June 22, 2008 Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine.
Deborah Agre, MECA staff
Several of us from the MECA went from the Bethlehem area to Jerusalem by bus for more shopping for the Holiday Bazaar (we’re going to have some really great stuff this year—December 13). The bus was stopped and we all got off at the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Everyone showed his or her permits or passports. Palestinians who don’t have Jerusalem residency or Israeli citizenship have to apply for special permits to enter the Jerusalem area. (Additional permits are required to go further. For an excellent article about this system click here.) A boy of around 13 handed the Israeli soldier something, but it wasn’t the right thing. They yelled at him in Hebrew. He stood there and as more soldiers came over his brow got more and more furrowed. MECA director Barbara Lubin put her arm over his shoulder and told the soldiers he was with us. One soldier started shouting at us that this was the border and a Palestinian can’t enter Israel without permission, just like an Israeli couldn’t enter the US without permission. OK, so if this is the border and Israel is on one side, what’s on the other side? Not a Palestinian state. Not any entity that can prevent Israelis from coming in; from stealing land and water, from establishing settlements, building walls and Israeli-only roads, arresting and attacking people. Besides, Israel actually has no established, internationally-recognized borders.
The boy was left at the checkpoint, far from town. I was left, as I so often am here, wondering if there was something more we could have or should have done.
Later that week our friend Ziad (Director of the Ibdaa Cultural Center) got a permit to enter the Jerusalem area for three days and zero nights. Ibdaa and some other community centers in West Bank refugee camps organized a trip for kids to visit some of the villages in “48” (AKA Israel) that their families lived in before the ethnic cleansing of 1947-48. When the trip ended Ziad still had a few hours left on his permit and another friend from the US had a rented car. So four of us took off to visit Zakaria, Ziad’s father’s village and other villages about a half hour from Dheisheh. I saw two things there I hadn't seen on previous visits: 1) An area of incredibly beautiful green mountains and valleys; 2) The return of the Palestinian refugees is more than a romantic desire, political demand, or compliance with international law. Here is the land their parents and grandparents left so recently and so close to where they live now in crowded cement refugee camps. These aren’t little anachronistic villages (though there are the remains of some). They are big, big spaces, most of them unpopulated or sparsely populated. Those who argue that if the refugees return Israel will no longer be a Jewish state are making their own counter-argument: Israel was created and is sustained by a grave injustice, one that is still possible to correct. Yes, I fully understand, as do most Palestinians, that it does get more complicated when we’re talking about returning to land, or even homes, where people—most of whom were born after 1948—are living their lives. Complicated, difficult, and painful. But not impossible to reconcile the rights of current residents with the rights of the refugees.
Zakaria is now a small bedroom community near Jerusalem. “Look what they have here for their children,” Ziad noted as we passed a large, well-equipped playground and a basketball court. “Look how Shlomo can come home from work, sit in the garden and look at this beautiful view. How can they sleep at night?” We all sighed, knowing that they sleep just fine. As we walked through another village, now a national park where “Shlomo can come with this family and have a nice barbecue,” I ask Ziad how he feels when he comes here. “Here, at least I can breathe,” he says sadly.
More immediate, and nearly as fervent among young people in Dheisheh Refugee Camp is the desire to go to the beach. It is really, really hot. They are on summer break. The beach is only an hour away. But even if they get permits to enter the Jerusalem area—which takes a while for young women, is virtually impossible for young men—they are still not allowed to go further to reach to the Mediterranean. But someone figured out that, at least for the moment, foreigners driving rented cars with Israeli plates are not stopped at checkpoints. So, the beach shuttles have begun, and I’m sure will continue through the summer until someone gets caught, and the Israeli soldiers begin stopping rental cars at checkpoints.