form of ancient Judaism and have no problem with alcohol. Except we have no luck, because it’s Shabat, (the Sabbath), and the village is shut till sundown. It’s odd: the men wear long robes like monks and the women wear short skirts and make-up.

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We take a walk in the hills and view the Shechem, an ancient and historic monument where it is said the ancient Nation of Israel began. Just to the right of it is the Balata refugee camp, crammed into its one square kilometre of space.

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