Three days ago, March 22, was the day Dheisheh received the unprecedented attention of the world when Pope visited the camp. The viewers of the world not only saw the camp's welcoming of Pope on TV but also the violent clashes that followed the visit. (see the report on the Washington Post).
Known as a politically active community, Dheisheh had never been short of visiting foreign journalists. Yet the swarms of TV crews and newspaper agencies that flocked in the camp in the last few weeks were something the residents had never seen before. All of a sudden TV cameras and foreign journalists filming and interviewing on muddy alleys became a part of the camp's landscape.
"We want to show our 52 years of suffering in one hour of his visit," said my friend Ziad, a member of the popular organizing committee for the visit. Seven stages were built along the road where Pope would pass before entering the camp. From one of the stages children would release 52 doves, and another stage would display the names of pre-1948 villages that Dheisheh's residents originated from. A team of teenager artists upgraded the murals and graffiti at the camp's entrance and on the Pope's touring route. There were a map of Palestine, refugee tents, political prisoners, and some English slogans that read "We want to return to our homeland," "[UN Resolution] 194 is our path to return" etc. Dheisheh became a showcase - the planning committee was aware that Dheisheh, representing the plight of 59 camps and nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees, was given the opportunity of the century to convey to the world a single important message: the Palestinian refugees demand the right of return be fulfilled.
In the week that preceded the big day, I asked many of my friends for their opinion about the visit. The answers, from teenagers to elderly people, were always realistically cynical. Dheisheh's being almost entirely Muslim did not give a particular appreciation for the Pope's appearance. In addition, the camp's residents did not see the visit, despite its political sensitivity (there was Israeli pressure to prevent the visit) and the Pope's relatively sympathetic stance toward the Palestinians, would have some positive impact on the solution for the refugee problem.
"But what about the media attention? At least the whole world will see the camp on the TV, and even the people who didn't know about this issue would be informed," I repeated the same question for another time to my colleague Mohammed the night before the visit. "Nothing will change," scanning photos from the day's March of the Keys, he replied without turning to me. Images of marching children were on the computer monitor, some with keys from their destroyed homes in their hands, while others held up signs bearing the name of the pre-1948 villages. "The world has seen for the past 52 years our problem, and the change never came." His look wasn't tired just because of the around-the-clock preparation work.
Miyasar, my neighbor and a mother of 5 young children, was the only one who expressed any optimism. "Maybe we can still go back to Beit 'Itab, our village." We were watching a special TV program for the occasion when she suddenly said to me. Stroking Fairuz, her youngest 8-year daughter who had fallen asleep on the floor, Miyasar continued. "I still have a little 'amal' (an Arabic word for hope). Because Pope is such an important person, tomorrow if he expresses his support for our right of return, maybe, the situation will change."
The day of the visit was full of festive atmosphere. The residents came out of their makeshift houses, and lined up behind barricades on the street in front of the camp where Pope was expected to arrive and begin a short tour before he would attend a ceremony at a schoolyard. Volunteering teenagers distributed Palestinian, Vatican and UN flags to children, while others handed out Pope & Arafat T-shirts. Photographers and TV cameras took their positions.
Seeing a massive number of policemen from the Palestinian Authority's Preventive Security on duty (approximately 2,000), people whisper in disgust- "tuz (enough)!" With its corrupt, authoritarian, militaristic and repressive governing and its incompetence in the peace process, the Palestinian Authority became an object of resentment and distrust among the people. The under-trained, unprofessional, and excessively large (due to Israeli and American pressure to ensure security-for-peace
process) security forces have given negative, and some seriously harmful experiences to almost all the Palestinians living in PA-controlled areas. Miyasar instructed Fairuz, a girl with outspoken and uninhibited character, to refrain from making comments about Arafat and Pope. Members of PA, or so-called Oslo class (people financially benefiting from political, social and economic arrangements after the Oslo process started), began arriving in luxurious cars. Arafat appeared in a VIP vehicle. Hardly any cheered or clapped when he waved to the crowd.
Pope arrived 45 minutes later than the scheduled time, waving from the Pope Mobile before it quickly disappeared into the alleys. Except for the lucky few hundred ticket holders and those who had a rooftop view, everyone would get only another glimpse of Pope on his way out after the ceremony. Already some scuffling was breaking out between youths from the camp and some policemen, who dealt with the crowd in a violent and disrespectful manner.
Despite his delay in arrival, Pope left almost on schedule. All these fiasco and preparation for just half an hour - the crowd started to dismantling.
I was walking to a friend's home with a group of girls when tens of boys and men suddenly came running our way. The air was filled with an unusual tension. Rocks were hurled in the air. Clashes had broken out.
The street in front of the camp, which had been filled with cheering crowds half an hour ago, was now an open battlefield. Hundreds of men were throwing rocks, running, and angry at the police. An officer was confronted by a furious group of men. Members of the popular committee were running among the rock-throwing youths, trying to calm things down but to no avail. Rumors were quickly spread that some policemen brutalized and insulted a volunteering youth from the camp, and it triggered the anger of everyone around. More men were coming on the alleys towards the entrance of the camp to join the fight. The energy and force that took over and mobilized the mass in a split second was overwhelming.
The clashes continued into the evening. Half of the camp was on the street and another half was on rooftops, while the imam (religious leader) urged for a cease-fire from the mosque's loudspeaker, normally used for prayers. From friends' rooftops I watched crowds moving in waves, advancing and retreating. I heard sounds of breaking glasses and smashing metals, and witnessed, as fighting quieted down, crowd gathered up and started chanting. I watched with Miyasar and her daughters red sparks disappearing into the dark sky as rounds of shots were fired in the air. "This is Dheisheh camp," Miyasar said to me. "We are always the ones to stand up, and to fight collectively, leading the popular movement. Things always start in Dheisheh."
The policemen have broken into some of family homes and gone on rampage, smashing furniture and terrorizing women and children. Now the crowd started to move towards Bethlehem, to the police station to protest the police brutality. I went down to the street, where I saw most of my male friends, from 10 year old Aysar to Ibdaa youth dancers to Miyasar's husband and members of the popular committee, marching. A number of automatic weapons were pointing to the sky, whose owners were hidden in the center of a tightly formed circle.
The fierce confrontation continued at the police station where more people were wounded and some were detained. The next morning Ziad, red-eyed and lightly injured, reported that all the detainees have been released, that more policemen were hospitalized than the Dheisheh men, and that the officers apologized and promised to look into the matter.
What the incident signifies goes beyond a response of the outraged people to the police brutality. The perpetual stagnation and destitution, and most importantly, the absence of hope for the refugee problems ignited the anger and desperation that are so present right under the surface in the refugee camps. It exploded in the face of the Palestinian security that became their immediate enemy and symbol of betrayal. When the next uprising starts in Palestine, it will be from refugee camps and against the authority - the post-Pope clashes were a prelude to what many of my friends are predicting.
In the evening of the next day, I was back in Miyasar's living room. We watched a TV news program showing Pope with neatly dressed Israeli children in Yad Vashem (Holocaust Memorial). None of us spoke. On his visit to Dheisheh, to everyone's disappointment Pope made no mention of the right of return. I wonder if the day would come when the Palestinians get an apology for the loss of their homeland and the tremendous suffering that followed. TV crews and journalists have disappeared from the alleys of the camp, which were now splattered with rocks from the clashes. It felt as if the world had already forgotten Dheisheh.