Jabalia & the Intifada: Transforming Precariousness Into Strength In Gaza’s Refugee Camps



I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories about resistance in Palestine. He, Abu Naser, was the chief military of Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He trained Laila Khalid, along with her group that hijacked two American and Israeli airplanes in 1969 and 1970, who had hoped to release Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. He also led many operations against the Israeli army, notably the 1968 battle of Al Karama (first Arab military victory over Israel). Despite spending years fighting from neighboring countries, he always believed that freedom for Palestine would ultimately have to come from within. I remember him always saying: “strength lays in weakness.” This unflagging believe in a nation’s ability to act even during the toughest times is worth contemplating now, especially after the weak and ineffective Palestinian response to Trump’s late decision to move the United States embassy to Jerusalem. “The toughest fighter,” he once told me, “is either idealist or has nothing to lose. We are both.” He retired from the political scene after the Lebanese war in late 1976, thinking that the Palestinian people themselves should simply take the lead.

Al Shanti Funambulist (3)
Beach and Jabalia refugee camps, and Israeli checkpoint during the First Intifada (1987-1993). / M. Nasr for UNRWA (FAMSI).

In 1987, Gaza and the West Bank did just that. They decided to shift their struggle for human rights, equality and liberation inwards. Jabalia refugee camp, in Gaza, was notoriously the birth place of the Intifada. Palestinians hesitated to rise up, and didn’t even know how to do it. But people who were living in devastating conditions found an effective and simple way, through the simplest and oldest weapon: stones. Balata refugee camp was the first in the West Bank to join the Intifada started in Gaza, which ultimately led to the 1993 Oslo Accord, and thus the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The refugee camps still have an important role in the conflict. Their substantial and reoccurring participation in any up-raise is attributed to the fact that they have more at stake — having lost their land and bearing the largest burden of oppression, they have the most to gain by active struggle. The relatively better economic situation faced by some of the non-refugees might be just enough comfort for them to keep their peace. Despite war and occupation, a bourgeois class — some of the original residents of Gaza city, who did not lose property in 1948 — still exist in Gaza and remains less affected by the occupation. In fact, they still own their businesses and have a higher life standard than the refugees, who end up working for them. This class is believed to prefer stability to protect their interests, as they have more to lose.

Al Shanti Funambulist (2)
Beach and Jabalia refugee camps, and Israeli checkpoint during the First Intifada (1987-1993). / M. Nasr for UNRWA (FAMSI).

The difficult economic situation in Palestine pushed the residents to pursue further education in the hope of having a higher life standard. Thus, the second generation to live in those camps became doctors and engineers, and cooperatively helped enhancing the infrastructure of the camps, turning them into functional cities. With a young power drive — 40% of the refugee camps population is under 15 years old (Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 2015) — the communities of these camps are considered more active and dynamic in terms of human power. Such a society is also more eager to resist the Israeli occupation and the strip of human rights by engaging in risker actions. The Israeli government was aware of the potential threat posed by the camps, and decided to siege them in 1974, surrounding them with walls and barbed wire in order to contain their revolutionary potential. In addition, Gaza strip as a whole is walled by a 60-kilometer-long border barrier that Israel built in 1994. Israel has been controlling the airspace, land borders, and territorial waters of Gaza until today. The result of these blockage policies (movement restriction, expansion restrictions, sieging the camp) pushed Palestinians to make extreme choices (voting in majority for Hamas) in their 2005 parliament elections. Hamas considers Gaza’s refugee camps as their stronghold (Jabalia in particular); they not only provide them with material support, but also supply the resistance movement with many front-line leaders.

Al Shanti Funambulist (4)
Beach and Jabalia refugee camps, and Israeli checkpoint during the First Intifada (1987-1993). / M.Nasr for UNRWA (FAMSI).

The natural increase in the number of refugees overtime also led to an increase in clashes, strikes, and demands for their civil rights. The most problematic part of negotiation talks is always the right of return. The right of return is a demand for the Palestinians refugees who were expelled from their lands and villages by the newly created state of Israel in 1948. The refugees stand strongly behind this demand, making it an act of political suicide for any Palestinian government leader to go against it. The refugee camps are also where Palestinian leaders prefer to turn when their chips are down. When the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was out of options regarding Trump’s plan to relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he reached to the pulse of the street led by those camps. He asked them to re-active popular peaceful resistance against the occupation. The refugee camps always find a way to bail out any Palestinian leadership.


The Role of the Environment in Shaping Jabalia Refugee Camp ///

The camp started with 35,000 refugees in 1948, and has expanded to house roughly 120,000 today. Refugees’ families are mostly from Jaffa and villages around the Gaza Strip. While it started with tents, it developed into “SHINKO houses” (made out of aluminum), and then into concrete buildings in the late 1970s. The camp is located north of Gaza strip, between the cities of Jabalia and Beit Lahia. Its border used to be in the direct vicinity of two Israeli settlements in the northeast corner of the Strip, before the Israeli government’s 2005 dismantled all the settlements in Gaza. The main features of the camp are its narrow streets that sometimes are only wide enough to fit one person, its tightly packed buildings, and its rudimentary open sewers, which is one of the biggest issues in the camp — the residents asked repeatedly and unsuccessfully the occupying power to improve these dire living conditions.

Refugee camps are considered as the most coherent social community in Palestine. For instance, funerals gather large numbers of mourners, often lasting for multiple days. This social coherence also leads to successful strikes and actions of civil disobedience, which the residents of these camps are typically committed to. From both sociological and spatial perspectives, refugee camps have their own unique art de vivre. Jabalia camp society is shaped by many elements, the most important of all being the physical environment. The small streets imply tighter, warmer social relations. The closely packed buildings mean coexistence and interdependence. And the tightly controlled borders imply a general apprehension towards the outside and frustration. Also due to the limited space — the camp takes up only 1.4 square kilometers — the expansion of the population has been vertical rather than horizontal. When, for example, people marry and start having children, they simply build a new floor on top of the home of one of the spouse’s parents to accommodate them, when possible. Multiple generations of families end up living together in one building, which results in a mentality of “family first.” All of these factors play an important role in the function of the community. Residents are more idealistic, meaning they don’t believe in promises (like Oslo Accord) and they don’t acknowledge the occupation. They are willing to take risks, because there is not much to lose and the boundaries are suffocating them. However, they know how to use these conditions to their advantage.

The first Jabalia camp’s notable struggle against the occupation occurred right after the 1956 Israeli invasion of Gaza during the Suez Crisis. Israel took over the Gaza Strip and built a military base right at the heart of the Jabalia camp. The resistance started by peaceful marches against the occupation. The Israeli government had prohibited use of the Palestinian flag and singing the national anthem, but the residents of the camp held nothing back; they chanted anti-Israeli slogans and waved their Palestinian flags, while the military hopelessly attempted to chase them through the look-alike streets and narrow passages. In the early 1970s, taking note of how the residents used the camp’s urban arrangement to their advantage, the Israeli army started to evacuate certain houses and demolish them, in order to make space for bigger streets and to detach buildings from one another. But residents rioted against this practice, forcing the Israeli government to back down. In the early 1980s, however, it introduced a voluntary relocation plan: if residents of the Jabalia camp would give up their house or land, they would be compensated with a small payment and a parcel of land in Beit Lahia. The plan was partially successful, and some families decided to leave in order to escape the situation.

The camps used tactical moves against the occupation forces on a both popular and military level. Typically, Ramallah’s “Central Square” and Gaza City’s Unknown Soldier’s Square were the favorite places for launching movements against the occupation. However, those protests, usually led by public figures, never succeeded in attracting a vast part of the population. How did the poor residents of the refugee camp manage to succeed starting the Intifada? The Intifada started as a reaction to the killing of four Palestinian workers by an Israeli truck driver in Erez checkpoint. The workers were from Jabalia. The wife of one of the workers recounts: “At first they told me he only had a leg injury. But when I saw people gathering in front of our home, I knew he died” (felesteen.ps, 2010). This demonstrates how quickly the Jabalia refugee camp both communicates about and reacts to acts of Israeli aggression. The narrow streets and closely packed buildings allowed for news to spread quickly, in spite of the lack of telecommunication infrastructure in the camp at the time. Within minutes, the residents managed to organize a spontaneous gathering of as many as 4,000 people, which testifies to the strength of the community.


The Camp’s Geography Turned into a Weapon ///

Refugee Conditions Gaza
Beach and Jabalia refugee camps, and Israeli checkpoint during the First Intifada (1987-1993). / Photographs by G. Nehmeh for UNRWA (FAMSI).

The residents made the decision to start a battle, but how were they to do it? Residents developed many techniques to use the urban environment to their advantage. As mentioned above, there was an Israeli military base in the center of the camp, which became the main target of the outraged mob. Residents threw stones, molotov cocktails, and empty bottles. The Israelis had to learn the hard way not to chase them through the tiny streets — children would lure Israeli soldiers into tight quarters (the soldiers had been ordered by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to literally break the hands of anyone who threw stones) and then once the soldiers were trapped, people on the tops of the surrounding buildings would assail them with stones and garbage. Another urban feature the residents adapted to their advantage, was the open sewers. They would fill bags with sewage waste and then throw them at the soldiers. The Israeli soldiers had a hard time fighting back. Where individual soldiers failed to chase the residents, so did their military vehicles, as they could not access the narrow streets.

Today, refugee camps are still the safest hiding place for many Palestinian fugitives. The geographical and urban conditions (connected houses, narrow streets and random planning) create ideal hiding spots that are not integrated into any municipal or military plans. The above-mentioned cohesiveness of the community leads to mutual cooperation between the society and the fugitives. There was also a common understanding between residents to never fire bullets inside the camp, as the Israeli forces would respond aggressively with artillery, targeting densely populated areas. Thus, the political parties’ militants, would retreat from the camp during war times to avoid high causalities, or they could hide there, but only if they were not armed. This understanding challenged the Israeli mentality and took away any excuses for targeting the camp directly, under the excuse of present militants. Due to this peaceful struggle against the aggressive Israeli military, the camps gained the sympathy and support of the world.

Al Shanti Funambulist (5)
Jabalia refugee camp in 2017 and 2018. / Suhair Karam for IRIN (right).

Because of the poor quality of the buildings in the camps, residents prefer to seek shelter in more solid structures like those constructed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in charge of all Palestinian refugee camps. The camp’s extreme density, and the poor quality of its buildings, means that any bombardment by the Israeli military cause damage to much more than its initial targets. The bombing of one structure can affect at least four or five other neighboring buildings. Because of this, residents tend to evacuate their homes during war times. During the 2014 war on Gaza they sought out UNRWA schools and clinics to take shelter in. Tragically, despite the Israeli army knowledge of civilians taking shelter at UNRWA establishments, the establishments were targeted. This hiding tactic is no longer safe, and residents have to resort to other options.

In both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, refugee camps have managed to create a certain amount of sovereignty for themselves. For example, in 2015, when the Jabalia camp rose up against the Fatah-Hamas conflict, many policemen inside the camp joined in, as they felt a higher sense of loyalty towards their fellow residents than for the government. In general, camp leaders (who are often affiliated with the PA or Hamas) found that their formed community skirts the PA authority. This implied a looser grip on the camp by the government, leaving the fate of the state in the hands of the camps. The dynamic of the refugee camps as of cultural and environment dimensions resulted in a separation of identity, between the state and the camp. The PA still considers camps solely as camps, forgetting that the camps are cities now and that the original exodus happened 70 years ago. For example, the houses of the camps are not registered officially as real estate. These unregistered houses and the narrow streets will always emphasize the “everlasting temporary” situation that Palestinian refugees have to live with.

Attempts to Change the Situation ///

Since 2006, when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, a different strategy was implemented to restore the camps and gain their trust. Hamas knew that the Jabalia refugee camp, for example, is unique and should be dealt with delicately. On January 18, 2018, a spontaneous protest took place in the Jabalia refugee camp against the extremely dire living conditions. Yet Hamas, unlike other protests they crashed, allowed and even participated in the revolt. The Jabalia refugee camp is where many Hamas leaders grew up, and they tend to side with the people of the camp in contentious political matters. Subsequently, infrastructure of the camps has improved, the Israeli government has been prevented from carving out more wide streets, permits for higher buildings have been issued, and scattered shops have been re-organized into specific proper locations. In my opinion, these measures were not only intended to improve the daily life of the residents, but also to change the mentality and spirit of the camps. This is why the “Souk Street” of the Jabalia refugee camp is now full of new businesses and small shopping centers. Many of these new shops are owned by bourgeois Gazawi who have been encouraged by Hamas to invest in the camp. Jabalia camp is always on edge, it only needs the slightest reason to revolt. With these new shops, new streets, and new clinics, Hamas and UNRWA hope to transform the refugee mentality into something more urban, or “city-wise.” Without a doubt, the urban fabric of the camps plays the biggest role in forming their communities. As many parties (UNRWA, the PA, Hamas, the Israeli government) understand, the refugees can be changed through changing their urban environment. Will they succeed? And to what extent? Only the future will tell.

Al Shanti Funambulist (6)
Jabalia refugee camp in 2018. / All photographs by Ihab Obaid.