Established in 1950, Aida Refugee Camp is located in the northern part of Bethlehem on an area of 0.71 square kilometers. The camp hosts refugees from 17 demolished villages from the northwestern area of Jerusalem and south of Hebron. Among these villages were Allar, Deiraban, Beit Nattif, Beit Jibreen, Ras Abu Ammar, Al Malha, Ajjour, and Beit Atab. The camp initially started life as a “safe zone” with the promise that the refugees could return to their villages after the the conflict was over. At that time the camp was composed of 1,125 refugees living in 94 green, fabric tents. In 1956, UNRWA replaced these tents with cinder block housing units, each with one or two rooms measuring just 9×12 meters. Although the camp’s population continued to grow, the area of the camp did not, and the current population is over 4,700 refugees living in 277 housing units. This severe overcrowding creates numerous problems for the refugees.
The lives of Aida camp residents have periodically been disrupted, not only by their status as refugees and the hardships this entails, but also because of the traumatizing and devastating experiences of the First and Second Intifadas.
During the First Intifada, from 1987-1993, curfews and gunfire were frequent occurrences in the camp. Only seven years after the end of the First Intifada, increasing Palestinian dissatisfaction with failed peace negotiations and other unnecessary, provocative events gave rise to the Second Intifada in 2000. During this time the residents of Aida camp experienced severe hardship, with every aspect of daily life held hostage to the ever-present threat of military attacks. The camp was subject to frequent Israeli strikes and invasions from both land and air, in addition to severe curfew restrictions imposed on the camp and the surrounding areas. Even when not under curfew, moving from place to place within the camp put residents (women and children included) at risk of Israeli gunfire whenever their movements could be seen from military outposts. With a military camp, lookout posts and the nearby Gilo (Jewish) Settlement surrounding the camp on three sides, movement within the camp was nearly impossible (and when the camp became the victim of Israeli air strikes, all movement stopped). During their ground invasions, Israeli forces would occupy high points around the camp, thereby controlling the entire surrounding area.
Even within their homes camp residents were not safe. Because many camp houses are made from cinder block and other inexpensive building materials, they could not sustain gunfire, in contrast to the fortified military camps and lookout posts from which the Israeli forces attacked us. When invading the camp, Israeli foot soldiers occupied homes, made arbitrary arrests and even bombed the walls of neighboring homes in order to travel through the camp internally. In all of this the Israeli forces showed complete disregard for the many serious injuries that resulted.
The most extreme curfew was imposed on the camp in March 2002, during the occupation of Bethlehem and the Siege of the Church of the Nativity. The curfew lasted for over 40 days. During this period there were only brief respites when the curfew was lifted for one hour at a time. However, such “respites” were useless to those in the camp, in desperate need of food and supplies, since curfews remained in force throughout the surrounding areas would people would go to shop.
Needless to say, the impact of such events on the camp was devastating. Many were killed, injured and traumatized. The camp’s entire infrastructure was severely damaged, including the its UNRWA schools, many of the roads where tanks had damaged the asphalt, as well as many homes and surrounding property where the camp’s streets were too narrow to accommodate the Israeli tanks. Reconstruction was a slow process, and it was not until preparations for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the camp in 2009 that the main road, still showing signs of damage from the tanks, was repaired.
The Aida camp has also been plagued by the construction of the Israeli Separation (or Annexation) Wall. Erected in 2003, the Wall borders Aida camp on two sides (only 20 meters away from the northern part of the camp). Many of the working men in the camp are skilled construction workers, reliant on the Israeli job market. However, as the restrictions on work permits within Israel were tightened after the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, it became increasingly difficult for these men to find work. With the construction of the Separation (Annexation) Wall, they were no longer able to access the Israeli job market; neither could they be absorbed into the weak Palestinian economy after losing their jobs in Israel.
As a result, the unemployment levels in the camp have increased to 43%. Currently 39% of the residents in Aida camp are living in poverty on less than $2.00 a day. The Wall has also cut off the camp from nearby farmland and recreational areas for its youth. Throughout its course along the West Bank, the Wall significantly deviates from the Green Line (the original border prior to the 1967 War), annexing an additional 8.5% of the West Bank to Israeli territory. For example, the Wall surrounding Aida camp is significantly further south than the actual Green line and annexes the nearby Jewish settlements of Gilo and Har Homa into Israeli territory. The residents of Aida camp are also sealed off from nearby East Jerusalem just a few kilometers away. East Jerusalem is a city of great religious significance to the Palestinian people and is considered to be Palestinian territory under international law. The people of Aida now live in the shadow of the 8 meter high concrete barrier surrounding their camp.
Aida Youth Center, like the rest of the camp, has faced many obstacles and difficulties throughout its history. It was originally established in 1968 to enhance the lives of the camp’s young people. It was closed by the Israeli authorities in the late 1970s, only to reopen again and continue its work. Then, in 1998, the Center was closed for five years because Israeli tanks demolished the property, and it was completely destroyed. However, despite these problems, Aida Youth Center has continued to flourish. It reopened in 2004, after Catholic Relief Services financed the rebuilding of the Center’s ground floor, and many refugees volunteered their skills in the construction. We are also grateful to the Arab Fund for Development, which also funded the construction of the first and second floors. Since reopening, the Center has extended its program of activities to include cultural and health-related activities. Our recent achievements include creating the Largest Key in the world, known as the Key of Return, and “The Gate of Return,” a 12 meter high structure at the entrance to the camp. For more information please see our “Projects” page.
Over the years a number of prominent politicians and notable figures have visited Aida refugee camp, including Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Aida Center volunteers and other camp residents constructed a small, open-air stadium directly in front of the Separation Wall in anticipation of the Pope’s visit. However, a few days before the Pope was due to arrive, Israeli authorities objected to this location, and his visit was moved to the UN Boys’ school in the camp. Other prominent visitors include:
- President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Mahmoud Abbas
- Former President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pöttering (2009*)
- UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon (visited in 2007)
- The President of Chile, Sebastian Piñera (2011)
- Prime Minister of the PNA, Salam Fayyad
- Former UNRWA Commissioner-General, Karen Koning AbuZayd *
- Sarah Brown (wife of the former Prime Minister of Britain, Gordon Brown)
- Former United States Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Nicholas Burns, and former U.S. Consul General, Jacob Walles, who both visited during their time in office in 2008.