My tour of Dheisheh Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem

Entrance to Dheisheh

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. 

Dheisheh town below symbol of red “T”

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.

Mural of a PFLP “Shahid” at Deheisheh

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.

Mural at Dheisheh community center: Here’s the Arabic on the mural translated into English, courtesy of Elder of Ziyon: “My enemy, enemy of the sun, I will not compromise and I will resist till the last pulse in my veins”

Another mural in Dheisheh

Another mural

View of Dheisheh from community center coffee shop

Here I’m engaging our tour guide (diplomatically) in a discussion he initiated about terrorism, and other contentious issues.

One of my friends is seated next to me on my right, across from our Palestinian hosts. This was the coffee break at Dheisheh community center, around the time that my Magen David was “discovered”.

45 replies »

  1. Nice accompanied tour for us Adam, thank you. I wonder what makes Dheisheh ‘free’ as advertised on the graffito in the photograph. I won’t bother to ask why it’s still a ‘refugee camp’ though it’s still the area that has the highest probability of being included in a Palestinian state, when & if …

  2. “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.”

    Next week-end drive to Ramallah and go for a drink in any of the city’s bars or nightclubs. There are always Israelis hanging around the dancefloor, wearing stars of Daviv around their necks.

    • “Next week-end drive to Ramallah and go for a drink in any of the city’s bars or nightclubs. There are always Israelis hanging around the dancefloor, wearing stars of Daviv around their necks.”

      So Nat enthral me with your knowledge of and experiences in the bars or nightclubs in Ramallah.
      Which ones do you recommend?
      How often do YOU visit them?
      Have you any photos that you took during your last visit?

      As I live in the UK I’d love to read a genuinely first-hand account of the night life in Ramallah.

      • If you live in the UK, you must have read tons of stories in the press about Ramallah’s vibrant nightlife, it’s all the hype. It;’s the place to be if you wanna have a drink with diplomats or foreign correspondents. You even cross paths with Israelis who drove all thw ay from Tel Aviv to get a taste of Ramallah’s dancefloors.


        • Nat so which bars or nightclubs do YOU recommend?
          A personal recommendation is much more valuable than an article in an American newspaper.
          Which do you visit regularly and how often?

          • All the hype these days is in Orjuwan, Snobar and Beit Anisseh. Take your dancing shoes with you.

            • Thank you Nat for the recommendation.
              How often do you visit them?
              Do you have any photos that you took during your last visit?

                    • Everyone who works in the diplomat / journalist crowd in Jerusalem goes to Ramallah on week-ends, alternating with Tel Aviv. The idea is to escape Jerusalem’s dull nightlife. In Ramallah I recommend Snobar: their barbecue is famous, the dance floor by the swimming pool is totally cool, the locally brewed beer is great and they regularly host famous DJs. Even Israeli soldiers at Qalandia checkpoint have heard about Snobar’s parties by the diplomats crossing into Ramallah at night to go dance there. Orjuwan is more a place for quiet, elegant dinner, it’s where I’d take a girl for a date, it’s supremely chic, a bit like Darna but with a more fashionable crowd. Beit Anisseh is the coolest place for a beer and to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with intellectuals, artists and journalists from all over the world, it’s very hype but in a more no-nonsense way.

                    • I find amazing that he avoids answering the question even though the avoidance shows him to be the mere mouthpiece that he is!

                      He’s obviously never been there.

        • Where in your article does it say that Israelis are to be found in Ramallah?
          Entry into area A for Israeli citizens is FORBIDDEN under the Oslo accords.
          Learn to read, for God’s sake.

        • Interesting, Nat. Nowhere in the NY Times report does it say anything about Israelis going to enjoy “Ramallah’s vibrant nightlife”. It talks of Americans, NGO workers, etc, but not once does it mention Israelis, let alone any “who drove all the way from Tel Aviv to get a taste of Ramallah’s dancefloors”.

          Where DO you get your information from?

          • Come have a dance in Ramallah, you will definitely meet Israelis coming from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. See for yourself, pal.

            • Nat, are you seriously suffering from such a gross reading comprehension impairment?
              Your ARTICLE does not cite any Israelis in Ramallah, at all.
              Second, Ramallah, for the billionth time, is in AREA A, off limits to Israelis, per the Oslo Accords.
              “Area ‘A’ … – full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority. This area includes all Palestinian cities and their surrounding areas, with no Israeli settlements. Entry into this area is forbidden to all Israeli citizens. The Israel Defense Forces maintain no presence, but sometimes conducts raids to arrest suspected militants.”

              • There are Israelis in Ramallah. The city is only a ten-minute drive from Jerusalem. Many Israelis have European or North-American friends who party in Ramallah and sooner or later, thet want to taste it too.

                I don’t understand why it’s surprising to you. Many Israelis want to discuss with their Palestinian neighbours, and many Palestinians want to discuss with their Israeli neighbours. The best way to peace is to learn to know one’s neighbour, because it promotes understanding. Ramallah has become a very cosmopolitan city, a bit like Tel Aviv. It’s quite logical that young people and intellectuals on both sides would want to know one another. It’s the best path to peace.

                • For God’s sake Nat, were you dropped on your head as a child?
                  Why can’t you read what’s been written to you?
                  Ramallah is in area A. Entry to Israelis is verboten.
                  Your article didn’t mention a single Israeli.
                  The best recourse for you Nat, and for the Pal. Christians you cosset, is for YOU to go back to school, to acquire a modicum of literacy.

    • Nat, Ramallah is Area A, and Israelis are forbidden from entering. Even as a blogger I had to sign a special permission form basically saying nobody was responsible if something unfortunately occurred. Show me one photo of Israelis w/ Judaica hanging out in Ramallah’s night clubs and bars.

      • “Ramallah is Area A, and Israelis are forbidden from entering.”

        The Palestinian Authority does not forbid Israelis from accessing Area A, as long as they’re civilians.

        The Israeli Defence Forces do forbid Israeli citizens from entering Area A, with the exception of Israeli journalists who can go as they please.

        You also meet many Israelis who go on their own. Ramallah is only a ten-minute drive from Jerusalem and easily accessed, and many are intrigued by its nightlife reputation.

      • M. Levick, if you had to request permission to access Area A from the Israeli army, it simply means they don’t consider you as a professional journalist.

      • I’m sure you know that Ramallah is a cosmopolitan city with many intellectuals and artists. There are also intellectuals and artists in Israel. These people are living almost in the same spot on earth – you can drive from Jerusalem to Ramallah in ten minutes at night. So it’s obvious that some Israelis will become curious and want to meet their neighbors. This is an excellent thing. Peace comes faster when people on both sides know each other. You cannot reach an agreement if you do not know your neighbor and cannot realize that he’s just like you: a human being.
        Nothing can be more positive than having Palestinians meet Israelis and realize that these are people who were born in Israel, are at home in Israel and have the right to live in peace in the Jewish state.

        Nothing does more for peace than having pro-peace Israelis meet Palestinians and show them that Israelis are human beings like them, who also have families and children who deserve the brightest future. It’s far more efficient for peace than having heavily armed settlers set Palestinian olive groves on fire around Nablus.

      • M. Levick, all Israeli journalists can visit Ramallah or anywhere they want in the West Bank, including Area A. They are only banned from entering Gaza.

        If you had to apply for a permit, it means that you are not a journalist.

  3. Maybe M. Levick can also tell us about how he saw the Wall in Bethleem, built directly along the houses of the Palestinians living in the Christian city, and giving Bethleem’s Palestinian land to a handful of nearby Israeli settlements built in contravention of international law, a five-minute walk from the Church of Nativity? This is usually what tourists speak about after visiting Bethleem.

    • Nat is deflecting again rather than answering Adam’s request. He’s all mouth and that mouth parrots PSC and/or ISM propaganda.

      Answer Adam’s and Gerald’s points Nat, or admit that you have never set foot in Ramallah and are just babbling!

      • I’ve already answered. Ramallah is only a ten-minute drive from Jerusalem and Israelis do go there. I told you: come check by yourself.

      • While I must acknowledge that even though I disagree with most of what he writes, M. Levick has some culture and intelligence, I am truly amazed by the poor intellectual level of some of those who post their comments here. They completely destroy the website’s attempts at gaining some credibility.

  4. Bethleem? what is that? It’s Hebrew, Nat: Beyit = house: Lehem = bread. Its name commemorates its rich history.

    International law? where is that written? how is it enforced? what are the penalties for contravention?

    • Bethleem is a Palestinian city located in the Palestinian territory, more precisely in the West Bank. It’s Christians’ holiest city.

      • Nat clearly you are not a Christian.
        Bethlehem is NOT the holiest city of Christianity. It may well have been the birthplace of Jesus, but, the foundation of Christianity is not his birth but his death and resurrection.

        Please don’t add blasphemy to your usual stupidity.

        • Gerald, I bet you’re not a Christian. The holiest city for Christians is Bethleem because it is where God sent his son to be born. Jerusalem and Nazareth comes only after.

          • “Gerald, I bet you’re not a Christian”
            Nat as usual you are wrong.
            I was baptised into the Anglican Community, Church in Wales in St.John’s Church, Penydarren, Merthyr Tydfil by the late Canon William Morgan. All of that is a matter of factual record.

            I repeat the foundation of Christianity is the death and resurrection of Jesus, not his birth.

              • What are YOU doing to help them, Nat, rather than making a horse’s backside of yourself on this blog?

                (Stand by for more deflection….)

                  • Lying, is not “awareness raising”.
                    Where’s your critique on the harassments they(Pal. Christians) face due to Islamic fundamentalist harassment?

                    • Palestinian Christians suffer from the occupation and the Israeli policy of settlements, built on their land in violation of international law and destroying their livelihoods. The problem is especially acute in Bethlehem, where their land has been taken and given to a string of settlements. This is the message that Palestinian Christians send to churches all over the world: help us put an end to the illegal settlements, and promote a two-state solution so that everyone can live in peace.
                      I suggest you watch the edition of 60 minutes on Palestinians Christians, it tells it all.

          • Producing two lies in This forum, Israelis in Ramallah and Bethlehem as holiest city of Christianity. Well, plain stupid or divergently gifted??

      • No it isn’t Nat!

        The roots of Bethlehem are as Margie says. (You really are ignorant!) Wisdom is quitting while you’re ahead, but since you’ve never been ahead….

        My first memories of hearing about it was when I was about seven years old and we were being read the Book of Ruth. There has been a continuous Jewish presence there since Bible times.

  5. When you think of the billions that have been spent on the Palestinians and this is the best they have to show for it, its a shocking indictment of their leadership, UNRWA, and the inability of their society to buckle down and make something of themselves.

    Of course, both the Jordanians in the past and their own leadership since 1967 have had an interest in keeping this and other eyesores like it going in order to feather their nests with the money that has been poured into the “refugee” business.

  6. “relatively prosperous city of Bethlehem”

    Did you not go into Bethlehem? How can you say Bethlehem is a prosperous city? lol