Qualandya Refugee Camp is one of Ramallah’s three refugee camps. The camp is close to the Qualandya checkpoint but, of course, on the Palestinian side of the Wall. There are about 13,000 refugees in the camp; people who during the war of 1948 and the years after, had been driven out of Jaffa, Ramleh and other cities in what is now considered Israel. Qualandya was founded in 1953, and after 60 years is still functioning as a UN refugee camp.
The Centre for Jerusalem Studies had organised a visit to the camp, and so this was a good opportunity to get a closer impression of the life and living conditions of Palestinian refugees. I had driven past the camp many times on my way to Jerusalem but had always hesitated to visit the area because I wasn’t comfortable with the thought of being a tourist in a refugee camp. However, Jerusalem Studies organise proper trips there every once in a while and it’s my experience that Palestinians are usually very happy to have visitors so that they can tell about their living conditions, stories that we foreigners can take with us to the rest of the world.
As the trip started in Jerusalem, I took a service taxi-bus from Ramallah to the checkpoint and met the group in the camp, after spending some time looking for them. I found the group on its way to one of the UN-run schools. The refugees that live in the camp try as much as possible to preserve the temporary nature of the place, as it is a refugee camp and not a permanent settlement. The aim for the refugees and their children is to return to the places in Israel from which they fled; an important aspect of Palestinian self-perception is this ‘right to return’. This is why the camp doesn’t have any local council and the refugees consistently try to avoid establishing any structures that might give the impression that the camp is developing into a permanent village or something similar. In this way, we only met representatives of the various centres in the camp, as there are no representatives of the camp as such, apart from the UN who also own the area where the camp is located. The schools here are divided into a girls’ and a boys’ school. Both are run by the UN. Hudda from Jerusalem Studies told us that there were around 35 pupils in each class and that the school ran from 1st to 9th grade. If you wanted to continue education after 9th grade, you have to look for it outside the camp. Summer school was on at the moment and so there was a group of girls looking and smiling at us while one of the employees at the school told us about the education they offer in the camp. After that we went on a tour of the camp through its small winding roads until we reached the wide open landscape on the other side of the camp. The Qualandya camp lies high on a hilltop but on the next hill, which is slightly higher, there was an Israeli settlement. It seems a repetitive pattern that there are settlements close to all refugee camps overlooking the cluster of small, tightly built buildings. This is the pattern in several places in Ramallah and the surrounding area. It’s pretty symbolic, as well as very practical, that the colonising power can in this way continuously keep an eye on the colonised people below.
The area between the refugee camp and the settlement is in Zone C, and so is under Israeli control. Ramallah, though, has growing pains and so the city is expanding and spilling over into the Israeli-controlled areas. Nasser, one of the people who lives in the camp, was showing us around and told us that the Israelis frequently came with bulldozers and tore down people’s homes that didn’t have a building permit. Within recent years, in the space just between the camp and the settlement, 8-9 houses had been torn down without warning. The Israelis simply don’t give building permission in the more than 60% of the West Bank that is Zone C. More than 1,600 Palestinian buildings have been torn down by the Israelis between 2000 and 2007, even buildings which were built before the Zones had been implemented. The Zones were a result of the Oslo Accords.
From this viewpoint over towards the settlement, we walked to one of the first buildings that had been built in the camp by the UN in the 1950s. It stood like an empty shell, and as an example of the living conditions of the refugees in the camp. It was probably 3 x 3 metres, and was to be the temporary home for an entire Palestinian family. Some of the Palestinians on the tour said that this house was pure luxury compared to the conditions in some of the other camps: Jalazone camp, for example, on the other side of Ramallah. As we stood there between the empty concrete walls, it was all a bit abstract and not that easy to understand, but the space definitely wasn’t big. The tour ended in the social centre of the camp where there were toys and sewing equipment on the shelves. This was where we were going to have lunch: falafel and bread. The tour was perhaps a bit too touristy and there were many people who had never before dared enter the occupied territories. Although I am, to some extent, a tourist here as well, the atmosphere was just a bit too voyeuristic despite the effort of our guides who did their best to talk about life in the camp. However, I was happy about the visit but sneaked off and took the service taxi back to Ramallah before the bus with the rest of the group carried on to the Amari camp in the centre of the city.