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shirabe's report from palestine:

From Beirut to Bethlehem

A long awaited reunion of Palestinian refugees along the border fence, between Israel and Lebanon

Shirabe Yamada

5 Jun. 2000, Dheisheh Refugee Camp

Dear Friends,

The liberation of the south Lebanon brought the long-lost joy to Palestine. Celebrations were held across the occupied territories, and families were glued to the TV footage of Israeli army's withdrawal. Children chanted the slogan praising Hezbollah, and Lebanese flags decorated streets and town squares. The occupation of Lebanon, where 370,000 Palestinian refugees live and PLO headquarters were located until the Israeli invasion of 1982, is an integral part of their enduring modern history.

Then came the news that the people from both sides started to visit the borders to see each other. They were mostly Palestinian refugees, whose families were separated after al-Nakba (the Palestinian catastrophe = creation of Israel in 1948) and have been unable to reach the borders during the two decades of Israeli occupation. At Dheisheh camp, activists from Ibdaa Cultural Center began contacting their counterparts in Shatila Refugee camp in Beirut. If both of them could make it to the borders, it would be the first face-to-face meeting of the children of the two camps, who have been exchanging E-mail for the last several months.

In the morning of June 2nd, 25 children between the ages of 8 and 16 and several adults were on their way to the village of Arab al-Aramshe, which was selected as the meeting place. An Israeli looking bus was chartered, yet some of the adults had to give up traveling due to a lack of the permit to leave the West Bank. The bus traveled northbound inside Israel, where the children's lost homeland was now called by Hebrew names. Younger children marveled at skyscrapers of Tel Aviv that they saw for the first time.

In the highlands of the northern Galilee our bus was ordered to turn away at a checkpoint in front of an Israeli settlement of Adamit. "Too many people are on the borders, and they could infiltrate terrorist elements," explained the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) soldiers. After a lengthy negotiation, we were finally allowed to proceed.

The border was crowded with more than 300 people of all ages, clinging onto the fence from both sides. Over the barbed wire continued the same landscape from our side - rolling hills dotted with olive tress, villages nestled on the hillside, and mosque minarets pointing to the sky. The youths of Shatila, who arrived first, cheered with joy when they spotted the group from Dheisheh making their way through the crowd. "Who is Keyan?!" "Which one is Karmel?!" - names were matched with faces, each time accompanied by outburst of excitement and laughter. Handshakes and kisses were exchanged over the barbed wires.

Rounds of songs and dances started as the two groups took turns to present their favorite tunes and debke steps. The Shatila youths played a drum and bagpipes, and each song ended with all the children joining. They sang and clapped in unison, affirming that the two exiled communities shared the same cultural tradition and national aspiration of Palestine, despite the distance between Beirut and Bethlehem.

"They're just like us, living in difficult conditions -water and electricity shortages and confined in a crowded camp," said Motasem, a 16 year old from Dheisheh. "And they cannot go back to their villages either." Although they shared the endurance of refugee life, the significance of the visit weighted more on the Shatila youths, who never saw Palestine with their own eyes before. Having survived the Israeli invasion, the Sabra-Shatila massacre and subsequent camp wars, some of them did not have parents. Dheisheh youth ran between the fences and nearby bushes to fetch tree branches and flowers from Palestine. Fara, a 13 year old from Shatila, held her body out between the fences, scraped by hand the soil of Palestine and packed into a plastic bottle, not even noticing her arms being scratched by the barbed wires. "Please tell me if what I heard is true," asked Ittah from Shatila, "that Palestine is a perfect place, where there is everything and everything is beautiful."

Around the youths were numerous families, seeing each other for the first time in decades. A family from Tamra village in the Galilee stood on the Lebanese side, their anxious gaze wondered through the crowd. When their family from the Palestinian side emerged, arms were held out between the wires, pulling each other to form a tight embrace. Repeated kisses on the both cheeks, an Arabic custom, were weighing down with emotions, while their faces were wet with tears.

A very old woman in a traditional Palestinian village costume of white cotton veil and heavily embroidered dress walked up to the fence, supported by her sons. Her relatives embraced her from the Lebanese side, kissing on her hand and bringing it to their forehead - an Arabic custom to display the utmost respect.

A tall middle aged man showed up walking fast-paced and holding up a sign bearing his family name. He was quickly identified by a man who looked identical to him. Another tight embrace was formed with the wires in the middle, both men crying and relatives gathering around them.

Between the fences flowed a stream of exchanges - a glass of cold drink poured in Palestine and drunk in Lebanon, photographs of relatives, mobile phones with other family members on the line, rings and pendants that were just taken off necks and fingers, and babies to be held in the arms of the aunts and cousins on the other side. Some groups sat over the coffee to engage in stories and news from the lost decades. "They are all refugees like us," watching the encounters Mohammed from Dheisheh commented. "They speak with the same village accent as ours." Someone on the Lebanese side held up a Palestinian flag. IDF soldiers were keeping their eyes on the crowd, occasionally repairing loosened parts of the fence.

After a tiny sliver of land called Palestine became a Jewish state 52 years ago, its triangular-shaped borders were marked with barbed wires, blue and white flags, mine fields, heavily armed soldiers, and military checkpoints. With this trip to the Lebanese border I visited the rim of this triangle, where the very essence of the Zionism is seen in the eyes of those who paid the price. On the southern border of the sand choked Gaza Strip, refugee families in the impoverished Rafah shout across the fence to their relatives on the Egyptian side. The same scene can be seen in the northern border, where Syrian communities in the annexed-Golan Heights call out to their loved ones across a minefield. In the east, many of my friends still cannot cross the Jordan River to visit their families in exile, even though twinkling lights of Jordanian cities are so close and visible at night from the hills of the West Bank. The promised land for one 'chosen' people has been made possible through the dispossession of other indigenous peoples, whose life was forever altered, whose communities and families were torn apart, and whose unjust loss and endurance continue to this very day.

Under the burning midday sun and in the dust, the meeting of the youths lasted well over 4 hours. The back of their T-shirts were covered with names and messages such as "I will never forget you." "I love you very much." Everything that could be exchanged - coins, necklaces, hair accessories, wallets and hand-written notes - went over the fences. And of course, there were more E-mail addresses in everyone's hands at the end of the day.

"This meeting will surely expand and advance our E-mail exchange project," said Maysoon Sukarieh, the key organizer from Shatila. "Now the kids know their friends in person." Iman, a 13 year old from Dheisheh couldn't have agreed more. "This was a very important day for me. I was shocked to learn about the situation in Shatila. We share a lot in common as refugees and should work together for our solution." With the coming of the final status talks and rumors hovering over the camp about the fate of the refugees, "the kids in Shatila are feeling scared and anxious about what will happen to them," said Sukarieh. "The only way they will feel at home would be to return to where they come from."

As they parted, the youths from both camps expressed the desire to see each other again soon, but without the barbed wired in between them the next time - "I want to see you in Palestine!" Looking over their shoulders again and again, the Shatila youths began descending the hills, away from their homeland over the fences.

 
 

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