Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Qalqilya Ghetto & the Refugees

A few days ago our team went down to Bethlehem to hear two South African colleagues from IWPS lecture on the similarities and differences between the current situation in Palestine and that of South Africa during apartheid. On the way down, we stopped in Abu Dis, a university neighborhood east of Jerusalem with sections of the Wall running through it. The Wall is currently made up of short, unfinished curves, but in time these curves will be connected, surrounding or isolating the Palestinian neighborhoods and villages in the area. Many homes that used to look out onto the Jerusalem hills now face a massive concrete fa├žade.

Students from Abu Dis University have painted large murals all along the Wall—we saw pictures of doves, Che Guevara, and a screaming man in chains. But most of the Wall in the West Bank is not as colorful. I recently visited Qalqilya, a city of 45,000 completely surrounded by the 25 ft concrete Wall, complete with sniper towers. The only way into or out of the city is via one gate controlled by Israeli soldiers. The once lively Qalqilya city is now the Qalqilya ghetto. Nothing remains of the commerce and vibrancy that used to characterize the urban center, now a ghost town. Formerly prime real estate is now used to store sheep. The Wall is visible in every direction, a never-ending expanse of gray but for a few hopeful pictures of Palestinian flags, the once-forbidden symbol of Palestinian independence. But independence has never been more out of reach for the people of Qalqilya than it is today.

Abu Dis is starting to look more and more like Qalqilya. Certain neighborhoods have already been split in half, with one side in East Jerusalem and the other now considered part of the West Bank. Families are being torn apart: suddenly a father is considered a resident of the West Bank, while his wife and kids have Jerusalem IDs. He can no longer go to his house, where he lived for years with his family, because it is off-limits to people from his side of the Wall.

That night in Bethlehem, my colleagues spoke about the walls that the white Dutch colonists built in South Africa to isolate people of color into bantustans: isolated black African “homelands” lacking any real legitimacy or power. Apartheid in South Africa started with racial segregation in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Dutch, who also abused the Old Testament to justify what they called “separate development.” A few of the speakers felt that Israel had perfected South African apartheid techniques while others found important differences between the two. But for those of us in the audience, the similarities were all too real. State-enforced segregation, isolated communities, curfews, imprisonment without trial, and torture—these were the realities we saw every day.

One Palestinian in the audience asked what strategy had worked to end apartheid in South Africa. The speakers agreed that Palestine currently seemed to lack the unifying leader and common strategy that was needed, and that Palestinians should focus on things like education that could strengthen their cause. They also emphasized the importance of international pressure. But the movement would have to start from within Palestine, one of the speakers explained. “Nobody will come and save you,” he told the audience. A Palestinian stood up to say that he wished he’d learned that lesson years ago. In 1967, he explained, Palestinians had waited for Arab countries to save them, and then in the 1980s they pinned their hopes on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). It was only in 1988, with the First Intifada, he said, that most Palestinians started to take up the fight themselves. And now Palestinians are even worse off than they were before. The man shook his head and said he couldn’t expect any move from the international community if there was no clear movement within Palestine itself.

That night we stayed in Dheisheh refugee camp, a densely-populated third of a square mile that is home to 11,000 refugees from Israel’s “War of Independence.” Dheisheh’s refugees come from 46 of the more than 500 Palestinian villages that were destroyed following the flight of more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homes by incitement or military force in 1948. After Zionists declared the establishment of the State of Israel, the refugees’ homes and villages were planted over with fast-growing pine trees and all but forgotten. Ziad, who gave us a tour of the camp, said it was revolting to hear how “the Jews made the desert bloom” when much of the aggressive planting was the covering up of ancient Palestinian villages. He said his family’s land is now part of Israel’s US-funded “American National Park,” where Israelis and tourists go to take walks with their kids and dogs, but where refugees and their families are forbidden ever to return.

As we walked through the run-down camp, children shouted hellos from the rooftops, comfortably hopping from one to the next to keep up with us. We walked by the ruins of a house, with furniture and personal belongings poking out from the rubble. Ziad talked about the history of the Palestinian refugee community after the 1948 and 1967 wars, both of which created hundreds of thousands of refugees. He spoke of living in tents and caves in the cold, sharing toilets with hundreds of others, and their ever-growing dependence on the Israeli state. He recalled waiting in vain for help from the Arab states. Most of all, he talked about the curfews imposed on refugee camps: 49 days straight during the Gulf War and an average of 4 months every year. During the curfews, anyone caught outside risked being shot. He said the soldiers used to shoot warning shots in the air first, but now many are instructed to shoot to kill.[1]

From 1985 to 1995, Dheisheh also had a wall around it. The only way out was through a revolving metal turnstile controlled by Israeli soldiers. Outsiders would peek in through the fence. Now that the wall is gone, the refugees say they no longer feel like animals in a zoo—now they just feel ignored. “The ‘refugee issue’ is simply not an issue anymore because the government ignores it,” an Israeli friend told me. “Israel accepts no responsibility for having caused the problem, or for solving it now. It’s as if the problem, and the refugees, never existed. When you go to a park or natural area, they always have signs explaining the history of the land, but when they come to the era of the ‘Arabs,’ they skip it. The existence of Palestinians is not only being threatened in Israel today; the Palestinians are being erased from history as well.”

In late 1948, the UN General Assembly resolved that “the [Palestinian] refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date” (Resolution 194). The UN has reaffirmed Resolution 194 over 130 times in the 58 years since its introduction, but Israel has never complied. Israel was admitted to the United Nations on condition that it accept relevant resolutions (such as 194), but decades later it has yet to follow through with the obligation.[2] The right of return for Palestinian refugees remains off the agendas of any significant voice in the international community and is mostly dismissed even by Israeli “leftists.”

But for Ziad, the right of return for Palestinian refugees is the key to peace. That said, he makes a distinction between the right of return and the actual return of the six million or so Palestinian refugees now living in the diaspora. Thirteen million Jews worldwide have the option of living in Israel, yet almost two thirds of them are not taking advantage of the privilege. Why should the Palestinians be so different? Many of their families have now spent generations abroad and would not choose to go back. For Ziad, the point is that Palestinians should be able to make that choice for themselves. He, for example, would choose to live in a house near the home where his family grew up, even though his neighbors would all be Jewish. Others would surely prefer to stay in a Muslim or Christian community. What’s important is the self-determination to choose where you want to live your life, something most of us take for granted.

The refugee problem is real, and it is not going away. Although much of the world seems to have forgotten about UN Resolution 194, the millions of refugees remaining without justice or a homeland have not. Each of those six million Palestinians deserves a home, security, and self-determination as much as any Jew in the world, and neither Israel nor the international community can expect lasting peace until the refugee problem has been acknowledged and justly resolved.

[1] Many Israeli army veterans have come forward with stories of being ordered “to shoot or kill unarmed people without fear of reprimand.” For details, see Conal Urquhart, “Israeli Soldiers Tell of Indiscriminate Killings by Army and a Culture of Impunity,” the Guardian (September 6, 2005).,2763,1563273,00.html; Breaking the Silence’s testimonial booklet #2 also contains several first-hand testimonies, most notably “the Wild West at the Nablus Kasbah.”

[2] Mazin Qumsiyeh, Sharing the Land of Canaan (London: Pluto Press, 2004), p. 44.

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