I arrived in Palestine 2 nights ago, staying at Dheisheh refugee camp (near Bethlehem, West Bank) where I had lived until one month before the current Intifada broke out. On this one week visit, I am planning to convey to you as much as possible of what I see here.
In Bethlehem area, things have been rather quieter in the last several weeks. There have been less bombings and clashes, and people attribute it to the religious holidays (Christmas and Ramadan just finished) or in anticipation of results ongoing negotiation. Still, the night before my arrival, shelling from nearby settlement of Efrat struck houses in Dheisheh camp. "My brother's home was hit by two tank- shells, leaving two big holes in the wall," told me Ahmed, one of Ibdaa Dance troupe members.
The difference from before the Intifada can be felt the most after dark. Streets are deserted, for the fear of Israeli bombings, which usually start at night.
Another noticeable difference is pictures of martyrs that decorate every street corner, store front, and house wall. This Intifada has already claimed more than 300 lives, 20 of them from the Bethlehem area alone. Everyone here knows each of their martyr's names, where they lived, and the story of their death.
Yesterday morning, my friend Ziad from Dheisheh took me on a tour around the area. On this tour, I was able to get the sense of living under siege. Israel, in addition to the Closure policy that restricts the movement of Palestinians within West Bank, has imposed a stricter policy called Internal Closure. Today, most Palestinian vehicles are not allowed to exit Areas A (15% of West Bank) which are island-like pockets in the sea of Israeli controlled Area C (65% of West Bank). The route Ziad took me defined a physical outline of the enclave that most Bethlehem area residents have been confined into.
To the north, his car could only reach Beit Jala village, and to the west, he could go no more than half-way into Beit Sahour village, part of which is Area C with an Israeli military installation. To the south, he could take me only as far as Al-Khader village, the borders of which are surrounded by a network of Bypass Roads (roads linking West Bank settlements to serve Jewish settlers). "Israeli soldiers shoot from up there down to the village," looking up the bypass road on hillsides Ziad explained. The exit of Al-Khader was blocked by mound of concrete debris. On the hills not far from there, blue lights of Israeli military vehicles were visible. On the hilltops of Artas village, right next to Dheisheh, "you can often see tanks moving about," said Ziad. The extensive network of military stations, checkpoints, Bypass Roads and settlements is at work to physically confine the Palestinian communities and to militarily surround them.
The village of Beit Jala was hit the worst by the Israeli bombings in the last months. On lands confiscated from this scenic Christian village lies an Israeli settlement, Gilo, from where tanks and snipers fired on beautiful stone houses, apartment buildings, and ancient churches of the village. Most damages are seen in the valley and slope facing Gilo. Houses have shattered windows, blown up columns, charred or bullet-riddled walls. Burned and disfigured cars left on the street bear witness to the heavy shelling that the village came under. I saw a family loading up trucks with household items, clearly on their way to evacuate from the village.
Beit Jibrin Refugee Camp also experienced several nights of heavy shelling. The smallest of the 59 Palestinian refugee camps, Beit Jibrin is a densely populated shanty-town, crowded with makeshift concrete houses and muddy alley ways. Two main streets that encircle the camp meet in front of Rachel's Tomb, a religious site turned to fortress. The tomb, guarded heavily by Israeli soldiers right in the middle of a Palestinian neighborhood, has been a spot of tension and friction where stone throwing Palestinians encounter live bullets and tear gas.
Handala Center, a children's cultural center in the Beit Jibrin camp, has been closed since the beginning of the intifada. "The children can't come to the center when there are clashes and bombing, because it is too dangerous," explained my friend Azza, a co-founder of the center. Azza also pointed to his windows and walls punctuated with holes from bullets and shrapnel.
Merna, his 13-year-old niece, told me stories from shelling. "It was like a rainy day because Israeli bullets destroyed all our water tanks," she points to rooftops where families store water for the time of shortages (which is basically every summer) in tin tanks. Many houses had outside walls riddled with bullet holes. Merna's house was hit by 7 shells in one night. "This was from Gilo, and this was from tanks at Rachel's Tomb, all made in USA" she went through a collection of bomb shells and shrapnel, and pointed to corresponding holes on the walls and windows of her home. It must have been by some miracle that nobody in her family was hurt, given the intense and indiscriminatory shelling into this densely populated camp. "Palestine is a jail. We live in a jail," said Umm Yunis, grandmother of Merna. "How are you able to study in the situation like this?" to my question Merna answered with a smile: "No problem. We learned to finish everything by 4PM, before bombing starts."
As I write this, I hear sound of ambulance on the main road just outside of Dheisheh camp. There are clashes going on in al-Khader village. This morning, bombing damaged two houses in Beit Sahour village. Three youths have already been hospitalized today. Mu'sab, a 10 year old from Dheisheh, just walked in with a rubber-coated-metal bullet he picked up at the scene of clashes.