Written by Christine
Photos by Bryan MacCormack w/Left in Focus
Our last full day in Bethlehem dawned with a heavy, cold rain. I noticed my own sleepiness reflected in the faces of others as we took our breakfast together. A large portion of us had been up late the night before, laughing and singing and talking together in the lobby of the hotel, infected by the contagious joy of the music we had heard performed in Aida Refugee Camp. Now, though: eyelids were heavy. Coffee cups were filled and refilled. The day’s work lay ahead.
Our first stop was Ibdaa Cultural Center in Dheisheh refugee camp. Established in 1950, the camp housed refugees from villages in the greater Bethlehem region. For the first six years of its operation, Dheisheh camp residents lived in tents, 3-by-4 meters in area per family. Like in Jenin Camp, after time had passed, more permanent structures were erected.
Now, the camp is known for its exceptionally strong cultural outreach programs to children and women. The front room of the center is crowded with sports trophies. In the back, traditional pieces of Palestinian tatriz embroidery are available for purchase. Produced by the Women’s Tatriz Collective after the start of the second Intifada in 2000, the sale of these items provides financial support to families living in the camp.
After a presentation on the history of the camp and Ibdaa, we moved upstairs for two guest lectures.
The first, led by Gerard Horton of Military Court Watch, dealt with what he called “the mechanics of the occupation.” Since 1967, we learned, all of occupied Palestine has been subject to Israeli martial law. More than 760,000 men, women and children have been detained since that time.
“Ask yourself,” Horton said. “What is the primary objective of the [Israeli] military in the West Bank? It’s no real secret,” he said. “It’s to guarantee the protection of the settlers who live in the West Bank.”
As of this February, settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank numbered more than 600,000.
“When you look at some of the data, it is truly staggering,” Horton said. According to the US State Department, not a single settler was killed in the West Bank in 2012.
“How on earth has the Israeli military been so successful?” Horton asked us. “They haven’t come up with some fancy new strategy. The strategies they employ are tried and tested throughout history, but they have perfected them. They basically consist of two elements. The first one is mass intimidation. The second one is collective punishment.”
The second talk dealt with Palestinian refugees and international law, given by Lubnah Shomali of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.
“It should be noted that the provision of services to refugees,” said Shomali, “whether they are Palestinian or otherwise, in order that they are able to live in dignity during their time of refuge, is a right according to international law. So it’s not just a moral obligation upon states. It’s also a legal obligation.”
I thought, then, of the cold rain currently falling on Dhesheh, and remembered the talk given to us in Jenin Refugee Camp. At a certain point, we’d stopped near a deep rut in the sidewalk, where the concrete had broken through to form a rough trough that ran down the center of the narrow sloped street. When it rains, our guide told us, we swim. I tried to imagine living with dignity in a Palestinian refugee camp as a torrent of rain water, sullied by rubbish and dust from the streets, soaked through my shoes and socks and pants as I made my way to work or school.
It was hard to imagine.
After lunch the rain cleared, and we took the bus out to Mar Saba, a monastery located in a remote, beautiful desert. We walked up and down the winding stone steps, built into the canyon wall, picking our way over a metal foot bridge, peering into the abandoned cave-dwellings of hermits and saints, picking sprigs of fragrant, fuzzy-leafed wild mountain sage. At the end of our walk, a local man, Hasan il’Sukkon, invited the whole group to his home at the lip of the canyon for tea and music.
For years, il’Sukkon told me through a translator, he had worked as a night guard for the monastery. Now, he supports himself and his family by giving tours and performing his original songs at weddings.
“Living here is beautiful,” he told me, gesturing out over the rolling sand-colored hills. “But the disturbance from Israelis makes life insecure.”
Six years ago, the Israeli army demolished the nearby home of his uncle. When I asked what he would do if the army came to destroy his home, il’Sukkon shrugged, answering indirectly that they were lucky in this part of the West Bank, because there was no settlement immediately nearby.
“All I need,” he said, “is to live, to provide food for my family. After I die, I don’t want them to destroy everything.”
On the bus ride home, I put a pair of headphones on, playing back one of the songs Shezzar had played the night before. Mountanee, sang the vocalist: homeland.
“But it’s more than that,” Osama, one of the acting students told me last night. He explained that the word means something closer to “the land that makes you belong to it.” Not the kind of land that you own, but the kind of land you belong to. And I didn’t know that as I listened to the music I’d recorded the night before, thinking on everything il’Sukkon had said, several kilometers away in Dheisheh camp, the acting students of The Freedom Theatre were performing the story of a young girl whose brother had been killed by the Israeli army days earlier. Virtually everyone in attendance was weeping.
And while I didn’t think of it then, I can’t help now but think about dignity. How sometimes it looks like a young girl weeping, grieving publicly, suffering but not crushed. How sometimes it sounds like the ribabi played in the open air at the lip of a canyon. How sometimes it feels like belonging, and responsibility, and that it is still alive here in the people of Palestine, everywhere I look.