Monday, August 20, 2012

Qalandia and the Right to Return


 By Jill Ricotta

Even after 3 weeks of being in Israel/Palestine, I had yet to truly be shaken to my core like I had expected. Checkpoints (in specific, the ones you drive, not walk through) were quite fast and simple for a blonde American. East Jerusalem was so fun at night after iftar (breaking of the fast at sundown during the month of Ramadan), it was easy to forget the political situation of the city, and country in general. The conflict remained somewhat academic in nature, just like sitting in class back in the US.  So far I was just enjoying Palestine during Ramadan, stuffing my face with sweets, practicing my Palestinian Arabic, joking around with the locals. That’s the thing about Arab culture. No matter how hard times are, they will always find a way to
party and relax, while their generosity and hospitality are unmatched. Needless to say, it was quite easy to ignore, or at the very least not experience, the conflict.


 Until it smacks you right back in the face.


For me, that was a visit to Qalandia refugee camp. This particular camp is situated right next to the infamous checkpoint, and just a few minutes outside of bustling, vibrant Ramallah. Across the street the Separation Wall stares you down. Everywhere the occupation is present, foreboding and oppressive.
Shortly after hopping off the bus we met up with a guy who was born and raised in the camp, Marwan*. Like any great Palestinian host, he brought us ice-cold water, despite it being the middle of the day. (All Muslims refrain from drinking any type of liquid from sunrise to sunset as part of the fasting process during Ramadan).  We walked to the camp slowly, as we were a somewhat large group. Some chatted with Marwan. I was too distracted by the adorable kids running up to greet us. They came in groups of 3 or 4, smiling, waving, trying to communicate in whatever English they knew, mostly yelling: “Welcome!” Welcome!”

We reached the camp, kids still forming a parade behind us, and Marwan explained that at least 11,000 people live in this space of 0.2 sq miles. One in five are unemployed. All the families here are from 52 villages from the Lydd, Ramleh, Haifa, Jerusalem and Hebron areas that fled during the 1948 War, al-Nakba (the Catastrophe) for Palestinians. Graffiti is everywhere, mostly about the occupation, but some tags celebrating the start Ramadan.


"Freedom" Graffiti within the camp.


Marwan told us the story of two teenaged boys that were killed during Ramadan a few years ago. They were performing an old Muslim tradition. Often children or teenagers run around banging drums an hour before sunrise so that the community can wake up and eat before starting their fast. Kids find it a lot of fun, because their job is to make as much noise as possible. One morning some Israeli Defense Forces soldiers came and started yelling at the kids to stop. Qalandia, and other refugee camps, can be sources of violent outbreaks, and therefore make the IDF nervous. The boys did not understand why they would need to stop and kept banging away. Communication breakdown ensued, and the soldiers shot each boy, with exploding bullets. They both died instantly.

One of my friends asked Marwan what he saw as hope for the future. He look puzzled then answered that the only thing he could hope for is that maybe his future sons and daughters could one day go back to the village his parents fled from in 1948. He pointed to the children that had been following us, the boys specifically, and said that he worries about them. Soon they will be older and anything they do or say that could be seen as a threat by the IDF would get them locked up without any trail for months, even years. They will spend the rest of their lives in the revolving door. He himself spoke of many times that he was arrested for no apparent reason, and when he asks soldiers why he was being detained, he never gets an answer.

We walked over to the wall to see some of the famous graffiti there. While taking pictures and talking about the conflict, we hear yelling in the distance. We turn around to see an elderly man standing in a pile of garbage, screaming at us, waving a newspaper in his right hand. We ask Marwan who he is. He says that this man was once a very successful well-educated member of the community, who had even spent some time living in the United States. Then both his sons were killed by the IDF during protests, causing him to lose his mind out of grief. He yells at anyone who would listen about Israel and the occupation.
The Separation Wall outside of Qalandia


Qalandia is a place where the conflict is inescapable. Every refugee living there can easily find themselves in a constant state of fear and depression. When Yasser Arafat would speak of the necessity of the Right of Return, he spoke for these people.  Not every Palestinian had the good luck to move to the United States, Europe or Canada. The vast majority of refugees still live in camps, in situations very similar to that of Marwan’s. To anyone that speaks out against Palestinians right to return to their land, I implore you to visit a refugee camp and speak with the people there. See how much they have sacrificed. Then walk back to the nice, modern, clean cities of Israel and ask yourself if they are asking for too much.
Photo Courtesy of ieet.org

*Name has been changed

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