Despair and Hope: The history of Fawwar Refugee Camp

Fawwar Refugee Camp

Fawwar Refugee Camp. Photo EAPPI/R. Pond.

by South Hebron Hills team

Our first visit to Fawwar Refugee Camp was to meet and hear the story of Khalil Muhammed, a 11 year old boy who was tragically shot by the Israeli army on 10 August. On our follow-up visit to Fawwar Refugee Camp, we find ourselves sitting in the city center talking to Mohammed Abed Al Fattah Al Titi, known as Abu Akram. Several of his descendants sit on the floor cushions facing us, at times helping Abu Akram to clarify his story.

Abu Akram is an old man who tells us the story of the Nakba in 1948 and how he along with his family and neighbors from the village of Iraq Al Manshelha were forced to leave their village and become refugees in their own country. He clearly remembers the exact date, 14 May, 1949. He still dreams of going back to his village and his house and proudly shows us the key to his house in Iraq Al Manshelha, which he still has.

Both of our visits with the people of Fawwar Refugee Camp have painted a picture of both despair and hope. On the one hand, Fawwar is a community created out of a war. The only purpose of the refugee camp is to house exiles and their descendents. Yet, out of this situation comes ray of hope and promise for the future. Perhaps not Fawwar itself, but the people who live there. Although the residents of the refugee camp do not know when or if they will be able to return to their homes or be compensated for their loss, many still have the keys for their homes, which is a symbol of hope that they will one day return to their homes. The symbol of the key is prominently displayed throughout the community in murals and graffiti as a visible representation of this hope for a future return home.

Mohammed shows the key from his home. He is one of less than 5 survivors from the original inhabitants of Fawwar still living in the community.  Photo EAPPI/R. Pond.

Mohammed shows the key from his home. He is one of less than 5 survivors from the original inhabitants of Fawwar still living in the community. Photo EAPPI/R. Pond.

A Dire situation

Fawwar refugee camp is located in the South Hebron Hills, close to the city of Hebron. Its inhabitants originally come from 18 communities, mainly in the Gaza, Beersheve, and Hebron areas. Currently, a population between 9,000 to 10,000 lives in an area less than one square km. According to an official of the village, the poverty level in Fawwar is 10 times worse than the official poverty level in Palestine. Fawwar suffers from an inadequate sewage and school system. The refugee camp is the scene of frequent clashes with the Israeli army with many inhabitants bearing the wounds to verify the confrontations.

Fawwar exists under the constant eye of the Israeli army, which has placed a base and watch tower on the camp border. A large Israeli settlement and outpost also neighbor the community. The Israeli army frequently raids the community at night, searches the community, and sets up flying road blocks, not only continuing the harassment in the community, but also maintaining an atmosphere of tension.

Khalil Mohammad Al Anati's grandparents

Khalil’s grandparents with his younger brother. Photo EAPPI/R. Pond.

When we first entered the camp, the parents of Khalil were suffering both grief and anger over the senseless loss of their young son. They showed us a picture of Khalil, which was posted all over the camp.

They asked us: “What do you think this picture of Khalil says?” The told us that they think he is asking: “Why did you shoot me?”

The question still echoes, unanswered.

Signs of hope and promise

Before we leave Fawwar we have the opportunity to visit the Palestinian Child Cultural Centre where Shadi Titi, a physics teacher who volunteers as the Centre’s manager. She introduces us to T. Khalil Nasser, who leads a youth Drama group currently rehearsing for a play In The Camp which depicts life in Fawwar for youth and which the will play in Hebron in the coming weeks. Interviewing these enthusiastic young people gives us hope for the community.   Many are fluent in English and all individually spoke of their desire for peace and love for the future. Not one hint of hate or despair was reflected in their attitudes.

Visiting the community, we cannot help but be affected by both the despair of living in a refugee camp and also the overwhelming desire to move on to a better way of life.   We also cannot ignore the many individuals bearing the scars, wounds and in some cases the handicaps that resulted from encounters with the Israeli army. But in this seemingly hopeless situation, friendship and generosity abounds. Walking down the only business street of the community we are greeted with many offers of friendship and support.

Despite many generations who have lived under these terrible circumstances, they still hold out hope and promise for the future. We must not forget that all humans have the right to all human rights and to live a dignity. So do the people of Fawwar Refugee Camp. Let us hope that they finally will get the future they so rightfully deserve.   

Certainly those that have the education will be able to move to a better environment. But there are many, who for no fault of their own but simply from being refugees who live in poverty, have little education and very little opportunity to improve their lives without significant support from outside. They do not deserve to live in their current environment. We will continue to visit our new friends and be inspired by their hope for the future.

*Read more about our work in the Southern West Bank.

As tensions rise, when will the international community say enough is enough?

In recent weeks, tensions have risen in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Six Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. Palestinians mourned the deaths. Violence between Gaza and southern Israel renewed. At the same time, tension increased at Al-Aqsa mosque as Israeli forces closed access for worshippers.

by Jerusalem team

Worshippers pray outside an Israeli military flying checkpoint in the Old City streets when not allowed access to pray at Al Aqsa mosque. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

Worshippers pray outside an Israeli military flying checkpoint in the Old City streets when not allowed access to pray at Al Aqsa mosque. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

In recent months Israeli settlers have continuously harrassed the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third most holy site for Muslims. In one instance, Israeli settlers entered into the mosque area with the support of Israeli forces and tried to take an Israeli flag inside the mosque, which then turned into clashes with Palestinians.

As EAPPI monitors we have witnessed heavy military and police presence in the Old City of Jerusalem especially during Friday prayers; a presence that contributes to an atmosphere of tension.

On Friday February 28 Israeli military closed access to pray in the Al-Aqsa mosque for thousands of men under 50 years old. In a peaceful response, worshippers lined the streets of the Old City to pray, despite heavy military presence.

Israeli forces closed access to Al Aqsa mosque for men under the age of 50. 28 February 2014. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

Israeli forces closed access to Al Aqsa mosque for men under the age of 50. 28 February 2014. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

Again, on Friday March 14 men under 40 were blocked from entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque for Friday prayers. Israeli forces set up flying checkpoints within and outside of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Israeli military inspected the IDs of Palestinians and turned many away, forcing them to pray in the streets.

Israeli soldiers set up a flying checkpoint in the Old City of Jerusalem on Friday. They check the IDs of Palestinians before granting access to pray at Al Aqsa mosque. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

Israeli soldiers set up a flying checkpoint in the Old City of Jerusalem on Friday. They check the IDs of Palestinians before granting access to pray at Al Aqsa mosque. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

In the past week, Palestinians mourned after six people were killed in the West Bank and three in Gaza. Many of the demonstrations turned into clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces. On Tuesday March 11, EAPPI monitors witnessed a peaceful protest in front of the Damascus Gate in memory of the killed Palestinians and for the right to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque.

Israel’s Military Order 101, dating back to 1967, prohibits all gatherings of 10 or more persons “for a political purpose” unless they have received authorization in advance under a permit issued by the Israeli military commander in the area. Without this, there is a threat of imprisonment for up to 10 years and/or a grave fine, according to a recent Amnesty report.

Soldiers position outside Damascus gate during a demonstration against the killing of Palestinians and for the right for access to pray in Al Aqsa mosque. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

Soldiers position outside Damascus gate during a demonstration against the killing of Palestinians and for the right for access to pray in Al Aqsa mosque. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

Tuesday’s events reflected this military order. After 10 minutes of the demonstration minutes, Israeli riot police started to shoot sound grenades into the middle of the crowd. Israeli riot police also injured several people with rubber bullets and batons by Israeli forces. EAs eyewitnessed brutal maltreatment of two arrested young men in the middle of the street. We wondered, if this is what happens when we are here to witness, what is happening to Palestinians when hidden from the public eye?

On 27th of February Amnesty International published a new report Trigger-happy: Israel’s use of excessive force in the West Bank about human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. According to the report there were 27 Palestinians killed in 2013, 8 in 2012, and 10 in 2011. So far in 2014, 5 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces.

We thought of the Palestinians killed. We thought of the renewed violence in Gaza and southern Israel.  We wondered, how many will have to die this year?And when will the international community say enough is enough?

The girl who climbed to the top of the world

The situation at Burin secondary school in the Nablus district is escalating, adversely affecting the students access to education. The presence of Israeli soldiers and settlers often result in clashes with the school boys. Despite all, one girl stands out as an inspiring model with hope for the future.

In Burin, the school begins with the national anthem as in all Palestinian schools. Photo EAPPI/T. Kopra.

In Burin, the school begins with the national anthem as in all Palestinian schools. Photo EAPPI/T. Kopra.

by Taika, Yanoun team

One of the most rewarding and important tasks for Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) is to do “school runs” that enable Palestinian children to arrive safely at school each morning. School runs are a part of an Access to Education initiative supported by UNICEF which aims to guarantee children’s access to education despite the hardships of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. One of the schools we visit weekly is the Burin secondary school. 285 students study here, 25 of them are female.

A provocative presence

In recent weeks the situation between the students and the soldiers outside the school grounds, only some 50 metres away, escalated several times. Israeli soldiers park their jeeps behind the school each day claiming to protect the Israeli settlers using Road 60, about 200 metres away from the school. Settlers from the Yizhar settlement, located on a hill top behind the school, and soldiers often accuse students from Burin of throwing stones at their cars. At times the soldiers get out of their jeep and walk very close to the school yard during the lunch break. Sometimes the head of security of the Yizhar settlement accompanies them.

The Israeli soldiers are often accompanied by the security staff of the close by Yizhar settlement in their white jeeps. Photo EAPPI/T. Kopra.

The Israeli soldiers are often accompanied by the security staff of the close by Yizhar settlement in their white jeeps. Photo EAPPI/T. Kopra.

The presence of the settlers particuarly provokes the students who start shouting and gather at the school fence. Sometimes the boys throw stones, which causes the soldiers to respond with tear gas and sound bombs. Sometimes the soldiers also enter the school yard to intimidate the students, or set up a flying checkpoint just outside the school gate when it’s time for the students to go home. They detain the boys and check their hands in order to find out if they have thrown rocks. They also search their school bags and keep them waiting for long time before they can go home.

“The best way to fight the occupation is to get an education.”

Incidents like this have a huge effect on the education of the students in Burin secondary school. Hyped-up by their encounters with the soldiers, the students are not able to concentrate on their studies in the classroom. Teachers at Burin secondary school tell us it has become increasingly difficult to control the students or to get them to pay attention during the lessons. This particularly affects the boys.

“The boys want to fight the occupation, they want to fight the soldiers”, says Ghassan, a local activist, who graduated from the Burin secondary school some years ago. “They don’t understand that the best way to fight the occupation is to get an education,” he sighs.

She climbed Kilimanjaro

Yasmeen al Najjar is one of the first palestinian women to climb Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. "I can't climb to the hills here in Burin because of the soldiers and the settlers, but I can climb a mountain in Africa," she explains. "It shouldn't be like this." Photo EAPPI/T. Kopra.

Yasmeen al Najjar is one of the first palestinian women to climb Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. “I can’t climb to the hills here in Burin because of the soldiers and the settlers, but I can climb a mountain in Africa,” she explains. “It shouldn’t be like this.” Photo EAPPI/T. Kopra.

In the midst of the chaotic everyday life of Burin school, we meet one of the most inspiring people that we have met during our time in Yanoun. 17-year-old Yasmeen Al Najjar, a student, just returned from a trip in Africa. This bright young woman climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in just eight days. A remarkable achievement for anyone, let alone for a young woman who wears a prosthesis on her left leg. Yasmeen took part in an expedition as a member of Palestinian Child Relief, an organization focusing on helping handicapped children in Palestine. Now the whole school looks up to her. We meet her on a morning when she received an award for her remarkable achievement.

When we ask her, what does she think of the soldiers parked outside of her school every day, she emphasizes that all children have the right to study in peace. She feels that the Palestinian students are not in an equal position with their peers in Israel or in other countries.

Israel signed and ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, which expects all signatories to “take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict” (Article 38/4). As an occupying power, Israel must guarantee equal educational rights to Palestinian children. 

Despite the harsh reality in Burin school and the students’s deteriorating chances to focus on their studies, Yasmeen is confident when we ask what she aspires to do in the future. She wants to study abroad and become a medical engineer who develops better prosthesis for children who are born without a limb or have lost one in an accident. When we tell her how much we admire her courage to climb to Kilimanjaro, she responds with a warm smile and reassurance: “You can also do it.”

What fuels the clashes in Hebron?

For several months, daily clashes between Palestinian teenage boys and Israeli soldiers around two crucial checkpoints have occurred in Hebron. Due to the frequency of these clashes they are referred to by locals as “a phenomenon”. But we are also reminded that the context in which these clashes occur are tied to the social impact of life in a separated city.

by Marcos, Sarah, Bertrand, and Maria, Hebron team

Where do the clashes occur?

Each morning and afternoon, as the boys make their way to and from school, clashes occur. A few boys gather. A military jeep, filled with soldiers, rolls up. One stone is thrown toward checkpoint 29 or 209. More boys arrive and chanting starts. Soldiers begin to shift uneasily in their boots. A shower of stones reaches the military men. A tear gas canister is fired toward the boys. White smoke fills the tense air as people pull their shirts over their mouths and run to escape the gas. There are a few minutes of calm. Then it starts again. Stones met with stun grenades and tear gas; unequal weapons in a complicated clash.

Images of everyday life at checkpoints 209 and 29 where clashes occur daily. Photo EAPPI/M. Knoblauch.

Images of everyday life at checkpoints 209 and 29 where clashes occur daily. Photo EAPPI/M. Knoblauch.

This is Hebron, a microcosm of the occupation. Palestinians, Israeli settlers, soldiers, police, and border police converge in a split city. After the Oslo Accords, the city of Hebron was divided into the Palestinian controlled H1 and the Israeli controlled H2. 18 permanently staffed military checkpoints and 120 physical obstacles are strategically placed around the H2 area; monitoring, restricting, and checking the Palestinian people.

Two such checkpoints are 29 and 209. These checkpoints are approximately 300m apart and are manned by the Israeli border police with assistance from the Israeli military. In recent months, the area between these checkpoints has experienced what has been described by local Palestinians as a “phenomenon”; violent clashes occurring sometimes twice a day between school boys and soldiers. 

 

What fuels the tension?

1.  Lack of civil or military authority creates a void

The zone wedged between these checkpoints is home to four schools, two of which are exclusively for boys between the ages of 11 and 16. Technically this area is H2 and Israel is therefore, as the occupying power, obligated to protect not only the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians living in the area, but also to ensure their human rights and law enforcement. But on the other side of checkpoints 29 and 209 there is no Israeli military or police presence. The military emerge only at the onset of a clash. At that point, soldiers move down the respective streets from the checkpoints into this no man’s land. At any other time, there is no law and order, very little control, and extensive tension.

In this calculated occupation, each action is carefully considered and implemented. The location of checkpoints 209 and 29 and lack of authoritative presence in this volatile zone is clearly strategic. Behind the checkpoints are several Israeli settlements and the shared Ibrahimi Mosque / Tomb of the Patriarchs. The checkpoints allow secure and controlled access to these sites for Israelis and link the settlements. It is not beneficial to the Israeli military to go beyond these checkpoints even though the area is H2 and Israel is required to protect and monitor the people and the place. This absence further fuels the tension.

2. Occupation; the root of frustration

The existence of checkpoints 29 and 209 create a sense of imprisonment. Metal detectors, turnstiles, and armed soldiers control who goes where and when. The restrictions on the natural movement of the Palestinian people socially suffocate normality and reinforce the reality of the occupation. This breeds frustration and fuels the clashes.

Palestinians and soldiers are responsible for provocation and violence; when Palestinians throw stones they encourage the soldiers to move away from the checkpoint. And the checkpoint itself provokes the Palestinians to throw stones in the first place. The only civil and military authority allowed on both sides of the checkpoints is the Israeli authority as Palestinian authorities are not allowed to enter H2. Israeli police, responsible for civil security in the occupied territories, are not present beyond checkpoints 209 and 29 thus leaving an open space for crime and unrest.

Clashes are a form of resistance led by teenage boys searching as a way to express their unhappiness and frustration with the occupation. Stone throwing has developed into a symbol of struggle and a demonstration of dissatisfaction all over the occupied Palestinian territory, but in this area it has become an almost every day occurrence.

3. Teacher’s cannot fill the void amidst strikes

Where Palestinian law enforcement is prevented from acting as a civil authority, the Israeli police are not present to fill that gap. Teachers and residents are left with the responsibility to act as the societal authority in an attempt to restore order and achieve a school day in an extremely volatile situation.

Right before school begins in the morning, teachers and residents take to the streets in an attempt to dissipate the boy’s intentions, bring them into the classrooms before the first stone is thrown. Sometimes teachers succeed, but sometimes tension escalates too fast, a stone flies and the violent unequal force demonstration begins.

A teacher in one of the schools explained that the main problem is the Israeli soldiers approaching the entrance of the schools and he believes the clashes could be avoided if the army stayed behind the checkpoints.

Several times, during the last month, Palestinian teachers were on total or partial strikes, requesting better working conditions and salaries, a scenario that replicates the educational situation in many countries in the world. Negotiations between the teachers’ union and the Palestinian Authority occur during afternoons leaving no time to communicate to the students that schools will be closed.

Unlike most countries, in Palestine, particularly in Hebron, a teacher’s strike has two consequences: a lost school day and unbounded tension in the vicinity of the checkpoints.

Who will win?

Clashes never result in a winner. Neither the soldiers nor the boys gain territory, power, control, or respect. But they continue, in the same manner, with the same result. A tipping point is inevitable but what that tipping point may be remains a mystery.