Working at park's cafeteria
Photo: Mohammad Babai, Panorama TV
Child having fun in Balata playground
Photo: Mohammad Babai, Panorama TV

Balata's kids get chance at childhood

Nablus refugee camp is trying to shake off its history as an Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades stronghold in favor of greener pastures; ushers first ever public park

It was in the Balata refugee camp in Nablus in late 2000, when a group of Fatah activists decided it was time the raging intifada was stepped up. Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades – the group's military arm – was born.


Sanctioned by Fatah officials, Nasser Awis assumed its leadership, and the Balata refugee camp turned into one of the intifada's hot spots: Dozens of terror attacks and attempted terror attacks emerge from it, claiming dozens of Israeli lives; some 200 Palestinians were killed by IDF forces, hundreds were wounded and arrested and dozens of homes in the impoverished camp were partially or fully razed.


Balata refugee camp, 2010. The infrastructure is the same, but the new air of the Palestinian Authority is evident. The volatile camp is now reminiscent of ancient Athens – a direct democracy among narrow alleyways, where children run around barefoot.


The camp's Services Committee called a referendum among its 25,000 residents and thousands of forms were handed out, as the committee sought to find out what was the project the residents most wanted to see realized.


"There was a clear majority of residents who asked for a recreational spot," said Ahmad Shamch, head of the Services Committee. And so, with modest PA funding and additional funding by the UN, the

Phoenician Park project was born.


Balata's green lung cost some €300,000 and an additional 196,000 dinars (roughly $270,000), which was the land purchasing price. The park opened in June 2009, "And over 10,000 people visited it in the first month alone," said Shamch. "Each visitor pays NIS 1 ($0.27) and families and children keep coming."

Greener pastures in Balata (Photo: Mohammad Babai, Panorama TV)


Swing set wars

The modest entry fee, he added, covers some of the maintenance expenses, "Butit's also meant to make residents feel like they contribute something to the park." Shamch is convinced that the park will prove a financial success: "For a family from the camp, cab fare to a park in central Nablus would cost NIS 30 ($8). That is why some people here have never been to a park, never played on swing set.


"Today, a family of five can walk here, pay NIS 5 ($1.3) in entry fees and another NIS 5, in average, for snacks – that's less than a one-way cab fare to Nablus. That's why entire families come here."


Still, Hamas and other Islamic organizations frown upon such infrastructure investments in the refugee camps. They fear such projects might encourage residents to settle down and abandon the desire to return to their original homes in Jaffa and other villages from which they came in 1948.


They have also begun spreading rumors suggesting the public park is a place of promiscuity and that a couple was caught kissing there.


"Where is the logic in that?" Shamch wondered. "A swing set is not enough to discourage us or the children from wanting to go home. Until that happens, we and the children deserve to live. We've seen 62 years of neglect, no life, children without a childhood.


"We've seen years of hundreds of casualties and fatalities, prisoners and invasions by the Israeli army. The camp deserves some fresh air. Children deserve to feel like children. I will never forget how, after the first day we opened, we had to fix every apparatus – the kids were so enthusiastic from finally getting a taste of things they never had before, that they broke them.


"Now, slowly, there is a new recreational culture developing, and everything is kept in working order. We have ambassadors and consuls visiting."


Development plans are set to exceed the park: The survey found that the residents would also like to have a swimming pool. The Services Committee has purchased a near-1 acre stretch of land adjacent to the park in favor of the future pool, and plans for a soccer field are also in the works.


Tanzim security

Ibrahim abu Lil (22) has recently been paroled from an Israeli prison and is now working as one of the security guards in the park. "I envy these children, who get to enjoy their childhood, a childhood that I – as someone born into the First Intifada and grew up during the Second Intifada – didn’t know. Inshallah ("God willing"), there will be peace and the children can continue enjoying themselves."


Other camp activists, some of them also parolees, work at the park's cafeteria. The committee hopes the future pool would be able to provide more places of employment for other parolees, who are currently unemployed.


Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad declared 2,000 government-sponsored public projects in 2009, as part of his statehood plans. So far, 1,000 projects – from building projects and road renovations, to laying down new infrastructure – have been completed.


The refugee camps have not been left out of the grand design: New roads were paved in the Dahaysha refugee camp in Bethlehem, a new school was built in the Shuafat Refugee Camp, north of Jerusalem, and a youth club was formed in the al-Arub Refugee Camp near Hebron.


The Palestinian Authority seems to be focusing on environmental issues as well, as it has formed an "environmental police" force, inaugurated 26 parks and planted thousands of trees.



פרסום ראשון: 08.07.10, 09:02
 new comment
This will delete your current comment