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The Ingrates
by Judy Lash Balint
June 24, 2004

Where in the world are refugees living with Italian marble, Spanish tile and Japanese refrigerators? Why in Jenin, of course.

Before his downfall, Saddam Hussein delivered on a pledge to donate $25,000 to 100 Arab families from the Jenin refugee camp whose homes had been destroyed during Israel's campaign to roust out terrorists there in 2002.

The United Arab Emirates Red Crescent Authority contributed another $29 million to the rebuilding effort in a fit of generosity.

Some 435 apartments were being rebuilt under the auspices of the British Government Department for International Development, but the project ground to a screeching halt last week after the British team fled Jenin when Arab gunmen armed with M-16 rifles fired on their headquarters. The gunmen were apparently voicing their protest at the small size of the new quarters in the "refugee camp."

According to The Times of London, the three-man team of technical experts called it quits after months of threats and intimidation culminated in the madcap shooting spree.

Paul Wolstenholme, project manager, Neil Johnston, construction manager and Mike Luffingham, design manager, expressed dismay at the violent response from the refugees. The men had been overseeing an unprecedented building effort, in which some of the replacement multi-storey homes featured Italian marble kitchen counters, Spanish tiles, Belgian windows and Japanese refrigerators, courtesy of the Iraqi dictator. "You wouldn't believe how good the properties are, the finishing is fantastic," said Johnston.

Several houses are built on two levels, with three rooms and a kitchen on each level, to accommodate the clan-style living arrangements of most refugee camp residents. Many of those who had received Saddam Hussein's payments added balconies and fancy outside lighting.

The whole thing was beginning to make a mockery out of the appellation "refugee camp." Where else in the world do refugees live in digs costing $135 per meter? Indeed, several camp residents (among the only people in the world who claim 3rd or 4th generation refugee status) had begun to mumble about how difficult it would be to continue to attract world sympathy for their plight under the new conditions. "We've lost the right of return," a member of the camp's governing committee told a reporter from the Israeli Haaretz newspaper.

But the fuse was lit when one powerful clan allegedly bullied contractors into expanding their building at the expense of the neighbors. In a microcosm of wider Arab negotiating techniques, the aggrieved party decided to shoot it out rather than talk it out.

The Brits had enough when the bullets started to fly. "I have come to help these innocent individuals who lost their houses through no fault of their own�and what do I get but harassment, threats, and not one word of thanks," said one unidentified British worker.

Just one week before, a Jordanian security team ran for their lives after Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade gunmen in the camp threatened its members. According to The Jerusalem Post, the ugly little incident started when Al Aksa thugs objected to the Jordanians arriving without prior coordination with Yasser Arafat.

The goings-on in Jenin's refugee camp provide a window into the havoc that passes for international policy on Arab refugees. UNRWA, the UN agency charged with carrying out humanitarian efforts for the Arabs displaced by wars more than half a century ago, has fallen into serious disrepute for perpetuating the misery of its charges. [See UNRWA, A Report by Pearl Herman at]

The international community pays little attention to the ridiculousness of the claims of many so-called Arab refugees who find themselves living just a few miles from the villages they inhabited in 1948. Men like Jamal Nashrati, who maintains his two wives and 11 children in one of the new apartments in the Jenin camp. Poor Jamal is still pining for "his" village of Zarin, located exactly 12.5 miles from Jenin. Nashrati wasn't even born there�his parents are from Zarin.

No other people displaced a few miles by wars that occurred decades ago, and now re-housed for free in dwellings that would be the envy of many a citizen of the Arab world, would have the chutzpa to lay claim to the "refugee" title, nor to the millions in foreign aid being poured into their part of the world.

Almost a million Jews who fled or were forced out of Arab countries in the 1940s and 50s gratefully lived for years in tents and tenements with no foreign subvention whatsoever. They went on to become productive citizens, the backbone of Israeli society, with scarcely a look back at the towns and villages they left behind so long ago. Ask an Israeli Jew of Libyan or Moroccan origin if he considers himself a refugee and he'll refer you to the closest psychiatrist.

Like almost every Arab leader, the gunmen of Jenin have succeeded in perpetuating the misery of their brethren.

But perhaps they have also accomplished a service by exposing the hypocrisy of a community of self-defined refugees living a little uncomfortably with their Italian marble.