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Letter from Dheishe Refugee Camp

Hi Folks,

In the past week since I left, it’s been hard to sit down and put together some thoughts, since new experiences keep happening. Here are a few.

The volunteers for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) who showed up in Jerusalem last weekend were guided to Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, for a day of training on Monday. We spent the next day and a half working intensively through Palestinian history, operations of the ISM, principles of non-violence, role-plays, cultural sensitivity, and much more. We met in Bethlehem with a member of the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, who shared with us detailed demographic and geographic information on the occupation, complete with satellite photos. For a good web site with maps and other very useful documentation, see www.arij.org.

We were 17: Americans, Swedes, Brits, an Italian, and a Dane. Around 5 Jews. Towards the end of the training we quickly formed into affinity groups, trying in a short time to sort out commonality of temperament and level of engagement. There were some who seemed, as one person said, “ferociously courageous,” and others who wanted to ease into the work.

Possible ongoing activities of the movement (we were told it’s not an organization) include checkpoint watching, house-sitting at homes threatened with demolition, ambulance accompaniment, and “breaking curfew.” The small affinity group that I joined went to Deheishe camp, near Bethlehem. Here, we have been sleeping in a house that has been threatened with demolition. Sometimes houses are demolished in order to make way for Israeli settlements or bypass roads; other times because they were built without permit (as are many Palestinian homes, since permits are almost impossible to get), and other times because someone in the family, or related to the family, or living near it, committed a suicide bombing or other kind of attack.

The latter was the case with this house. A 17-year-old girl, daughter of the family, set off a bomb in a Jerusalem market, killing around 15 people including herself. The fact that we were to protect the family of a suicide bomber from collective punishment caused enough conflict for some of the people in my group that they withdrew and went elsewhere. For me there was no conflict, however, because the family did nothing to deserve punishment. They did not even know she was planning the act, and learned about it from a television report. And after it happened, the father and the girl’s fiancé both made strong public statements against attacks that hurt civilians.

We arrived here Tuesday evening and were given a tour around the camp. It’s on a hill off the main road out of Bethlehem. Deheishe was set up by the U.N. in 1948 for Palestinian refugees from the newly created state of Israel. The father of my family was born on the road as his family was fleeing from Ramle.

It happens that I was in this camp in 1990, when I last visited Palestine and Israel. Then, during the first Intifada, there were two high fences around the camp, blocking off all but one entrance. On the outer fence, someone had spray-painted in Hebrew, “It’s Cheaper to Kill Them.” The fences were removed after Oslo, when Deheishe became part of the Palestinian-controlled area.

We walked around the camp, through the narrow winding streets and alleys, up the hills, passing cinder-block and mortar houses, some poor, some wealthier. Most of the walls had graffiti in Arabic, and many of them had posters with photos of people who had been killed by the army. Some were of people who had died while committing suicide attacks. There was one older man who had been shot 36 times by soldiers while he was coming back from the grocery store.

We were met warmly by the family, and sat up until midnight introducing ourselves and drinking tea. The house has been stripped of almost all furniture, doors, and windows, in anticipation of the demolition. We sat on plastic chairs, and slept on mats on the floors. The house adjoins one other, and there are several others nearby, across a ten-foot alley. If it is bombed, all the neighboring houses will be damaged as well.

Before going to bed we made a plan in case the army showed up. They come in the middle of the night and give you a few minutes to get out, then they set up dynamite. We are here because we are aware that the army prefers that these things not be revealed to the outer world, and if foreign observers are present, they are less likely to come. I was told that the army knows we are here, and won’t come as long as we remain. We are at least the second group that has been staying at the house.

As we talked, we got an earful of information on how people are living. The frustration expressed was intense, talking about people’s inability to go to school or work, to make progress in their lives, to plan anything at all. One man told us that of his 5 brothers, two were in jail. He said, “I like to laugh. Maybe I will laugh for a half hour, and cry the rest of the day.” Almost all of his friends, he said, were either dead or in prison.

This is just a minuscule portion of the woes we have heard about in a short time. I will share in more detail when I get home.

We took a look at a house that had been demolished. The family is now living nearby, under a tent without sides. They had a few plastic chairs, and served us coffee. They were also originally from the Ramle area. The army came in the middle of the night, and they had time to dress and grab their baby. The army outdid itself, and when the house was blown up, the impact was felt at least a half mile away. A fierce blast of wind reached all the way up to the house I’m staying in, and rubble landed on the roof.

The house was a sturdy new three-story building. The family had saved to build it for twenty years. They only moved in three months ago. Now it is a pile of rubble, like a thousand I have seen in Bosnia. The blast was so strong that it blew a metal door 100 feet, to a neighboring house, and the door made a 1.5-foot hole all the way through the concrete wall. This all happened less than a week ago. When we arrived, the door frame was still hanging there, horizontal, stuck into the concrete wall.

There were dead chickens around the yard of the wrecked house. The floors had mostly collapsed onto each other. Oddly, one bathroom door survived, its mirror intact.

Today as I was walking down to the Ibdaa community center (see www.dheisheh-ibdaa.net – it’s the only cultural center/hostel/internet lab of its kind in a refugee camp), I noticed that the main street was empty. At 8:30 a.m. there was already a curfew. I was told, “Forget about today.” I had been planning to visit Bethlehem, but no one was going anywhere.

We sat around Ibdaa talking to visiting Italians and Palestinian-Canadians. Suddenly there was the rumble of a very loud engine right outside our window. It was an APC – an armored personnel carrier full of Israeli soldiers. It looks like a small tank, only it has wheels instead of tracks. The APC backed up and went into the street. For the next hour it drove back and forth, going up side streets and returning. At times several soldiers would get out and march alongside. After a while, a tank showed up too. One brave Palestinian man stood out on the street and filmed the APC. After a while it left, but not without briefly detaining and questioning an adventuresome Italian. The rest of us tried to watch, while keeping out of the way.

When we headed to Deheishe, we were told that “Bethlehem is Occupation Lite.” That may be true, but what I’ve seen already is bad enough to make me feel very angry and sad, and apparently enough to make the people who have to live with it their whole lives desperate.

Yours, Peter