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‘Azza camp in Bethlehem

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 23.08.2006:

Notes from a diary: July 2001

With my Palestinian family, I am moving to a house opposite ‘Azza camp in Bethlehem. ‘Azza camp stretches from our street towards Paradise hotel. Some 2,000 refugees, or descendents from refugees, live there in cramped conditions in multi-story gray-dark houses built of poor material. Last week I had a chance to visit the camp’s youth club with the help of a member of the institute’s youth group, Mohammed. He invited me in his characteristically light-hearted and somewhat ironical way: “So you are going to live next to the camp. Maybe you have never been there. Let me do you a favor and introduce you to your neighbors.” While walking through the camp I see only very few women who wear the mandil. The Palestinian camps tend to be politically secular though more radical than the towns and villages. Along the walls are posters of martyrs. One poster shows the collaborator in the camp who a few weeks ago, possibly under pressure by the Palestinian intelligence, shot his Israeli liaison. When Israel returned his body after several days, the family of the man and a doctor held a press conference in which they showed pictures of the severely mutilated corpse.

I attend a dabkeh performance of some of the camp youth, a project made possible by the Japanese peace movement. My experience with youth from camps and villages is that if they get a chance to join in an activity, they do so with almost total dedication and discipline. Here, too. Some of the girls can’t keep the seriousness on their faces and break into a smile while dancing. The dance and song themes are derived from the refugee experience and deal with suffering, liberation and return. While watching I am suddenly aware that what I observe the Israelis would call ‘incitement’.

In a neighboring club youth are making a wall drawing that represents the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I ask – as if the refugees need to be reminded that things can always go worse? The project leader explains that the Japanese peace movement annually commemorates the day of nuclear destruction in different places in the world. During this year’s remembrance day the dabkah troupe will give a performance in the Peace Center of Bethlehem. Later on in summer they will show their skills in Morocco and Paris – if they can leave, of course. There is a computer lab in the youth club, too. The Japanese effort clearly makes a difference, the youth are encouraged to be active and do new things. On the bare walls hang a few posters of refugees that were especially designed for the occasion of the Pope’s visit last year.

* * *

While walking though ‘Azza camp on a summer evening, you see people sitting outside in front of the doors and the shops talking, narrating, gesturing. The youth leader I meet tells that the club’s name is mandaleh [bitterness]. Rather than referring to a generalized emotion, the name is that of a story-teller: Nadji al’Ali’s popular cartoon figure, a little child who observes and comments upon distressful situations prevalent in the Arab and Palestinian world, such as political repression, corruption and neglect of the poor. As if to emphasize the embarrassment and bitterness caused by what he sees, he is always depicted with his back towards the viewer. The facial features should be imagined but not seen.

The youth leader says that the refugees of ‘Azza feel somehow different from the other Palestinians in Bethlehem. There is not a great deal of contact with the native population, although, unlike other camps, ‘Azza is completely surrounded by the town. But the very fact of being adjacent to Bethlehem town only serves to underline the contrast. The refugees are not at home.

Last year, some of the refugees from the camp joint a journey towards the village from where many of them come: Beit Jibrin, near Beit Shemesh in Israel. The Israeli authorities did not allow them to come close. In fact, many Israelis are haunted by the image of refugees wanting to return. Recently an editorial of Haaretz said that perhaps the major reason why the Israeli public, including a large part of the peace camp, recently made a nationalistic turn in their political thinking was the return of the Palestinian demand of the right of return. The refugees’ dream is the Israelis’ nightmare.

* * *

Silently above the camp hangs a kite, a mini airplane with two Palestinian flags at the rear. A symbol of national pride or of the suspended possibility of flying away? With the youth leader I discuss an old project proposal of our institute which aims, if nothing else, at least at people’s minds flying away. Beit Jibrin, the place where many of the ‘Azza refugees come from, is located on the historical road between Hebron and Beersheba, or, seen from a regional perspective, between Jerusalem and Cairo. Beit Jibrin (in Hebrew Beit Guvrin) is central on that route. It used to be a strategically located Roman town, with lands stretching from Ein Gedi along the Dead Sea to Ashkelon along the Mediterranean. Later on it became an important Arab village.

Presently it is a kibbutz. The school where many of the parents or grandparents of our new neighbors used to study is now the kibbutz’ administrative building.

Toine van Teeffelen

From: Bethlehem Diary: 2000-2002, Arab Educational Institute, Culture and Palestine Series, Bethlehem 2002

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