Enforced Misery: The PA and the Balata 'Refugee' Camp

The conventional wisdom is that the Middle East peace talks between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas will go nowhere, as each side is engaged in an elaborate charade to please the Obama administration.

Netanyahu cannot move one hundred thousand Israelis off the West Bank, nor can he give up the strategic high ground in the Judean desert. Abbas cannot speak for the majority of the Palestinians, and his lack of legitimacy is underscored by his currently serving the sixth year of a four-year term. Like Yasser Arafat, Abbas has shown no desire to go down in history as the Palestinian who gave up the refugees’ “right of return.”

The refugee problem is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to peace. And it has taken on a life of its own, as the refugees have become a useful gimmick in the peace charade.

Depending upon whose estimate you read, there are some twenty or thirty thousand “refugees” in the Balata refugee camp outside of Nablus. Balata is simultaneously the most populous and smallest of the Palestinian refugee camps -- its growing population is confined to one square kilometer, making it one of the most densely populated and miserable places on the planet.

Any regime with an ounce of compassion would have shut Balata down and integrated its people into the surrounding community. Balata is a place without hope, a quagmire of despair, where the day-to-day misery of its inhabitants is partially ameliorated by Western charities and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), while inadvertently building a culture of dependence.

Balata’s creation could ostensibly be laid at Israel’s doorstep, but its perpetuation cannot. The current residents of Balata are only refugees by a crude reworking of the meaning of the term. They themselves have fled from nothing, and sought refuge from nothing. They are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the people who fled or were expelled during the 1948 war.

If you want to use the term “apartheid” to characterize some aspect of Middle East politics, then Balata is a good place to apply it. It is the Palestinian Authority’s answer to Soweto.

The PA does not permit the children of Balata to go to local schools. It does not permit the people of Balata to build outside the one square kilometer. The people of Balata are prevented from voting in local elections, and the PA provides none of the funds for the necessary infrastructure of the camp -- including sewers and roads.

Balata and the other refugee camps are showcases of contrived misery. They are Potemkin villages in reverse. Naïve peace activists and unsophisticated Western clergy are led through such camps to witness the refugee drama, with Israel conveniently and prominently cast in the role of villain.