Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Despair and Hopelessness in the Streets of Dheishe

We walked the narrow alleyways of Dheishe, the largest of the three refugee camps in Bethlehem. The walls are spattered with political and resistance art. Pictures of Dheishe-born martyrs, most notably Ayaat al-Akhras, the first female suicide bomber (who's life is discussed in depth in the movie "To Die in Jerusalem"), cover large segments of the camp's walls. But why not Nelson Mandela, Gandhi or Martin Luther King? Why suicide bombers and those who insist upon violence? Why do the kids here throw stones at one another and play with toy guns rather than with toy cars and barbies? Why would a mother believe that her five year old son's fate lies in martyrdom, while her six year old awaits an eventual lifetime sentence in prison?

During our short stay in Dheishe, we realized that most people see no end to the conflict in sight. Rather than dreaming to live, children here dream to die. With 12,000 Palestinians living in a territory of less than 1 kilometer, with massively overcrowded school conditions (50 children to a class), with one doctor in the entire camp, with many of their relatives in prison, with water shortages in the summertime and power outages in the winter, and with nightly Israeli raids; it is difficult for people here to have hope and imagine a peaceful solution.

During both intifadas (uprisings), Dheishe was a hotspot of both occupation and resistance. Some of the most notorious suicide bombers and fighters came from Dheishe. Up until 1995, Dheishe was fully surrounded by a fence and its entrance controlled by the Israeli military. During the Second Intifada, this camp was the site of daily Israeli raids. We met with a family who's home was demolished in 2005 as a form of collective punishment for a 15-year-old relative accused of aiding a suicide bomber. Due to condensed living conditions, Palestinians in refugee camps must build vertically rather than horizontally. By nature of the structural composition, not only was their home destroyed, but also those living above and below.

Though no soldiers are any longer in sight and we only hear of night raids in the camp, we are told by nearly everyone here that had we come three years earlier, the streets would have been filled with checkpoints and soldiers. Palestinian residents would rarely leave their homes, either unable to due to curfew or unwilling to due to fear of the Israeli soldiers. This conflict has taken its toll on the children of Dheishe. Similar to the Western game of "Cops and Robbers," children here play "Israelis and Palestinians," wherein a child acts as an Israeli soldier with a toy gun, and another as the stone-throwing Palestinian. We were told by the Palestinian mother who claims "without a doubt" her child will end a martyr, that the children of the camp want nothing other than toy guns as holiday gifts. This alone lays testement to the psychological impact that the conflict has on Dheishe's children.

The loss of hope is not only prevelant in the children but in the parents as well. Our Japenese friend suggested that the Palestinian mother may be pregnant, having been feeling sick for quite some time now. Upon hearing this, the mother panicked: "Oh don't say that! You will make me cry!" For parents here, it's incredibly difficult to watch their children grow up in these terrible conditions, as they seem to know it is not like this elsewhere. Our guide around the camp made clear that for as long as he is living in Palestine, he does not want to begin a family; for he does not wish to bring anymore children into this mess.

Having seen the conditions that the people growing up here face, and having heard the stories from those living in the camp, the shades of curiosity are lifted from the radical and violent Palestinians who's images are often flashed on the television screens. It's no longer a wonder as to why those portrayed as villians in the West have become the heros of Palestine. And it's no wonder why the children here play with guns while the shopowners hang the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade's flag.

When no one else is standing up for them, who else are they going to turn towards?


  1. What has Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade done for them besides killed their children?

    Why, here as in Aida, do people not leave?

  2. Thanks for the well-written entry, and this seems really interesting.

    But the fact is, as you said, Israeli soldiers are NOT anymore constantly in this camp. The entrance is no longer surrounded by checkpoints, and Israeli soldiers are ostensibly only seen at night.

    At what point is it reasonable to begin relying on the Palestinian elected leadership to help out? At what point does at least some of the blame for the terrible situation they are in fall onto their leadership, rather than exclusively Israel?

  3. Thanks for a most thought-provoking post.

  4. great intro and this... "Rather than dreaming to live, children here dream to die." is a powerful line.. and for a possibly pregnant mother to have that emotional reaction.. man.

    to trekker26233, im unsure why you think that its reasonable for them to leave? its where they grew up.. better to ask.. where would they go.. why should they (the imposed upon) be the ones to leave... why isnt it more prudent to ask the isreali settlers to start building up instead of out...

    and to brandon, thats a great question.. muslims have this great ability to "point the finger" or come up with conspiracy theories, and i never figured out why that is. the only thing i can think of is that they, meaning those that do and not all muslims, they have been oppressed and in situations where they were not the masters of there own fate as it were. that they were often ruled over by a dictator, a military government, a puppet government.. in some way under an authoritarian control, so maybe they feel like they have no authority/power to do anything so they just say things with no action? but like they say, just cuz you crazy, dont mean they aint really after you.

  5. Thanks for the article. I hope you and Michael stay safe.

    I don't think there has ever been a point in history where the Muslim world was controlled by as horrible leaders as we have now.
    Dictators, thieves and murderers and yet a majority of them are supported by the West and remain in power solely because of this support.

    The President of Egypt was asked about his cruelty, fake elections and oppression by the West and he responded if he does what they ask then the "terrorists" would take over.
    The EU and the US understand this point perfectly and continue to support the dictators.

    So honestly what do you expect?

    And more importantly, how can a Palestinian "government" without borders, sovereignty, state or any real power help or control its people?

  6. You've painted a truly unfortunate picture. How can you give hope to people of a brighter future who are struggling to live day to day without ever knowing if they will even be alive tomorrow? But to hear of children losing hope and thinking they were simply born to die is heart-breaking.

    It's easy to ask people to simply leave when you haven't even been close to experiencing the kind of trauma and situation they've been around. And which government will/can take the responsibility of accommodating 1000s upon 1000s of people into their society? And why should the people have to leave their homes? Why can't we finally open our eyes and our hearts and see what's being done to these people?