Balata Camp lies east of the city of Nablus on land that belongs to the nearby village of Balata. It houses 23,600 refugees according to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), while the Palestinian central statistics agency says the number of inhabitants was 15,663 in 2021. The camp is distinctive for its political activism on refugee issues in Palestine. The first organization in the West Bank to defend the rights of refugees was set up in the camp in 1994. The camp suffers from an unemployment rate of up to 25 percent, the water and sewage systems are poor, it is densely populated, and the schools are overcrowded.
The Origins of the Camp
Balata Camp was set up by UNRWA in 1950, along with several other Palestinian camps. It covered an area of 25 hectares (62 acres) and housed 4,484 refugees. The Jordanian government rented the land from Balata village, which is close to the eastern entrance to the city of Nablus; the camp was built on an agricultural plain with a water well, which enabled the refugees to work in agriculture on the surrounding land. The camp consisted of large tents, with each tent holding an extended family.
The camp holds the largest concentration of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank. The refugees trace their origins to about 111 towns, villages, and communities in the areas on which the state of Israel was set up. About 60 percent of the camp residents come from the following places: Jaffa, Arab al-Sawalma, al-Jammasin al-Gharbi, al-Jammasin al-Sharqi, Salama, Arab Abu Kishk, Lydda, al-Tira, al-Shaykh Muwannis, al-Abbasiyya, Kafr Saba, and Bayt Dajan. About 43 percent of all refugees from the Jaffa area are now in Balata Camp.
The development of the camp's infrastructure is typical of Palestinian refugee camps as a whole. UNRWA set up tents in 1950 and then started to build houses in 1954–56. These were almost identical housing units consisting of two rooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen, designed for one nuclear family. Streets in the camp and paths between the tents were unpaved; in winter, they were muddy. The camp had one main street, with shops and the mosque.
With the natural increase in the population, new houses were built, regulated through permits from UNRWA. The agency helped people build houses by providing some of the materials they needed. The agency also allowed people to extend their houses vertically to a maximum of two stories. At about the same time, the streets were maintained and preserved and there were no significant encroachments.
Because of the constant increase in the population on the same physical space and because all available space in the camp had already been used, a period of vertical expansion began. After the creation of the Palestinian Authority and with the continuing increase in the population, both vertical and unregulated building began in the camp. Houses were built that did not meet building standards; they lacked light and good ventilation and did not provide a healthy space for the residents. All the houses are connected to mains water and electricity through the Nablus Municipality, but there are severe problems with the water and sewage systems.
As soon as the Palestinian refugees began to live in the camps, refugees from different camps started communicating with their relatives, and some families were reassigned to different camps. Some families moved from one camp to another in order to join other members of their extended family. These movements began to shape the characteristics of the harat, the sections or neighborhoods of the camp where most of the individuals came from the same village in Palestine or from the same family. The neighborhoods were named according to the family, such as harat al-sharqiyya or harat al-hashshasheen.
Subsequent demographic developments, such as increasing population density and deteriorating economic and social conditions, paved the way for family and social conflicts, which led to a loosening and weakening of relationships among members of the same family and among wider groups of camp residents. Many people moved beyond the camp boundaries by buying nearby land or moving to live in the city or in neighboring villages. An active real estate market developed in the camp, which disrupted the family structure of camp residents.
Socioeconomic life in the camp has undergone changes since the early days. Because the camp lies on farmland close to the city of Nablus, some of the refugees went to work in agriculture on the Balata plain, either for wages or by renting the farmland. Others went to work in Nablus, and many worked in the institutions set up by UNRWA, in health, education, or other sectors and services. Others opened shops, mostly grocery stores. After 1967 a considerable proportion of the labor force in the camp, including women, went to work in Israel. When the camp was first set up, women behaved like men—they went to the labor market, but mostly on the farmland around the camp and in the vegetable processing sector.
Poverty and unemployment levels are high in Balata Camp and income levels for many families are low, similar to Palestinian refugee camps generally. A report on multidimensional poverty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, prepared by the Palestinian central statistics agency in 2017, stated that the poverty rate in the camps was 38.1 percent, compared with 24.4 percent in urban areas and 13.9 percent in rural areas. About 23 percent of refugees lived in abject poverty; among non-refugees it was 12.2 percent. The agency's statistics for 2019 show that the unemployment rate among refugees was 34.7 percent, compared with 22.8 percent among non-refugees.
UNRWA has run health institutions since the beginning, starting with a tent clinic, which later evolved to become a health center. There is now only one UNRWA health center in the camp, with two doctors and a few nurses with expertise in obstetrics and general health. The health services sector in the camp is overburdened: the health center is open for only six hours a day, and there is a shortage of doctors and of medicines. The military health services have set up another health center, and there is also a health center run by the Yazour Charitable Society and some private clinics owned by camp residents.
When the camp was established, UNRWA set up a primary school in a tent, with the pupils sitting on the ground. Today there are four UNRWA schools covering primary and intermediate education up to the 10th grade. After that, students move on to government schools. The UNRWA schools in the camp are overcrowded, with more than 4,500 students, so they work two shifts a day. Although poverty and unemployment rates in the camp are high, illiteracy among the Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian territories is lower than among the non-refugee population.
Social relations among the refugees suffer from a legacy of being uprooted and displaced and from loss of family and colleagues, livelihoods, and possessions. Palestinian refugees have conflicting feelings toward the place where they have taken refuge; they are torn between trying to assimilate in their new environment and wanting to return to their original homes. Hence, their social relationships, both with other residents of the same camp and with the surrounding communities, vary from introversion and isolation to integration and interaction with the surrounding communities.
One might say that social relationships between the residents of Balata Camp and the neighboring environment are both old and new and marked by contradictions. Sometimes they are friendly and sometimes tense. But some camp residents emphasize the strength of social ties with the surrounding community. They say that social relationships in the camps are strong and harmonious and that there is frequent intermarriage between families within the camp and in surrounding areas, especially in the villages, in light of the population movements and the demographic and socio-political changes that the camp has undergone.
The natural expansion of Balata Camp has been toward the city of Nablus and the surrounding villages. There have been various reasons for moving out of the camp—for example, improved economic circumstances and dissatisfaction with the camp's internal problems, such as living conditions and overcrowding. Because of this demographic movement, there is an active real estate market in the camp. Although the buildings are owned by UNRWA and the land is owned by the Balata Municipality, with the rent paid by the Jordanian government, people can buy and sell the leases. Despite the demographic movement, the refugees tend to bury their dead in the camp and hold funerals there, even if the dead person had moved to live outside the camp.
Administration and Control
UNRWA assumed its mission in the camp after relief operations carried out by international organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross; the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; the American Friends Service Committee (which is linked to the American Quakers); and other local religious, charitable, and humanitarian organizations.
UNRWA provides an organizational structure for managing the Balata Camp. There is a camp office manager and an assistant manager. The manager's tasks include supervising services in the camp, such as street cleaning, medical facilities, and water supply (by building large cisterns), and building schools and a mosque.
Because of its proximity to Nablus, Balata Camp was subject to the administrative and services institutions there. That continued until 1967, when the Israeli occupation authorities transferred the camp to the Israeli Civil Administration. The UNRWA institutions continued to report to UNRWA's main office in Nablus, which is responsible for the northern part of the West Bank (Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm, and Qalqilya).
After the first intifada in 1987, UNRWA's role in the camp diminished because of the emergence of organizational action groups in the camp. The number of abuses noticeably increased, and during this period the popular committees in the camps grew stronger; they were working to address camp affairs and the services in them.
The popular committee in Balata Camp is one of the most active and prominent committees in the West Bank camps. It was established in 1996, after the Palestinian Authority was set up and included all political and social groups and represented the refugees within the framework of the Palestine Liberation Organization. It initially reported to the Ministry of Local Government in the Palestinian Authority and then to the Refugee Affairs Department of the PLO. This committee supervised many of the projects inside the camp that obtained funding to serve the residents.
Civil Society Institutions
Several cultural centers with a focus on women, children, and young people are also active in the camp through programs and activities; some offer training for those taking part in the programs. There is the Jaffa Cultural Center, set up in 1996 on the initiative of the Committee for the Defense of Palestinian Refugee Rights; the Return Center; the Women's Activity Center; the Naher al-Oja Cultural Association; the Yazour Charitable Society; and several committees and centers that provide financial and material assistance to camp residents, such as the Islamic alms (zakat) committee, which reports to the alms committee in Nablus.
Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. “Labour Force Participation and Employment in the State of Palestine.” Ramallah: Author, 2020.
Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. “Multi-Dimensional Poverty Profile in Palestine, 2017: Main Results.” Ramallah: Author, 2020.
UNRWA. “Balata Camp.” unrwa.org/where-we-work/west-bank/balata-camp
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مقابلة مع: تيسير نصر الله، رئيس مجلس إدارة مركز يافا الثقافي.