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Inside the Palestinian refugee camp backed by Celtic football fans

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By Matt Matthews - September 16, 2016
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Section: [Main News] [In Pictures] [Features]
Tags: [Aida camp] [refugees] [refugee camps] [Football]

Netting is strung over the single sports pitch in Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem. Elsewhere, it might hold a couple of deflated footballs. Here, it sags under the weight of tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and stun grenades, fired into the camp by the Israeli Forces.

When Glasgow Celtic Football Club played Israeli side Hapoel Be’er Sheva on August 17, a section of the crowd waved Palestinian banners in an act of solidarity, including 1,500 flags sent over from Aida.

Palestinian football pitches might be a site of conflict, but the international footballing community likes to present itself as above politics. The demonstration, organised by a bloc of leftist supporters known as the 'Green Brigade’, angered the football bigwigs at UEFA.

With the pan-European organisation set to hit them with a £15,000 fine for displaying “illicit banners” of a “political, ideological… nature”, the Brigade set up an online fundraiser. Rather than raising money for themselves, they appealed for donations to “match the fine for Palestine”.

The appeal raised £50,000 in just 24 hours, and at the time of writing the Green Brigade had drummed up £170,000 in less than three weeks, to be split equally between UK-based charity Medical Aid Palestine and the Lajee Cultural Centre in Aida camp.

The Palestine Monitor visited the refugee camp in the southern West Bank to see where the money will be spent.

Mohammed was born in Aida, where 6,000 refugees live on a 0.1km² scrap of land. His relatives have made a home there since the Nakba in 1948. In an event many Palestinians view as ethnic cleansing, they were violently driven out of their home villages by Zionist colonizers, along with an estimated 700,000 other Palestinians.

The names of these villages are painted on the wall of the camp, alongside the names of the 556 children killed by the Israelis during the 2014 attack on the besieged Gaza Strip.

“I used to come here to take dabka [Palestinian dance] classes, to learn [creative skills], to go on summer camps… this centre gave us a chance enjoy being children,” Mohammed told the Palestine Monitor. He now directs the media unit at the centre, teaching children to take pictures and shoot short films.

“As you can see, in the camp the children have no space to play,” Mohammed said, gesturing out of his window to the surrounding 8-metre high concrete wall and the hulking Israeli military base beyond it. “Even if we try to make something good for the children, it’s still not safe. We’ve never been safe or secure.”

When Mohammed was a child, Aida used to have three sports pitches. These were lost when the Israelis erected the wall around the camp in 2004, at the tail end of the 'second Intifada’ in which nearly 3,500 Palestinians were killed.

“That land meant a lot to us,” Mohammed said, kicking away spent teargas canisters as we stood on the roof of the Cultural Centre to look over what he calls the “Apartheid Wall”. The open space is now in the hands of illegal Israeli settlers, and according to Mohammed the centuries-old olive trees that grow there will likely soon be uprooted and replaced with Israeli homes.

With this loss, the Lajee Centre’s garden and sports pitch are the only open spaces left for children from Aida. But even these are under threat. Last year, the newly-constructed sports pitch was almost immediately damaged by a tear gas fire, and in the days following the headline-grabbing Celtic stunt, Israeli forces invaded the Centre.

According to Mohammed, the Israeli soldiers claimed a child had thrown a bomb from the Centre, but were proven wrong by Lajee’s own CCTV footage. “They know we’re a cultural centre, they know very well what we do here,” said Mohammed, his lip curling. “They know.”Mohammed said these invasions on flimsy pretexts were a regular occurrence, “but still, the children were very scared.”

They have every right to be. In 2015, 13-year-old Abed al-Rahman Obeidallah was shot dead in the street by an Israeli sniper, in what the authorities later described as a “mistake”. Abdel, who was wearing his school uniform and carrying a book bag when he died, was the seventh Aida child in ten years to be killed by the Israeli Forces.

With an estimated 50% unemployment rate in Aida camp, even those children who survive into adulthood are unlikely to make it out of the camp. The Lajee centre provides a rare escape from daily reality. For example, this summer Mohammed was able to take 20 kids on tour through the UK, dancing, performing and displaying their photography.

While on tour, they visited Celtic’s stadium in Glasgow and forged the links which led to the Green Brigade’s act of political protest, and the subsequent show of international support.

What will the money from the Kickstarter be spent on? “Well…” Mohammed said thoughtfully. “I thought I might buy myself a sports car.” He laughed.

In fact, Mohammed explained, the centre will use up the money to start a football club for the camp’s youth. There are 80 children signed up to the new squad, which spans several age groups, and will also give young female footballers the chance to play in their own team. In the socially conservative milieu of a Palestinian refugee camp, this is a rare opportunity.

Most families in the camp live below the poverty line, and so some of the money will buy new equipment, sports shoes and clothes for Aida’s budding sports stars. Other funds will be used to renovate the football pitch, for transportation to matches within the occupied West Bank and maybe even for a tour out of the country.

“I really want to thank Celtic FC, but even more I want to thank the Green Brigade and the Celtic supporters,” Mohammed added. “They said it was a small act of support. But it was a big thing for us, as Palestinians, to have all the world’s media talking about us.”

The Centre’s new football team will be debuting in the Bethlehem league in 2017. Its name, naturally, will be Lajee Celtic.

 

 
Lajee Centre’s 'thank you Celtic video’

 

 

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