Tuesday, November 24, 2020

From Aida to Shuafat, Part One

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By Ruairi Henchy - March 11, 2015
Section: [Main News] [Life under Occupation]
Tags: [refugee camps] [refugees] [Bethlehem]

This is the first segment in a series of articles to be published by the Palestine Monitor focused on the plight of Palestinian refugees throughout occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. Our correspondent, Ruairi Henchy, will be visiting a handful of camps in order to give voice to their grievances and to highlight the distinctly unique character of each camp. All photos by Ruairy Henchy.

Refugees, and the camps they live in today, are a central part of the story of the Palestinian people.

In the Palestinian Nakba, or “catastrophe,” in 1948, approximately 750,000 people were expelled from their homes in present day Israel, and during the 1967 Naksa (“setback”), roughly another 300,000 Palestinians fled the territory occupied by Israel after the Six Day War. Today, these refugees and their descendants number at least 5.4 million people, scattered across the four corners of the earth, but mostly concentrated in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank.

The Aida and al-Aza camps in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank were two of the first UNRWA camps established in 1948. Situated no more than a few hundred-meters apart, the camps lie between Bethlehem and Israel’s separation wall, and are directly adjacent to the religiously sensitive Rachel’s tomb. 

Taking a taxi from Bethlehem’s manger square down toward the wall, the camps lie in a surreal location. Aida is sandwiched between the wall and the nearby Jewish-only settlement of Gilo, and the rather majestic Jacir Palace hotel cuts an unlikely sight in between Aida and the neighboring Aza camp.

The main entrance to Aida is through an archway adorned with the world’s largest key (albeit unofficially); the key symbolizes the right of Palestinians to return to their original homes, established by UN Resolution 194.

A mere stone’s throw away, on the first street corner after the archway, is a small shop selling various trinkets and Palestinian memorabilia. The shop owner, Akram al-Warah, said that he tries to sell his goods to the sporadic flow of tourists who come to see the key and the graffiti on the separation wall. 

Akram is originally from Deir Abban – a destroyed Palestinian village west of Jerusalem - but he grew up in Aida camp. He told me that he is a civil engineer who studied and worked in Baghdad for 10 years, where he eventually met his wife, a Kurdish Iraqi. He lost his job and they had to flee in 1996 during the Gulf War, which devastated the country. “Iraq was so beautiful, but in all the world there are problems – so I became a refugee again,” he lamented.

Akram found engineering work with an American company upon returning to Aida , but was quickly rendered unemployed once more when the company left Palestine in 2000 following the outbreak of the Second Intifada. “So I learned to make jewellery by hand and carve the olive wood to make sculptures for the tourists,” he said. 

He proudly displays Palestinian coins and bank notes from before 1948 at the entrance of the shop, along with many of his hand-whittled olive wood keys. “I try to find anything to show the tourists how life was like before 1948… And the key of return [is] to show to the world what happened to the Palestinians.”

After wandering around Aida’s alleyways, I came upon Mustafa al-Araj, a 27 year old from the camp who was finishing up a free tour he had given to a small group of tourists. Mustafa explained that employment opportunities are similarly limited for the camp resident’s today. “I graduated in social work, but I couldn’t find a job in what I study so I work in a restaurant in Bethlehem, in Manger Square, and I volunteer in the Aida youth center,” he said.

Mustafa told me that life is tough in the camp given the claustrophobic conditions and the frequent raids by the Israeli army, but this in turn has led to strong connections between residents

Decades of “living on top of each other” have fostered a strong sense of community within the camps. “Everybody knows everybody, everybody joins in all occasions like weddings and funerals, we even help each other build our houses,” he explained.

He detailed how the frequent strife with the nearby Israeli military base has similarly had a curiously positive effect on the social fabric of the camp, saying that their idleness has bred resistance rather than vice. “As refugees… if we have stress or extra energy, we don’t steal something or drink or take drugs – we use it in the clashes against the occupation,” he said.

I asked Mustafa whether the new generation still believed in the right to return, or if they saw Bethlehem as their real home now, considering how none of them had ever even seen their old villages. Mustafa paused to think. “I know it’s hard,. [The] right of return became like a dream… But any kid in the camp will tell you his grandfather’s story, where he came from, what the life was like in the village, even the name of the mountain beside his village,” he declared passionately.

The belief in the right to return is even more palpable in the nearby Aza camp, a mere two minute walk away. Locals also know Aza as Beit Jibrin camp, named after a destroyed Palestinian village near Hebron from which most of the camp’s original residents fled in 1948. Built on just 0.2 km² of land, and with around 1,500 residents from 12 different Beit Jibrin families, Aza is the smallest refugee camp in the West Bank.

23-year-old Shadi Elqaisi, jokingly referred to as 'Slim Shadi’ by his friends, explains that Aida and Aza have close ties. For example, Aza’s residents all attend the UNRWA schools in Aida camp, although Aza does have its own mosque and some small community centres. Shadi’s extended family numbers nearly 60 people.  We spoke in the family’s restaurant, Nandose, on the edge of the camp.

He explained that everyone from Beit Jibrin escaped to Aida in 1948, but many fled again to Jordan during the 1967 war due to the difficulties of the new occupation. The trickle of people leaving has continued ever since. “The occupation will always let you leave to Jordan if you want to because all of their problems come from the camps – not from Ramallah, they are living well there,” he claimed.

“Every prisoner in the West Bank is from a camp,” said Shadi, as he went on to explain that he spent a year in jail himself, including three months of solitary confinement after being arrested at a demonstration as a 16 year old. “I went to a demonstration because I was angry about them killing my friend from Dheisheh [another camp in Bethlehem]. We went to school together for 10 years and they shot him at a checkpoint – he was dead in 10 seconds,” he exclaimed.

As he pulled himself together, Shadi explained that he still doesn’t understand the logic of the Israeli occupation and how Israelis can ever hope to live in peace. “I was 16 years old, it’s like a child. When you kick a child like this in the prison and put him in a room alone for three months, this is stupid,” he said. “You kill my friend, you put me in a refugee camp, you steal my land, what do you want from me when I get out from the jail. Should I hug you? Thank you?” he declared, shaking his head in bemusement.

As for life in the camp, Shadi said that the cramped surroundings and difficult lifestyle leaves everybody with the burning desire to return to Beit Jibrin one day. There is no sense of a creeping acceptance of the status quo. “Nobody likes the camp. Everybody wants to go back to Beit Jibrin… There’s no future for children here,” he said with resignation. 

Wandering back through the squalor of Aza’s winding alleyways toward the main road leading back into Bethlehem, it seemed hard not to share in Shadi’s pessimism. “Give me a call if you ever need any more information about Aza – I’ll still be here,” he said as he bade farewell. 

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