The Dheisheh refugee camp, adjacent to Bethlehem, was established as a temporary refuge for 3,400 Palestinians from 45 villages west of Jerusalem and Hebron who fled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The population is now over 13,000, more than 95% of whom were born after 1948.
Shortly after making aliyah (and more than a year before joining CiF Watch) I went on a tour of the Dheisheh Refugee Camp and it recently occurred to me that it would be a good idea (in the context of our blog’s critiques of the Guardian’s narrative of the Palestinian refugee issue) to collect my notes and briefly post about my experiences on that day.
The trip was prompted by a friend who is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and has contacts in the Palestinian territories. (All photos seen below were taken by me, or my friend, on the day of the tour.)
My friend knew that my politics were much different than hers but, as a new Oleh and someone quite inquisitive by nature, I possessed a desire to know as much as possible about the subject, as an aid to debating the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict vis-à-vis the “refugee” issue. As such, first-hand knowledge of a “refugee camp” immediately struck me as something quite valuable.
She had a friend who ran a UN funded recreation center in Dheisheh called al-Feneiq – known simply as The Phoenix – which is where, after a bus and cab ride from the center of Jerusalem that lasted a little over a half hour, my guided tour (with my friend and an acquaintance) began. The community center itself is a nicely equipped facility, containing a kitchen, guest house, gym, library, cultural performance venue and a play room for children.
The tour of the town itself was led by another resident of Dheisheh (and volunteer at The Phoenix), who walked us around the area, stopping to point out particular sites of interest and explain (in broken but mostly understandable English) a bit of the town’s history.
I had expressed to my friend prior to our tour that I would prefer to see the area with my own eyes and make whatever determinations I could, and our guide largely refrained from gratuitous remarks about Israel culpability and was quite friendly and a good listener. He would, nonetheless, occasionally relate stories of the IDF destroying specific buildings in the area that were being used by terrorists, at the same time clearly indicating that he didn’t believe the justification given by the Israelis.
Periodically our guide would, in a non-judgmental tone, confirm that some of the graffiti we’d see in the neighborhood was the image of deceased terrorists – serving as an urban memorial of sorts. One such image “commemorated” the life of a “martyr” belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – a Marxist-Leninist terrorist group responsible for terrorist attacks which have killed dozens of Israeli citizens. Other graffiti/art we came across included similar images of “resistance”, including several images of Che Guevara.
What we came across in Dheisheh’s densely populated winding, hilly streets didn’t in any way resemble a “refugee camp” as such, at least according to how I had imagined it as a casual consumer of Middle East news back in the U.S.
The community actually resembled some of the inner city neighborhoods (ghettos) in Philadelphia, New York and other large cities in the U.S. Many of the homes were indeed run down and the area was full of what we would call urban blight – structures, for whatever reason, in complete disrepair or partially or fully demolished.
However, amongst this relative poverty, there were also a large number of homes which, though modest, were intact – and more than a few had satellite dishes. In the market district there were several eateries (one of which we stopped at for lunch), vegetable stalls, butcher’s shops, dry goods stores, other miscellaneous retail, at least two high-speed internet and computer centers, a medical center and another smaller community/sports center.
At the end of our tour the three of us drank coffee with our guide and a couple of his friends at the community center’s cafe. After about a half hour or so I noticed out of the corner of my eye that our Palestinian hosts were staring strangely at me, muttering something to one another in Arabic. Our guide asked what I was wearing around my neck. I replied that it was my Star of David which, to be honest, I hadn’t thought (quite naively in hindsight) would be a problem. (Indeed, on a subsequent official media tour of Ramallah our guides gave us strict instructions not to wear kippot or any Jewish symbols while in the city.)
Though their reaction to my Jewish symbol was reserved, I was still a bit skeptical that they truly didn’t know what it was, as the Israeli flag contains the same symbol and they’ve surely seen that before. My friend who organized the tour, and had spent time with our host previously, then (perhaps to sensing a bit of tension) asked cheerfully: “Oh, you didn’t know I was Jewish?” “No”, he said, before abruptly changing the subject.
I am sure that, at least initially, he perceived me as being like my other two friends on the tour (who were also Jewish but politically pro-Palestinian) – “activists” sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and I certainly didn’t go out of my way to dissuade him of this assumption on the tour. I listened to what he said, regardless of how critical he was of Israel, with a neutral or inquisitive look. I had decided early in the day that I would not, in my conversation and overall affect, lie or pretend to share his hostility to Israel, but that I also would not be argumentative or confrontational – which, in other circumstances, would have been my natural reaction to what I perceived as propaganda.
I was there, ultimately, on something of a fact-finding tour and was thankful for the opportunity.
The Palestinian “refugee” story narrative is a subject I have written about at CiF Watch periodically. Without a specific understanding of the communities and their residents, I could easily see “neutral” (or not so neutral) observers assuming Israeli culpability in every demolished building, every story of woe and suffering that we encountered along the way.
It is this facile causation between every conceivable case of Palestinian suffering and Israeli actions that feeds into the delegitimization of Israel.
The “camp” literally borders the relatively prosperous city of Bethlehem, and it occurred to me at the time (as it does now) how strange it was that the PA has not decided to kick out UNRWA and simply incorporate Dheisheh into greater Bethlehem.
Finally, my tour was ultimately motivated by the desire to meet at least some real Palestinian Arabs, so that my Zionist politics don’t merely deal with their population as the Palestinian abstraction – the manner so common at the Guardian and most of the MSM, who often advance fictive illustrations of the region divorced from their complex (and often sobering) reality.
Here are some more photos from Dheisheh.
- Escape from Dheisheh (cifwatch.com)