One of my favorite pastimes in Dheisheh is to sit on a rooftop in the evenings. After the dust, smell of garbage cooked in the sun, and sweating heat of a hot summer day are gone, the camp's alleys become
lively in the evening breeze. From the rooftop I see life spread across in front of my eyes, illuminated in lights from windows. I see a group of children playing games, or fighting to ride an oversized bicycle. I see teenagers hanging out at a store front, a little boy sent to buy a bag of freshly fried falafel, families strolling on their way to visit friends, and people engaged in heated conversation, sitting on plastic stools in a circle. I hear people exchanging greetings from one rooftop to another, someone calling someone else to come over for a cup of coffee.
Shifting my eyes up from the camp below to the hills around us, I see a chain of bright orange lights of Israeli infrastructure encircling Palestinian villages and camps that stand in dimmer white lights. On our right, in the north, is a large cluster of buildings and lights glowing from the settlement of Gilo, and beads of orange dotting Route 60, a bypass road that links Jerusalem with southern West Bank settlements. To the left of Gilo are Palestinian the villages of Beit Jala and al-Doha, behind which Route 60 continues. Further left to the south, above the village of al-Khader is the continuation of the bypass road, complemented by a newly established military station on a nearby hill. Walking up to the peak of Dheisheh, one can also see settlements of Efrat, Har Homa, and Teqoa behind the camp, completing the orange ring that the Bethlehem area is confined into.
In the densely crowded camp, rooftops are the only space that is open to the sky. People climb up to the roof, to relax, to think, and to forget reality a little. In the evenings we come up here to enjoy ourselves in the cool breeze, chat over drinks, or watch people go by in the alley beneath us. On the bare concrete rooftop of the Hammash's, my adopted family in Dheisheh, we sit on plastic chairs among clotheslines and water tanks.
Two nights ago, I was on a daily visit to the Hammash's. A sudden burst of gunfire pierced the evening sky when Miassar, mother of the family, was about to put down a tray of mint tea. "Takh! (shooting)" - we stared in the direction of Beit Jala and Gilo. Red sparks flew back and forth across the valley that separates the two communities, accompanied by the high-pitch rapid sound of M16 from Palestinian Tanzeem. Then a series of deeper sound of shelling from Israeli tanks reached us, lighting up the sky behind the hills of Beit Jala. People started to gather on neighboring rooftops, invited by the exploding sound.
Sana, a 17-year-old daughter of the family, and I held each other's hands and kept staring, taken over by awe and strange excitement. The burst of rapid explosive sounds in varying pitch echoed through the valley. "That was M16 from Palestinians. This is 800mm shell from Israelis. This one now is 250mm shell also from Israel," the family members explained to me.
Suddenly, another gunfire burst from a different direction, and we all turn our head to the left, towards al-Khader village. The village is adjacent to Dheisheh, and stray bullets from clashes had flown over to the camp in the past. "Now we need to be careful," said the family. I recalled how this year the children had to give up sleeping on the rooftop, their favorite summer time custom, for safety concerns.
Although all of us were clearly aware of the disparity of power between the two parties - hightech Israeli war machines vs. semi-automatic guns - it felt as if the sound of M16 was carrying Palestinian defiance. The red sparks traveled across the night sky, carrying the cry for freedom that the people were yet to have. "This is better than nobody," said Miassar in a soft voice, leaning on the fence. "Hammas and Tanzeem are the only one who are doing something for us."
After half an hour or so the shooting ceased. The sound of gunfire and shelling was replaced with usual noise of life - voices of children playing in the alleys, Arabic music flowing out of someone's window. Azeez, father of the family, started to recite an old Arabic poetry in his deep song-singing voice. We looked up at the dark sky, and realized for the first time in the evening that the night was clear enough to see the Milky Way. As we were exchanging Arabic and Japanese legends of the Milky Way, two thick beams of lights appeared from behind the hills of Dheisheh, moving about in different directions. "Israeli army's search light," a brief explanation interrupted our conversation, which would continue well into the night over more glasses of mint tea, just like any other evenings in Dheisheh.