Palestinian Studies

2020 Workshop

Kjersti G. Berg

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Chr. Michelsen Institute

From Mu’askar to Shu’fat camp: Humanitarian contradictions and refugees’ struggles to belong in Jerusalem

While most Palestinian refugee camps were established as part of emergency operations after the wars in 1948 and 1967, Shu’fat camp was built in between the two wars. The planning process started in 1959, and the camp was only inhabited from 1966. United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN-agency set up to provide temporary humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian refugees in 1949, planned and built it. One expressed aim was to improve living conditions for the refugees. The premise of the project was to remove the refugees residing in Mu’askar, an unofficial refugee camp in the Old City Jewish quarter, to this new camp four km. to the north of the city centre. 

Both planning the new camp and moving the refugees from Mu’askar turned out to be complicated. This case explores refugees’ resistance to the scheme and negotiations between UNRWA, refugees and Jordan as a host country. Why was this project so difficult? Why move the refugees, and how to do so in spite of their resistance? The second part of the presentation includes an examination of the planning and building of the new camp. Only one year after the opening of the new camp, in June 1967 war broke out. One result was that Israel annexed East Jerusalem, including Shu’fat, and gradually evicted Palestinians still residing in the Mu’askar quarter. Annexation also made Israel a “host country” for Shu’fat camp, and counterpart for UNRWA’s attempts to manage the camp, with dramatic consequences for the development of the camp.

The Mu’askar/Shu’fat case is relevant to the New Directions in Palestinian Studies call and “Who owns Palestine” in different ways. It responds to the lack of archive-based studies on Palestinian history and refugee history in particular, and offers a glimpse of this history in Jerusalem. Mu’askar is an example of history and presence erased. Shu’fat offers insights into contradictions of planning a refugee camp from scratch. One point of departure is that refugees – who had lost their homes and/or lands – resided in waqf-owned properties in Mu’askar. In Shu’fat different interpretations of ownership have co-existed. Original landowners rented land to UNRWA, and the agency (initially) aimed to operate the camp and regulate refugees’ building, while refugees appropriated camp plots and space over time. The archive files give insights into the evolution of claims to camp space. A refugee camp also represents a proof of belonging, as a link to Palestine and the lost homes and lands. Dispossession and refugees’ struggles (including struggles to belong) are central points of departure for a discussion of “who owns Palestine.”

Kjersti G. Berg is a post-doctoral researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. She is a member of the research project "Genealogies of humanitarian containment in the Middle East". She earned her PhD from the University of Bergen in 2015. Her thesis is an in-depth study on United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and its role in the Palestinian refugee camps over time. The thesis builds on extensive access to UNRWA archives, a selection of letters from the waqf archive in Abu Dis, interviews and meetings. She has taught Middle Eastern history and published an article on UNRWA and the camps (Routledge 2014) and on UNRWA and gender (Brill 2008).