Heather Alexander

Heather Alexander

In That Little Town of Bethlehem

“In That Little Town of Bethlehem”--an intimate eyewitness account of life in Aida Camp, Bethlehem, Palestine, the “most tear-gassed place in the world”

High-quality paper napkins, strong shower water pressure, beautiful leafy green salads: all are things I took for granted before spending a month in a Palestinian refugee camp. Even more poignantly depicted to me during my short glimpse into life under military occupation are the basic freedoms and human rights I have taken for granted for most of my life.

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Sitting less than 8 kilometers East of Jerusalem is the not-so “little town” of Bethlehem; the birthplace of Jesus and home of the Aida Refugee Camp. 

Aida is a small, cramped, urban community first established in 1950 following the ‘Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948. It was intended to be a temporary residence for Palestinian refugees from 27 different villages who were displaced from their land. 

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They were put onto a plot of land measuring .072 square miles while being promised the right to return to their homes by UN Resolution 194. 

Residents originally lived in tents and then small single-room containers set up by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). 

Over 70 years later, these refugees and their descendants reside in small houses and apartments they have built for themselves in a maze of narrow alleyways and streets still waiting for the day they will be allowed to return “home.” 

One of the largest physical symbols of the odious oppression faced by the Palestinian people is seen from almost every angle in Aida.

With the help of US tax dollars, in 2004 the Israeli government completed a 26-foot tall apartheid wall that encloses Aida on the Northern and Eastern sides and stretches several miles through the City of Bethlehem. 

This structure, flanked with 5 sniper towers overlooking the community, built on Palestinian land by a foreign occupier, serves the Israeli government well in asserting its dominance. The structure amplifies the feeling of hopelessness by limiting access to jobs in Israel and East Jerusalem and by cutting access to a vast olive grove formerly available for recreation and relaxation. On a large, lush green hill just beyond the grove, one can easily view Gilo, one of the two nearby large Israeli settlements that are deemed illegal under international law. 

While the physical size of the camp has remained constant, Aida’s population has continued to grow. Houses are built extremely close together making the possibility of privacy almost non-existent. 

Other challenges include severe water shortages, a lack of medical facilities, minimal trash collection, and few open spaces. 

The absence of underground plumbing means families must secure their own rooftop water tanks which exposes them to another challenge: the vulnerability of their tanks which are often intentionally damaged by bullets from Israeli soldiers.

 As we stand on the roof of a four-story building gazing over the Northern wall, I ask 23-year-old Aida resident Ala’a Daajneh if he remembers a time before the wall. 

“Yes, yes, I remember” he quickly replies. “I remember me and my friends go to this land to play. After they built the apartheid wall we cannot go.” 

Ala’a continued with a stutter “I don't like, I don’t like, I don’t like to come here because I see this.” He then points towards Gilo. “Look. Look to their house, look to this house, very different. The air is different. The air in the camp is different. When you go there (Gilo) you smell another air.” 

So much more was embodied in this brief statement and said without being verbalized. As Ala’a and I look down below, we see a large group of visitors in the street taking a tour of the infamous community. 

The continual flow of tour groups coming through the camp has the ability to make one feel like an animal being viewed in a zoo. Another vivid reminder that we are not just in any community and not just in any refugee camp.   

Even though I don't ask about the ominous “Blue Gate” I know Ala’a remembers a slightly easier life prior to its presence. You see, along with the wall came a permanent Israeli military base located about 200 meters down the street from where we stand, hiding behind a massive metal gate. 

The “Blue Gate”, which roughly stands over two stories high and wide, is yet another reminder that life here, in this community, in this Palestine, is not safe. 

It literally and figuratively resembles aggression, violence, and oppression of the limited life Israel reluctantly offers to the Palestinian people. 

Day and night the gate can and will open allowing easy access for Israeli soldiers who descend upon the community on foot and/or in military vehicles. Their job is to patrol, surveil, raid homes, shoot tear gas, shoot rubber bullets, and sometimes even live rounds, terrorizing the community. 

Between January 2014 and December 2017, Aida residents experienced such a massive surge in military force it became the subject of a research study conducted by the UC Berkeley Law School’s Center for Human Rights which concluded that Aida is the “most tear-gassed place in the world.”

During this time period, 376 confrontations between residents and the Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF) were reported. The IOF used both tear gas and “skunk water” (shot from armored mobile water cannons) indiscriminately against the community 3-4 times a week.

December 2017 saw the most dramatic rise in tear gas use and reported injuries as a result of excessive force following the unrest that ensued after the US government’s proclamation that the US Embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Sitting dangerously close to the “Blue Gate” is The Lajee Center for cultural arts, a community center founded by young residents of Aida in 2000 to provide opportunities for growth and expression to the new generations.

Through Lajee, children are exposed to vast opportunities for artistic, athletic, cultural, and social development. At Lajee, which means refugee in Arabic, children can study traditional dabke dance and traditional Arabic music, play in a soccer league, learn English, collaboratively work on art projects, utilize computers and a library, study human rights, learn photography and videography, and attend summer camp. Through Lajee children have also had many opportunities to travel abroad to showcase their talents and share their culture.

When the wall cut the community’s access to the only green space available to the people of Bethlehem, Lajee Center responded by raising the money needed to purchase an adjacent 2-acre lot upon which a garden, playground, and soccer field were developed. This recreational area has become a central and vibrant community space in Aida. At all times of the day the garden and soccer field are alive with the sounds of children, adults, sports, and spectators enjoying their time together, seemingly unfazed by the two sniper towers that loom over them in the very near distance. 

Unfortunately, Lajee Center’s positive work to empower children and the community has not rendered them immune from the aggressions of occupation. Numerous times in recent years Israeli soldiers have filled the Lajee Center and playground with tear gas while children were present in addition to shooting rubber bullets and live rounds.

When entering the front door of Lajee it is nearly impossible to ignore the large bullet hole that measures several inches wide, compliments of the IOF. Soldiers have also stolen equipment such as computers, security cameras and a DVR as well as damaged the facilities.

At the top of the staircase leading into the lobby hangs a tall, narrow, painting of one of Palestine's most beloved cultural icons, the internationally renowned poet Mahmoud Darwish, smiling to welcome visitors. When I notice a shatter to the glass near Darwish’s face I ask the center’s director, Salah Al Ajarma, “What happened?” “The soldiers,” he says. “They smashed it.” Through very harrowing experiences the community has learned and adapted.

Naively, I initially thought the netting covering the soccer field was intended to keep balls from being kicked into the street. I later learned that it was installed to protect the astroturf which, at a great expense to Lajee, was repaired and replaced several times after being set ablaze by hot tear gas canisters.

Most affected by this difficult life is the youth who comprise 60% of the population of Aida Camp. Approximately 900 Palestinian children under the age of 18 from the occupied West Bank are prosecuted every year through Israeli military courts after being arrested, interrogated, and detained by the Israeli army.

The most common charge levied against children is throwing stones; a crime that is punishable under military law by up to 20 years in prison. Since 2000, more than 12,000 Palestinian children have been detained. Parents I spoke to in Aida live in fear for their children’s safety.

They live in fear of violent and destructive pre-dawn IOF raids upon their homes in order to intimidate, interrogate and arrest children. According to the UN, children in Palestine are detained, arrested, imprisoned, and tortured at a higher rate than in any other modern nation. I also met several children under the age of 15 who were jailed for 3-6 months for very “minor offenses.” Their harsh prison experiences can have lifelong effects on their social and emotional well-being and that of their family. 

Other omnipresent reminders of the heightened dangers of living not just in Palestine but in a Palestinian refugee camp are found in the form of posters, pictures, and painted murals that pay homage to those martyred by the Israeli military. These memorials are everywhere.

One cannot walk more than just a few feet without seeing one or several. On the corner across from Lajee Center is a UN school for boys. In front of it stands a large picture of 14-year-old Abed Obeidallah, marking the spot where he was shot and killed in 2014 when he was caught in the fire of IOF soldiers while leaving school.

Another memorial for Abed and the American boy, Tamir Rice, is found in the Lajee Garden. The two memorials illustrate a common thread that connects members of marginalized communities of color worldwide and is a testament to unprovoked and fatal violence perpetrated by the police.

While in Aida, I had the chance to observe and document two young men from the United States paint a large, vibrant mural, depicting the faces of two young men, both students at Bethlehem University, who were killed many years prior. The apropos title of the piece: “Resistance Through Education”'.

For myself, seeing the reactions of residents over the course of the two days it took to paint the mural was priceless. Their appreciation, admiration, respect, and happiness were expressed in so many interesting and beautiful ways--offerings of food, cold drinks, conversation, handshakes, fist bumps, and selfies.

Crowds would assemble, watch, and chat before happily moving on, clearly invigorated. These kinds of expressions of solidarity from members of the international community are always welcomed by the people as it helps to ease their pain of loss and suffering. 

In spite of the fact that they live their lives under the threat of constant danger, the people of Aida are extremely warm, welcoming, loving, and friendly to visitors of all cultural backgrounds and religious faiths. Even after living among the people for several weeks, I was still being greeted with shouts of “welcome” as I walked through the maze of alleys every day.

Walking with my camera in hand also brought very interesting interactions, especially with children, who would often follow and ask my name, where I was from, sometimes ready for their “close up” and sometimes declaring “no picture.” 

Most hilarious of my experiences with children was the rummaging of my purse by four young girls in the Lajee playground/garden, whose techniques would out-shame a TSA airport security agent at JFK International Airport.

They moved at a fast pace eagerly inspecting as much as they could. My designer sunglasses were quite the rage and were passed around amongst the group, each one putting forward their best supermodel face. They searched through every last thing I had in my tote-style handbag, pulling out various items, asking several times “What's this?” They pulled out every last object in my pencil case, my self described “arsenal of girlie essentials.”

My glass nail file, lip balm, and oddly shaped container of dental floss brought “oohs” and “ahhs.” As the girls enjoyed themselves, more children were lured in my direction as suddenly one boldly grabbed the camera from my hand. Quite quickly a struggle began, as fighting over who was going to take pictures first ensued.

Feelings of both amusement and apprehension gripped me as I laughed chasing my new friends. It took several minutes of wrangling for me to secure the camera and attempt to communicate, in English, the need for careful handling of my belongings to Arabic speakers. For the next half hour, I reveled in the enjoyment of chasing around various little ones who were very excited to be taking photos with a real camera.

This gave me the confidence to hand off my camera to 13-year-old Mohammad Saqer a few days later so he could roam around, get acquainted with his photography skills, and explore his creativity. Seeing Mohammad get excited and happily show off his photos made me completely forget the stress of running out of water in my apartment, located one block beyond the camp.

By my third week in the camp I was “adopted'' by Mohamad’s extended family of 27, the Saqer’s, who live in a house made up of four small, stacked apartments. Through my connection to Lajee Center, I met both Mohammad, a member of the dabke dance troupe and his older sister Aseel who works in the community health unit.

After my third visit with the family, the matriarch, Inaam, communicated through Aseel that they were my “second family” whom I could count on for anything--a place to take a mid-afternoon nap or shower, clothes laundering, tasty food, and anything else I may need. But best of all, I could count on them for friendship.

The warmth of their closeness distracted me from grasping the depth of their poverty until it was inadvertently pointed out by Warda, one of my new sisters. After asking about the cost of my organic face oil ($68) she laughed while telling me and the rest of the family that it costs more than she makes in one week at her accounting job.

I was amazed by her lack of envy or sadness and instead saw the presence of her strong yet gentle and humorous spirit. My time with the family was always comfortable, fun, and nurturing. Mama Saqer, as I began to call Inaam, often expressed her strong feelings towards me through the translation of one of her children. I will never forget waving to her as she stood in the front doorway with tears welling up in her eyes watching me head out into the narrow alley that leads from their house on my last day in Aida.

I observed, learned, and experienced so much more than I have been able to communicate in the written word. Many beautiful and infuriating aspects of their realities were visible. One of the hardest realities to swallow was the very tangible feeling of inequality between myself and the people of Palestine. As an American passport holder I found myself to be “entitled” and afforded more dignity, and more right of movement within Israel/Palestine than the very people who are being occupied; the ones who have deep ancestral roots in this land. The third holiest site in the Muslim world, Al Aqsa Mosque, sits less than 8 kilometers away from Aida in Jerusalem. None of my Palestinian friends are allowed to visit Jerusalem or pray there. Yet I, a non-Muslim foreigner, could visit quite easily. 

The short bus ride to Jerusalem from Bethlehem also served as a reminder of inequality. Each time the bus stopped at the checkpoint into the Holy City, Palestinian commuters exited the bus, got online outside to have their ID inspected, and reboarded if allowed. On one occasion, I didn’t have my visa in my passport and I was politely told by an armed soldier who boarded the bus to inspect the IDs of seated foreigners that “it was fine” but I needed it “next time.” A Palestinian without proper “papers” would not have been allowed to travel to Jerusalem as I had been able to do that day. 

As part of a group of ten foreign visitors to Aida being hosted by Lajee Center for two weeks, I was taken on several day trips to learn about other camps and cities, and to visit historic sites as well as civil society organizations. Accompanied by the director of Lajee Center’s media unit, Mohammad Alazza, on a tour in the city of Hebron, we needed to pass on foot through a military checkpoint to get into one of the oldest and most historic markets in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank.

The ten of us easily made our way through the checkpoint by merely holding up our passports while being waved through. “Welcome” the soldiers said as we passed. Mohammad, who trailed behind the group, was detained for several minutes while his ID was inspected and was eventually denied permission to enter with us. Once again, the foreigners were allowed to enter while the native was denied. One more illustration of a cruel double-standard deployed by the Israeli government via the military.

The absolute hardest aspect of the reality faced by the people of Palestine for me to bear witness to was the unequivocal protection of illegal Jewish settlers who harass and often perpetuate violence without impunity. The blatant lack of regard for Palestinian life by the Israeli government paves the way for these actions and the simultaneous and unrelenting protection of said settlers was more than I could handle. On a trip to the Balata Refugee camp, the largest in the West Bank territory, residents shared stories about weekly harassment.

Every Monday since 2002, a group of 2,000-3,000 Jewish settlers has descended upon the village of Balata staying for 5 hours to pray at the Tomb of Joseph, who is religiously insignificant. With them they bring loud music, flashing lights, and hand bombs, all the while being under the protection of the military.

This increases the anxiety and depression levels of the community of 22,000 people, of which 12,000 are children. The Balata Camp residents informed us that the previous Monday the military shot and killed 7 unarmed men in the name of “protecting the settlers.” When I asked if any independent media had ever attempted to expose this weekly atrocity, I was told that when the settlers arrived the area gets sealed as a military zone and no journalists are allowed. Attempting to film poses a danger to residents who will occasionally post their videos on YouTube only to have them censored and removed. This has been happening every week for 17 years. 

Furthering my feelings of fury is the reality that anyone who takes a stand against any requirement of this apartheid system, or innocently be in the wrong place at the wrong time, suffers as the result of brutal force by the IOF. Those people, native Palestinians or foreigners, rarely see justice or accountability even in the case of severe injury or death. This is a constant, cruel, and daunting reminder of a racist regime based on Jewish white supremacy. This regime is employed by the government of Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea regardless of any boundaries, real or imaginary.

 People from all over the world visit Palestine each year to witness the situation firsthand. They feel a sense of empathy and sympathy for the Palestinians and the Palestinians are grateful for these sentiments. Unfortunately, empathy and sympathy alone will not change the situation.

The people need more than sentiments. They need our ACTION. Without action, all of the atrocities they endure will continue to be the standard practice of this land. This will go on until Israel is forced by the International community to respect the rights of the people who were violently dispossessed of their land through the creation of the Nation-State in 1948 and who continue to be violently oppressed in a slow genocide.

The Palestinians are humans no different than any other. All humans must have their rights respected and assured. All humans have a right to live in safety and have the right to liberty and happiness. The Palestinians are an incredible people who, despite all obstacles, refuse to give up their identity and culture, refuse to give up their struggle for complete human rights, and refuse to give up their goal of self-determination in their own country. This is their life. This is their everyday struggle. Insha’Allah, God willing, with the help of their friends and supporters worldwide, they will begin to see real change in this lifetime. 

The darkness and the light. The fear and the love. The chaos and the tranquility. The ugliness and the beauty. When a person makes a choice to consciously open their heart and mind and connect with the “other” in an intimate, personal way they are never the same. One stands to learn an incredible amount about themselves as well. I encourage everyone to be compassionately adventurous, curious, courageous, and bold. Open your heart. Open your mind. Take the plunge AND take action! You will have no regrets and will be changed for the better.

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