The forgotten camp:
In the West Bank with Operations Support
Associate and Board member
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March 4, 2008
One sunny morning last December I joined John Torday, an Operations Support Officer (OSO) (1), on a visit from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA)(2) HQ in Jerusalem to New Fahme, a village in the vicinity of Nablus in the West Bank. The aim of the trip was to confirm whether or not the residents of New Fahme were registered refugees who had somehow been overlooked by UNRWA and were in need of assistance.
On the road heading out from Jerusalem, John explained that the OSO mandate is to try to maintain the neutrality of United Nations (UN) property from abuse by Israelis or Palestinians; this includes the movement of UN food and medical convoys through Israeli checkpoints. OSOs also have a protection mandate; they might, for example, be asked to evaluate the local population’s level of food security, or to assess the damage caused to Palestinian homes following an incursion by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and then liaise with a social worker to evaluate the needs of families whose houses have been destroyed, including whether they can file for compensation.
An intrinsic part of OSO work is the simple task of driving through Israeli military checkpoints inside the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). At the first checkpoint on the way to New Fahme, we predictably found a queue of vehicles. UN cars are permitted to slowly overtake other vehicles in such instances. The procedure has been arranged with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) to ensure UN staff don’t get held up for hours. Despite this, as we reached the head of the queue, we were pulled over by an angry soldier. John kept his calm and explained to the soldier that the agreement between the UN and Israel existed and was necessary for the OSO work to be done. The soldier was neither convinced nor happy with what John was saying and seemed intent on getting him to promise he wouldn’t make the manoeuvre again. After repeated exchanges, the soldier eventually allowed us to drive on. I have to admit the experience made me feel tense, yet as the day progressed and we passed military checkpoint after military checkpoint, I realised that this was something OSOs had to get used to.
On the way to New Fahme the road took us near the abandoned Jewish settlement of Homesh, which I had heard about frequently in the local newspapers. Often Jewish settlers try to make their way back there in a sign of protest at their eviction. “The view from up on the hill where Homesh used to be is beautiful,” said John, “On a clear day you can see as far as the Mediterranean Sea.” We decided to take a few minutes to drive up there. It was incredible – nothing was left of Homesh settlement apart from the old water tank. We stepped out of the car to take in the view.
Despite the apparent desertedness of the place, within a few minutes four youngsters showed up and started walking towards us. John signalled to me and Haitham – a fellow OSO who was John’s interpreter - to return to the car. The first youngster was shouting angrily in Hebrew. John tried to explain he didn’t speak Hebrew. The youngster – aged around 15 – continued to shout at us aggressively. Then one of his friends took the courage to speak to us in English. His English was patchy, but certainly better than any Hebrew we spoke. The boy asked us if we believed in the Bible. He said that the Bible held that all the land of historic Palestine belonged to Israel. He felt the world had abandoned the Jews because they weren’t being supported in their moves to settle in “Judea and Samaria”.(3) We discovered that the teenagers had been camping on this hill for a number of months.
After Homesh, our drive took us passed Silat ad Daher and on to New Fahme. There, with Haitham as translator, John began his enquiry. “How many refugees live in the village?”
John, Haitam, head of village, and villagers • Photo The author © 2008
“Around 500,” said Mr Samir abu Sha the head of the village council, “We are the Forgotten Camp.”
Given the number of refugees involved, John went through a thorough series of questions to find out what UNRWA might or might not be able to do. Many of the refugees were originally from Haifa and Acca and had fled in 1948, whilst the others were from Gaza. Samir said they’d been brought from Gaza in trucks in 1970, under the orders of Ariel Sharon, and had been forbidden to return. John asked if they had been brought to New Fahme because they’d collaborated with the Israelis – there was a rumour to that effect. “None of the people here now are collaborators,” said Samir, “It was their predecessors.” Samir said that in 1994 - in the wake of the Oslo Accords - Israel had given these collaborators Israeli IDs and they’d moved out of New Fahme.
Samir took us to visit two Special Hardship Cases (SHCs). It turned out that 25 families in New Fahme probably come under this category of people in severe need of assistance:
Najwa was sitting in her wheel chair baking bread in an outside oven. Next to her was one of her daughters and her son, who is mentally disabled. Najwa’s leg was injured by an explosive device in January 2002. It wasn’t clear whether this device belonged to the IDF or to local militia and whether or not it was a deliberate act intended to inflict a civilian casualty. After a number of months in the hospital, the doctors decided to amputate Najwa’s leg.
Najwa • Photo The author © 2008
Now she spends all her time at home. As I looked around it was clear that somebody had carried her outside as it wasn’t possible for Najwa to wheel herself around the rough, littered terrain; moreover, there were steps going into her home. She said the YMCA had put some ramps in her house so at least once she was inside she had some degree of mobility. The wheel chair was a second-hand one found by her husband, who makes a living collecting and selling on empty plastic bottles and aluminium cans.
The second SHC we visited was facing similarly dire challenges. Ibrahim, the head of the household, has become addicted to heroin, most likely – in my opinion - as an escape from the difficulties he faces on a daily basis. Like many of the other inhabitants of New Fahme, he is unemployed and sinking further into debt. Many of his family members are unwell: one of his sons is mentally disabled, his wife needs an operation but can’t get a permit from the Israelis to travel out of the West Bank to the hospital in Jerusalem, and his one-year-old granddaughter is suffering from a serious heart condition.
Rubbish • Photo The author © 2008
Leaving Ibrahim’s home, we returned to Samir abu Sha’s office. Samir said he hoped UNRWA might help rebuild some of the houses in the village that were at risk of collapse. John was candid and explained that the Agency (4) was experiencing an austerity period and that at best there was the hope that a social worker could visit the SHCs to make a proper assessment of their situation, after which they could apply to UNRWA for specific needs-related assistance. A mobile clinic was another option that John was considering recommending to UNRWA given the number of refugees in the village.
Despite John’s initial hesitation, an idea for salvaging the collapsing houses by applying to UNRWA’s Job Creation Programme (JCP) was broached. It seemed there was a chance that through JCP the villagers might be able to receive cement and other materials from UNRWA to enable them to restore their homes. Samir was enthusiastic about this idea not only because it would make the houses safe for villagers, but also because it would provide the men with work and an income. As with Najwa’s husband, the main source of employment at the moment in New Fahme is the sale of scrap iron, aluminium and plastic. The men used to sell this waste to Israel, but this trade has all but stopped because of the Israeli-imposed restrictions on the movement of people and goods in the oPt.
Young boy • Photo The author © 2008
Driving away from New Fahme, I admired the beauty of the undulating hills that stretched into the distance. As we approached Jerusalem, however, the view became scarred by the Barrier, a concrete wall that serpentines for kilometres between Israel and the Palestinian territory as well as around Palestinian towns themselves. This despite a July 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice that Israel's West Bank barrier is illegal.
1. “Since 2001, the Operations Support Officer (OSO) programme has supported the delivery of UNRWA’s emergency services in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) in conditions of heightened restrictions on access and movement within Palestinian areas. OSOs have facilitated delivery of essential aid to refugees in isolated communities, including those under military siege or curfew, and coordinated UNRWA and inter-agency responses to conflict- and non-conflict related crises.” UNRWA Emergency Appeal 2008, p.24, http://www.un.org/unrwa/emergency/appeals/2008-appeal.pdf
2. United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East
3.Judea and Samaria is how many Jews refer to the West Bank.
4.The Agency is a term used to refer to UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East)
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