Many of the stone-throwing youths who have clashed with Israeli police in recent weeks, and those who launch knife attacks on Israelis, come from the refugee camps
Many of the stone-throwing youths who have clashed with Israeli police in recent weeks, and those who launch knife attacks on Israelis, come from the refugee camps © Abbas Momani - AFP
Many of the stone-throwing youths who have clashed with Israeli police in recent weeks, and those who launch knife attacks on Israelis, come from the refugee camps
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Sarah Benhaida
Last updated: October 30, 2015

Palestinian refugee camps breed new generation of militants

Banner Icon Israel-Palestine Nearly 30 years ago Hisham and his brothers -- natives of the Dheisheh Palestinian refugee camp south of Bethlehem -- lobbed stones at soldiers in the first uprising against Israel's occupation. Now the 51-year-old sees his sons doing the same.

"How can I tell them not to go there?" he asked of the clashes that take place regularly at the foot of the Israeli-built wall encircling Bethlehem.

As Israel and the Palestinians grapple with another wave of deadly violence -- and fears it heralds a third Palestinian uprising, or intifada -- camps like Dheisheh are feeding the unrest.

The sprawling refugee camps are populated with the Palestinians and their descendants uprooted when Israel was created in 1948.

The increasing futility of their hopes of returning to their homes as more and more Israeli settlements are built on occupied land, has made the camps the kindling that ignites Palestinian unrest.

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This time is no different, and many of the stone-throwing youths who have clashed with Israeli police in recent weeks, and those who launch knife attacks on Israelis, come from the camps.

"The struggle is always born in the camps, in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Syria and Palestine," Mahmoud Fannoun, leader of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said from the Dheisheh camp.

"Because it is the refugees who carry the Palestinian cause in their flesh," he added.

Fannoun was receiving people offering condolences after the death of a young member of his movement, whose stronghold is in Dheisheh, in clashes with security forces.

Many of the 62 Palestinians killed in the recent violence were shot in such protests. Others were shot dead while carrying out knife attacks. Nine Israelis have been killed.

NOTHING TO LOSE

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) estimates that of some five million Palestinian refugees, a third live in 58 official camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

These temporary homes have turned into seething, poverty-stricken cities.

Mohammed, 21, his hair carefully styled and slick with gel, has known nothing else, and feels he has "nothing to lose".

He works at a petrol station near Aida in the West Bank, an overcrowded camp of some 5,000 people, part-time while studying.

"We grew up in UN schools. In our houses there are power cuts all the time. We can't find jobs. We can't even dream of going to Jerusalem," he said. Jerusalem is less than 10 kilometres (six miles) away.

"We see the wall everywhere. All our families have martyrs, injured and prisoners," he said.

Several of the camps have gained notoriety, such as Sabra and Shatila in Beirut where hundreds of Palestinians were massacred by the Israeli-backed Christian Phalangist militia in 1982.

The first intifada erupted in 1987 in the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza.

The Jenin camp in the West Bank meanwhile provided many suicide bombers in the second intifada, which broke out in 2000. Two years later Israeli forces entered the camp, bulldozing and bombing it in a 12-day siege that left dozens dead.

'DO THEY LOOK LIKE US?'

The fate of the refugees is one of the trickiest issues in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For Israelis, giving refugees the right to return to their homes would pose an existential question to their state, as Jewish families have now moved in.

The peace process, stalled as it currently is, tends to focus instead on 1967, when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Many refugees are bitter, not just with the Israelis but with their own leaders, over concessions which ignore their losses in 1948 -- celebrated in Israel as the year of independence but mourned by the Palestinians as the Nakba, or Catastrophe.

"My home and my land, I lost them in 1948," said Hamad, 65, in the Aida camp in Bethlehem, referring to his parents' property.

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"They are a 10-minute drive from Bethlehem but the Palestinian Authority told us, by signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, to forget them," he said.

The divisive agreement created the Palestinian Authority to oversee day-to-day affairs in Palestinian territories, but did not touch on core issues like the fate of refugees.

Hisham in the Dheisheh camp and his five brothers have all spent several stints in Israeli jails.

"In the morning, I leave home and I don't know if I will return. I could be arrested or killed at any time by a soldier or a settler," he said.

Today, as two of his sons join the ranks of stone-throwers, another is behind bars.

His anger is clear, not only with Israel but with the Palestinian leadership over unfulfilled promises and failed efforts.

"Those people who talk about peace, look at them. They wear fancy suits and nice ties, do you think they look like us?"

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