A visit of one of the three refugee camps in Bethlehem:  Dheisheh.

A day spent at Dheishe, one of three Bethlehem refugee camps in existence since 1948.

Everyone seems to have a story involving Israeli soldiers hitting or abusing them and laughing while they were doing it.  It is so consistent that I wonder if this is one of the narratives you just have to have to be accepted or if indeed it is a reality?  After talking to Eli Wasserman at the Kaplan Hotel in Jerusalem, where I stayed for two weeks, you would find this impossible to believe.  A veteran of the IDF who participated in all major wars he stressed the fact that he as a general (I hope I got that rank right) never committed an immoral act and that he trained and taught his soldiers as well as his sons who are now in the army to do the same.  He prided himself for this philosophy.  I know he would be horrified to hear that the reality or the stories about the reality are not living up to his ideal.

Deheishe has a Cultural Center where volunteer guides will take you around.  A woman from Texas with her Palestinian friend from Jerusalem were there with me, interested in looking at the camp.  Iser, a young 22 years old, third generation Palestinian refugee was our guide.  In 1948, his grandfather had left a village only ten minutes away from Bethlehem where he owned a 200 acre farm.  Iser is determined to return.  In fact, the right of return seems to be a key factor in this whole conflict.  Banners state the moral right of it, the UN declaration guaranteeing it is prominently displayed, and an embroidery with symbolic keys to lost property is prominently displayed at the Cultural Center.  It is the one thing Israelis cannot allow since there are no longer 750, 000 refugees (that is the number of people who actually lost property), but close to 6 Million offspring who keep this principle alive in their communities and it is the one thing the Palestinian community is not willing to give up.  I can’t see where this is going – I don’t think anyone can.

Reportedly, Israeli soldiers enter the camp at least twice a week to arrest people for nothing, search homes, or just walk through to intimidate.  Any entrance by Israeli soldiers is certainly a gross violation of the Oslo agreement.  But as Iser put it:  “Who can stop them?”  Indeed, this camp is known in the neighborhood as  the “good” and the “leftist” camp, not the camp which would have contributed so many of the perpetrators for the Bethlehem hostage crisis.

The camp is in its 63rd year and has undergone 3-5 generations of building and rebuilding.  From a tent city to bungalows, to three story apartment houses, from barbed wires in retaliation (and a dramatic two minute cutting the whole thing down story that comes with it) to the current security border around the West Bank, the camp has evolved into a neighborhood which could be mistaken for any other low income neighborhood; even interspersed with several small convenience stores, a restaurant, and a guest house; the latter are unique for a refugee camp. From the one single revolving metal door which now is encased as a memorial, to several open street entrances – the camp now almost blends in.

A few distinctive features stand out:

Graffiti, writing, and posters grace the walls throughout the camp.  They range from remembering martyrs to children’s drawings to artists painting cartoons and full-sized murals.  Many of the streets are narrow alleys, too tight for any car traffic.  I started in the morning in a nearly empty camp.  By the afternoon, after school was out, the camp filled up with returning children and grocery-shopping mothers.  Later on my walk, twice I was invited by a woman for tea or coffee.  I spent nearly an hour with Saoud who showed me a photo album of her family and her dazzling daughter’s extravagant wedding.  We talked about this and that in her limited English.  Political topics were too complicated to address.  But she obviously enjoyed the company and I enjoyed the opportunity of having an insight into one family’s life.

The two women with me on tour were quite obnoxious.  Whenever I had questions for Iser, the Palestinian woman who through her work was affiliated with refugee camps as well, had to chime in.  She also did not appreciate a few of my more probing questions.  I decided to come back after they would be gone.  After a three-hour walk through the camp and 200 photos later I returned and engaged Iser in another nearly 2 hour discussion.  His English was good even though his accent and speed were challenging for me.

Iser is a non-practicing communist Muslim.  That was a new twist for me and put an interesting spin on a few political issues.  Here are in short a few of the key issues with nutshell answers that we discussed:

1.        Why does the Palestinian right of return stand out from all other refugees anywhere in the world?   –  The merest hint of an analogy and or comparison of this issue with the Palestinian situation was outright rejected not only by the Palestinian woman but also by Iser.

2. Would the Palestinians support a one or a two State solution?  – Only a one state solution with full right to return.

3. Why are the residents of the camp not paying electric or water bills but expect the PA to pick up the bill?  – They are too poor and so they don’t pay.  Israel is controlling the amount of water in this (and other) West Bank areas allotting ¾ into the settlements and ¼ into the Palestinian areas which leads to shortages. Iser denied the connection between lack of pay and lack of supply.  He displayed a strange sense of entitlement here. From my host I heard that this practice of non-payment is despised by the rest of the Palestinians who are not refugees since it results in an increase in their water prices.  They also strongly object to the disproportionate distribution of water.

4. Are refugees allowed to leave the camp, the town, the country? – Yes, via Jordan, even a refugee can travel the world.

5. What type of paperwork do refugees carry?  – There are green and blue ID cards.  Green for refugees, blue for Jerusalem citizens.  And there used to be an orange one, in addition to paperwork issued by the Israelis for special permits, etc.

6. Are only refugees living in the camp? – No, a Romanian and a French family also live there “because it’s cheaper”. My comment:  Now that is pretty unheard of!  Are they taking all the aid for the camp as well?  Are they also not paying the utilities?  There is something going on here…

7.       What about the relationship between the West Bank and Gaza? – Hamas is despised by the communist part of the Palestinian refugees; they also do not see any threat in religion as a radicalizing factor.  But then Iser had to admit to not knowing exactly what was written in the Koran…

8. How do people feel about Obama?  – They do not trust him.

After so much use of Iser’s time, I felt compelled to make a donation to the camp even though I have a very hard time comprehending refugees who will accept international aid for 63 years for being driven from a property 10 minutes away and who would rather waste away their lives than to start from scratch like so many people in the world who experienced the injustice of expulsion, extinction, genocide, war, religious threat, and else.

But then, I am just an outsider.  I can apply logic, but I cannot put my heart in their place.

On the way home I stopped at a store selling olive wood objects.  I got all my Christmas shopping done!  🙂

Good night.