By Adam Shapiro
The first thing you notice at the entrance to the Balata Refugee Camp is the overturned, burned out car stuck in a huge man-made crater in the ground. But this was the battleground of the previous three days, as the Israeli Army sacked the camp and destroyed homes, cars, property, and lives with wanton abandon and without much purpose. Other than to attack and terrorize a people who have nothing in this world and who have already been made homeless – and who have remained refugees for over 50 years. Inside the camp, this alleged “hotbed of terrorism” the group of us eight internationals were met and greeted by the residents with inquisitive looks, “salaam aleikum” shouted from time to time, and lots of little kids running up to us to see who were these strangers. All tried to make us feel welcome and when they learned that we were there in solidarity with the people of the camp and wanted to take pictures to show the world, we were pulled in many different directions at once to witness what the Israelis had done. What they had done was obvious, and it was all over the camp. Immediately noticeable, at eye level, was the black spray paint on the walls – arrows, numbers, Hebrew writing and stars of David, markings the soldiers made to allow themselves to navigate through the crowded camp. Permanent markings of the three days of hell the camp endured. We later found these markings inside people’s homes as well, painted on the walls.
Thirty homes were destroyed in the camp, but hundreds more effectively ruined and damaged. The camp is densely populated and some alleyways between the buildings are barely wide enough for me – an average sized male – to pass through. Other structures are just built wall-to-wall. When the Israeli army took down a building – allegedly looking for weapons or rockets (no evidence of any found) – it meant that the neighbors’ buildings also were damaged. The first place I visited was a destroyed home. Next door, the building was still standing, but upon walking in, I discovered that the neighbor had lost his wall. The home was also damaged by the demolition and the home utterly unusable. If each house demolished results in the two or three neighboring buildings also being damaged beyond use, then the result is between 90 and 120 structures affected. Each structure contains at least two (and usually more) apartments, housing anywhere from 10 to 40 people. Therefore, at minimum, 900 people were left homeless by the home demolitions in the camp – this is the calculus of Israel’s war on the Palestinian people.
Walking through the streets of the camp, destruction was all around us. Peering down alleyways, we inevitably spotted the chunks of stone, the twisted metal and the broken piece of furniture that indicated a home was demolished. Cars had been set ablaze and riddled with bullet-holes – the carcasses lay in the streets as added testimony to the siege. Every house we visited had a story to tell. Some were simply shot up, others had tear gas thrown inside, while others were invaded and occupied by the soldiers. We visited one home that had been occupied during the entire siege by Israeli soldiers. Upon entering the house, the soldiers offered to allow the family to leave, but promised them they would never come back to the house. The family stayed – three children (aged 4 to 9), two young women (one pregnant) and an elderly woman. The man of the house – PLC member and leading figure in the camp, Hussam Khader – was not home for fear of his life. The soldiers forced the family into one room – approximately 8×10 feet – and made them stay there the entire three days. For the first twenty-four hours, not a single person was allowed to leave the room at all – not for the bathroom, not for food, not for water. The soldiers ransacked the entire place – taking money and computer disks, breaking furniture and emptying drawers, ripping apart passports and overturning children’s beds. We knocked at the door of the home when we arrived. As we entered the sitting room, we heard child whimper – little Ahmed (four years old) was afraid we were the Israelis coming back to the house. He is traumatized by the experience and needs to be near his mom and aunt constantly. But he is tough, and before long he was playing with my camera. He told me to follow him upstairs and there he showed me how the soldiers had ransacked his room. He was amazed by the sight and asked me why the soldiers did this to him.
The last home we visited in the camp was located on the main street, near the cemetery. A ground floor apartment was located adjacent to a store. The main gate of the store was blown apart and the glass from the window lay in the street. The back wall of the small store was torn down and you could see directly into the apartment behind – but there was not much to see. Walking into the house we were unable to step on the floor directly – it was covered with clothing, broken dishes, broken furniture, etc. The electricity was cut, so we had to poke around in the diminishing light until a portable fixture was brought in. The lit room revealed the full destruction – even the washing machine was not safe from the brutality of the soldiers. A fully veiled young woman (only her eyes showed) boldly came up to me and asked if I spoke English. I replied that I did and that she could speak to me in either English or Arabic. She explained that she was the oldest of four children in the house – 14-years old – and that her father was dead. She led me over to where the kitchen had been and searched in the broken glass for something. Finally, she pulled up a picture frame with a photo of her father in it and explained to me that Israeli spies had killed him in 1994. In a flash she was back in the pile on the ground looking for another photo – that of her grandfather, also dead. Now holding both pictures, this young Muslim woman, proud to know English and proud of her family, calmly explained what had happened when the soldiers came – how they had to flee and spend the night outside the camp in the nearby fields. For more than fifty years they had been refugees, and now Israel wanted to attack them again. But, she told me, struggling with her emotions and her sense of dignity, “they must know we are strong children and we won’t leave this land, my grandfather’s land. We will return to the land which they occupied in 1948.”
These refugees, like those in the other camps, have lost everything and live with virtually nothing. Now, day after day, the Israeli army is going after them in a pogrom deliberately designed to provoke and to strike terror in the hearts of an entire people. Like little Ahmed Khader, the world must ask, why are the Israelis doing this?