DESCRIPTION OF THE PROJECT AREA: TOWN OF BIRZEIT
1. Location: approximately 15 kilometers northwest of Jerusalem
2. POPULATION: 7-10,000 people, plus 5,000 in the Diaspora
3. RELIGION: About 60% Christian, 40% Muslim
4. EDUCATIONAL CENTER: Birzeit University is the first institute of higher education to be established in Palestine. It is the widely reputed to be the best university in Palestine.
5. ECONOMY: The majority of workers are unskilled laborers.
6. EMPLOYMENT: Unemployment is about 60% across the West Bank.
A. HISTORY OF THE AREA
The town of Birzeit (translated as “Well of Oil”) is located 15 miles (25 kilometers) northwest of Jerusalem’s Center. It is a traditional Christian village whose ruins date back to the Byzantine era and beyond. Some inhabitants belong to a long family history that predates even the Byzantine age. An influx of Christians from the east migrated into the area about four hundred years ago to escape persecution and remained because they could enjoy more freedom to exercise their religious beliefs. The town is part of the historically Christian region north of Jerusalem.
B. POPULATION PROFILE
The area around Birzeit was once self-sustaining. The simple farming and pastoral lifestyle of the people was destroyed after 1948. A massive refugee camp was set up on church-owned property to accommodate people fleeing death or forced evacuation from their homes. (That refugee camp, Jalazon, now is home for almost 10,000 people and is located a few miles from the town.) In a short time, the land could no longer support the expanded population.
In 1967, even more people were displaced across the country. The Muslim newcomers came to purchase land and settle since they realized they could not return home after the wars. The demographics of the town began to change as Christians opted to emigrate to the West seeking economic opportunities and political and social freedom.
As Israel expanded and grew, it was in need of cheap manual labor to build Israeli-owned homes and businesses for the enormous surge of immigrants who replaced the Arab population. West Bankers and refugees in desperate need of income were compelled by necessity to work inside Israel during the day and were forced to return home each night. The local economy was restrained from natural growth by restrictive measures designed to keep the West Bank as a noncompetitive market for products produced inside Israel.
D. SOCIAL CONDITIONS
The people of Birzeit have suffered considerably during the past decade of political upheaval resulting in border closures, strikes, curfews and violence. Businesses suffered, and many closed their doors permanently. The stagnation of the economy and the violence during the past has had its effects on the social and economic well-being of the family. Consequently, the strong, close family structure that controlled social behavior in the past has broken down. Furthermore, living near and working with Israelis has created increasingly high expectations of living standards. More than half of the townspeople have emigrated, and that, too, has negatively impacted the town. Years of military control, frustrated expectations of life and near-poverty conditions have created a society vulnerable to wide swings in political stability. The instability itself creates insecurity and resultant fears that contribute further to social deterioration.
In 1991, Israel faced the problem of providing for thousands of Russians coming to the country. Over 200,000 workers from the West Bank and Gaza were dismissed from their jobs. Indeed, Palestinians were
thereafter forbidden to enter Jerusalem or Israel without permission from the military government. The people found themselves without jobs and without means to create them.
Although the town of Birzeit boasts an acclaimed institute of higher learning in Birzeit University, most of the villagers cannot afford to attend it. Some work as support staff. The town features a small pharmaceutical factory that also provides employment. There are some shops to provide basic necessities, but most people travel to Ramallah for purchases and services. The town is too small to provide income for many of its residents.
A tragic reality of the second half of this century is the uprooting and encouraged exodus due to imposed hardships and dispossession of many Palestinians from their traditional lands. This is true of Birzeit and its people. Sadly, many Birzeit residents leave their homes after finishing their schooling for better continuing education and life opportunities in the Gulf region and in Western countries. It is estimated that more that 5,000 Birzeitis live outside the country. Many of these expats would like to return home, but shifting politics have yet to improve existing conditions to a point where former residents inside and outside of Palestine feel confident that they can come home again and live in peace and with freedom.
G. EDUCATION CENTER
The town of Birzeit is noted for its university, widely considered the best in Palestine. The university was funded by the Nasir family and supported by friendly governments who wanted to help provide the education necessary for economic survival in today’s competitive world. Overall, the university, which has a population of about 3,500 students and is growing, remains separate from the town. Many of the students live in the town, and this compounds the feelings of hopelessness of the local young people who did not finish their education. In fact, few young people in Birzeit can afford to attend the university in their hometown. In the past they opted to take on manual work inside Israel to help with family expenses. Today, they do not have access to those jobs since they can no longer enter Jerusalem or Israel.