Boys vs IDF – Rocks vs Tear Gas
Fellow tourist to me – ‘I think the tour of the refugee camp might be cancelled!’
T: ‘They’re throwing tear gas down at some people!’
When I relayed this to my guide, he laughed out loud and said if they (the Palestinians) let something that small stop them from working they’d never get anything done.
We walked along the wall and headed towards the Aida refugee camp, but first stopping underneath a Guard Tower situated above a common protest area. On arrival the day before we drove through a protest. I’ve seen it on the news since, and recognised it in documentaries.
My guide picked up one of the many tear gas canisters lying in the bushes and gave it to me as present. Arriving back at Heathrow I noticed my suitcase lock had been broken, and the contents moved around, and some even bagged up. I eventually figured it must have been this canister that made them search my bag, and actually it was stupid of me to even try to bring it over, I didn’t clean it, or in fact, really give it much thought at all.. There being a lack of room in my head for any more thoughts! But when I got home, it was still in there.
Perhaps now I’m on a list, and that will be my first and last time to Palestine, unless of course, they get their sovereignty back, and can decide who enters their state. (Just in case you’ve forgotten, the Israeli’s determine who goes in and out of Palestine, just as if the Polish decided who goes in and out of Slovakia. WHAT? That’s crazy. Why would they be allowed to do that?! I know right? Utterly crazy, and not to mention, wrong and illegal.)
We continued on towards the camp, and stopped next to a little park area. The football playing fields were covered in netting.
The situation in front of me was one I’d seen in many videos; children throwing rocks at The Wall and the IDF Guards in their posts. Boys aged between five and ten, laughing and shouting, throwing small rocks, pretty far, up into the distance. Then followed a blast, louder shouts whilst the boys ran away with a trail of smoke appearing in the sky, and finally, a cloud of smoke (tear gas) dissipated throughout the small park and towards us. It was very surreal to watch.
It didn’t feel particularly threatening. The boys knew what was coming, and were able to run away, and of course, you can argue that little boys shouldn’t throw rocks at people, but, to these seven year olds, they are caged in, and by who? The men and women in the Guard Towers. And, if nothing else, it’s probably fun. Something to do in a place with very little to do. I saw a few more similar situations, but all I witnessed was tame, with no one on either side getting hurt, but I heard many other sad realities where this was not the case.
Palestine has a population of just less than 5 million. Just under 2 million of those live in Gaza, the others in the West Bank. Approximately 1.5 million live in refugee camps in neighbouring countries (mainly Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, but also Egypt, Yemen and Iraq) with another 4 million Palestinian refugees also living in these countries, but not in camps.
The notion of Refugee Camps tends to conjure up images of big white UN tents inside fenced off areas under a baking sun; dirty, smelly, unhygienic & unsafe. Though the Palestinian camps (19 of them) were owned and ‘run’ by the United Nations, after existing for 70 years they now only administer services within them. The camps I visited, the first just outside Bethlehem (Aida) and the second Balata, near Nablus, are no longer tents, but small communities with cramped concrete housing, poor infrastructure and inadequate living conditions.
Aida Refugee Camp
One of the main entrances to Aida is a huge arch in the shape of a lock. The key on top is a symbol of the ‘right of return‘, passed as Resolution 194 on the Question of Palestine (UN General Assembly: 1984), unambiguously agreed in International Law underArticle 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR; 1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966.) I was told that when leaving their homes in 1948 most locked the doors (as you would) and kept the keys for the day they would return. The names of many camps, or areas in camps are from the villages and towns they left, sadly almost all of them no longer exist.
Aida camp, opened in 1950 originally housed just over 1000 refugees in 94 tents, from Jerusalem and the area west of Hebron. With no increase in size it is now home to over 5000 and is severely overcrowded. In 2000 (the Second Intifada) almost 30 houses were destroyed. As a result of the Wall access to job opportunities has become even more limited. The infrastructure is old and in poor condition. Water access is restricted to a couple of days each fortnight, less in the hot, dry summer months.
Being so close to the main checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem as well as near Israeli Settlements (just in case you have forgotten, illegal under International law) there is a constant high level of tension and military presence, causing regular clashes, often involving children. Lack of safety is a major concern for residents, with just cause given in 2014 281 injuries were sustained by the IDF (33 on minors.) The mainstream Western media does not report the attacks on Palestinians, leading to the misconception of unwarranted aggression from them.
A video taken in the camp I personally find very disturbing (it’s not graphic.) Make of it what you will. Watch here.
There is one school in the camp, adjacent to the wall and a watchtower. You can see in the pictures below bullet holes in the school gates.
In Oct 2015, 13-year-old Abed al-Rahman Obeidallah was on his way home from school when he was shot dead next to the camp’s United Nations RWA office. The official response was that they mistakenly shot him instead of their alleged target standing near by, but still 100m away from the soldiers, in a watchtower above.
Before leaving the camp I was taken to a shop selling jewellery, pottery and other beautiful handmade trinkets.
Balata Refugee Camp
Balata Refugee camp is near the city of Nablus and houses about 30,000 residents (the men I met said 40,000) and is much more conservative than other places I had visited. I definitely felt a lot more intrusive walking around here, and we were told not to take photos of people, or indeed to take many photos. It was set up in 1950 for 5000 refugees from Jaffa and after an initial refusal to move there, they eventually set up more permanent concrete housing than the original tents given. The camp still only covers an area of 0.25 sq km. There are four schools run by UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) as well as a health clinic that serves 50,000 refugees.
We took a short walk around the narrow streets and through the crumbling buildings covered with bullet holes, graffiti, posters of martyrs and littered with overhead wires. We ended up sat in a coffee shop, owned by a friend of our guide. He was also a Graphic Designer and clientele included a Pharmacist & Doctor. A very basic set up; we sat on old plastic and rusty metal chairs, resting on a lino tiled floor. There was a small fridge and a very broken look fan in the corner. We were served cardamon tea, and as always the locals were incredibly friendly and very keen to talk. I worried, or at least expected in these situations for most of the conversation to be directed at the male tourist in our group, but I was just as included, perhaps even more so given all my questions. They told me about the regular (at least once weekly) house raids, called ‘search and rest’ operations. Soldiers had lists of ‘people of interest.’ Every family had members in prison for various offenses ranging from protesting, working illegally, supposedly not obeying orders, (what would you do?) as well as more serious crimes relating to be part of the resistant movement (which, really, is that itself a crime?) This camp however was known for playing a leading role in the First and Second Intifada.
Together they gave me a history of Palestine and how the present situation came to be. What was most interesting to me was how they all spoke of it previously being a secular state with Christians, Jews & Muslims not just co-existing peacefully, but existing as a community with friendly relationships and arabic as the common language. The main religious sites, which are now fully divided and usually manned by arm guards used to be open to all; shared sites. At the time of the Balfour Declaration (1917, when Britain declared that it would support the creation of a national home for the Jewish Population in Palestine) the population was approximately 5% Jewish. Waves of immigration came from Eastern Europe, coupled with a slight increase in friction between the religions, but the real divides and troubles of today started in 1948, the Nakba (Day of the Catastrophe), known as the War of Independence by Israel.
One of the men was from Jaffa (now in Tel Aviv) and has been working there for the last 30 years. Though working for an Israeli company, he crosses illegally, and visits his home area, specifically to one berry tree that still stands in the middle of what is now an industrial complex. He sleeps under the tree. He told me he ‘just wants peace’ and that some Israeli’s are very nice, his issue is not with them, but the government. All many know, he said, was the army, and the paranoia. Even if they (the Palestinians) are minding their own business they are shot regularly with tear gas, just to remind them ‘we are here.’ He said every problem is due to the Settlers. But we help build the Settlements because we need to earn. And the Settlers get their cars fixed by us, buy their fresh vegetable from us. ‘Life goes on.’
They all wanted the same, peace and freedom; to travel, to work. No one knew the answer, and felt that dreams now were dangerous because they only left you frustrated, but they needed to make a life and try to look to some sort of future. There was agreement that the issue of refugee camps was one of the most problematic. No one wanted to stay in the camps, and the 7 million refugees would not be satisfied until they could return home. This number, ever expanding with incredibly high fertility rates in the camp. As well as the raids there are also frequent electricity and water service cuts.
‘The reason we keep going, is each other.’ The community. They can only relate to each other, and try to keep faith that they must do as instructed by God and cannot mistrust Him, the life creator. My guide, an atheist had a slightly different on this…
Before leaving the camp we ate some utterly delicious freshly made falafel and pita. That sentence feels so out of place, but it really was delicious. And needs a mention.
Next we continued visiting sites on my unintentional pilgrimage.. (post coming soon..)