Al-Jalazone Refugee Camp

Al-Jalazone Refugee Camp

Al-Jalazone Refugee Camp

12 February 2019
Courtesy of Khaldun Bshara
Khaldun Bshara

Established in 1949 and named after a water spring by the same name, al-Jalazone refugee camp has more than 13,000 inhabitants living on less than 0.25 square kilometers. The camp is located five kilometers to the north of Ramallah, surrounded by the Palestinian villages of Jifna, Surda, and Dura al-Qari‘. The Israeli settlement of Beit El, established in 1977, borders the camp from the east.

Origins of the Camp

Like the early refugee camps, al-Jalazone was established by the Red Cross on private land after the forced exile of the Palestinians in the late 1940s. UNRWA assumed responsibility for the camp in 1950. Around 4,000–5,000 people took refuge in al-Jalazone and resided in olive and apricot orchards belonging to the village Jifna. They came from 46 depopulated villages and towns, mainly from the central coastal area: Lydda, Ramla, Haifa, and the area west of Hebron. Of the 46 villages represented by camp residents, 36 are from Ramla and Jaffa sub-districts; 80 percent of the families were descendants of eight towns and villages, while the other 20 percent came from the other 38 villages and towns. Refugees from the same village of origin preferred to settle in the same refugee camp when possible (see Table 1). By 2006, a total of 2,248 families lived in al-Jalazone.

Table 1. Al-Jalazone Registered Family Counts, 2005

Town or Village /  


# Families

Town or Village /


# Families

Town or Village /


# Families


Bayt Nabala/ Ramla


Tirat Dandan/ Ramla


Abu Kabir/ Jaffa



Lydda/ Ramla


Jimzu/ Ramla


Bayt Dajan/ Jaffa



al-Abbasiyya/ Jaffa


Khirbat al-Sidra/ Hebron


Salbit/ Ramla



 Innaba/ Ramla


al-Faluja/ Gaza


Bayt Jiz/ Ramla



al-Dawayima/ Hebron


al-Khayriyya/ Jaffa


Yazur/ Jaffa



al-Safiriyya/ Jaffa


Saqiya/ Jaffa


Yibna/ Ramla



Umm al-Zinat/ Haifa


Sarafand al-Amar/ Ramla


Rafat/ Jerusalem



Kafr Ana/ Jaffa


Jaffa/ Jaffa


Majdal al-Sadeq/ Ramla



al-Muzayri’a/ Ramla


Sabbarin/ Haifa


Julis/ Gaza



Rantiya/ Jaffa


al-Haditha/ Ramla


al-Jammasin al-Gharbi/ Jaffa



Wadi Hunayn/ Ramla


al-Qubayba/ Ramla


al-Barriyya/ Raml



Qula/ Ramla


Barfiliya/ Ramla


Qbeiba Bani Awwad/ Hebron



Dayr Tarif/ Ramla


Biyar ‘Adas/ Jaffa


Abu Shusha/ Ramla



Salama/ Jaffa


al-Qubab/ Ramla


al-Sawafir/ Gaza



Ramla/ Ramla


al-Tina/ Ramla





Sarafand al-Kharab/ / Ramla


Bayt Mahsir/ Jerusalem


Total number of families



Source: UNRWA Archives, 2005, as extracted by Adel Yahya, Qissat Mukhayyam al-Jalazone [The story of al-Jalazone camp]. Ramallah: Pace, 2006.

From UNRWA photo archives and the recollections of elderly residents, it is clear that refugee camps were laid out like military camps in a grid even in hilly sites like al-Jalazone. Early UNRWA tents were made from light-color textiles with one or more wooden posts depending on the number of family members. A family of up to three members was accommodated in a one-post circular tent, whereas a family of more than three members was given a three-post tent. The tents were arranged back-to-back opening directly to a six-meter alley marked by whitewashed pieces of rocks. The spaces between the tents were also used for circulation. For the 1,000-1,200 tents in al-Jalazone Camp, UNRWA provided a milk center, a nutrition center, public toilets, a medical center, and a tent that functioned as a mosque. UNRWA also provided eight reasonably large tents as a school for the refugees’ children (girls and boys) up to the fourth grade. According to the refugee elderly, UNRWA employed the refugees to “plant” their tents. UNRWA paid the tent builders in a “Food for Work Program”: each worker earned three kilograms of wheat for a twelve-hour workday.

Elders recall that winters were cold and snowy and tents frequently collapsed. In 1951-1952 or so, some residents started to construct shelters from rubble stones mixed with earth mortar. UNRWA provided early construction attempts with wooden boards for roofing, and later on it provided corrugated sheets made of asbestos. As hopes of return diminished after several years of exile, UNRWA started replacing the tents with more durable shelters.

Organization of the Camp

Al-Jalazone refugee camp challenges the very definition of a refugee camp in several ways. The space that housed insubstantial shelters has been transformed into a highly populated and densely built environment. Moreover, and like the majority of Palestinian refugee camps, al-Jalazone has become a place of production replete with microenterprises, artisans, and labor and not a focus of temporary international humanitarian aid programs.

Rather than being subjects of humanitarian assistance, a-Jalazone refugees are political actors, as is manifested in their use of space and their social practices. The map of Palestine before 1948 lies on the grounds of the camp; neighborhoods, streets, shops, and associations are named after villages of origin, guesthouses after lineages; houses are constructed to keep male relatives within the same cluster after they marry and set up their own households. Space-wise, from the principal alley, smaller pathways (corridors) transect the refugee camp dividing it into blocks/neighborhoods. Neighborhoods carry names such as Umm al-Zinat in the east (after the ethnically cleansed village near Haifa); at the center of the camp, Lydda neighborhood, named after the city of Lydda, most of whose residents were forced to flee; to the west Annaba and al-Nabaliyya neighborhoods, after Innaba and Bayt Nabala in the Ramla Governorate, and to the south al-Dawayima neighborhood after their village of origin, west of Hebron. Camp residents can be identified by their extended family name (lineage) or their village/town of origin.


In 1953, UNRWA started to use concrete to construct the refugee shelters. There were three types of shelters: the small room model (around 9 square meters) to host up to three persons, the medium size model (around 15 square meters) to host up to six persons, and the two-room model (around 18 square meters) to accommodate families of more than six members. The shelters were set in rows between two streets, some of which were six meters wide. Constructed directly on the streets, the units were associated with small back gardens. Each family was given a plot of 7 X 14 meters (98 square meters), on one side of which the shelter was constructed. Seven decades later, the spatial configuration of the camp still follows the original military camp/grid scheme, and the 7-meter-wide plots still overlook the main alleys of the camp.

The concrete shelters consist of 10-centimeter-thick concrete block walls, 5-centimeter-thick concrete floorings, and slightly inclined 8-centimeter-thick barely- reinforced concrete slabs. The 2.5-meter-high structures were provided with a 60- X 80-centimeter window and an 80- X 190-centimeter door; both were made of wooden boards with simple hinges.

Like most of the Palestinian refugee camps, al-Jalazone today reflects long and ongoing spatial processes. Because the camp was constructed on a small plot of land rented from a private owner in the village of Jifna, it could not extend beyond the plot perimeter. When the early structures were replaced with more permanent ones, they were built vertically. Today the camp has many five-story buildings, but one still comes across little structures built in the 1950s that survived the processes of making (and unmaking) the camp. With the fourth generation of refugees born in the camp, the shelters and the surrounding garden plots (and sometimes the public space and streets) have become fully utilized as housing or commercial spaces. The camp has become highly congested and overcrowded. The streets are growing narrower. Still, despite all the constructions, modifications, and alterations, the camp retains its original plan with intersecting streets leading to the main plaza.

Before 1967, about 4,311 refugees lived in al-Jalazone on an area of 0.253 square kilometer. While the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) estimates that the population of al-Jalazone refugee camp in the year 2023 is 9,228; UNRWA’s estimate is around 13,000. The density of the camp is at least 40,000 per square kilometer.

One can distinguish three main construction booms in the refugee camps: the late 1970s, early 1990s, and since 2004. By the late 1970s, UNRWA abolished the food rations program and limited it to needy families in a program known as the Special Hardship Case (SHC). These rations were used to govern the camps’ space and population; a refugee needs to comply with UNRWA’s order of things to preserve their rations and other services. When UNRWA abolished the food distribution program, the refugees were no longer bound to these limits and started constructing new structures.

Most of the refugee camps in Palestine are located in the Palestinian Authority (PA). With the establishment of the PA in 1993 came government jobs (especially security and police) but also the substantial reduction or termination of UNRWA’s humanitarian programs, and a shift toward Microfinance and Microenterprises Programs (MMPs). These new political and economic conditions triggered new dynamics and opportunities that accelerated the construction and the reworking of the refugee camp space. The ease of the early Oslo era was manifested not only in the arrangement of public space and investment in infrastructure and housing but also in the construction of a new sports club, two new mosques, a martyrs’ memorial, and the refurbishment of the camp’s entrance with metallic arches resembling the Arc de Triomphe, which was replaced in 2020-21 with stone cladded pillars and a steel arch.

With the death of Arafat in 2004 and the structural adjustment of the PA, land prices skyrocketed. Land from the villages around the camp was no longer affordable. Therefore, the refugees have been remodeling and investing inside the refugee camp and constructing high-rise buildings, occasionally with stone facades (which had been rarely seen in early constructions, since it connotes permanency). Al-Jalazone residents invested in and constructed houses and businesses in Jifna village.

Socioeconomic Conditions


UNRWA runs two schools, one for boys and one for girls, with approximately 2,000 students combined. These were constructed in 2013 outside the border of al-Jalazone Camp and accommodate students up to Grade 10. Settlers frequently attack both schools, particularly the UNRWA Jalazone Boys’ School, which is located in Area C and directly faces the Israeli settlement of Beit El. For Grades 11 and 12, students commuted to the surrounding villages and towns, especially Birzeit, Ramallah, and al-Bireh. Girls were unlikely to make the trip outside the camp.

In the early 2010s, the camp residents mobilized and managed to construct a school to provide secondary education for the boys and girls. The camps’ community pooled their resources and provided the land and the PA constructed the school at the northwest edge of the camp. A few years later, the camp mobilized and constructed the secondary boys’ school at the northeast edge of the camp.


UNRWA opened one clinic in the camp, which provides primary health care. The UNRWA clinic provides care for 300 cases on a daily basis. These include regular checkups for the elderly or chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, and blood pressure. According to health practitioners, these diseases are partly the result of poor living conditions.


Al-Jalazone refugee camp has a large pool of young graduates and a labor force. The majority of workers are employed in the private sector in Ramallah or the public sector (PA). A small number of workers are self-employed in camp shops, workshops, and small businesses. About 100 camp residents are UNRWA employees.

Community Life

Life in the camp resembles Palestinian village life. Because of the geographical proximity of houses and the densely built environment, the camp space is social and collective production: Everything one does in the camp has an impact on a large segment of the residents in one way or another. Building a room might block a main alley for a long period of time. Cafés and businesses voluntarily close for a day or more to mourn a martyr from the camp. Marriage within the camp implies the invitation of an extended number of the inhabitants/residents, if not all, to the wedding party. Almost all the men in the camp participate in funerals, and every resident is expected to pay condolences to the family of the dead at least once at the camp Popular Committee’s Hall near the main plaza.

Civil and Political Organizations

According to the Oslo agreement, the camp lies in area B, that is, under the civil administration of the PA and the security control of Israel. Israeli forces often raid the camp and make arrests. Because of the proximity of the camp to the settlement of Beit El, confrontations between youth and the Israeli army and settlers are regular. The martyrs’ monument carries the names of more than 40 persons killed by Israelis since the refugee camp’s establishment. Many more were injured and hundreds, if not thousands, have been prisoned in Israeli jails. It is almost impossible to find a family without a member who was killed, injured, or imprisoned by Israel. In the early 2020s, the Israeli occupation authorities completed the construction of a 4-5-meter-high concrete wall cutting off the camp from its surroundings and blocking two Palestinian houses behind the wall with narrow access.

Between 1996 and 2006, a Popular Committee managed the camp and represented the refugees at local and international levels. Since 2006, the West Bank/Gaza divide started to dominate Palestinian politics, and the popular committee in the camp cannot be described as representative or democratic. The Tanzim (Fatah Party/PA supporters) acquired unchallenged power to form committees and run the everyday politics in the camp. However, civil society organizations including a youth center, women's center, YMCAs, elderly care, a center for special needs, a children club, villages of origin guesthouses, and temporary initiatives have been contributing to the organization and management of the camp. UNRWA maintains the camp and provides basic services such as education, medication, and sanitation (the role associated with the municipal and village councils).

The Camp as a Living Archaeology

A short tour in al-Jalazone offers insights into how Palestinian refugees use their space as a time machine to keep alive memories threatened by oblivion and at the same time keep a sense of community together. In al-Jalazone, one may find the traditional social structures represented in the solidarity between the members of an extended family and among refugees despite their location. These structures were translated into spatial arrangements and kinship relations in and beyond the space of the camp. In the camp, extended families live in close proximity and sometimes share the same multi-story buildings, relying on the kinship system that was the main organizational structure in villages prior to the Nakba. Refugees also try to foster their relations throughout refugee camps by favoring marriage from within the village or town of origin, thus keeping social relations of the past alive in the diaspora.

Selected Bibliography: 

Bshara, Khaldun. “Space and Memory: The Poetics and Politics of Home in the Palestinian Diaspora.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, 2012. Irvine ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 3512670. https://www.proquest.com/openview/52e4f944e3ea5fe5b3847719ef4d8bf1/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750.

Bshara, Khaldun. “Jalazone Refugee Camp.” In Farhat Muhawi and Sahar Qawasmi, eds., Re-Walk Heritage: Ramallah Highlands Trail, 100-109. Ramallah: RIWAQ, 2012.

Bshara. Khaldun. “Spatial Memories: The Palestinian Refugee Camps as Time Machine.”  Jerusalem Quarterly 60 (2014): 14-30.

Bshara, Khaldun. "A Death Sentence? UNRWA in the Trump Era."In Marcia C. Inhorn and Lucia Volk, eds., Un-Settling Middle Eastern Refugees: Regimes of Exclusion and Inclusion in the Middle East, Europe, and North America, 213-30. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2021.

Encyclopedia of Palestinian Camps. https://palcamps.net/ar/camp/15/مخيم-الجلزون

Khalidi, Walid, ed. All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestinian Studies, 1992.

UNRWA. “Jalazone Camp.”  https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/west-bank/jalazone-camp.

UNRWA. “Profile: Jalazone Camp.” https://www.unrwa.org/sites/default/files/jalazone_refugee_camp.pdf.

Yahya, Adel. Qissat Mukhayyam al-Jalazone [The story of al-Jalazone camp]. Ramallah: Pace, 2006.