Friday, November 3, 2023

Why Are There Still Refugee Camps in Gaza?

This week, we’ve witnessed the aerial attack by Israel against a refugee camp in Gaza under which Hamas built tunnels and other facilities. I’ll leave it to another day (and some of my previous posts about Israel) to discuss the use of refugee camps (and hospitals, schools, mosques, and other civilian infrastructure, not to mention the civilians themselves) by Hamas as shields for Hamas members and ammunition caches and whether it is legal and/or appropriate (morally and/or strategically) for Israel to target a refugee camp (or civilian infrastructure) in order to kill the leaders of Hamas or reduce the group’s fighting effectiveness (but see some of my previous posts on Gaza and proportionate response, such as What Is a "Proportionate Response" to Terror? (Repost), A Few Random Thoughts About Gaza, and Again, I Ask: How Should Israel Respond ).

Instead, I want to take a little time to think about a different question: Why, in 2023, are there still refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, and Lebanon? For today’s post, I’ll largely limit the discussion to Gaza (for obvious reasons).

The Israeli airstrikes targeted the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern part of Gaza. According to page 81 of the Preliminary Results of the Population, Housing and Establishments Census 2017 (a report prepared by Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics [under the heading “State of Palestine”]; I’ll leave it to each reader to determine the extent to which they trust statistics put forth by Palestinian authorities), the population of the Jabalya refugee camp in 2017, was 49,462. The camp should not be confused with the adjacent, much larger town, bearing the same name. The Jabalya refugee camp was established by the United Nations in 1948 following Israel’s War of Independence (or the 1948 Arab-Israeli War depending on your preferred terminology). At the end of the War, Gaza was controlled by Egypt and the camp was created by the newly established United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to provide shelter for Palestinians who had left what was now Israel. Again, the question of who qualifies as a refugee and just how many refugees there were following the War (overall estimates [i.e., not just refugees who sought shelter in Gaza] tend to range between 600,000 – 800,000, but there is a lot of nuance to and disagreement about those numbers) are discussions for another post. Let’s just agree that in 1948 a large number of people sought shelter and support in the newly established Jabalya refugee camp which was operated in the UNRWA in territory controlled by Egypt. I don’t think any portion of that statement should be controversial.

At almost the exact same time, India was being partitioned (also from British controlled territory and also administered, at least in part, by the United Nations). In the process of partitioning India, it is estimated that somewhere between 14 and 18 million people migrated (not all willingly) between the newly created nations. Refugee camps were established in India, Pakistan, and elsewhere to house this mass migration. Yet today, while tens of thousands of people still live in the Jabalya refugee camp, as far as I’ve been able to determine, none of the refugee camps established to deal with refugees following the Indian partition still exist. Oh, yes, there are refugee camps in Pakistan (for refugees from Afghanistan) and India (mostly housing Rohingya refugees), but not for refugees from the 1947 partition and its aftermath. Those refugee populations were incorporated into the population of the countries in which the refugees took shelter. The same can be said about virtually every other conflict between 1947 and the present day. Refugees often begin in refugee camps administered by the United Nations (but not by the same UN agency that administers Palestinian refugee camps) but are then resettled or absorbed into the population of the country in which they sought shelter.

But not in Gaza (or the West Bank). The refugees in the Jabalya camp were not incorporated into the Egyptian population, even though Egypt controlled Gaza. Nor was much of an effort made to create a permanent status for those refugees. Instead, they continued to live in a refugee camp as refugees, as did their children and the generations that followed (that descendants of refugees are considered, themselves, to be refugees, is the rule only with regard to Palestinians; no other descendants of refugees from any other conflict continue to be classified as “refugees”). In 1967, following the Six Day Way, Gaza fell under Israel’s control. However, unlike other areas (like East Jerusalem and the Golan), Israel did not annex Gaza. So, I suppose, the question might be why Israel didn’t try to build a more permanent form of shelter and housing to replace Jabalya during the period from 1967 through 1993 when Israel ceded local administrative control in Gaza to the Palestinian authority. And I suppose that’s a fair question. Though because Gaza was not annexed into Israel, there was no duty incumbent on Israel to incorporate the population of Gaza, refugee or otherwise, into the general population of Israel. But one might also inquire why UNRWA – which operated the camp (and still does) – didn’t do more to move the residents of the camp into a more stable and permanent situation. The same query should be applied to Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, Lebanon, and Jordan. And query what, if any, success Israel might have had in efforts to “resettle” Palestinians in Gaza, had it tried. Of course, the next question is why the Palestinian Authority from and after 1993 didn’t do anything to close the refugee camp and why Hamas has continued that inaction since taking over control of Gaza in 2009. From 1948 – 1967 and then from 1993 to today, Palestinian “refugees” have continued to live in refugee camps notwithstanding that those camps are in an area governed by either an Arab country or a Palestinian governing body.

It’s worth noting that following the 1948 War, there was also enormous movement of Jews from throughout the Arab world and North Africa to Israel. Similarly, beginning in the 1980s, there have been mass migrations of Jews to Israel from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, many of whom had to flee from their homelands due to violence or other forms of persecution. Yet none of those hundreds of thousands (or more) of people still live in refugee camps in Israel.

Countries throughout the world, including the United States (which is the largest single donor country) provide literally billions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians. And yet tens of thousands of people still live in refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank. Could it be that the Palestinians chose to use the money either for weapons (Hamas) or other corrupt purposes (the Palestinian Authority)? Note that it is estimated that when in he died in 2004, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat had a net worth of over a billion dollars! Hmm. Where did that money all come from and what was it supposed to be used for?

Rather than use donor funds for their intended purposes, Arafat regularly diverted money to his own accounts. It is amazing that some U.S. officials still see the Palestinian Authority as a partner even after U.S. congressional records revealed authenticated PLO papers signed by Arafat in which he instructed his staff to divert donors’ money to projects benefiting himself, his family, and his associates.

Arafat's Swiss Bank Account. Current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is estimated to have a net worth in excess of one hundred million dollars. According to IsraelHamas leaders net worth: Abu Marzuk $3 billion [¶] Khaled Mashal $4 billion [¶] Ismail Haniyet $4 billion [¶] Hamas' annual turnover $1 billion. And note that none of those Hamas leaders live in Gaza. How many houses (even with bomb shelters!), how much clean water, how much infrastructure, could have been built in Gaza with those billions? Keep in mind that just a few days ago, a Mousa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official told Russia Today that “We have built the tunnels to protect ourselves from getting targeted and killed. These are meant to protect us from the airplanes” and that “It is the responsibility of the UN to provide [the Palestinians] with all the services as long as they are under occupation.” In other words, it is not the responsibility of Hamas to care for the people it governs or to use the money that it receives for their benefit.

I wonder. Is it possible that the leaders of Hamas (and the Palestinian Authority before them) don’t really care about the well-being of the Palestinian people, at least not to the extent that doing so would prevent them from lining their own pockets (or buying more rockets)? More importantly, is it possible that from a political or realpolitik perspective, there is a sort of perverse value in having Palestinians continue living in refugee camps? Just think of the visceral reaction that you probably had when you heard that Israel had bombed a refugee camp; somehow, that sounds so much worse that bombing a town, doesn’t it? Query further the attitudes and anger (or despair) that one can and should expect from people who have been living in refugee camps (along with several generations of ancestors) for seventy-five years at least in large part because their own leaders pocketed the money and made no effort to help them. It’s likely to breed a sort of resentment and anger that is easily targeted by those same corrupt leaders toward an external enemy instead of, perhaps, at those in leadership positions who have apparently chosen to keep those people in refugee camps.

One other point worth noting (though somewhat off-topic) for those who claim that Israel’s actions amount to a genocide against Palestinians. According to the Preliminary Results report referenced above, the Palestinian population has not been showing the sort of decline that might be expected were ethnic cleansing, let alone a genocide, occurring. According to page 11 of that report, the total population of the West Bank and Gaza increased over sixty-five percent (65%) in just twenty years!



% Increase

Cumulative % Increase










The current international definition of genocide (from the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide) provides that “genocide” means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” (Emphasis added.) Now, consider Israel’s actions largely designed to protect its own population (approximately 20% of which are Muslim and Christian Palestinians) taking note, in particular, of the increase in the growth of the Palestinian population, and ask yourself whether Israel’s actions really constitute genocide. Has Israel really been acting “with intent to destroy … a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”? By contrast, consider the actions (and statements in support of those actions) of Hamas, which include trying to murder the populations of entire kibbutzim and towns which is, itself, in furtherance of the stated goal of not only eliminating Israel but also of killing Jews. Who, then, is actually committing genocide?

Next time you hear people marching, Palestinians flags waving above their heads, to the chant of “From the river, to the sea, Palestine will be free,” think about how anybody could chant that they want a genocide and how any of us (or our institutions, like universities) could tolerate chants demanding a genocide.

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