Attempts by US President Donald Trump's administration to eliminate the issues of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem as talking points in potential peace talks are being tested at the Shuafat refugee camp.
The camp in the northern sector of East Jerusalem has been run by the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) since 1950. According to the UNRWA, 12,500 Palestinians living in the camp are registered with the UN agency, which supplies basic education, health care and other services.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem, including the Shuafat camp, in 1967 — a move that hasn't been recognized by a single member of the United Nations, not even the United States. UN officials told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that because of its proximity to Jerusalem, the camp's population has mushroomed to 24,000 inhabitants. Most of them aren't registered as refugees, but live in the camp to facilitate their business dealings in the nearby Old City of Jerusalem.
Israel’s mayor of the so-called united city of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, whose second and final term will end Oct. 30, thinks residents of the camp should no longer be called refugees. In an Oct. 8 interview with the Associated Press, Barkat said, “I look at all of my residents as residents. There's no such thing as residents that live in the city of Jerusalem that are defined as refugees.” He added, “We will treat them like any other residents in the city and provide the best services we can.”
UNRWA spokesperson Sami Mshasha told Al-Monitor that Barkat has no mandate when it comes to UN-designated refugee camps and their residents. “The camps are the responsibility of UNRWA, which works according to a mandate regularly reviewed and approved by the UN General Assembly.”
Mshasha concedes that this particular refugee camp has a major problem in terms of services because of the large number of Palestinians who are not registered refugees but have moved to the camp for a variety of reasons, and because of the Israeli-imposed security wall surrounding it from all corners. “We provide services according to the official number of registered refugees, but we do recognize that it is one of the worst camps in terms of living in it. The wall around it and the huge population living in it create high demands that we simply can’t meet.”
Talal Abu Afifeh, a Shuafat camp resident and chairman of the Jerusalem Intellectuals Forum, scoffed at the mayor's statements. “If Trump [hasn't changed] the status of Palestinian refugees, how does Nir think he can do it?”
Abu Afifeh said the UNRWA protects the refugees in Shuafat and other camps. “Since 1949, the Palestinian refugee issue has been around, and the UN has the last word on it. We are concerned by the rhetoric coming out of the US and Israel, but we have faith in Russia, China and France to stand up to America if that latter wants to demote the refugee issue in the UN Security Council. We are also hopeful that Arab and friendly countries around the world will stand up to such ideas in the UN General Assembly should the US try to negate refugee status at that forum.”
Abu Afifeh believes the mayor is attacking the Shuafat camp because it's situated inside East Jerusalem and many of its residents hold Israeli residency cards as Jerusalemites.
Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, dismissed the mayor's statements as political maneuvering in preparation for the elections in Israel.
“He said nothing of this during his years as mayor over the last decade. He is seizing the momentum created in the Israeli right and by Trump's defunding of UNRWA to score points among Likud Party members by making seemingly patriotic promises that can't be implemented,” Zalzberg told Al-Monitor.
Whatever the motivations, the threats to this and all Palestinian refugee camps are real — especially as Washington is determined to impose its own biased plan for peace. Palestinians in Shuafat and other refugee camps contacted by Al-Monitor didn’t appear very concerned. They trust that the Palestinian leadership will not engage with the Trump administration's plan, which seems to exclude any Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem.
But for all the American and Israeli rhetoric, nothing will change on the ground without the cooperation of the Palestinian people, which will require a comparatively just peace offer that meets their minimum demands. Palestinians certainly won't allow the status of East Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees to be ignored.