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A visit to the sixty year old Deheishah Refugee Camp

The British issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, to create a homeland for the Jewish people. In 1922, The League of Nations supported the same idea. Then in 1947, a young international organization, the United Nations, replacing the failed League of Nations, declared there would be a state of Israel. This was not a new idea. Various factions of European Jews had been planning a homeland for almost a century.

After the 1948 Israeli war of independence followed by the Nakba (the expulsion of Palestinians from land taken by Israel) many Palestinians, were compelled to leave their homes. They simply locked the doors and left everything intact expecting to be back in a few months. Palestinians in the north went toward Syria. In the south, they traveled to Egypt. People from 42 villages and 10 cities moved to a “mountain” in Bethlehem. With the keys to their homes in their pockets, they began to form a community. They tried to understand what had happened to force them from property they owned. They looked for an explanation and a date when they could return.

Wall mural

As they began to congregate, there was no shelter. People slept outside doing their best to survive. After two years, the Red Cross provided one small tent per family, which averaged six to ten people. In 1952 the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was formed specifically for Palestinians. UNRWA stepped in to run the camp and in 1957, it began to build permanent structures - a room three meters square for each family. Now the families averaged ten people in a tiny room. Bedding and food piled against the walls, there was barely enough room to lie down to sleep. Communal latrines were provided for every 125 people. Women had their facilities and men theirs. However, the Muslim women could not walk to the bathroom alone and needed a father, brother, or husband to accompany them to the location. They waited in lines for the bathroom, they waited for food, and they waited to return home.

Outdoor privy

By 1967, houses replacing the 3-meter square boxes were going up. However, the Israeli government limited the height to one story. They could not spread out and they could not build up. Then in 1982, Israel built a fence topped with razor wire, to surround Deheishah.

The people were confined to one square kilometer with one gate to enter and one to leave. These two metal turnstiles were open from 7am to 7 pm. Armed soldiers were posted at the gate to check all IDs.. Israeli army invasions into the camp happened regularly day and night.

Turnstile formerly controlled entrance and exit

Jobs, education, food were all outside that one gate. Almost everything they needed was outside the gate -almost everything. Family, community and hope were still inside the gate. Lack of the basic amenities of life, overcrowding, and daily humiliation were and are a fact of existence for those in Deheishah Refugee Camp. The fence was removed after the Oslo Accords of 1995, but sporadically the army breaks into homes, beats the occupants, destroys property, and uses whatever means they can to intimidate and terrorize. There are no warrants, not even explanations in most cases. International law is broken and violations are documented by the United Nations, by Amnesty International, by scores of international and even Israeli peace groups. But nothing changes. The only noticeable improvement, with the help of U.S. aid, is in, the weapons of oppression.

Sixty years after its inception, there are 12,000 people (6,000 of them children) living on one square kilometer of land. They have built up but cannot build out. Israeli rockets were fired into Deheishah destroying homes that were rebuilt almost immediately. Some of the buildings seem to be held up with just the fortitude of the occupants. How many times can one family have its home taken without some form of reprisal? Yes, there is anger at the injustice. And yes, there is stone throwing. The response from the Israeli army, the fourth largest military power on earth, is not marked by restraint. The people resist the occupation by refusing to accept their loss as the final decision. They wait.

There are two schools for 1,800 children, 25 teachers, and 65 to 75 students in a class. There are no green parks or fields to fly kites, Small pockets of greenery are carefully tended The children play in the narrow lanes under the rubble left by the rockets and the pictures of martyrs.

A martyr is anyone who dies because of the occupation. Stone throwing by children and young men has been met with live ammunition returned by trained soldiers. Yesterday’s playmate can quickly become tomorrow’s martyr. A martyr could also be the baby that died without medical care at a checkpoint or the mother who lost a child while in labor at a checkpoint, denied access to medical care. These are documented occurrences. It is a community, and if you listen, the people remember the names of the dead and the cause of death, even though the American press does not.

The people of Deheishah organized a clinic sponsored by Japan with a minimum fee charged for services.

Within Deheishah, there is one free clinic with one doctor and two nurses for 12,000 people. If that is too crowded, and outside help is needed, young Israeli soldiers at checkpoints can be arbiters of who lives. This is not what a soldier is trained to do. It is not what a soldier should be asked to do.

Many Palestinians who worked in Israel before the illegal apartheid wall was built are unemployed. At times seventy five percent of adults are unemployed in the camp. How can you hold a job when you do not know if you will receive a work permit or if it will take a half an hour or four hours to get through the checkpoints to work? Curfews are imposed that can prevent families from leaving their homes for any reason. The longest curfew imposed in a camp, was in Deheishah. They were under curfew for 48 days straight in 2002. Leaving home for any reason, food, water, medical treatment, was reason enough for the military to arrest or shoot you. The curfew amounts to a de facto house arrest. Of course, some had to disobey the order and died doing so.

These refuges built an administration building, called Ibdaa’, meaning “innovation” or “something from nothing”. The walls are decorated with colorful murals and the names of their villages commemorating the fortitude and vision of the people. There are meeting and guest rooms. The new cultural center is four stories, the tallest building in the camp. There is room for a nursery, a kindergarten and gathering space for women and girls to meet with support groups. One space is dedicated to crafts and sewing. The top floor has a restaurant. There is music and dance. Their Palestinian dance troupe has toured worldwide.

Hand sewed cross-stitch embroidery

The people in the Deheishah Refugee camp have been confined, oppressed, and denied much by the Israeli occupiers. They are still a proud people, still carrying those keys in their pockets and in their hearts. They have built an identity in this refugee camp and they are a strong people who want to go home.

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