The weather is somewhat cooling down here, and it makes life more tolerable when there is not a decent supply of water. As a resident of the West Bank, I am affected by the water shortage that is caused by smaller rainfall in the last two winters in the region. Much of Israeli's water supply comes from the Occupied Territories and the Golan Heights, 30% of it from the West Bank alone. As Israel controls the water resources, in the time of shortages hardly enough water comes to the Palestinian areas. In summer, while Israelis enjoy swimming pools and green lawns maintained by sprinklers, Palestinians live in thirst, sweat and dust. My situation, though, is much better as a city resident in the north, than refugee camps in the south, where people don't see a drop of water from their faucets for weeks at a time. Many families don't have a choice but to spend much of their income buying water from private Israeli companies. Barefoot children waiting to fill up plastic bottles and a water truck blocking an alley - these are familiar sights in the camps. I hope water will come back to our flat this weekend, so my roommate and I can do our water-intensive projects (wash, laundry, etc), which we have been holding off.
The Khalifa brothers appeared in the Jerusalem Municipality Court, where their appeal was turned down. The demolition order on their houses still stands. They have until October 20th to demolish the houses by themselves, or the Israeli military will do it for them like the last time. The brothers will now take the case to the Supreme Court.
A Long Way Home
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. Despite wide two-lane roads, a parking lot, an industrial area and a large hospital that dot across the sight, many remnants - old stone houses, olive and almond trees, fragmented stone terraces - enabled me to see a rural village before it became a part of urban Israeli West Jerusalem. And I wondered if current Jewish residents of this neighborhood knew that they were living in the houses of the village of Deir Yassin. Deir Yassin was one of more than 400 Palestinian villages that were destroyed with the creation of the state of Israel. On April 19, 1948, this village of 750 people and 144 houses was attacked by advancing Zionist forces. More than 100 people were massacred (more on the history of Deir Yassin - www.deiryassin.org). This massacre, together with widespread violence, atrocities, and chaos during what Israelis call "War of Independence" and Palestinians refer to as "Al-Nakba" (the Catastrophe), prompted tens of thousands of Palestinians to flee for life. Those who refused to leave faced forced deportation. Empty villages were systematically razed; houses that remained were given to Jewish immigrants from Europe and the Arab world. Israeli cities, towns, kibbutz and moshav (collective farm) were built over the ruins of Palestine. Most Palestinians who had lived in the historic Palestine became refugees. Today, Deir Yassin symbolizes the birth of the historical injustice that the Palestinians continue to endure after 51 years.
After the 1948 War, there were about 750,000 Palestinian refugees. Today, they are close to 5 million, largest in number and longest in the period of exile among all other refugees in the world. While many Palestinians live in the diaspora in distant land, many of them still live in 59 refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Driving around the West Bank, one sees densely crowded shanty towns, often surrounded by high-fences, with numerous half-finished buildings piercing the sky and light-blue signs of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) established to administer Palestinian refugee camps after 1948.). Over five decades, the initial tents were replaced with box-shaped temporary concrete houses provided by UN, upon which additional floors and rooms were built. The refugees, who account for 40% of the West Bank and 70% of Gaza Strip's population, represent the poorest sector of the occupied territories.
I have become involved as a volunteer with Dheisheh refugee camp, located in the Bethlehem district and one of the 19 camps in the West Bank (visit Dheisheh on the web). The camp, which houses 11,000 people in one square kilometer of land, is a crowded concrete jungle with narrow and winding alleyways. Almost every wall is covered with graffiti - political slogans, portraits of martyrs, and Palestinian flags, along with Hebrew street names that IDF soldiers made up in order to navigate their way during the Intifada. There is a minimal infrastructure, no open space and no green. Children play on dusty streets by piles of garbage and the air is filled with smell of drainage water.
More than half of the camp's residents are children. "The Israelis used to impose curfews and cut electricity. We were locked in the house for days, in darkness. No wonder we have so many children," my friend Ziad says half jokingly and half seriously. These Dheisheh children are third generation Palestinian refugees, whose grandparents fled from 32 villages during and after the 1948 War. Today, when asked where they are from, the children enthusiastically give a name of the family's original village, which hasn't existed for five decades. Ziad was born in Dheisheh, and his family is from the village of Zakaria, over which an Israeli moshav, Kfar Zaharia stands today.
In Dheisheh, children grow up playing on the street, immersed in stories of their family's expulsion, enduring water shortages, electricity blackouts, curfews, and being subjected to violence and terror by IDF. They go to UNRWA-run schools in two shifts, because there are not enough classrooms for over two thousand students. The school, built as a temporary structure in the early 50's when the Palestinian refugee question was not expected to last this long, is so fragile it partially collapsed recently. Some classes are now held in tents. The children of Dheisheh live in a childhood that resembles nothing to my own, not knowing what it is like to play in a playground, ride a bicycle, go to a movie, or to be able to sleep at night without fear of soldiers breaking into the house.
"We don't want the world to think the Palestinians are a weak people, sitting and crying over their misery," Ziad told me on one of my first visits to the camp. "We are dignified, proud and strong people, who fight for justice and future." Strength comes from presence of hope and aspiration. To the Palestinian refugees, their ultimate and sacred hope is to return back to where they come from, to the place where their family tended stone terraces, pastoral hills, olive, almond, apricot and fig trees, grape vines, and beautiful stone houses for generations. Many families still hold the keys to their homes, which were wiped off the face of the earth fifty years ago. One mural in Dheisheh depicts this aspiration: refugees looking over the fences of the camp, out towards their original villages and beloved people that shine under the sun and rainbow. "My mother died as a refugee, never realizing her dream to at least be buried in Zakaria," Ziad told me once. "My struggle is not do die in Dheisheh."
Just as it was granted for the Kosovo refugees, the Palestinian refugees too have a right of return. The United Nation Resolution 194 of 1948 requires Israel to allow all Palestinian refugees to return home or to compensate for their losses. The resolution was reaffirmed by the international communities more than 110 times. Israel has refused to comply to this date.
The framework of the current peace process, started in 1993 with Oslo and carried on to Sharm al-Sheik, is centered around territorial concessions in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem that Israel occupies since the 1967 War. The negotiation is focused on the percentage of land that Israel agrees to withdraw from, and condition given to the Palestinians in order to receive it. Many liberal Jews, Israelis or otherwise, and members of the international community support returning the occupied territories and the establishment of a separate Palestinian state, condemning the occupation as a morally wrong policy. However, this peace process and its supporters fail to address, or refuse to acknowledge, the tremendous injustice born out of the creation of the state of Israel, namely the 1948 question represented by the plight of the Palestinian refugees. As long as the five million Palestinian refugees, including the children of Dheisheh, are denied of their rights, a comprehensive and just peace will not be achieved.
If realizing the right of return is a distant dream, an immediate aspiration of Dheisheh is to give its children strength to overcome their burden and ability to reach face up their future. Out of this aspiration, a youth cultural center was founded by Ziad and several members of the camp. The center was appropriately named Ibdaa, which means 'to create something out of nothing' in Arabic.
Started in 1995 as a small cultural exchange project with a French NGO, Ibdaa grew rapidly to a multi-purpose center by absorbing the community's needs. It now encompasses a kindergarten, nursery, library, computer center, dance troupe, and weekly workshop and lectures for both adults and children, reflecting an immense work of the staff and enthusiastic support from the community. These projects may be taken for granted in a 'normal' society, but are quite 'abnormal' in a refugee camp setting. Stepping inside the center I am always struck by its drastic difference from outside. The air in Ibdaa is bright and energetic, with children playing, studying, exchanging answers for their homework, learning computers, reading in the library, laughing and chasing each other. They are secluded, protected, and granted limited but precious time and space for a normal and healthy childhood. Always smiling, welcoming, respectful and enthusiastic, it is hard to imagine, and aches my heart to know, these children live in such harsh realities once they step out to the camp.
One of the major successes of Ibdaa is its dance troupe, which has already performed in ten European countries. Their pieces, performed by 12 and 13 year-olds from the camp, express stories of the Palestinian refugees by intertwining the history, current struggle, and aspiration in traditional debke dance. They were written by the children, composed by the camps' musician, choreographed by the camp's artists. The Ibdaa dancers express in each movement and each step, the hearts and minds of refugee children. They speak of living in a tiny room with 6 other siblings, of sharing one bathroom with twenty people, of working at construction site at age of 10 to help supplementing the family income, of imagining slides and swings that they've never played, of losing their brother by IDF bullets, of not seeing their imprisoned father for five years, of being shot at by throwing stones to soldiers, and of not knowing what would come out of their future.
For Dheisheh children who can't even travel beyond the checkpoints, it was an experience beyond their imagination to visiting Europe, performing in front of hundreds of foreign audiences, and speaking on behalf all Palestinian refugee children through their dances. The whole camp worked to ease their challenges by giving language trainings, teaching about trains and restaurants, and by giving much trust to them to carry their message to the world outside the barbwires. As their reputation grew and invitations continued to come, Ibdaa's children has instilled in themselves confidence and pride that something can indeed be created out of nothing. The first generation of dancers, now about to graduate from high-school, have become a young leadership of the project, passing their art on to younger dancers. "Because they've gained confidence in themselves, they are ready to face up the difficulties and know how to face their future," Ziad sees a tangible result in these younger refugees, as their grandparents, the Nakba generation, have started to die out. "This is what I wanted Ibdaa to create."
Next week, Ibdaa will depart for the United States for the first time. The group will travel to New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Detroit, to perform and to start an international exchange program with their American counterparts. We hope that you will be able to come to the performance and to get to know the people of Dheisheh. Below is the contact list for each city's performance information.
I will be accompanying the group, and my reports will take a short break for the next five weeks. Hope to see you in the States.