During the [direct] Israeli rule of the West Bank, Dheisheh Camp was called the camp of mass incarceration, because it was fenced by barbed wire that impeded the movement of the camp’s residents. Dheisheh is considered the largest refugee camp in the southern West Bank (Bethlehem and Hebron) in terms of population. Much political and cultural activism and institution building has occurred there, both before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and continuing until the present.
The Camp’s Establishment/History
Dheisheh Camp was established in 1949 on 0.31 km2 of land within the boundaries of the Bethlehem Municipality. The plot of land was leased by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) from the Jordanian government. The camp is located south of the city of Bethlehem, about 3 kilometers from the city center; it is 23 kilometers from Jerusalem. The camp is located to the east of the Jerusalem–Hebron road and runs parallel to it. It is bordered on the south by the village of Artas, and the camp limits converge with the city limits of Bethlehem, the village of al-Khader, and the city of al-Dawha.
The camp was named Dheisheh because the site was formerly a barracks for the Egyptian army and had a dense thicket of trees, called heisha in the Egyptian dialect. The word was later mispronounced as dheisha and subsequently stuck as the camp’s name. The area of the camp expanded from 258 dunams (0.258 km2) in 1949 to 340 dunams. Most of the residents came from the region of central Palestine, specifically from the regions south of Jerusalem and northern Hebron and north to Ramla.
The refugees of Dheisheh Camp originate from as many as 79 villages from the subdistricts of Hebron, Jerusalem, Ramla, Gaza, Bir al-Sabiʿ [Beersheba] and Jaffa. More than half of the camp’s residents originate from seven ethnically cleansed villages: the largest percentage are from the village of Zakariyya (15.6 percent). Some are from Bayt Itab (7.2 percent), Jarash (or Jraash) and Bayt Nattif (6.1 percent each), Allar (5.9 percent), Ras Abu Ammar (4.6 percent), al-Walaja (4.5 percent), Dayr Aban (4.3 percent), Ajjur (3.9 percent), and al-Qabu (3.8 percent). Nearly 37.9 percent of the residents come from 69 other villages: Dayr Rafat, Khirbat Bayt Far, Khulda, Mughallis, Sufla, Sarʿa, Dayr al-Shaykh, Bayt Jibrin, Artuf, al-Burayj, Ishwaʿ, al-Maliha, Sataf, Ayn Karim, Iraq al-Manshiyya, Qastina, al-Faluja, Dayr al-Dubban, Bayt Jiz, Tall al-Turmus, Tall al-Safi, Bayt Mahsir, Jawdat al-Quds, Haifa, al-Majdal, Zikrin, Islin, Qatra, Bayt Susin, Suba, Bir al-Sabiʿ, Biʿlin, Salama, Abu Shusha, al-Tina, Dayr al-Hawa, Yazur, Sarafand al-Kharab, Yafa Abu Kabir, Shurafat, al-Qubayba, al-Khayma, al-Ramla, Kudna, Zarnuqa, Sarafand al-Amar, Khirbat al-Majdalat, al-Jammasin al-Gharbi, Khirbat al-Umur, Isdud, Yafa Sakanat Darwish, Bayt Dajan, al-Khayriyya, Khirbat Bayt Awwa, Dura, Jerusalem [the old and new cities], Qazaza, Dayr Nahhas, Atarut, Jabarat al-Diqs, Arab al-Jahalin, Tarqumiyya, al-Masmiyya al-Saghira, Surif, Iraq Suwaydan, al-Awja, and Ramat Rahel. They came to the camp when it was first established or moved there in later years.
In 1949 the camp had a population of about 3,200 refugees. The camp residents were spread over several neighborhoods. A neighborhood was made up of the forcibly displaced residents of one village or a group of villages; the arrangement was an attempt by residents to recreate the life of their destroyed village. For example, there was the Jarashiyya neighborhood named after Jarash village, the Rasiyya neighborhood named after Ras Abu Ammar, and so on. Although the neighborhoods have blended into one another and the residents have intermingled due to intermarriage and social relations, these names remain as a geographical marker and are still used today. It seems that the camp’s first generation has held on to the original names of these neighborhoods to remind themselves of the name of the village from which they were forcibly displaced, out of a yearning for the past, and to preserve their collective memory and cling to their right of return to that village.
At first, the residents of Dheisheh lived in shelters, caves, and wooden or tin sheeted shacks. They remained that way for a year, after which they moved to live in tents until 1955–1956. Then, UNRWA built one or two rooms for each family according to the size of the family to replace the tents. In the period between 1956 and 1962, UNRWA built 1,112 housing units, and the families in the camp added 456 housing units at their personal expense. The agency built small units, starting from the southern sector of the camp, and then in the camp’s center and the eastern and northern sectors. Families consisting of three to four members got a single room; families consisting of more than four individuals got two rooms and a very small minority in the camp got three rooms. The bathrooms were outside and communal, shared by a set of neighboring homes. Because the camp’s architects were French and British, the model for the layout and construction in the camp was somewhat similar to the planning of colonies and barracks for refugees in Europe in the interwar period.
The camp has a network of streets and alleyways running through it, most of which are narrow and small. Sidewalks are nonexistent in the camp, so the houses open out onto the streets, and the windows of the houses look out onto the streets and alleyways. Wide streets and gaps or open spaces between houses are also nonexistent; the camp is severely overcrowded. The Jerusalem–Hebron highway, which runs alongside the camp, is considered to be the “main street” and is what enables the flow of business for the camp and its surrounding areas.
Dheisheh Camp expanded to the western side of the Jerusalem–Hebron highway, up to a rocky hill. The expansion began in the 1960s (1960–1969), when the area was part of the Beit Jala Municipality. Today it is the city of al-Dawha, which is considered the natural extension of this camp by its residents as well as those of Aida, al-Izza, and al-Arroub camps in Bethlehem, Hebron, and other areas. There is another extension of the camp to the south in the Jabal Magharat Khaled area, near the Martyrs’ Cemetery on the outskirts of Artas village, which has made the area part of the urban expansion of Dheisheh, Artas, and others in the area. The expansion of the camp happened horizontally with the filling up of empty spaces, and building went up to the edges of the camp. For technical reasons, vertical expansion was not always possible and the majority of the better-off residents moved to build larger homes outside the camp.
Today, basic services in the camp, such as water, electricity, telephone, sewage, and street maintenance, are linked to those provided by the Bethlehem Municipality. Previously, the people of the camp could only get water from a spring in Artas. After a while, UNRWA built two water tanks and set up six distribution centers across the camp’s neighborhoods that obtained their supply of water from those two main sources. In 1973, about one third of the families in the camp got access to the water supply of the Bethlehem Municipality, while the rest continued to obtain their water by the previous methods. Electricity came to the camp in 1974. As for the sewage, it flowed in open gutters until 1988, when work began on a project to build an underground sewage system for the camp.
In 1967, the population of the camp was 10,000. When Israeli forces occupied the West Bank, they urged people to leave the camp and go to Jordan; they threatened to punish those who stayed behind. About 6,113 people remained in the camp. It is estimated that 496 families, numbering 2,976 people, fled the camp.
According to the 2017 census carried out by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the population of Dheisheh camp is 8,711, whereas according to the figures of UNRWA on its website, the population is 13,000. However, the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights estimated the number of refugees in Dheisheh Camp to be approximately 17,503 at the end of 2018. The two institutions use different counting methods: UNRWA relies on the lists of camp residents who have received its services, while the Palestinian Bureau uses the actual location of residence as a basis for its census. So, for example, a refugee who is from a family in Dheisheh but now lives in al-Dawha is counted as a resident of al-Dawha and not of the camp.
Before the 1967 war, the residents of Dheisheh worked in various sectors of the service industry: on the farmlands of neighboring villages and towns, in stone quarries, and in public works construction sites. A cadre of educated intellectuals were employed by UNRWA or in the Jordanian government bureaucracy and the private sector. Some owned small businesses and shops scattered over the camp and sold clothes, dry goods, vegetables, fruits, and so on. Since the rations given by UNRWA lasted only for about fifteen days of the month, some families raised poultry and rabbits to ensure basic food security for their families, and the camp did not witness economic uplift until the late 1950s, when some of the educated people migrated to work in the Gulf countries, and then after the 1967 War, when the Israeli labor market opened to Palestinian laborers.
After the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank in 1967, many people went to work in Israeli institutions, companies, and factories in settlements near the camp, mostly in construction and agricultural services. At the present time, the unemployment rate in the camp is remarkably high, because many young people in the camp are not allowed to work in Israel.
The state of people’s health in the camp was bad for a long time. Poor public facilities and feeble infrastructure (open sewage and garbage not being collected regularly) led to the spread of disease. Today, the public health conditions in the camp are better; the infrastructure of facilities in the camp was developed and institutions like health centers and clinics were established, which worked to raise awareness about healthcare among the camp residents. At present, UNRWA runs a medical center in the camp. Services are also provided by two other medical centers, a social rehabilitation center, a childhood center, and a center with programs catering to women.
As for education, in the early years classes were held in a large tent; students received their primary education seated on the ground. In 1954, UNRWA opened two preparatory schools, one for boys that had 800 students and one for girls that had 850 students. Today, UNRWA runs two schools through which it provides compulsory education from the first through the ninth grade. At the secondary level, students attend schools in Bethlehem city and the nearby villages. Three kindergartens in the camp were established by the Holy Land Christian Society in partnership with UNRWA in 1974. Overall, it is remarkable that Dheisheh has a higher rate of people with a university education compared to other areas in the Bethlehem Governorate.
The camp’s residents had an uneasy relationship with people in the nearby towns and villages when the camp was first established. The camp could not easily integrate with its urban or rural surroundings; residents of Bethlehem and its neighboring villages regarded the camp residents as strangers and looked down at them, treating them with a sense of reservation. Although this relationship continued to be marred at times by friction and occasional altercations, it improved with the rise of the national liberation movement and the growth and development of organized political work, especially during the period of the First Intifada, when relations between political organizations and the community helped to bring the camp closer to its surroundings. The neighboring villages such as Artas came to be a source of support and a protective environment for the camp youth when Israel conducted arrests and raids.
Today, young people are leaving the camp in large numbers in search of better housing conditions in Bethlehem city. Although the rate of those moving out of the camp is high, the people who leave maintain their social ties with those inside the camp and even keep the houses where they were living. At the same time, a small fraction of Bethlehem’s poor have moved into the camp in search of low-cost housing.
Administration and Control
Until the creation of UNRWA, the Red Cross was responsible for allocating tents in Dheisheh and providing medical care for its refugees. After UNRWA was established, it took charge of medical care, education, and subsistence of the camp’s residents. From 1948 until 1967, the Jordanian government was responsible for administration, security, day-to-day services, and official bureaucratic matters for the camps in the West Bank. After the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the occupation authorities assumed responsibility for security, administration, and other services. For this they relied on the mukhtar or local mayor, who knew most of the camp residents. In Dheisheh Camp, three mukhtars were appointed by the occupation authorities and worked like government functionaries. These mukhtars would stamp their seal on all official documents submitted to the military governor. Anyone inside the camp submitting a project for approval to the Israeli military administration had to first consult the mukhtar for it to get preliminary approval. At the same time, these mukhtars continued to be recognized by the Jordanian government.
After the founding of the PA and the calling of local elections for the rule of municipal and village councils, popular committees were set up in the refugee camps. In Dheisheh, the Popular Committee was founded in 1996 by consensus between the various political factions and institutions within the camp, and its first chair was Mohammad al-Lahham.
Civil Society and Political Institutions
The national liberation movement has always been considered active and strong in Dheisheh. In the late 1970s, effective youth committees and umbrella groups were formed in the camp. The occupation authorities refused to recognize them and cracked down on them, since they represented the patriotic current inside the camp. These committees and umbrella groups included the Youth Committee for Social Work, the Workers’ Bloc, the Volunteer Work Committee, and the Labor Front. The Dheisheh Youth Community Center also played an important role in strengthening a sense of national belonging and in producing people who took leadership roles in cultural and political work. Not surprisingly, it was shut down by the occupation authorities on the pretext that it engaged in political work.
Dheisheh refugee camp has always been unusual in its political and cultural diversity. The competition this generated has contributed to the training of qualified cadres who worked in the media and in political organizations. After the establishment of the PA, some of these institutions expanded in different fields, such as the Ibdaa Foundation for the development of children's capacities and a sports team called ʿUd (Return). Today, 30–35 youth and community organizations operate inside the camp, with those that are still active and others that are defunct varying over time. The most important of these organizations are the Ibdaa Foundation, al-Finiq [Phoenix] Center, the Laylac Center for Youth Action and Community Development, and the Local Committee for Rehabilitation of the Handicapped.
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