Balata: A camp of transitory permanance

Palestinian refugees face the paradoxical nature of ‘temporary’ shelter which has lasted 63 years, with no end in sight.

Balata, Occupied Palestinian Territories – What does a refugee camp look like? Images of Syria’s displaced millions have crystallised the common features, the stereotypes.

Zaatari in northern Jordan is a poignant example. After it opened in July 2012, its population swelled to more than 200,000 in less than a year. It became Jordan’s fourth-largest “city”. One-and-a-half years later, it is still all tents and temporary structures – the prevailing image is one of impermanence. So what does a permanent refugee camp look like?

One-hundred kilometres west of Zaatari is Balata, the West Bank’s largest refugee camp. But, hovering just beyond Nablus in the northern West Bank, it defies the stereotypes. The United Nations opened Balata in 1950, in what was then the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and unlike its younger counterparts, Balata’s humanitarian crisis is not at the fore of its character.

Rather, Balata is renowned as a hub of armed resistance to both Palestinian and Israeli military intrusion, and unexpectedly, it’s famed for fostering tremendous football talent.

Sentimental ties

Many in Balata have held onto the keys to their houses in Jaffa, hoping to return one day.

by - Ramsis, Palestinian refugee

Ramsis is in his early 20s and still at university. His origins are a delicate issue. Ramsis  is careful to make the distinction, he is “from Jaffa; born in Balata”. Most refugees here are from Jaffa, near Tel Aviv in Israel.

“Many in Balata,” Ramsis told Al Jazeera, “have held onto the keys to their houses in Jaffa, hoping to return one day.” The Jaffa Cultural Centre in Balata encourages maintaining sentimental ties to Jaffa; it teaches the camp’s residents about their “right to return”.

Ramsis is not alone in embracing this lesson.

The isolation, Ramsis said, is not geographical. In reality, Balata is crammed stubbornly into the urban fabric of Nablus. The camp’s boundaries are barely distinguishable from Nablus’ suburbs at street level; the unsuspecting pedestrian could walk past the camp without realising it, oblivious to the largely self-sufficient society inside.

Two historical sites of biblical significance loom over Balata’s doorstep. Jacob’s Well is literally a stone’s throw away from the camp’s northern boundary. The sacred well is built into the compound of an ornate Greek Orthodox monastery. Tell Balata , meanwhile, is an ancient archaeological site dating from the 2nd century BC, and is crucial in framing Nablus’ historical profile. Tell Balata draws a wide international and academic focus.

With the persistent attention Balata’s ancient neighbours demand, the camp’s population is constantly inferring that their place in history is rarely prioritised – at home or internationally. Balata’s proximity to these ancient sites and the transparency of the camp’s boundaries mean religious tourists from Israel to Nablus regularly travel with armed accompaniment. Too often, these are the ears that hear Balata’s message of acute frustration. Too often, Balata is seen resorting to volleys of stones, road-blocks, and flaming tyres to deliver this statement.

Living in the maze

“It’s where we used to play hide-and-seek,” said Ramsis, pointing out a series of 30cm-wide alleys separating the camp’s precarious housing.

In the 1950s, the UN allocated tents, one per family, regardless of the family’s size.

Seventeen years after it opened, the camp’s population was 10,776; this number has swollen close to 28,000 today, but exact figures are difficult to come by. Eventually, the UN replaced its tents with 4×3 metre concrete cubes. More substantial structures were then built on top of the original concrete caves, and this practice continues today. “We build on top when families get bigger,” explained Ramsis.

Looking up towards Balata’s ever-rising buildings means suppressing claustrophobia and vertigo. It’s obvious that moving anything other than people through the maze’s narrow streets is hugely problematic. Efficiently moving goods or handicapped people, or undertaking large-scale construction operations, require the use of rooftops.

“When someone dies we use the rooftops to get them out. Also for furniture,” Ramsis told Al Jazeera. One house, destroyed during the second Intifada, is slowly being rebuilt in the same plot of land, with much of the materials brought over the rooftops, piece by piece.

Bullet holes mark most of the infrastructure of the Balata camp [Ben Benas/Al Jazeera]

Walking through the maze, the consequences of architecture without architects” is omnipresent. Self-regulated building procedures reflect Balata’s “permanent-temporariness” – slap-dash building measures that reflect the refugees’ hope of leaving Balata to return to permanent homes in Jaffa. But these building standards present notable issues.

“We are having problems with foundations,” Ramsis explained. Looking up at four, even five additional storeys, it’s not difficult to see how these standards can lead to extreme danger.

Creating permanence?

Passing the only school in the camp, run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), raises questions about replacing the temporariness of the camp with long-lasting infrastructure. “How would they [the UN] do it, though? There is no space for infrastructure,” countered Ramsis.

Moreover, removing the temporariness from Balata poses a symbolic threat: It would solidify the camp’s existence. Why build lasting infrastructure if you don’t plan on staying? “People say they are from Jaffa, or from al-Quds [Jerusalem], and that they only live in Balata. Improvements would be good short-term, but people remember where they come from,” Ramsis said. And they want to return.

Hearing, above the other senses, prevails in Balata’s maze.The narrow corridors stretching in every direction leave an eerie darkness, even at the height of the day. Glimmers of fluorescent light penetrate into the alleys from small windows of kitchens and ground floor rooms. Chatter, the clatter of pots and pans, and potent smells of meals and coffee in the making brush past you as you squeeze your way forwards. Passing under bullet-ridden satellite-dishes and patched-up bullet holes you see the urban landscape healing itself perpetually.

The maze is interrupted by a commercial street running through Balata’s north-south axis. It is wide enough to accommodate the souk and a two directional flow of traffic – carts on wheels, straggles of children, and patched-up cars of all shapes and sizes. 

When asked if strangers are welcomed in the camp, Ramsis replied, “As guests… When people here see foreigners, they expect the help will come.”

Ramsis told Al Jazeera it was “thrilling” to be seen with international guests. This all seems in stark contrast to the unrelenting and violent reputation Balata earned over the years of the second intifada. As guests, Ramsis said, strangers are safe in Balata. “[Since] you come in peace, if someone gives you abuse, others will shout at him. A mob will gather.”

The children

Balata’s souk bustles in the camp [Ben Benas/Al Jazeera]

In 2009, 40 percent of Balata’s population was under age 14. They all employ the one line of English they are confident with, “What’s your name?” Others ask, “Where are you from?” Both questions precede handshakes. 

Outsiders are conspicuous in Balata – particularly those with recording devices and cameras. A group of men call out from a metal workshop, then speak quickly among themselves.

“They asked, ‘Why are you taking photos of our house?’ But the father said it was okay, the other said, ‘Welcome’,”  Ramsis explained.

It’s difficult to reconcile the conflicting nature of Balata: The tremendous hospitality foreigners receive on one hand, and its reputation as a flashpoint of resistance on the other. Ramsis’ explanation is simple.

“If you come with force, you will be met with force, you’ll be kicked out the door. If you come in peace, you will be treated as a guest,” he said. These standards dictate social interaction in much of the world, though here, it is vilified.

A diverse arsenal of weapons still remains in the camp, Al Jazeera is assured, as attempts to remove the caches in December 2013 were met with stiff resistance.  “There will always be resistance to the occupation here,” Ramsis said.

Balata’s redemptive qualities – beyond the hospitality of its people – are few and far between. Football is probably the most unlikely of these.

Before Khalid enrolled in An-Najah University, he was the centre-midfielder for the Palestinian youth football team. The high-point of his career was competing in the Norway Cup in Oslo. He described jogging through the streets near Oslo’s stadium with his team. Dressed in tracksuits, in Palestinian colours, his team was cheered by pedestrians.

“At no time in Palestine were we allowed to feel celebrated like that. In Norway, we were heroes,” Khalid  told Al Jazeera, smoking a cigarette and sipping coffee . A sked what it was like to live in Balata, he replied: “You’ve been there, you know what it’s like. It’s dirty, loud, overcrowded. It’s a terrible place to live.”

Football is an important preoccupation in the camp, but the appetite for football is not met with sufficient facilities.  In 2011, Merkaz Balata were finalists in the Occupied Territories’ Palestine Cup and it still a top team in the West Bank. I ts success means there is a communal projection of the camp beyond that of armed resistance. Balata’s younger generations can look up to posters of glorified footballers – rather than martyrs.

You've been there, you know what it's like. It's dirty, loud, overcrowded. It's a terrible place to live.

by - Khalid, Palestinian refugee describing the Balata camp

‘I’m from Balata’

Life inside the camp is not without tension. Internal power struggles are constantly unravelling. Ramsis described the latest outburst with one family hording a stockpile of weapons and another attempting to disarm it. One person was killed and the family suffering the loss is poised for revenge. All live within a single block.

In Nablus, Balata is considered the closest and most reliable source of guns and drugs. “These are the problems that plague every society… The younger generation has introduced drugs to the camp, but I’ve never heard about prostitution,” said Ramsis.

According to UNWRA, the most pressing problems facing Balata include high unemployment, a bad water and sewage network, high population density, and an overcrowded school. These are issues that resonate with Ramsis’ experiences. “People in Balata need food and work,” he said.

Frustration is building in Balata. After 63 years of refugee status, hopes of a return to Jaffa are dwindling.  It’s inevitable that Balata’s younger generations will not inherit an urgent belief in their right of return. 

Embodying this, Ramsis’ young neighbour was asked if he was from Jaffa. “No,” he replied. “I’m from Balata.”

Source: Al Jazeera