By the Bethlehem team,
”This is what I call the unholy Trinity”, says Osama Nikolai as he points towards the horizon. Standing on the roof of Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution and Transformation Center in Bethlehem we can clearly see what he is referring to. ”Firstly, there’s the wall”, he notes pointing at the separation barrier just a few meters away. ”Secondly, the settlement up right there up the hill”, he continues, ”and thirdly, the refugee camp down here” pointing to nearby Aida refugee camp. All three unholy components located within a short walk from where we stand. According to Osama, this is what the conflict boils down to; the separation barrier, refugee camps, and settlements.
Refugee camps of Bethlehem…
Refugee camps feature prominently in the town of Bethlehem. If you were to wander around the city and chat with locals, you would be hard pressed not to meet residents from at least one of the three main camps scattered around the town. Aida, Dheisheh and Al ’Azza camps are like villages within a village, they maintain their own lifestyle, characteristics and sense of identity.
If you walk through them you will see irregular street structures and narrow alleys with children playing football and riding their bicycles. Ramshackle houses with electrical wires running along the outer wall next to stylish newly painted Mediterranean looking homes with patios and pergolas. At first glimpse you would think these are not such bad places for refugees to live in but there’s more to the camps than what the eye can see. Just the mere fact that these camps have been operating since 1949 should raise some alarm.
The camps were created as a humanitarian solution to the thousands of Palestinians who were expelled from their homes following the founding of the Israeli state. Some had been displaced more than three times before finding refuge in these camps. For over 60 years, the residents of Dheisheh, Aida and Al ’Azza have been refugees in their own land. Tents were replaced with barracks which were bitterly cold during the winter and unbearably hot during the summer. Subsequently more and more refugees started to escape the shacks and built their own houses. Today the camps lack of decent infrastructure and future prospects and attacks and incursions from by the Israeli military are common place. Unemployment rates run high with approximately one third to half of the camp residents not working – UNRWA Camp Profiles. These camps suffer from overcrowding, especially Aida which covers a tiny area of 0,71 square kilometers and has a population of 4500 people.
Approximately 60 % of residents in Aida and Deheisheh are under the age of 25: UNRWA Camp Profiles. Bashir, an eleven year old boy, from Deheisheh camp tells us: ”I like living here because I feel safe here. Israeli soldiers won’t attack me here the way they would if I was living in a village outside Bethlehem”. However, the Bashir’s word belie the harsh and increasingly violent reality of life in these camps.
Military incursions into refugee camps have significantly increased since October this year, now many residents live in fear of violence. The Israeli army has conducted regular night raids, sometimes several times a week, since the escalation of violence began in mid September. According to locals Israeli soilders sometimes come in the middle of the night disguised as grocery suppliers, and travel in vans with Palestinian number plates. Locals report that they target and detain politically active young men and women in addition to instilling fear and inflicting collective punishment as they go. Sometimes these military incursions are lethal.
During our first visit to Dheisheh camp we were shown a street corner where a 19-year old boy was shot to death just a couple of days before. Posters and murals of him and many other deceased Palestinians decorate the walls.
Bashir’s friends Malik and Ramiz, both 11 years old, echo these sentiments when telling us that their biggest fears are Israeli soldiers and the occupation in addition to angry dogs and stern parents.
Given the frequency of military incursions the atmosphere in the camps is often tense, however, residents display remarkable resilience and resourcefulness in the face of these challenges. Living as they do in such close quarters, the sense of community and collective care is evident and a pleasure to behold.
In Deheish camp, we meet Fatma, who is regarded as a “mother” to all kids in the camp and a teacher by profession. Fostering a sense of community, providing alternative narratives, education and spare time activities are important to her. Fatma life is a living proof of this. When she speaks about her life under the occupation, her words are filled with compassion and understanding.
“I don’t think most of the Israeli soldiers enjoy what they are doing. They are forced to follow orders like soldiers anywhere. I want to learn Hebrew in order to understand what they are saying.” – Fatma
In addition to her job as an English teacher at Al Khadr Girls Secondary School, she assists between five to ten children a day in her home with their homework. She is hugely popular and much liked among children who come to her not just from in and around Deheish but also from Jerusalem and Hebron. In fact, most graduates and professionals in general from the camp visited her house for lessons while still in school. Visiting her house for our Arabic lessons we can feel the comforting warmth which is so integral to her identity as a beacon in the community. It’s reassuring to see that life goes on as normal as possible, that food will be on the table and that children will be going to school… even under occupation.
UNOCHA January 2015: Bethlehem governorate: fragmentation and humanitarian concerns