Looking for a Rented Apartment in a Refugee Camp

On an ordinary day in late summer, in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, Mahmoud Jedda encountered a young girl he knows wearing a lovely and clean outfit. She was skipping along with her friends in one of the terraced alleyways.

Second article in a series

On an ordinary day in late summer, in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, Mahmoud Jedda encountered a young girl he knows wearing a lovely and clean outfit. She was skipping along with her friends in one of the terraced alleyways and he noted the sharp contrast between her fastidious clothing and the piles of garbage among the stairs.

"What happened?" he inquired. "Does somebody have a birthday?"

She told him that a new solar heater had been installed in her home, and now she could shower every day. Before that, she explained, when the hot water was heated only by electricity, she and the other members of her family did not shower every day. The electricity was too expensive.

Jedda had a special reason to rejoice at her words. The solar heater was installed by the Nidal ("Struggle") Center where he worked. It was a neighborhood club whose establishment was initiated by the Union of Palestinian Work Committees, which was formed in the late 1960s in an ancient dilapidated house that was subsequently renovated. It mainly organized discussion groups for youth and educational enrichment after school for the children of the Old City. Recently, however, the Center organized a campaign to improve the sanitary state of 18 homes.

Each family was allotted NIS 4,000-5,000 collected from donations, mostly from among the Palestinian community. This solar heater is just one example of the attempts at mutual aid within the Palestinian community to improve their basic living conditions. Traditional Muslim charity organizations, local committees, woman's groups, some of which have a clear-cut feminist orientation, are all Palestinian organizations established by Palestinian political organizations. Because of their clearly social activities, they are registered in Jerusalem as non profit organizations, and rightly so. Nonetheless, not many of the residents are aware of the possibilities that exist to alleviate their distress to some extent, and many more are rejected because the number of needy is far greater than the ability of the organizations to help.

This can also be learned from interviews with subjects for a special project of the Palestinian planning and cooperation ministry together with a number of NGOs and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The project, called Participatory Poverty Assessment, was established in 16 different locations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and completed in 2002. It is founded on the basic assumption that rather than simply using statistical instruments, the indigent population itself must be part of the definition of its situation, its description, discussion of reasons for its poverty and the submission of proposals for change.

The Palestinian project teams also came to four locations within the Jerusalem district of the Palestinian Authority. According to figures from the Palestinian central bureau of statistics from the year 2000, 360,710 Palestinians lived in the Jerusalem district; 231,597 within the municipal boundaries of the Israeli capital and 129,113 on the West Bank. A series of group discussion and personal interviews were held with hundreds of people in the Old City, the Shu'afat refugee camp (which is within the boundaries of the Jerusalem Municipality), with members of the Jahalin tribe and in the Duko village.

The authors of the study learned from the participants in the interviews that in addition to material poverty, poverty also involved a "poor mind-set" and a lack of awareness. The subjects associated this finding with a low level of education and the total lack of awareness among the youth. Among young people that participated in the study, poverty was defined as "a lack of appropriate bringing-up approaches" because the parents lack knowledge in the basic principles of bringing up children.

Increasing awareness is one of the goals of Challenge, a project that deals with training mothers and fathers of young children. The project is funded by the city and the development, supervision and professional counseling comes from the Hebrew University's School of Education.

The project began about 30 years ago among the Jewish population in Israel in poor neighborhoods. About nine years ago, the project was expanded to include the Arab sector, too, including Palestinians in Jerusalem. The goal of the project is to empower parents in their relationship with their children, help them create a more supportive environment for their children, despite the difficult conditions and to decrease domestic violence. The project has worked with more than 250 families in Palestinian Jerusalem in the last three years. The community workers and psychologists note an improvement, but it is just a drop in the bucket in relation to those who need such a program.

A band-aid for a serious illness

Another goal that guides the welfare and education workers in the city is the preventing school dropouts, says Dorit Biran of the welfare department. But she, too, admits that all the many efforts are no more than "band-aids for very serious diseases." Community workers active in the dense neighborhoods of the city report that many young mothers are illiterate. How can they encourage their children to study? Some admit that they continue to have children because of the financial support provided by the government. Others view having children as fulfilling a religious duty.

To their frustration, the community workers note an increase in the number of marriages with underage girls. Jedda was stunned to discover that one of the mothers, a resident of the Sheik Jarah neighborhood, whom he once help obtain financial aid, invited her to the wedding of her 16-year-old daughter. "What? Are you crazy?" he asked her without mincing words. "And who can afford to feed her?" she silenced him with her response.

From 1996, the Palestinians born in Jerusalem lost their rights as residents of the city if they were found to be living outside its municipal boundaries. This was the policy the Interior Ministry introduced in that year, in the final days of the Labor government and the implementation of the Oslo Agreements on the West Bank.

In the wake of battles fought by Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations, the Interior Ministry mitigated its policy and moderated the conditions for maintaining Palestinian residency rights. However, following the outbreak of the bloody events in September 2000 and the establishment of checkpoints that divide Jerusalem and the neighborhoods surrounding it, the Jerusalem residents that lived on the "wrong side" of the checkpoint began to suffer from serious restrictions on their mobility and the inability to get to work, school or health services - to which they were entitled by virtue of their being taxpaying Jerusalemites.

In other words, there were two massive waves of Palestinian return during the past 10 years. Those who did not have relatives in the Old City or who could not afford to buy or rent an apartment in Beit Hanina or Shu'afat, moved to some of the other neighborhoods, including the Shu'afat refugee camp, where the rent is cheaper. Because the area of the camp itself (about 20 hectares or 50 acres) is under the responsibility of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), residents are not charged municipal taxes. For this reason, many of those returning to Jerusalem or those who left the Old City because of the overcrowding there look for an apartment to rent in the already overcrowded camp, in place of the refugee families that managed to save up enough money to leave the camp, or in the new multi-story apartment buildings being built piece by piece on frighteningly unsteady foundations. Some 8,000-9,000 have the status of refugees. In addition, there are a large number of non-refugees, with estimates ranging from 50 to 70 percent of the total population of the camp.

UNRWA is responsible for providing services in the camp, but the number of UNRWA employees is determined by the number of officially registered refugees. Consequently, the number of sanitation workers is inconsistent with the amount of garbage that piles up every day. In the camp, like in other neighborhoods, the local popular refugee committees try to improve the situation with the help and funding of other organizations, such as the UNDP, with a little roof tarring here, repairs to the water system there or a play club for children.

Of the six men sitting in the room of the "popular committee," four had lost their jobs in Western Jerusalem during the last two years. Only the teacher and architect are still working. In the past, people could balance their budgets by buying food and other basic provisions on the West Bank at cheaper prices than in Jerusalem. Now, the checkpoints and roadblocks prevent them from accessing cheaper markets, just as they prevent them from easily reaching places of work on the West Bank. According to the Palestinian central bureau of statistics, 63.6 percent of the residents of Palestinian Jerusalem (two-thirds of whom live within the limits of the Israeli capital), worked in Palestinian territory in 2000, on the West Bank. The rest worked in Israel. One does not have to be an economist to realize that the drastic reduction in economic activity in the West Bank has directly affected the Jerusalem Palestinians as well.

Price of neglect

Last week, among the dozens of Palestinians waiting in the freezing cold to enter the employment office on Koresh Street. in Jerusalem, located right on the seamline between West and East Jerusalem, stood S., about 50, who had come to collect unemployment insurance until he could find another job as a substitute teacher (instead of the one he lost because of his headaches). S. lives in the Old City. His severe headaches, say community workers, are a combined result of the chronic dampness in his home, neglect of health problems - there is not always enough money to purchase medicine, even at the special low rates in the HMOs - and the constant pressure he is under. S. also has children in university - two girls study at Al-Najah University in Nablus. He is unwilling to have them give up their studies. Two days before he went to the employment office, S. entered the office of the Union of Charitable Societies in the Sheik Jarah neighborhood to ask if they could help him get at least part of the NIS 24,000 needed to pay for the girls' tuition. Their traveling from Nablus to Jerusalem eats up quite a large part of the budget, and has become ever more expensive due to the closures and checkpoints. But the Union was unable to help him out.

The Union coordinates the activities of about 180 Palestinian charity organizations in Jerusalem and the central West Bank (Jericho, rural Jerusalem, Bethlehem). For the first time in years, due to the serious situation, it began to distribute food to needy families, rather than just handing out monetary allotments to buy clothing and school supplies for pupils. Palestinian families continue to contribute to the Union, but even the more affluent ones have been hurt by the situation and some have cut back on their monthly contributions, while the demand for help grows.

While the city's welfare department dared to estimate the extent of the poverty in East Jerusalem, according to the figures of the Central Bureau of Statistics from 1999, it was unable to determine the unemployment rate among Palestinian Jerusalemites. For many years, the participation rate of Palestinian men in the Jerusalem workforce was particularly high, and focused mainly on construction, services (especially hotels and restaurants) and various unskilled jobs.

The recession, which has weakened the Israeli economy, has affected them too. The tourism and religion industries, which served as the most important foundation for the economy of East Jerusalem, were hit hard. About 70 tourist shops in the Old City, out of about 250, have closed in the past two years. And the owners of those that have not closed sit around playing backgammon or cards with one another or read the paper. Those not fired due to cutbacks have been dismissed because of the security situation. Some Palestinians have stopped looking for work in the western side of the city, because of the suspicions, humiliating searches, the aggressive and offensive treatment by policemen and the fear of being attacked after a terror bombing.

All are required to produce a "certificate of honesty" to prove they do not have a security record. Now, even those who were in jail 10 years ago for a year, or who were arrested for a week because a relative was put in prison cannot get a certificate of honesty from the police. V., a young father of a little girl, recently lost his job of six years, to the dismay of his satisfied employers, at the instructions of the Shin Bet. It did him no good to explain that he had not been accused of anything, that he was well-known at his job, that a relative had served a sentence of 18 months and been released. V. was lucky. He lives in an apartment building that belongs to his family and does not have to pay rent. His family still has enough savings to support him. But the humiliation and inactivity gnaw away at him. He does not know what to do with his time or what to tell his daughter when she asks for a sweet or a toy.

Yes, the unemployed Palestinians know that many Israelis have it very difficult, too. There is no great difference between a Palestinian or Jewish unemployed, and the tears of their children are the same tears, says an unemployed man from Beit Hanina pensively. He lives in what is considered a well-off neighborhood. It does not suffer from the same destructive overcrowding that one finds in Silwan, Ras Al-Amud, the Old City and the refugee camp. But the poverty has reached there as well, certainly the kind that finds expression in chronic medical neglect.

The Union of Charitable Societies is taking care of a man with cancer, who returned with his family to the city limits from one of the neighborhoods near the city so that they would not lose their residency rights. But according to the rules, he can receive his health insurance rights only two years after his return. Mukassad hospital agreed to treat him at a considerable discount. Now the Union is trying to come up with the rest of the money. There are thousands others like him, who are forced to pay for medical treatments out of their own pockets or who must do without them, with all that this implies. On the list of priorities, when one has to choose between giving a contribution to save a life or for higher education, it appears that the choice is automatic. S. left the offices of the Union with chagrin. On the corner of the same street, there was a long line of people waiting to enter the offices of the National Insurance Institute in East Jerusalem.