Balata Camp started as tents in the fifties, grew cement blocks in the sixties, installed sewage and water in the seventies, and has stretched ever upwards until now. The camp boasts the densest population in the West Bank: at least 25,000 people in a couple of square kilometres (the inhabitants claim up to 40,000). The buildings are so tightly packed that the kids forced out to play in the shadowed alleyways suffer from Vitamin D deficiency, sun deprivation. There are eight to ten people to a residential room. In school there are 50 children to a class. UNRWA schools and the graveyard take up most space. Most of the graves are those of people killed in the streets of the camp.
It’s a remarkably friendly place, but also discomfiting. Many of the young are prematurely aged and many of the old seem broken. There’s a higher proportion of wheelchairs than anywhere else I’ve been. In a comparatively wide street I found boys playing table football in front of a memorial to their murdered playmate. They laughed and screamed.
A young man called Hani struck up a conversation, then invited us to eat falafel. His friends came too. The camp economy, they told me, is ‘zay az-zift’ – like shit. A few people work for the unloved Palestinian Authority, a few in the city, a few manage to smuggle themselves to work in Israel. The majority are unemployed. They pointed at Musa, who runs the falafel place, and told me their luck was as shit as his. “Yes, I have no luck,” grinned Musa. He once had a car but sold it to go to Norway. If you hide for five years in Norway then you can declare yourself and receive permission to remain. Musa was caught just two days before the five years was up, and was deported. Then he tried Italy, but was caught after a week. Everybody laughed. I laughed too.
These families in Balata used to own land and property. They were driven from coastal areas such as Jaffa, Acre, Haifa, which means they used to breathe the sea and watch vast spaces. Most of their homes were long ago bulldozed. Some of them house new occupants now. The refugees haven’t seen their land for 62 years.
Balata camp was at the core of the first and second intifadas. It was the birthplace of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Camp inhabitants set up the Committee to Defend Refugee Rights in 1994. The Yaffa Cultural Centre was established in 1996.
When we left the falafel place I saw those children again. I read that a large majority of children here exhibit symptoms of trauma. Most have seen their fathers beaten. Most have seen someone killed in front of them. During the Second Intifada Israeli troops entered the houses by blasting through their walls.
I met Neta Golan in Ramallah. She was in Balata, to witness and deter, when Israel employed the making-the-wall-a-door tactic. She told me how the matriarch of one home rushed to serve glasses of juice to the invaders, not because she approved of them but because she was overpowered by her hospitality instinct.