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WORDS MATTER, Part 2: Camps

Michael Lame, posted August 4, 2009

What is a camp?
In my youth, I sometimes went camping. In particular I remember a backpacking trip of several days in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, my home state. At night, my friend Paul and I would set up camp, erect our two-man tent, build a fire, cook dinner, and crawl into our sleeping bags. In the morning we would disassemble the tent, pack up our gear, and begin our hike for the day. That, to me, is camping. Tents are associated with camping. When I hear or read the word camp, I think of a temporary site for food and shelter, with simple structures that are easily assembled and easily dismantled.

“CAMP: 1 a: a place usually away from urban areas where tents or simple buildings (as cabins) are erected for shelter or for temporary residence (as for laborers, prisoners, or vacationers) b: a group of tents, cabins, or huts

Some friends of mine send their kids to summer camp. The buildings there may be permanent but the period of residency is not. That’s my second word-association for camp.

“CAMP: d: a place usually in the country for recreation or instruction often during the summer ; also: a program offering access to recreational or educational facilities for a limited period of time

The third kind of camp I think of when hearing the word is for refugees. I imagine vast tent cities, with outdoor latrines and no electricity. Temporary facilities for temporary residents. I have seen films and photos of row upon row of canvas tents in such places in Africa and Asia run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Palestinian refugee camps don’t fit any of these mental pictures. That surprised me when I first visited such camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan twenty-five years ago. There is nothing camp-like about many Palestinian refugee camps.

Just as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides its own definition of who is a refugee which is specific to Palestinians, so it gives us a similarly unique definition of a camp. “A camp, according to UNRWA’s working definition, is a plot of land placed at the disposal of UNRWA by the host government for accommodating Palestine refugees and for setting up facilities to cater to their needs. Areas not designated as such are not considered camps.” (

Initially, the Palestinian refugees were housed in tents. But eventually UNRWA replaced the tents with more durable shelters. Yet when catastrophe strikes, as it did in Gaza during the most recent Israeli incursion in December and January, or during the 2007 battles between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, tents once again provide shelter to thousands while destroyed housing is rebuilt. That process can last months or even years.

Someone once said, “There is nothing as permanent as the continuous temporary.” The continued existence of Palestinian refugee camps, sixty years after most were originally established, proves the point. The very longevity of Palestinian refugee camps makes them unique in the world. Administratively, financially, even architecturally, these camps are anything but temporary.

If you were to visit one of the dozens of refugee camps (58 to be precise) in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, or Syria, and if you didn’t already know what it was, you might not suspect that you were in a refugee camp. You might think of it as something else – perhaps a slum or shanty town, a poor neighborhood or run-down suburb, or simply a city or village.

Sometimes it’s hard to know where a camp ends and the rest of the neighborhood begins. In some camps you will see multi-storey apartment buildings and paved roads; in others, tin-roofed hovels and narrow alley-ways. Some camps are set apart, in rural areas. Others are in the middle of cities. It’s not easy to generalize about their appearance, as they vary greatly from one to another, but the UNRWA description is a good place to start: “Socio-economic conditions in the camps are generally poor with a high population density, cramped living conditions and inadequate basic infrastructure such as roads and sewers.” (

In Gaza alone, half a million Palestinians live in the camps. The total number of Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA who live in camps exceeds 1.37 million people. (Another 3.3 million registered refugees live outside the camps.)

The names by which we call things shape how we think about them. It makes a difference whether we call the ’48 war the War of Independence or Al-Naqba (the Catastrophe), whether we say Israel or the Zionist entity, Palestine or the Occupied Territories, the West Bank or Judea and Samaria. It makes a difference whether we call the areas where displaced Palestinians live camps or communities or something else.

The word camp implies a small temporary set of shelters, but when three or four generations have been born in a community, it is misleading to speak of it in terms that suggest the temporary. And when a hundred thousand people live in one locale, calling it a “large camp” doesn’t even come close to conveying the reality of the situation. The longer we go on thinking of a Palestinian refugee camp as temporary, the longer we will tolerate the perpetuation of that limbo existence – even if for just one more year, which becomes five and then fifty.

[Next blog posting: Words Matter, Part 3: Settlements]

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “WORDS MATTER, Part 2: Camps”

  1. Michael Thomason Aug 4th 2009 at 6:42 pm

    As always, thought-provoking. I confess that most of the way through this piece, I wondered what the utility was of noting that, in the case of Palestinian refugee camps, the current reality meant that “camp” now had an unusual or additional meaning. Did this observation carry with it any useful insight into policy?

    At one point, it seemed that what was being suggested was that Palestinians had no right to refuse to somehow melt into their surroundings, to become an indistinguishable part of the largely urban slums that they inhabit. Or perhaps, that UNRWA had no right to gather its clients where they could be provided services efficiently, or even that they had no business providing those services at all any more. After all, the real meaning of “camp” in places like Shatila is (1) the place where those who have virtually no rights beyond residence are gathered, and (2) the place where UNRWA and numerous NGOs provide services. We could call such places “collection points for families of those unable to return to their homes and in need of help,” but “camp” has at least the advantage of being a one-syllable word.

    And it’s well to remind ourselves that the word, and others, were chosen at a time when the reasonable, indeed seemingly legally compelled, expectation, was that refugee status, and camps to hold them, would be temporary phenomena. That was the assumption underlying both the creation of UNRWA and the adoption of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It would be unseemly — no, it would be an act of moral cowardice — simply to choose other words to use, if that was done in an attempt to hide the indifference, the cynical use of the Palestinian refugees, the unwillingness to face up to obligations, that have allowed these terrible conditions to continue for decades. It would also be intolerable to change the lexicon if it was done to facilitate an argument that the moral or legal claims of the parties have changed because of the passage of time. This is not the place to argue about why the conflict, including the issue of refugee rights, has not been resolved. Suffice it to note that the overwhelming power advantage of the occupying power allows it to enforce the status quo as long as it wishes, and that Palestinians are acutely aware that international law, weak as it is, is one of the few arrows in their quiver.

    The writer of this blog knows a lot about the camps, knows that they contain people who have many talents, cherish their families, work hard, and revere education. They are treated differently in different countries, but in Lebanon they are denied the right to practice almost all professions and vocations, much less to be citizens or participate in directing those who govern them. In Gaza, it is incomparably worse — they, along with Gazans whose families lived there before the Nakba, have been progressively crushed and impoverished ever since they went to the (US-sanctioned) polls in 2006. That was true even before Cast Lead, the massive, indiscriminate, heartless invasion that destroyed businesses, homes, clilnics, schools, and places of worship. As the writer noted and I have seen, that required the creation of tent camps more like those described in the dictionary — and those tent camps will be there for a long time, because the occupying power refuses to allow construction materials in, for fear that Hamas might somehow be strengthened or allowed to claim a victory.

    So again, what is the point of denying an added usage to the word “camp”? Is it really “misleading to speak of [a refugee community] in terms that suggest the temporary”? To the contrary, it is good to remind ourselves, every day, that these conditions were meant to be temporary, that their continuance is a moral, legal and political cancer that calls out for a greater sense of urgency and humanity on the part of Israel and the entire international community.

    But at the end of the piece, I found that I agreed with the author. We cannot “tolerate the perpetuation of that limbo existence…” These things have gone on too long, to the immediate and lasting injury of (now) millions of Palestinians, but also to the detriment of the interests of the United States, and to our great shame. Let’s not change what we call them, let’s change what we do about them.

  2. Saba L. Shamion Aug 4th 2009 at 7:57 pm

    It sounds like you are trying to make juice by squeezing words! Words only matter to those who have the luxury of examining it to death! That will never change the living conditions or the deep humiliation felt by the refugees.
    It is unfortunate that so many Israelis and their supporting crowd here in the US tend to argue the meaning of every word and every statement uttered by Arab leaders instead of dealing with an open mind with the ongoing tragedy that befell so many millions of Palestinians!
    The last legislative fiasco in the Israeli Knesset was about the names of cities, towns and sites (writing in Latin and Arabic the Hebrew names of places-even Arab towns!) such as Yerushalayim for Al Quds! Do you suppose any Arab will ever call Al Quds-Yerushalayim? Not in your wildest Dream!!
    The fact is: several million Palestinians see themselves as the victims of forced eviction from their homeland. You can call their current temporary place of residence, Resorts, Safaris or Shanty Towns; this will never change their desire to go back to their homeland-Palestine!

  3. Moniron Aug 4th 2009 at 10:09 pm

    Interesting and a great thought. My experience differs from yours. When you say “Camps” to me, I immediately will ask you, “Which camp?” I guess because of where I have grown up. In Gaza, you do not have to think, what camps are. They are a very familiar reality to us, the Palestinians. There are so many of them, and there is almost no one that does not know somebody in one camp or another. Those numbers by the UNRWA, I might doubt that they are accurate. The reason being, there are so many Refugees that did not live in these camps. My family is one of them. They are from El Majdel (Ashkelon, today). They fled to Gaza in the south in 1948, but they never lived in the Camps. They have rented and shared a house with another family from the Gazan locals.

    “Camps” and “temporarily” do not go together in the Palestinian history. The saddest part for me is the Jewish conscience acceptance for the high price that the 700,000 Palestinian refugees, and their offspring (4,400,000 today), paid, and still are paying, so the Good Jewish people can have a HomeLand for themselves.

    I bet camps mean something different for European Jews of the Nazi era! But that is another story!