Visiting Refugee Camp In the West Bank: What does it mean to be a Palestinian refugee? Many Westerners are confused when they first hear about ‘Palestinian refugees’, given there have been no recent wars. Many don’t know that there are still millions of refugees and descendants of refugees living in UN camps since the 1948 war, or as Palestinians call it, the Nakba (meaning Catastrophe). Indeed, Palestinian Arab refugees are now the largest displaced population in the world, and are also the oldest.
During the 1948 war, 711,000 Palestinians and also Jews were displaced and lost their livelihoods and houses. Around 85% of the Palestinian Arab population of what is now Israel had to flee or were expelled from their homes. Most left for the West Bank, Gaza, or the countries of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Their descendants now number 4,950,000, and 1.4 million continue to reside in the 59 UN-operated camps. In 1948, the UN General Assembly stated that refugees who wish to live at peace should be permitted to return to their homes, which is now part of the basis for the political idea that Palestinians should have a ‘right of return’.
Currently, the West Bank has 19 refugee camps, with 228,560 Palestinian refugees out of a total population of 2,345,107. Palestinian refugees suffer from a number of problems due to their family’s legacies of disposition, including poverty and insecurity. Camps have now been built up with concrete blocks, but population density is extremely high because of limited space. The recent civil war in Syria has led to the further displacement of 235,000 Palestinian refugees who had been living in Syria, and over 60,000 have subsequently fled the country, mostly to Jordan.
Visiting refugee camps in the West Bank
Visitors to Palestine may be interested in visiting a refugee camp in the West Bank, to witness what life is like there. Many alternative tour groups include trips to visit refugee camps, and will helpfully include a translator so you will easily be able to interact with locals. Camps near Bethlehem and Hebron such as Aida refugee camp are easily accessible for visitors.
Nearly 70 years ago, thousands of Palestinians left their homes during the war, and became part of the oldest refugee population in the world. For Israelis, if the refugees were granted a right to return, it may endanger the existence of a Jewish majority state. Israel argues that the Palestinians left willingly and should be resettled in a future Palestinian state or in other Arab countries. The status of refugees remains a substantial obstacle to peace, and is often discounted in peace talks.