THE HOMES OF PALESTINIANS

Bridget Jensen (Houston, Texas)

Our first homestay was in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp. When we arrived in the afternoon, we were given an introduction and tour by several young men who work with the organization LAYLAC: The Palestinian Youth Action Center for Community Development. 

According to our guide, the Israeli military patrols the Palestinian camp at night at least weekly, often raiding houses, setting up snipers on rooftops, and firing rubber bullets, tear gas, and even live ammunition if any group gathers to resist the soldiers' movement through the camp. 

The night we stayed in the camp, our host suggested that, despite the nice cool weather, we close the windows so tear gas wouldn't come in.

But tears came anyway.

As we left the dinner that we had enjoyed on the rooftop of the center and bid farewell to our hosts, thanking them for the meal and showing us how to dance dabke, the traditional Palestinian dance, our group of three women was told that we were going to a very special house.  When we arrived, the young man who had taken us there told us to wait outside while he ran down the narrow street.  As we waited outside the darkened building, I noticed a plaque on the front with the face of a young man.  From our earlier tour of the camp, I knew that such plaques are placed in memory of someone killed by the Israeli military.

Our escort returned with the key and led us upstairs into an apartment that appeared nicer than I had expected in a refugee camp, that is to say, spacious and equipped with new cabinetry and appliances.  Yet no one seemed to be living in it.  The only adornment were posters on a wall with photos of young men, including the one on the plaque downstairs, and several large trophies on top of one of the cabinets. 

He explained that this apartment was built by the man on the plaque for his mother.  He had been killed by the Israeli military in Bethlehem a year and half ago but she couldn't bring herself to live here as it only reminded her of the loss of her son.  Another of her sons was pictured in the other poster and had been in Israeli prison.  I later looked online to find this story that gave me a fuller understanding the family in whose house I stayed. 

As our escort was telling us that in his twenty-eight years, he had had fourteen close friends killed by the Israeli military, many of whom had played soccer together and whose trophies were on the cabinet, in walked the woman whose apartment we were in.  

I don't know if she understood English or not, but it didn't matter since no words could've been sufficient.  I also wasn't sure of cultural protocol and didn't want to overstep physical boundaries to give her a hug, but we held hands and I looked into her tear-filled eyes. 

I didn't start crying until later, once in bed.

But as I stood there with this grief-stricken mother, the human cost of the conflict became personal for me for the first time.  The reality of one of the graffiti art pieces we had seen on the tour of the camp hit home.  It was of three figures; two were portraits of young men in the camp with their birth and death dates and the third was in silhouette with a question mark on his face.

Who would be next?

Our next homestay was two days later in the city of Hebron, more specifically, in the H2 section of the city that is under total Israeli military control.  Our guide was Issa Amro, a prominent Palestinian defender of Palestinian human rights and co-founder of the grassroots organization Youth Against Settlements (YAS). 

Issa toured us through this part of Hebron, we saw streets literally blocked off with huge blocks of cement piled on one another or with concrete walls.  One was next to a school, forcing children on long detours through the Israeli military checkpoints that are scattered throughout this part of Hebron, restricting movement within H2.  At these military checkpoints, even Palestinian children must present their identification cards and now, since the end of 2015, they must recite new identification numbers they were assigned so soldiers can check them against a master list before allowing them to pass. 

On some streets, Palestinians are not even allowed to walk.

I'll never forget walking up one path, only about 50 meters, but it was separated from the road by a high fence and was strewn with the rubble of a building that had been destroyed to make way for the road only the settlers could use.  To enter this path, one had to go through a gate that emitted a piercing high-pitched tone whenever it was opened. 

At this point of our tour, we had a gaggle of Palestinian kids following us and one girl was ever so gracious, holding the gate open for all of us to pass.  While we were wincing at the loud alarm as we passed through, she smiled at us, seemingly pleased to offer assistance and perhaps get a little tip, I imagine.

These diversion paths do not seem to be as much for the protection of the Israeli settlers living in Hebron, so as to make Palestinian life more difficult.  I say this because one such path is in a field and cemetery that overlooks the street, so the street doesn't really seem so protected as it does segregate.

It had been a long day by the time we were to go to the families to spend the night.  By the time we had finished dinner at the YAS center and divided into our groups, it was 11 p.m.  Our escort had to take it slowly for our group of 3 men and 3 women as we navigated the steep rocky path down to the street. 

We arrived at the building in Tel Rumeida, the little Palestinian village that is in Hebron's H2 area, and our escort was beginning to tell us which floors we would be on when one of the Israeli soldiers from a checkpoint about 20 meters away aproached us.  He started saying that we couldn't be there. 

Luckily, he was speaking in English so we understood the entire exchange. 

After several minutes of going back and forth with the soldier, assuring him we were just going to sleep and would not be going further up the road, we traipsed upstairs, not exactly sure we had been given the o.k., but satisfied that the soldiers felt they had done their part in harassing us.

Our family was waiting for us three women on the rooftop floor.  None in our group spoke Arabic so we were thrilled that the 11-year-old girl was fluent enough in English to have real conversations.  The fourteen-year-old boy and the mother took somewhat of a backseat as Niida, the girl, bubbled over with the excitement of being hostess.  We showed one another pictures and we learned that an older brother was staying with the mother's parents, probably somewhere with fewer restrictions of movement and the father was somewhere else working. 

The highlight of Niida's pictures were at a pool, obviously somewhere other than H2 Hebron.  This reminded me of children we had heard earlier in the trip who simply wanted to travel freely, at least to see their own country.

In the background, the television was tuned into an Arab version of The Voice for Kids. One of the stars from an earlier season had been a boy from Gaza, explained Niida.  I wonder how he got out of Gaza to participate?  Perhaps part of his popularity was that he offered hope to other Palestinian children who dream, not of stardom, but simply of having opportunities.  Before going to bed, the kids insisted I take a selfie with them.  We are all smiling, but I know their reality is harsh and smiles are a kind of act of resistance.

The next morning Niida came in brighter than sunshine to wake us up before she headed off to school.  Her mother confirmed that she is a hardworking student, undeterred by any difficulties getting to and from school or any harassment from settlers.  On the other hand, Ahmad, the boy, has given up on school.  Perhaps he has bought into the Israeli stereotype that young Palestinian boys, at best, cannot amount to much and at worst, are terrorists. 

I am afraid for him because all it takes is for the Israeli military to be suspicious of a boy to take him into detention for questioning, physically abuse him during transport and then deny him access to speak to his parents or lawyer for hours or even a couple of days.  Having had the encounter the with the soldiers at the nearby checkpoint, I am afraid that the chances of an ill-fated encounter are high for him.  I worry that his mother will become grief-stricken as the mother in the refugee camp, especially after the men who stayed in the building told how they had seen a video of a Palestinian shot dead in front of the very building where we stayed.   

Just the 10 days that I spent in Israel and Palestine, especially these homestays, are now embedded in my life experience, with grief from the mother in Dheisheh, with concern for the boy in Tel Rumeida, and with hope from both his sister and the youth that are involved in the grassroots organizations that are teaching them to live with dignity and continue the struggle for their human rights.