While stationed in the Middle East in the late 1970’s, I was required to travel through the Gaza Strip on patrols to Cairo and Ismailia, Egypt while serving with the United Nations Observer Force in Israel and Syria and United Nations Emergency Force in Egypt.
Israel has 8 main refugee camps in and around the Gaza and there are about 478,000 refugees living in United Nations War Relief Camps (UNWRA). The Gaza Strip is unique amongst UNWRA’s five fields of operations as the majority of its population are refugees and over half of the refugees live in these eight camps. Most of the people who fled to the Gaza Strip as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war were from Jaffa, towns and villages south of Jaffa and from the Beersheva area in the Negev.
Beersheva is a beautiful village on the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv (Ashkelon) and is often referred to in the Old Testament as a historical city. In all, some 200,000 refugees came to Gaza, whose original inhabitants numbered only 80,000. Such an influx severely burdened this narrow strip of land, an area of only 360 square kilometers. Over three-quarters of the current population of some 1.4 million are registered refugees; representing 22 per cent of all UNWRA Palestine refugees.
The refugee camps in the Gaza Strip have one of the highest population densities in the world. UNWRA Headquarters Gaza and the UNWRA Gaza Filed Office are located in Gaza City. The Agency co-operates its humanitarian work with the Palestinian Authority, which was established in 1994. The largest camp in the Gaza is Jabalia which has a growing population of over 106,800 refugees. In 1979, the camps were full of human suffering and it was not until the early 1990’s that community centers and schools were constructed and food and water was supplied to the Camps.
While driving to Egypt on a special assignment in the summer of 1979 via the Sinai Desert and the Suez Canal, I realized that my jeep gas tank was short of fuel north of Beersheva. The 1950’s army jeep required several fuel stops during the 1300 kilometer journey from Damascus to Suez. In fact, I generally parked the vehicle at the Check Point on the north side of the Sinai and crossed the Suez by a hand hauled ferry manipulated from the Egyptian side.
Approaching Gaza, I realized that transit of the 86 kilometer Sinai Desert would require more petrol and seeing a familiar Petrol Sign and UNWRA posted above the gas pumps and, not knowing that it was in fact Jabalia Refugee Camp, I parked and proceed to fill the gas tank. Within a minute of placing the nozzle into the tank, a huge commotion broke out and a mob of Palestinians surrounded me and began rocking my vehicle. I was mortified as I was dragged into a crowd of angry and ululating Arabs.
Fearing for my life, I surrendered to the throng and found myself being pushed further into the camp. Hundreds of burned out vehicles, crudely constructed huts and rusted and twisted tin shelters overshadowed open sewers and filth. The squalor was devastating and left my mouth agape in shock. The stench was overwhelming and I soon forgot about the fact that I might be torn apart by the angry mob.
In an attempt to explain myself, I was physically shoved to an outbuilding surrounded by wailing and screaming women and soon learned that the women create a wailing diversion to goad the men to physical action and, upon being shoved into a crudely constructed building, an official in a dirty keyfia started shouting at me in Arabic. I was confused and pleaded for an interpreter.
Several minutes of tense interaction resulted in an official entering the sweltering room who, to my relief, spoke some English. It was soon evident that the interpreter spoke enough English that he was able to convey that I had been arrested by the tribal overseers for stealing gasoline from the UN Petrol Station. In absolute horror, knowing that theft was a severe punishment in the middle east, I set about to explain that I thought UNWRA was a United Nations Organization and that as a UN Peacekeeper, I was entitled to fuel vehicles at UNWRA Stations. However, I soon learned that UNWRA was not affiliated with UNDOF and that gas at the refugee camp was a precious and life saving commodity and that petrol thieves could be executed under local tribal law.
As I had only Syrian Pounds and a few American Dollars in my pocket, I offered to pay for the petrol in US money. A lengthy and heated conversation ensued between the interpreter and the camp officials and, after a painful and fearful amount of time, it was agreed that I could pay for the gas with US dollars.
As I drove from the Camp my heart ached for the refugees of Jabalia and the fact that I had mistakenly taken precious fuel from displaced, hungry and underprivileged people of a war ravaged refugee camp. Filled with guilt at having so much prosperity in my life, I made a decision to return to the camp upon my return from Egypt with the intention of giving them some food and money. However, this was not to happen as I encountered other tragic and dangerous situations during my journey to Cairo and returned to Syria without having had the opportunity to make amends to the Camp at Jabalia.
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