‘Refugee camps,’ villages and the war against Israel’s existence

“When you hear ‘refugee camp’, what do you imagine? [Literal] camps, not air conditioning, not buildings, not cars.”

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

As we’ve seen in the recent battles over the ever-shifting terms du jour sweeping the Western world, language matters.

The words we choose carry far more meaning than their literal descriptive power. Our language can reveal everything from our political leanings to the way we think about other people.

And from “villages” to “refugee camps,” terminology surrounding the Israeli-Arab issue has long shaped Western perceptions about the conflict itself, the Jewish State, and its military.

A Times of Israel report published on Tuesday datelined “Al-Aroub Refugee Camp, West Bank,” is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

The TOI report used the term “camp” to describe the community some 15 times.

A ‘sort of trickery’

“When you hear ‘refugee camp’, what do you imagine? [Literal] camps, not air conditioning, not buildings, not cars,” Dr. Edy Cohen, a prominent researcher and Arab affairs expert, told World Israel News.

The term “refugee camp” brings to mind tents and cots, emergency shelters that ensure recently displaced people don’t overheat or freeze to death — essentially, a stopgap solution to protect the lives of those fleeing disaster.

But a quick Google search shows that Al-Aroub, established in 1967, appears much like a typical Palestinian Authority-administered town. It has multi-story concrete buildings, paved roads, several mosques and numerous businesses, including a gas station and electronics store.

A census from 2016 indicates that some 10,000 people are residents of Al-Aroub, and judging by more recent statistics from nearby communities, we can safely assume that the population has grown larger since then.

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For more than half a century, the residents of Al-Aroub have built homes and businesses, purchased cars and furniture, celebrated holidays, met and married spouses, and even seen grandchildren and great-grandchildren born in the community.

Cohen said that continuing to refer to the town as a “refugee camp” is a “sort of trickery” and inherently “political.”

Describing what are now well-established Palestinian communities that have been continuously inhabited for upwards of five decades as “camps” raises serious questions about the world’s acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy as a state.

One of the most defining features of a refugee camp is its status as a temporary outpost, not a permanent settlement. It is a place where people languish in a state of limbo as they wait for a crisis to end. From the refugee camp, they will either eventually return home or move on to a new place where they will put down roots.

What catastrophe are the residents of Al-Aroub waiting out in their “temporary” home – Israel’s existence?

“We don’t see this anywhere else, people who are considered refugees after four generations,” Maor Tzemach, CEO of the Your Jerusalem NGO, told WIN. “This has never happened following any war in Africa, Europe, or any other place in the world.”

Maor said that the term refugee camp does not accurately reflect the reality on the ground nor the economic investment that these communities receive from Israel, UNRWA or the Palestinian Authority.

“In east Jerusalem, we refer to the Shua’fat Refugee Camp but… this is a place with houses, with apartments,” he said. “All this terminology is designed to hurt the State of Israel and has no real basis.”

He added that Shua’fat “receives infrastructure and municipal services from the State of Israel, and if you ask [residents] if they’d rather be under the jurisdiction of Palestinian Authority, none of them would agreee to that.”

Terminology of perpetual victimhood

In 2013, journalist Seth Frantzman wrote an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post on a similar topic, noting how foreign writers often use the word “village” to describe Palestinian towns and cites.

Citing a breathless description by Haaretz journalists of one Palestinian “village” as being seemingly untouched by time, Frantzman wrote that “anyone who visits the West Bank on a regular basis knows this is nonsense.”

Although descriptions of “beautiful rolling hills and stone terraces” are accurate, Frantzman said, this sort of reporting fails to note that “the average Palestinian lives in a large modern home, usually adorned with handsome stone crenellations and other decorative elements, and drives a car.”

Frantzman argued that describing towns in which tens of thousands of people live as villages, typically accompanied by a disproportionate emphasis on the presence of agriculture and livestock, effectively disempowers Arabs, casting them as either objects that are simply part of the ancient biblical landscape or “noble savages” stripped of their agency.

The media “know how to use terms and phrases that evoke the desired emotions and thought patterns in their audiences even if (and especially if) they have no connection to reality,” Chaim Silberstein, Founder and Chairman of the Keep Jerusalem NGO, told World Israel News.

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“Usage of the terms ‘villages,’ ‘refugee camps,’ and ‘illegal Jewish settlements’ are all untrue or distortions of the truth but are intended to create a sympathetic narrative for the Palestinian Arab aggressors and present them as the victims,” he added.

Placing Palestinians in a perpetual state of victimhood by casting their communities as refugee camps “of course affects” public opinion, Cohen said. “The Palestinians are always the victim, and the Jew is the land stealer.”

Cohen noted that within Arab countries bordering Israel, the descendants of Palestinian refugees now number in the millions. Yet despite living in these countries for three or four generations, they are still denied basic rights and full citizenship, even in Jordan, where they are estimated to make up more than half of the kingdom’s population.

The use of the term “refugee camp” furthers the idea that the State of Israel is a temporary problem. It implies that once the Jewish State is dismantled, millions of Palestinians will be able to return to the country and serves as a justification to refuse to allow them to earn a living or enjoy basic rights in the nearby countries where they have been living for upwards of 70 years.

In order to move forward and find appropriate, humane, and practical solutions for Palestinian Arabs, the media, political establishment and global organizations must accept the reality that Israel is here to stay.