Backstage in Gaza

What I saw in the refugee camps

BLAIR FRASER January 5 1957
Backstage in Gaza

What I saw in the refugee camps

BLAIR FRASER January 5 1957

Backstage in Gaza What I saw in the refugee camps


JERUSALEM Gaza for three thousand years has been a symbol both of ignominy and of revenge. Here the captive Samson ("eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves”) regained enough of his strength to pull down the roof upon himself and his enemies. Here today three hundred thousand rootless people sit on a beachhead five miles wide, nine out of ten of them fed by international charity, with nothing to do but brood upon their wrongs. Two thirds of all the people in the Gaza Strip are exiles from other parts of Palestine. For them the United Nations Relief and Works Agency—UNRWA—brings in three thousand tons of food every month, enough for a basic ration of sixteen hundred calories per person per day. But even of the remaining ninety - odd thousand people, the permanent residents of Gaza and district who are not refugees. no less than sixty thousand have been on partial relief. They draw supplementary rations from CARE, the private co-operative that distributes aid to starving peopie all over the free world. CARE’S program in Gaza is not one of private charity, as it is in most parts of the world. Here, by agreement with Egypt and then with Israel, CARE has been handing out some of the mountains of surplus food created by the United States’ farm price-support program. An American law stipulates that this food must be provided

free of charge, and only to "needy” people. The populace of Gaza certainly meets this specification. Theoretically the sixty thousand who get CARE's supplementary ration are those who lost all or part of their normal livelihood when the neighboring farmlands went to Israel in the war eight years ago. Few people believe that all of them really qualify by this or any other formal test. Their real qualification needs no more proof than their homes, their garments and their faces. It is simply poverty. Most ancient cities, even in the Middle East, retain some shred or fossil of former grandeur. Gaza does not. The old city of the Philistines is a commonplace Arab town of dusty streets and grimy shops. What its people have lived on for all these centuries is a puzzle to the casual observer, but apparently they have not lived well. In this environment CARE does not ask too many questions about the history and background of the twenty-five thousand children and expectant mothers to whom it gives two extra glasses of milk each day, or the families who get weekly rations of cheese and rice and corn meal. Neither does UNRWA worry too much about taking a census of its refugee camps, where 216,000 ration cards are officially assumed to represent 216,000 living mouths. Of course the figures are padded, as everybody admits. It is a wry joke in the Middle East that refugee camps continued on page 45

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Once on the UN’s ration list a person seems to become immortal’

have the highest birth rate and the lowest death rate in the world; once enrolled on UNRWA’s ration list a person seems to become immortal, so few deaths are ever reported. Sixteen hundred calories a day are a mere subsistence ration, but in

fact refugee families are able to save a fair fraction of the flour they get and barter it for clothes and other necessities. The effect of this leniency is that the refugees in Gaza, poor as they are. enjoy a relatively decent standard of living as

Middle Eastern standards go. Israeli doctors. checking the health conditions in the refugee camps, found them surprisingly good. Housing is certainly not handsome, but it is no worse than in a typical Arab village—better, if anything. (The tidy

huts in the Gaza Strip confirm suspicions that the horrible squalor of refugee camps in Jordan, along the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, is maintained as a kind of grisly tourist attraction to impress foreign visitors with the misery of the refugees.)

Among the women and children these tolerable material standards extend into a tolerable way of life generally. The women keep house, the children go to school. (Among the swarm of grinning, chattering urchins who surround every visitor from the moment he sets foot in Gaza, a surprising number speak English that they learned in the UNRWA school.)

UNRWA has carried on in Gaza a complete educational program for several years, with impressive results. Canadians and Americans who have spent time there on United Nations duty are all struck by the passionate interest in learning that they find among the Arab youth. They tell of seeing teen-agers walking the streets of the refugee villages to study until dark (there isn't much light in a camp hut) and doing their algebra in chalk on the sidewalk, or in the sand with match sticks.

But for the men. and for the young students as they grow into men. the refugee camps are a dead end. No intelligible

future awaits them, or even an intelligible present. With nowhere to go. nothing to do. nothing to hope for and little to fear, they sit in a dream world of revenge and reconquest.

It is in the relative comfort of Gaza, not the shocking squalor of the tent camps in Jordan, that most recruits are found for the Fedayeen. the so-called commando squads of the Egyptian Army who in fact are simply trained murderers. The rising literacy rate, now at a new high as UNRWA schools produce their first crop of pupils who have had time to complete an elementary education, provides new thousands of readers for the inflammatory Arabic press. And with the almost total lack of hope for the future, release from worry about food and shelter brings more tension rather than less.

Of all the gunpowder lying loose in this explosive region, none is drier than the refugee camps of Palestine. They are a sobering spectacle to anyone who thinks that if we spend enough money, we can buy peace.

When the Israeli military governor took us to lunch at the mess in Gaza, he was embarrassed and apologetic about the swarms of Hies, those horridly aggressive (lies of the Middle East, that buzzed

around the table. Soon, he said, he hoped to get time to do something about them.

This turned the conversation to the Rockefeller Foundation’s experiment in upper Egypt a few years ago. which almost succeeded but eventually failed to wipe out Hies in one village. Someone remarked, "Apparently there’s no way to eliminate them in this part of the world.”

The young military governor shook his head, with a reminiscent grin.

"There is a way,” he said. "1 have seen it done. It is not easy, but it is simple.”

He went on to tell the story. During World War II he had served with the British Army in southern Burma, and in 1945 found himself in charge of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

"Most orderly set of soldiers 1 ever saw.” he said. "They made their own camp, including the wire fence around it to keep them from escaping, and compiled their own list of personnel and their own inventory of surrendered arms.

"The one thing wrong was the Hies. Their camp was absolutely black with them, and of course they spread to our quarters, so I called in the Japanese commander.”

“ ‘Flies?’ he said. ‘You really think this important?’

"1 told him I did. ‘Ssss, ah,’ he said.

We shall remove the Hies of course.”

"Next day I found out how he proposed to do it. Orders were posted that every Japanese soldier, to get his ration of food, had to present one hundred Hies, and a sergeant major sat at the head of the chow line counting them with a chopstick. After counting them he would dump them into a bin. so they could be used for fertilizer in the camp garden.

“Within two weeks. Hies had become very scarce in the camp. The commander reduced the daily requirement to only fifty Hies per man. but soon even that became very difficult. By the end of the fourth week, the camp had a black market in flies—men were paying quite large amounts for enough dead Hies to get their daily food ration.

“Luckily the prisoners were sent home to Japan just in time. If they had stayed a fortnight longer. I’m sure some of them would have been breeding Hies for commercial purposes."

The Israeli military governor pushed back his chair and took a last swat at the swarm on the dinner table.

"Maybe there’s an idea there for UNRWA. Set a price of a few dozen Hies for each refugee family’s ration—they could wipe out one of the biggest publichealth problems in Asia Minor.” ★