Don't confuse relocation with return--18 years to move two kilometers

Don't confuse relocation with return--18 years to move two kilometers

It took 18 years to move about 4,500 Palestinian refugees from Rafah, Egypt to Rafah, Gaza. Many lessons can be learned from the process but it didn't mean that these refugees were exercising their right of return.

When the international border was reestablished between Egypt and Israel in 1982, almost 500 Palestinian families were stranded on the Egyptian side of the border. They had been moved to an Israeli housing project there in 1972 after their homes in Rafah, Gaza were demolished under security measures taken by the Israeli authorities to combat unrest in the Gaza Strip. At that time, Israel still controlled the Sinai Peninsula, occupied along with the Gaza Strip in 1967.

The 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt specified that these refugees would go back to the Gaza Strip. The international border was reestablished in 1982.

The refugees left on the Egyptian side of the border in "Canada", as they called it, thought they would get back to Gaza in about six months. The area where they lived in the Sinai was called Canada Camp, named after the Canadian contingent to the UN Emergency Force that was stationed there in 1956, the only connection with Canada.

A few families went back to Gaza without compensation for their lost homes in Canada Camp or any land in Gaza on which to build a new home. It was not until 1989 that Israel and Egypt agreed on a relocation plan which specified that Egypt would pay each family/household $8,000 as compensation for their home in Canada Camp. Immediately some 20 families moved back to Gaza with $8,000 each but no land.

Refugees found that $8,000 in the Gaza economy, really the Israeli economy, was not enough to build more than a room or two. The amount was raised to $12,000 in 1991 and Israel began to provide serviced lots in the Tel el Sultan area of Rafah, Gaza. A group of 20 households had appealed to the Israeli High Court which said land should be provided.

By the autumn of 1992, another 105 households moved back to Gaza with both land and $12,000. Then Egypt said it had no more money to fund the relocation and appealed to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, to help raise funds. Egypt asked UNRWA for $1 million over four years, thinking that most families could move within that time. UNRWA never has enough money to cover its own budget let alone pay for a relocation of 4,500 refugees.

UNRWA had extended its health, relief and education services to refugees in Canada Camp and continued to do so, with great difficulty, even after the international border was reestablished. A number of UNRWA staff, including teachers, had been stranded with their families so they continued to work for the Agency at the UNRWA school and providing other services to the refugees there. Some 15 heads of households who had worked for the Israeli Civil Administration in Gaza were able to continue working and crossing the border until 1994 when their crossing permits were revoked. This left another group of families without a source of income.

Canada responds

UNRWA did notify several donors of the need for funds to finance the relocation. It was the Government of Canada that responded first and later became a major party in the relocation process. A number of Canadian journalists and diplomats had visited Canada Camp and the Tel el Sultan relocation area in the Gaza Strip in the early 1990s to see what Canada Camp was all about.

Canada's first contribution came in 1994, enough to fund relocation for 70 families. Some began to move in the same year. A second contribution plus funds to build a community center in the Tel el Sultan relocation area came from Canada in 1995. The funds were channeled through UNRWA which paid the money directly to the heads of refugee households.

At the same time, Canada approached several Gulf States to help in the process. Kuwait provided $1 million in 1995 and another $1 million in 1999.
To prepare for the influx of refugees, UNRWA expanded its school facilities in Rafah, Gaza and built a clinic near Tel el Sultan. It also provided services, including monthly food aid, to refugees remaining in Canada Camp. Food aid continued for six months to all relocated refugees after they went back to Gaza in order to ease their return.

Even with some money available and refugees ready to move, the process slowed down after 1995 with a new government elected in Israel and outbreaks of violence in the occupied territories and retaliation from the Israeli army. The downward spiral into violence had begun earlier with the 1994 attack by settler Baruch Goldstein on Moslem worshipers at the tomb of Ibrahim in Hebron. Some 40 Palestinians were killed and more than 150 were wounded.

In 1998, 39 households did relocate but the process was lagging so Canada took initiatives with the Israeli Government to speed up the relocation.

More than half of the families had moved by 1999 but 149 remained. Canada provided further funds to complete the relocation and to pay for final infrastructure installation in Tel el Sultan for which the Palestinian Authority had no funds. Under Canadian prodding, a timetable was set up and in December 2000, the last 10 households moved back to the Gaza Strip despite the tense security situation with Gaza cut into three parts by the Israeli army, the revival of the Intifada and desperate economic conditions.

* In 1990, 20 hourseholds appealed to the Israeli High Court which ruled that land should be provided for the relocation.
** The Egypt-Israel Agreement says 496 households were eligible to move. Table figures provided by the Palestinian Ministry of Housing in 2001.
*** Kuwait provided $2 million, $1.3 came via Egypt and the remainder from Canada which also funded a community center and infrastructure work in Tel el Sultan.

It was a long, painful process for the refugees from "Canada" but there are a number of lessons from the process that could be applied to other movements of Palestinian refugees.

Five parties involved

In the beginning, only Egypt and Israel were involved but this grew to five parties by 1994. They included Israel as the dominant party plus Egypt, Canada, UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority.

With one party being dominant in the process, it helped to have a neutral third party such as Canada or any other nation or international body which had the trust of the other parties to help make up for the weaknesses of the others and instill some political will into the process.

The relocation was top down. Egypt and Israel agreed on the relocation and set up the arrangements. The procedures were applied and interpreted by Israel with all of the others left in a position of reacting. Canada not only provided funds but also helped bring the parties together and organize a quicker timetable for the process.

There had been no realistic time frame established under the Israeli-Egyptian agreement of 1989. The agreement said only that the Canada Camp residents were to be divided into groups of 35 households and when each group was finished building and crossing, the next group would begin.

At first the head of household and usually one or two sons would cross to Gaza with their $12,000 and receive title to a piece of land in Tel el Sultan. They could then begin building their new home although they could go "home" to Canada Camp on the weekends through a border crossing gate in the center of Rafah. However, there were protracted negotiations among Egypt, Israel and the PA before permission was given for each group to start moving.

It was a precondition to start building a dwelling and finish it to the point of being habitable before the crossing of a whole household could be finalized. The Israeli authorities would decide when a house was habitable, a task later taken over by the fledgling Palestinian Authority.

The first area of Canada Camp to be emptied was that closest to the border fence. The UNRWA official in charge of Canada Camp would present a list of households and their members to the Egyptian authorities who would then pass the list to the Israeli authorities.
When the Israelis agreed on the names, this information was passed back through the Egyptians to UNRWA in Canada Camp. Households would have to notify family members outside the area so that they could return and cross with their families when their new Gaza home was ready.

After agreement on whether their home in Tel el Sultan was ready to live in, the family in Canada Camp could begin their move. This meant loading up their household effects, hiring a truck to take them 40 km south to the Al Ouja/Nizzana border crossing between Egypt and Israel at the rate of four households a day. When they crossed, they were given new identity documents.

Then they had to hire another truck on the Israeli side for the final leg of their trip to Tel el Sultan, a distance of only 2 kms as the crow flies from their homes in Canada Camp but a long 40-km trip including an international border crossing. At this point they became permanent residents of the Gaza Strip.

The procedures were applied and interpreted by Israel with all of the other parties left in a position of reacting to Israel's actions. Not until 1998 with Canada's intervention was there a proper schedule and regular monitoring of progress. As well as keeping the process on track, a time frame points out the needs along the way: funding, and infrastructure needs, number of students going to school, persons needing employment, etc.

Another major issue was compensation for the refugees losing their homes in Egypt and rebuilding in Gaza. While $8,000 or even $12,000 might go a long way in Egypt, it was very little in Gaza. Some returnees were farsighted enough to bring door and window frames from Egypt to pare down building costs. Any future move of refugees would have to include realistic compensation for the refugees.

Canada did pay the bulk of the costs and came up with emergency funding when necessary on an ad hoc basis. However, it would have speeded up the process to have secure funding from the beginning. Secure funding would have forced the parties to act and not make excuses that funds were unavailable.

It would, of course, been easier to organize the move if the security situation had been calm throughout.

Positive aspects of the move

The move back to Gaza reunited hundreds of families, many of whom had only been in contact for years by shouting to each other across the 40-metre-wide border strip. Several families had children on one side of the border and parents on the other side. One husband and wife were separated for years. And even to visit each other, it could take months of planning to secure a permit to cross to Gaza and then go back to Egypt.

The terms of the Israeli-Egyptian agreement were fulfilled by December 2000, an achievement in itself.

Gaps in planning
In addition to the major points on timing, funding and planning noted above, there are a number of other lessons learned for any similar process.
Those who went back to Gaza, although having lived along the border where they could see and hear some aspects of the indifada, were not prepared to the shock of going back. They had been cut of from family and friends for years and they were living in the Egyptian economy.

Although they were not allowed to work in Egypt, any money they had could purchase far more. They were not prepared for the cost of living or the restrictions on movement facing them in the Gaza Strip. Very little was done to give them more realistic expectations of finally returning to their homeland.

A few were under the illusion that they would be moving back to the same situation that came to an abrupt end in April 1982 with the reestablishment of the international border. They considered that they would get their jobs back in Israel thinking of a time when tens of thousands of Gazans went daily to farms or building sites in Israel for regular work. They should have been better prepared for the political and economic realities in the Gaza Strip. There was an overabundance of optimism about returning to their homeland and the arrival of autonomy and the Palestinian Authority but who has the right to take away this hope.

The refugees were not included in the planning process. It was a top down arrangement in which the refugees had very little say.

As they were expected to build their own homes, some building skills could have been taught during the long waiting period. The long wait lulled the refugees in a kind of suspended animation. Since they had no idea when they would move, they did little to plan their lives or improve their living conditions in houses that were falling apart.

While UNRWA did make efforts to employ some of the trained staff in Canada Camp, a lot of manpower was left unused. The Agency did establish a small clinic and a community center which brought some life to the community.

However the constraints of living as foreigners in Egypt made life very difficult. They had to regularly renew residence permits for a fee, they had to pay for medical or dental care or else travel to the Palestine Red Crescent Hospital in Cairo to get treatment. As noted above, they were not allowed to work in Egypt so money was scarce. Only those employed by UNRWA in Canada Camp or with relatives sending payments from abroad has a reasonably good living.

Lessons Learned (Things done well)

Although few of the refugees had building skills, some learned and others had help from their families and friends back in Gaza. The building of homes before the full family moved was an important help in a quicker integration of the families in Gaza.

UNRWA did expand its education and health facilities in Rafah, Gaza to cope with the new residents. This was a positive factor also in the easier integration into the community. And Canada did provide funds for a community center in Tel el Sultan that was up and running by the time most of the refugees came back. It provides babysitting facilities, courses in literacy and sewing as well as women's and youth activities.

Economic and political conditions in 2003 are still no better than when the last Canada Camp refugees moved back to Gaza. Conditions in some ways are worse but the 4,500 "Canadians" from Rafah, Egypt have relocated back to Palestine.

Lessons were learned in this movement of refugees but the move cannot be used as a model for future movements. A larger movement of refugees would require more systematic planning in order to ensure that the receiving community had the absorptive capacity, both economically and socially, to integrate newcomers. Without such a capacity, an influx of refugees could further destabilize the region.

UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority made a number of attempts to keep the process moving and improve coordination. But it took the determination of an outside party to instill the political will to complete the move. When this happened, despite the violent revival of the Intifada in the autumn of 2000, the parties involved took their responsibilities seriously and completed the process.

Further reading:
Initial Review: Canada Camp Relocation by Ron Wilkinson, report prepared for the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada, May 2001. Report can be seen on (Some information in the above article was taken from this report.)
D. Doughty, Mohd. El Aydi, Gaza: Legacy of Occupation-A Photographer's Journey (Portraits of Canada Camp). West Hartford, CN: Kumarian Press, 1995.
B. Schiff, Refugees unto the Third Generation-UN Aid to Palestinians. Syracuse University Press, 1995 (Israeli housing projects in Gaza pp. 214-220).
Lex Takkenberg, The Status of Palestinian Refugees in International Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998 (Status of Palestinians in Egypt including Canada Camp, from p. 150).