An Israeli Visiting the Deheishe Refugee Camp

Deheishe is one of the five largest refugee camps of the West Bank, but is still rather small having –”according to UNRWA- less than 12,000 registered refugees. It is similar in size to a small Israeli town. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I left Jerusalem. Those foreigners –”like me- who expect refugee camps to be large fields with many crowded tents would be surprised. The camp is built of stone houses – usually one can see the bare concrete that holds the building. On occasion, one can even spot what looks like a villa. What comes, however, as no surprise is how crowded the place is. The buildings are literally built on top of each other. The streets are incredibly narrow. There are no empty fields or playgrounds. The entire place is densely built in a way that allows no privacy. The windows of one house look directly into those of another. The porch – when there is one – all but touches the porch of the building across the street.

I met my guide, the friend of a friend, outside of the camp. She presented herself, explaining that she is a refugee, and that she works as a teacher in one of the two elementary schools of the camp. She is active in a Palestinian organization that engages in community development. They play with children and empower them with the belief in their capacities to change reality. They teach the youth various skills and practices –” such as foreign languages or civil participation in a democracy. She also attended a one-week seminar in Europe in which she met Israelis, and talked with them about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the occupation in her words. By the fact she agreed to show me around I learned one more thing about her – she is incredibly brave. Agreeing to take an Israeli through the streets of Deheishe is far from an ordinary thing. The reaction of a Palestinian who would find out about it would not be pleasant.

We entered the camp through the main road. She showed me the old revolving gate to the camp. A tiny revolving set of iron rods, in a small metal cage. Through here people came in and out when the camp was fenced by the Israelis during the First Intifada. Even though now the fences no longer exist, the gate is kept at its place to remind the inhabitants of Deheishe of those difficult days.

The first place she took me to was the school. As we passed through the pedestrian gate into the main courtyard I noticed a sign posted on the vehicle gate with the pictures of two Hamas leaders, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz-al-Rantissi. Both were killed by the Israeli army during the Second Intifada and now serve as martyrs to the children of Deheishe.

I asked my guide what the courtyard looks like when the children are there. She explained to me that they play here: "the only game they know, which is that of the Israeli soldiers and the Palestinian freedom fighters". She showed us the murals children drew on the walls of the yard. I was shocked. Every picture made me more horrified. Children drew this?

Six elements repeated themselves in the pictures. The first, and probably the most common, was the key. Such a simple device seemed in Deheishe to be the center of the children’s universe. The key was of course the key to the house in the village in which their grandparents once lived. The second element was the tent – a simple triangular tent, usually drawn right next to the key. It seems the image of the refugee in a tent is not sustained only in the minds of the foreigners. A number served as the third element – 194. The United Nations General Assembly decision 194 is the one that declares the Palestinian Right of Return. I am sure there isn’t one Palestinian child in Deheishe who doesn’t know this. The fourth and the fifth elements were of geographical places. The Haram Al-Sharif (the Dome of the Rock) with its Golden Dome was appearing again and again in the pictures. There is no way the Palestinian link to this place can be overestimated. The map of Palestine was usually drawn below it. It was drawn as if the 1967 borders do not exist. No Israel was on the map. The lines were those of British Mandatory Palestine. The sixth element can perhaps be described as victimhood. This appeared in two main ways – a Palestinian woman or Palestinian child. The latter was nearly always the same child – Muhammed A Durah. The 12 year old child who was killed in Gaza was a hero – repeatedly portrayed on the murals to symbolize the Palestinian innocent victim.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to study in such a school and constantly see these six elements. What kind of thoughts would I have? How would I see Israelis? How would I see the role of the refugees in the Israeli-Palestinian question?

I asked my guide about the choice of topics. How did the children choose these themes? She smiled bitterly and answered, "They are refugees who live in a refugee camp. What issues do you think they will choose?" She left this sentence hanging there, allowing me to realize that these symbols really were at the core of their existence in Deheishe.

We moved on. She took me then to the creativity center, where the children have drawing lessons and dancing workshops. The place seemed to me like any community center – nothing out of the ordinary. I changed my mind when we started climbing the stairs. Huge drawings were painted on the walls of the staircase. The first was of an old farmer with his sheep – I liked it. After it there was a wide scene – on the right side a child was holding a stone, on the left a tank with a soldier peering out of its rook. Another wide scene followed – this time of a woman with rock and an Israeli armed soldier. The story of David and Goliath came to my mind.

We sat at the restaurant on the top floor of the center. It had a wonderful view – the entire refugee camp was revealed in front of my eyes. The crowded nature of the place became even more obvious. I asked how she feels about life in the camp – in particular regarding the issue of privacy. She explained that the absence of privacy creates a strong feeling of community. Though they all know about everything that happens in each other’s lives, this leads them to deeply care about each other.

As we talked about her friends one particular story came up that is worth retelling. It turned out that her cousin was one of the eleven Palestinians who hid in the Nativity Church while the IDF besieged it. The IDF blocked any access to the Church and prevented people from going in or out. The IDF insisted not to leave until they get the eleven people, and prevented people from going inside to at least give them some food. It took her some time to mention that the eleven were wanted by the IDF and were not just an incidental group of eleven people. She recalled however that the only reason the IDF suspected her cousin was confusion with another person of the same name. She declared the crisis ended in a punishment that in some ways is worse than death. The cousin was exiled to Greece and is not allowed to return. Moreover, his family is not allowed to visit him there. What can be a worse punishment? She explained that this was the way her family thought for a while, but that eventually they saw that life is better than death and that at least the cousin is alive. They miss him very much.

After this story I thought that I really heard the most dramatic things she could tell me –” her very own cousin was one of the eleven people about whom I read so much in the news! Alas, she quickly proved me wrong.

A good friend of hers from school, a very active young woman who was volunteering in many organizations, was the first female suicide bomber to attack in Israel. Everyone in Deheishe was surprised from what happened – they knew her to be a positive person, who works to improve life and would do everything possible to give up on it. What brought such change? When the IDF entered the West Bank in the large operation of 2002 a curfew was declared in Deheishe. When the curfew began this friend went to visit her neighbor, and decided to stay at the house of this neighbor until the curfew would be over so that she could return safely to her house. While she was there, her neighbor – the friend she came to visit – looked outside of the window to see what was going on. A group of Israeli soldiers were passing below. Suddenly someone fired at the soldiers. They looked around to see where the fire came from, and after seeing the friend’s head at the window, started shooting at him. He was shot in the head and collapsed back into the room. While he was bleeding, his family called for assistance, requesting an ambulance to arrive. Just a few minutes later she could hear the sound of an ambulance, but she discovered that it was not allowed to come and pick up her friend. She remained in the room with the family of her friend, next to her friend who was bleeding from his head and dying. She stayed in the same room as the body all night, until the curfew was called off in the morning. A few weeks later she carried the suicide bombing.

My guide clearly had a difficult emotional experience when telling me this story. She was on the verge of crying. I decided not to ask any additional questions and we continued the tour.

She led me then to her house just outside the camp. It was a rather new house since the old one, which was in the camp, was demolished by the IDF during the 2002 operations. The IDF argued that wanted terrorists lived in it and took it down. My guide said that her family has indeed the same family name as some wanted Palestinian, but are not associated to him in any way. With the help of the people of Deheishe the family moved to a new house outside of the camp. The posters in the street, outside of the house, were about the municipal elections she explained. I asked about national politics –” which leader was the most favored by the people of Deheishe. I was interested to hear if a Hamas name would be mentioned or if Abu Mazen and his group are more popular. A third answer presented itself –” Arafat. He would not give up easily on the Palestinian national interest and would do his best for it. I asked about Marwan Baraghouti because I wanted to know how the refugees of Deheishe perceive the young popular leader. After hearing again that no one could be better than Arafat I was reminded that while Arafat knew a lot about the refugees in the neighboring countries, and cared deeply for them, Marwan was born within Palestine and has a narrower focus. As a result I understood why he is not the most popular in Deheishe.

We entered the house. Her mother was cooking food in the living room and she introduced us. Her mother was also a teacher. So was her father. We talked about Palestinian schools. I heard that there were 50 pupils in each class. Her mother teaches history and geography –” two very delicate issues in the context of the conflict. I alluded to this. The reply was that she sticks to the facts and tells things as they are. The daughter elaborated and explained that it is not possible to teach about Palestinian cities and mention only Ramallah, Jenin and Nablus. The children automatically ask about Akka, Jaffa and Ramla. “Are they not also Palestinian cities?” they ask. Heller’s Catch-22, with it’s classic depiction of a "no win situation", was I all I could think of. In a way, Catch-22 was a recurrent motif during the entire visit.

The murals give the third generation of refugees the same images that the first generation, their grandparents, have in their minds, and the only Israeli presence in the camp –” the one of the IDF – mainly strengthens these images. The social and living conditions of the camp do not allow the refugees to move beyond this paralyzing narrative of a return to their family’s house as the only just solution to their plight.

Where is the way out?

As long as the IDF continues to act on occasion in the camps, and as long as the murals remain on the walls of the schools, there will be no way out. It seems that neither would occur soon.