To Fight or Flee

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The giant, gray, graffiti-splattered separation wall that partially encloses the Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem and the smoke-scarred Israeli observation tower that rises above it are constant reminders that Palestinian refugees are living under occupation.

Mohammed Al3

Mohammed Al-Azraq has been imprisoned twice and shot once for his political actions against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

“We are surrounded by towers, soldiers, soldiers at night in the neighborhood and political tensions are high,” said resident Mohammed Al-Azraq as he walked on the small winding pathways carved out between four- and five-story buildings.

Violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis are all too common for families living inside many Palestinian refugee camps, including Aida, just a quick car ride from Bethlehem. Here, the giant wall towers over large sections of the camp, enclosing its 6,000 residents in an area of land too small for their needs.

Mohammed, 27, lives in Aida Camp, one the West Bank’s most dangerous refugee camps. Born before the first and second intifadas, Mohammed is accustomed to gunfire, stone throwing and political protests outside his front door.

“No one feels safe living here unless they are inside their homes,” he added.

Refugee camps looked much different when they were first established by international organizations like the United Nations and the Red Cross during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Camps with rows of tents were initially set up throughout the West Bank and Gaza to house the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees being expelled from their home countries. They were meant to be a temporary solution, but 65 years later many of the same families remain in camps like Aida.

“The refugee camps have essentially become semi-permanent neighborhoods,” said Rex Brynen, a McGill University professor and expert on Palestinian refugees. “So they’ve become peculiar spaces and they’re likely to remain so for an extended period of time.”

A quick walk down the camp’s narrow streets reveals a history of fighting between soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces  and local Palestinians. Remnants of violence, both old and new, are everywhere in Aida, from the shattered glass windows of the camp’s mosque to bullet-sized holes in the concrete walls of homes and even the United Nation’s children’s school.

“Look at the house there, and there,” said Mohammed, pointing to the shaved concrete exterior wall of two homes adjacent to the children’s school. “They (the IDF) shoot anything…. everywhere you look you see a fixed bullet hole.”

A spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces did not respond for comment on IDF involvement in the refugee camps and on allegations of unprovoked violence within the camps.

Graffiti in the Aida Refugee Camp captures the passion and anger residents feel about the occupation.

Graffiti in the Aida Refugee Camp captures the passion and anger residents feel about the occupation.

The reminders of war and imprisonment are never far away.  Black and white profile photographs of men are painted on the main wall after entering Aida Refugee Camp. The images depict some of the camp’s political prisoners who have spent more than a decade in Israeli prisons.

Clashes between Palestinians and IDF soldiers, as well as high incarceration rates, have had a significant impact on the camp’s youth, said Mohammed’s uncle, Nidal Al-Azraq, the former director of an on-site youth center.  After being arrested, he said, young people come back with more motivation to take political action, which has included burning a military observation tower and making a hole in the separation barrier. Many of these young people, he said, leave prison psychologically damaged.

“This generation is really losing hope for the future,” he said. “They live with their families, they don’t have savings, they don’t have college degrees, they don’t have a lot of things.”

A cycle of violence, revenge, grievance and protest has been a dynamic throughout the occupied territories since 1967, added Brynen.

The fighting has had a direct impact on the Al-Azraq damily. A political activist, Mohammed dropped out of high school after IDF soldiers arrested his 17-year old brother during the Second Intifada of the early 2000s. He was imprisoned for six years.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Detainees, Israeli forces detained more than 78,000 Palestinians, including 9,000 children and 960 women, during the Second Intifada. Most Palestinians, suggested Brynen, know someone who has been imprisoned.

“If you look at the percentage of Palestinians who know somebody who has been arrested, it’s stunningly high,” added Brynen.

B’Tselem, an Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, estimates there are more than 4,800 Palestinian security detainees and prisoners in Israeli prisons. According to the Palestine Monitor, a pro-Palestine news website, IDF soldiers arrested 16 refugees in March alone.

Mohammed himself has been arrested twice and shot once.  The activist was shot in the arm during a demonstration against the separation wall in 2005, and was thrown in jail for nearly two years.  He was imprisoned again last March after hundreds of occupied soldiers entered the camp under the rising sun.

“It was so hard,” said Mohammed reflecting on his two stints in Israeli prisons.

Despite his time spent in prison, and recovering from several physical wounds, Mohammed remains committed to fighting for the rights of Palestinians. In a blog post published on a Scottish socialist website, the activist wrote:

“When we chose to be in the line of resistance we knew that something bad would happen to us, we knew we would be killed or we will spend years and years in the jails. Yet, we know also that we are fighting for justice, for freedom and dignity of humanity, not only for Palestinians but also for all people around the world.”

Families living in Aida, said Nidal, are exhausted and tired. Decades of fighting and living in miserable situations, he added, have taken a toll on their well-being.  The residents fight, said Nidal, because of the poor living conditions within the camp.

“This generation is reactive,” he said, “because they are locked in a big cage with no food, no place or jobs.”

Aida, like most Palestinian refugee camps, has not seen major renovations or expansion since it was opened several decades ago. In many cases, the building restrictions in the Occupied Territories, set by the Israeli government, have prevented camps from expanding. Most camps are severely overcrowded, and face growing health, security and sanitation problems as a result of these restrictions.

“Access to schools, access to health treatment, access to social services – all of this comes down to this restriction in access and movement,” said Timothy Henry, the acting deputy director of operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East .

In a few years, Nidal believes residents will realize they need to take control of their situation and reduce their reliance on external organizations like the United Nations. Continued fighting, he said, is inevitable.

“When you are under occupation you have the absolute right to resist,” he said.

Mohammed said he has thought of moving out, but only to his homeland.  “I don’t want to go to Bethlehem. I want to go to Haifa; my original village is not here,” he said. “I’m not from here, I’m from there,” he said as he pointed over the separation wall.

But the prospects of repatriation for Palestinian refugees like Mohammed and Nidal is highly unlikely, said Brynen. Even if the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government are able to negotiate a peace plan in the near future, Brynen thinks refugees will not give up on their dream of permanently returning to their homeland.

“Here the issue is between the difference of the Palestinians’ dream of right of return and what the likelihood of any outcome of a peace agreement is,” he said.

Until then, the giant two-ton key that rests 12 meters above the entrance to Aida Camp is the strongest connection many of the camp’s residents have to their native homeland. More than just a reminder of courage and resistance, the key symbolizes the residents’ dream of eventually returning home.

For more about Palestinian refugee camps see Life Inside a Refugee Camp.

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