The thought of having a refugee camp for Palestinians IN Palestine is something that dumbfounded me at first, I mean this is their country how can they possibly be displaced in their own homes? To my surprise I found out the sad reality of refugee camps are scattered across Palestine, providing homes to the many expelled Palestinians.
Defined by the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) Palestine refugees are, “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” Illegal Israeli settlements also continue to displace many families.
We went to visit the Dheisheh refugee camp, south of Bethlehem. It’s one of the largest refugee camps home to 16,000 Palestinian refugees originally from 45 villages in West Jerusalem and Hebron and home to one of my volunteer group leaders. It was built in 1949 as temporary accommodation but it’s residents have no where else to go, and with population growth it’s resources are becoming more and more exhausted.
The wall on the entrance to the camp serves as a ‘wall of honor’ to those residents of the camp who have been killed by the Israeli military. Complete with photos, I can see they are far too young to have lost their lives, I can’t even imagine the grief of their parents and families. I can honestly only see faces of children, which really disturbs me. Names of the villages where camp residents have been displaced cover the wall, this is so their roots and where they came from is not forgotten or lost in the displacement. Their original homes they have been removed from and their villages which have been destroyed. This wall provides a form of non-violent resistance, freedom of expression, a sense of community, even though I find it very disturbing, I fully understand what it represents and why it is there. It is a visual queue to the suffering of the people. I find this very disturbing, there should be no wall, these are the faces of young civilians taken by government military.
At first glance it looks like a normal street but then I see the gate which is closed for protection. Our guide a resident of the camp tells us some of the things which happens here, the tone of his voice tells me this is very real and he has been through these experiences. I find them too graphic to be fabricated. As he talks, the local shop owners come out and gather around for solidarity, more and more people join us and I can see the sadness in their eyes as they look into mine to make a connection, you don’t have to be able to speak the same language as someone to recognize the pain in their soul. This is a real community under intense occupation. The guide speaks of such horrific circumstances I find it really hard to mentally digest, tears start to dwell up in my own eyes and I do have a lump in my throat hoping now one tries to talk to me in that moment. I wonder how the guide can speak about such horrific things which have happened to his family and friends but I know he has no choice but to speak out, for him this violence is all too common and his strength comes from his struggle for a better day.
One thing which really shocked me was that this refugee camp comes under regular attacks from the Israeli military, mostly at night time. Israeli snipers line the roof tops adjacent to the village and are instructed to shoot various body points to disable the Palestinians, mostly children. We are told body targets are rotated, recently knees had been the target, with the aim to disable Palestinians. We are told we will meet someone who fell victim to this, I’m very glad this didn’t actually happen because I do not know if I could have dealt with this emotionally with everything else I heard. Even more disturbingly during another attack, the eyes were a target, Israeli snipers are instructed to blind the children, and all this in the name of defense? I want to point out here that the Palestinians I saw here had no means of retaliation of defending themselves even, these attacks are not in the form of Israeli security, it’s beyond sadistic. What I was was Palestinians treated less than human or even animals, I truly felt sick to my stomach.
This was all new to me, I never imagined the refugee camps would also be under occupation and attack, I thought they would be a safe haven, but I was wrong, no where is safe. The camp is full of predominately Muslims, most women where the hijab (headscarf). In fear of night raids many have now resorted to sleeping in their full clothing such as jeans in case they are ambushed at night by the IDF. This is not uncommon, it happens 2-3 times a week, we were told it happened during my stay in Palestine. Children are often taken in the night without their parents being informed – it could be the child was ‘seen’ throwing a stone and could be taken and imprisoned for up to 10 years. Tear gas canisters are also thrown into the camps, not only does this cause asphyxiation but has been shown to cause birth defects in any pregnant women in the camp. Why are they doing this? I can only assume their aim is to scare the inhabitants to leave the camp so it can be destroyed to make way for even more illegal Israeli settlements.
As we walk through the camp, we can see how small the living quarters are I can’t even imagine families living in these. Palestinian homes can easily be differentiated from Israeli homes because they have huge black water tanks on them which create eyesores can be seen on the rooftops. They need these to to reserve water as it is cut off on a very regular basis by the Israeli military and re-routed back to their illegal settlements nearby. 15% of the camp is not connected to the local public sewage system. Similarity their electricity is also limited. Due to building permits, houses are being built on top of each other.
I see all sorts of people in the community, some of the most beautiful children I’ve ever seen, some elderly, a blind man walks past the backdrop of some graffiti – there is ‘hope’. There is a lot street art and graffiti, these powerful images bring colour and life to the grey hopeless walls of the camp. They are also a form of freedom of expression and resistance. They provide a glimpse into the hopes and dreams of the Palestinians for a better future. The walls of the camp are also covered in the faces of leader, poets, writers and martyrs. It is a way to honor the lives and memory of many of the camps residence who have been killed. Those who sacrificed their lives for the cause will not be forgotten.
An international woman, walks down and chants, ‘welcome’ , I imagine she is staying in the camp as part of a volunteer program maybe to help educate the children and show solidarity, I feel proud and start thinking I am here to see but next time I would like to do more. While I was looking at volunteer programs, I did come across one where you stay in the camp, and you can also find a room on air bnb.
A group of young girls come up to me and ask, ‘what’s your name’, I tell them mine and ask them theirs, they are very happy to meet us and equally I am happy to meet them, it was a beautiful moment in which I wished I could speak fluent Arabic so I could converse more.
We are taken to a spot where a tree has been planted as a memorial for a young boy who was murdered in cold blood. He was shot in the head by a bullet which shattered into 30 pieces, his skull was destroyed into even more pieces as he died in a pool of blood on impact. An elderly lady came out to help him but saw his body and returned to her home because it was too much to witness, I imagine if that had been my mother. I would never want her to be exposed to such a graphic scene but also feeling of such helplessness. I can’t imagine this happening on my doorstop, in my home. The residents must also suffer much physiological damage from all of these raids and also depression, but there is no help for that. I don’t even know how children grow up in this environment, what must go through their minds.
That night returning to my hotel I felt very sick, my body temperature had completely dropped and nothing I could do would bring it up, I’m determined I was in a state of shock. I couldn’t attend the evening lecture, I heard it was very quiet that evening. I was so shocked by the violence towards children, I had naively believed the refugee camps would be a sanctuary, but instead it’s residence were sitting ducks to extremely violent attacks.
When asked why don’t they leave, ‘If we leave then we will be giving up, we have a right to be here, we have a right to live’. True words, why should they be scared out of their own homes, but even more to the point where would they go? Suddenly all the blessings in my own personal life flooded me, I had a spacious roof over my head, running water, it was safe to sleep at night. I didn’t have to live in constant fear of loosing my life or loosing a family member. I became aware of my privileges and the important things in life.
Once I had returned home to the UK, I found it very difficult to sleep because it was ‘too quiet’ and the tension I felt in Palestine was no longer on my shoulders, I was ‘safe’. I imagine the children of camp are also not used to the sound of peace which is heartbreaking.
News links to fore mentioned activities:
Israeli Harassment of the camps: https://electronicintifada.net/content/israeli-captain-i-will-make-you-all-disabled/17821
Airbnb to stay in the Dheisheh camp: http://againstthecompass.com/en/dheisheh-palestinian-refugee-camp-bethelehem/