I recently visited Palestine for the first time. Part of this visit included a trip to Aida refugee camp just outside Bethlehem in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. Aida refugee camp was set up in 1950 by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine), as a direct result of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians by the emergent Israeli state in 1948. The camp holds 3000-5000 refugees and is made up of former inhabitants of 41 villages taken over and or destroyed by Israeli forces during Al-Nakbah (The Catastrophe).
The day before we arrived in the camp a female inhabitant, Nuha Mohammed Qatamesh, was killed by Israeli tear gas in one of their numerous incursions in to the camp. It is important to understand the physical and political geography of the camp in regards to these “Israeli Occupation Forces”, as named in the camp, incursions. The camp is situated right next to the separation wall which cuts through much of the rest of the Palestinian West Bank. When the Israeli troops, observing from their watchtowers, wish to enter the camp all they have to do is open up the gate of the wall and trundle down the 200 yards max to the entrance of the camp. Reports from workers inside the camp tell of extreme provocations from the Israeli troops. Walking and driving in, in full military gear, switching on their speakers and announcing their presence in order to provoke the huge child population (66% of the camp is aged under 18) of the camp to appear and take on the troops in a sick cat-and-mouse game of stone-throwing and modern miltary weapon reprisal. The director of Alrowwad, Abdelfattah Abusrour, told me, “Targeting children is mostly intended to create informers and collaborators because Aida is looked at as a border site and needs to be submissive and quiet, which doesn’t seem to work because occupation can’t be something that anyone can get used to.”
Dan Cohen of Mondoweiss recently reported on the extent of this violence inflicted by Israeli forces on the inhabitants of the camp and the reaction of the inhabitants. Gideon Levy, the award-winning Israeli journalist for the newspaper Haaretz, also recently reported from the camp. As well as this everyday violence the refugees are put through, the structural violence of the occupation is felt here more than the rest of the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. Abdelfattah told me that the unemployment rate is close to 70% in the camp as compared to 22.5% in the rest of the West Bank. These combined vulnerabilities make achieving a life anywhere near to the potential of even an everyday Palestinian citizen in the West Bank impossible, let alone to the standards enjoyed by Israelis.
Despite and because of this everyday assault on the inhabitants of the camp there is a Palestinian NGO working hard in the camp to channel the aggression and frustration of the inhabitants away from falling for the trap set by the Israeli troops by trying to offer them skills to pursue some kind of future outside the camp. The vision of Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Society as expressed by director Abdelfattah is:
ACTS mission is to save lives, inspire hope in such times of despair, empowering the community and promote human values and respect of human rights through culture, arts and education as ways of beautiful and non-violent means of self-expression and resistance against the ugliness of occupation and its violence and as means to build the peace within the individual to be able to build it in the world. Giving possibilities for children and youth where they will hopefully think that they can change the world and create miracles without need to carry a gun and shoot others, or explode or burn themselves but to stay alive. As parents, as educators, as artists or leaders or simply as human beings, we want to see children grow up and celebrate their life and successes, and when the time comes, they should be the ones walking in our funerals and not the other way around.
What we saw through Alrowwad was a “Beautiful Non-violent Resistance”. Not images of Palestinian children hurling rocks and stones at one of the most modern militaries in the world but of a vision of resistance to the occupation through education and mutual respect, through an understanding of human rights and their importance in application to their situation. The programmes Alrowwad offers include theatre training, dance, drawing and music training- all for children and adults. The stereotypical view of a woman’s position within Palestinian society is also challenged through the specific women’s unit which empowers women through education, job creation and health and fitness programmes.
My brief visit to the camp was followed up a couple of days later with a further visit. You could smell the use of freshly fired skunk water in the air and the tension felt even higher than before. While much of the recent international media coverage has been of the failed ‘peace talks’ and the apparent Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, it is these facts-on-the-ground that must change and which really prevent any chance of a just peace coming in to fruition. The everyday humiliation of the Palestinians is and nowhere is this more apparent than in the lived experiences of the residents of Aida. This humiliation can only really be truly understood from the Palestinian point-of-view. Organisations like Alrowwad are an extremely positive contribution to Palestinian society but their impact will only ever be limited by the relentless expansion of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the lack of a just peace.