Aida Refugee Camp is a densely populated camp located in the shadow of the Israeli separation barrier. Some Israelis euphemistically call it the “security fence.” In some places it is a fence, topped with barbed wire.
Here at Aida, it’s a massive concrete wall, about three times the size of the Berlin Wall, with Israeli watchtowers at certain intervals. Prior to the construction of the barrier in 2004, the children of Aida had access to open space. Now the area where they used to play, filled with olive trees, is behind the barrier. (The olives are no longer harvested and go to waste.) The only place for children to play that isn’t on the street or in the narrow lanes between buildings is a small plot of land, about half an acre, located behind Lajee Center. This land was recently purchased from a private individual at a very hefty price. Fifty percent of the population at Aida, approximately 2,500 people, is under eighteen. This small plot is hardly big enough.
If the barrier was truly meant for security, it could have been moved 500 meters closer to the settlement. This would have allowed the camp to keep space for the children, while still providing the “security” that the wall was supposedly meant for. Prior to the wall’s construction, though, the children played across the street from the settlement without any problems. Security, here at least, wasn’t an issue until the Israelis made it one.
Today some of the volunteers cleaned the area, picking up trash and generally sprucing up the playground and dirt pitch used as a soccer field. I went with a group of people to collect rocks next to the barrier that will be cemented to the playground’s wall to give it a bit of an aesthetic makeover. It will look nice when it’s finished and will be a good change from all of the concrete that surrounds the children. At one point we sat against the wall, taking a break from the hot Bethlehem sun. At least the wall provided a bit of shade.
The watchtower next to us was not manned today. When Israeli soldiers are stationed there, a light is kept on. For the residents of the camp, some of whose windows look out onto the tower, this light is a signal to keep the shades drawn so the soldiers can’t look into their living rooms or bedrooms. (Another nearby tower is constantly manned by soldiers. This continuous surveillance is humiliating, compounded by frequent incursions by Israeli troops into the camp to harass its residents and carry out arbitrary searches. These are usually made very early in the morning, around 2 or 3 am to maximize their effect. And everyone here has a family member or friend who has been arrested, placed in jail, or was shot.)
Being here is like stepping behind the iron curtain—a troubling prospect in 2012. You can feel the state bearing down on you everywhere you turn.
The wall cuts through the West Bank, not only annexing land within the Green Line (the internationally-recognized 1967 border) and separating families, but also claiming aquifers and ground water for Israel. While the settlements have 24/7 access to water at the turn of a faucet, Palestinians have to wait for Israel to turn on the water mains so they can pump water to rooftop tanks. Earlier this summer, parts of the camp went 73 days without refilling their tanks. When the water is about to be turned on, the Israelis call the PA, who in turn notifies the cities and the camps.
Word spreads like wildfire, and people drop everything and scramble to do laundry, take showers, and fill up the tanks. The children spray each other with hoses, while the adults take measures to store as much water as possible before the mains are shut off again. The water usually only flows for six to eight hours, and that’s it. Drinking water, water for plants and animals, water for bathing… that’s it. And if you can’t afford bottled water once the tanks are empty, you have to rely on your neighbors… if they can spare any themselves. Palestinians can dig wells, but any water that results becomes Israeli property and is then reallocated, at the whim of the Israelis, back to the camps. It’s an absolute shame. The settlements, by contrast, have green lawns, swimming pools, and gardens. They want for nothing. We take short showers here, knowing that every drop counts.
Despite it all, the Palestinians enjoy themselves as much as possible. They are incredibly outgoing and friendly and appreciate what little support we can give them in the two short weeks we will be here. Even the Palestinian soldiers (with outdated machine guns) who were initially suspicious of our rock collecting, were welcoming… after we told them that we were not intending to throw the rocks at the wall or watchtowers (which we weren’t). As I walked by them later in the day, sweating from being out in the sun, they offered me a bottle of water. It is so hot here!
We’re staying outside of the camp itself, at a boys’ school that is out for the summer. Six or seven of us sleep in each or the empty classrooms—rather spartan accommodations, but we’re not here for the room service. Everyday we walk past Bethlehem’s only five star hotel, the Intercontinental, located across the street from the camp’s entrance. Such excess given the situation.
Tomorrow it’s back to the camp and back to the wall. This land is under occupation—there’s no question about that. But the Palestinians get by as well as they can… and they still manage to smile and dance.
In front of the wall
Where the children used to play, now on the other side of the wall. Gilo settlement is on the left.
International Refugee Festival, Bethlehem
Graffiti in the camp