Life under Israeli apartheid: from settlements to refugee camps

Watchtower and graffiti in Aida refugee camp

The Aida refugee camp outside Bethlehem is unlike any place I’ve ever been.  Buildings come out of the ground like mushrooms bending every which way; water tanks sit among the unfinished pilings on virtually every rooftop in the hopes that additions can be made another day; children run around everywhere, playing on rocks piled up from demolished houses; and graffiti adorns every structure, including those no longer fully standing.  Yet, the most striking aspect of Aida is the massive 8-meter wall that extends along an abandoned zone around the community on three sides, riddled with the rubble of demolished houses all along its watchtower-surveiled path.
Like its larger neighbor Dheisheh to the south, Aida is a refugee camp flanking holy Bethlehem that was founded following the 1948 Nakba during which 700,000 Palestinians were chased from their homes in what is now the state of Israel.  Due to its proximity to the wall and Israeli settlements Aida remains the most troubled place in the area.  We arrive in the camp along the separation wall and immediately see Ali Hussein standing on the steps of a building near the wall.  Ali doesn’t speak english but what little I gathered from our pigeon-Arabic conversation was that Ali is 20 years old, has been incarcerated by the Israeli military for an extended period of time, and stands on the steps of the Aida Youth Center.  Moving inside to have a look around the center and find someone who can speak more english, we meet Mohammed Lufti.  Like Ali, Mohammed is in his 20s, comes from a family of 1948 refugees formerly living on the Jerusalem-Jaffa road, and has been incarcerated more than once, the last time being a year and a half ago in which he was held for four years.  The silence that intrudes in virtually every conversation seems especially heavy during this one. 
One of the directors of the center arrives shortly after and introduces himself as Karim.  He is calm, answering the questions but remaining seemingly detached from the meaning of the responses.  The people in Aida come from 52 villages in modern-day Israel, he says.  More than 80% of young men like Ali and Mohammed in Aida have been imprisoned in Israeli jails, and despite international agreements banning Israeli incursions in the camp, individuals are frequently taken during nighttime raids, one of which took place this month.  Despite its population of only 5,000 or so, Aida has a disproportionately high percentage of the 11,000 political prisoners currently held in Israeli prisons.  While this is due to several factors, the primary reason is the camp’s proximity to the wall and thus Israel.  Not only was Aida cut apart by the construction of the wall following the Al Aqsa intifada in 2000-2001, but it continues to suffer from its total disconnection from nearby communities, notably Jerusalem.  While Karim used to be able to travel to Jerusalem with little to no problems, he says that now it would be impossible.  Attempting everything from foreign travel to medical reasons, Karim’s attempts have all failed and he hasn’t visited Palestine’s future capital just six miles to the north for over nine years.  After living for a few years in Jordan, Karim has come back to help run Aida’s Youth Center which organizes activities for the large number of kids in the camp.  Despite having been destroyed three times since its founding in 1968, the youth center remains unperturbed by the threat of another Israeli demolition and is currently expanding its space with extensions under construction on two sides.  They show us murals drawn by kids on a portion of the wall situated just across the street, demanding the right to return to their homes and villages in the colors of the Palestinian flag.  While this may be another generation, the hopes of returning to their land in Israel remains firm and is painted all over the wall separating them from those places.
“Without a doubt, Aida is worse today than five years ago because of the wall,” Karim says puffing on his cigarette.  Now largely finished throughout the West Bank, the Israeli “apartheid wall” loops around the West Bank, cutting through Jerusalem, isolating Palestinian communities and destroying peoples’ lives.  With roughly two-thirds of the $2 billion, 700-kilometer route featuring an 8-meter high wall with electric fences, sniper towers and buffer zones up to 100-meters in width, when all is said and done 8.5% of the Palestinian West Bank will find itself on the Israeli side.  Paradoxically, the wall, like the settlements, provides many employment opportunities for Palestinians in dire need of work in their unemployment-struck communities, the hardest hit being refugee camps.  While Karim does not have figures for unemployment in the camp, as they are difficult to compile in Palestinian communities, he says that they undoubtedly and consistently hover over one-half. 
In an article published this week on the possibility of a settlement freeze agreement between the United States and Israel, the Jerusalem Post writes that many Israeli construction companies would be threatened with bankruptcy should settlement construction stop.  “The companies that build in the West Bank and stand to lose from a settlement freeze are some of the country’s biggest and most well-known construction firms, led by the country’s richest business people,” the article reports.  Juxtaposed with this information is a photo of a Palestinian laborer working on a construction site in an Israeli settlement.  If such a settlement freeze were enacted, the article points out, it “would mean a loss of more than 12,000 jobs, a majority of them belonging to Palestinian laborers.”  The mainstream Israeli press deceivingly tries to portray a mixed bag for Palestinians if employment on illegal projects stealing their land were to stop.  Yet, upon entering the Har Gilo settlement near Bethlehem, work in construction for Arabs was omnipresent.  Sitting deep within the green line and on the Palestinian side of the wall, mansions high up on Har Gilo’s hillside are in full expansion with up to 200 new families expected in the next few years.  We walk through the large gate, past controls, and up the hill where residents tell us to leave: “no visitors, closed military zone.”  Another car drives up and the settler inside invites us for coffee: “of course you can come in this is my home.”  Further up the hill we pass a small car packed with eight Arab men.  Avner, the settler, says they aren’t allowed to drive around by themselves and escorts the car out of the settlement.  All of the workers on the houses are Arab, he says.  Jewish residents commute to Jerusalem for jobs in the city.
Similar to Aida, the refugee camp of Dheisheh, located roughly a mile to the south, has many of the same issues of unemployment, isolation, and the threat of military invasion plaguing its displaced residents.  Butting up against the security barrier on one side, the camp has only one part-time doctor for its 11,000 residents, and has experienced frequent harrassment in many forms over the years by the Israelis.  Between 1967 and 1995, the camp was under curfew roughly 3.5 days a month with a record 84 consecutive days during the first Gulf war.  During the first intifada (1987-1993), more than 80% of young people from Dheisheh were imprisoned for varying periods of time.  Also during this period, the Israeli army installed military camps overlooking the camp and put a barbed wire fence around the entire camp which was continually vandalized by residents.  Walking into the Ibdaa youth and cultural center in the middle of the camp, there is a group of Palestinians listening to a class in english on Palestinian history.  Pictures commemorating the humiliations the population underwent under direct military occupation leading up to the takeover by the Palestinian Authority in 1995 hang on walls painted with Palestinian youths throwing rocks and molotov cocktails.  A metallic turnstile from the only entrance in and out of the camp during the first intifada is displayed near the center.  The other 13 were closed at the time.  Against all odds, history will not be left to wither and die here and people will continue to work for a way out of the current political impasse.

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