After going to that part of the apartheid wall that blockades Bethlehem from Jerusalem, we visited the Aida refugee camp. This is the smallest of the three UN run camps in Bethlehem with around 6,000 refugees. Dheishe, the largest, houses nearly 15,000. The camps were opened in the late 1940s to temporarily shelter some of the 750,000 to 1,000,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes by Israeli forces in the late 1940s. Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe refers to this as the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
These camps initially consisted of tents, but. after around two years, it became clear that more permanent structures were needed. They remain today, nearly 70 years later, ghettos of closely packed stuctures separated by tiny alleyways, with barely a speck of green space.
Many in the camps are now third generation, probably fourth or even fifth. I’ve heard it asked, often with contempt, why are they still there? Why don’t they leave? Why don’t other countries absorb them?
First of all, it has to be understood that Palestinians have a very deep connection with the land, and the initial refugees always thought they they would be able to return to their homes. This is a hope that is still alive – even in the later generations.
Second, the neighboring countries, and particularly Jordan HAVE absorbed 100,000s of thousands of Palestinian refugees. When I visited 3 1/2 years ago, 1/3 of Jordan’s population were Palestinian, and the country was straining to provide for them. Now with the Syrian crisis, the situation is even more dire.
Finally, the camp refugees are mired in such extreme poverty, that they simply don’t have the option of mobility. So, the situation is entrenched and generational. This is what is wrought by forced expulsions and ethnic cleansing.
A couple personal notes on camp life bear mentioning. One of our guides was distraught on our bus ride to the olive field. He is a resident of the Dheishe camp. The previous night, the camp was raided by Israeli soldiers. This is always done in the dark of night, doors kicked in,everyone, including terrified children pulled from beds, houses torn apart in searches and people, usually young men, dragged out in handcuffs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard such stories. This night, three of his close friends had been taken away.
Under Israeli law, there is this thing called administrative detention. This euphemism means that one can be held for up to 5 months without any charges filed and without access to a lawyer, family or the outside world. Doe process of law? No such thing for Palestinians. Reasons for detention might be throwing a rock at a soldier, being a journalist writing criticisms of the occupation, an activist of any kind or a union member protesting Israel – who knows. And it almost always involves extreme abuse if not torture’ and very often minor children being detained. And each 5 month period can be extended, extended and extended. A friend of mine recently welcomed his son-in law home after 30 months of detention and fruitless money scraped together by the family spent on legal fees, finally to see his 2 year old daughter for the first time. His crime – writing about the occupation.
Another incident involved my friend Leila, the vender of women’s needlework cooperative from Hebron. I was delighted to reconnect with her the other day. But saddened to learn that just two days earlier her son had been arrested, purportedly for the crime of trying to work without a permit in Israel. Who knows when she will see him again.
Finally, the other story that touched me was from the same guide from the Dheishe camp. We were picking olives in an area surrounded by new Israeli settlements. Their construction involved confiscation of huge tracts of land in the West Bank. The area of olive trees in which we were picking bordered the camp and was the de facto playground of the camp children who otherwise had no green areas to play in. Well, with the construction of the settlements came the walling off of the entire area, further closing in and ghettoizing the camp. He ruefully described how this was his childhood playground which, alas was now out of bounds for the camp because of the grotesque wall.
Children comprise over 50% of the camps’ population. How will life under occupation form them?
The graffitti in the camp bears a stark contrast to the graffiti on the apartheid wall. While the wall is a formidable reminder to all of the grave injustice of this colonialist, racist regime, the messages are largely of irony and hope. The camp graffiti is much starker. suggesting a primal struggle for existence.