Describing conditions in Palestinian camps and villages in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as "appalling" and "degrading to any human beings," officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center expressed support Wednesday for a $2-billion proposal to rebuild the settlements.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the center, said that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir suggested the rebuilding plan in a meeting last week. Hier was one of a five-member delegation from the West Los Angeles center, just returned from an eight-day trip to Israel to gain first-hand information on recent Palestinian unrest.
The delegation spent one day visiting seven Palestinian camps and four other residential areas in Arab East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Hebron, Hier said at a press conference at the center. When they met with Shamir a week ago, he added, they related their shock at both the conditions they found and the "anger and frustration" of the young people living there.
"We passed through streets that were mixtures of mud and sewage, and above the sewage you saw clotheslines," Hier said. "We saw areas that looked like they hadn't been cleaned in months, debris and garbage all over, with a terrible stench. We noticed a lot of children wandering in the streets.
"To solve this problem you need $2 billion, and the international community should raise this in a period of five years," Hier quoted Shamir as saying. The rabbi said Shamir envisions a project combining funds from the United Nations, Israel, the Arab League, the United States and other Western countries.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, assistant dean of the Wiesenthal Center and also part of the delegation, said the center will contact U.N. officials to express their support for the idea.
Cooper noted longstanding Palestinian resistance to dismantling the camps. "Since 1971 the U.N. General Assembly has passed a number of resolutions condemning any Israeli unilateral move to address the issue of what's going on in the camps," he said. "Many refugees feel very sensitive about losing their refugee status, which means losing access to free food, access to U.N. schools.
"The conditions of the people living in the camps are such that they no longer should be held hostage to elusive political settlements," Cooper added. "It might give an opportunity to defuse the incredible anger that we witnessed."
Because of their living conditions, Hier said, "One can understand how the bitterness piles up. The easiest target is Israel. If the conditions of the camps remain, there's every reason to believe this violence will go on."