Gaza’s Refugee Camps: A Grim Reality Amidst Conflict
Tens of thousands of Gaza’s residents live in eight refugee camps that were established after the mass exodus of Palestinians during the war that followed the creation of Israel in May 1948. This catastrophic event, known as the “Nakba” in Arabic, saw over 760,000 Palestinians forced to flee their homes. Around 180,000 sought refuge in Gaza, while others scattered across the West Bank and neighboring Arab countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. To provide basic services like health and education, the United Nations established the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 1949. Today, more than two-thirds of Gaza’s 2.4 million population are registered refugees.
Refugee camps often evoke images of people living in tents, but in Gaza, multi-story cement-block buildings have replaced the tents. However, conditions in these camps were already dire before Israel’s relentless bombardment of the territory in response to Hamas’s attacks.
The camps are among the most densely populated areas on earth, with over 620,000 people squeezed into less than 6.5 square kilometers of land. The situation worsened due to the tight air, sea, and land blockade imposed by Israel after Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. Unemployment in the camps stands at a staggering 48.1 percent, compared to 46.6 percent in the rest of Gaza, according to UNRWA.
Two of the camps, Jabalia and Shati, are located in the northern part of Gaza. Israel ordered civilians to evacuate these areas as it intensified its war against Hamas. While approximately 1.5 million people have fled their homes since the conflict began, many are believed to have remained in the north. Jabalia, the largest camp in Gaza and the birthplace of the first intifada in 1987, has been repeatedly bombed during the offensive. The Israeli army claims it is targeting Hamas members and tunnels beneath the camp, but several UN-run schools hosting displaced people have been damaged in the strikes. Shati camp on the outskirts of Gaza City has also been frequently targeted. The Bureij and Al-Maghazi camps in central Gaza have also been hit, with an Israeli airstrike on Al-Maghazi camp resulting in the deaths of 45 people, including four children and four brothers of video-journalist Mohammed Alaloul.
Many of those who fled their homes in northern Gaza have sought refuge in the southern cities of Khan Yunis and Rafah, where UNRWA also operates refugee camps. As of November 1, over 530,000 people were seeking shelter in UN facilities in central Gaza, Khan Yunis, and Rafah. However, these shelters are now full, leaving many people to sleep on the streets. Desperate to leave Gaza, many are hoping to cross the Rafah border into Egypt, the only entry point not controlled by Israel. Unfortunately, Egypt has only allowed a few hundred foreigners, dual nationals, and wounded Palestinians to pass through so far.
The plight of Gaza’s refugee camps highlights the urgent need for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ongoing violence and blockade have exacerbated an already dire situation for the residents of these camps. It is crucial for international actors to work towards a peaceful and just solution that addresses the rights and needs of all parties involved. Only then can the people of Gaza hope for a brighter future free from the constraints of life in a refugee camp.