For Refugee Week 2016, we wanted to highlight the plight of the largest group of refugees in the world (numbering approximately 6 million), and our call for the Right of Return by sharing some reflections from a recent study tour visit to Aida Refugee Camp, established in 1950 close to Bethlehem, Palestine, and home to more than 5,500 Palestinian refugees.
During our study tour we visited Aida Refugee Camp, home of one of the students we had met earlier in the week. This camp is subject to frequent incursions by the Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF). Shortly before our visit, on one of these incursions, a soldier had addressed the camp’s residents with the following message (in Arabic):
People of Aida refugee camp, we are the occupation army. If you throw stones, we will hit you with gas until you all die – the youth, the children, the old people, you will all die.’
The first thing we noticed on arrival was the huge key poised atop the entrance gate. This key represents the key to the door of their family home that Palestinians forced to flee before and after the creation of Israel in 1948 took with them in anticipation of their eventual return. You find representations of this key, in many sizes, in the various Palestinian artisan shops. They often have the number 194 engraved on them, a reminder that United Nations Resolution 194 resolved:
“that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible; [it also] Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation, and to maintain close relations with the Director of the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees and, through him, with the appropriate organs and agencies of the United Nations.”
It is worth remembering that this resolution, passed by the UN General Assembly in December 1948, was endorsed by both the United States and the United Kingdom. The refugees still await its implementation.
The walls of Aida camp are plastered with portraits of various martyrs, many of them children. Particularly striking is the list of those killed in Gaza by Israeli bombardment the previous summer.
In the camp we were taken to the Lajee Centre, where we were addressed by its director, Salah al-Ajarma. The Lajee Centre is a cultural and artistic centre, a registered Palestinian NGO that aims to foster the creative talents of young Palestinians. Despite the disadvantages and the tension of growing up in a refugee camp, many of its inmates have been encouraged to develop their talents in the area of dance, painting, photography and so on. We were shown some of the photos produced by the young ‘inmates’ (Aida is a virtual prison, surrounded and surveilled as it is by armed watchtowers). It goes without saying that there is no shortage of subject matter.
Salah gave us a summary of life in the refugee camp. The tension provoked by living under occupation leads frequently to family breakdown. Israel aims to fragment Palestinian society. He mentioned that a further aim was to obliterate all trace of previous habitation by Palestinians (or ‘Arabs’, as Israel inssts on calling them). He gave the example of the area named British Park (which we would pass on our visit to the Negev Desert two days later), built on the site of the village of Ajjur, whose Arab population of 44,771 was ethnically cleansed by the Fourth Battalion of the Giv’ati Brigade in July 1948 and only three houses left standing.
You’ll find no mention of this atrocity on the website of the Jewish National Fund (supported by such luminaries as Ruby Wax), which extols the ‘10,000 acres of the Judaean Plain, where you can see planted forests, natural woodland, archeological sites, breathtaking landscapes and a variety of flora and fauna of Israel’. The ‘natural woodland’ was, in reality, planted to disguise the fact that there had once been a Palestinian village there.
Salah just mentioned the example of the British Park in passing, but the theme of the erasure of all Palestinian traces from the land, the denial of the Palestinians’ very existence, was to be a recurring motif throughout our stay. He went on to give us some statistics about the Aida Reugee Camp. It is one of three refugee camps in Bethlehem, and holds 5,000 Palestinian refugees. Worldwide there are about 7 million Palestinian refugees, and they find varying degrees of antipathy towards them in many of their host countries. In Lebanon, for instance, they are not allowed to own anything, and entrance to the professions is denied them. In Syria, life before the Arab Spring was much better for refugees than it was in Palestine. Now, of course, it’s even more desperate. (In the recent Middle East crisis, Israel hasn’t taken in a single Syrian refugee.) Before 1967, Palestinian refugees in Jordan had the same rights as Jordanians; this status was lost in 1967. (At its foundation Israel had conceded to Jordan all claim to the West Bank, in return for Jordan allowing it to proceed with its ethnic cleansing of the rest of Palestine. With Israel’s victory in 1967, Jordan no longer wielded any influence in the West Bank.)
Any hope for improvement of life in the refugee camps, said Salah, must rest with the young people; hence the importance of the Lajee Centre in fostering their aspirations. The Aida camp was founded after Israel’s creation, in order to house displaced people from 27 villages, from Jaffa to the Jordanian border.
Salah told us of a friend who hadn’t been to Jerusalem for 15 years, because, like our coffee-selling acquaintance of earlier that morning, he had been in an Israeli jail. His crime? Playing football in his garden after curfew when he was 14. Curfew applies even to your own garden. This boy was then subjected to daily interrogation. He was told, ‘There are two soldiers waiting for you outside. If you don’t tell them what they want to hear, they’ll f*** you.’ Sometimes they would say, ‘We have your sister in the next room’ (showing him the legs of another girl). ‘Tell us the name of your friend or we’ll do what we want with her.’ The Israelis sealed up the room of his brother for nine years, while the latter was in jail. Sometimes people bargain with the soldiers, paying them to have half their house closed off rather than having it completely demolished.
The father of the best dancer in the Lajee Centre’s dancing group was killed when she was 12. After this she refused to smile, and when asked why not, she replied, ‘Women have told me, “If you smile, your father will cry in the cemetery.”’
Some refugees entered the refugee camp with a lot of gold, which was spent on living expenses until it dwindled away to nothing over the years. The only work for young people that Israel would allow was on construction sites. Who built Israel? Palestinians did. From Aida camp a worker has to get up at 2 a.m., like his co-workers from Hebron, to get to his job in Jerusalem on time. They don’t see their children all week.
The indication I got from everything that Salah told us was that Israel was doing all it could to expunge the unwanted Palestinians from the land of their birth. And they could only do this and still keep a clear conscience by degrading the Palestinians to such a depth that they no longer need consider them as human.
Salah’s monthly salary, he told us, was 2,000 shekels fifteen years ago. There has been no increase since. A loaf of bread fifteen years ago cost, say, 1 shekel; the same loaf now would cost 5 shekels.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), set up under Oslo, is corrupt, said Salah. (During our visit I didn’t hear anything but scorn and revulsion expressed towards this quisling administration.) The PA acts as Israel’s Rottweiler; it controls people’s lives ‘in a bad way’. Palestinians are the ‘human sacrifice of political people’.
Where do the Palestinians get their weapons from? From the Israelis. The cost of an M16 now is 70,000 shekels. ‘Everyone is using the Palestinians.’ No one leads the Palestinians now – neither Hamas, nor Fatah, nor anyone. The only hope, returning to Salah’s initial point, comes from the new generation.
Concluding, in spite of everything, on a positive note, Salah informed us that the Lajee Centre hoped to be sending a group of 16–18 people with their families to England and Scotland next year, under the auspices of ‘Father Paul’. They would be able to put on a dance show and would be looking for people willing to host them for one day and for cities that might be prepared to sponsor them. It was cheering to be able to think that some young people might have the chance to break out, however briefly, from the daily round of military threats and tear gas volleys.
– With thanks to John G for his reflections.