Raids and Restrictions

Deheisha residents reveal daily hardships in refugee camps

palestine-picture-133s.jpg Like many others, the Deheisha refugee camp outside Bethlehem continues to struggle for freedom despite regular raids by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Photo by Jesse Rosenfeld.

By Jesse Rosenfeld

It’s 2:00 am in the Deheisha refugee camp outside Bethlehem and I hear a large, loud bang. Camp residents – most of whom are either refugees from the 1948 war or their descendents – say the Israeli army enters Deheisha anywhere between three and seven days a week, with raids increasing in frequency over the past few months. My friend Shadi Al-Assi – a musician and instructor of Music, Dance and Media at the Ibdaa community center in Deheisha – and I rush to Ibdaa’s top floor window where we look around frantically for Israeli military activity.

From the window we have a clear view of the central camp entrance, which the army reportedly enters through, as well as the rest of the camp. We can’t see any military jeeps or soldiers so Al-Assi starts calling people on his cell phone to find out what’s going on. After a short conversation in Arabic he turns to me and in an instance of tragic irony expresses relief. “It wasn’t the soldiers entering the camp this time,” he says. “The Israeli military was blowing up rock in the mountains behind the camp to build the wall.” Bethlehem is almost entirely encircled by the Israel’s towering concrete separation barrier and once it’s completed the city and Deheisha will be completely encompassed by it.

Although the camp is considered under Palestinian Authority (PA) administration, Deheisha residents say the Israeli army regularly enters between midnight and 1:00 am to arrest Palestinians involved in resisting occupation, demolish the homes of resistance fighters and suspected resistance fighters’ families, or simply make enough noise to wake up and harass the community. According to residents these raids began in 2002 during the second Intifada when Israeli forces besieged Deheisha and took military control of areas under PA jurisdiction.

Al-Moghpe's tale
Yussaf Al- Moghpe, a father of four and Deheisha resident, returned to the camp in themed-1990s during the Oslo peace process after being in exile since 1968. He says that late one night in mid-August the Israeli army entered his house without warning during a raid. “We woke up at two in the morning and the soldiers were on top of our heads. They took one of my brothers to an Israeli jail for five days, didn’t ask him any questions and just released him without charge. They often don’t have any reasons to do these things,” he says.

Night view of the main road into Deheisha refugee camp. Residents say this is the route taken by the IDF on what they claim are nearly nightly raids on the camp. Photo by Jesse Rosenfeld.

Al-Moghpe is no stranger to attack and collective punishment from the Israeli military, his first son was shot and killed by the army while throwing stones during the second Intifada and his three other sons are in Israeli jails for taking up armed resistance after their brother’s death. “One night at three in the morning my family got a call and we were told that the Army had caught my son Mahmood and assassinated him. They shot him,” he says.

The Al-Moghpe family has also had their home in Deheisha destroyed three times by the army as collective punishment for their son’s resistance, who are serving sentences in solitary confinement ranging from four and a half to 1,800 years.

Al-Mogphe’s son Ahmed, who is serving the 1,800 year sentence, has never seen his own son, who was born three years ago just as Ahmed was sent to prison. The Israeli authorities barred Ahmed’s son visitation rights because of Ahmed’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli court that was trying him. Instead, Ahmed continues to assert his right to resist foreign occupation and demands to be treated as a prisoner of war. Al-Mogphe says the Israeli military responded by labeling Ahmed’s son a terrorist as well, and barring any contact between the two.

Al-Mogphe describes how his home was first demolished in 2004 after his children were already jailed in Israel. He says every time the army destroyed their home it was in the middle of the night and the family was only given half an hour to collect their belongings and leave. During first two demolitions, he explains, soldiers placed explosives inside the house and collapsed the buildings from within. The third time their home was destroyed the family didn’t even own it: they were simply renting an apartment down the street from their twice demolished home. On that occasion, according to Al-Mogphe, the Israeli military didn’t even place explosive inside the house but simply fired rockets into it.

“I asked them what the reason was and they said it was because of my sons. At that time three of my sons were already inside Israeli jails and my other son had been assassinated... They said they were going to bomb the house even though my sons were already in Israeli jails,” says Al-Mogphe.

Looking around the neighborhood, I notice the buildings surrounding the Al-Mogphe home also have holes, shell marks and damage from explosions. Deheisha’s population of 12,800 people is squeezed into half-a-square-kilometre, with people basically living one on top of the other, connected by tight winding roads and towering buildings. Al-Assi explains to me that the cramped conditions mean when the army destroys a house they take a good part of the neighborhood with it, a common situation amongst the 486,400 refugees living in 19 refugee camps across the West Bank. The Nablus refugee camps of Ein Beit El Ma and Balata also face nightly Israeli military invasions.

Al-Mogphe and I talk through a translator sitting below his bombed out house, which he hasn’t rebuilt out of fear the Israelis will destroy it again. He now lives next door to the destroyed home with his wife and family. Born in Deheisha, his parents were part of the more than 700,000 Palestinians made refugees by the newly created Israeli state in what Palestinians call the 1948 Nakba – The Catastrophe. Al-Mogphe left the camp in 1968, though, not wanting to live under Israeli occupation. The Al-Mogphe family has lived in Libya, Jordon, Sudan, Lebanon and Syria and was unable to return to Deheisha until the mid-1990s because of Al-Mogphe’s involvement in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

A house across the street from the Al-Moghpe family’s twice destroyed home. The Israeli military damaged the front of the house and blew holes into the walls. Buildings across the camp bear similar marks from Israeli raids. Photo by Jesse Rosenfeld.

Speaking calmly in a raspy voice about his sons, he describes how he is barred from visiting them and has not had contact since they were arrested between 2002 and 2004. Al-Mogphe is in his mid-fifties, just a few years older than my father; however the lines worn into his face and his exhausted expression make him appear more like my grandfather. He describes how, in the late-1990s at the beginning of the second Intifada, his children were brought into political consciousness through experiencing the confines of the checkpoints, the brutality of Israeli troops and the expansion of Israeli settlements.

“When the second Intifada started my kids started to see kids killed in front of them, and all the pressures of the settlements and check points around them. As a result they started to fight against the occupation with stones. They had stones and the Israeli army had bullets, rockets, and all these sort of things just to punish them,” says Al-Mogphe.

60 years later: still the fighting for the right to return
The story of the Al-Mogphe family is not uncommon inside Deheisha and similar stories are frequently heard. “A lot of houses in the refugee camp have been destroyed by the Israelis. We have more than 32 martyrs from Deheisha and more than 232 people inside Israeli jails [since the outbreak of the second Intifada],” says Mohammad Ibrahan Al-Azza, who was one of the first people to move into the camp in 1948.

Now over 80 years old – he fled his village of Tall al-Safi almost 60 years ago as the Israeli army advanced – he remains committed to his right to return to his village and a secular one state solution to the conflict. However, he says the increase in Israeli raids on the camp has shocked residents, also leaving them angry at the PA for not coming to the camp’s defense.

“People are really shocked by these things. We have a Palestinian Authority and Palestinian soldiers, but with this sort of thing they have to defend us and not work with the Israelis against us,” he says. Al-Azza describes the PA as another branch of the Israeli government, complicit in the military’s actions. “Usually when you go to Bethlehem you will see a lot of police men standing on the street but when they hear about an Israeli jeep coming they just start to run and go to their offices,” he says. It’s a common feeling amongst residents I speak with, either describing the PA as part of the Israeli occupation administration, or rhetorically raise the question, “What Authority?”

Having coffee in Al-Azza’s small basement apartment that he built himself in the middle of Deheisha, he describes the mood of camp residents as depressed and isolated, a result of exhaustion from the raids and the Fatah-Hamas fighting in Gaza. He blames the Hamas-Fatah conflict on being part of an Israeli divide and conquer strategy, citing Israel’s history of supporting Hamas’ development in the 1970’s to counter the PLO, and now Israel’s political support and recent provision of arms to the PA. “At the same time people are becoming distant from the political parties because of what is happening in Gaza. They think the Palestinian parties are starting to lie and want us to be divided,” he adds.

De-politicised or de-moralised?
I find the description of de-politicization surprising considering the camp’s long history of continued resistance to occupation. Deheisha was one of the first camps engaged in the first Intifada, beginning their uprising in 1973 – 14 years before the Intifada was launched across the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza. To this day the camp has remained a strong hold for the Marxist Palestinian liberation movement, The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and put up a fierce resistance to Israel’s reinvasion of the camp in 2002.

However, according to the camp’s PFLP spokesperson, speaking under the alias Abu Said out of fear of Israeli military reprisal, it is a mischaracterization to say people are becoming de-politicized. Said contends that while there is disillusionment over the conflict in Gaza, there is unity and strong working relations with the different political factions inside the camp. “In the Deheisha refugee camp we, by name, have something called PFLP, Fatah movement and something called Hamas, but at the same time we all work together as one family inside the camp,” says Said. “That’s why you won’t see conflicts between the Palestinian parties inside the refugee camp.”

Abu Said highlights that during military raids into the camp, the political factions provide the social infrastructure such as food provision. “By giving bread to poor families during invasions, we can resist the occupation and do something for the community. On the political side, this is the best thing we can do, to support the people and help them in daily life,” Said says, adding that the army is also sometimes militarily resisted. “At the same time there are some people who are specialists in fighting the Israelis and resisting the occupation in other ways.”

None-the-less according to Al-Assi armed resistance in the camp has been all but destroyed by the Israeli military as they have either killed or jailed all the camps resistance fighters. He says that both the camp residents and the Israeli military knows this and it is why he can’t understand how the army can even justify making arrests in the camp to themselves.

The now vacant site where a family's house - twice destroyed by the IDF - once stood. Vacant lots spatter the refugee camps where families, after having their houses demolished several times over, have given up re-building. Photo by Jesse Rosenfeld.

Before I leave Deheisha, Al-Assi takes me to the site of a house that was blown up by the army only a month-and-a-half ago. The neighborhood looks newly built except for an empty lot filled with rubble in the middle of it. He explains that when the army destroyed the house it took most of the neighborhood with it, and that the family decided not to rebuild their home as it had already been destroyed once before by the army. The soldiers told the family the home was destroyed because their son was wanted, according to Al-Assi. However, he points out that their son was already in jail. He explains that after the demolition, the family lived in tents on the site of their house and has since left the camp. “[The Israeli military] does this to send a message to others that if you resist the occupation, they will destroy your entire life. It’s an attempt to break resistance,” he says.

As I leave Deheisha I am struck by people’s determination to continue resisting the occupation despite harsh living conditions and bleak pessimism about the future. Unemployment is rampant and according to residents they only get running water once a month, and the large water tanks that dot the roofs of the camp seem to confirm this. They say that electricity is sporadic, always being cut, and the only free health clinic is run by the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA); receiving 280 patients daily with only one doctor, two nurses and operating six hours a day, six days a week.

However, there is large participation amongst youth in the Palestinian culture and dance programs at the community center and the sense of a grim determination to assert their national identity and not to let the occupier win. As I get into the taxi at the front gate of the camp I think back on Al-Azza’s closing remarks from our interview.

“Still until now people have patience. People have been in the refugee camp since 1948 and are still asking for their rights, the right of return. The main thing we are looking for right now is to be united, and then we will go back and ask for our rights again. Even in this situation we are still asking for our rights,” he says.

Jesse Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah and former member of the Siafu editorial collective.