Rebuilding Jenin

There is a hole at the heart of Jenin camp. A hole where there once stood more than 400 refugee homes. Right now the site of the hardest-fought battle of Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield is still known as “ground zero” by locals, but within a year UNRWA hopes to transform several acres of mud into a community of modern shelters for almost 2,000 people.

The battle of Jenin camp, in April 2002, captured headlines around the world and saw 23 Israeli soldiers and 59 Palestinians killed — around half of whom were civilians. Soldiers and militants fought house-to-house for 12 days, the injured and the dead were trapped by the fighting while aid agencies were refused entry to the camp. In the end, Israeli military bulldozers brought down hundreds of homes to leave a large scar in the middle of the camp.

Around 2,000 people were left homeless and with little hope of getting a new home until the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent Society offered $27 million to UNRWA to rebuild the destroyed areas of the camp.

Although by international housing standards, the Jenin Camp Rehabilitation Project is a relatively small construction project, the re-building of Jenin was and continues to be plagued with difficulties. Difficulties not normally found on a construction site.

Because of the urgent need for shelter in the camp, the project had to begin while hostilities continued between the Israeli army and militants in the area. Last October, the Israeli army re-invaded the camp, putting a stop to all work. Then, in an incursion in November 2002, Ian Hook, the project’s British manager was shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

Today, work continues to be interrupted by Israeli military operations, regular curfews and closures.

The first part of the project involved clearing the rubble from the site. This became a painstaking 6-month task as Swedish sappers removed 4,000 live bullets, booby-traps and grenades and other unexploded ordnance, while teams scoured the site for bodies and body parts.

Mike Luffingham, the project’s design manager says that when the refugee camp first came into being in 1948, people lived in tents. But over the years a whole range of houses were built from simple concrete shacks to large family homes.

In the discussions that preceded designing the new homes, it was suggested that ground zero should be re-built as it was. But eventually it was agreed that a smaller number of houses should be built on the site with the remainder built elsewhere.

This would allow the general quality of housing to be improved although the owners of larger houses feel aggrieved that their new dwellings will not reflect the dimensions of their old properties. UNRWA has had to explain that its rehabilitation project is driven by a humanitarian need to provide refugees with shelter. It is not intended to be a compensation scheme for those who have lost their homes.

“It was agreed to reduce the density and improve the quality of housing,” said Luffingham. “The donor was persuaded to buy additional land for more housing, which means that the area will have more light and air and wider roads rather than the cramped alleyways they had previously.”

Unlike most housing in the refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, which has grown almost organically, the Jenin project has been rigorously designed. Luffingham explained: “Thought has been given to retaining some of the ad hoc character of the previous area. We tried to retain some of the old characteristics. There was no imposition of a grid pattern, instead we tried to preserve some of the old street layout.”

“Many of the houses have been designed with the idea that there is a separate room where visitors can be received. This will also allow for social segregation, something that appeals to some traditional families. Others families have a more Western approach.”

All the new shelters will also have a private open space, such as a courtyard or a garden. These can be used to grow vegetables and flowers, or for a building extension in the future.

“In the past similar projects did not deal with the individual wants of refugees. That has changed in the last couple of years,” said Luffingham. “This project has been quite exceptional in the level of involvement of the community in the planning of their homes. There continue to be weekly meetings in which the community representatives review any changes.”

Much of the initial stage of the project has been completed or is close to completion. The rubble has been removed at a cost of $0.5 million. Work on the infrastructure, especially water and sewage works, is underway at a cost $4 million. Major repairs to 389 shelters and 30 shops, at a cost of $2.5 million, and minor repairs to 1,723 homes, at a cost of a $1.2 million, is nearing completion. The main re-building project, constructing 198 dwellings to house around 1,903 people, is due to be completed in September 2004. The remainder of the project’s funds will provide for a school, a community centre and assistance to other families affected by more recent Israeli incursions.

The work cannot be finished quickly enough for those who have been homeless since April 2002. Mohammad Tawfiq Ghibari, 60, has eight children and is the head of an extended family of 34 that once lived in four of the destroyed houses.

He re-called: “During the invasion, all my family were in my house, petrified. The Israelis attacked with helicopters, jets, bulldozers and tanks. Three missiles hit our building and shrapnel injured seven children. After the third day we escaped from our house to a neighbour’s house. We left our houses waving white scarves and we delivered ourselves to the Israeli army. All the young people were arrested and we were all ordered to go to Jenin town.”

“After 12 days from the beginning of the attack, I went back to my house and it was completely destroyed. I could not even recognise what was mine and what was our neighbour’s, because it was all mixed up together.”

Ghibari, who is used to carrying out work himself, is frustrated by what he sees as the delays in re-building his homes but is looking forward to having his family all in their own homes again.

Hadin Najmi from Nablus, one of the project’s architects, admits that it is one of the most difficult projects she has ever worked on. “We had to work out what the donor wanted, the requirements of UNRWA and the needs of the community and individual families. It was like working for lots of individual clients,” she said.

In the end, she said, the families will have better houses, better ventilation and better green spaces, but the difficult security situation makes progress slow. “We regularly have curfews that force us to halt all work. The checkpoints hold up contractors and materials. These are all major difficulties which mean we have to work very efficiently in the time we do get,” she said. In all, Jenin camp has seen a curfew imposed on 174 days since the start of the project in July 2001 to the end of September 2003. Neighbouring Jenin town, meanwhile, has been placed under curfew for 179 days.

At the edge of “ground zero”, Fidak Hindi, 32, lives in rented rooms with her husband, three daughters and a son. “We lost all our possessions, our gold and our savings. I could not find one fork or knife amid the rubble. When I saw what had become of my house, I fell into a deep sadness which I hope will disappear when we have a proper home again.”