Tareq S. Hajjaj
Mondoweiss / January 20, 2023
Refugees in Gaza are being displaced to make way for a coastal highway. The Hamas-led government justifies the home demolitions by claiming residents do not “own” their homes in Al-Shati Refugee Camp.
A group of neighbors standing on al-Rasheed street of Al-Shati refugee camp west of Gaza City watch their homes falling down, bit by bit. Fathers and sons sit in front of their homes all day, observing the demolition as it is carried out by the Hamas-led government in Gaza. Some families have already moved to temporary housing for rent, but they keep coming back for a last look before their memories are forever erased.
Among the onlookers, Abu Khalil al-Hinawi, 45, and his son Khalil, 23, appear the most devastated, unable to process what they are seeing.
“This will separate us,” Abu Khalil says. “We are a large family of 25 people. We are brothers living with each other and our old mother among us. Now everyone will be in a different home, and some of us might not even be able to buy a new home with the government’s compensation.”
The Ministry of Public Works in Gaza has launched Project “Bottleneck,” or ‘Unk al-Zujajeh in Arabic. The project aims to demolish homes in crowded areas near the camp’s coastal road, in order to widen the street. This decision was met with outrage and protest from the area’s inhabitants. Months ago, it was declared that demolitions would commence at the beginning of this year.
For many who lived in these homes on the sea, which they could see from their windows, they are irreplaceable. Most of the families will be unable to find houses that fit the entire family if they were to use the government’s compensation payments, which are paid in five to six monthly installments — as opposed to one lump sum, meaning that many are unable to expediently find new homes through the use of cash.
Moreover, the people’s appeals — whether they center on the payment amount or the demolition decision itself — have been roundly rejected by the government, and the project is slated to continue.
The demolitions commenced on Wednesday, January 18, with four homes being completely destroyed since. Abu Khalil’s family home was one of the first to go.
Since Abu Khalil’s house was completely demolished, he has only received a first installment of $6,000. He still awaits four checks with the same amount, to be paid consecutively in the coming four months. In the meantime, Abu Khalil has been forced to rent a house for his family of six people and is forced to begin spending his first indemnity payment.
The families affected by Project Bottleneck have called on the government to provide alternative solutions, but the government continues to make promises for eventual compensation, which continues to be postponed.
“We asked them to secure other apartments for us to settle in, but they said that would happen after six to seven months,” Abu Khalil told Mondoweiss.
‘Public interest’ over individual gain
The six-meter-wide coastal street links Gaza’s northern and southern governorates and experiences constant traffic. The government project aims to extend the street by 27 meters. Suggested years ago, the government started the project in January 2023.
“32 resident buildings, four facilities affiliated to the UNRWA, including a center for food aid and a women’s center, a health center, a sports center, and a wedding hall, will be demolished in the project,” the Director of the project from the Ministry of Public Works, Majed Saleh, told Mondoweiss.
The Ministry of Public Works is responsible for indemnifying people whose homes have been demolished throughout the course of Gaza’s invasions. The Ministry is also in charge of Gaza’s reconstruction process.
“We have long years of experience in compensating people,” Saleh said.
Perhaps this is why the people affected by the project were shocked by the compensation amounts. Despite the high real estate prices in this part of the Strip — due to the seaside view and close proximity to the beach — the inhabitants expected that the government would value their homes at a much higher rate.
“We settled with every family, and told them that [the project] is in the public interest and that we should give it priority over our own personal interests,” Salah told Mondoweiss. “The government approves 200 JD (Jordanian Dinar) for one [square] meter according to the recommendation of the Ministry of Public Works. With that price, they can find other places.”
The people say otherwise, claiming that the price of one square meter in their location is closer to 2,000-3,000 JD ($2,816-$4,229).
The Ministry’s rejoinder to this claim is that the area is not regarded as private property, due to its previous use and affiliation with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which services Palestinian refugee camps in the region.
“The explanation for the presence of these people is that these lands used to belong to UNRWA, and some citizens used to live with their families there to protect UNRWA facilities,” Saleh told Mondoweiss. “We are talking about 40 years ago, when some citizens lived in UNRWA headquarters. Afterward UNRWA closed down some of its buildings, but the people remained there without paying the government or buying [the property] from the government.”
Again, the people would argue otherwise. Many of the families can offer up official papers and land deeds, proving that the land they own is private and belongs to them. For those families, the Ministry acknowledges their claims, but it will not cease the demolitions. Instead, it promised those families they would be “treated differently.” When Mondoweiss interviewed members of these families, however, they said that they were given the same compensation as everyone else.
“There are some floors that house three families. It is not possible to give a new home for each family,” Salah said. “We compensate according to the space, not the families inside that space. Someone who lives in a 60 square meter home will get enough money to buy 60 square meters.”
Even though the families in the house slated for demolition have evacuated their homes, they remain resolute in their rejection of the decision, regarding it as unjust.
“Those families who reject [the decision] have the right to do so, but they will get nothing more than the people who accepted it,” Salah says. “In the end, they know that the government does not oppress them.”
Al-Shati refugee camp is the third largest of the Gaza Strip’s eight refugee camps, and one of the most crowded areas in the entire Gaza Strip. It is built on an area of only 0.52 square kilometers and is home to more than 85,628 Palestinian refugees, who were forced out of their homes during the Nakba in 1948.
More than 70 percent of Gaza’s entire population are refugees, who settled in the coastal strip following their displacement after the Nakba. The residents of al-Shati camp, like the hundreds of thousands of other Palestinian refugees in Gaza, have now reached the third, fourth, and even fifth generation of refugees.
Like the dozens of other Palestinian refugee camps across Gaza and the rest of occupied Palestinian lands, the camp does not look like it did when it was first established. Upon their displacement, the refugees settled in tents and makeshift shelters. When UNRWA was established in 1949, the agency began providing humanitarian relief and other services to the people and officially established the refugee camps.
According to UNRWA, the plots of land on which the camps were set up were either state land or, in most cases, land leased by the host government from local landowners. This means that the refugees themselves did not actually “own” the land upon which their shelters were built, but were given the rights to “use” the land for residences.
For decades, as Israel continued to deny the refugees the right to return to their homes, the tents and temporary shelters became permanent structures, and eventually, multi-story apartment buildings.
In some areas of al-Shati, the refugees were able to purchase the land upon which their homes were built. In other parts of the camp, the residents, like the vast majority of Palestinian refugees, continued to build and reside on the land leased by UNRWA, which did not officially “belong” to them.
This is the case for the majority of families living on al-Rasheed street in al-Shati camp.
Because the families do not officially “own” the land — although, as residents of a recognized refugee camp, they have the right to live there even without a deed to the land — Hamas authorities in Gaza say it gives the government the right to destroy their homes, homes which the residents built out of their own pockets over several generations.
Mondoweiss contacted a UNRWA spokesperson in Gaza, Adnan Abu Hassna, but he declined to comment on the demolitions. Mondoweiss also contacted the Jerusalem-based Director of Communications & Arabic Language Spokesperson for UNRWA. We had not yet received a response to our request for comment at the time of publication.
Majed Saleh, from the Ministry of Public Works, told Mondoweiss that because the families did not purchase the land or pay the government for its use, the government can move forward with the demolition.
But the refugees of the camp say this justification is a gross violation of their protected rights as refugees and displaced persons, and fear that through this project, the government is setting a dangerous precedent for other refugee camps in Gaza, and across the Palestinian territories.
Abu Jamil, 57, lives on al-Rasheed street, and his home is slated for demolition in the coming days. He described the government’s project as another Nakba, or catastrophe, for the refugees.
“This project aims to displace the Palestinian refugees one more time,” Abu Jamil says, standing outside the ground floor of his home, which his own sons use to run a beachside coffee shop. “They want to evacuate the refugees, and end the case of the refugees altogether. This is an Israeli goal, and it’s happening to us now.”
Abu Jamil is the patriarch of a family of 15, including his married sons and his grandchildren, all of whom live in the family home on al-Rasheed street. When the family received their demolition notice, they asked Hamas authorities to secure them alternative sources of income, since their coffee shop, which provides for the whole family, will be destroyed as part of the new road expansion plan. The family has yet to receive any response.
“I’m living in my home, and the government comes to kick me out without giving me another home. What can we call this process?” Abu Jamil asks indignantly. “This is a new displacement for us as refugees.”
Nasser Abu Saif, 60, is standing in front of his home. The building beside him has almost been completely leveled. People come and go in a show of empathy and support for the old man, whose face remains grave the entire time.
His voice rattles as he explains the injustice he feels after repeated protests. For Abu Saif, any offer the government might propose means nothing to him, so long as his home is to be demolished.
“I’m responsible for three families, our home houses all of us, and the payment they offer can’t get me a similar place. If they really want to satisfy me, they have to get me a home, not make me homeless,” he says.
This is to say nothing of the memories he has, having lived in the same place all his life.
“When we rejected their offer, they said that we can sell the rubble of our own home and keep the money,” he says sardonically.
Nasser’s life in Gaza has been spent in danger, surviving all four of Gaza’s wars throughout the last two decades. Being in the first line of buildings near the beach, his house was the target of Israeli gunboats. Throughout all of these military aggressions, he never left his home.
“When the Israeli gunboat fired towards us, we refused to leave our homes,” Nasser says. “I spent my life suffering, I paid everything I have to treat my two sons [who suffered from a medical mistake at birth], and they died suffering from full paralysis at the ages of 17 and 18. Now at the end of my life the government will take my home instead of supporting me and my family?”
His bitterness is palpable. “One square meter of this land is worth 2,000-3,000 JD, and the government said it is worth only 200,” he says. “They just want to take our homes for their investment projects.”
Nasser’s home of 250 square meters is large enough to contain him and his two sons, along with their families and one unemployed son. All living together under one roof, whenever Nasser’s son decides to start a family of his own, Nasser would have been able to give him his own private space within the home. But with the money the government is offering, Nasser says, he won’t be able to purchase a home to house them all. This means that for the first time in his life, his family will be broken up. That is what hurts him the most.
“A huge injustice has been done to me and my family,” he says. “I tried to find another place, and I could not. If I’m not able to find a home, wouldn’t you also consider that unfair?” Nasser’s question is rhetorically indignant.
Nasser also challenges the government’s claims that the project is for the common good.
“They said this project is in the national interest, which I completely respect, but that should not come at the expense of citizens,” he says. “The government considers this project more valuable than our lives. We do not reject our country’s development, but it must not be at the cost of our homes. They have to provide us with other homes to live in.”
“I’m an old man, and I love to be among my sons and their families.” There are now tears in Nasser’s eyes. “We loved our home, and we sacrificed for our homeland. We should be supported by our government, not harmed by it.”
Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza correspondent, and a member of the Palestinian Writers Union