What comes to mind when you think of a refugee camp? I had always imagined the refugee camp as filled with tents, temporary residents, humanitarian organizations, and international workers – a place for the mobile migrant fleeing war, poverty, or political unrest. But, what does a refugee camp look like when it stands in the same place for over seventy years? This is the case of the Aida and Dheisheh camps located in the occupied West Bank, south of Bethlehem.
There are no tents in Aida and Dheisheh. There are, however, buildings that rise multiple stories high where families have lived for seven decades. In 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel, Palestinians were driven from their homes and forced to take refuge in camps in the Palestinian territories and beyond. Palestinians refer to this as the Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’. One could argue that the Nakba predates 1948 and has continued up to present day in various forms. However, 1948 stands out as the beginning of the most aggressive settlement of Palestine. Unlike the mobile migrant, though, Palestinians have refused to leave the camps they built, regardless of the pressures put on them by the State of Israel and its armed forces.
When I visited these camps in the fall of 2018, it was apparent to me that the goal of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was to make life in Aida and Dheisheh unlivable. Their tactics include the constant use of tear gas and sound bombs (with Aida being the most tear gassed place in the world), nightly raids of Palestinian homes, flying loud fighter jets over the camps at all hours of the day, and “kneecapping” – a technique taken up by the IDF where soldiers aim to shoot at the knees of Palestinians in hopes of disabling them.
The Palestinian homes in both camps that continue to be built and rebuilt are reminders to Israel that the camps will not become temporary pit stops for a Palestinian population on its way out of the ‘Holy Land’. They allude to a certain permanence that, in effect, interrupts the State of Israel’s effort to completely erase Palestinian presence from the landscape.. Then, in the face of the permanence of the camps, Israel turns to some of the most heinous and brutal measures of occupation.
My delegation was accompanied around the camps by M., a fourth-generation Palestinian refugee who had spent his entire life inside Dheisheh. M. spoke to me about how Israel changes tactics to make sure that Palestinians are not able to adapt. Allowing Palestinians the time to adapt to Israeli tactics would accord a certain stability, routine and, in the end, a sense of permanence to life in a refugee camp.
But, when the tactics of the occupation force change, often on a daily basis, life can never develop a rhythm, even if it is lived in the same space. Sometimes the night raids would happen every single night. Sometimes the IDF would stop them for weeks before suddenly striking one night without notice. At the time I was in Aida and Dheisheh, the residents were expecting raids every other night. The night I spent with a family in Dheisheh was luckily not one of those nights.
When I walked around Aida and Dheisheh, I was struck by all the names and faces that are written on the camps’ walls. These are the names of the Palestinian martyrs from these camps. In a quiet moment, M. shared with me that his best friend had been martyred. He explained that for the people living in these camps, death can come at a moment’s notice. This is because the Israeli security apparatus has effectively turned these long-standing refugee camps into open air prisons, where the prisoners are under constant surveillance of the IDF watchtowers posted along the separation wall.
From 1967 until 1994, Dheisheh was surrounded by walls on all sides, and nobody could leave without Israeli permission. Not long after, when M. was still a boy, the separation wall was constructed, and it cut through the camp.
With “kneecapping” tactics, night raids, constant surveillance, and other methods of confinement, the Israeli state looks for answers to the refugee who refuses to leave. As Palestinians have turned a space that was supposed to be a temporary stop on the way out of the ‘Holy Land’ into a more permanent community, Israel has chosen to disrupt these camps in all the ways their American-funded technology has allowed them.
When Israeli authorities realized that Palestinians were not going to leave, unless leaving meant returning to the homes they have been expelled from over the course of the Nakba, they employed the IDF to, quite literally, prevent the movement of the people of the camps. “Kneecapping”, night raids, and surveillance are all ways to limit the mobility of the refugees - either by physically disabling them with bullets, by reminding them of who is in control, or by watching their every movement with the most sophisticated technology.
Evidently, Israeli policies have failed to force Palestinian refugees to flee from these spaces. So, their methods have changed. As the residents of Aida and Dheisheh have turned the camps into growing communities of resistance, Israeli methods have turned towards confinement and entrapment. The goal now for Israel may be to crush the spirit and resistance of the refugees.
Aida and Dheisheh, however, are not like the refugee camps of migrants on the run. They are refugee camps inhabited by migrants who refuse to be migrants. The camps have stood and remained for seventy years because their residents refuse to leave, unless it means returning to their homes. Undoubtedly, Aida and Dheisheh are places of total enclosure and sites where the worst of Israeli settler colonialism can be witnessed. However, these camps are also some of the most vibrant sites of Palestinian resistance, hope, and sumoud (steadfastness). In my next piece, I will discuss how the people of Aida and Dheisheh resist settler colonialism and refuse to lose the hope of returning home.
I would like to thank the members of Eyewitness Palestine’s 66th delegation for their detailed collecting and sharing of notes and information that have assisted in writing this piece.
Banner image: Mural on a wall in Aida camp. (Photo by Charlie Finn)
More reporting from Palestine
Reflections on Olives, Garbage, and Security (by Charlie Finn)
The Pain of Waiting (by Karama Fadel via We Are Not Numbers)