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Balata Camp commemorates the Nakba

14 May 2009

Balata residents mark Nakba day

Balata residents mark Nakba day

The Nakba Committee of Nablus organized a commemoration ceremony in Balata village. About 500 people from the area gathered to attend the event where various speeches were given by community officials such as the Mayor of Nablus and others.

Some 500 Palestinians with flags and banners gathered in Balata village at the outskirts of Nablus to observe the 61st memorial day of the Nakba, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians where expelled from their homeland and became refugees.

The mayor of Nablus, Dr. Jamal Mhezen, held a speech about the Nakba and the political situation today. He pointed out that the Palestinian government did everything Israel was asking for, and rhetorically he asked, ”What did Israel do for the Palestinians?” He talked about the rights of return, and emphasized that Palestinians want peace, but that there are more than one ways to achieve it. He encouraged everyone to continue their struggle for peace in memory of the martyrs.

During the speech of the mayor, a fight broke out between two men. The Palestinian police force attempted to disperse the crowd. Several shocked protesters ran away or became panicked. The situation calmed down shortly thereafter and the ceremony was resumed.

On grounds leased from Balata village for 99 years, the UNWRA established Balata Refugee Camp in 1950 following the establishment of the State of Israel and the ensuing war with the Arab countries. According to Mahmoud Subuh, International Relation at the Yafa Cultural Center, some 800,000 Palestinians had become refugees by 1949. Balata Camp is the largest populated refugee camp in the West Bank. Yet it has the smallest surface area of a mere one square kilometer. It was established for 5,000-6,000 refugees, but today, 25,000 live there. Initially, tents were built as a temporary solution to ease the refugee problem until the conflict would be solved, and the UN Resolution 194 “The Rights of Return” implemented. However, the law of return remained in existance only on paper and was never implemented.

The tents of the first 5,000 refugees remained for about 10 years, however. Then, people were allowed to replace them with small houses, 3x3x2 meters, but only with the permission of the UN. Subsequently, residents were allowed to add more stories as the families grew. There are families of up to 80 people living in a single house. Everyone used communal bathrooms initially, but now they have bathrooms separated by gender.

Since 1970, refugees from Balata Camp were allowed to go into Israel to seek employment, which improved the economic situation somewhat. Yet, the cramped living condition in the Camp is extremely hard to deal with. People are fighting with each over minor things out of frustration. Kids are tough, and are seen as the “Mafia” by the village kids who are going to the same school. They do not have a bright future so the objective of the Yafa Cultural Center is to offer art classes, music, filmmaking and other activities to the youth and women.

Balata Camp is very active politically. During the second intifada, 230 refugees of Balata Camp were killed, and 480 are still in prison today. The root of the economic problems is due to the fact that the refugees at Balata Camp came there with nothing. Most of them came from the Yaffa area. Most people are workers. Before the 2nd intifada, about 60% of the Balata refugees worked in Israel. Now, there is a mere 3% due to restrictive laws for Palestinian workers in Israel, harassment at checkpoints, and the Occupation in general.

Children are suffering extremely under this oppression and economic hardship, not getting healthy nutrition and poor education. About 60% of the kids at Balata Camp are anemic. Some 6,000 kids go to three schools, which means that classes have up to 55 students. Psychological problems are very frequent, i.e. children are wetting their beds, are aggressive, etc. What makes the situation worse, is that recently, the UN cut back on services so that the schools have the worst teachers because they are not paid well and are offered only temporary contracts. In terms of health, there is severe shortage of medicine at local hospitals

According to Mahmoud Subuh, the exodus of Balata refugees such as moving to the village, buying their home and build their existence outside the Camp is not the solution. It would take away their status of refugees and with it, they would lose their rights of return. They would become citizens without a state.