Thursday, October 30, 2008
Israel Diary: Day 4 (Part 2)
As I was saying... We arrived at the United Nations refugee camp in Ramallah at around 11 and met the head of the camp, a very charming Palestinian who was born there and lived there all his life. We talked to him for 45 minutes about the camp and the problems he has. Six thousand people live there. It's certainly not got the worst conditions of the various camps but there's little doubt that housing issues are the main area of concern. He told us he had ten children, earns $800 a month (far higher than most of his compatriots) and they all live in three rooms - one for boys, one for girls and one for him and his wife. We kept asking him what measures could best improve the living conditions for him and the other 6,000 people who live in the camp, but he repeatedly told us that nothing could alter the fact that they are refugees and have been driven out of their homes. Even though he was born there, and his children are third generation, they all still class themselves as refugees even though they have never even seen the place they regard as home. And this is surely the nub of the whole refugee problem. Until there is an acceptance that there is no going back it is difficult to see how life in the West Bank can be normalised. We can throw as much money at the area as we like (and British aid alone is a massive $500 million over three years), it will never solve what the refugees believe to be the main issue.
We were then taken on a tour of the camp. Conditions were not as bad as I was expecting, to be honest and I suspect things are very different elsewhere. Everybody we met was keen to shake our hands - at no time did we feel under threat. Yesterday we were told we would have to stay in the bus as it was too dangerous, but that went by the board. Several passers by told us their stories. We then went to visit an elderly man and his wife in their own home. And as we walked in we could hardly fail to see the massive picture of Saddam Hussein on the wall! The couple had been driven out of their village on the coast in 1954 and had lived in the camp ever since. They have four children, the oldest one being in Gaza. They haven't seen him in ten years as they cannot travel there without a permit. As we left, Nick Boles pointed up to the picture of Saddam and did a throat slitting gesture. The woman found this very funny - luckily!
We then had a late lunch at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem with the British Consul to the Palestinian Authority, before spending a couple of hours for briefings with two female diplomats from the Israeli foreign ministry.
This evening - the final evening of the trip - we went to a restaurant in Jaffa with two young journalists from Haaretz and another newspaper, the name of which temporarily escapes me.
So that's it. I have to get up at 5.30am to catch the 9.05 El Al flight in the morning. I hope you haven't been too bored by my travel diary. It's been a real eye opener of a trip. Tomorrow I will post something on the lessons I have learned during my trip, and then it will be back to normal blogging.