words Justin McGuirk
Jenin took ten days to destroy and three years to rebuild.
The Palestinian refugee camp, in the northern West Bank, held the world’s attention for a brief moment in April 2002 when Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved in against armed insurgents, levelling more than 500 homes and leaving nearly 4,000 residents homeless. The scale of the destruction prompted accusations that the incursion was a war crime – but it was also an act of urban planning.
Today, “Ground Zero” – as the UN called the destroyed section of the camp – has been remodelled. Its broad streets are lined with new, cream-coloured housing. All neatly geometrical, the houses have balconies and courtyards. The ground is pink, the walls smoothly finished, and everything is unusually clean. Waiting for a car to pass, a group of children resume a frantic game of football. Three years ago this was a warren of alleys too narrow for cars or football. It is now as close to utopian as refugee camps get.
But Jenin is an anomaly. There are about two dozen camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and they are home to nearly two million Palestinians. The camps are plagued by overcrowding, water shortages and drug addiction, and yet it is a virtual taboo to talk about improving the conditions within them because they symbolise a nation in exile and present a living picture of occupation and suffering. It has become an accepted paradox that to improve their conditions is to undermine their own cause.
Only the tabula rasa provided by the Israel Defense Forces, and the flood of financial aid that the rubble inspired, allowed for Jenin to be redesigned. As an exception, it forces us to consider the architecture in which more than half of the Palestinian population lives. More importantly, though, it offers an opportunity to imagine a future for the camps not as self-contained states of emergency but as towns.
The word “camp”, suggesting something temporary, hardly describes Jenin or any of the other conurbations in the occupied territories that fall under the same term. But camps are what they once were: fields gridded with temporary shelters built to house Palestinians forced off their land in the various military encounters of the 1950s and 60s that shaped Israel as it now is. But the camps have evolved. They are now the densest urban entities in the world – those in Gaza and Nablus have populations more concentrated than Hong Kong or Shanghai. They are spontaneous cities that grew unplanned and uncontrolled, and as such represent the urban expression of a displaced people. That they are still called camps testifies to the fact that, despite being home to more than half of the Palestinian population, they have never been addressed as official pieces of the national landscape.
The camp at Jenin was established in 1953. It grew rapidly, and houses spread outwards and upwards like self-replicating cells until the camp had become as dense and labyrinthine as a medina. Rebuilding the areas flattened by the IDF was a painful process. There was no shortage of money – the United Arab Emirates donated $27 million on its own – but with that money came obligations. The UAE wanted the camp to be restored exactly as it was before the invasion. This didn’t happen, not least because there were no plans of the camp. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is responsible for all the camps in the occupied territories, decided to start from scratch and ease the congestion by buying land on the edge of the camp and relocating some of the families from the destroyed core. This was when UNWRA started to understand just what complex organisms the camps are.
Firstly, many families demonstrated a greater attachment to the camp than UNWRA had expected, and were reluctant to be moved. But more significantly, rather than give every family the same size house, the agency tried to give them one that was equivalent in scale to the one they had lost – but, again, there were no records. “People exaggerated what they had before,” says Berthold Willenbacher, UNRWA’s project director. “The weakest got what they were supposed to and the more powerful got villas they weren’t supposed to. Then some people thought they didn’t get enough and they started threatening us. One came and took one of my staff’s car with a gun and said he would keep it until he got what we wanted.”
The threat of violence was simply a symptom of opposing perspectives: the technocratic one, which saw refugees, and the local one, which recognised citizens. UNWRA’s policy is to give every family the same allocation of space. “Jenin was an exception because the donors gave lots of money and because we’d never had that kind of damage before,” says Willenbacher. The idea that the community should have a say in the organisation of the camp is clearly anathema to him. But the camp’s residents demonstrated that they were far from merely aid-receiving refugees but citizens who had created neighbourhoods and possessed civic power that they were willing to defend if necessary.
The architect of the camp’s new core, Hidaya Najmi, declined to enter it with us for fear of encountering any of the minority unhappy that their home is not as big as their neighbour’s. Standing on the hilltop overlooking Jenin, she points beyond the nearest houses, strafed with bullet holes, to where there used to be a gaping cavity in the camp fabric. Herself from Jenin – her house, in the town proper, was used as the Israeli operations centre during the battle – Najmi has her own theory about the scale of the demolition: “It was not through the battle that all the destruction happened, it was afterwards. They didn’t smash the camp because they wanted to enter it; the idea was to destroy houses – it was how to hurt them most.”
Najmi explains that she developed the new housing from templates that varied according to the size of family they were intended for. The houses were built of concrete, in the low-income housing model, but not without aspirations. “We tried to give them Arab architecture, which is to say houses around courtyards,” says Najmi. The region’s traditional houses are built of stone and designed around two main features: the hosh (courtyard) and the diwan (the room for entertaining guests). Jenin’s new houses are more modest versions fused together for urban, rather than rural, conditions. It may have taken longer than locals would have liked for these homes to materialise – construction was held up for months after the British project manager was killed by an Israeli sniper – but they were worth the wait.
One of the first things you notice walking around the camp centre is a generosity of space that no other camp has. The lower walls conceal small courtyards with potted plants or the rustling of women hanging laundry. This sense of private outdoor space continues overhead in a number of balconies. The effect of these, in conjunction with the basic geometries of the windows and the house shapes, is not so very different from the celebrated Bauhaus aesthetic of Tel Aviv, just less stylised. In contrast to the “White City”, however, every new house in Jenin has been painted a creamy beige to mark it apart from the old camp. “Maybe it was because they [the UAE] were proud and wanted to show the world what they had done,” hazards Najmi. The abundance of clean flesh-toned walls and the pinkish dirt of the roads give the new centre a slightly surreal quality, as though you were walking through a living thing.
Along the main thoroughfares most buildings have ground-floor shops that open through massive steel doors. These doors, suggesting protection from an army rather than burglars, are at odds with the placidity of their owners, each one beckoning us in for tea. The roads themselves bend, evidence of UNWRA’s decision not to impose a modernist grid on the camp but to integrate the new section with the almost medieval streetscape of the existing camp fabric. This sense of spatial continuity not only fosters the residents’ historical connection to the camp but hints at the potential for a natural evolution from camp to town.
In a place with no parks, markets or squares, the role of public space is fulfilled by the streets. And if the streets are dark alleys then that can only indicate the suffocation of public life. From that perspective, the widening of Jenin’s arteries is perhaps the most significant development in its nascent townhood. However, this newfound space has raised less benign issues. The streets may now be wide enough for cars, but they are also wide enough for the Merkova Mark III tank.
Having witnessed the scale of the destruction in 2002, UNRWA had every interest in safeguarding its new housing. With Jenin’s expanded streetscape, there is less chance that any further incursions will result in wholesale demolition. However, the agency has met criticism for this measure from those who argue that it has eased Israeli control and made it more difficult for the camp’s inhabitants to defend themselves.
“We designed a way for Israelis to get through with tanks and we shouldn’t have done that,” says Willenbacher, “because the armed guys have less chance of getting away than if it’s narrow alleys. We didn’t take their aspect into consideration.” Later in our conversation, though, he blurs the notion that the redesign catered to the IDF’s interests. “We got blamed for doing it this way but we made the roads wider for cars and ambulances – it would be silly not to. We just wanted to make a normal living area with proper services like water and sewerage. We see from a technical aspect, not in terms of war; the Israelis will come in regardless.”
Of course, Willenbacher is in an impossible position: historically, the modernising aspirations of planners have often gone hand in hand with the tightening of political or colonial control. But are the residents of Jenin to be denied the benefits of modernisation?
The UN’s work may now be done but, to Jenin’s residents, the new houses are just the beginning. On a corner building, the first-floor facade has been knocked out so that a room could be cantilevered out over the street. The Palestinians are nothing if not pragmatic, and respect for the camp’s clean lines will certainly not stand in the way of an extra room here or another storey there. But this is just as Willenbacher and Najmi planned. “We know exactly what’s going to happen,” says Willenbacher, “we know we can’t control them – even if we built one-storey buildings.” UNRWA’s policy is only to build up to two storeys; in Jenin, ever the exception, some houses have three because their inhabitants insisted. “We told them the foundations would support four storeys,” says Najmi, “but I know they will build five and the foundations will take five.”
In a sense, it is only in the transformation of Najmi’s neat houses that true Palestinian architecture comes into effect. The architecture of the camps is spontaneous, adaptive and parasitical. These qualities, determined by the circumstances of history, have evolved into an authentic culture of congestion.
The camps represent an extreme form of architecture but one whose doggedly successful pursuit of the extension has been its own undoing. If camp architecture were less able to accommodate the corralled masses of refugees, then living conditions in the camps might not have become so dire and something might have to have been done to house these people properly.
One of the problems that emerged in the reconstruction of Jenin was that even the aid bodies on the ground failed to understand how complex the urban conditions in the camps are. “These were zones that nobody had studied,” says Philipp Misselwitz, a German architect based in Tel Aviv who is researching the architecture of the camps. “This is not anonymous architecture that is purely about survival, it’s much more complex than people think – there are tremendous family structures at work.”
The children playing football in the streets will be the first to appreciate the injection of space. But to some of their parents, the camp’s improved architecture and living conditions will only serve to remind them that they are no longer really refugees and that they will never return to the villages that now lie on the wrong side of the border with Israel. “People here don’t trust UNRWA,” says Najmi. “It gives them the impression that they are living here forever and they don’t want that – they want a refugee to be a refugee. But that doesn’t mean you have to live in a tin hut. On the other hand, giving people a better house does not solve the refugee issue.”
It may not entirely have sunk in at the popular level, but there is enough realpolitik at the municipal level to know that the camps are here to stay. Clearly, architecture and urban planning can only be a limited part of their rehabilitation – for one thing, unemployment in Jenin is at 60 per cent because all those inhabitants who used to have jobs in Israel no longer had them once the defensive wall was raised. But with Israel starting to pull out of some settlements in Gaza and with tentative progress being made in the peace process, is it not time to start to think of the future of the camps, and could not Jenin provide some sort of model?
“If you want to develop something as if the occupation is gone, that’s different,” says Awad Mansour, head of the Palestinian Refugee and Diaspora Centre in Ramallah. “Either you build as if you want to protect or you build as if they are protected. UNRWA is in a predicament: if there’s no political solution then how can you plan?”
Part of the problem has always been that the Palestinian Authority is not responsible for the camps, the UN is. If the UN’s mandate has never been extended to holistic solutions such as urban planning, it is partly because it has suited the PA for the camps to remain exceptional spaces reliant on emergency aid – that way they look after themselves. “Refugee camps are facts on the ground by which the international community is held hostage,” says Misselwitz. “They depend on international aid, and you don’t want the aid withdrawn. But the downside is that they can’t go on like that because the camps are a threat to the stability of the PA – they are power vacuums filled by mafia structures and local gangs.”
While unofficially the camp inhabitants trade and sell their properties among themselves, officially they own nothing. The refugees in Jenin are just beneficiaries of their new homes, although UNWRA is now considering how giving the refugee population ownership might form part of a future compensation package from Israel. “When the Israelis came in 2002 the sad irony was that the houses finally became proper homes – something to defend,” says Misselwitz.
Until such time as ownership can be provided, the first step in the process of urban rehabilitation would be to integrate the camps into their adjoining towns or at least give them some sort of municipal status. The camp in Jenin is certainly not well integrated with the town proper, and camp inhabitants are not eligible to vote in municipal elections. But in Jericho, in the eastern West Bank, which is the first town to be returned by Israel to independent Palestinian control, there are signs of progress. An ambitious masterplan is being developed, funded by donors from Europe and Japan, to incorporate the town’s two refugee camps into a model Palestinian city.
For Adnan Hammad, a member of the Jericho Municipal Council, there is no sense in which improving conditions in the camps presents a humanitarian paradox. “I have to separate the refugees as a symbol and as human beings,” he says. “They need what all human beings need, and I have to give it to them.” Hammad, who though a citizen and a politician considers himself a refugee, embodies the new political realism focused on what Palestine can be within its current borders. “The concept of homeland has changed: when I think of homeland now I think of good streets, hospitals, schools, services and work.”
If this is the new attitude, rather than a pining for lost lands, then the perception of
the camps as temporary problem zones may soon change. Jenin proves that, even in a basic rehousing project, involving the residents in the process can produce something akin to town-making. But while the project set an important precedent of massive investment, Jenin is just one camp among dozens. Its circumstances were unique and it had access to resources that may never be matched. It also leaves major issues unaddressed, such as ownership and the representation of camp dwellers in the democratic, municipal process.
Ten minutes down the road out of Jenin we stop behind a long line of Palestinian cars held at an Israeli military checkpoint. People trying to get home to their villages are often held up here but the delay is worse than usual because someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the roadblock earlier that afternoon. As foreigners we are ushered to the front of the queue by locals who know that we have a much better chance of continuing our journey than they do. With all those neat new homes still so near, this is a rather early reminder of just how small and isolated a step towards normality they are.