On a visit to Al-Feneiq Cultural Center, meeting with well-respected Naji Owdah seemed to be a worthwhile opportunity to familiarise with what work is done by a popular committee inside a refugee camp, and how the needs of people living in Dheisheh are served. The views presented here are those expressed by the interviewee.

Naji Owdah is a political and social activist, and refugee originally from Dayr Aban, a village near Jerusalem. He lives in Dheisheh camp and has a family. Owdah is the Director of the Phoenix Center, which is located in Dheisheh camp, just outside the city of Bethlehem, as well as one of the coordinators of Dheisheh Popular Committee.

In the Popular Committee, Owdah along with the other members strive to support the refugees in Dheisheh while representing them in front of the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority in all the projects and initiatives developed to assist their needs. The initial idea of establishing the Popular Committee came after Oslo agreement with a drive to both protect people inside the camp and serve their needs.

Since the early discussions in 1995, popular committee members addressed the question of handling matters on behalf or the refugee population. Although the United Nations is required to provide basic services and facilities to meet the needs of the refugee population, it cannot be expected that the UN will look after their needs in future.

Notably in the case the UN implement their work inside the camp in coordination with the Palestinian Authority, the mandate to assist refugees would be essentially altered. Furthermore, for political reasons, many ones don’t believe the PA will take effective charge of issues concerning refugees. Instead, it was felt that by creating a social movement like the popular committee, the key members work closely for the refugees and at, a later stage, coordinate with the UN and the PA with regard to their needs.

Activists began connecting through e-mail and phone communication and holding big public meetings in different areas from the West Bank to Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan.

The popular committee was conceived as an initiative represented under the PLO acting as an umbrella for all popular committees serving the needs of Palestinians. All committee members agreed to organize two conferences, open to the public, one was held in Balata (near Nablus) and the other in Bethlehem. After these two events, activists decided to introduce something called ‘popular committee service’.

The popular committee service was established in 1967, with initial appointment of a president and a coordinator for each of the committees. Members initially met with all the coordinators along with the director to present the overall situation for each camp, and raise what their needs are and what same or similar issues affect the people living in the camps. A total of 19 popular committee services were set up in refugee camps throughout the West Bank.

The popular committee service is volunteer-run, and any political parties or movements can participate in and contribute to it. At the time of its establishment, representatives of various political affiliations approached some of the people who had attended the two mentioned conferences to join in. Members forming part of the committee service can change, many have left after finding jobs and not having enough time available to give to something which is voluntary-based.

Anyone who leaves would then appoint someone else to continue in the popular committee. Therefore, new joiners are chosen from those known to be responsible and trustworthy amongst people living inside the camp. They also need to have good professional experience, they are expected to be kind, open and with an understanding about refugee issues.

Monthly meetings are held in the popular committee service, with the participation of the coordinator who stays in touch with the committee representatives throughout the year. Coordinators usually attend meetings every month or week, depending on the nature of issues to tackle. Should matters of more serious concern arise, meetings are organized in Ramallah, given its central location, so that all committee members coming from other parts of the West Bank are likely to participate.

Popular committees in refugee camps coordinate with each other, plan together, and participate in some actions together. Despite some differences between one camp and another, from Jenin to Nablus or Dheisheh, common issues are encountered across different areas too.

The committees present people’s needs from the various camps on behalf of the same people who would not be able to refer to the United Nations individually to voice out what their issues are. Representatives of the committees proceed by collecting all files from the refugees, sharing the cases in each popular committee, and deciding altogether on the nature of the issues to present, whether social or relating to health, education, etc.

One person from each of the committees is in charge of addressing a joint letter, along with the files, to the United Nations to follow up on the cases brought forward.

Popular committees may put more or less pressure on the UN, as required, in order to have the needs of people addressed. Activists and people concerned know that since 1982, the United Nations have decreased services and assistance provided for refugees, mainly for political reasons, and it cannot be claimed that there are not sufficient funds to allocate towards one project or another, whether related to food or health, education, work, etc.

While popular committees may need to pressurise the UN from time to time, they cannot cut the ties since the United Nations are the key stakeholder responsible for refugee issues, and the UN must have a place in refugee camps.

At a high political level, the shared involvement of the UN with the PA in managing the finances to assist the lives of refugees is turning into an increasingly ‘dangerous’ political issue.

The UN recently started getting financial support from the same foundations that grant funding to the PA. Because of that, the UN now does not allocate two sources of funding to a refugee camp when the PA already gets funding from the UN.

The UN in turn would maintain that there is not enough money to serve the camp’s needs, having given prior financial support to the PA. Nonetheless, popular committees do not present demands associated with the refugee population to the PA but refer to the UN directly.

While this direct liaison with the United Nations is very clear, higher level politics shows that the UN currently has some dealings with the PA which determines whether a project to implement inside the camp can be sustained or not, and the popular committee may be rejected funding where the PA already benefited from UN financial assistance.

Another disruptive political question is related to the weak authority of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Although popular committees operate under its umbrella, the PLO cannot act on behalf of the Palestinian population because the political parties forming the movement are weak in many ways, and this leaves the PLO with little political voice. As a result, today the Palestine Liberation Organization does not play a leading role like before, when the PA was a ‘project’ of the PLO. The Palestinian Authority has now taken over, instead, and the PLO is led by the PA.

Furthermore, since after the Oslo agreement neither the newly established Palestinian Authority nor the PLO have proved to be supportive of the rights of the refugees. A two-state solution, which Israel is striving the Palestinian President to agree on, overrides the right to return thus jeopardising the future of millions of refugees.

Besides, the creation of two states in Palestine is not applicable given that the PA currently has no control in the Palestinian territories, post-Oslo, whereas Israel is entitled to exercise its authority virtually anywhere, and that includes confiscating land, destroying land properties, demolishing houses, killing, abusing physically and verbally, transferring Palestinian Jerusalemites from Jerusalem to Ramallah, Bethlehem or elsewhere in the West Bank.

Owdah himself, originally from near Jerusalem, cannot accept a two-state solution which would mean to remain in a refugee camp and never go back to his home, from where he was forced out. He rather calls for the resolution n.194, holds the UN responsible for its realization, and patiently waits for the day he will return home.

In addition, people appear to be kept quiet and busy with daily concerns, namely unemployment and reduced economic prospects in Palestine which leaves little to no choice other than working for the PA.

The same people employed by the Palestinian Authority would not hesitate to admit the PA is heavily corrupted though it is easy to imagine that they could not go directly against the PA as doing so would threaten their salaries and deprive them of their only source of income.

Palestinians are thus kept in a precarious and dependant state where the government prevents them from thinking about politics and reacting. People consequently have no trust in either the PA or even the PLO, and quietly look forward to a time of change.

The involvement of the Palestinian Authority in Dheisheh camp certainly carries a sensitive issue for political reasons, particularly where the PA shows neglect and it becomes unreliable to make direct financial agreements without the UN taking charge.

There are different projects running, some of them supported by the PA, and the Popular Committee would step in and liaise with the UN as a matter of responsibility. While it is acceptable to get support from the PA for some of the projects and activities in Dheisheh, the Popular Committee holds the UN full responsible for the refugee camp and refrains from working directly with the PA.

Some people within the Popular Committee are at the same time employed by the PA, earn a regular salary, work in the Bethlehem area and have enough time to spare outside their working life. Owdah and other committee members are rather independent, don’t work for the PA or benefit from them.

After Oslo agreement, Owdah and many other members of Dheisheh Popular Committee left their political parties as they no longer wanted to belong to them. As a group of activists who decided to be part of the committee service, they stayed with the belief that they could give something back and help people. A number of members changed inside the Popular Committee after moving on to new jobs in Jerusalem or Ramallah or having less and less time to spare.

As for Owdah, there has been no change since he has been working in Bethlehem. In his previous assignment, he could still do his job as well as committee service work while following problems inside the camp. Later, the Phoenix Center was established by Dheisheh Popular Committee so Owdah was offered to become Director of the centre and he has been working in this position since.

Most of the time, Owdah both works and dedicates time to the committee service around his job from the Phoenix Center where he follows up cases and receives people who don’t tend to see him at the centre rather than at the Popular Committee office. Some activities for the committee service may be of relevance to the centre as well, and people see Owdah as Director of the Phoenix Center and member of the Popular Committee at the same time.

Working inside Dheisheh camp makes it very easy to be in touch with people. Also, most of the network of partner organizations and groups is mobile/Internet based so members can coordinate and organize activities at any time.

Dheisheh Popular Committee is faced by a number of demands from people living inside the camp. The Popular Committee strives to find solutions to problems in relation to a wide range of common basic needs to address including infrastructure, food, health, education and beyond by working locally and internationally through the UN.

While the other nearby municipalities may cooperate in some of the projects and activities run inside the camp, the Popular Committee of Dheisheh is fully responsible for its own people.

Many people look for work since there are no factories or workplaces to provide an income for them. The Bethlehem area used to be renowned for the textile industry and stone factory. Today, based on an economic agreement, the PA rather imports materials or fabrics from abroad which are sold at a cheaper price forcing factories to close down.

A large number of raw materials for textile increasingly come from China, for example, instead of being produced in Palestine and counting on local factories. Besides unemployment, people in Dheisheh suffer from health related problems, and it is usually very expensive to afford surgeries. The Popular Committee receives a number of requests of support from people coping with serious health cases in their families where a surgery is necessary or their family member will die.

Similarly, pregnant women need adequate medical care which implies most of the times being treated at private hospitals so they have to raise finances to face high expenses. In addition, people in the camp face up to financial difficulties in ensuring education for their children. Owdah has four children, all of them university students which is very hard to budget for so he tries to seek scholarships or raise finances in other ways.

Living inside the camp means putting up with many other problems. The living conditions are inadequate with lack of clean water, heating and water and shortage, unsafe home structures built in 1956-67 that many people are still using as shelters. Furthermore, 13.000 residents populating half-meter square generates a major issue of lack of privacy in the community where people easily get to know about each other’s problems.

The Popular Committee is realistically not in the position of a government that can provide lasting solutions, and rather assists through small programs. With regard to employment, the ‘job creation program’, for example, enables people to work for 12-15 days, get paid for that short period as per agreement, and allow another group of people to work next. Workers are chosen from a contact database whereby a team of people are employed on a project basis, they work for a set short contract, receive a small salary and rotate with others throughout the year. Job seekers are able to work once-twice a year, on the average, as there is a large number of people asking for work in the camp.

Some families in Dheisheh tend to ask for financial support where they have to sustain studies for three-four children who are enrolled in universities or pursue higher education. Other people in the camp endure health related problems and need to undertake surgery operations in private hospitals in Jerusalem which can be very expensive.

Additionally, they are required special permissions to enter Jerusalem and, in many cases, have to drop out their appointments with doctors because Israeli authorities reject to grant permissions.

The Popular Committee would intervene with financial and logistic support where the UN doesn’t provide assistance. Furthermore, because medical equipment in Palestine is generally not of adequate quality, some other people wish to undergo surgeries in Jordan which is more expensive. The Popular Committee would then seek help through its network and ask other people to secure assistance from the King of Jordan in these cases.

Dheisheh Popular Committee may work jointly with other organizations in some of the projects to implement in the camp including the Arab Committee for Rehabilitation, SOS in Bethlehem, UNRWA whether there is a need for materials, social workers, psychologists, other resources as required on a case-by-case basis.

Very often if the Popular Committee cannot follow some cases, members would refer to the appropriate organizations that would in turn intervene having employed staff and the scope to address certain issues.

That said, the Popular Committee would have a say on what projects need to be implemented in the camp, not even UNRWA, and eventually request third parties to follow next. Recently, one major project was, for example, the change of the water system inside the camp. Because the system was broken and supplied dirty water, people in Dheisheh carried many diseases and in some cases had to be hospitalised in the previous two years.

So the Popular Committee launched a strong campaign interviewing, writing in local newspapers, taking photographs, and called on the PA, the UN and other bodies to intervene. Finally, the PA gave the green light to granting of funds for this project, via approval by the UN, and the Popular Committee followed all the steps taken as part of the project’s implementation.

People in Dheisheh camp present a number of demands to the Popular Committee because they really need to. Each of these cases requires a lot of time to handle in contacting, coordinating with key organizations and partners, organising, following up.

There are also many cases that cannot be dealt with, among many others to tackle every day. Given the volume of workload as well as the trust given by the population of Dheisheh, the Popular Committee has to face a lot of pressure with heavy expectations projected on its ability to respond to people’s needs.

The Committee is expected to follow all the stages of a case from making the first phone call to ensuring the work is completed and the problem resolved. In taking responsibility, like other committee members, it is not unusual that Owdah also receives visits at home as people want him to follow their cases closely.

Because people feel their needs are pressing and they should seek help, they would not hesitate to turn up at his work as they would at his home, at any time, and expect him to provide answers to their problems.

The Popular Committee thus attracts trust from Dheisheh camp as they are mostly needed but also work hardly for the refugee population and try to resolve their problems.

At the same time, trust from the people needs to be maintained over time because, if a committee member does not address a very necessary matter for someone in the camp he can be judged losing the trust which may make him leave the committee service.

Owdah, on his part, believes the hard efforts are worthwhile and never says to people that he cannot help but rather he will try, and most of the time the Popular Committee succeeds in addressing the needs of the camp.

Working under the umbrella of the Popular Committee enables Owdah to play a special role. He has very good familiarity of what are the issues that affect people living in the camp, and can respond to their problems accordingly.

As a refugee himself, Director of the Phoenix Center and member of the Popular Committee, Owdah knows better than anyone the reality of the refugee camp, how to deal with people from the camp and accommodate people’s needs, which makes him a trusted, approachable key person in Dheisheh.

Last autumn 2010, Owdah went on a ‘talk tour’ in Europe representing both Dheisheh Popular Committee and the Phoenix Center, as a project created by the Popular Committee.

Counting on a wide network of local and international associations, Owdah is well placed to coordinate programs and activities across the Popular Committee and the centre, and do outreach work. During his tour, Owdah presented on the history of the refugees, life in the camp, and the work done in the committee service as well as the centre so that people overseas could see the two connected.

In 1995, residents of Dheisheh established a camp committee which is now one of the most active committees in the West Bank refugee camps. Dheisheh Popular Committee, primarily led by Communist and Popular Front activists, facilitates dozens of micro-economy projects and education initiatives.

Popular Committee members are also key figures in the international movement who articulate their position firmly while maintaining pressure upon municipal and local government authorities.

Dheisheh camp was set up in 1949 as a temporary site for 3,000 refugees coming from 46 villages, west of Jerusalem and Hebron, destroyed in the 1948 war.

Today Dheisheh remains home to around 13,000 people living on less than 1/2 square kilometre straining an always incomplete infrastructure.