‘Why would you come here to get yourself killed?’

Editor’s note: An Israeli group called “Breaking the Silence” is currently taking 24 novelists through the West Bank as research for an upcoming book of essays marking the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. American writer Ayelet Walman, head of the project, says the book will not analyze the conflict but simply bear witness to these questions: What does occupation look like? What does it feel like to live under occupation? The collection will be published in 2017 by HarperCollins.

One of Christian Courier’s staff members, Ineke Medcalf, has travelled to the West Bank four times in the past three years. The following narrative does the same thing: it bears witness to what life is like in the West Bank  today; it is, as Walman calls it, “Occupation 101.”

This past fall, I was once again in the West Bank (WB), Palestine. While spending a few days in Bethlehem, I decided to visit Aida Refugee Camp, just north of Bethlehem in the central West Bank. Like other refugee camps in the WB, Aida has been there since 1948. It is populated by approximately 6,000 Palestinians who were living in what has now become known as Israel. Some in the refugee camp still hold the keys to their homes in hopes of returning one day. Of course their homes are long gone or occupied by Israelis; the Palestinians have no right of return.

I visited Ahmad, a man  in his 40s who has lived his entire life in this camp. His parents are also there. He has little hope for his children, as he cannot afford higher education for them. He has health issues brought on, he believes, by poor water quality in the camp. Aida is crowded. There is minimal green space or playgrounds. The one soccer field available to the children in Aida was cut off by a restraining wall which runs along the one side of the camp.

During my training to become an Ecumenical Accompanier (EA) in the West Bank, I met a young Israeli man who had completed his military service. He was a member of the group Breaking the Silence (breakingthesilence.org.il). He told us that refugee camps are used to train Israeli soldiers. There, new soldiers learn how to break into homes, arrest people, take over neighbourhoods and so on. They are heavily armed and on high alert.

Throwing stones
This information partially accounts for what I witnessed when I visited one home in the Fawwar refugee camp where two teenage brothers had recently been arrested. They told me about how the soldiers had broken into their home in the middle of the night, grabbed the two boys and thrown them to the ground. They were blindfolded, handcuffed and taken away. Their parents were helpless to protect them.

The boys were accused of throwing stones at military vehicles a few days previous. The penalty for this is two to four years in jail. Of course the onus is on the teen to prove his innocence. They are also beaten and urged to give names of other stone throwers. One young man who had been released after two years proudly told me he did not give names.

Yes, boys do throw stones. It is their only defense and a way of feeling they are protecting their homes. Yet time and time again, they are told in different ways that they are powerless.

I was also in Aida refugee camp when the Israeli Defense Forces came. Suddenly the sound of gunfire rang out. I tried to get a closer look. Over the loudspeaker, from one of the military vehicles, came a message in Arabic which later I learned stated: “People of Aida refugee camp, we are the occupation army. If you throw stones, we will hit you with gas until you all die –  the youth, the children, the old people; you will all die.”

Getting their stories out
That day many rounds of tear gas were fired. I found it painful to the eyes and throat.  I ended up sitting against a wall in a narrow street. It was getting dark and I could make out some men at the other end of the street. I hoped they weren’t soldiers. One started coming my way and I saw he was wearing a gas mask. He took me by the arm and led me to the other end of the alley –  about a block or so out of the refugee camp. There were several Palestinian young people looking curiously at me. One sprayed some liquid on my hands and indicated to place my hands over my eyes. Then they gave me some water and fruit to soothe my throat. One young girl spoke English and the first question she asked was, “Why would you come here to get yourself killed?”

It was a good question. I went because I want to see what Palestinians go through day after day, and to let them know that they are not forgotten – that some of us want to advocate on their behalf and get their stories out. I told her that their lives matter; they matter to me and more importantly, they matter to God.

She asked me more questions about my family and what I believe, and when I told her that I was going to Hebron the following day, she said it was too dangerous for me. These young people with all the challenges they face still showed such concern for me.

Later, I learned that an 8-month-old child had died that day from tear gas. When tear gas is shot in the camp, people will hurry to make sure any openings to their homes are blocked up since the gas permeates everywhere. And on this day, the IDF was firing indiscriminately and not just at the protesters.

Nothing left to lose
The new wave of unrest this past fall is due in part to recent visits by Jewish groups to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem, coupled with Israeli restrictions on Palestinian access to the mosque. Canada and the international community calls Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem illegal. (See Canada’s policy on Palestine/Israel at international.gc.ca.) Another provocation has been the increase in home demolitions and the building of Israeli settlements. There have been incidences of Palestinians who have knifed or attempted to harm soldiers. These Palestinians are usually killed and their family homes are destroyed.

These attempts are usually carried out by those who feel they have nothing left to lose, and are done out of frustration. It is not systemic nor government policy. We often hear about the Israelis’ right to defend themselves, but when a Palestinian tries to defend himself, he is called a terrorist. I was in one village when the army and bulldozers came. Eid Suleiman, a villager, said, “Look, they come with guns and tanks and bulldozers. We have nothing. Who are the terrorists?” The Palestinians have no army to fight for them. On the wall which runs alongside Aida camp, are the words, “We cannot live, so we wait to die.”

I will admit that there were days I despaired –  when I saw that message on the wall, and I sat on rubble of a home and watched children coming from school and saw their faces as they realize their home is gone. There is nothing you can do or say.

No room for Christ
This land is where Christ came to earth, the so-called Holy Land. But he was not born in a place of privilege; rather, he arrived in humble surroundings and he walked with ordinary people living under occupation. Peace and reconciliation has failed to come from those in positions of privilege and power. So I believe it must come by ordinary people walking together – Jews, Muslims, Christians all believing that we are called act justly, love mercy and love our neighbour as ourselves.

May God fill us with his spirit and use us mightily to bring his love and justice to a world in need wherever we are. There will be times when we feel helpless, and our hearts ache, and there is nothing we can do or say. May we then know that we do not walk alone.

In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.  

 

Refugee Camps in the West Bank

  • 762,288  registered Palestinian refugees
  • 19 camps
  • 97 schools, with 51,327 pupils
  • 2 vocational and technical training centres
  • 42 primary health centres
  • 15 community rehabilitation centres
  • 18 women’s programme centres

Author

  • Ineke hails from Zeeland, Netherlands. She immigrated with her family and grew up in the St Catharines region. She has a B.A. from Calvin College. Ineke is on the board of directors of the St. Catharines Federal Liberal Association and works on the policy committee with an emphasis on social justice issues. She is also editor of the association newsletter. Ineke is married to Ken and is the mother of five and Oma to four young children. She served as an Ecumenical Accompanier (EA) in the South Hebron Hills of Palestine.

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