Space to play

West Bank refugee camps are facing a crisis of safety and square feet

Oct 05, 2017
Space to play
Maiysa Zawaydeh, 15, plays with her siblings in her living room in Jenin refugee camp, West Bank, May 11, 2017. (Photo: DCIP / Ahmad Al-Bazz)

CHAPTER 1 Summer in Jenin refugee camp

As summer begins in Jenin refugee camp, 15-year-old Maiysa Zawaydeh is wary of the coming months. “Unfortunately, there is no safe place to play in the camp,” Maiysa told Defense for Children International - Palestine. With no public gardens and only one playground, Maiysa says, “I spend most of my time in the house trying as much as possible to distract myself.”

The 15-year-old twists a watch around her wrist, soft-spoken as she details her life in the camp. Born in 2002 amid the turmoil of the second Intifada, or uprising, Maiysa is part of the third generation to grow up in what was intended to be a temporary emergency living space nearly seven decades ago.

She has spent most of her life in a two-bedroom home crowded with six children and three adults, all descendants of her grandparents who were forcibly displaced from the town of Ramle during the establishment of Israel in 1948. Their hometown has been under Israeli sovereignty since, less than 65 miles southwest of where Maiysa lives today.

Maiysa draws in her sketchbook beneath a portrait of her grandfather in her family home in Jenin refugee camp, West Bank, May 11, 2017. (Photo: DCIP / Ahmad Al-Bazz)

Israeli law prevents her family from returning. The absence of a political solution to their displacement packs them alongside an estimated 14,000 refugees who now live within a 0.42 square kilometer (0.16 square mile) plot of land in the northern West Bank. The camp was initially established in 1953 to accommodate Palestinians expelled from more than 50 villages, numbering 8,450 before March 1967, according to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNWRA).

In 1967, Israel seized the West Bank, including Jenin refugee camp and East Jerusalem, adding frequent Israeli military raids to the camp’s troubles.

Overcrowding and fifty years of Israeli military occupation, as well as the now-frequent Palestinian security forces’ raids, have negatively impacted the available spaces for play. When schools let out for the summer, children spend their time between camp spaces that are either too cramped or too dangerous for play.

Two Palestinian girls stand on the steps of the Not To Forget Society’s building in Jenin refugee camp, West Bank
Palestinian children play soccer in the streets of Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank
Damage from bullets and fragments cover the walls of a Palestinian house in Jenin refugee camp, West Bank

In 1967, Israel seized the West Bank, including Jenin refugee camp and East Jerusalem, adding frequent Israeli military raids to the camp’s troubles.

With one of the highest unemployment rates in the West Bank, indoor spaces in the summer often include unemployed adults sharing small quarters with out-of-school children and youths.

Children who play outdoors in the camp’s public areas are exposed to conflict-related violence, intra-communal violence, drug abuse and other risky behaviors, according to UNRWA.

Established with 50 shelter units, the number of housing units in Jenin refugee camp grew to 1,280 by 2007, according to UNRWA. (Photo: DCIP / Ahmad Al-Bazz)

Farha Abu Hijja, who runs a center for refugee women and children, told DCIP that a lack of safe public play spaces for children has detrimental impacts on their ability to cope with trauma induced by Israel’s military presence in the camp.

“The situation is exacerbated by the night raids carried out by the Israeli occupation army, which includes shootings and blowing up doors, causing great fear among children,” Abu Hijja told DCIP.

Although Jenin refugee camp has an array of services and centers for children, Abu Hijja said that even these places struggle to meet the needs of the camp’s booming youth population, which accounts for 40 percent of the camp’s total residents.

Maiysa pointed out that most of the designated spaces for children around the camp require entrance fees. Like many in the camp, she said her family could only afford these fees on rare occasions.

Ahmad Ighbariyeh, 16, takes part in a discussion during a workshop held at the Not To Forget Society in Jenin refugee camp, West Bank, May 11, 2017. (Photo: DCIP / Ahmad Al-Bazz)

Sixteen-year-old Ahmad Ighbariyeh is veteran to the camp’s streets. His father died during an Israeli military incursion in 2002. When he’s not in school, Ahmad says he spends most of his free time playing football in narrow camp alleyways.

Maiysa’s and Ahmad’s access to safe spaces hangs in limbo.

Other children in the room, gathered in a tattered community center for a session on how to respond to rights violations that take place during armed incursions, listen intently when Ahmad speaks.

“Because we do not have playgrounds in the camp, we play in the street but this is very dangerous,” Ahmad told DCIP, relaying a story of a friend once injured by a passing vehicle.

Ahmad sits next to his friends during a workshop held at the Not To Forget Society in Jenin refugee camp, West Bank, May 11, 2017. (Photo: DCIP / Ahmad Al-Bazz)

UNICEF typically mandates the creation of Child Friendly Spaces (CFSs) in refugee camps across the world, in order to “give[e] a child a sense of normalcy amid chaos.” CFSs are designated “safe spaces” for children during crisis or emergency, and also carry the goal of being points of service delivery.

Maiysa’s and Ahmad’s access to safe spaces hangs in limbo: their situation is not considered temporary or emergency, regardless of the fact that they still hold refugee status and experience political violence on a near-daily basis.

UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness told DCIP that UNRWA does not designate Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank as under emergency, and as such has not set the creation of CFSs as a priority.

Gunness said the lack of CFSs in Palestinian refugee camps has a “negative protection impact on children,” including exposure the risk of death and injury, drug addiction, sexual exploitation and abuse, psychological damage, and negative impacts on children’s educational attainment.

Abu Hijja, for her part, told DCIP that psychological issues resulting from armed raids and lack of protection would be alleviated with access to safer spaces for play.

Palestinian children play soccer in the streets of Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank on May 11, 2017. (Photo: DCIP / Ahmad al-Bazz)

Back in the Jenin refugee camp, Maiysa returns home to play inside with her siblings, while Ahmad heads outside to join his friends in a pick-up soccer game.

“I often dream of having a park for us to play in,” Ahmad told DCIP. “I would like to build a large playground to have all the children in the camp so they could play safely,” Ahmad said before he headed out to the street, ball in hand.

CHAPTER 2 Isolated in Fara’a refugee camp

Tasneem Abd al-Jawad, 4, plays a chalk game on the roof of her home in Fara'a refugee camp. (Photo: DCIP / Emily Thomas)

Tubas, September 7, 2017 — Standing on the roof of Waleed Abd al-Jawad’s home, you can see the entirety of the northern West Bank’s Fara’a refugee camp, a mash of concrete buildings stamped into what looks like the middle of nowhere.

As Abd al-Jawad talks, his four-year-old daughter, Tasneem, weaves around lines of laundry on the roof, the sole open space where she and her six siblings play. While Fara’a is surrounded by agricultural land, these spaces are private and inaccessible.

Poverty, cramped homes, limited public space, and geographic isolation all separate children in Fara’a from their right to play.

Tasneem was born into refugee status in Fara’a. The refugee camp was among 58 the United Nation formed in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan as temporary housing for some 750,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes in 1948.

Over the next seven decades, the tent grid would be replaced with concrete structures. Successive generations would be born into the remote camp offering few outlets and opportunities.

Tasneem’s two bedroom, 590 square foot home is too small to function as a bearable living space for her nine-member family. Her siblings, fearful to play in the camp’s narrow and car-packed streets, are pushed to the roof.

Hanan Abd al-Jawad, 9, plays on the roof with her sisters in Fara'a refugee camp. (Photo: DCIP / Emily Thomas)

Fara’a’s Popular Committee runs a park inside the camp but 14-year-old resident Sara Einajeh told DCIP most children avoid the area.

“It is not safe because people smoke there, and most of the games are broken and unsafe,” Sara said, adding that the camp park requires an entrance fee that most cannot afford.

Camp resident Abdul-Raheem Teim said that he, along with his five siblings, feel confined to the camp streets because they are forbidden from playing on the nearby private agricultural lands.

“There are no recreational places inside the camp,” the 16-year-old told DCIP. “The only place to play football and other similar games is the street.”

A British Mandate period prison formerly used by Jordan and Israel was rehabilitated and equipped with a soccer field. However, Abdul-Raheem said security guards prevented children in the camp from using the space.

“The only place to play football and other similar games is the street.”

Fara’a resident Abdul-Raheem Teim, 16, walks through the camp with his younger brother. (Photo: DCIP / Emily Thomas)

The geographic isolation of Fara’a has also been detrimental to children’s access to services, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Refugee camps in other areas of the West Bank also have insufficient services, but are near cities or towns where they can access medical clinics, social services, and recreational spaces.

Aimad al-Shawish of Fara’a Popular Committee told DCIP that inadequate services force residents to travel to Tubas. While some residents obtain medical and social services as well as access to recreational space in the city, the journey is too expensive for many families to make regularly.

“I take the children to the UNRWA clinic in the camp, but most of the time they are transferred to public or private hospitals because of lack of medicine,” Abd al-Jawad said. The UNRWA clinic serves some 7,600 Fara’a refugees who live inside the camp’s one tenth of a square mile.

Sara Einajeh, 14, walks through streets she said are unsafe for playing. (Photo: DCIP / Emily Thomas. )

Director of Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights Nidal al-Azza told DCIP he believes that refugee children should be entitled to safe recreational spaces. Without them, he said, children can’t enjoy their right to play.

The central role of play in healthy child development has been widely established because of its impact on children’s cognitive, physical, and emotional funtioning. Without play, children are less able to regulate themselves, problem-solve, or develop age-approriate motor skills, along with many other competencies.

For this reason, the right “to engage in play” is enshrined in Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But after 70 years of unresolved displacement and 50 years under Israeli military occupation, disagreements are common over who is legally accountable for addressing the needs of Palestinian refugees, al-Azza said. The result, he explained, is gaps in both protections and services for children living in camps.

“We need a clear agreement or regulation to clarify the responsibilities and duties between the PA, or the host country, and UNRWA,” al-Azza told DCIP.

Privately-owned agricultural fields surround Fara'a refugee camp. (Photo: DCIP / Emily Thomas)

A look back in history shows that two United Nations organizations were originally conceived to address the needs of newly homeless Palestinians in the aftermath of 1948.

In 1949, UNRWA was established to provide humanitarian emergency relief to refugees from inside the bounds of former British Mandate Palestine. It was meant to be a short-lived effort, that would disappear with the final status resolution and resettlement of this group.

No one anticipated UNRWA would still be in operation today, let alone providing basic services to five million Palestinian refugees.

A second organization, the little known United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) was formed one year earlier, in 1948. It was tasked with resolving the Palestinian refugee issue, but with an inherent flaw. Meant to be both a mediator between authorities in conflict and advocate for a “durable solution” that would guarantee protections for Palestinian refugees, the organization failed on both counts.

In 2017, UNRWA continues to call the world’s attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees but has no directive to negotiate a permanent solution.

The prolonged conflict in which Palestinian refugee camps stand stagnant has blurred the lines around which party should ensure particular rights of refugees. Amid many urgent and long-standing needs, questions like who should create spaces for tag and imaginative play get lost in the shuffle.

As Israel enters its 50th year of military control over the Occupied Palestinian Territory, it continues to ignore its obligation to guarantee the human rights of the Palestinian population it occupies.

As Israel enters its 50th year of military control over the Occupied Palestinian Territory, it continues to ignore its obligation to guarantee the human rights of the Palestinian population it occupies.

The Palestinian Authority acts as host for Fara’a camp but has never achieved the status of a sovereign state, complicating its ability to fulfill its responsibilities.

UNRWA meanwhile battles recurring funding shortages, curbing available resources.

Unable to access safe play areas, children in Fara'a refugee camp spend free time in narrow alleyways and streets. (Photo: DCIP / Emily Thomas)

“My dream is to build a place for children in which they could play and have fun,” Abdul-Raheem said. “It has to be large and free and for all the children. It has to be a place for children where they can pursue their hobbies and talents.”

CHAPTER 3 Under fire in Aida refuge camp

Palestinian children walk in Aida refugee camp by a poster of resident Abdel-Rahman Obeidallah, who was killed by the Israeli army at the age of 13. (Photo: DCIP/ Ahmad Al-Bazz)

Bethlehem, September 7, 2017 — Sandwiched between Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp and an Israeli military base, the Lajee Center offers a kaleidoscope of play structures and an apparent reprieve from its hard surroundings.

But 14-year-old camp resident Leith Hammad told DCIP that Israeli military violence in this central West Bank refugee camp is perpetual. Keeping the play space safe is impossible.

Last year, Leith was standing outside of Lajee when Israeli soldiers shot a rubber-coated metal bullet, lightly injuring his waist. “During violent clashes in the area, there was random shooting. I was near the center to see what was happening,” Leith told DCIP.

His back was turned from the soldiers when they opened fire from a nearby military post that adjoins the Israeli-fortified historical site of Rachel’s Tomb and overlooks the camp.

Leith Hammad, 14, looks at the recreational area and military base next to Lajee center. (Photo: DCIP/ Ahmad Al-Bazz)

“I saw people suffocating on the street, in the playground, and in the garden,” Leith said. “Mostly children,” he explained, “due to the heavy firing of tear gas.”

Lajee center staff eventually installed netting above their soccer field because soldiers routinely fire tear gas canisters into the area.

Shaatha al-Azza has worked at the center for over five years. She told DCIP that the center is raided by soldiers who often detain or assault children.

“I saw people suffocating on the street, in the playground, and in the garden,”
- Leith said

She added that many families stopped taking their children to Lajee out of fear of being targeted by the military.

Aida refugee camp has stood on the frontlines of Israeli settlement expansion and military incursions since Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in 1967. The camp is located on the northern edge of Bethlehem, where Israeli authorities have incorporated swathes of occupied Palestinian land into so-called ring settlements that surround East Jerusalem.

Safe spaces for children living in the Aida have been decimated as a result.

Tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and stones are caught by a safety net that protects Aida refugee camp’s soccer field. (Photo: DCIP / Ahmad Al-Bazz)

The camp is now bordered by illegal Israeli settlements Gilo and Har Homa and the Israeli separation barrier. A 25-foot-high concrete wall in this section, the separation barrier now cuts Aida children off from a large open space they used to have access to.

A 25-foot-high concrete wall in this section, the separation barrier now cuts Aida children off from a large open space they used to have access to.

Palestinian Samer Odeh grew up in the camp long before the settlements were built, or construction on the separation barrier began in 2003. “There was a really big open area full of olive trees, for playing, barbecuing, and studying,” Odeh, now in his fifties, told DCIP.

Housing units of the Israeli settlement of Gilo can be seen from Aida refugee camp over Israel’s separation barrier. (Photo: DCIP / Ahmad Al-Bazz)

Today, the barrier means constant military presence in Aida refugee camp. It curls around the camp’s edge, smattered with surveillance cameras and watchtowers. Israeli forces also enter the camp though gates in the barrier that provide direct access into the camp for military raids.

Shahd Dar-Owais, a 12-year-old resident of Aida, told DCIP that armed Israeli forces broke into her home in the middle of night during a recent raid and arrested her older brother.

“I remember one of the soldiers throwing a stun grenade at our house at 3 a.m., when they tried to arrest a person from the house next door. They also opened fire at young men who were throwing stones,” Shahd said.

Shahd Dar-Owais’ parents once prevented her from signing up for music classes at Lajee due to nearby clashes. (Photo: DCIP/ Ahmad Al-Bazz)

Frequent clashes in and nearby the camp leave Aida children at constant risk of trauma, injury, and possibly death. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has documented hundreds of injuries among residents.

In 2015, Israeli soldiers killed 13-year-old Aida resident Abdel-Rahman Obeidallah with a single bullet to the chest when he was standing some 75 yards away from clashes.

Social worker Hamzeh Abed Rabbu told DCIP that post-traumatic stress disorder is common among children in Aida. Such incessant exposure to violence often leads to symptoms including bedwetting, nightmares, and aggressive behavior.

Lajee’s al-Azza said her own young children often assume that a knock on the front door of their home is an Israeli soldier. She lamented that military presence has been normalized for children born into refugee status in Aida over the past 70 years.

Leith and Shahd walk near Shahd’s family home in the alleyways of Aida refugee camp. (Photo: DCIP / Ahmad Al-Bazz)

Both Leith and Shahda’s grandparents became refugees when their village of Allar, located less than 12 miles west of Aida, came under military assault during the establishment of Israel in 1948.

The homes they were forced to flee have since been built over and the village site remains under Israeli control. No solution to their displacement has been found since.

New generations of Palestinian refugees are meanwhile born into a permanent state of conflict in Aida refugee camp and experience violence as the status quo.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) often mandates the creation of Child Friendly Spaces (CFSs) in refugee camps because they “play an enormous role in giving a child a sense of normalcy amid chaos.”

But UNRWA, established to provide services to Palestinian refugees, does not consider West Bank camps to be in a state of emergency, half a century after the initial tent cities were set up. As such, the creation of CFSs is not a priority among the camps’ cluster of needs.

Lajee Center’s soccer field and recreation area directly adjacent to the concrete barrier and Israeli military base next to Rachel’s Tomb. (Photo: DCIP / Ahmad Al-Bazz)

The prolonged state of conflict and 50-year Israeli military occupation has severely grayed the lines around who is responsible for guaranteeing rights for stateless Palestinian refugees. The result: serious gaps in both protection and services to children living in refugee camps.

Leith told DCIP that he knew his situation was unsafe, but saw no way to avoid it.

“There is no place safe around the wall, but we have no other options or places to play,” Leith said.

“The change I want is that I do not want to see the military tower or the soldiers. I want to live safely and peacefully.”

Outside of Lajee stands a memorial of Abdel-Rahman Obeidallah, 13, and Tamir Rice, 12, killed by Israeli soldiers and United States police respectively. (Photo: DCIP / Ahmad Al-Bazz)

CHAPTER 4 Watchtower as a neighbor in Arroub refugee camp

A child rollerblades down a small street in Arroub refugee camp. (Photo: DCIP / Ahmad Al-Bazz)

Bethlehem, September 7, 2017 — Hadeel Janazra, 13, lives right next to the site where a Palestinian teen was shot dead last spring. Israeli forces shot the teen directly in the heart, killing him on the spot.

She is from Arroub refugee camp, where the concept of safe space is a non sequitur. An Israeli military watchtower stands opposite the camp’s main entrance.

It was this watchtower Israeli authorities alleged that the killed teen, Murad Abu Ghazi, 17, threw molotov cocktails toward during clashes. Israeli soldiers fired live bullets, killing Murad and injuring a second teen, Saif.

With her home’s location on the main road and a direct line of vision to the military tower, violent eruptions are routine for Hadeel.

There is a yard outside her house, a rarity in the densely populated southern West Bank camp between Bethlehem and Hebron. In it, she plays badminton with her cousins, rides her bicycle and regularly witness confrontations with the Israeli military.

“I feel threatened when I see soldiers near the house because they could come in and harass us, or fire teargas and sound bombs at the house,” Hadeel said.

Indoors, she is not much better off. “Sometimes the army stops at the entrance to our house. They have entered the home several times to search for youths,” Hadeel told DCIP, recounting when soldiers turned her roof into a temporary military post for several hours.

She continues down her list, a somber inventory of alarming events and encounters. “I once saw a child getting arrested at the entrance to the camp,” Hadeel said, gesturing a short distance away, to one of Arroub’s main entrances. “Soldiers caught him in the morning when we were going to school. He was carrying his schoolbag but they beat him and accused him of throwing stones.”

Route 60 and an Israeli military watchtower stand parallel to Hadeel Janazra’s home. (Photo: DCIP / Ahmad Al-Bazz)

Her account is the prevailing narrative among children in Arroub. Witnessing or experiencing detention, injury, harassment, and sometimes death are part and parcel of growing up in the camp.

Arroub sees one of the highest frequencies of raids compared to the other West Bank refugee camps. Pervasive Israeli military presence in the camp flies in the face of children’s right to play.

A large forested park area borders Arroub’s cemetery which spans down a hill above the camp’s southern entrance. But frequent Israeli military activities on the hill often leads to clashes. When DCIP visited the area, the recreational space was dejectedly vacant.

Pervasive Israeli military presence in the camp flies in the face of children’s right to play.

Fifteen-year-old Omar Madi was fatally shot by Israeli forces in the cemetery in 2016 when a small group of youth were throwing stones, according to witness testimony collected by DCIP at the time.

Below the park and the cemetery, the only thing between Arroub and the daunting military tower is Route 60. This road is a major thoroughfare that connects to the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, one of the largest clusters of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Route 60 is heavily trafficked by military vehicles and Israeli settlers.

Continued expansion of the settlement bloc has only increased tensions.

“All of the entrances to the camp are near the main street [Route 60],” said Omar Mahdid, 16, who also lives in the camp. Because of this, he explained, contact with Israeli settlers is inevitable.

Just days before DCIP spoke with Omar, he said he narrowly missed being injured by an Israeli settler on Route 60, when he was leaving a playground. “Three days ago we were walking down the street when a settler's car passed by and the settler opened the car door, to hit us.”

Interaction with the military is likewise unavoidable for children exiting or entering the camp. “Soldiers stop and search you for no reason and they can accuse you of anything,” Omar said.

Even at home, after Arroub falls quiet, there is no guarantee that children won’t encounter the Israeli army. “Soldiers entered my home through a window at 2 a.m.,” Omar told DCIP. He was 14 at the time that he and his brother were detained from their beds and taken. He was interrogated and detained for eight days for allegations he said were false.

Omar is scared of getting arrested again.

He is right to worry. DCIP research found that Palestinian children living in close proximity to Israeli settlements are at a higher risk of military arrest.

Omar is scared of getting arrested again. He is right to worry.

Arroub matches this pattern. At least 12 children were detained from the camp during the first half of 2017, according to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society.

Play is a human right for children under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), essential to healthy brain and body development. But how can children in Arroub play when all the spaces available to them, public or private, put them at risk of becoming witness or victim to damaging events?

Despite Israel being a signatory to the CRC, Arroub is case in point that Israel has failed to protect the rights of Palestinian children that it is obliged to ensure as an occupying power.

The camp was created in 1949 for those forced from their homes during events Palestinians refer to as the “catastrophe,” or the Nakba. Both Hadeel’s and Omar’s grandparents were expelled from Iraq al-Manshiya, a Palestinian village around 21 miles west of Arroub as the crow flies. The Israeli town of Kiryat Gat now stands in its place.

As of 2016, Arroub was home to nearly 10,500 refugees.

Refugee camps were intended to be a temporary solution to an emergency. But for Hadeel, the state of conflict endures under Israeli military occupation, splintering any semblance of a safe childhood.

“I always see the army at the entrance to the camp and at the watchtower,” Hadeel said. “ I see them permanently.”

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