Like other refugee camps, al-Fawwar refugee camp was founded right after the Nakba in the Hebron governorate in southern Palestine to accommodate Palestinians who had been forcibly displaced from the towns and villages of the south. The camp remains a living witness to the Nakba, as do the refugees themselves. It has gone through several phases and has been affected by the external environment, the political transformations, and events affecting the Palestinian cause.
The Origins of the Camp
The camp was built in 1949 or 1950; many of its residents had been in al-Arroub Camp, north of Hebron. The camp is located 10 kilometers south of Hebron and is considered part of the town of Dura to the west. The nearest village is al-Hadab, with only a single road separating them. The camp was initially set up on an area of 108 dunums, which later expanded to 270 dunums, or 0.27 square kilometers. The land on which the camp stands was first rented by the Jordanian government from the Amro family. Then the lease was taken over by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) from the Jordanian government. The population of the camp at the time of its founding was 2,500 people, and in 2017, it had reached 7,575. The estimated population in 2021 is 8,404. The camp was named “al-Fawwar” [effervescent] because of the groundwater springs in the surrounding land, including the bubbling spring of al-Fawwar that flows abundantly.
The residents of al-Fawwar camp originate from the villages and towns of the south of Palestine that are close to the Hebron Governorate: Bayt Jibrin, Iraq al-Manshiyya, Tal al-Safi, al-Faluja, Dayr al-Nahhas, Bayt Muhassar, Ajjur, and Habayeh, and from the al-Dawayima region, where a massacre no less horrific than the one in Deir Yasin took place in 1948. The camp’s residents are originally from as many as eighteen regions in the Hebron governorate, and some of the camp’s neighborhoods are named after the towns from which the refugees were expelled, such as Bayt Jibrin, al-Dawayima, and al-Faluja. The most prominent families of the camp are al-Titi, al-Shadfan, Awwad, al-Sarahina, and Awadh.
Housing and Development
Rudimentary living conditions and a lack of basic facilities prevailed after al-Fawwar was established. Tents were the first form of accommodation for the camp’s refugees, which was perhaps in part due to the perception that their return was imminent; another factor was that UNRWA was working in a state of widespread emergency as wave after wave of Palestinian refugees arrived to the camp. In 1956 UNRWA began building residential apartments for the refugees in al-Fawwar, and each family was given one housing unit. Today visitors to the camp can see what remains of these: small and primitive structures crammed next to each other on the sides of narrow streets.
When the camp was first established, restrictions were placed on the development and expansion of construction, because the camp was on rented land. Over time the restrictions disappeared, and with the increase in the camp’s population, the need to expand and build increased. By 2017, the camp had 1,037 housing units. Because many of the residents worked in Israel, they erected high-rise buildings and also expanded construction outside the camp. Today, housing consists of fully equipped apartments inside and outside the camp, a relatively significant percentage of which are large and built of stone, because of their proximity to the abundant resources of stone available in the Hebron Governorate, with the town of Yatta being the closest source to the camp.
Governance and Camp Management
Various authorities are in charge of supervising the camp, and they change according to the surrounding political circumstances and overlap in their responsibilities. When the camp was first established, UNRWA was responsible for the service sectors, focusing its efforts on the allocation of tents and then of housing units. Over time the nature of these services changed. Today, UNRWA’s efforts are focused on education, nutrition, social services, health, cash for work, and emergency nutrition programs. The agency sees its main responsibility as humanitarian and service oriented.
Until 1967, UNRWA had nothing to do with security or in running the camp, which was the responsibility of the Jordanian government, in its capacity as being in charge of the West Bank. However, after the Israeli occupation, the mayors and prominent camp figures played a major role in providing for some of the camp's needs through their coordination with the surrounding municipalities and with the occupation authorities. It was during that period that water, electricity, and sewer systems were made available to al-Fawwar camp.
With the activity of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and then the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), some aspects of the nature of governance and administration of the camp were transformed. In 1996, a popular committee for the camp was set up in accordance with a resolution adopted by the PLO’s National Council in its twenty-first congress, convened in Gaza City in April of that year. The committee, which came under the aegis of the PLO’s Department of Refugee Affairs, is considered the active agency in the camp's contact with the outside world and in managing its internal affairs. At its outset, the committee tried to manage the camp’s affairs by itself without direct interference from the PA, but little by little, the government implemented some projects for the camp, such as building a secondary school and a government-run health center, and it reconstructed a bypass road around the camp that is approximately 3 kilometers long (with support from the Government of India) and purchasing land to build a water reservoir.
With regard to security and resolving the camp’s internal problems, the PA security forces do not intervene except when necessary; the Popular Committee, as well as the camp’s notables, are the ones who try settling internal disputes. This is in line with the prevailing clannish character of society in the Hebron region overall and particularly of Dura. The camp falls within this environment; its residents are descended from refugees from the towns and villages of southern Palestine that are similar to one another in their ethos, which tends to be moderate to conservative. The camp residents are noticeably integrated into the surrounding area, a common feature of refugee camps located within Palestine.
The Economic Situation, Living Conditions, and State of Education and Healthcare
At first, the workforce from the camp worked in agriculture in the Hebron area, and then the Jordan Valley area east of the Jordan River began to take in agricultural workers from the camp. When the West Bank came under Israeli occupation in 1967, Palestinian workers looked to the Israeli labor market in construction, agriculture, and industry. With the establishment of the PA in 1994, the percentage of camp laborers working in Israel decreased; many young people were prevented from working there. The white-collar sector in the West Bank (education, PA bureaucracy, services) started to provide many job opportunities for the camp’s residents. In addition, some jobs were available in Hebron’s factories and work inside the camp itself (grocery stores and other shops). As for the unemployment rate, in 2017 it was double that in the Hebron Governorate overall (32 percent compared to 15.8 percent). Many refugees in this camp suffer from poverty more acutely than in the other refugee camps in the West Bank.
The healthcare system in the camp has not developed much and still suffers from acute shortages. After the camp was founded, the healthcare situation was catastrophic. Today, the camp still has only one Social Rehabilitation Center, a clinic run by UNRWA, and some private clinics. UNRWA does not treat serious illnesses and hence the residents go to public hospitals.
The state of education varies between preparatory and secondary schools and higher education. Three schools are run by UNRWA for primary and preparatory education, which are sufficient to accommodate the relevant age groups; the PA runs two secondary schools (one for girls and another one for boys). Schools in the camp suffer from overcrowding and from their proximity to residential buildings. (This is true of schools in the West Bank in general.) Higher education is provided by local universities in Hebron and by al-Tira College in Ramallah, which is run by UNRWA and awards technical and vocational diplomas for two-year programs of study.
In the period right after al-Fawwar was founded, people lived in primitive conditions and in great hardship. The camp was connected to public utilities in stages, at different periods in the camp’s history. Some services took decades to become available. For instance, running water was made available in the camp only in 1980 by the Hebron Municipality; electricity was provided in 1990. In 2002 the sewer system was only connected to 70 percent of the camp’s homes. By now, almost all the homes are connected to sewage pipes.
The Camp and the Occupation: Constantly at Loggerheads
The nature of the relationship between al-Fawwar’s residents and the Israeli occupation can be summed up by the presence of a watchtower and a permanent Israeli military checkpoint at the camp entrance, in addition to the frequent clashes between camp youth and the Israeli military, and the Israeli raids inside the camp. Between 1967 and 1996, fifteen young men from the camp were killed, in addition to hundreds who have been wounded and imprisoned. With the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987 and demonstrations and clashes, the occupation forces cut off electricity to the camp in 1990 for a period of three months. Then during the Second Intifada, which took on an armed character, militants from al-Fawwar participated in armed struggle with clear effectiveness. Eleven martyrs fell from the camp between 2000 and 2018. Some al-Fawwar residents emerged as leaders in the resistance, including the prisoner Mohammad Abu Warda, who was sentenced to forty-eight life terms by the occupation authorities. Many camp houses are riddled with bullet holes, and some demolished houses are cemented to prevent reuse. The wreckage of other houses demolished by the occupation is visible. But one also notices the walls of the camp painted with colorful murals depicting keys, symbolizing the right of return, flowers and prayers, all expressing hope, yearning for freedom and religious faith.
Al-Fawwar refugee camp suffers from obvious neglect in comparison to the other refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It has also been neglected by researchers; there is a lack of research on the camp’s history, living conditions, and its relationship with the Jordanian government before 1967, as well as the period of military rule by the occupation, which exceeded two and a half decades. More information is needed about these two periods. The camp remains a beacon of the Palestinian struggle in the south of Palestine that narrates this struggle’s story, with the suffering of its people, their sacrifices, and their steadfastness in the face of adversity.