'The soldiers are here': resistance in a Palestinian refugee camp

Situated next to Israel's separation wall, dissent is growing in Aida. Ella David reports.

The Israeli military occupies a family's home in Aida camp.

Mohammed Al-Azza

My friend peers out of the window, trying not to be seen. ‘The soldiers are here,’ he tells me. It is three in the morning and I am half asleep, but the hazy glow in the house is making me nervous. The Israeli military are throwing light bombs. I wonder who they have come for this time, and how long it will be before those they have taken return. My friends make light of the situation, as they always do – in English at least – joking about the last time one of them was arrested in the wee hours. I am told to go back to sleep. I pace the room instead.

In Aida refugee camp, situated in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, a good night’s sleep is a luxury. This night raid, which was carried out by Israeli occupying forces, took place midway through a round of clashes between them and the Palestinian shabab (youth) in mid-January.

Tear gas engulfs the entrance to the camp. The key is the Palestinian symbol of return.

Ella David

A few weeks previously hundreds of soldiers had come to every home in the camp late at night and demanded entry. One family were woken to find 50 soldiers at their door. At six and eight years old, the youngest of the six children terrified by the intrusion have already seen more guns then most of their British counterparts will in a lifetime. The soldiers had come not to make arrests but to conduct something of a census, checking who lived where and with whom and ‘profiling’ the entire population.

Periods of calm in the camp are shortlived and tension is always simmering below the surface. On Friday 21 March, activists drilled a hole in a section of the wall which snakes and zigzags around Aida camp, cutting off inhabitants from Rachel’s Tomb – adjacent to the camp but now only accessible from Jerusalem. The eight-metre-high barrier not only cuts Palestine off from Israel: it also separates Palestinians from one another. A lone family lives on the other side of one part of the wall, on land part-owned by a family from Aida camp that all locals were able to use freely. The grey concrete mass is punctuated with lookout towers and checkpoints and its towering imposition over residents symbolizes the oppression of the Israeli occupation. Therefore resisting the wall is resisting the occupation: many Aida residents have had enough.

Tensions rose on Saturday 22 March as locals protested the killing of three Palestinians in Jenin refugee camp, a city in the north of the West Bank. So far in 2014 a Palestinian has been killed every 4.2 days; and just two weeks ago six people were killed in the space of 24 hours.

The Israeli military preparing for a new panel to close the gap in the wall.

Mohammed Al-Azza

Two days later, on Monday 24 March, soldiers came to the camp to replace the entire wall panel with concrete (left). During this time, snipers occupied a family home and the roof of the camp’s Lajee (refugee) centre. Armed with cameras, catapults and kaffiyehs, Palestinians shot film or threw stones. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) took aim with their M16s – some contained live ammunition, others fired rubber bullets and the rest were adapted to shoot teargas canisters. They hid behind helmets and bulky uniforms.

Two soldiers were slightly injured. In response, nine men from the same family were briefly detained. Three were taken to a police station in an illegal Israeli settlement for interrogation and were released shortly afterwards. An Italian journalist was hospitalized after a rubber bullet narrowly missed her eye and seven Palestinians were also treated for injuries caused by rubber bullets and live fire. There were numerous injuries due to teargas inhalation, including the hospitalization of a week-old baby.

And there were arrests. Lajee centre activities director Mohammed Alazraq, shot in the head with a rubber bullet back in January while in the Lajee building, was kidnapped on Wednesday 26 March at four in the morning. Soldiers forced entry into his home, overturning and destroying many of his belongings in the process. No-one knew where he had been taken for hours and no-one still knows for how long he will be gone. On 27 March, the day he should have been celebrating one year of freedom since his last release, he was without his liberty again.

Later that day, locals started a large fire using tyres next to the wall. In damaging a watchtower and part of the wall again, they were able to glimpse land on the other side for the second time that week. Two hours after the fire started, Israeli army helicopters were seen flying over the wall. ‘It feels like Aida is under siege,’ says a camp volunteer. ‘The Israeli soldiers have no respect for the people in this camp as human beings.’

What’s next for Aida camp? Home to some 5,000 people, it is one of 19 refugee camps in the West Bank and it is refusing to stay silent. The spirit of sumud (steadfastness) is strong, but it comes at a price.

Children look on as an injured man receives treatment.

Mohammed Al-Azza

Politically active Palestinians are routinely singled out as targets for violence and detention. Mohammed Al-Azza, a photographer and filmmaker who lives in Aida camp with his family has, like Alazraq, been shot in the face while inside Lajee centre. His courageous documentation of his neighbourhood and the international networks that he is building make him and his family vulnerable. But he says: ‘The people who want real freedom never give up. Despite your [Israeli military] attacks, the arrests, the killings… this wall WILL fall down.’

Resistance comes in all forms. Living in Aida refugee camp is as much of a political statement as it is a practical necessity. Sixty-six years since the creation of the Israeli Zionist state that caused, and is still causing, the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe), refugee camps in and outside of the country are reminders that generations of Palestinians are still waiting. The UN calls it Resolution 194 – the right of return to the land that Palestinians were expelled from in 1948 and which few can even visit today.

The soldiers were back in the camp yesterday, today and they probably will be tomorrow too. With violence escalating and time lapsing, questions become ever more urgent: why are the stone and the Molotov cocktail demonized but the MI6s and the rockets over Gaza legitimized as state defence? How long will it take before those who call Israel up on being a racist state are no longer deemed racist themselves? And when will the UN and other international bodies stop granting the Israeli administration impunity over its human rights abuses?

Martin Luther King wisely stated that: ‘Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.’ Aida residents are demanding their freedom; those of us who stand with Palestine must offer our support as they bear this struggle with dignity, determination and hope.

With thanks to Mohammed Al-Azza for sharing his photos.