I’m walking through Balata refugee camp on the edge of the West Bank’s northern city of Nablus. Following my guide Ramsis, a resident of the camp and a student at the University I am teaching at, he shows me the place which all of his life he has known as home. Covering the area of one quarter of a square kilometre, the camp contains at least 30,000 residents registered with the UNRWA – and probably thousands more in actual terms. Balata is deeply impoverished and overpopulated, and with 64% of its residents unemployed, most struggle to afford electricity and clean water. Public services are also strained far beyond their capacity; up to 40% suffer from health issues related to the overpopulation of the camp, such as respiratory diseases and mental illness, yet in the camp’s only clinic you will find only two doctors and one dentist. With 400 – 500 patients a day, a doctor can only afford to spend 45 seconds with each patient.
I am lead from the main road of the camp towards Ramsis’ home as the streets turn in to alleyways, which gradually turn in to narrow passages no more than half a meter wide. Side-stepping along these chasms, the metallic clinking of bullet shells around our feet becomes a familiar sound.
“Those are here from the last time they came”, he tells me. I ask him when last time was, he ponders and replies- “3 days ago”.
The camp’s density and intricate maze of backstreets makes it the perfect stronghold for members of the armed resistance, its ghetto-like structures an ideological training ground for martyrs. Historically the camp has been at the centre of resistance to the occupation and throughout both intifadas its young men have poured out in the thousands to rebel against Israeli forces. Earlier this year however, the Palestinian Authority launched a crackdown on criminal activities in the camp and often makes intrusions in order to detain its residents under the pretext of theft, selling drugs, and possessing a gun without a permit.
While the PA sees the stemming of such criminal activities as a necessary step towards a settlement with the Israelis, the sentiment among many camp members is one of betrayal. The authorities were targeting the wrong people, the wrong issues. The reaction to the intensified policing has resulted in numerous demonstrations, some of which are violent. As I was travelling to Ramallah one afternoon our taxi was forced to take a detour around the city when the main road leading south, which passes the entrance to Balata, was closed due to protesters. An overturned car lay engulfed in flames before us as the taxi reversed.
Further harrowing incidents made the call for a more direct response to the occupation even louder. The biggest scar upon the Palestinian psyche this year was no doubt that of the settler arson attack which killed the 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh and his family in the village of Duma. Furthermore, the lack of an identified killer means that the case remains in need of a sense of justice. The morning that Reham, Ali’s mother, eventually succumbed to her burns like her son and husband before her, the overpowering cries from student protests echoed across campus and halted a lesson I was delivering. When I walked to the classroom window, I found the University’s courtyard streaming with the unmistakable emerald green banners with white Hamas insignia. Turning back towards the centre of the room, I caught the rolling eyes of a few students amongst a wave of sighs. For me this moment epitomised the contemporary political dilemma facing Palestinian governance in the West Bank, which is the increasing disunity in responding to the occupation. A common feature of discussions I had with locals is that all too often one was either reservedly pro-Fatah or a vociferous Hamas supporter – the moderates still adamant of the harm that Hamas’ military approach can bring to the image of the Palestinians internationally, but with the lack of energy to keep defending leaders who are powerless to end the cycles of settler violence that murdered Ali Dawabsheh, his family and countless others.
Failure on the behalf of Fatah factions in Nablus was already fresh in the minds of its citizens after a recent collapse in the strength of its mandate earlier this summer. Upon my arrival in August I found the city centre at a gridlock due to days of protests against the municipality’s new pre-paid meter system of water distribution, designed to clamp down on water theft but which was in effect unevenly distributing water away from the city’s poorest areas such as Balata and in to other neighbourhoods. The mayor, Ghassan Shaka’ah, resigned along with every member of the municipal council, leaving an unelected group of technocrats to fill the void indefinitely – a move unlikely to instil the people of Nablus with any sense of connection to their political leaders.
After events this summer, the idea is spreading amongst certain groups that they are being punished by their own government for resisting the occupation, causing splinters in the legitimacy of the PA as the voice of the people. It is in a climate of political disarray that uncoordinated individual suicide missions become less surprising. Despite the little protective power the PA has exercised in the past, the feeling of having absolutely no guardian moving in to an uncertain future is no doubt part of the helplessness that has motivated recent attacks. In the past month, over 30 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed after taking matters into their own hands, and it’s hard to see when such occurrences will end.
Whose approach to the atrocities of the occupation will improve the lives of Palestinians? During my time in Palestine it became very clear to me that neither has proven to be fruitful. The circumstances are such that the Israel Defense Forces protect settlers who threaten the safety of Palestinian families and land, while the PA are powerless but to police their own population on behalf of the intruders in the fear that more violence will yield even worse measures from Israel. Neither the frustrated citizens of the West Bank nor the Palestinian Authority can be blamed for their concerns, but what is needed is education and recognition of the way that the occupation is working to exploit these divisions in Palestinian society.