It was a typical Tuesday morning in the Shufat Refugee Camp in occupied East Jerusalem. Children made their way to school through the narrow alleyways, while men and women on their way to work waited in line at the two military checkpoints in the camp: one leading to Ramallah, one to Jerusalem.
The camp’s residents were surprised to find 15 sanitation workers from Israel’s Jerusalem Municipality, escorted by Israeli border police and garbage trucks, picking up trash in the streets. Among them was Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
“We were surprised to see them picking up trash from the streets, because this is the job of the UNRWA sanitation workers,” Shaher Alqam, 51, a resident of the camp told Mondoweiss.
Though located within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, Shufat Camp and its estimated 24,000 residents — the majority of whom are holders of Jerusalem IDs — are completely enclosed by Israel’s separation wall, cutting it off from the rest of the city.
Like other refugee camps across the occupied Palestinian territory, Shufat was established, and is still largely run under the control of UNRWA in terms of social services, education, and health care. Israeli municipal services, including trash collection, are few and far between.
“Whenever the municipality makes a rare appearance in the camp, it is only to distribute dozens of fines on vehicles that are parked ‘illegally’ in the camp,” Alqam said, referring to an Israeli raid on Shufat on October 16.
“They never come to clean up trash or do anything that benefits the Jerusalemites living here,” he said. “In this camp, we fly the blue UNRWA flag and survive with the help of UNRWA, not the Israeli occupation municipality.”
‘First step to ending the refugee lie’
The cleanup, largely regarded by locals as a power play by Barkat, was publicized by the right-wing Mayor as the first step in his plans to “end the refugee lie” and shut down UNRWA operations in Jerusalem — plans which he announced earlier this month.
In a Facebook post praising the move, Barkat said “we will continue working with the government to replace education services, welfare, and healthcare,” adding, “in Jerusalem there are no refugees, but residents, and they need to get the services from the city like any other resident.”
“The United States does not want UNRWA, Israel does not want UNRWA and the residents do not want UNRWA,” he said.
What was thought to be nothing more than a one off publicity stunt, has continued everyday since October 24, according to residents.
“The municipality workers have started making problems for the UNRWA workers, telling them ‘you can’t do this and that,’ and trying to make it hard for them to do their jobs,” Khader al-Dibs, 53, a member of the local council in Shufat told Mondoweiss.
“Nir Barkat is using his power and racism against the Palestinians in Jerusalem to get more clout in the Israeli government and in the Likud party by shutting down UNRWA, something no one has done before,” al-Dibs said.
In response to the events in Shufat, UNRWA spokesperson Sami Mshasha said in statement that “our operations in Jerusalem, including in Shufat refugee camp, continue uninterrupted. This is a humanitarian imperative and is in fulfillment of our mandate and our obligations to Palestine refugees we are mandated to serve in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem”.
Palestinian Authority (PA) news agency Wafa quoted Mshasha as saying the municipality’s initial entry to the camp on October 23rd was not coordinated with UNRWA, and that the agency was not notified in advance by the municipality of its intentions.
He added that UNRWA services to Palestinian refugees in Jerusalem “continue unabated.”
No security under municipality’s watch
Despite reassurances from UNRWA itself, the residents of Shufat see the daily presence of the Israeli municipality as a growing threat.
Shufat Camp is home to 23,000 Palestinians, around 19,000 of whom are registered with UNRWA and receive core services from the agency, including healthcare, education, sanitation, and food assistance. Security issues lie under the jurisdiction of the municipality.
When he announced his plans to shut down UNRWA in Jerusalem, Barkat said that the Jerusalem municipality would assume all of the agency’s responsibilities for Palestinian refugees in Jerusalem, including Shufat — a claim that residents are finding difficult to believe.
Jampacked into an area of .203 sq km, completely surrounded by Israel’s militarized separation wall, the residents of Shufat Camp suffer from high unemployment rates — around 20% in the camp — widespread drug abuse, and gun violence.
Many of the camp residents, like Alqam, believe that Israeli police and municipality authorities have let drugs and violence run unhindered in the camp as another means of suppression of the population.
“We are surrounded by military forces and the wall, and are constantly subjected to detention raids in the middle of the night,” Alqam, told Mondoweiss. “But the Israelis only arrest people from the camp if they are a political threat.”
“There is no sense of security here for our children. There are drugs and violence, and the Israelis know about it, but they don’t do anything to improve the situation,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe the municipality would do any good for the situation if it were to take over.
Al-Dibs expressed similar sentiments to Mondoweiss. “We are located within the Jerusalem municipal boundaries, but Israel built this wall around us like a prison,” he said.
“If people are sick and need an ambulance, they have to wait to pass through the checkpoints, because the Israeli soldiers guarding the entrance don’t always let ambulances into the camp,” he said, adding that “many homes have burned to the ground,” as a result of firetrucks not being let inside the camp.
“We can see there are many places in Jerusalem where Arabs live, and the municipality doesn’t give them services like the Jews,” Alqam said, pointing to cases of neglected roads, high water and electricity prices, lack of building permits, and continued home demolitions in East Jerusalem.
“If the municipality takes over the camp, this same thing will happen to us,” he said.
No money to pay for municipal services
One of the major concerns for residents of Shufat like Alqam, who is the father of nine children, is the financial strain that would be put on families if the municipality was to take over operations in the camp.
“We are already living in poverty,” he said, “we don’t have the financial capacity to send our kids to non-UNRWA schools, or to pay for expensive healthcare if the municipality were to shut down all of these things.”
“I guess I am lucky because I only have one child left in the UNRWA school in the camp,” Alqam said, “but for other families with more kids, they will have to choose between expensive private Arab schools, or cheaper public schools that teach the Israeli occupation curriculum.”
Additionally, Alqam said, one of the biggest concerns would be electricity and water bills. Palestinian refugees living in camps in the occupied Palestinian territory do not pay water and electricity taxes.
“My salary is barely enough to bring food home for my kids, what do you think will happen if I have to start paying for water and electricity and other local taxes?”
“I have many friends living outside the camp, they pay so many taxes and bills to the municipality, but because they are Palestinians and they live in East Jerusalem, they don’t get the same quality of services as Jews do,” Alqam said.
‘UNRWA is proof I have the right to return’
Since the US decision to end all of its financial aid — around $300 million — to UNRWA earlier this year, it has been struggling to recover, leading many to speculate an impending collapse of the agency.
The US has demanded UNRWA reform its operations before restoring its funding, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for the total dismantlement of the agency, which he accuses of “perpetuating” the Palestinian refugee issue.
The increasingly hostile rhetoric of the US and Israel has led many in the Palestinian refugee community to fear not only the loss of crucial life-saving services, particularly in Gaza, but also their identity as refugees altogether.
“UNRWA being present in the camp is not just about education services and the healthcare that it provides,” Alqam told Mondoweiss.
“The existence of UNRWA serves as a reminder, it serves as proof that I have rights as a refugee to return to my homeland, and that this agency exists to help us until a solution is found for us as refugees.”
Al-Dibs told Mondoweiss that the local council in the camp is coordinating with UNRWA and Palestinian political leaders “to do everything we can to keep UNRWA alive here in Jerusalem, and keep the municipality out of our camp.”
“But without pressure from the international community, we cannot accomplish much,” he continued.
“If the international community stays silent, the Israelis will do more than just close UNRWA in Jerusalem,” he said. “They will stop at nothing less than forcing every Palestinian off of this land.”