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shirabe's report from palestine:

Manar Returns to Ras Abu 'Amar

The village still stood there, almost intact, by a large intersection of main roads that connect Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It was a surreal sight, where an ancient Arab village and modern Israeli infrastructure were merged together in the middle of Jerusalem. It may be hardly noticeable to most Israelis, but to my eyes, that are familiar with features of Palestinian villages in the West Bank, reconstructing an image of the entire village was effortless.

Shirabe Yamada

19 Jan. 2000, Dheisheh Camp

Winter is a rainy season in Palestine. The littered alleyways of Dheisheh camp turn from mostly dusty partly muddy (muddy where sewage water runs) in summer to wholly muddy in winter. It takes some skills to walk in the camp - one has to keep eyes on the ground to avoid mud and pad holes while paying attention to other traveling objects (cars, children, vegetable carts, etc.) and preparing to jump to the side any moment to escape muddy water splashed by a car.

Perpetual water shortage in summer is replaced with frequent electricity blackouts in winter. Each time everything shuts down we, at the Ibdaa Cultural Center, await the return of light and heat while holding our hands over candle lights. The dampness of the icy air makes one feels colder than the actual temperature - it's the kind of cold that penetrates to your bones. And houses here are neither well insulated nor have adequate heating.

Last week, one sunny day between the rains, a van took off from Dheisheh with four Ibdaa children dancers, a video camera, film and tapes, and drinks and snacks on board. The van was also filled with anxiety and excitement. The children, 12 and 13 year olds, were traveling to their homeland for the first time in their life.

Perpetual water shortage in summer is replaced with frequent electricity blackouts in winter. Each time everything shuts down we, at the Ibdaa Cultural Center, await the return of light and heat while holding our hands over candle lights. The dampness of the icy air makes one feels colder than the actual temperature - it's the kind of cold that penetrates to your bones. And houses here are neither well insulated nor have adequate heating.

Last week, one sunny day between the rains, a van took off from Dheisheh with four Ibdaa children dancers, a video camera, film and tapes, and drinks and snacks on board. The van was also filled with anxiety and excitement. The children, 12 and 13 year olds, were traveling to their homeland for the first time in their life.

Their homeland - it is the 418 Palestinian villages that were destroyed with the creation of the State of Israel 52 years ago. Before the 1st Arab Israeli War of 1948, 87.5% of the total area of the historic Palestine was owned by the Arabs, while Jews had 6.6% and the British Mandate state land accounted for the remaining 5.9%. At the end of the war, most of historic Palestine fell under Jewish control. Palestinians became the people of Diaspora - the refugees, totaling almost 5 million. More than half of this entire population lives in 59 impoverished refugee camps across the Middle East, or in Europe, the United States, and as far as Latin America.

Having a glimpse of their village or walking on family land is nearly impossible for most refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The villages are located inside Israel, where Palestinians are allowed to enter only with Israeli permission, which is hardly obtainable. In addition, in the life where bringing food to the table is one's daily challenge, a journey of this kind is placed at the bottom of everyone's priority list, although it remains their first and foremost sacred wish.

The night before the trip, Manar, a 13 year old dancer, was enthusiastic about her first trip to her village of Ras Abu 'Samaras she spoke in her cluttered home she shares with 5 siblings and parents. “I heard that our village is beautiful. My grandparents had a house and land there. They had a good life. But I don't know much about it." Manar, like most children of Dheisheh, was born in the camp and knew her village only through the tales of older generations. The sense of one's identity, though, tied in with family relations and traced back to their original villages, is extremely strong in the camp. As many families of Dheisheh originated from villages in the same area (mostly southwest of Jerusalem and west of Hebron) extended families and history are maintained through marriages and traditional customs. I have learned this as I became close to some families that I am now able to identify their relationship with village names - i.e. Saeda and Shrouq are cousins, both their mothers are from Beit 'Itab.

'Camp' is meant to be a temporary shelter, yet the people of Dheisheh have been living in this limbo for over five decades and under the Israeli occupation, where not a single family has been spared of poverty, humiliation, resistance, violent oppression, imprisonment, and deaths of loved ones. "But I love the life in the camp more than anything," always thoughtful and expressive, Manar spoke with her brown eyes sparkling with a passion. "I love the people here. We are close to, and always look after each other. The people struggle to live with dignity, despite all the difficulties. I will always want to stay here."

The morning of the departure, Manar smiled shyly - "I am very excited to visit my village, but am a little nervous, because this is my first time."

About ten minutes after leaving Dheisheh, the van reaches an Israeli checkpoint at the border of the West Bank and Israel. A video-documentarian friend of mine from the U.S. removes her kafiya (a Palestinian scarf/the checker-pattern one that Arafat wears) and takes off her hat to show off her light brown hair. I turn down the volume of our car stereo playing Arabic music. There is an adult on the van without a permit, and any obvious signs of Arab-ness need to

be hidden so we won't attract soldiers' attention. Seeing two foreign women in front of the van, the soldiers hardly give a look at the rest of the passengers. We drive through the checkpoint.

Along the Road 375, between the Bethlehem area and the Israeli city of Bet Shemesh, is a concentration of Dheisheh's homelands. Villages of Ras Abu 'Ammar, Beit 'Itab, Deir Al Hawa, Zakariyya, Jarash, and many others are amidst and buried under this picturesque area dotted with nature reserves and beautiful forests. All of them are within a 30-minutesdrive from Dheisheh - so close in the physical distance.

The van leaves the main road into one of the picnic areas, off where Ras Abu 'Ammar is supposed to be located. Today, many of the Palestinian villages in this area are destroyed and their ruins stand on empty hills (Jarash, Beit 'Itab), or leveled for parks and highways (Deir Al Hawa), or converted to an Israeli town (Zakariyya). Ras Abu 'Ammar is not easily accessible from the main road, and like many other villages, it can hardly be reached without directions from former villagers (Manar's grandparents' generation). The van now leaves the picnic area and starts a trek on a narrow dirt road as it descends towards the valley. Ziad, a community activist from Dheisheh, carefully observes our surroundings to identify any clues given by the camp's elders. As the road condition worsens and I start to get uneasy driving, he calls out: "Stop here. We are in the village. It's Ras Abu 'Ammar."

In the serene, peaceful quietness, the village's ruins are nestled on the hillside. It spreads wide on both sides of the valley, all the way to the top of the hills. Fragmented stone walls, blossoming almond trees planted in rows, stone terraces for olive trees - familiar features of a Palestinian village are seen through shrubs and weeds growing wildly among and over them. Where houses once stood are now heaps of debris. Cactuses, commonly used in Palestine to mark borders of family lands and village properties, grow tall in clusters. Terraces on the hills across the valley from us are largely covered with soft green of fir-trees. "Forests in Israel have political meanings," I recall what my Israeli friend once told me. "They were planted by Jewish National Fund over depopulated Palestinian villages."

The children set off for a treasure hunt. They run between trees and hop across stone walls, joyfully stretching their limbs in the open space and filling their lungs with fresh air that is not found in the camp. They come back to report the discoveries. A rusty white cooking bowl with flower patterns. A large round flat piece of metal, completely rusted in brown - "women place this over fire to bake bread," Mohammed explains with hand gestures. A bombshell, also fully rusted and disfigured from an explosion - "I know about this," Qussay tells me. "My grandparents were told (by Zionist forces) that they had four hours to collect their belongings and leave before the shelling of the village. So they did.” I think of my grandparents in Tokyo, who still live in the same houses they built and raised my parents in.

Images from black and white photographs of pre-1948 Palestine and the landscape in front of me merge together to form a scenic agricultural village. Manar is strolling with Ziad as she listens to the details of village life, while her entire being is reaching out to absorb the world that is Ras Abu 'Ammar. She sits on rubbles, her eyes wet with tears.

"When I walked in to this place, I saw the village smiling, laughing, and crying at the same time. Smiling and laughing, because it was welcoming me, the new generation, for returning home. Crying, because it knows that I am leaving in just a few hours. And I think this village had been crying the whole time since the people left.

And I, too, feel happy and sad. Happy, because this place is so beautiful. Sad, because of the barrier and distance that separate us."

"I was ignorant until last night. I thought I would never want to leave Dheisheh. But now, I want to destroy the camp, because we should not be living there. We should all go back to where we belong, to our land. I want to live in my own village, and am determined to return. This place is about my rights, my freedom and my dignity.

"But when I leave Dheisheh, the place that taught me so much about love, I will kiss on its ground for the history and suffering of the people.

"Today is a historical day of my life - a lot of things inside of me are going to change, now that I have been to this place."

The videographer wants to film Manar in her village. Asked to do anything she wants, her face brightens up. "Can I dance?"

In the soft afternoon sun of the winter day, Manar's wavy black hair bounces in the air as she dances a portion of "Al Waseeya (The Will)," one of the Ibdaa dance troupe's performance pieces. She smiles, waves her arms gracefully, and hums softly under her breath.

She is dancing for Ras Abu 'Ammar. I feel a lump in my throat because the meaning of this dance grabs me so powerfully, nothing like times before: the story of Palestinian farmers and their relationship with the land, and the message that transcends the generations - to defend, respect, cherish and love their land.

The Palestinian Refugees' Right of Return is granted in the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which has been endorsed by the international community for over 110 times. Israel, however, has refused to comply with the resolution, not allowing a single refugee to return to this day.

The lands Palestinian refugees were expelled from consist of 84.5% of the total area of the State of Israel. These lands are rural areas inhabited by only some 155,000 Israeli Jews out of the total population of approximately 6 million. It is not a lack of physical land capacity that has barred the return of the refugees. It is Zionism, the fundamental ideology for establishing a Jewish state in the land of Palestine, requires that the land be ethnically cleansed of the Arabs. Vast majority of Palestinian village lands, as in the case of Ras Abu 'Ammar, remain empty and uninhabited.

Arguing that it will threaten the demographic balance of the Jewish state, Israel has refused to discuss the return of the 1948refugees in the final status negotiation of the peace process. Israel has hinted it may consider the return of the 1967 War refugees, who were expelled from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to the Palestinian Autonomous areas. It insists that the 1948 refugees be settled in the third countries, with restitution from the international community.

A census taken last September shows that some 91% of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would oppose a creation of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories in exchange of the refugees’ right of return. I have not met a single refugee who has given up returning hope - it is a ray of sunbeam in their life that could otherwise easily be defeated and despair.

The young generation refugees from Dheisheh suggest their way of problem solving. Sanabel, a 12-year-old Ibdaa dancer whose father has seen inside Israeli prisons for over a decade, exclaimed when she came to her village of Zakariyya, now inhabited by Israeli-Jews. "I want to live here. We all should come back and live here, because it is our village. But we will not do the same thing the Jewish people did to us. We will not uproot them. They can stay. We can live together."

 
 

Human rights worker Shirabe Yamada is part of the Middle East Children's Alliance.