In this episode Tom and Hazel speak to Sireen Khudairy, who is a resident of Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem. For many years, Dheisheh has been a centre of determined resistance against the occupation. We spoke to Sireen in December 2022. And she told us about life and resistance in Dheisheh, and also in the Jordan Valley. She also speaks about the murders which were carried out by the Israeli military near to Dheisheh in winter 2022.
- International Solidarity Movement website.
- Read our interview with Sireen on page 21 of our Interviews with Radical Palestinian Women Ebook.
- If you would like an explanation of the terms used in this podcast, you can find a useful glossary on pages 140-154 of Shoal Collective’s Ebook.
Hey, welcome to International Solidarity Movement podcast [arabic translation]
Hey, and welcome to the International Solidarity Movement podcast. My name’s Tom. And in this episode me and Hazel speak to Sireen Khudairy, who’s a resident of Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem. For many years, Dheisheh has been a centre of determined resistance against the occupation. We spoke to Sireen in December 2022. And she told us about life and resistance in Dheisheh, and also in the Jordan Valley. She speaks about two of the murders which were carried out by the Israeli military near Dheisheh in winter 2022.
Now over to Hazel and Sireen to talk about life, resistance and solidarity in Dheisheh.
So my name is Sireen and I’m originally from Tubas, in the north of the Jordan Valley. Okay, and I have moved to the Dheisheh refugee camp seven years ago. So I live here since seven years. Yeah. I’m an activist with Jordan Valley solidarity campaign. And now I’m organising some activities here in Dheisheh refugee camp. I will talk about the refugee camp here in Dheisheh.
So in the past, there was an Israeli gate, close to the camp, and an electric fence around the camp. It was removed because of the struggle of Palestinian people here, and because of resistance.
So nowadays, actually, since I moved to the Dheisheh camp, it was [a shock] for me even [though] I’m a Palestinian, I was living and struggling in another way. Not like now how it looks like [to me now]. How [is] the life in Dheisheh. I was suffering with other types of problems. You know, the life in the Jordan Valley, we were struggling there. Because there there is no water and you are not allowed to build houses, not allowed to have electricity or to build a school. So it was another type of struggling. Here in Dheisheh camp. It’s different. You are resisting to be alive. Anytime you could be shooted with any attack. So I remember the first night the Israeli soldiers attacked the house, I was alone, actually, my husband, he was in jail. So I was alone in the house. I was surprised. It was like – for me – like a war, [gas and sound] bombing outside the house, shooting gas bombs into my house to the balcony. So I was like, what’s happening? What’s going on here in the camp. So that’s what’s happening. Like weekly, sometimes three times per week, sometimes once a week. It depends on the mood and the orders of Israeli soldiers.
The [people] came from… 50 [different] villages in[side the] 1948 [territories seized by] Israel. And they live here in the camp. I’ll talk more about the attacking [of] the camp, especially while I’m a mother now. I have kids.
It’s two months ago. Usually when I go to work, my kids and my husband they drove me to work by our car and then my husband take my kids to the kindergarten. So they drove me to my work far away from the camp around 10 minutes. Okay. So they were on their way back to the camp. They were surprised that there were soldiers at the entrance of the camp without their uniform. And they were shooting. I just heard in the news there is shooting in the camp and there were people injured. I was like, what’s happening? It was 8:30am. So that was the first time for my kids. The first time they saw blood. So for me, it was like they have to be [more than] their ages you know, since they start to ask me who they [the injured people] are, what’s the blood about, if the people died? If later, we will be shooted? What will happen? They asked me, after being dead, how is the life for us? They were asking questions really much more than their ages. So in that time, I recognise that it’s a danger of occupation. It’s, you know, when you start to live a life as if it’s normal. You look at it as if it’s normal life. And then someone slaps you, [reminds] you that it’s not normal. Actually, my kids, they slap me like that. It’s not normal life. Yeah. And you hear about the last one? My husband’s relative who was shooted in the camp. It’s like that in one moment.
Mama schuh hada [what’s this]
Hada mike [this is a mike]
How old are your children now?
The biggest one, Jawad, is five and a half years, Younes is three years and half.
I just remembered that, unfortunately, international people, when we talk about situation and life, it’s like, okay, you are people under occupation and let us know about it, you know. But no, we are just like any other people. We have life and we are we have good memories in our life. We are not like just people under occupation – how the Israelis they want to show us, so yeah, that’s just a reminder.
Do you want to say anything else about the situation in Dheisheh?
About the recent martyr?
Yeah. It was on 5th of December. At 530. Actually, my son he was sick and I was awake. Okay. I just heard bombing outside the house. So, okay, a new attack who? Who will be died this night? I was like that. what will happene? I just heard… a voice of a man who was shouting. So he was that one, the martyr… So they attacked the camp to arrest people. And they arrested three people that night at 5:30am. And it was [as if] they left the camp. So the people they thought that the army they left the camp. So they went to take out the prisoners from the school. They were keeping the prisoners inside the school… just outside the school.
Suddenly there was a sniper. He started to shoot at the people. He shot a man. He fell down. Then his friends they were trying to take him out from under fire. They shot at him with 10 bullets. They were trying to take him. [When] anyone he was trying to go closer, they shoot. So two they were in dangerous situation. And the third one he has died, and his brother is still in in jail.
I’m sorry to hear.
That was a shock you know because especially this guy, the people in the camp they were love him. He was he was the one who make bread for all the camp. So he would usually go to the kindergarten where my kids study, and [bring] bread to them and zaatar with breads [or] cheese with breads. Once a week for free. So he’s friends with the kids and people in the camp. It was a sad moment for all the camp it was a huge shock.
How old was he?
22 years old. His name was Omar Manna Fararja.
Is there a strong feeling of unity and solidarity amongst the people here, despite the attacks?
Yes, actually that thing I saw it in my eye. Especially woman, you know whenever there are attacks. Not just men they go outside. Even woman, they try to protect the camp. It’s not easy for Israeli soldiers to come inside, to come from the entrance of the camp because nightly there are men who’s always trying to to keep the camp from the soldiers. So how they attack the camp? From the mountain, from behind the camp mostly. It’s not easy for them to come inside the camp. Whenever they try to enter the camp, there is resistance. I will not hide it. The people here resist. Even women they do it. So for sure, they will not welcome them by flowers.
Israeli soldiers, they shoot seventy people from the camp into their knees. So their promise was we are going to make people disabled. If anyone wants to resist you will be disabled. And they [said] that on a microphone. The Israeli captain [he was] threatening the people like that. Whenever there are attacks you have to hide yourself in your house. Otherwise you will be disabled. We are going to shoot you.
And you were saying before that women will also go out into the street as well when there are soldiers. Right? And so is it also women?
If they are coming like if they knock the house to come inside, they try to stop them. It’s not like going outside to the street. No, just men they go outside. But if they try to go inside they refuse, even women! ‘You’re not welcome in my house!’ They try to ask them if they have permission… documents say [they] have the right from the court, because [what they are doing is] illegal.
And two months ago, as well, they killed a child. And we are going to take you to see where where he was killed. He was just in the street. Inside the village there are checkpoints, In Umm Ruqba village here in Bethlehem. And a soldier he shooted the child. They took photos to show that they were trying to treat him after shooting him. And they were showing ‘look at our soldiers, how they are trying to treat a child’. And [after] they took the photos they left, they let him die.
So after all that I am trying to open a link between women in the Jordan Valley and woman in Dheisheh refugee camp to share their experiences, because it’s important to share their experiences, and to talk, to keep having hope. And we are teaching, sharing our experiences to teach each other.
Can you explain what it’s like to organise autonomously as women in Dheisheh? Like what kind of things have you been doing in the woman’s organising?
Okay, so first of all, we went to the Jordan Valley. I noticed actually that there are differences between the characters of the women in the Jordan Valley and the woman in Dheisheh refugee camp, even [though] they are struggling, both are struggling and resisting in their in their ways. So I thought okay, if they share their experiences, it will be helpful for the woman there, and the woman here in Dheisheh refugee camp. And we start a project called ‘The Beauty of the Lands’ – here in Dheisheh refugee camp and in the Jordan Valley.
You know, the Jordan Valley has a very beautiful area and a huge area. But whenever you go there to talk to people, they start to blame the situation and talk about occupation and they forget that they live in a very beautiful area, because of the situation and that’s what the Israelis want, they want us to focus at the problems and blame the situation, and feel it’s a very hard life, and leave.
So we start to focus more to stay with the communities, to live with the communities for months, to talk to the people too. I learned a lot because of the women in the Jordan Valley. Other women, they said the same. Just our questions was let us know about the beauty of the Jordan Valley. At the beginning, it was hard to talk about beauty, always it was about problems, the situation, the occupation, etc. But after 10 days, they started to talk about unique plants, about the lands, the unique flowers, the spring waters… If you feel the lands. If you take that good memories to your mind from the lands, then you feel it, you will like to stay in it. It will mean for you. Not like okay, I’m here because it’s the only place I’m staying in. So it was good experience there. And we’re trying to collect stories from here in Dheisheh. From old women and old men – because that’s our history. And you know they are [the] stories of [the] Nakba [of 1948]. It’s [a memory] with the people who are [over] 80 years old, so we are trying to meet more people, to document it.
And can you also talk a bit about the women’s organising here in the camp? You spoke about having a house where women can meet and discuss together?
Okay, it was a crazy idea. So you know, my husband… he was in jail. The Palestinian Authority, they give salary for each month of staying in jail for the family of the prisoners. So I was working in that time and I was collecting the money for Mahmoud since he was released. We were thinking what to do with it. So we decided to renovate one of the oldest houses in Dheisheh, to save the story of the house – which has stories of seven families who was left there because of Nakba. So now it’s a place for women to meet and talk. You know, here in the camp almost we don’t have [any] spaces outside our house. Almost it’s like houses, upstairs. So yeah, it’s an opportunity for women to sit and to talk. To share experiences as well. We give trainings in the house as well. We have links with the worker’s union. So always we invite women. Here, if there is some trouble at work, the women they try to hide it. So the women’s centre – for them it’s like a space where they could share with each other – which is very important for your psychology, to talk and to try to solve your problems with others. So that’s the idea of the women’s centre in Dheisheh.
How many women have been coming?
55. Until now, yes, more or less? Yeah, 55 women.
And do you also make decisions about things locally? Or like what sort of projects do you hope to do in the future? You said about the union organising, and it’s also interesting that you said it’s this really old house – because it made me think of what you were saying about the Jordan Valley. And again, it’s women as these kind of defenders of culture and memory – and passing that on as well. So it’s really beautiful that in both places you have these projects
Yeah, actually more it’s going to be like a popular education centre. It’s like people teaching other people. Sharing, learning each other… The space it has a high floor, it could be for a theatre, okay, to share some of the stories which we are collecting now. So it’s more for culture, it’s going [to be] for cultural projects.
Is it ever difficult to get women involved in organising. Are there like specific challenges that you feel like women face to get involved?
Here in the camp? No, the women here, they are more open. Okay. But where are the challenges? It’s… easy to [get] them involved, it’s not easy to make them talk. And that’s important, you know, it’s like, Okay, we have to hide…
It’s like the image of women, it’s like, we have to show that we are heroes. We don’t have problems, you know. We could solve it. It’s easy to solve any problems. And that’s the challenge. But no, it’s a problem. It’s not normal life. We have to face it as it’s a problem. Yeah, that’s the challenge.
And were you involved in women’s organising before living in the camp, as well, like organising women elsewhere. So I know that you are an ex-prisoner. And you’re involved now in prison solidarity organising. And I want to ask you about that. But I’m also curious, because you said that in the camp, women are quite open to joining. But I wondering if it was difficult in other places.
For example, in the Jordan Valley, it’s not easy [for] women [to] share activities, or to be yanni to be honest, here, it’s easy to make people join activities. But in the Jordan Valley, for example, it’s like shame, or they have to wait for a decision from men, [for men] to accept it. That’s the truth. Here. No, it’s different.
Why do you think it’s different? What’s the difference? What caused it to be different?
Because the style of life here is different. In the Jordan Valley, it’s like still small communities. So it’s still more controlled by men, which is not the same here. Once when I was in the Jordan Valley, I saw a woman. She wakes up at five, [I met her] during the ‘Beauty [of Life]’ projects – while I was staying with the families. So she wakes up at 5am, she was taking the milk of 200 sheep. Okay. And then she went back to the house, she prepared breakfast for her family, she make her kids ready to go to school. Then she makes cheese of the 200 sheep… And then she was preparing dinner. And the Israeli bulldozer, they attack the house, they destroyed the house. She went inside the house, she took everything from inside the house outside at that time, she was preparing the food while the bulldozer [was] destroying the house. And in the end of the day, I asked her what do you do in your life? Could you imagine her answer? What was it? Nothing! For me, it was like, she teaches me the meaning of power. And she has a huge power to do all of that without blaming. But for her, it’s like ‘I’m doing nothing’. So that’s why I thought ‘Yeah, it’s important to talk to women’. And that’s why their situations [are] still like that. Because they don’t talk. They look at it as if it’s normal, normal life and the meaning for them. [Comes] from the men, ‘you do nothing’…And that’s destroying communities. That’s how communities are [being destroyed] in the valley. Because of that.
Women for me are much more important than men there. Because they start… I saw her, she was trying to rebuild the house before the men. She look after her sheep, [and] about the family as well. And the decisions comes from the men at the end of the day.
So you mentioned before that you were in prison, and also since then you’ve been a prisoner organiser, a solidarity organiser as well. We’re wondering if you could tell us a bit about that?
About being in jail?
If you want to share about being in jail then do, but also especially organising since then as well.
Okay, so in 2013, I was kidnapped by the Israeli soldiers. I was in isolation for two months. And maybe it’s important to share with you about being isolated. I was in a cell, which is one metre, within two metres, for two months without lights with a very heavy light. I remember the first time I saw the sun after two months. For my eyes, it was like a heavy door [that] I’m trying to open. There are too many details. If we are going to talk about it, maybe for people who’s outside jail, it means nothing! But for prisoners. It’s like life. It was a dream for me after a month to have a small mirror to see my face in a mirror, for example. So I have passed through too many [psychological] pressures. I remember once one of the Israeli captains. he brought… a Palestinian magazine with a photo of my mother. [It was] written on it that my mom died [which wasn’t true]. Imagine which types of [psychological] torture they don’t care, [they want] to make to make you very weak.
So after isolation, I was with Palestinian political prisoners in HaSharon jail. So I was with [other] Palestinian political prisoners in HaSharon jail, which is illegal according to the Geneva agreement that we were in jail inside Israel. Our family cannot visit. For me never my family visited me there. We were mixed in the same jail with Israeli criminals, which is illegal too.
So since I was released, I was involved with doing solidarity with prisoners through sending letters, talking to radio. There are some programmes [that] I know that prisoners are hearing and it means a lot for them. They are waiting the programme from one week to another week to hear letters and to hear from people outside. So it’s like to give a time [of] 10 minutes to this programme. It means a lot to the prisoners inside so I’m trying to give my best with that trying to stand next to families to continue to keep [on] the struggle, and to not [let] the families feel they are lonely. Yes.
Are you working especially with women prisoners?
Not specially but I’m trying to focus [on them] because I know their situation as I lived it. I’ll share something with you that I met Lina Jarbouni. When I met her in jail, she [had been] for 20 years in jail. So I met her in 2013. So for her, I started to talk to her about internet and about Facebook. That you could post a post on Facebook people, could make comments. She thought that I’m lying. Like I’m just trying to make more drama. She doesn’t know what does it mean internet. While the internet was discovered she was in jail. So she was like, ‘which life are we living’.
How many how many people from Dheisheh are in prison do you think now?
Hundreds? I don’t know exactly. Because you know its daily… Maybe this night they will arrest more five people. It’s changed daily
So many many families have one of their loved ones in prison?
Do you organise activities together?
And I wanted to say something. They are not numbers! It’s like you know each family has the same. Each Palestinian family has prisoners, has a taste of the meaning of to lose someone, martyrs. I don’t think that [for] any family in Palestine never one one of them was arrested
Like, for example our neighbour, he’s [sent to] jail 15 years. And he has to stay in jail for all of his life, just on the other side of our house. His mother was dead and he didn’t see her. Before she was dead for four years… they didn’t allow her to visit.
So our other neighbour last year, he was shooted. He’s 17 years old and he is disabled. He was shooted into his back. The other neighbours, he’s like go out from jail for two months, and they re-arrest. He stay with his family… just for two months. And then they came back to arrest him. He stayed in jail two years. They let him out for two months and they re-arrest. It’s like, around us is like a movie.
And both of us are involved in prisoner solidarity and solidarity with people in court in the UK. And I wanted to ask, like how important do you think is it to have connections and solidarity with people outside of Dheisheh and people outside of Palestine, and to build solidarity with prisoners?
It’s important because there are some actions you could do it, but we cannot do it. For example… when I was in jail, I saw that things which they were putting on my hands [the handcuffs]. They were from G4S. [And] so some companies, international companies. They support Israel through guns, for example. These things you could make actions to against it. And if you are in contact with Palestinians, and in solidarity with prisoners you could share more stories. [Share] more realities, to make the people work outside to do something to help.
We’re still living the same life here because of the silence of internationals communities.