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Palestinian refugees: encountering the faces behind the numbers

An unplanned detour in Jordan put a human face on a key part of the neighborhood in which Israelis live

Itamar became silent and looked disturbed the moment our cab entered the main street of the Gaza Refugee Camp in Jerash, Jordan. I could only imagine what was going through his mind. Just six weeks earlier, he’d been wearing full combat regalia, ready to march into Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense. Now here we both were, looking at the crumbling houses, the almost empty streets, and the dirty roads of one of the worst Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan.

I became friends with Itamar while serving in Maglan, a small IDF commando unit. Last summer I studied Arabic in Amman, which expanded my perspective on the Arab world both politically and culturally. I lived with an Arab Israeli, mingled with his community, and met people from Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as many Palestinian refugees. Among them, some were worldly and intellectual and had traveled to more places in the Western world than I have. However, some of the others I met had never left the region. These are people I would never have a chance to meet in a layover in New York or a cafe in Paris. As an Israeli, I felt that I’d been given a special opportunity to gain a more personal understanding of our region; an understanding I wanted to share. Last week, I asked Itamar to tag along for a few days in Jordan with me.

Visiting a refugee camp, however, wasn’t part of the original plan. We spent the first day in Amman, and then we drove north to Jerash, expecting to see the famous beautiful Roman ruins of the city. However, a conversation with a taxi driver, a refugee himself, sparked our interest; we wanted to see the conditions of the people there with our own eyes.

Gaza Refugee Camp in Jerash, Jordan (photo credit: Itamar Willenz)
Gaza Refugee Camp in Jerash, Jordan (photo credit: Itamar Willenz)

Arriving at the camp, we exited the cab and walked along the narrow alcoves of a market that was slowly shutting down. Established as an emergency camp in 1968, the grounds were originally intended for Palestinian refugees from the Gaza strip after the 1967 war. Initially people lived in tents, but concrete shelters were built rapidly with the aid of outside donations. Now, in 2013, the shelters do not appear to have been renovated since their original construction. According to UNRWA, only one in four shelters remains suitable for accommodation.

We felt tension. Unlike other places in Jordan I visited, no one approached or greeted us. No one smiled at us, invited us to come into his shop or asked us to be photographed. There were almost no women in the streets and the men standing outside were rather quiet.

Jordan denies citizenship to residents of the camp. Therefore many of them cannot work outside the camp. Some make a small living at the camp’s workshops as carpenters or locksmiths. The camp suffers from poverty and overpopulation. 11,500 people came there after the 6 day war. Today, the 24,000 residents share one health center and four small schools.

Reaching the edge of the camp, a beautiful view of the hilly area and the wide valley revealed itself to us. Itamar finally spoke again. He found it difficult to express himself well. “Just a few weeks ago I was outside Gaza with our team preparing for the operation” he said and looked around. “And now this,” he gestured towards the gray camp.

Only after we left the camp was he able to speak openly. “I felt safer when I was thinking about going into Gaza than in this camp. I knew that some of us might get hurt if we entered Gaza, but I felt that my life was in my hands. Here, on the other hand, I was afraid that if anyone were to find out that I am Israeli it would be the end of me; feeling powerlessness is scarier than walking into a danger you are familiar with.”

That night, we crossed the border back into Israel. Itamar drove us home to Jerusalem in his Toyota. It was late at night, the roads were empty and he drove the dark Route 90 smoothly. Itamar still looked troubled. “I don’t hold myself responsible for wrongs that happened years before I was born. But seeing some of the consequences of the conflict I am part of is not easy.” And indeed it is not, I silently agree with him. “But knowing about it and facing it, is an imperative,” I say aloud.

The issue of the Palestinian refugees who live outside the borders of Israel is widely spoken about in Israel. To some, the refugees merely represent another problem, while others speak of their right of return. I don’t have answers; I don’t have a one line conclusion that sums up our trip or my world view after it. What I do know however, is that for most Israelis those refugees are unfamiliar. They are referred to by numbers, not faces.

Palestinian refugees: faces not just numbers (photo credit: Itamar Willenz)
Palestinian refugees: faces not just numbers (photo credit: Itamar Willenz)

I am concerned with the future of Israel, and I think that our biggest threat is not Iran or a demographic challenge, but ignorance. If I want to remain a citizen of Israel, not Palestine, and I do, I need to understand better the climate in which we live in. And the identity, conditions, and aspirations of the Palestinian refugees are an inseparable part of our neighborhood. How well do we know them?

About the Author
Natan is a novelist and an MA student at Hebrew University