Plight of Palestinian refugees now spans 5 generations
JERASH REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan (AP) — As a boy, Palestinian Abdullah Abu Massoud fled the war over the creation of Israel in 1948 and sought refuge in the nearby Gaza Strip.
As a young man, Abu Massoud was displaced again when Israeli forces captured Gaza, along with the West Bank and east Jerusalem, in 1967. This time he boarded a truck to Jordan.
Now 77, Abu Massoud has been living in a refugee camp in Jordan for the past 50 years. He is the white-bearded patriarch of a refugee family spanning five generations, including seven children, 46 grandchildren, scores of great-grandchildren and an infant great-great-granddaughter, Tuqaa.
As his family grows, the future in the Jerash camp, a jumble of cinderblock homes, looks bleak.
“Fifty years have passed without a step forward,” says Abu Massoud, leaning on a cane as he sits on a plastic chair in his living room. “Everything is going backward. We came here thinking, it’ll only be two months and we will go back home.”
“We don’t belong here,” he said.
This is the second of several stories marking the 50 years since Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in 1967.
The plight of Palestinians uprooted by Israeli-Arab wars is one of the world’s longest-running refugee crises, and a solution for millions of refugees and their descendants appears distant. It would likely require setting up a state of Palestine, next to Israel, that would take in large numbers of refugees.
President Donald Trump has said he is eager to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, but similar U.S.-led efforts have failed in the past.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are being displaced yet again by escalating regional conflicts, including the Syrian civil war. Fighting in Syria has created its own massive refugee problem, which has overshadowed older crises.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), set up seven decades ago to help displaced Palestinians, faces funding shortfalls as it competes for global aid. Palestinian refugees haven’t fallen off the radar completely, but are no longer the world’s focus, said UNRWA chief Pierre Kraehenbuehl.
“We are dealing here with a community that has essentially reached a crisis of existential nature,” he told The Associated Press.
Abdullah Abu Massoud was born in a Bedouin encampment near Beersheba, a Negev Desert city in what is now southern Israel.
During the Mideast war over Israel’s creation, his family fled Israeli forces, walking several miles (kilometers) to Egyptian-run Gaza and settling in what would become the Khan Younis refugee camp. More than 700,000 Palestinians were uprooted in the late 1940s from historic Palestine, the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.
At age 20, Abu Massoud joined the Egyptian army. Three years later, during training in Cairo, he married Bassama, an Egyptian, in an arranged match. The couple settled in Khan Younis, where they shared a two-room shack with other relatives.
Bassama, now 72, remembers Israel’s 1967 capture of Gaza, a sliver on the Mediterranean.
When Israeli forces approached from the east, her young family fled toward the sea. “I didn’t see them, but they were shooting and there were airplanes,” she says of the Israeli forces.
The family returned home several weeks later. By now, residents were talking about leaving for Jordan, fearful of what Israeli rule might bring.
Israel was offering transportation, and her husband wanted to leave Gaza, Bassama says. She says he feared being deported to Egypt because he was a former soldier.
In April 1968, the Abu Massouds and their two small children climbed into the back of a truck, along with other Gaza families, and headed to Jordan’s border. From there, they took buses to an empty plot surrounded by sloping hills near the northern town of Jerash. After a few days, UNRWA brought tents to the site, setting up Jerash camp on one-third of a square mile (less than one square kilometer).
Bassama remembers her feet sticking out of the tiny tent while she slept.
The fate of the refugees has been raised in U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian talks over the years. Under U.S. proposals, a state of Palestine created from lands Israel captured in 1967 would be the natural home for Palestinian refugees, such as the Abu Massouds. In addition, an agreed upon number would be allowed to return to Israel, and others could opt to stay in their host countries.
But deep disagreements remained, and talks failed. Palestinian negotiators demanded that Israel accept moral responsibility for the plight of the refugees. Israel feared this could open the door to a large-scale return to Israel and dilute the state’s Jewish majority.
The gap between both sides widened with the 2009 election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. His government emphasized counter-claims by Jews displaced from Arab countries, while settlement expansion on war-won lands made a partition deal more difficult.
Today, 5.3 million displaced Palestinians and their descendants — the size of the population of Norway — are registered with UNRWA in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This makes them eligible for services such as schooling and basic health care, including in several dozen refugee camps.
Some in Netanyahu’s government allege that the refugee problem is being perpetuated artificially to pressure Israel, including by UNRWA and by Arab asylum countries. U.N. officials say refugee status has been handed down through generations in other protracted conflicts.
One of the grandsons of Bassama and Abdullah, a tailor, has tacked a Palestinian flag to the otherwise bare wall of his small shop in the market of Jerash camp.
“It’s my flag,” says Alaa Abu Awad. “It’s the flag of my homeland.”
The 29-year-old never set foot in historic Palestine, but grew up with tales about Gaza as a land of fresh fish, delicious fruit and beautiful beaches.
He clings to that idealized image — brushing aside today’s Gaza reality of war, poverty and border closures — to help him deal with the day-to-day challenges of being stateless.
Most Palestinians in Jordan are descendants of refugees who came from the neighboring West Bank, which was under Jordanian control for two decades until 1967. A majority was given citizenship because of Jordan’s ties to the West Bank. They now make up half the kingdom’s population.
The offspring of those who arrived from Gaza — more than 150,000 across Jordan, including most of the 30,000 Jerash residents — are still treated as temporary residents. They can’t own homes or businesses and are barred from public sector jobs.
This has curtailed opportunities at every turn.
Abu Awad’s life takes place within a few camp blocks, close to his grandparents’ first shelter. A U.N.-run school he attended is a five-minute walk away, and he points to the tree-shaded sandy lot where he and his classmates played marbles during break. U.N. camp schools across the region are bursting at the seams, operating morning and afternoon shifts with classes of as many as 50.
Like his cousins, Abu Awad dropped out of high school because there was no payoff for an education, such as a government job. Now he works around the corner from his grandparents’ home, mending and ironing clothes.
He barely makes enough to feed his wife, 2-year-old son and 4-month-old twin daughters. He is struggling with growing debt, and each birth puts him further behind; UNRWA no longer covers the full amount for deliveries.
Business has slowed because of rising prices and widespread unemployment, he says.
On a recent morning, he gets two calls from the electricity company, threatening to shut off power in his home and shop because he’s months behind in payments. He says he’ll try to borrow money from neighbors to keep the lights on, as he has done in the past.
He fears he’ll spend the rest of his life in the camp.
“Circumstances are difficult,” he says.
Those circumstances vary widely among displaced Palestinians in the region.
Fewer than 30 percent still live in camps. Many are poor, while others became successful in exile. Some of Jordan’s most prominent business leaders have Palestinian roots. Palestinian engineers and entrepreneurs have helped drive economies in the Middle East, including in Gulf countries.
In Lebanon, refugees cannot access public health or schools, and UNRWA remains the sole provider of such services. Refugees are also barred from most skilled professions and remain stateless through the generations.
In Syria, in the past one of the most welcoming host nations, the situation of Palestinian refugees has deteriorated sharply during the civil war there. About 400,000 of the nation’s 560,000 Palestinians have been displaced again by fighting, including 120,000 who fled the country.
Jordan has granted citizenship to most of its 2.2 million displaced Palestinians, arguably ending their refugee status. Others say Jordan did this as a temporary protection measure and has stripped several thousand Palestinians of their citizenship.
In Palestinian-run areas of the West Bank and Gaza, descendants of refugees have the same rights as veteran residents. Many stayed in the camps because of poverty. The camps have been hotbeds of unrest against Israel and resentment against a Palestinian ruling elite perceived as indifferent to the struggles of the refugees.
Over decades, life in the Jerash camp has changed the women.
The older ones, like matriarch Bassama, wear headscarves in a range of colors, but don’t cover their faces. Among the younger women, including her granddaughters, ultra-conservative clothing of black robes and face veils is now standard. They say the extra cover gives them a sense of protection when they are out in public in the crowded camp.
It’s also a reflection of a more austere version of Islam taking root in a largely hopeless population.
Privacy is rare, including in the Abu Massoud home.
Relatives wander in and out of the living room, where Bassama typically sits on one of the floor cushions — the anchor of her large clan. Retired years ago from a cleaner’s job at a U.N. school, she now oversees daughters-in-law and granddaughters as they cook and clean. The Gazans’ love of spicy food survived half a century in exile.
Bassama doesn’t regret having married Abdullah, handsome in his youth, or the life as a refugee that came with it. It’s fate, she says.
In exile, she has done what was expected of her, providing a home for four sons and three daughters, and seeing them get married. Abdullah worked most of his life in construction, and was able to turn the original U.N.-issue shelter into a six-room home for his rapidly expanding family.
Three of the daughters-in-law are Palestinians with Jordanian passports, an asset to the clan. Bassama’s youngest, Saber, 37, was able to register a plot of land planted with olive trees in his wife’s name. Middle son Ahmed, 42, who was paralyzed in a 1997 road accident, used to receive a small health stipend through his Jordanian wife.
But in Jordan, like in much of the Arab world, citizenship status is conferred through fathers, not mothers. For the Abu Massouds, it means another stateless generation.
Bassama says she often thinks about death these days. She expects to be buried in Jerash, where most graves in a rundown cemetery are marked only by cinderblock.
The matriarch says there is no hope of return for her clan.
“Peace is not on the horizon,” she says. “Gaza is gone. Palestine is gone. It’s over. For 50 years, they are saying, peace, peace. We are tired of the words.”
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank contributed to this report.