Nile water to Gaza: Egypt report on the 1955 project – UNRWA Report (excerpts)





Cairo, 28th of July, 1955

The Minister of Production,

The Government of the Republic of Egypt,

Cairo; and

The Director of the United Nations Relief and

Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the

Near East, UNRWA Headquarters, Beirut,


The offices of the undersigned were delegated in October, 1953, by the Government of the Republic of Egypt and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, with the Joint responsibility of directing a survey project of which the object was to determine the feasibility and estimated cost of a scheme which is outlined in a project agreement dated the 14th of October, 1953, and signed, on behalf of the Republic of Egypt, by the Chairman of the Permanent Council for the Development of National Production, and, on behalf of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, by the UNRWA Representative to Egypt. In the performance of this task the Co-Directors have been assisted by the Director of the Palestine Affairs Office of the Ministry of War and by a Joint Policy Committee of which he is a members.

The principal features of this scheme are the conveyance of irrigation water from the Nile River to a part of the Sinai, east of and adjacent to the Suez Canal, and its deployment thereon for the purpose of reclaiming and permanently irrigating an area of not less than 50,000 feddans which the Egyptian Government has offered as a possible means of livelihood for Palestine refugees now residing in the Gaza Strip.

The investigations which have been made cover principally the three broad fields of irrigation engineering, agriculture and refugee rehabilitation. With regard to the work carried out directly by Egyptian Government Departments, the services rendered by their permanent staff have been~ contributed by the Egyptian Government. Otherwise, all the costs of the investigations have been met from the UNRWA rehabilitation fund, The results of these surveys and studies have been put together Jointly by Egyptian Government and UNRWA personnel and are embodied in the attached report entitled “Survey Report, Northwest Sinai Project Republic of Egypt.”

The technical annexes, from which the respective parts of the Survey Report have been compiled, and which furnish more details of the work which has been done~ are not yet available for publication. It is the intention that they shall be published successively in the immediately following months and in a form that will assist the compilation of such detailed planning reports that may later be required. The Survey Report has been so written as to make the technical annexes unnecessary for an understanding of the conclusions and recommendations presented in the report itself.

In presenting this Survey Report for your consideration, the Co-Directors wish to place on record their appreciation of the services rendered by the staff of the Permanent Council for the Development of National Production, and, by the technical departments of the Ministries of Public Works and Agriculture, as well as the Council of Public Services and the Department of Statistics.  They also wish to record their appreciation for the services of the engineering consultants and specialists of the UNRWA, for those of the United States International Co-operation Administration, and for the advice and facilities which they have received throughout from the Palestine Affairs Office of the Ministry of War.

Yours truly,


(Dr. Mohamed Selim)

Permanent Council for the Development of National Production, Republic of Egypt


John B. Pruen)

Acting UNRWA Representative to Egypt

* * *



The 1948 hostilities in Palestine caused over three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs to flee from their homes in Palestine to neighbouring Arab States. Some 200,000 of these persons sought refuge in what is now known “as the Gaza Strip, a narrow coastal area some forty kilometres long and six to twelve kilometres wide. This economically depressed area, with a total population of some 302,000 persons, has remained under the administration of the Egyptian Government.

The welfare of these refugees, who for the most part were entirely destitute, was the cause of great concern to the governments of the countries to which they fled as well as to the United Nations Organization, which appointed a mediator and subsequently a conciliation commission to treat with the conflicting parties. A number of immediate relief operations were organized for the refugees which were necessarily of a short-term duration.

On 23 August 1949 the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine established an Economic Survey Mission for the purpose, inter alia, of investigating ways and means of bringing more permanent relief to the refugees through the economic development of the area in which they were residing. That Commission recommended the establishment of a special United Nations agency to deal with the problem, and as a result, the General Assembly established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The purpose of this Agency was “to carry out in collaboration with local governments programmes of relief and works for the benefit of the Palestine Refugees in the Near East; and, secondly, to consult with those Near East governments concerning measures to be taken by them preparatory to the time when international assistance for relief and works projects would no longer be available”.

The Director of the UNRWA subsequently recommended and the General Assembly authorised the establishment of a $ 200 million rehabilitation fund to be used for refugee self-support projects requested by governments of Middle Eastern countries and recommended by the UNRWA.

The Egyptian Offer

The Egyptian Government has long expressed deep and sympathetic concern on behalf of the refugees, and despite the fact that it is itself feeling the pressure of a growing Egyptian population, its co-operation with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in alleviating the situation in Gaza resulted in an offer to furnish facilities for a refugee self-support project in the neighbouring Egyptian territory of the Sinai.

It was clear that the utilization of large tracts of land in the Sinai, and the introduction of refugees thereon, would be dependent upon an adequate supply of water for irrigation purposes. Investigations for underground water were accordingly carried out by the U~WA in collaboration with the Egyptian Government in the north-eastern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, but these were unfruitful.

Despite this the Government continued to seek means whereby Sinai lands might be utilized for refugee benefit. Late in 1952 it was suggested that the Nile River might be considered as a source of water supply for the irrigation of lands lying immediately east of the Suez Cereal. As a result of this suggestion, the UNBWA, on 30, June 1953, concluded a programme agreement with the Egyptian Government which provided for the reservation of $ 30 million from its rehabilitation fund. Of this sum, up to $ 500,000 was to be used for project research purposes in the Sinai Peninsula and in Gaza. The remainder was to be used for construction and establishment, should preliminary surveys prove that feasible projects could be developed.

Project Survey Agreement

In conformity with the programme agreement, a project survey agreement between the UNRWA and the National Production Council was signed on 14 October 1953.  This agreement was based on an offer of the Egyptian authorities to make available an area of not less than 50,000 feddans of undeveloped State Domain in the Northwest Sinai, to be reclaimed and irrigated permanently to provide some 10,000 refugee families presently residing in the Gaza Strip with a means of livelihood by cultivating the soil.

The purpose of the agreement was to conduct a preliminary survey for determining the feasibility and estimated cost of a plan, which would include the widening of the existing supply and navigation canal which extends from the Nile to the Suez Canal, and the construction of canals, drains, pumping stations and other necessary structures to irrigate the area; it would also include the construction of roads, housing units and a minimum of essential public utilities and common services in the project area. It was provided that there would be an allocation of funds necessary to cover the investigation and surveys, and that the work would be carried out jointly by the UNRWA and Egyptian Government.  Egypt was to furnish technicians already in its unlay and UNRWA was to provide certain necessary facilities, transport, and where needed, technical co-ordination and assistance.

The agreement also provided for a Point Policy Committee to provide policy guidance, direction and periodic review of progress.  The Chairman of the Permanent Council for National Production of the Government of Egypt and the UNRWA Representative to Egypt were designation as Co-Directors of the Project Survey.

Purpose of Survey Report

It is the purpose of this report to establish the physical and engineering feasibility of developing about 50,000 feddans in the Northwest Sinai area as irrigated farm land, and the practicability of establishing a part of the Gaze refugee population there as gainfully employed members of society.  Estimates of the costs of this development and the probable income generated by the project will also be determined.

The economics of the project involve an assessment of whether or not a from family can be supported by a small acreage with a return to them from the production of the land adequate for a reasonable standard of living, and whether or not the area will, in addition, be able to support the necessary non-farm population and natural increase in population, and to what extent. This picture will be analyzed over a period of twenty-five yearn representing approximately one generation.

Special attention will be paid to assessing the amount of assistance which will be required during the early years of development before the project becomes fully self-supporting. The basic assumption of the plan evolved is to provide minimum essential services with sufficient potential for increasing standards as the development of the area becomes stabilized.

General Description of Project Area


The project will be located in the northwestern portion of the Sinai Peninsula. It lies within the Isthmus of Suez, approximately 140 kilometres from the city of Cairo, and roughly midway between Port Said and the town of Suez.

The general project area throughout the greater portion of its length lies east of and approximately adjacent to the Suez Canal. The northern portion of the area turns to the northeast away from the town of Qantara (East).

Size of Project Area

In accordance with the Project Survey Agreement, preliminary surveys were to be conducted in the Northwest Sinai covering an area “bordered on the western side by the Suez Canal, on the south and east sides by the contour plus fifteen metres and on the north side by the water of the Mediterranean”. This embraces an area of more than 230,000 feddans, more than half of which are the tidal flats lying southeast of Port Said.

The project Survey Agreement provided for topographic surveys of the area and for selection by the Joint Policy Committee, while the mapping proceeded, of these portions of the area which should be given detailed consideration.

As the reconnaissance surveys proceeded, doubt was raised regarding the feasibility of reclaiming the tidal flats in a short period of time. Although these marshy tidal flats could be served with irrigation water delivered by gravity, they contained excessive salt and it was seen that their reclamation would require a relatively long period of development and large expenditure.

On these grounds, the Co-Directors agreed, at the second meeting of the Joint Policy Committee, to exclude these marshes from consideration at the time and to extend the boundary of the total area to be surveyed and investigated into the lands south of the Gaza highway.

As a result, the project area falls into two natural divisions: the Northern Area, bounded on the north generally by the zero contour line, on the west by the Suez Canal, on the south by the Gaza highway, and on the east generally by the plus fifteen metre contour; and the Southern Area lying to the south of the Gaza highway, which extends to an arbitrary line running east from kilometre fifty-six of the Qantara – E1-Shatt railway and is bounded generally by the contour plus twenty metres on the east and by the Suez Canal on the west.

In order to conserve time and expenditure, it was agreed by the Joint Policy Committee to reduce the extent of the survey and soil examination in the area remaining to be investigated. In this way~ a selective survey policy evolved concerned primarilwith obtaining sufficiently reliable data to demonstrate the feasibility of the project on the most suitable area of about 50~000 feddans.

The lands selected for reclamation by 10,000 farm families and the results of the soil classification studies thereon are described in the Soils and Soil Improvement Chapter. The final total area under consideration is shown as the shaded portion of Plate l.

The precise delineation of the final project area is a matter which belongs more properly to a detailed planning report.

Physiography and Geology

The project area lies against the Isthmus of Suez, a low-lying piece of land joining Africa to the Siuai Peninsula and the adjoining land mass of Asia.  Significant geological deposits in the project area are of recent age. The Isthmus has gradually assumed its present appearance through the accumulation of deposits left there by the sea, the Nile and the winds. Between Qautara and the Bitter Lakes, the sand dunes of the project area are of recent age and overlie lake beds which may be of Pleistocene Age. Those late deposits show a well marked sequence of deposition layers consisting of gravels, sands, and clays, and harder beds of gypsum and some halite. Outcrops of these gypsum beds may be seen in the eastern bank of the canal in the vicinity of Ismailia. In general, these deposits are relatively deep over the project area and have no effect on the soils.


Project lands rise to the east and southeast to about fifteen metres above sea level within five to six kilometres (see Plate 2)• They are bordered on the east and southeast by steeper lands which rise to the highlands of the Sinai Peninsula. Due to the extremely absorptive nature of the soil, and the low rainfall, there are no well defined wadis or other channels. The topographical details have been formed by wind action characterized by shallow depressions and low, isolated knolls. Within the first ten kilometres north of Ismailia, project lands are relatively rough. For the next ten kilometres to the north, the lands are much flatter except for relatively steep slopes along the eastern margin. The remainder of the area lying north and east of Qantara contains smooth flat slopes with minor exceptions.

South of Ismailia, the first ten kilometres of the project area are narrow and rough and have been excluded from consideration for development. Beyond this narrow strip the topography is flat to gently-rolling, with a maximum width of about ten kilometres.


The climate of the area is semi-tropical desert, characterized by very low annual rainfall, long summers, clear skies and pronounced diurnal temperature changes. Climatological data are available for Port Said, Ismailia and Suez, all adjacent to the project area. Table I-1 summarizes the official records for the three towns and Plate 3 shows graphically the data for Ismailia with the exception of wind velocities, which are plotted for Port Said and Suez, since no record exists for Ismailia. Of the three towns, the Ismailia records should be more nearly representative of the climate of the project area as a whole.

During the long summer season, from April to November, daytime temperatures are generally high but the diurnal difference is great and averages 13.4°C.  During the winter months, from December through March, the days are pleasantly warm but again diurnal tempera­ture differences remain great, averaging 11.8°C. Since frosts rarely occur, injury to crops due to low temperature occurs infrequently, and damage even to sensitive sub-tropical crops is slight.

Rainfall occurs almost entirely during the winter months.

It is characterized by heavy showers of short duration and occasional brief storms of severe intensity. Small amounts are recorded in the months of April May and October and there is no rainfall in the area during the months of June, July, August and September. No appreciable storm run-off is anticipated in the project area.

Mean monthly wind velocities reported at Port Said vary from ll.3 to 15.5 kilometres per hour. The eastward moving storms are the primary influence on weather conditions. During the winter, the storm patterns are centred over the Mediterranean and their passing causes wind, cloudy weather, and occasional rain. During the° spring, the passage of storms is over the Libyan desert, frequently resulting in strong winds known as the Khamasin.

History and Archaeology

The Sinai Peninsula, although now largely an uninhabited desert, has witnessed the development of man, cultures, and civilization over an extended period of history. Its strategic position between the Holy Lands and Egypt, connecting Asia and Africa by a narrow strip of land, has made it the eastern rampart for the defence of the Delta and Nile Valley, as well as a route of invasion in times past for the armies of Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Turks. During the two world wars, large allied armies saw service in this area.

Egyptian expansion in the direction of the Sinai began as early as the Sixth Dynasty (2400 B.C.) when efforts were made by the rulers to settle the area’s autonomous population on these lands by regulating irrigation, thus creating beyond the kingdom a protective zone against attacks from without and sporadic raids of hostile nomads from within.

Its economic importance was at its highest when the Pelusia branch of the Nile flowed from the vicinity of Cairo through the north­western fringes of the project area to the Mediterranean, enabling the irrigation and cultivation of the peripheral area. During this period, when the southern branch flowed through Qantara into the Bay of Pelusium, some thirty kilometres east of the present city of Port Said, the area surrounding Pelusium and the banks of the River was under extensive cultivation. Vineyards existed and barley, wheat and other grains were grown. Indeed, Pelusium was looked upon by the invading armies as a source of replenishment of applied for the troops.

By 800 A.D. with the Pelusiac branch of the Nile beginning to silt up, the flow diminished, thus ushering in the eclipse of the area as a seat of settled population. At the present time, Pelusium exists only as an indistinct mound of ancient ruins surrounded by the blank desolation of the desert. It has been explored from time to time by amateur and professional archaeologists who have barely scratched the surface of the area which comprises the ancient city. These ruins lie outside the area proposed for development.

Closer to the Suez Canal evidence exists of the remains of ancient cities along the route followed by invading armies. A cluster of ancient structures on the borders of a depression just southeast of Qantara in the centre of the project area indicates that Lake Ballah once covered this depression, and that several villages were located along its banks. Some of these village ruins might be within the development area but are not of particular archaeological interest.

Except for Pelusium, Qantara, and a few scattered ancient villages, there are no other known historical remains of archaeological value in the general area.

Present Population

Within the project area there are few signs of organized society. shall clusters of black bedouin tents with a few camels and domestic animals may be seen at certain seasons of the year, but no permanent bedouin establishments exist due to the scarcity of vegetation for grazing.

The only towns in the Sinai which lie in the immediate proximity of the project area are Qantara (East), a terminus for the Palestine Railroad of approximately 7,110 persons, and Gilbana, the railroad watering point some eighteen kilometres to the east, comprised of few houses built for employees of the railroad and the local security forces. Qantara lies on the Suez Canal twenty kilometres north of the proposed siphon crossing and just outside the north­western boundaries of the project area. Apart from a few family garden plots it depends almost entirely on external sources for its requirements. Its water supply comes by pipeline from the Sweet Water Canal lying on the Western side of the Suez Canal.

Although it lies on the west bank of the Suez Canal, the town of Ismailia is of foremost importance to the project. It will undoubtedly become the principal supply and distribution centre for the project area and possesses hospitals and other public service institutions which will probably see use by the future project population. Ismailia had a recorded population of 68,229 in the census of 1947.

The area is administered under the authority of the Frontier Administration of the Egyptian Ministry of War.

Transportation Facilities

The project area is linked by ferry at Ismailia and Qantsma with good surfaced roads which run along the west bank of the Suez Canal from Port Said to Suez and from Ismailia to Cairo. From Cairo to Ismailia, immediately across the Suez Canal from the project area, the distance is 140 kilometres, Within the project area along the eastern bank of the Canal, an asphalt surfaced road runs from Port Tawfiq in the south, some 120 kilometre north to Qantara and then northeast to El-‘Arish. A second highway runs directly east from the Ismailia ferry crossing and then northward some 327 kilometres to Gaza.

About eight kilometres north of Ismailia the new Firdan bridge crosses the Shez Canal, carrying a standard gauge railway which connects with the Qantara-Gaza line to the north and with Port Tawfiq to the south. From Ismailia rail connections can be made with Port Said, Suez, Cairo, Alexandria and Upper Egypt.

Smaller roads built for army use provide a rudimentary system of access roads and thus, due to the elongated shape of the project area, no point is further than five kilometres from both the railway and a good highway. The proximity of the Suez Canal enables ready access to the area by water borne transportation.


At present only scattered oases located in shallow depressions throughout the project area can be seen. These are very small and consist of clusters of palm trees which draw their water from shallow brackish beds where the limited rainfall has collected. Agriculture in the project area is non-existent and the agricultural census of 1950 reported a total of only 3,762 feddans under cultivation in the entire Sinai Peninsula. The bulk of these lands are in the Rafah El-Arish, northeastern fringe of the Peninsula, some 100 to 200 kilometres from the project area.

Economic Aspects

The Suez Canal constitutes the most significant economic asset in the general area, The Canal, which was started in 1854 and officially opened in 1869, has been constantly improved until the volume of traffic it now handles has placed Port Said in the category of one of the principal ports of the world. Most ships transitting the Canal stop at Port Said to take water and provisions, giving rise to a considerable ship chandling trade.

In conjunction with its canal operations, the Suez Canal Company operates general workshops, water treatment and filtration plants, power plants, clinics, and hospitals. The Company provides employment for over 4,000 workmen as well as for 775 pilots and other marine personnel. The existence of the Canal has brought about a growth of population in the Isthmus of Suez from several thousand to over 350,000 and this is rapidly increasing. Agriculture has developed due to the construction of the Sweet Water Canal, and industrial development including ship repair yards, salt works, fertilizer plants, oil depots, and working of Red Sea ore deposits have also multiplied. In 1951, there were almost 6,000 commercial and over 2,800 small industrial trades establishments in the area of the Isthmus of Suez.

Apart from the activities of the Suez Canal Company, there exists little in the framework of a general economy in the area. Except for sand and gypsum which are found in abundance and can be used for certain construction purposes~ there are no known mineral resources in the prgject area to support ftu’ther economic activity.


In general, hydrology is that branch of the earth sciences that deals with the occurrence, utilization and disposal of water. It covers all phenomena from the meteorology affecting precipitation of moisture from the sky through all the phases of run-off, and its utilization and disposition on or below the surface of the earth, to its eventual return to the atmosphere by evaporation.

This report is concerned with only a portion of that cycle, namely, the availability of water to meet the requirements of project uses and the ultimate disposal of the available supply. The subject as it pertains to the project is covered in the two general topics of water supply and water requirements.

Water supply

As provided in the Project Agreement of l4 October 1953, the water Supply for the Northwest Sinai project will come from the Nile River. In order to understand the water supply conditions, it is necessary to consider some of the characteristics of the flow of the River.

The Nile River is reported by most authorities to be the longest river in the world, having a length of 6,690 km (kilometres) and a drainage area of over 2,850,000 km2, At Khartoum, approximately ip6OO km south of 0alto, the Blue Nile, which has its origin in Ethiopia, joins the White Nile, which originates in the Lakes region of Uganda, to form the main Nile. About 296 km north of Khartoum, the main Nile is joined by the Atbara, which also originates in Ethiopia and which is its third principal tributary. These three rivers contribute to the flow of the Nile in roughly the following proportions:

In the headwater region, rain begins to fall on the highlands of Ethiopia in March or April, and by June the Blue Nile is well on the rise. This rise greatly increases the flow in the Blue Nile, its flood discharge being approximately forty times its April flow. The White Nile, however, has a more constant flow and its contribution prevents the main Nile from falling in the same proportion as the Blue. The regularity of flow of the White Nile is caused mainly by the storage provided in the great Victoria and Albert Lakes.

The control of flood water is limited, but major projects now being considered would do much to increase control during the flood season. During the low period, from February to July, the River is at one time. The maximum requirement according to the consumptive use pattern, after the Overall project water use efficiency reaches 49%, is 1.5 million m3d, which corresponds to a project duty of 60 m3/F/d on the same rotation.


In the dry period, February through July, water requirements for the project can be met by the delivery of 250 million m3. Actual requirements to supply the ultimate needs of the project are in the magnitude of 440 million mper year. During the development period it will be necessary to pump an additional 135 million m3/yr. Limited underground storage in the project area requires that provision for drainage of the irrigated lend be made shortly after the land is put into production. Finally, a project system capacity of 2 million m3/d should be provided.


The soil and water resources of the Northwest Sinai project have been examined in the preceding chapters, A third factor of equal importance governs the viability of the undertaking as a whole – the Palestinian refugees of the Gaza strip, who form the human resources for whose benefit the other two resources are to be developed.

In order to appraise their suitability for the project and the possibility of planning to conform with their habits and requirements. It is necessary to know something of the refugee background – to examine their demographic, economic, and social structure and their present and former living conditions.

It is intended first to appraise the existence among the refugee population of the background and those skills necessary for the successful development of the project. The past and present environments which have shaped this population will be studiedp in order to adapt planning to the specific needs of the population to be served, and finally it is intended to examine %hose factors which will facilitate the transformation of the present dependent refugee population into a group of self-roliant farmers, It is only through such knowledge that a genuine solution to The question of project viability may be found, meeting both the aspirations and abilities of the refugees and the potentialities of the project.

The data presented in this chapter have been taken chiefly from Agency records and statistics, the Official Gazette of the Gaza Administration, and the considerable documentation of the Department of Statistics of the former Palestine Government.

Origins and Occupations

The group of refugees from whom the future population of the Sinai project will be drawn are those at present living in the Gaze strip. In May 1955 they approximated 214,000 of the 302,000 persons resident in Gazathe remaining 88,000 representing the original inhabitants of the area.  Officially the distinction between the two groups is found in the United Nations definition of a refugee – a person resident in Palestine for at least two years prior to 1948 who has lost both his homo and means of livelihood as a result of the Palestine conflict and is in need.

A full sociological survey of the Gaze refugee population has never been carried out. Thus, in order to determine the skills and occupational background of the refugees it was necessary to examine their geographic origin in Palestine and to apply the statistical data of the mandate period which gives some insight into the nature of the population of each area.

The Gaze refugees come almost exclusively (99%) from the southern part of Palestine comprised of the sub-districts of Beersheba, Gaza, Jaffa, and Ramleh. Since 45% of the Palestinians originally living in these four sub-districts are now found in Gaze, it may be assumed that the refugee population of Gaze represents a generalized cross-section of the normal Arab population of southern Palestine.

To determine the rural-urban ratio of the Gaze refugees, the sociological classification used by the Palestine Government was Applied to a breakdown of refugee distribution by place of origin, which the UNRWA established in September 195~, Table IV – 1 summaries the results.




September 1953

It may be noted from this Table that the rural population,(which comes from three large villages averaging 6,000 inhabitants and ninety-four small villages averaging 800 inhabitants), amounts to 47% of the total. The bedouin and semi-nomadic population represents 24% of the total. Amongst those, the most important bedouin groups are those coming from Beersheba. The purely urban population makes up 29% of the Gaza refugees, more than half coming from the port town of Jaffa.

Rural Skills

It is assumed from the foregoing that more than 150,000 of the Gaza refugees are the products of a rural environment, possessing the customary agricultural skills associated with farming methods practised in southern Palestine.  As noted above, approximately 50,000 of this number constitute a bedouin or semi-nomadic population.

In order to examine more closely the specific agricultural experience of this population, the proportion of refugees experienced in the several types of farming has been derived from the records of the mandatory administration. These records describe the land cultivated by the Arab population of southern Palestine both in area and type of cultivation.

The sub-districts from which the Gaza refugee population originates lie almost entirely in two natural climatic regions, the maritime plain fronting on the coast, a region of considerable rain­fall, and the Negeb sub-desert with its small extension into the foothills of the central Palestine range, a region of extremely low annual rainfall, These sub-districts cover almost the whole field of agriculture conditions which may be found in the Near East, ranging from a nomadic, extensive type of culture to one of intensive, irrigated farming.

In the Gaza, Jaffa and Ramleh sub-districts roughly 300,000 dunums of land were cultivated under conditions ef intensive farming, about half of which was devoted to citrus plantation, In this same area, 1,200,000 dunums were dry farmed, mostly to support cereal production. At the same time considerable vegetables and deciduous fruit were raised in “these districts of the coastal plain. In the Beersheba sub-district, where the annual rainfall is below 300 milli-metres and there is no water for irrigation, some 1,600,000 dunums of fertile looses were devoted to extensive cultivation.

The raising of livestock in southern Palestine Was was important part of the total agricultural production.  Cattle and poultry were raised in large numbers in the coastal plait, and in the Gaza sub-district, where the type of cultivation changes from intensive to extensive and even semi-nomadio agriculture, numerous sheep and donkeys wore also found. This transition to nomadic agriculture was accentuated in the Beersheba sub-distrlo% where in addition to cattle, large numbers of horses, camels, donkeys, sheep and goats, were grazed.

From a comparison of the cultivated area with the rural population of these sub-districts before 1948, it may be estimated that about one-fifth or 20% of the rural population was engaged in intensive agriculture while the remainder including the bedouin population practised dry farming.

This bedouin group of some 50,000, has been divided for refugee registration purposes into “northern” bedouins, coming from the coastal plain covered by the Gaza, Jaffa, and Ramleh sub-districts, and the “southern” bedouins who lived previously in the Beersheba sub-district. The most important group is the southern, who are distributed among five paramount tribes comprising sixty sub-tribe.  The Negeb, where these tribes had their grazing lands, represented about half the area of Palestine, but the climatic conditions and especially the rainfall, which in the southern part averaged less than 100 millimetres a year, rendered nomadic life compulsory. Most of those bedouins moved about within the boundaries of their tribal lands according to the time of the year, sowing and harvesting crops on their arable land and moving out to pasture their herds and flocks between seasons.

The vast plain of fertile loess lying In the northern part of their tribal lands, however, was regularly cultivated with extensive cereal growing – barley and wheat in the winter and other crops such as millet and water melons in the summer. Thus, even in the south the bedouins did not depend entirely upon their sheep and camels for their living, and under the favourable economic conditions of the last world war proved their readiness to adopt better farming techniques to raise their income.

The northern bedouins, who wore distributed among a number of small sub-tribes,, undertook grazing and the farming of arable lands in the northern sub-districts of the maritime plain. Their life and method of farming resembled closely that of their neighbouring villagers. In general, it appears the bedouins wore at least partially engaged in extensive agriculture and under oonditlons of good crop prices undertook to increase their agricultural production.  The main distinction between them and the fully settled rural population was their seasonal change of pastures and their preference for tent dwellings. The prevailing trend~ however, was toward settlement on cultivable land.

The exact proportion of individual farm owners in southern Palestine is not known.  By far the largest part of the rural population

in this area were either share-croppers or tenant farmers. Grazing rights and the farming territory of the bedouins belonged to the tribe as a whole. The Agency’s a statistics on occupational distribution among the Gala refugees are based on information given by the refugee head of family himself and inscribed on his registration card. A close examination was made of the information provided by these cards for twelve specific villages but unfortunately, neither of these sources possesses a high degree of reliability. Although they indicate that some 13,000 refugee heads of families have listed themselves as farmers, there is a strong likelihood that this number includes persons other than these owning their own farms.

From the earlier analysis of geographical origin it has been concluded that the refugees of Gaza represent a general cross-section of the Arabs of southern Palestine. On this basis it may reasonably be assumed that roughly some 80,000 refugees in Gaza with a rural background have had some experience in irrigated farming while another 120,000 have had varying degrees of experience in extensive and dry farming. These numbers provide an adequate reservoir on which to draw for the 10,000 refugee farm families planned for establishment under conditions of irrigated farming in the Sinai.  However, in view of the passage of seven years under conditions of idleness for a large majority of the Gaza refugees, and the especial conditions of farming in the Sinai involving the reclamation of sandy soils, it is recommended that a programme of agricultural training under similar conditions be considered for the refugees selected for the project, prior to their introduction to the Sinai.

Urban Skills

The Gaza refugees experienced in trades, crafts, private services and the numerous functions carried out by the public administration are for the most part those who possessed an urban background in Palestine.

It may seen from Table IV – I that a total, of 29% of the Gaza refugees have been designated as urban.  Of these only 43,000 or 21%, however, originated from a strictly urban environment, having come from Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem, Lydda, Ramleh or Gaza itself. The remaining 15,000 came from such large villages as Majdal and Beersheba, which although basically rural in character served as marketing centres for the surrounding villages, providing them with necessary supplies and equipment.  Even in the mere important urban centres, there was a marked interpenetration of suburban farmers (citrus, vegetable, and dairy farmers) and the purely urban population, resulting in a corresponding overlap in occupation.

The urban population earned its living principally from trades, services, and land ownership. The bulk of the Arab population gainfully employed in the towns were either independent proprietors or employees in small enterprises, most of which had a commercial character. Industrial establishments were more limited, both in size and number. They consisted chiefly of grain milling and other food processing industries, the textile industry (including a few mechanized plants and the important hand weaving centre of Majdal), olive and sesame ell pressing mills, soap factories, tanneries, and a number of factories for leather apparel, metal trades, wood working and tobacco manufacturing.  To these wore added other diversified enterprises designed to meet the needs of a basically rural population which depended for its more elaborate requirements on goods imported from abroad.

Thus the predominant feature of urban employment was the small private enterprise varying from one man counters to middle sized workshops. No accurate information is presently available on the occupational breakdown of this population, but a survey of twelve wholly or predominantly Arab areas covering the greatest part of the urban community outside of Jerusalem and Haifa, carried out by the administration, indicates that in 1939 an average of eighteen business establishments existed per 1,000 population. This percentage might be expected to have increased as a result of the remarkable expansion of activity in commercial and industrial enterprises which developed with %he second world war.

In addition to this private services group there was a sizable and skilful group of refugees who worked as civil servants in the mandatory administration and in the police force and armed services. Again their numbers and those now resident in Gaza are not known with any degree of precision.

In general, it may be concluded that the main skills of the Arab urban population are in those trades, handicrafts, and services related to agricultural production.  In addition, the government services offered employment and experience which supplemented the more limited opportunities provided by industrial establishments.  Therefore, it may normally be expected that the 58,000 Gaza refugees of urban origin will furnish a supply of ancillary workers and public service employees required for the Sinai project and will even provide a number of skilled agriculturists. The loss of efficiency in the performance of these skills associated with the sedentary existence of the last seven years will probably require some refresher training. The exact nature and amount of this training can be determined only by a detailed study of the Gaza population.  A general discussion of their training needs is presented later.

Demographic Characteristics of the Refugee Population

All aspects of project planning which involve the human element, from agriculture to community services and facilities, require accurate information on the demographic characteristics of the refugee population from whom the future project population will be drawn. On the basis of existing data, the factors affecting the natural increase, age and sex distribution, and family size of the Gaza refugees were examined.

The main source of information on refugee vital statistics is the refugee registration lists which were established at the beginning of relief operations.  Since then these lists have been brought up to date by a continuous process of additions and deletions. The lists indicate a net increase from 198,000 in May 1950, when UNRWA assumed working responsibility for refugee care, to 214,000 in May 1955.  Additions are due mainly to births and transfers from other host countries.  Deletions from the lists are made on the basis of deaths, false registrations, duplications and the attainment of a stipulated level of income. These lists are generally recognized to be on the high side due to the non-reporting of deaths and migration from the area, factors which cannot easily be checked by the registration authorities.

Other sources of statistical data used include the Statistical Abstracts of the Palestine Department of Statistics, the Gaza Official Gazette, and a sample survey of twelve villages and two tribes considered to be a representative cross-section of the Gaza refugee population. This survey was carried out by the UNRWA Registration Division in Gaza in December 1954 from the registration cards and fact sheets belonging to the groups under study.

In general, the method used was to analyse the results of the sample survey, correct them for inconsistencies, and compare the final results with the statistical data of the former Palestine Government.

Natural Increase 

On the basis of the Moslem population statistics for the period 1931 through 1944 as published in the Palestine Government Statistical Abstracts and assuming that %he population increased according to a geometric progression, the average rate of natural increase over that period may be computed at 2.6%.

On the ether hand, examination of birth and death rates published by the UNRWA Registration Office and the Gaza civil administration reveals that the birth rate among the refugees may be estimated at 5%, while the death rate may be considered to be 2%, resulting in a net rate of natural increase of roughly 3%. In view of the inaccuracies inherent in refugee statistics, it is believed that 2.6% may be the mere accurate estimate.  However, it has been decided to adopt the average rate of 2.8% as a conservatively high estimate for use in this report.

Distribution by Age and Sex

The basic source of information on the age and sex distribution of the refugees are the registration cards on which detailed characteristics of the family are recorded on the strength of the refugee’s declaration at the time of registration. For the purpose of this study a sample survey referred to earlier was carried out in twelve villages and two tribes to provide a more detailed breakdown.

Results of this sample survey were taken as a base for the population pyramid attached in Plate 13.  The age returns reveal the usual irregularities due to the preference for round numbers given in ago statements by respondents who de not know the exact date of their birth or that of their relatives. This type of inaccuracy is quite common in under-developed areas and is accentuated in the female returns when the women of the household are not available for interrogation. In order to reduce these irregularities as far as possible a breakdown in age groups of five years has been established.

On the whole, the distribution by sex revealed by the sample result seems reasonable except for certain inaccuracies in the female

population in the 10 to 84 age group. To correct these distortions the females between these years have been redistributed according to the distribution of males in the corresponding age groups. The corrected distribution was then plotted in the cumulative curve presenting sample survey results in Plate 18.

In order to obtain the probable pattern of age distribution, a comparison was made between the corrected sample results and estimates for the Palestine Moslem population of 1944.  This is shown in Plate 13 where the cumulative frequencies of five year age groups of the Gaza sample survey and the Palestine population of 1944 have been plotted on the same diagram.

The main difference between the present refugee age distribution reflected in the sample survey and that of the Moslems in Palestine in 1944 lies in the fact that the refugee population has a much higher percentage in the 0 to 15 age group, For Gaza refugees the percentage less than 1G years old is approximately 51% while the corresponding percentage revealed by the 1944 estimates for Palestine Moslems is only 43%. This significant change in the population structure may be explained by the prevailing social and economic conditions among the refugees under which the refugees marry young and beget more children.

These stat statistics point to the need for employment of as many factors as possible to decrease the rate of natural increase among the project population in order to bring about a more balanced age structure.

Distribution by Family Size

Again the major source of information concerning the family size of Gaza refugees is to be found in the ration card. These cards were in principle issued on the basis of family composition as defined by the refugee applicants themselves. Subsequently, however, for the purposes of obtaining more living space under the Agency’s shelter programme and for purposes of employment, young couples and for a while boys over eighteen tended to become separated from their original family card and to be assigned cards in their own right. Although there has since been some regrouping, the system employed tends to give a downward bias to family size and in any case is not particularly well suited for purposes of project planning.  

Accordingly, the results of the December 1954 sample survey of Gaza refugees presented in Table IV – 2 were compared with a rural social and economic survey of five villages in the Ramleh sub-district carried out by the Palestine Department of Statistics in 1944. The differences are clearly shown by the cumulative curves of family and population distribution according to size of family appearing in Plate 14. It maybe noted that the Gaza survey points to an unusually large number of isolated persons and families comprising two members.  Families of ten and more persons are on the other hand less common in the Gaza sample than in the Palestine survey. The disparity between these curves may be further illustrated by the fact that while 34% of the families are of three persons and less in the Gaza study, the corresponding percentage for the 1944 survey is 19%.

It is evident that the percentage of families of small size is high for any rural area in the world.  It should be pointed out, however, that the average family size would normally be expected to be larger in a group of isolated rural villages than in a larger population such as that of the Gaza refugees, which include a sizable urban group. In the absence of mere precise Information the results of the 1954 Gaza survey will be taken for the purposes of this report.

According to UNRWA statistics, the average family size for the whole refugee population retains a remarkable constancy.  In April 1955 registration records set it at 5.29, and in the sample survey of December 1954 it was 4.95.  Dividing the population by groups of origin, the sample survey results indicate that the urban population had an average of 4,6 persons per family, the rural population 4.8 and the bedouins 5.6. Since the general average is 5.0, it will be assumed for planning purposes that an average family consists of five members.

Rural Background in Palestine

The occupational and demographic features Of the Gaza refugees have been examined.  However, to appreciate fully the conditions in Palestine which have defined refugee attributes, customs and traditions, it is of interest to review briefly the broad outlines of their rural background.

Over the limited area of Palestine extending from Beersheba to Jaffa, an agricultural existence has been maintained on the basis of techniques which have evolved only slightly since the early history of this area – a pastoral and nomadic life in the dry south, extensive cereal cultivation in areas with higher rainfall, and intensive fruit and vegetable crops where irrigation was possible.

The human element in these rural areas has not been deeply modified despite the ebb and flow of several civilizations. The political and economic structure of the country was decided in the towns, while the remoteness and limited intervention of the government and external world in the rural hinterland has favoured a traditional way of life and fostered village particularisms and loyalties.

Two factors have influenced the characteristics of the rural population of southern Palestine. The first has been the deep influence of Islam and the Moslem state for thirteen centuries, This is reflected in the religious composition of the Gaza Strip, which is 99.7% Sunni Moslem. The second factor was the long established pattern of nomadic life to which a high degree of prestige was associated. This has resulted in the survival of a tribal spirit which is manifested in the clan and in the dominance of blood over land and geographic ties. This trend was accentuated by the lack of security which prevailed over many centuries and by the system of land tenure which tended to deprive the peasant from much of the benefit of his labour.

These conditions survived practically up until the second world war and resulted in habits which limit the peasant’s work to that required to satisfy his family’s minimum requirements. Thus, by conditions beyond his control, the peasant’s productive activity was tied to a subsistence economy and most of his time devoted to village social life centred around the family and clan.

Land Tenure

The system of land tenure common in Palestine did little to reverse this trend. The System had its roots in the Ottoman land code which maintained a basic distinction between mulk and miri lands.

Mulk was that property in which full ownership was vested in private persons and initially applied mostly to built up residential areas in town. The rest of the country, including most of the cultivable land, was miri and was vested in the sovereign or the state on behalf of the Moslem community. Since it was manifestly impossible for the Sovereign to cultivate this land directly, its use was left to the inhabitants of each area against the payment of certain tithes or tributes. Hence in regard to miri land, a double right exists -the ultimate ownership vested in the state and usufruct left to the possessor.

Since by far the greater part of the cultivable land of Palestine was miri, the relative precariousness of rural property as compared with urban was pronounced. Combined with the social and political primacy of the towns, this situation led to a generalized seizure on the land by the urban and some rural notables with a far-reaching extension of the share-cropping system as a consequence. Because of the financial and political assistance needed by the peasant, those notables, through money-landlng and clientage, progressively acquired the title to rural land holdings in most part of the country.

The share of the peasant varied with the amount of assistance received from the landlord and with the type of crop grown; in general barely ensured the vital minimum to the share-cropper. This system, characterised by landlord absenteeism and the general indebtedness of the peasants, served to maintain the stone families on the same lands for many generations,

Apart from the share-croppers, a few small farm proprietors maintained their independence either on individual farms or through the masha’a system of collective tenure. This latter system is based on land holdings of the village being shared in common, individual plots being redistributed every year or two by lot. The exact extent of independent proprietors in southern Palestine is not known, but is generally admitted to be limited.

Another factor affecting adversely the long range development of agriculture was the extravagant fragmentation of land holdings resulting from the traditional inheritance law. The system of collective tenure, involving continual rotation of individual land parcels, also served to impoverish the land.  It is therefore recommended that in the planning for refugee establishment steps he taken to avoid the recurrence of these problems in the Sinai.

Rural Income and Indebtedness

In 1939 roughly half of the total agricultural production in Palestine was marketable, the highest rate being enjoyed by fruit raising farms and the lowest by those growing cereals, where market dependency did not exceed 20%. During the second world war, however, these rates tended to increase appreciably.

The basic pattern of self-sufficiency resulted in a very low standard of living for the rural community. In 1945, although the lot viable for a rural family was estimated at one hundred dunums under dry farming conditions, yielding a grass income of LP 100. per year, the actual size of the average Arab holding was not more than fifty dunums, of which 80% was given over to cereals, 18% to vegetable crops, and 2% to citrus. Conditions in southern Palestine corresponded to these averages with a slightly higher proportion of citrus. During the war, however, farm income was supplemented by additional earnings from employment in towns and in the government service.

Prior to this war time prosperity, a considerable proportion of the peasant’s income was absorbed by exorbitant interest on indebtedness. In 1930 the average family indebtedness was virtually equal to annual income, and an average interest rate of 30% was being paid. By 1945 although usury had declined materially and bank-loans increased, the average farm indebtedness stood at more than LP 100. per family even among members of co-operative credit and thrift societies.  This represented roughly half the farmers’ yearly income. The carry-over of present debt by the Gaza refugees into the project area could present difficulties %0 the balance of the project economy and should be the subject of subsequent study.  It is sufficient to note here the importance of establishing adequate farm credit facilities in the Sinai.

Rural Co-operatives

As a means of freeing the rural population from the high interest rates and adverse social effects of the money-lenders, the

Palestine Government initiated a well planned co-operative movement. In 1945, one hundred and thirty-five credit and thrift societies and forty-five other agricultural co-operatives existed in Arab villages comprising several thousand members.  Apart from the credit co-operatives, the most important groups wore those dealing with the marketing of the citrus crop. The co-operative system in Palestine enjoyed a considerable success, demonstrated by the fact that during the whole mandatory period very few co-operatives were disbanded. Much of this success was due to the guidance and control provided by the government authorities.  The experience of the refugees with co-operatives in Palestine, however limited, will facilitate their establishment in %he project area. It should be noted, however, that for full success their establishment and operation should, initially at least, enjoy close guidance from the appropriate project authorities.

Local Government

The extension of local self-government made considerable progress in Palestine during the mandatory regime and the foundations for some institutions of local government were laid as early as the latter period of Ottoman rule.  Under the former administration, elected municipal councils were established with their own budgets and financing.  Subject to the approval of the mandatory authorities, they were authorized to levy rates for the maintenance of normal services including water supply, education, and town planning, etc. In 1946, seven Arab village councils were formed in southern Palestine and by 1948 municipal councils existed in the towns of Beersheba, Gaza, Khan-Yunis, Majdal, Jaffa, Lydda and Ramleh.

Under Ottoman law, village administration was entrusted to mukhtars, or village headmen, as agents of the government for the collection of taxes, general administration, and the maintenance of public security. The villages were encouraged 10 take as much initiative as possible for the improvement of village services, and during the second world war, owing to the improvement in general economic conditions, the amount contributed by the villagers increased substantially.  The mandatory governments work to establish village councils in exclusively rural areas met with a certain degree of success, In southern Palestine most of the actual power remained with the mukhtar, however, who acted in a liaison capacity with the district administration. It may be noted nonetheless, that a sufficiently broad background of experience in local government exists among the Gaza refugees to provide a base for the development of such institutions in the Sinai.

Social Organization

The environment of rural economy described above was made operative by a traditional social organization which rests on natural social units formed by the family, the clan, and the village. Together they constitute the machinery which holds the community together, even under the abnormal conditions of camp life.

The Family

The nucleus of rural social organization is the patriarchal family, in which the sons and their conjugal families are grouped together under the authority of the oldest male member. Due to the absence in the village of any strong external pole of attraction, the family occupies a hitch degree of the peasant’s interest and allegiance. The patriarchal family shares the same land and house and carries out agricultural operations under the direction of its head, who has absolute authority over all its members. Agricultural labour is primarily the function of the men of the household, but the women, in addition to their domestic duties of supplying the household with food, fuel and water, share in the sowing and harvesting and look after the livestock within the farm compound.

The Clan

The direct blood relationship which governs the patriarchal family is usually extended, through relationship with a common ancestor, to a tribal family with which very active ties are maintained.  The clan system prevailed in most of the Palestinian villages and was probably an inheritance of nomadic custom where the search for security obliged the families to unite for common protection.  The clan is usually divided into sub-clans which play a lesser role in village organization.

The clan has survived in the villages as the unit in which individual families group themselves in order to settle feuds, land disputes, and to exercise their voice in community decisions. When a system of collective land tenure prevails, the clan also has an economic function, each clan being allotted a fixed area of land and the distribution and rotation of tenures being effected among members of the elan families only.

The main £unction of the clan system is, however, of a social and customary nature. Clan rights and duties are the subject of an elaborate set of traditional rules varying from village to village but having the force of law with respect to its members. These rules are characterized by joint liability or rights of compensation for wrongs committed by or against any member of the clan. In addition, the whole public life of the village is looked upon from the point of view of the clan’s interest and pride, from the reception of guests in the clan’s madafa, or guest house, to the choice of the mukhtar for higher office.

The Village

Apart from the family and clan, the only basis for social loyalties accepted by the peasant is his attachment to his village, the largest rural social grouping in Palestine since the early period of agricultural settlement.  As elsewhere in the Middle East, there has been a direct passage from  nomadic life to the concentration of population in villages owing to the requirements of security and the scarcity of water supply. Thus a geographical community exists in addition to the blood relationship of the family and the clan.

Within the village, life goes on in almost complete isolation and regardless of conflicts within the village, it faces the outside world, other villages and the state, with an unshakable solidarity. As a result, the Palestinian villages were largely self-dependent, maintaining their own limited services and subsisting on their own produce. Apart from the seasonal migration to towns and casual calls on the nearest urban market, the mobility of the population remained low, and births, marriages, and deaths took place within the confine~ of the village. Although some disruption to this pattern occurred during the second world war, basically it remained the same, and even in the Gaza camps the refugees are organized according to their original clans, tribes, and villages.  It is recommended that this framework be utilized to the full in all establishment and community development operations involving the refugees in the Sinai.

Present Conditions

Since December 1948, the Gaza refugees have been almost completely dependent upon the aid of the United Nations, the Egyptian administration and certain voluntary agencies for their food, shelter, clothing, and public services. The Gaza area stripped of its supporting hinterland is economically unviable and complete economic collapse has been averted only through the injection of barge amounts of goods and services into the economy without any compensation payment. The persistent negative balance of trade is illustrated by the imports into the strip, which in 1951-1952 amounted to LE 2.8 million as opposed to only LE 0.3 million worth of exports.

Because of the limited natural resources of the Gaza Strip and their full utilization by the original inhabitants of the area, numerous studies and attempts to develop projects capable of rehabilitating a substantial number of refugees have met with small success. It may be concluded that opportunities for project development in Gaza would not afford a livelihood for more than a few hundred refugee families, and other solutions must be found if the refugee population is to attain a condition of economic independence and bring an end to the unfortunate psychological conditions associated with a life of dependency.

Assistance to the Refugees


The main recurrent item of assistance is the regular issue of rations to families which provide an average daily diet of between 1,600 and 1,800 calories. In addition, a supplementary feeding programme is offered for certain categories of refugees in special need, and a milk distribution programme is carried on for the benefit of infants, children up to fourteen, and expectant and nursing mothers. Periodic surveys carried out by health and nutrition experts of the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization of the United Nations indicate there is no evidence of widespread malnutrition among the refugees.


More than half of the refugees in Gaza are living in camps where concrete shelters offer adequate housing conditions. Rooms were initially distributed on the basis of ~.5 to 4 persons per room but are now assigned at the rate of an average area of two square metres per person.

A sizable number of the refugees – about 90,000- are living in private accommodation, either rented or in make shift shelters of their own construction.  The bedouins have maintained their traditional preference for living in tents. Others, however, driven by the depletion of their personal resources, and attracted by the superior accommodation, are applying in increasing numbers for admission to the nine official camps.

     [table of content.PDF]                 [egypt.PDF]              [plate 2.PDF] [plate 28.PDF]    [plate 21.PDF]

Document symbol: UNA/AC.37 (063.5) N6
Download Document Files:  [get_file_name file_url=” 21.PDF“]  [get_file_name file_url=” 28.PDF“]  [get_file_name file_url=”“]  [get_file_name file_url=” 2.PDF“]  [get_file_name file_url=” of content.PDF“]
Document Type: MapReportStudy
Document Sources: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
Country: Egypt
Subject: Refugees and displaced personsWater
Publication Date: 28/07/1955




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