Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Refugee Camps and non-bullet proof windows

Last weekend I visited Beit Lehem and Khalil (Hebron) with my program. In Beit Lehem we visited two refugee camps and got spoke with a representative from the Rapprochament Center. At each of the camps we met with volunteers/ tour guides who showed us the camps and talked about life in the camps. One of the camps, Aida Camp, is literally right next to the wall – in fact, the wall cuts the refugees off from the only open area of land that was available to them. The land is owned by one of the local churches and was used as an area for children to play, students to study, and just as a place to get away from the camp, where people live stacked on top of each other. From the roof of one of the buildings in the camp and next to the wall, you can see over the wall, and all that empty space just sitting, unused.

On our way from the first camp to the second camp, Dheisha Camp, we passed an interesting sight. Rachel’s Tomb was on the end of the street that we were walking on, but it is blocked off by Israeli soldiers, so we couldn’t go to it from inside the camp. We noticed two Israeli soldiers roughing up a Palestinian man in handcuffs. We all stopped and watched, and the Israelis moved the man so that he was behind a concrete slab and we couldn’t see him. We stood there for another 5 minutes, and they finally let the guy go. Our guide called him over and asked him to tell us what had happened. I didn’t catch the whole story, but apparently they pulled him off one of the checkpoints at about 6 that morning. Then, the soldiers took him up to their watchtower and made him stand next to a sleeping Israeli soldier. The other soldiers apparently took turns calling the sleeping soldier’s cell phone until he woke up and found this Palestinian standing over him. Then, of course, he attacked him. When we met this guy, who was probably in his early or mid-twenties it was early afternoon. They’d been playing with him for at least 6 hours . . .

Dheisha refugee camp was twice the size of the first – it was something like 11,000 people living on a ½ square kilometer of land. We walked around the camp, whose roads are so narrow cars can’t fit down most of the streets. Both refugee camps have a type of welcome center, and they rent rooms out to internationals who are visiting or want to work with the camp . . . which surprised me. The welcome/student center at the second camp is full of beautiful murals depicting the lives of the refugees before and after 1948/1967. The camps sponsor trips where they send grandparents and their grandkids to the sites of their old villages, so that their true homes and history can be passed from generation to generation . . . Which is just heartbreakingly sad.

Before this trip I had considered the right of return to be something impossible for the refugees. I mean, how on earth can they go back to villages that aren’t there anymore, or are filled with Israelis? Seeing the way these people are living, and have been living for over 30 or 50 years while they wait for their chance to return to homes is truly an educational experience. And they have continued to live like this because they have to maintain their refugee status to qualify for right of return under international law. If they leave they give up on their past and the suffering their families have endured for the last 2 generations – if they stay they give up their futures. They are trapped by international law and the PA uses the refugees as a pity card . . . not helping them too much so that they can hold them up to the international community and say, “See how our people are suffering”. Meanwhile the PA officials live in style and comfort. The whole situation is just sickening.

At the Reapproachment center we learned about nonviolent methods of resistance the local people have organized. It was a slightly more upbeat note to end of the day on, but we were all pretty weary by the time we headed to the hostel. We stayed at the Arab Women’s Union, which I highly recommend to anyone who needs a cheap, clean place to stay while they are visiting Beit Lehem (although it is actually in Beit Sahour). The only problem with our room at the hostel was the bullet hole in the window, although the glass had been carefully taped around the hole. Just a reminder that Beit Lehem and Beit Sahour were under siege not so long ago . . .


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