West Bank refugees look upwards to grow


By Hossam Ezzedine JALAZON REFUGEE CAMP, AFP

Palestinian Territories–Nael al-Sharif is working on an extension to his property in the Jalazon refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But he is not building outwards �X instead he’s expanding upwards. In many of the Palestinian camps, which have evolved down the decades into densely populated areas teeming with narrow alleyways, families that cannot afford to buy new land simply add floors to existing property. Sharif, 43, says his two-story home is too small for his entire family of around 30 people, so he is looking to add another two floors. ��We’re suffering from an enormous housing problem,�� he tells AFP.

��We’re practically sleeping on top of each other �X my six sons share one single room, and me, my wife and two other children sleep in another. ��So we decided to build two more floors. I can’t afford any more land outside the camp.�� With growing concerns about safety in the ever-expanding camps, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), has banned construction beyond two floors on foundations not designed to support tall buildings. An UNRWA spokesman confirmed the prohibition, saying the agency does not provide aid to home owners who break the rule. ��Over the years, these camps have transformed from temporary ‘tent cities’ into hyper-congested masses of multi-story buildings with narrow alleys, characterized by high concentrations of poverty and extreme overcrowding,�� the agency says on its website. ��The camps are considered to be among the densest urban environments in the world, but because camp structures were built for temporary use, over the decades the buildings have become overcrowded, critically substandard and in many cases life-threatening,�� UNRWA says.

But the ban has had little effect, with residents saying they have no choice but to look to the sky. More People, Less Land Jalazon, seven kilometers (4.5 miles) north of the West Bank city of Ramallah, is one of 18 U.N.-run refugee camps in the West Bank.

Established in 1949 on 25 hectares (62 acres) of land, it was originally home to 2,500 people. Today, Jalazon’s population numbers 14,000, officials at the camp say.

Located next to the Bet El Jewish settlement, it is the scene of near daily clashes between youngsters and Israeli troops with the army keeping a close eye on the camp’s perimeter fence.

Although its population has grown, the camp has not. This has caused a severe housing shortage, prompting residents to build the only way they can �X upwards, in a chaotic fashion and without architectural input. ��Housing is a big problem here,�� says 60-year-old Khadija Dawud whose three-story home is crammed with 63 family members.

��We can’t buy land outside the camp because we can’t afford it.�� Mahmud Mubarak, who heads the local committee which runs Jalazon, confirms that people are building upwards because they cannot afford new land. ��In 1950, UNRWA built one room and a kitchen for each family of five, and two rooms and a kitchen for each family larger than that,�� he said.