Refugees are people like anyone else, like you and me. They led ordinary lives before becoming displaced, and their biggest dream is to be able to live normally again. On this World Refugee Day, let us recall our common humanity, celebrate tolerance and diversity and open our hearts to refugees everywhere. – Ban Ki-moon
On 4 December 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 55/76 and established 20 June for the annual commemoration to be known as World Refugee Day. Refugee camps were created to provide shelter to Palestinians who, following the 1948 declaration of the Zionist state of Israel, had been driven from their homeland. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 recognises the Palestinian people’s inalienable right of return. Today there are over five million Palestinian refugees eligible for UNRWA protection.
There are 58 recognised Palestinian refugee camps placed variously in the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Most UNRWA installations in Palestine, such as schools and health centres, are located inside the refugee camps although there are a number established outside. The camps are overcrowded and the refugees endure appalling living conditions. All suffer from inadequate infrastructure, including roading and sewerage. UNRWA’s responsibilities in the refugee camps are limited to providing services and administering facilities so the Agency does not take responsibility for the security of the camps. This means that, in Occupied Palestine and beyond, the inhabitants are at the mercy of the Israeli military. Night home invasions and abductions of Palestinian refugee minors are common occurrences, not to mention house demolitions and many other human rights abuses.
Sabra and Shatila
Sabra and Shatila are Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon where, in 1982, nearly two thousand Palestinians were massacred during a three-day assault from 16 to 18 September. The crime was perpetrated by hundreds of Christian Lebanese Phalangists, with the direct support and complicity of the invading Israeli Army. Israeli forces surrounding the camp ensured that no one could escape. Thirty years later, three survivors recounted their experiences to Al Jazeera.
It was Menachem Begin, as Israel’s Prime Minister, who ordered the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that resulted in 15,000 to 20,000 mostly civilian Palestinian and Lebanese deaths. There are streets named in Begin’s honour and there is a Menachem Begin Heritage Centre in Jerusalem. Ariel Sharon was Israel’s Defence Minister at the time and although he was removed from his post after the Sabra and Shatila massacre there is a park named after him east of Tel Aviv. In 2014 the Israeli military agreed to a massive base in the Naqab (Negev) Desert being named Camp Ariel Sharon. When Sharon was indicted before the Belgian law courts over the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Israel and the United States forced Belgium to revise its judicial and political processes and abandon the incorporation of universal jurisdiction legislation (anti-atrocity law) into state law. Donald Rumsfeld even went so far as to threaten to move NATO Headquarters from Belgium. The exceptional impunity granted to Israel comes at tremendous cost to the Palestinian people, and to Palestinian refugees in particular.
Every attack on UN refugee camps is a crime against the world community
This year alone, up to 31 May, the Israeli Army has carried out some 200 reported attacks on Palestinian refugee camps, 136 of which have been night home invasion raids. A single raid can often include the invasions of several homes and Israeli troops often vandalise the contents of homes they invade. There is a strong possibility that the number of night home invasion raids is actually higher because not all are reported. Families are terrorised in the middle of the night and frequently minors are abducted, blindfolded and taken away for interrogation or to be held captive until their appearance before Israeli military courts. Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will. Israel’s abductions of refugee youngsters is traumatic, not only for the captive children but also for their distraught parents.
Children injured: Bethlehem – 09:40-13:30, Israeli forces raided the city, the al-Duheisha refugee camp and al-Doha. They searched several homes, injuring six residents, including four children: Hassan Iyas Shahin (14), Ibrahim Mohammad Assad (13), Mohammad Haytham Abu Ajamiya (14), Sa’ed Ahed Eid Abu Amr (13), Jameel Khalil Ziyadeh and Mufti Ma’rouf Omaro. Occupation soldiers also bulldozed crops and took prisoner two people.
Abduction: Nablus – 03:25-05:45, the Israeli Army raided the city, the Askar refugee camp and Iraq Al-Taya village, searching several homes, injuring one person, Ahmad Rawhi Al-Aqat, and abducting a 17-year-old youth: Ahmad Ammar Qandeil.
Explosives – vandalism: Ramallah – 03:30-05:30, Israeli troops raided the al-Jalazoun refugee camp, using explosives to break into and search several homes and shops. One person was taken prisoner.
Israeli Army attack – 1 wounded: Hebron – 18:50, one person, Ahmad Hussein Al-Badawi, was wounded when Israeli forces opened fire with live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets and stun and tear gas grenades at people in the al-Aroub refugee camp.
Stun and tear gas grenades: Ramallah – 16:40, the al-Jalazoun refugee camp: stun and tear gas grenades.
Rubber-coated steel bullets and stun and tear gas grenades – 10 wounded: Bethlehem – 13:05, Israeli Occupation forces in the city and the al-Aida refugee camp, firing rubber-coated bullets and stun and tear gas grenades, wounded ten residents including four minors: Mohammad Nasri Jafal (15), Khaled Fayez Mahmoud (17), Abdel-Hameed Ali Ayash (17), Mohammad Ismail Shahin (17) and Haytham Mustafa Zubn. In addition, there were several tear gas casualties.
Stun and tear gas grenades: Hebron – 15:50, the al-Aroub refugee camp: stun and tear gas grenades.
And this was just the beginning of the first month of the year. Israeli assaults on refugee camps are sometimes carried out with air support: on 29 February, from 22:30-03:00, Israeli forces, escorted by helicopter gunships, stormed the Qalandiya refugee camp, killing a university student, Eyad Omar Mahmoud Sajdiya (22), and wounding ten others: Adham Abd Ibrahim Abu Naser, Tahda Al-Toukhi, Muhyi Al-Din Al-Khatib, Mutasim Wajeeh Odeh, Moath Mohammad Aliyan, Ibrahim Ziyad Matir, Khalid Matir, Nahed Fawzi Matir, Alaa Abu Rawis and Muntasir Hamad. The refugees put up some resistance to this attack and managed to set fire to an Israeli Army vehicle.
Destruction of homes
The worst form of home invasions are often those that are accompanied by Israeli Army home destruction orders, which the UN seems never able to prevent. On 26 March the following raids on refugee camps took place:
Raid – home destruction orders: Jerusalem – Israeli forces raided the Qalandiya refugee camp and issued destruction orders against two family homes.
Home invasions – injuries and abductions: Bethlehem – 03:25, the Israeli Army raided the al-Duheisha refugee camp, searching several homes and injuring two people: Ramzi Ramadan and Mohammad Ma’ali. Two youngsters, Hamzah Nassar Abu Ajjamiya (16) and Oday Adnan Shihadeh (17), were abducted during the raid.
Israeli Army stun and tear gas grenades: Hebron – 20:10, the Israeli Army, firing stun and tear gas grenades, raided the al-Aroub refugee camp.
Insecurity at home hits children particularly hard, resulting in high rates of trauma, including bed-wetting, nightmares and behavioural problems. According to the Badil Resource Centre, even UN-run schools in the refugee camps do not always provide a safe place for refugee children to learn and play. One example is of an 11-year old girl shot in the abdomen while sitting in class at the Khan Yunis Elementary D Co-Education School. She died in hospital the next day. The gunfire came from an Israeli Army post in the Occupation settlement of Neveh Dekalim. A ten-year old girl was shot in the head while standing in line in the grounds of the Rafah Elementary B Co-Education School. The bullets came from an Israeli Army position near the Egyptian border. She also was confirmed dead before reaching the hospital. The violence against children has been going on for years. The Badil Centre reported that “a total of 159 UNRWA schoolchildren, of whom four were killed in 2005 by Israeli fire into UNRWA schools, died as result of Israeli military incursions. In addition, a total of 1,548 children enrolled in UNRWA schools were injured, of whom ten were inside school premises.”
The international community and UNGA Resolution 194
Israel’s admission to UN membership was conditional upon its acceptance and implementation of UN Resolutions, including Resolution 194 on the Palestinian right of return from refugee exile. The UNGA has reaffirmed this right on more than 135 occasions. Every Israeli assault and act of violence against refugees in the UN refugee camps demonstrates the Zionist State’s utter contempt for international law, the Palestinian people and the world community. Since the collapse of the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) in the mid-1950s, there remains no international agency with responsibility to defend the rights of Palestinian refugees. The 1990s Oslo Accords abandoned the refugees to a process that ignored Israel’s conditions of UN membership. So while still under Israeli military Occupation, the defenceless Palestinian people are being required to plead for their rights directly with their oppressor. All the time Israel is piling in more and more colonists into ever larger illegal settlements on Palestinian land.
Israel’s attacks on UN refugee camps are a challenge, both to the international community and world peace and stability. UNRWA has no mandate to defend Palestinian refugees and the silence at the UN regarding Israel’s behaviour is a disgraceful abdication of responsibility. New Zealand, in its final months at the Security Council, should, with urgency, break that silence. The Palestinian people did not ask to be invaded and turned into refugees – their plight is the direct result of interference by powerful foreign forces. Both the UN and international humanitarian law have, in turn, been manipulated, abused and, when it suits, ignored by world leaders. Israel must be held accountable for its inhumanities. BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) sets an example and the movement’s growing success demonstrates how isolated world leaders are from grass-roots world opinion.