(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Occupied labour: The treadmill of Palestinian work in Israel

    Driving near the concrete barrier that separates Israel from the southern West Bank, a car passes a Bedouin settlement, leaves the main road for a dirt one, and veers into a field. It stops next to a gap in the wall. Three men get out, rush through the opening, and are picked up on the other side – inside Israel.

    Further west, the ground becomes rocky and hilly. Four-wheel drives bring groups of men to another spot where the wall breaks. As the passengers step out, a car motors towards them, kicking up a massive dust cloud. The Palestinian men get in and the car speeds away towards an Israeli town.

    All of this repeats itself every few minutes each evening near Yatta, the West Bank’s third largest city, although it doesn’t look it: With a population of 65,000 on the dusty hills south of Hebron, its Old Town rarely sees an outside visitor, while piles of abandoned cars line its many winding streets.

    If Yatta seems forgotten, that’s because only 2,400 of its residents have jobs locally. Like much of the rest of the West Bank, the vast majority depend on the Israeli labour market for employment, in one way or another.

    This sort of dependency, fostered by 50 years of occupation, makes for a mean cycle. Salaries are higher in Israel, so young Palestinians look for work across the border. There is also less investment at home, and the local economy doesn’t create good jobs.

    For most West Bank Palestinians, crossing the border for work requires a job and a permit from the Israeli government. These can be hard to come by, so many take the illegal route, crossing through weak points in the barrier and finding lower paid informal employment.

    If caught, they face imprisonment. But for many, the risk is worth it.

    The Abu Bakr family* has a story like so many others in this small city: The oldest son can no longer enter Israel after repeated prison terms for crossing the wall illegally, the second oldest works on Israeli construction sites with a permit, the third does so without.

    The youngest, only 16, is looking to smuggle himself across the barrier for the second time during the summer holidays. Once there, he plans to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day, at a car wash. He’ll live on the margins of society, constantly fearing capture.

    It’s an unquestionably difficult life, but locals have little choice but to tie their fates to business on the other side of the concrete, barbed wire, and checkpoints.

    “Without work in Israel, no family can survive here,” explained Yatta Mayor Ibrahim Abu Zahra.

    The bottom line

    The UN says Israel’s occupation is the “main trigger” of humanitarian needs in the West Bank and Gaza.

    A strangled economy is part of that occupation. While Gaza continues to suffer under a blockade, the combination of a demand for cheap labour inside Israel and the West Bank’s struggling economy – brought on in part by restrictions on movement and trade – mean many Palestinians seek work in Israel and “aspire to that as a primary solution” to their economic problems, according to the International Labor Organization.

    By the ILO’s count, at no point over the last 15 years have so many Palestinians worked in Israeli jobs: currently around 120,000, who earn a quarter of the West Bank’s total salaries.


    Andreas Hackl/IRIN
    Yatta has the third largest population in the West Bank, but it often feels empty

    The cash flow from work in Israel may be considered essential by many individuals and families, but it comes at a hefty price: the sustainable economic development of the Palestinian towns themselves. The combination of political instability and Israeli economic restrictions mean no one wants to invest in Yatta and workers look first to work across the wall, said its municipal manager, Nasser Raba’i. “Our economy is completely entangled with the Israeli economy,” he told IRIN.

    Saleh, a geography teacher from Yatta, said it’s rare for school leavers to even consider building their employment futures at home. “A student will not try to start a project here, work his land, and open a factory. The student at school thinks: ‘I want to leave school and make money in Israel to build a future: he wants to marry, build a house, and buy a car.’”

    Permit pressure

    Economic dependency also means vulnerability. It can be a form of political pressure because Israel requires that the majority of Palestinian workers hold permits – tied to their jobs – to cross through checkpoints. Some 81,500 currently hold such conditional permits.

    Israeli regulations allow men above 55 and women above 50 to enter and work without a permit. Young men are only eligible for permits if they are married and at least 22 years old, although age limits sometimes change and vary across different sectors.

    Permits are often denied for “security reasons”, but Palestinian workers’ rights advocates doubt this security need, given that the ban can be lifted after a simple legal process.

    Workers without permits, estimated to number between 35,000 and 42,000, are smuggled across the borderland.

    Yatta is a the West Bank’s main smuggling hub, and workers complain that Israel can switch off their access to employment like water running from a tap. They recount permits used as a bargaining chip by recruiters from Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, which in part relies on Palestinian informants for intelligence. While it is impossible to verify such accounts, they are certainly widespread.

    Israel has annulled permits after violent incidents: When two Palestinians from Yatta killed four Israelis in a Tel Aviv shooting last June, Israel promptly cancelled 83,000 visiting permits issued to Palestinians during the holy month of Ramadan (some were later reinstated) and froze hundreds of working permits from the perpetrators’ clan.

    Israel justifies tight control of Palestinian movement as a necessary security measure, but tightening can often lead to escalation. This became clear when the recent set up of metal detectors outside Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Mosque compound sparked sustained protests, an attack that killed three Israelis in their home, and a violent crackdown on Palestinians in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

    The metal detectors were put up after three Palestinian citizens of Israel shot and killed two Israeli policeman inside the holy site.

    Israel’s power to revoke permits or change movement patterns has made some fearful to speak their mind. “We workers cannot talk about politics,” said one construction worker from Yatta who has a permit to work in Israel, and would not be named. “Maybe I say something… then they say I am politically active and can no longer enter.”

    Whether one sees such pressure as a justified security measure or a way of pushing through quiescence, the economic implications are the same.

    Raba’i is concerned about what dependence paired with political instability entails for Yatta’s failing economy.

    He said that after movement and permits were halted in the wake of the Tel Aviv killings, many locals became temporarily unemployed, so the municipality could not collect money for electricity bills.

    Shops were affected too.

    “The worker consumes with the money he brings home from Israel, so if he doesn’t bring any, it has a huge influence here,” explained Raba’i. “Some say, ‘I didn’t work today, so I cannot have dinner.’”

    Samir Salameh, assistant deputy minister at the Palestinian Ministry of Labour, said the permit system and the possibility of mass cancellations is a major issue.

    “If permits will be cancelled, we will find ourselves in a serious problem,” he told IRIN. “If suddenly 100,000 people are unemployed, what to do with them?”

    Lost time and money

    It’s not just permits that make legal crossing difficult.

    The checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank – located at various points along the wall (variously known as the fence, the security barrier, the separation barrier and other terms) – can move slowly as soldiers search cars, buses, and individuals on foot.


    Andreas Hackl/IRIN
    A Palestinian worker crosses back from Israel into Qalqiliyah

    The northern West Bank town of Qalqiliyah was once a vibrant market town, but now the separation barrier almost entirely encircles it, encroaching into its lands.

    In the middle of the night cars rush through its unlit streets, towards the Israeli checkpoint at the walled-off edge of town. As workers exit cars and taxis, salespeople begin intensive morning shifts at dozens of market stands, selling snacks, coffee, and cigarettes.

    All told, these checkpoints are a heavy burden for the workers: several thousand Palestinians push through here every morning – so many that a team of 70 volunteer “herders” must keep the masses in order.

    “I leave my house at 3am so I can cross the checkpoint on time,” said Ahmed, a construction worker outside the crossing.

    Each day, he travels from Tubas, on the other side of the West Bank, and makes a long but short journey to Tel Aviv: four hours just to get 60 kilometres as the crow flies. After a rough day of burning tar on building sites, he is back in bed around 8pm, to wake up at 2am when the treadmill spins on. “I only see my children asleep,” he said.


    Despite all this trouble, Palestinians who work inside Israel often don’t bring home their full wages. A share of pay cheques from those employed regularly is dedicated for Israel’s national insurance and pension funds, but most of the money never makes its way to Palestinian workers.  

    Those who manage to get permits lose yet more money to powerful intermediaries – often Palestinians themselves – who broker permits and connections between workers and employers.

    That’s because permits tie workers to specific employers. The way around this is through a middleman, who effectively sells permits if an employer is allotted more than they need.

    The Israeli government itself said in July that the permit system leads to the exploitation of workers and lost money for labourers. The ILO estimates those losses at between 232 and 1,360 million Israeli shekels, or between $66 million and $389 million, each year.

    The affected workers pay up to 2,500 shekels ($716) of monthly “broker tax” for permits that are resold by employers who don’t use up their allocated quotas. Brokers often charge additional money for transport.


    Andreas Hackl/IRIN
    Palestinian teenagers outside a settlement farm in the Jordan Valley

    Brokers hold similar sway on settler farms and construction sites, where cheap Palestinian labour is used in “Area C”, about 60 percent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control.

    On a veranda overlooking Jericho, Kifah, a Palestinian broker who is employed by Israeli settlements businesses, told IRIN she brings around 70 workers a day into the settlements so they can work there for $20 a day, of which they pay Kifah $6 (30 percent) for transport.

    Brokers who bring workers from faraway towns in the West Bank often charge much more than Kifah does.

    Abed Dari, an expert at workers’ rights NGO Kav LaOved, explained why these brokers are such a massive problem, both in the West Bank and Israel: “Because of them, there is no direct connection between the employer and the employee, which undermines their claims to their rights.”

    Without proof, complainants pay $850 just to start a court case if they are mistreated. But Dari said this is a rarity, in part because settlements keep a “black list” of workers who “cause problems”.

    Search for alternatives

    Israel is investing in upgrading major checkpoints and, together with the Palestinian Authority, it is considering changes to the permit system that could soon tackle the problem of brokers.

    Salameh, the assistant deputy minister, said workers’ permits must be disconnected from specific Israeli employers. The NGOs agree.

    One idea is to give Palestinian construction workers permits per sector rather than per employer, allowing them to switch employers within sectors and put an end to the practice of reselling unused permits on the black market.

    Salameh said he is still awaiting a concrete response from COGAT, the Israeli body that governs civil affairs in the West Bank. COGAT has announced some changes to the system, but IRIN understands that officials don’t yet know when exactly these will be implemented and how.

    COGAT did not reply to a request for comment but said in published statements: "Trading employment licenses has created a black market and a brokerage scene which involve Israelis and Palestinians and generate large profits."

    The body, which runs an Arabic-language Facebook page called "al-Munaseq" (“The Coordinator”), says it sees Israel as “a pivotal economic source for many Palestinians as thousands of them turn to Israel to seek employment and to have a stable source of income in hopes of a better life".

    Even if major changes do come, many believe only an end to occupation will allow the building of a sustainable economy. A cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, lacking foreign investments and the much higher salaries in Israel, means Palestinians will continue to accept hardship in exchange for cash.

    “Without a solution, we must learn to live with it,“ said Abdel-Jalil, a Palestinian trade unionist based at the Qalqiliya checkpoint, where he sees thousnda cross into Israel every day. He wishes more Palestinians could find employment at home.

    “Working in Israel is not the solution,” he said. “It is part of the problem.”


    *Name has been changed 

    An investigation into how Palestinians escape the poverty trap by working in Israel but only at the terrible cost of failing to build and sustain their own local economies
    Occupied labour: The treadmill of Palestinian work in Israel
  • EU aid to Palestinians - help or hindrance?

    The European Union (EU) has long been one of the most reliable foreign sources of humanitarian, economic and political aid in the OPT, providing 426 million euros (US$575 million) in 2013 alone.

    In 2011, overall overseas development aid to the OPT was worth $2.5 billion, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

    Much of this aid to the Palestinian people is focused on a single long-term objective, according to EU officials - the building up of the institutions of a future democratic, independent and viable Palestinian State, living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel.

    But with limited progress so far in the current US-brokered peace talks and the wider aim of the realization of a Palestinian state, some in the more austerity-minded EU are starting to wonder if the aid is being well spent, when humanitarian crises in Syria and Mali are in need of greater funds.

    “By now there is no Palestinian state. The point is: what are we funding here? Are we helping Israel to maintain the occupation, or are we actually helping Palestinians to build independence?” Caroline du Plessix, a French political scientist specialized on EU policy towards the two-state-solution, told IRIN.

    “EU member states are today much more aware than before that their aid has not made possible the creation of an independent Palestinian state,” she said, adding: “The EU is trying to figure out what the best strategy may be. Member states need to show that their policy is reaching its ends and is effective. But if the main solution still is the two-state-solution and we are not really going in that direction, this policy is not sustainable and cannot go on for ever.”

    Carrot and stick

    A substantial reduction in EU aid seems unlikely at the moment. Such a move would have dramatic consequences for the Palestinian economy and the livelihoods of tens of thousands of families.

    “There will be a price to pay if these negotiations falter,” the EU’s ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, said in late January. In December 2013, an EU official was cited in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as saying that the EU may cut off financial aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) if peace talks fail, while “some people suggested giving the money to other countries, like Syria, Mali and other places around the world.”

    On the other hand, EU foreign ministers are making unprecedented offers, setting out a very substantial set of incentives designed to encourage both parties to finalize a peace agreement.

    “These incentives aim at boosting prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians by increasing access to European markets, facilitating trade and investment and deepening business and cultural ties,” EU-representative John Gatt-Rutter told IRIN, adding: “Therefore, at this stage our approach is one of encouraging both parties to seize this unique opportunity provided by the peace negotiations.”

    “In spite of donor fatigue in Europe we will not see more than a limited gradual reduction - say 10 percent a year - in European aid if negotiations fail because European leaders do not want to trigger major instability or a humanitarian crisis,” Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told IRIN.

    Building the state to come

    Of the 426 million euros provided by the EU to Palestinians in 2013, 168 million was Direct Financial Support to the PA under the so-called PEGASE-mechanism.

    PEGASE helps the PA to meet its recurrent expenses through paying salaries, pensions and social allowances to people in extreme poverty, and through supporting essential public services and revitalizing the private sector through policy reforms, institution-building and strengthening the relations between Palestinian enterprises and European counterparts.

    The funds are transferred directly to individual beneficiaries like 55-year-old Nabila from the Qaddura refugee camp. “I get 750 shekels [$210] every three months, have a disabled son, and my husband died 10 years ago. How can I move on?” she told IRIN at the Ramallah district office of the PA’s Ministry of Social Affairs.

    “There is poverty and we get tired of this situation,” she said, adding though that restrictions on movement (caused, for example, by the Barrier and numerous Israeli checkpoints allegedly set up for security reasons) highlighted a greater problem that aid would never solve. “How do you want to solve this problem? Why do we have to be in this miserable situation?”

    In addition to the direct financial support, humanitarian aid is provided through the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO), which spent 35 million euros in 2013 on areas such as humanitarian coordination, legal assistance and emergency response to demolitions and evictions.

    Propping up the status quo

    EU aid faces the same challenges as non-governmental aid groups have faced - that by providing support they may inadvertently be playing a political role by helping prop up the status quo, giving life-support services that should normally be provided by Israel, as the occupying power.

    “EU funding is strategic. Its main aim is to prevent instability. It is thus scared of the PA’s breakdown,” said Caroline Du Plessix.

    For Sami Abu Roza,an economic analyst, this system of dependency has a bitter political aftertaste.

    “If you take away the good intention behind the money, aid is a substitute for not having real remedies,” he told IRIN at the PA’s Ministry of Education, where he currently works. The EU’s approach to solving the conflict, he says, is part of a larger trend he calls “peaceconomics”, the feeding of an illusionary idea that institution-building and economic aid can contribute to real progress, while the actual political causes behind the difficult situation are side-lined and remain unresolved.

    “Patronizing” attitude

    “The EU’s attitude towards Palestinians is patronizing, as if money was the only thing Palestinians needed,” he said, adding: “They are sacrificing real solutions for economic aid, building a smoke screen around the real problems.”

    “Palestinians know that any money coming to Palestinians is political. But they also know that the world won’t stop paying for Palestinians under occupation. That’s the strange kind of peace Palestinians live in.”

    In an attempt to decrease the political dependence from aid, the Ministry of Education has implemented a new mechanism, the Joint Financing Agreement, which has been running for about three years. With aid money flowing from the German KfW Development Bank, Finland, Ireland, Norway and Belgium, directly into a pool at the treasury of the PA’s Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Education has full ownership of the money and decides how and where it is spent.

    “It’s a small path to independence, towards political independence,” Abu Roza said.

    But for one senior official in the Ministry, who asked to remain anonymous, the notion of independence remains unreal. “We don’t have control of our own borders, no taxation, and all of Area C is under Israel’s control. What economic independence are we speaking of?” he said, adding that the PA was not created to become a social entity providing salaries and services to Palestinians. “Its aim was political, and so are our problems.”

    “Aid has not helped to fulfil Palestinians dreams”

    Some anomalies in the EU’s funding to the PA emerged recently in a report of the European Court of Auditors (ECA), which criticized the EU’s paying of salaries to Palestinian civil servants in the Gaza Strip “who no longer work”. The report suggested financial assistance “be discontinued and redirected to the West Bank”. Hamas, which took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, is classified by the EU as a terrorist group.

    “Are we helping Israel to maintain the occupation, or are we actually helping Palestinians to build independence?”

    So the EU continues to support the former PA structure in Gaza with salary payments even though the PA no longer has any control: The political cost of stopping funding is seen as too great.

    From 2008 to 2012, the average number of civil servants and pensioners whose salaries were at least partly paid by the EU rose from 75,502 to 84,320, about half of the PA’s 170,000 civil servants and pensioners.

    During the same period, the average monthly PA wage bill for EU-beneficiaries rose from 45.1 million euros to 62.9 million euros, an increase of 39 percent. But at the same time, contributions to PEGASE for Civil Servants and Pensioners fell from 21.3 million euros (47 percent of total pay to eligible beneficiaries) in 2008 to 10.4 million euros (16 percent) in 2012, mainly due to reductions in contributions from donors, such as Spain.

    These pressures point to a new funding environment in which the PA is finding it increasingly difficult to pay salaries and pensions on time.

    The UN Works and Relief Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) faces similar challenges. This year it has a deficit of $65 million in its core budget and struggles with declining international funding. The EU is UNRWA’s largest donor.

    “Aid has not helped to fulfil Palestinians dreams, nor did it lead to sustainable development. Independence is today further away than 20 years ago,” Alaa Tartir, programme director of the Palestinian Policy Network, told IRIN.

    Despite the contradictions in EU aid policy, it is clear that without EU aid the humanitarian situation in OPT would worsen significantly.

    “If we reach a condition where there is no more aid for PA employees, who will fill this gap? This will have a severe humanitarian impact,” said Tommaso Fabri, head of the Jerusalem office of Doctors Without Borders.

    One beneficiary of the EU’s direct assistance to the PA is 49-year-old Said Samara, a teacher at the Secondary Boarding School in Ramallah.

    “As a teacher, I hope that this aid will continue. But as a teacher, and for my students, I also need some hope for an independent Palestinian country,” he said.


    Pros and cons of EU aid to OPT
  • Politics and power in Jordan’s Za'atari refugee camp

    “It has become very quiet”, says Kilian Kleinschmidt about recent months in Jordan’s Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees.

    As the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) manager for the camp, which has now become the fourth largest population centre in Jordan, he has been tasked with bringing order to life here.

    More than a year after the camp’s founding in July 2012, Kleinschmidt describes it as a settlement slowly transforming into something much more permanent.

    But this transformation has consequences. One of the demands of an increasingly long-term operation is a greater focus by UNHCR on the camp’s governance - a sensitive area at the crossroads of politics and humanitarian relief.

    Kleinschmidt has extensive plans for a governance structure: 12 districts with a variety of committees, assigned administration and humanitarian personnel per district, and a central administration headed by a Jordanian deputy governor.

    “Traditional leaders” who have emerged from within the camp and are trusted by UNHCR and the Jordanian authorities may be integrated into some sort of representative camp committee.

    But these plans have been met with fierce opposition by various self-appointed street leaders in Za'atari, who have long profited from the disorder and built their own power bases.

    The clash highlights the challenge of trying to introduce governance structures to a refugee camp from above when there has already been something - unhealthy as it may be - forming at the grassroots.

    Putting down roots

    Size and time can present major challenges to UNHCR in managing camps, French anthropologist Michel Agier suggests in his critical book Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government. As soon as the camps last beyond the emergency phase, they transform into spaces with which people begin to identify.

    “In effect, while developing in material terms, and to a degree also economically, the refugee camps form themselves into social and political milieus,” Agier writes. He describes the “permanent paradox”, a life of refugees in camps “between an indefinite temporality and a space that is transformed because its occupants necessarily appropriate it in order to live in it.”

    This is certainly the case in Za’atari.

    “Some time ago, we had no idea who is who in the camp. There were protests and fights all the time,” Kleinschmidt explains, leaning back in his chair in the shadow of an awning between the containers of the so-called base camp, where humanitarian agencies have set up their offices. Now his focus is more on long-term administration and his plans to establish an all-encompassing electric grid in the camp, as well as a network of public transportation.

    “In the end, what we see here is a temporary city in the making,” he says.

    In the Sham-Élysées - the shopping street in the camp, named after the Champs-Élysées in Paris and a pun on the popular name for Syria: `al-Sham’ – businesses run into the wee hours of the night.

    A young Syrian named Qassem proudly presents the construction site of his “shopping center”, comprising five white pre-fabricated containers, or “pre-fabs”. Soon it should be selling imported goods from Syria, he explains.

    Some refugees have built themselves “mansions” by grouping together several pre-fabs, while one has even opened an improvised swimming pool to which he asks entry fees.

    As Za’atari transforms from a hasty emergency response into a more permanent settlement, with no clear end on the horizon, many new challenges are surfacing for the camp’s management, among them politics and crime-control. The need for sustainable governance has become all the more clear.

    Good and bad leaders

    According to Liisa Malkki, an expert on refugee camps and an associate professor of anthropology at Stanford University, while old power structures often remain relevant, refugee settings also create opportunities for new people to become influential.

    Some so-called street leaders have used the smuggling of humanitarian goods, and even amphetamines, to build their power base.

    Some achieved authority as rebel leaders in the conflict in Syria, others established themselves by being among the first to arrive in Za’atari. “They came with their men and controlled local business and other things in the camp, often making a profit,” said Kleinschmidt.

    Bulldozers are currently digging a deep ditch around the whole camp to clamp down on smuggling, which Kleinschmidt hopes will reduce the influence of some of the street leaders.

    "The new leaders will be traditional Syrian authorities, sheikhs, who bring wisdom with them. They don’t need to scream in order to earn the people’s respect."

    Each of Za’tari’s planned 12 districts will accommodate around 10,000 residents. Leaders from each district should be represented in a yet-to-be finalized political structure. In addition, a new initiative funded by the US government will create a neighbourhood watch: out of 1,000 voluntary candidates, about 600 will be chosen in consultation with the “traditional” refugee leadership to patrol the streets, after background checks by the Jordanian police. They will work hand in hand with community police units, supported by Jordanian law, customary rules and camp rules.

    These new security forces should “neutralize” and “isolate” the groups that have become instruments of corrupt and criminal structures dominating parts of the camp, whom Kleinschmidt accuses of extortion, theft and smuggling.

    “The new leaders will be traditional Syrian authorities, sheikhs, who bring wisdom with them. They don’t need to scream in order to earn the people’s respect.”

    One of them is an elderly man named Abu Wael, dressed in an ankle-long white garment, a `thawb’. “I don’t have time today; a delegation from the Jordanian prince is coming,” he said, passing by the base camp, rushing to the important meeting.

    According to Kleinschmidt, just the day before, Abu Wael and some other elders sat together in one of the “mansions” in the camp and engaged in traditional conflict resolution, after an unmarried couple was caught sleeping together. They negotiated the matter between the families.

    These new leaders should support UNHCR to build up a reliable structure of governance in the camp, while also helping to cut down on crime and delegitimizing the self-made leaders.

    But the “old leaders” promise resistance. One of the more powerful leaders among them is Abu Hussein, 49, from the southern Syrian city of Dera’a and a former commander in the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). For most in the camp he is known simply as `Aqed’, the “Colonel”.

    The Colonel

    From a side street just off Sham-Élysées, a metal door leads to an improvised garden with patches of artificial lawn spread over the sandy ground. It is surrounded by several inter-connected pre-fabs that form the space where Abu Hussein lives with his wife and children.

    “I am against everything going wrong here in the camp,” he says, as his wife serves a plate of self-cooked mlehi (meat with yogurt sauce and bread). “Nothing inside this dish is from UNHCR, that’s for sure,” he says. “We don’t want to put anything from them in our pocket.”

    Abu Hussein is respected by many in the district he rules. He is often seen walking into the main street at night, where groups of young men are waiting for him. He sends them to patrol side streets in pairs, organizes female guards in community kitchens and keeps everyone “safe”, he boasts. One of his self-assigned duties is to organize workers in the camp. For the few positions available with humanitarian organizations for camp residents, he determines how shifts rotate and who is allowed to fill the positions.

    However, Kleinschmidt says many of these “bosses” in the camp are already on their way down.

    "They have a chance if they cooperate. Otherwise the Jordanian authorities will deal with them accordingly," he said.

    The new system of governance should decrease the influence of people like Abu Hussein by giving other people in the camp a stronger voice.

    Street politics

    Abu Hussein oversees an entire district. One notch below him are “street-leaders” who deal with the everyday problems in the camp.

    One of them is Abu Asim from the Syrian village of al-Sanamen, in Dera’a Governorate, from where he fled with his family after what he says was a massacre last May. His own house was destroyed by a bomb, he recalls.

    Sitting on cushions between two containers, Abu Asim pours sticky tea into his cup and lights a cigarette.

    “To be respected in this camp,” he said, “you need to be wise and politically strong.” Via phone calls and personal visits, he solves “all kinds of problems”, like quarrels, water disputes, distribution issues, or broken toilets.

    He too has heard about the newly planned committees in the camp. “I think UNHCR has to keep its hands away from politics,” he cautioned.

    Humanitarian governance

    The power struggles in Za’atari reflect the ethical dilemmas involved in the transformation from humanitarian emergency response to long-term refugee crisis. In his book, Agier writes that refugee camps - and humanitarianism more broadly - have become part of a global system to “manage” what are often seen as “undesirable” refugee populations and separate them from the general public.

    “Humanitarian intervention borders on policing,” he writes. “There is no care without control.” This “humanitarian government”, as he calls it, deprives refugees of the practice of citizenship.

    Although refugee self-governance always occurs when people live in settlements long enough, the official position of the humanitarian community has long been that such politics do not take place, Malkki, the Stanford researcher, told IRIN.

    But Kleinschmidt is different. He has long advocated treating Za’atari like any other city in Jordan. “The humanitarian practice has long been to manage a camp for 20-30 years in more or less the same [short-term] way, instead of building up sustainable service delivery and governance.”

    The Ministry of Interior’s Syrian Refugee Camp Directorate did not respond to IRIN’s request for an interview.

    However, according to Oraib Rantwai, head of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in the capital Amman, the Jordanian government has been cautious in accepting any permanent structures being built in Za’atari for fear of angering its local population, which is suffering from strained services as a result of the refugee presence.

    “People in Jordan ask themselves: how long will these refugees stay?”


    Power and politics in Za'atari camp

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