hat is a Refugee Camp?


Jerusalem, March 6, 2002

I wrote a letter that appeared in the March 6, 2002, International Herald Tribune. It is based on an article that appeared in the IHT on March4. The part that was printed appears in roman and 10-point text; the part that they did not print is in italics and 8-point text. The essential point is that so-called refugee camps are really slums, big and small.

It is a misleading tradition, a lazy common place, to say that most Palestinians who once lived in Israel and their descendants are refugees and that they live in camps.

It is plain wrong to say there are "7 million Palestinian refugees spread around camps in the region" as Alan Crowell writes. (IHT, Monday, March 4, 2002, page 6). He and the IHT and the NY Times should correct this. The number is not 7 million and they are not in camps.

These places are neighborhoods. They are not assigned places of residence and people can choose to live in them or not depending on what income they have. They are not uniformly poorer than the average or other Palenstinian or Arab neighborhoods.

For example Khan Yunis, Rafah, and Beach Camp are no more "camps" than is Camp David. These Gaza neighborhoods are called "camps" although they have streets, electricity, running water, sewage systems, multistory buildings, permanent schools, and many more urban attributes. They hardly correspond to the simple definition of camp:  "An encampment; the temporary quarters, often in tents or cabins, of nomads, Gypsies, detainees, travelers, holiday-makers, Scouts, Guides, etc" (Excerpted from Oxford Talking Dictionary; Copyright © 1998 The Learning Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Examples abound from countries neighboring Israel. A new suburb of Damascus, Syria, that is largely populated by those who are considered Palestinians is called a "camp" although it has none of the attributes of a camp and every person who lives there moved there voluntarily to get better housing than he or she otherwise had in Damascus; it is called a "camp" simply because "camp" has become a synonym for where "Palestinians" live.

Why does news story after news story refer to these and other unnamed places as "camps"? Perhaps at one time they were camps. Perhaps the UN has some responsibility for some of the people who live in these neighborhoods. But neither of these reasons justifies calling white black. The answer must be lazy habit: "Everybody else does it, so I do too" is the essence of a response I had from one journalist based in Israel. He agreed that it was misleading but that didn't seem important to him. It should have and it should be important to editors.

Gerald Chandler
14 B Abraham Lincoln
(972) 02-6231512


August 21, 2004