Monday, March 01, 2021

Resistance from Azzeh refugee camp: “We are here”

By Lynda Franken - August 09, 2014
Section: [Main News] [Life under Occupation]
Tags: [refugee camps] [Israeli Wall] [protests]

The demonstration in the street nearby Azzeh refugee camp on the August 1st | IMEMC (International Middle East Media Centre) 
"The third intifada is not now, but if it comes, we know. It is a matter of feeling,” 23-year-old Osama from Al-Azzeh refugee camp in Bethlehem told Palestine Monitor


Osama lives right by the street where demonstrations have taken place almost every night since 'Operation Protective Edge’ began. Remnants of the demonstrations litter the roadside; rubber bullets and all kinds of tear gas canisters.  The street used to connect Jerusalem to Hebron, but passage is now restricted by the eight-metre high concrete Wall.  

The demonstrations are not very well organized. “It sometimes starts with just five people on the streets,” Osama says. A Facebook-group lets residents know what is going on around the camp. The community, however, is small and news travels quickly via word of mouth.

Demonstrators chant and march towards the Wall. Some of them throw stones at the guard tower, which holds at least one Israeli soldier at all times.

Osama admits that throwing stones is not very effective if your intention is to hurt the soldiers; but, he says, that is not the goal of most protestors. “We try to tell a message of 'we are here’. It is a message of occupation.” 

Asserting that message is not without danger. On Friday August 1st, 3,000 to 3,500 people marched from Bethlehem’s main square towards the guard tower near the Wall. 

According to volunteers from the International Solidarity Movement, people were chanting but nobody was throwing stones. When the group was approaching the Wall, twenty Israeli soldiers came out and shot tear gas canisters into the crowd. The people in the front of the crowd suffered from excessive tear gas inhalation. Most of the crowd left after that.

A small group of about twenty demonstrators confronted the soldiers by throwing stones, after which the soldiers started firing rubber coated steel bullets, injuring several of them.

Raids in the camp

Tensions in the camp have been rising since the three Israeli teenagers went missing in June. Under the pretext of locating the teenagers alive, the Israeli army launched an extensive search operation across the West Bank, including Azzeh camp, raiding houses of Hamas-affiliated persons. 

Seven buildings were targeted, each building housed four to seven families. Members of the camp called  it a form of “collective punishment” and questioned why washing machines had to be pulled out of the wall and cupboards raided in order to find the teenagers. With no arrests made, the inhabitants were left in fear of their possible return.

It has since been revealed that the Israeli police, intelligence officials and Israeli Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew within hours that the teenagers had been killed.

The lack of protection during raids and demonstrations is a major problem that is interlinked with feelings of hatred towards Israelis and the urge to throw stones at their soldiers, says Osama. “Israelis are  like soldiers for most of the people in the (refugee) camp. All Israelis we see are soldiers. […] Don’t expect us to throw flowers if we don’t have protection (against them).”

Life in Al-Azzeh Refugee Camp

Osama has lived his entire life in Al-Azzeh camp, the smallest but most densely populated refugee camp in the West Bank. According to UNRWA, 2,078 people inhabited the two hectares of land in Bethlehem in 2007. The population of the camp has grown with 55 per cent since its foundation in 1950, while the camp has no room to expand. This means entire families are squeezed into small rooms.

The official name of the camp is Beit Jibrin, after the village in the western hills of Hebron where most of the camp’s residents lived before being expelled in the war of 1948. Over sixty per cent of the inhabitants of the camp descent from the Al-Azzeh family, from which its modern name derives. 

The camp has no playgrounds, no parks, no schools and no medical services. Inhabitants are required to use these facilities in the nearby Dheisheh or Aida refugee camps.  The unemployment rate in the camp was almost thirty per cent in 2008, which is ten per cent higher than the West Bank average of that year.  Those that are employed take home over a 100 dollars a month less than their West Bank counterparts. 

Frustration is high, especially among young people who finish university and are unable to find a job. Spending their time drinking coffee and applying for jobs, for some, demonstrations are the most exciting part of the day. 

Artist from Azzeh

A success story from Azzeh is that of Muhannad al-Azzeh, an artist who was born and raised in the camp. Muhanned started to study Fine Arts at Abu Dis University in 2003, but was arrested by the Israeli army during his first year for allegations of “student activism.” 

He spent three years in an Israeli jail. Whilst imprisoned he created abstract paintings resembling life outside jail and some of his artwork can be seen on murals in Azzeh camp.

For Osama, Muhanned’s story represents both fear and hope: fear of arrest, but also hope for a better future. For him life under occupation means that “the Israelis don’t kill you, but they kill everything in you: your dreams, your drive, your goals. They push you to the limit and hope you will leave the country eventually.” 

The key is not giving in. 


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