Our day is full today and we have learned much about the various Palestinian peoples suffering through the Occupation: original refugees from 1948, West Bank Palestinians, and Palestinians in Jerusalem and Bethlehem who have had walls built around them. At BADIL (Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights) we learned about the plight of Palestinians forced from their homes with few legal options for residency. BADIL is an NGO established in 1998 - they have consultancy status with the United Nations. They attempt to aid and fight legal battles for the 6.6 million Palestinian refugees - which number about 70 - 80% of the population. This group is the largest and longest standing group of refugees anywhere in the world.
Before leaving for Al Khalil, we took a tour of a refugee camp surrounded by 26 foot walls - on three sides - with one entrance/exit located in the heart of Bethlehem. The Aida Refugee Camp was set up in 1948 and includes Palestinian peoples from over two dozen different locations. Even in the heart of Bethlehem the conditions are abysmal. Stone buildings butt up against each other with no green space and few open areas. Water, electricity, and sanitation are limited and now two generations have grown up in such crowded and dismal conditions. There was no water or electricity for the first 20 years and now they have water only for 6 hours each day. For some people it took 40 years to earn enough money to construct a living space within the confines of the camp. People are afraid to leave because there is no guarantee that they will be allowed to return and what they have appears better than the potential for isolation from family, more displacement, no means of economic support, and the unknown. A young Palestinian man, who has never known anything but the refugee camp, gave us a tour. The most stunning thing to me was that we came around a corner and saw what looked like an antique store. As we approached our guide explained the two rooms full of furnishings and household items. We stood in front of their "museum" - a place they bring their children to see the way they use to live and provide a reminder to everyone of what they had before being crowded into the cement prison they now have inhabited since 1948. Graffiti everywhere - large print letters (many in English) and drawings that document the Palestinian anger, resentment, and unbelievably, hope. There is no way to describe this without falling hopelessly into trite cliches and simplistic comments about the resilience of the human spirit. Nevertheless - I see it before my eyes.
By late afternoon we had set up residence in the CPT apartment in the commercial city of Al-Khalil (Hebron). Driving into this bustling city was wild - traffic everywhere - people everywhere - all heading in difference directions. It was a challenge for pedestrians and drivers, whose passengers simply closed their eyes or held their breath as the vans and cabs careened through the city. Nightfall found us on our first "night patrol" in Hebron. Every evening CPTers walk the streets for an hour to check on activities and hopefully deter potential violence between Palestinians (often children) and the Israeli military who stand guard throughout the divided city full of surveillance cameras and military checkpoints. There is nothing subtle about "Big Brother" in Hebron. Tonight, we witnessed five children being chased and caught by Israeli soldiers who accused them of "throwing rocks." Trying to keep watch we ran through the dark streets of Hebron, following soldiers in full battle gear with automatic weapons at the ready. It was surreal as I looked up at the beautiful moon and for a second could not quite believe what I was doing running down the streets of Hebron. Although we did not see the altercation, the five boys (all preteens), were hustled to an underground entrance, some in handcuffs, where we followed them to document their treatment. One child was slapped before being taken from our view. Eventually, our CPT leader, Fathiyeh, who speaks fluent Arabic and Hebrew, located the mother of two of the children and challenged the soldiers to explain what was happening. After more than an hour of conversations, others appeared in the street (including a Dutch professional photographer/journalist) to ask about the children and what happened. Eventually, the growing crowd (particularly the presence of "internationals,") which is the term for everyone other than Israelis and Palestinians, seemed to influence the soldiers desire to detain the boys and they released them to the Palestinian Authority who had been notified by our CPT leader.