No issue in this troubled land has been more intractable for a longer period than the refugee camps housing the Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948 during the first Arab-Israeli war.
On Saturday we had an opportunity to visit the Dheisheh Refugee Camp about a 30-minute drive south from Jerusalem.
To get there, we passed through an Israeli military checkpoint and climbed up into the rugged hills to enter the camp where 13,000 people live crammed into an area than is about quarter-mile in each direction. There is one doctor for all of them.
At the United Nations headquarters in Dheisheh, a young man who was born in the camp met us. He offered to be our guide.
“I will tell you about the war you never hear about,” he told us. I will him “Abdul” – I have changed his name because he fears reprisals from the Israeli Army.
During the 1948 war, the indigenous Palestinian Arab population was caught in the crossfire between the Israelis who were fighting for their independence and the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other Arab countries.
|One of the huts built in 1956 for the refugees;|
it measures about 10 foot by 10 foot.
“If you read the Israeli story they say they entered the homes and they were empty,” said Abdul. “If you read the Palestinian story, they killed a few people and everyone else fled because they were afraid.”
The United Nations put these refugees in camps. At first they lived in tents.
In 1956, the refugees were allowed to build one-room concrete huts.
“When they discovered they would stay longer, they started building more rooms,” our guide told us, showing us his grandparents’ first hut. “I was born here in this camp.”
To call it a “camp” is to understate how permanent it looks. With concrete houses built atop each other, with narrow alleys in between, the “camp” looks more like a Latin American slum.
Meanwhile, the area around Dheisheh has grown to the point where it is now part of a large urban sprawl including Bethlehem. All of these Palestinian cities are enclosed by a massive wall and extensive fence system that separates the Palestinians from the Israelis.
Although our guide has lived his entire life within 30 minutes of Jerusalem, he has never been allowed to go there.
Few people have jobs at Dheisheh – there is no economic foundation for the area. The populous is supported by the largesse of foreign governments and the United Nations, which distributes food every six months.
Our group brought clothing to the camp, donated from the suitcases of pilgrims like us who attend St. George’s Anglican College.
Dheisheh has no independent water supply, although it sits on a natural aquifer. The Israelis pump the water and then sell it back to Dheisheh once a month. Water tanks on the rooftops hold the precious water for each home.
|Widely copied protest art; this version|
is on the side of a house in Dheisheh
The Dheisheh refugees have responded with graffiti protest art, including a widely copied drawing of a small girl frisking an Israeli soldier. Portraits of young men who have been killed are stenciled on the walls of houses.
Our guide Abdul said there is some pressure for the Dheisheh refugees to blend into the larger Palestinian population around Bethlehem. He and his family could change their status and leave Dheisheh. But to do so would be to give up their cause of returning the homes they lost in 1948. Many families still hold deeds issued by Jordan for their land.
“We are still refugees,” he said. “We refuse to leave the camp because we have no place else to go. We want the name ‘refugee’ on our identity card until we get all of our rights.”
Will they ever return to their homes? The people of Dheisheh are at the mercy of foreign leaders and international politics far beyond their control. Yet those we met somehow maintain a glimmer of hope that they will. In the meantime, the United Nations presence is welcome primarily because it serves as an independent witness of life in the camp, and a reminder of how these people came to be living here.