West Bank refugees look up­wards to grow


Nael al-Sharif is work­ing on an ex­ten­sion to his prop­erty in the Jala­zon refugee camp in the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied West Bank. But he is not build­ing out­wards — in­stead he’s ex­pand­ing up­wards.

In many of the Pales­tinian camps, which have evolved down the decades into densely pop­u­lated ar­eas teem­ing with nar­row al­ley­ways, fam­i­lies that can­not af­ford to buy new land sim­ply add floors to ex­ist­ing prop­erty.

Sharif, 43, says his two-story home is too small for his en­tire fam­ily of around 30 peo­ple, so he is look­ing to add an­other two floors.

“We’re suf­fer­ing from an enor­mous hous­ing prob­lem,” he tells AFP.

“We’re prac­ti­cally sleep­ing on top of each other — my six sons share one sin­gle room, and me, my wife and two other chil­dren sleep in an­other.

“So we de­cided to build two more floors. I can’t af­ford any more land out­side the camp.”

With grow­ing con­cerns about safety in the ever- ex­pand­ing camps, the U.N. agency for Pales­tinian refugees (UNRWA), has banned con­struc­tion be­yond two floors on foun­da­tions not de­signed to sup­port tall build­ings.

An UNRWA spokesman con­firmed the prohibition, say­ing the agency does not pro­vide aid to home own­ers who break the rule.

“Over the years, th­ese camps have trans­formed from tem­po­rary ‘tent cities’ into hy­per­con­gested masses of multi-story build­ings with nar­row al­leys, char­ac­ter­ized by high con­cen­tra­tions of poverty and ex­treme over­crowd­ing,” the agency says on its web­site.

“The camps are con­sid­ered to be among the dens­est ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments in the world, but be­cause camp struc­tures were built for tem­po­rary use, over the decades the build­ings have be­come over­crowded, crit­i­cally sub­stan­dard and in many cases lifethreat­en­ing,” UNRWA says.

But the ban has had lit­tle ef­fect, with res­i­dents say­ing they have no choice but to look to the sky.

More Peo­ple, Less Land

Jala­zon, seven kilo­me­ters (4.5 miles) north of the West Bank city of Ra­mal­lah, is one of 18 U.N.-run refugee camps in the West Bank.

Es­tab­lished in 1949 on 25 hectares (62 acres) of land, it was orig­i­nally home to 2,500 peo­ple.

To­day, Jala­zon’s pop­u­la­tion num­bers 14,000, of­fi­cials at the camp say.

Lo­cated next to the Bet El Jewish set­tle­ment, it is the scene of near daily clashes be­tween young­sters and Is­raeli troops with the army keep­ing a close eye on the camp’s perime­ter fence.

Although its pop­u­la­tion has grown, the camp has not. This has caused a se­vere hous­ing short­age, prompt­ing res­i­dents to build the only way they can — up­wards, in a chaotic fash­ion and with­out ar­chi­tec­tural in­put.

“Hous­ing is a big prob­lem here,” says 60-year-old Khadija Dawud whose three-story home is crammed with 63 fam­ily mem­bers.

“We can’t buy land out­side the camp be­cause we can’t af­ford it.”

Mah­mud Mubarak, who heads the lo­cal com­mit­tee which runs Jala­zon, con­firms that peo­ple are build­ing up­wards be­cause they can­not af­ford new land.

“In 1950, UNRWA built one room and a kitchen for each fam­ily of five, and two rooms and a kitchen for each fam­ily larger than that,” he said.

“Pop­u­la­tion growth has been a mas­sive prob­lem, and prop­er­ties have been ex­tended in an un­safe way. But they have no choice.”

Both UNRWA and the camp’s lo­cal com­mit­tee have warned about the grow­ing height of build­ings.

“This sit­u­a­tion is danger­ous for the camp’s res­i­dents be­cause build­ing work is done un­safely, with­out ar­chi­tec­tural su­per­vi­sion, and on un­sta­ble foun­da­tions,” Mubarak says.

“If there’s no so­lu­tion, the sit­u­a­tion will get worse, and ... the build­ings will just get even


Be­gan as Tented Camp

UNRWA public in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer Nader Dagher told AFP that the lack of space cou­pled with pop­u­la­tion growth was a ma­jor con­cern.

“Th­ese camps be­gan as tents on the ground. Most of the camps were built on less than half a square kilo­me­ter, and this is not suf­fi­cient to al­low for nat­u­ral pop­u­la­tion growth,” Dagher says.

The 18 West Bank camps and one in Shuafat in an­nexed east Jerusalem col­lec­tively house around 220,000 peo­ple, U.N. fig­ures show.

Es­tab­lished in ter­ri­tory that was then held by Jor­dan, they pro­vided tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion for Pales­tini­ans who fled or were forced out of their homes dur­ing the war that ac­com­pa­nied Is­rael’s estab­lish­ment in 1948.

“We are truly con­cerned about the safety of peo­ple in­side the camps, es­pe­cially as some have built their houses loom­ing over streets, and we are try­ing to dis­cuss plan­ning with lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives,” Dagher says.

He says ex­pand­ing be­yond the perime­ters of the camps is not fea­si­ble since most were built along­side ex­ist­ing Pales­tinian towns and vil­lages, near Jewish set­tle­ments or along­side the tow­er­ing West Bank bar­rier.

“The so­lu­tion is to have a com­pre­hen­sive res­o­lu­tion of the refugee is­sue and not through a par­tial so­lu­tion here or there.”

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