A few months ago, I travelled to Tel Aviv. I also visited Nablus and the West Bank. During a visit to the Balata refugee camp, near Nablus, an Indian friend visiting with me sighed that it reminded him of the Mumbai slums.
The narrow alleyways were grim. A few rats sprinted in the dust, breaking the eerie silence (it’s strange given how overpopulated the place is). According to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), it was originally intended to serve 5,000 Palestinian refugees who lost their homes after 1948. Today, Balata is the largest of all 19 camps in the West Bank and home to 27,000 people.
Unemployment is high. Health clinic services are overcrowded. Almost 60% of the residents are under the age of 25. The schools serve 2,500 students, which makes me wonder: what are the other kids up to? This refugee camp is a humanitarian, public health, educational, socio-economic and political disaster – as is the Palestinian refugee issue in general.
I thought about a book I had just read: "Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System." Alexander Betts and Paul Collier argue that the refugee camp model that has prevailed until today across global conflict zones is fundamentally flawed.
Refugee camps clearly answer immediate needs: providing access to food, clothing and shelter in times of emergency.
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But if they become a longer-term institution, they place recipients in a state of dependency. In other words, they are offering the opposite structures and opportunities to what refugees need: resettlement, integration, employment and the chance to rebuild their lives.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been pumped yearly into UNRWA - but what can be seen for it? A continuation of a "state of emergency" but no rebuilding. Conditions remain dismal and refugees can’t project any alternative future.
Last May, the Swiss foreign minister Ignazio Cassis stated out loud what many donors acknowledge behind the scenes: UNRWA may have worked as a solution for a long time, but today it has become "part of the problem."
He was lambasted for admitting the obvious. It shows how tribal certainties and intellectual short-cuts on both sides can pollute any debate around aid to the Palestinian refugees.
The camps fuel unrealistic hopes of return to places of origin. They preserve the status quo, and therefore maintain the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock. With the Trump administration’s recent cut-off of nearly $300 million in aid to UNRWA, the time has come to explore how to make aid truly effective.
"OK, let’s move on! I will now show you a positive Palestinian success story!” said our guide, eager to reverse the mood. He took us to Rawabi, otherwise known as Palestine’s "billion-dollar city." The lavish construction situated in the hills of the West Bank promises to accommodate 40,000 residents. Packed with vibrant cafés and luxury stores, it hosts a spectacular Roman amphitheatre and even a football stadium.
Co-funded by Palestinian millionaire Bashar Al-Masri and Qatar’s Diar Real Estate Company, a sovereign wealth fund, it is a joint venture of more than $1 billion. Other investors include the Islamic Development Bank (Al-Aqsa Fund), Palestine Investment fund, and various commercial banks.
The project exudes ambition and Gulf-style opulence. According to press reports, a typical apartment in Rawabi costs $95,000 - cheaper than Ramallah, but well above what many Palestinians can afford.
Rawabi offers both good news and less optimistic news. Above all, it’s a missed opportunity for improving the conditions of refugees in the West Bank – and offering a new model away from dependence, towards greater autonomy.
The good news is that Rawabi offers an optimistic vision for Palestinians. It encourages (to expand) a core upper-middle class to remain and thrive in what could become an attractive and competitive Palestinian state. Nurturing this socio-economic fabric is of utmost importance for any long-lasting peace: Studies have shown that a stable middle class is core to ensuring stability, democracy and growth in all countries, and particularly in developing ones.
The city is also located in areas A and B of the West Bank that, since the Oslo Accords, fall under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians can project themselves living here on a long-term basis – despite the tattered state of the Oslo Accords. At the very least, the project forces Israelis and Palestinians to continue talking to each other (for sorting out pending water issues for example).
Rawabi also offers a whole ecosystem that can empower residents in the long-term, thanks to its schools, fellowships, a tech hub, office complexes, cultural and sports facilities, restaurants and social spaces, pharmacies, mosques and churches, and much more.
Basically, it offers exactly what the Balata refugee camp does not.
The depressing news is that Rawabi is a commercial venture and an elite project. It was envisaged to make a profit, not to transform the qualitative fabric of Palestinian society.
Over a billion dollars have been invested - but there are no subsidized flats or any economic assistance programmes aimed towards easing the housing costs for Palestinians with low incomes. Rawabi developers worked with banks to introduce mortgages but the project deprives the less fortunate – such as the refugees of Balata--to climb up the social ladder. Whereas affordable housing is frequently subsidized in Europe, clearly that doesn’t fit into the Qatari scheme.
Balata and Rawabi are 24 km apart. How can the refugee camps’ despair coexist side by side with the optimism - and opulence - of this new Palestinian city?
In the West Bank, millions of dollars are tossed at projects and each one has its solitary agenda. What is sorely lacking are those investing in the big picture. Surely major international donors, UNRWA-donors (mostly from Western states), Gulf states, the private business sector, philanthropists and NGOs should coordinate to push towards a common vision?
Ironically the dramatic cuts by the Trump administration of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians could serve as an opportunity. Rather than rushing to other states to fill the funding gap for the same failed model, it’s time to "spend smarter" - to make a real impact.
Both UNRWA and Rawabi provide education, employment opportunities, health services and recreation. The first promotes a vicious cycle of dependence. The second aims for a virtuous cycle of success.
UNRWA cannot transform overnight into a luxury Rawabi model. But if the Rawabi residential complex integrated some of the refugees, in coordination with UNRWA, it would transform itself from being an economic endeavour to an original political model to learn from.
It would not have been impossible for the refugees of Balata to benefit somehow from the Rawabi infrastructures. It would not have been impossible for UNRWA to learn from this project and to stop perpetuating Palestinian dependency in the West Bank. It would not have been impossible to replace the lavish football stadium with subsided housing so that Palestinian refugees could climb up the social ladder.
Gulf glitz and glamor is good. But people and their future, on a far larger scale, are more important.