Monday, August 5, 2013

the human narrative of occupation

The minibus stopped. You have to cross on foot, our driver said. I got up from the seat next to him, which I had always chosen so I could have a better view, got my gear and got off the bus. There were soldiers with machine guns around. I was at the Qalandia checkpoint.

The place was packed with aged orange minibuses, the Palestinian collective taxis, which can fit up to 7 people, and their drivers. Camera hanging from the neck, I started walking towards the security gates. 

It was midday. The lines to pass through the checkpoint were not that long. Had it been during rush hours, like in the morning when people go to work, it would have taken me up to one hour and a half, even two hours. At least that’s what a guy who works in Jerusalem said. He goes through the same process each and every morning. 

Situated between Ramallah and Jerusalem, Qalandia is known as the designated place for violent clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli security forces. Security is pretty tight here. It is one of the two military checkpoints that are equipped with biometric scanning by electronic hand-print reading, according to OCHA Special Focus report 2008.

First gate, around 10-15 Palestinians in line, second gate closed, third gate the same, forth gate opened and two men already passing through the first bar gates. I decided to go through there. Put my bag on the scan lane, emptied my pockets, just like in an airport. Each time I had the impulse to raise my camera to shoot a photo, I could hear Ovidiu, the other Romanian journalist, say: “Are you crazy? Don’t shoot in here! Don’t even look at your camera!” I heard that once, twice, three times… So I decided to just shoot from the hip. I felt trapped between the need to take photos and the fear to have my memory card erased. As all the people going through security seemed very withdrawn, with serious looks on their faces and most of all, so quiet, I thought it was better not to draw any unnecessary attention. 

After we passed the gates, I tried my luck again. Raised my camera, pointed towards a soldier’s post, he raised his hand in a big stop sign. The next moment my camera was back at my hip. I am on military occupied territories.


Last month, I had the chance to spend one week in the West Bank, the Occupied Palestinian Territories (oPt). I was on a territory under military occupation for the first time in my life. And I was there to try to understand what it feels like to live with this fact as a daily reminder. To find some answers, but not to the questions of what is happening there - this I saw - but more of what are the human consequences of what is happening. So I am not talking about the political or the historical aspects, because these are subject to never-ending debates, but the human ones. To what extent does the occupation affect Palestinian people in their daily life, the old and the new generations?

I have tried to look at things from the international law point of view. The Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, commonly referred to as the Fourth Geneva Convention is defining humanitarian protection for civilians in a war zone and outlaws the practice of total war. It states, among other things, that an occupier may not forcibly deport protected persons, or deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into occupied territory (Art.49), as well as numerous provisions for the general welfare of the inhabitants of an occupied territory, like the obligation to ensure care and education for children, access to medical service and no destruction of property.

Arriving in Ramallah, the Palestinian city that currently serves as the de facto administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority, I didn’t really get to feel the effects of the occupation; even if Ramallah residents were among the early joiners of the first Intifada. Today, 46 years after the Six-Day War in 1967 when Israel captured Ramallah along with a lot of other Arab territories, the city seems very westernized. Well-known brand shops, relaxed people that tend to their everyday activities, quite a night life, made me somehow forget there was ever a conflict here. 

There is one detail that makes the occupation obvious, even in Ramallah: the black water tanks on top of the buildings. They are the trademark of Palestinian towns and villages, as I was bound to see in the days to come. 

I remember noticing them the first time on the way from the Tel Aviv airport to Ramallah. So I asked Hanna, the Arab driver, what’s the deal with all these tanks. It’s how we deal with low water resources, he said. This is how you can recognize Palestinian villages across the West Bank, he added.

The tanks are a solution to the so called “water apartheid”. There is a vast inequality of access to water between Israelis and Palestinian living inside the West Bank. I remembered reading that Shaddad Attili, the head of the Palestinian Water Authority, said during a press conference last year that the Palestinians are receiving less than 25 per cent of the international standard of 400 billion cubic meters, while Israelis residing in West Bank are receiving over 70 times more water than Palestinians. Even more, Palestinians are not allowed to dig any deep wells, limiting their access to water to natural springs, shallow wells and swiftly evaporating rainwater. This leaves Palestinians with no other choice than to purchase water from Israel at elevated prices, even twice the market price.

While talking to Mohammed T. Obidallah, Assistant Director for Technical Affairs at the environmental organisation Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) in the village of Battir, the picture got wider with the fact that, even if there is a Joint Water Committee, Israelis have the veto right on any proposed water project.

These considered, I never would have guessed I would have the chance to see children playing with water. So when I saw two boys in the village of Battir enjoying a bath and a water fight, it felt a little bit refreshing, though sad at the same time. Something this common is here so out of the ordinary. 

Access to water is a human right and a critical point of discussion in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Along with borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees, water is one of the “permanent status issues”, according to UN General Assembly.


When it comes to borders, the Separation Barrier is probably one of the most graphic manifestations of the occupation. The "Apartheid Wall” as some Palestinians choose to name it, is a constant reminder to Palestinians of the barriers that restrict their freedom of movement. 

Approximately 700 km long (upon completion) and 8 m high when it consists of a concrete wall, this barrier was built to protect Israelis from attacks coming from the West Bank. It has done so, as there has been a reduced number of incidents of Palestinian suicide bombings since its construction, according to statistics published by the Israeli government. The number of suicide bombings has dropped from 73 in the period 2000-July 2003 (when the "first continuous segment" of the barrier was built) to only 12 between August 2003-2006.

The real issue is not the building of the barrier, but mainly where it has been built. There are many who argue that there’s another motive apart from Israel’s security needs, and that is the annexation of more land in the West Bank. The wall is built mainly in the West Bank and only partly along the 1949 Armistice line, or "Green Line" between Israel and Palestinian West Bank. One of the many is Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, Secretary General of the Palestine National Initiative, who says that “the wall is not separating Palestinians from Israelis, but is separating Palestinians from Palestinians.” In the Palestine Monitor Factbook 2012 it is said that besides completely blocking Palestinian access to the rest of the West Bank, the wall traps a number of communities within it. According to OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), 125,000 Palestinians in 28 communities are surrounded from three sides by the wall and 26,000 Palestinians in 8 communities are surrounded on all four sides by the wall, with movement limited to the opening and closing of Israeli controlled gates. The time intervals in which these gates are open can be as narrow as 1 hour per day: between 7:30-8:00, 14:00-14:15 and 19:00-19:15. 

This severely restricts Palestinians who live nearby, particularly their ability to travel freely within the West Bank, including to and from the lands on which their subsistence depends and even to hospitals. There have been a lot of cases where women have given birth at the wall gates, because they were not able to cross in due time, as Dr. Barghouti says. According to the World Health Organization (2008), at least 69 women have given birth at checkpoints between 2000 and 2006. Out of these 69 cases, the death toll was 35 babies and 5 women. 


Movement restriction is the most definitive characteristic of Palestinian daily life under occupation, and it affects every single one of them. But the wall is not the only player in this; there are also the checkpoints like Qalandia. And the earth mounds and the road blocks and the destroyed roads. In the first couple of decades of the occupation, the restrictions were pretty light. It was with the outbreak of the first Intifada in December 1987 (ended in 1991) that Israel began augmenting the restrictions by implementing a permit system and it was the second Intifada, September 2000 - 2005, that determined Israelis to implement the more comprehensive system of restrictions that is in place today (both physical obstacles and administrative restrictions). According to the OCHA, in 2011 there were 522 such obstacles within West Bank, not counting the wall, the over 100 barriers deployed through the Israeli-controlled area in Hebron or the ad-hoc checkpoints.

I remember the moment when I got to acknowledge what restricted freedom of movement felt like. Not by reading reports on the number of obstacles, but by sharing it with Palestinians who face this every day. On the day we were going to Hebron, as always, I took my seat on the minibus next to the driver. Then, I realised two members of the Palestinian crew were not coming with us. Not on the same bus and not on the same road. They told me, don’t worry, we’ll meet later in Hebron. Why? Because the shortest route from Ramallah to Hebron crosses Jerusalem and they are not allowed to enter Jerusalem or they can get arrested. They have to take a considerably longer route, through West Bank, the so called “hell road”. The name was due to the fact that these roads were very narrow and dangerous and the frequency of accidents was very high. Even if works to enlarge this road are under way now, its name remained unchanged. I felt resentful; it felt wrong t have them separated from the group just because they have the “wrong” colour of permit. It felt wrong for me to have a “special treatment” just because I was something other than Palestinian. I wanted to take the hell road too. And coming back from Bethlehem, we did. 


Another human dimension of the restrictions of free movement that Palestinians are subjected to is access to health care services, including emergency treatment. 

According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, in 2008, 112 deaths and 35 stillbirths have resulted from preventing ambulances, medical personnel and patients from crossing checkpoints. The numbers do not however include the undocumented cases of ordinary citizens transporting friends or family. 

In Jerusalem, I visited the Augusta Victoria hospital. It is the second-largest hospital in East Jerusalem, as well as being the sole remaining specialized-care hospital located in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. According to the hospital’s spokesman, 50% of the patients come from West Bank and Gaza. 

But even if the hospital is struggling to keep its international standards of excellence and to train its personnel (in April 2005 they opened a paediatric oncology ward for Palestinian children), the access to quality health care remains a problem for Palestinians and that is mainly due to movement restrictions.


Everything seems complicated when you are talking about East Jerusalem.

Apart from the fact that it includes some of the holiest sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, such as the Temple Mount, Western Wall, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, East Jerusalem has also heavy political implications. 

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Israel captured a total of 78% of the historical Palestine, before the official Armistice Lines were drawn. That included 85% of Jerusalem, mainly in the West. 11%, including the Old City remained under Jordanian rule to be later conferred to a future Palestinian state and a further 4% became a “no-man’s land” or what we call a buffer zone. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel conquered the remaining 15% of Jerusalem and so began a series of practices aimed to shift the demographic status of East Jerusalem by establishing and maintaining a strong Jewish presence and majority in the city. These policies included land annexation, revocation of residency or citizenship permits, land confiscation and house demolition, expulsion, etc.

Furthermore, in 1980 the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, adopted the "Jerusalem Law" declaring Jerusalem "complete and united” "the capital of Israel". The law applied to both West and East Jerusalem within, among others, the expanded boundaries as defined in June 1967. Through this move, East Jerusalem was effectively severed from the rest of West bank. The UN Security Council however, did not approve of this and in response unanimously adopted Resolution 478, declaring the Jerusalem Law "null and void" and a violation of international law.

From the start of the occupation, the main strategy for maintaining control over East Jerusalem has been the settlement policy. The building of these settlements around the city was thought in such a way that it cuts off access to and from the West Bank. 


The settlement issue is among the hottest topics in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The problem is not conveyed only to Jerusalem and its surroundings, but it spreads across all West Bank. The settlements are considered illegal by the international community, as Israel's construction of settlements constitutes a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that "the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies".

From talking to several Palestinians and EU representatives, the on-going expansion of existing settlements by Israel and the construction of settlement outposts are considered grave obstacles in the peace process.

One of the most sensitive areas when it comes to settlements is the region known as Area E1 (East1). This piece of land stretching from the northeast of Jerusalem to the west of the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim is subject to a massive settlement expansion plan.

Construction in the area raises a lot of controversy, as Palestinians claim it will further erode the geographic platform for a Palestinian state, preventing sovereign Palestinian land contiguity between the northern and southern areas of the West Bank. And it would also dramatically increase travel time between the Ramallah region north of Jerusalem and the Bethlehem region in the south. It would practically sever the north of West Bank from its south.


This area of 12 square kilometres is home to a number of Bedouin communities and their livestock, which see themselves at a high risk of forced displacement. In July 2011, the Israeli authorities confirmed to UN officials their intention to transfer the 19 Bedouin communities living in the eastern Jerusalem periphery out of their homes. 

Since the Israeli occupation of West Bank in 1967, a range of Israeli policies adopted over the time have forced these pastoral groups to reduce their seasonal movements and settle into more permanent communities, as UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) says. Now, even these communities are at risk. 

The Abu Nwar Bedouin community I visited is one of the 19 colonies at risk in area E1. Even if it’s located practically in the middle of nowhere, with one bumpy rocky road as the only way of access to it, there is an Israeli settlement so close to it, that in normal conditions you would consider them next-door neighbours.

The tricky part with these Bedouin communities is that they are located in Area C. Following the Oslo II Accords in 1995, three temporary distinct administrative divisions were created in the West Bank, the Areas A, B and C.

Area A, approximately 18% of West Bank is under full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority. It includes all Palestinian cities and their surrounding areas, with no Israeli settlements. Entry into this area is forbidden by Israeli law to all Israeli citizens. Apparently, the Israel Defence Forces maintain no presence, but sometimes conduct raids to arrest suspected militants, Mr. Barghouti told me.

Area B, consisting of 21 % of West bank, is under Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control. No Israeli settlements are present in this area.

With 61% of the West Bank, Area C is under full Israeli civil and security control. These areas include all Israeli settlements (cities, towns, and villages), nearby land, most roadways that connect the settlements (and which are exclusively for Israeli use), as well as areas denominated as strategic and described as "security zones”. As of 2012 the number of settlers reached 300,000 – against 150,000 Palestinians. 

An important particularity of this area, for the Bedouin communities, but not only, is the fact that 70% of Area C is off limits to Palestinian construction and 29% is heavily restricted. This translates, in the special case of Bedouin communities in area E1, that they cannot build any homes or shelters for their animals, because of the high risk of being demolished the very next day. They are forced to live in improvised cottages, build out of aluminium and plastic boards. 

According to Marco Ricci, Project Coordinator at Oxfam, an international confederation of 17 organizations working to end poverty and injustice, there are around 30,000 Bedouins living in West Bank. In Abu Nwar, the community consists of 80 Bedouin families, meaning approximately 600 people. As Marco Ricci mentioned, because of their location in area C, the communities must apply for permission from the Israeli Civil Administration before building any kind of infrastructure, but the authorization to build homes, schools, water networks, etc is almost all of the times denied. 

Even more than the rest of the West Bank, these communities are affected by the water restrictions imposed by Israel. 

In Abu Nwar, as well as in the other Bedouin communities, the traditional way of making a living is by breeding animals (sheep, goats) and selling their meat and dairy production. According to Oxfam, apart from harassments and harsh living conditions, the Bedouins now face the loss of their survival means. Given the Israeli restrictions on land and water, taking care of livestock, feeding and providing water for it, becomes a harder and harder task. Not only do they have to pay a high price for water and grains, but they also have to support the transport costs. 

They are slowly being pushed from self-sufficiency into poverty. And poverty is what I saw on the dry sand alleys and in the improvised homes of Abu Nwar.

The women in the community are now trying to preserve some of their traditional skills, in order to find additional sources of income by selling hand-made carpets, tablecloths, pillow covers and other ornamental items. While talking to them, I got struck by the fact that I did not see almost any men in the village. Only women and kids. I was about to find out later, when I asked Marco, that they mostly sleep during the day. But they have the women to advocate for them, as one of them told me she was looking for a second wife for her husband. I very politely refused the offer. 

The Abu Nwar community is one of the fortunate ones, as it benefits from a school and even a basketball court. Nevertheless, the entire time I spent in the Bedouin camp, I did not see any kid shooting hoops. 


The settlement expansion is a major issue in oPt. It started with the first Israeli civilian settlement, Kiryat Arba, in 1972, in Hebron. Located 30 km south of Jerusalem, Hebron has strong religious significance for Muslims, Jews and Christians and is the only city apart from East Jerusalem to have Israeli settlements in its historic Old City. 

Although historically the Hebron area was long home to a small Jewish community living alongside the primarily Muslim Palestinian population, beginning with the 1920’s, the city became witness to rising tensions between the Jews and the Palestinians, that culminated in several violent acts with casualties on both sides.

On August 24, 1929, 67 Jewish residents of Hebron were killed by Palestinian Arabs and over 100 injured. Following this event, the British mandate forces continuously evacuated any Jews remaining in Hebron, until 1936 when the long-standing presence of the small Jewish community in the area ended.

In April 1968, a group of Israeli Jews led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, rented a hotel room downtown Hebron with the declared intention to stay there only during the Passover holiday. After 48 hours they had no intention of leaving anymore. Even though no Israeli government official authorization came, they moved a few weeks later to a nearby Israeli military compound. In the end, the group agreed to be relocated in the newly-established Kiryat Arba settlement, built on Palestinian land originally seized for military use.

Then, in 1979, a group of 10 women and 40 children moved from Kiryat Arba into the Beit Hadassah building. The Israeli army allowed their exclusive presence in the building. However, in 1980, Palestinian assailants threw a hand grenade in front of the Beit Hadassah building, killing 6 Jewish students and wounding 20 more. Following this attack, the Israeli government granted official authorization to the settlement in Hebron. 

Another important moment in Hebron’s hostilities exchange is February 25, 1994, when, on the Jewish holiday of Purim and during the holy month of Ramadan, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a settler and supporter of the ultra–right Kach movement, opened fire in the Ibrahimi Mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs) killing 29 Muslims and injuring another 100. This massacre generated protests and deadly riots all over Palestine.

A clear separation policy between Israeli settlers and the Palestinian residents of Hebron was instated, with harsh restrictions on Palestinian movement within Hebron. It was later on materialized in the Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron, shortly known as the Hebron protocol, signed on January 17, 1997 by PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As a result of the protocol, Hebron was divided into areas H1 and H2 and a special security arrangement was instated, applying to the areas under Israeli military control. Also, a Joint Military Unit was established to deal with incidents in H2 involving Palestinians.

Area H1 is under complete Palestinian control, it includes 80% of the municipal boundaries, the equivalent of 18 square km and the vast majority of the city’s population. Palestinian police stations establishment is allowed in H1. Area H2 is under complete Israeli military control; all civil powers and responsibilities are under Palestinian control, except those related to Israeli settlers and their property. In its 4.3 square km, 20% of the municipal boundaries, it hosts 35,000 Palestinian residents and roughly 800 settlers, including the yeshiva students. It also encapsulates the historic Old City of Hebron. 

At present, there are 4 settlements in the Old City of Hebron: Beit Hadassah, established in 1979, Abraham Avinu since 1980, Beit Romano also established in 1980 and Tel Rumeida since 1984. These settlements benefit from permanent “protection” of Israeli soldiers. All the settlements inside the Old City of Hebron are classified as closed military zones, off-limits to any Palestinian without a permit. Except Tel Rumeida, all the others are built on or around Shuhada Street, which used to be the traditional Palestinian commercial centre.

By September 2012, an estimated of 1612 Palestinian shops had been closed in the H2 area, 512 as a direct result of Israeli military orders and the others due to access restrictions for customers and suppliers to certain areas. 

Shuhada Street is now completely deserted. The tension you feel when walking on this street is overwhelming. 


When I arrived near the Shuhada Street, there were some Israeli soldiers posted at the crossing. Over my stay in West Bank I had heard a lot of people telling me not to photograph soldiers. So first, I took some shots from the distance. At one point, I decided to approach them. So I just walked towards them, camera hanging at my waits, hands hanging on the camera. I started the conversation with the usual “hello”, they did not seem so fearsome up close. Can I take your picture? The first answer was no. I insisted. In the end I took a portrait of smiling young Israeli soldiers, and not only that, but I even had my picture taken with one of them. And his machine gun. I did not print it and put it on my desk, though. 

Nevertheless, the tension in this city feels overwhelming. I remember noticing something later on, while waiting to be ID-ed in order to walk on Shuhada Street. In the meantime, a military patrol had arrived on the spot, to assist the soldiers I took photos of in controlling a large group of people wanting to enter the restricted zone. Two Palestinian kids were playing in the close vicinity of the Israeli forces. The moment an Israeli soldier saw them throwing something, nothing but a very small ball, his look turned frowning and his hand was on his machine gun. And they were equipped with live ammunition, as one of them informed me when asked. It’s for his own protection, he said. 

According to a report by a NGO specialized in refugee problems, the severe restrictions imposed by the Israeli army on both Palestinian pedestrian and vehicular movement in the Hebron Old City area, as well as the frequent settlers violence towards Palestinian residents have forced the latter to move out H2, abandoning their homes.

Furthermore, the report says, Palestinians living in H2 are subjected on a regular basis to house searches manned by Israeli security forces. Also, Palestinians walking in H2 are subjected to checkpoints, patrols, random ID checks. Israeli Army documents officially call these practices “making your presence felt”. 

To get back from the restricted area to the Palestinian side, you have to cross another checkpoint. Are you alone? the soldier guarding the checkpoint asked me. I am now, I said. Aren’t you afraid? he continued. I tried to seem brave and replied: Should I? It’s a dangerous zone, the soldier added. Look, do you see that stone? He pointed towards a rock on the ground next to us. “It was thrown at my head this morning by a teenager.” 

A thing I find most sad about the conflict, is that it is “fought” by kids. The soldiers in the Israeli Army are kids – the average age of the Israeli soldiers ensuring settler protection in Hebron is around 19-20 years old, as one of them told me. The Palestinians throwing stones are also kids. The first ones have machine guns. The soldier from the last checkpoint told me he would never use real bullets against children with stones, that the gun just offers him protection. But when do you, a 20 year old, feel like you need protection? 

Once you cross the checkpoint, you get to see Hebron's "souqs" (markets) covered with wire meshes in order to protect shop owners and passers-by against settlers’ attacks. Around 800 in number, they are the ones who need the protection of 1000 kid soldiers in a city of 175,000 Palestinians.


It’s important to understand the effects that the occupation has on the new generations of Palestinian kids. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) estimated in 2010 that while the number of Palestinians under the age of 15 represents 41.3% of the total population, the number under the age of 18 is well over half. 

Not only that they are raised in an atmosphere of conflict and even hatred, as they are brought up with the idea that Israelis are their enemies, but their education also suffers. It is common understanding that the path to a sustainable future for any nation is through the education of its children. According to the Education Cluster, a global organization that addresses the education concerns of populations affected by humanitarian crises, the Palestinian children face significant obstacles to a decent education. The problem is particularly acute in Area C, where “new schools and repairs cannot be undertaken, hence they become vulnerable to demolition, stop-work or sealing orders. Costs related to accessing existing schools, due to checkpoints, the permit regime and insufficient school coverage, are often prohibitive for the most vulnerable families”, the Cluster states. 

According to UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Work Agency), school results in the West Bank have suffered a serious decline since the outbreak of the second intifada. The on-going conflict, access restrictions and deteriorating social and economic conditions have all badly affected schoolchildren. Violence in the community often spills over into schools. 

There are three types of schools from perspective of gender in the Palestinian territories: boys’ schools (37%), girls’ schools (35%), and co-educational schools (29%), as reported by TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center in 2008.

Considering the high rates of unemployment and the difficulties in finding a job, the TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) institutions, part of the secondary education, are supported by the EU to deliver more market oriented training that equips Palestinians with the qualifications required by the labour market.


I visited such a school in Hebron. The school was funded in 1993, and according to its principal, now it has 250 students, out of which 30 girls, with around 15 students per specialization. They are promoting the apprentice approach: 2 days a week in school, 3 days practice in the industry. This helps children accommodate with the working environment and even get contracts from the factories they do practice in. 

When asked, most of the students in the group I met, said they are still considering going to the University after. Some of them are even considering going to a university abroad. The other options were to open their own factory or work in the family business. 

After several discussions with Palestinians, I was tempted to ask these kids another question: do they have any Israeli friend? The unanimous answer was no. And the why was simple: because they have no place to meet any Israelis. It seems a more than logical answer now, but at that time I found it unbelievable. For me it felt so absurd that people living in so close vicinity to each other would never get to meet because they are not allowed to be in the same place.


Another permanent and sensitive issue on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks’ agenda is related to Palestinian refugees. 

The UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) defines a Palestine refugee as: "Palestine refugees are people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War." According to the same agency, one-third of the total registered Palestine refugees (4,919,917 as of January 2013), more than 1.5 million, live in 58 recognised refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Studies say that the Palestinian Arab refugee and displaced population is the largest in the world. 

Particularly in the West Bank, as of January 1st, 2013 (UNRWA) there were 741,409 registered refugees, out of which 216,403 live in the 19 existing camps. Wisam Deeb, Communication Officer for UNRWA, says that they face a major overcrowding in the refugee camps, which deeply affects the provision of services, like water and electricity for example. Furthermore, the people in refugee camps face high levels of poverty and food insecurity (29% according to Socio Economic and Food Security Survey report 2011). 

During my stay in the West Bank, I visited the Al Ain refugee camp in Nablus, also known as Camp No. 1 or Ein Beit el Ma’. It is one of the 3 refugee camps in Nablus, alongside Balata and Askar. It was established in 1950 on 0.05 square kilometers alongside the main Nablus/Jenin road, within the municipal boundaries of Nablus. 

According to UNRWA, the original inhabitants of the camp came from the cities of Lydd, Jaffa and Haifa, while some residents are also of Bedouin origin. With around 6,750 registered refugees, the camp faces very serious overcrowding issues. Shelters have 0.2 meters between them, on average, and streets are so cramped that there are no sidewalks in the camp. 

Space is so tight that bodies of the deceased are usually passed through windows from one shelter to another in order to reach the camp's main street during funerals, says Wisam Deeb. I could not fit all the photo gear I was carrying through one of the narrowest streets in the camp. 

Another major problem in the refugee camps is overcrowded schools, with an average of 50 pupils per classroom (UNRWA 2013 figures). A number of schools share the same school building, which reduces teaching time, while others operate in rented premises. Many schools have also been damaged by Israeli military activity since September 2000.

I saw a lot of kids on the tiny streets of Al Ain. I saw them playing, but I don’t remember them laughing. Actually, I don’t think I heard a single laughter during my entire stay in the refugee camp. I said playing, but I did not see any toys, or at least not the toys I would think of. On one of the streets it was snowing. Some little kids were grating chunks of Styrofoam against the lumpy walls. Very determined to finish their chunks, they were spreading snowflakes around the street corner. Still no laughter though. 

Just one smile. 

And then, there is the violence. Nablus is considered to be a central flashpoint of violence between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Palestinian militant groups. The level of violence dramatically increased from 2000 at the start of the Second Intifada. The city and especially the refugee camps constituted the center of "knowhow" for the production and operation of the rockets in the West Bank, according to "The Terrorist Infrastructure in Nablus – Results and Forecast"- (2008).

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 522 residents of Nablus and surrounding refugee camps, including civilians, were killed and 3,104 injured during IDF military operations against militants during the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005. Israeli soldiers and settlers have also been killed by Palestinian militants from Nablus. On March 27, 2002, an attack by Palestinian militants killed 30 Israeli civilians attending a “seder” dinner at the Park Hotel in Netanya. This attack, known as the Passover Massacre, led to the launch in April 2002 of Operation Defensive Shield by Israel, a major military operation in which Nablus was one of the main targets.

As residents of Al Ain say, there are not so many refugees’ families that do not have at least one martyr among their members. Their memory is kept alive with pictures on their home walls. Their martyrs are their source of grief, but also of pride. In all the homes I have entered, the people were showing me with honour the photos of their loved ones who, in the eyes of the community, sacrificed their life for a free Palestine. 

I got to one of the houses drawn by the smell. The smell of fresh tomato sauce, like my grandmother used to make in summer time. In front of the house, there were two huge bowls filled with tomato sauce lying in the sun. The smell had already conquered all my senses when I entered the old lady’s home. She had not one, but three family members taken away from her due to this conflict. Each with his own photo on the wall. 

The UNGA has affirmed and reaffirmed on numerous occasions the refugees’ right of return (United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 – 1948, Security Council Resolution 237 – 1967 and General Assembly Resolution 169 – 1980). In addition, as the Palestine Monitor states, four bodies of international law dictate the right of return for Palestinians: humanitarian law, human rights law, the law of nationality as applied to state succession and refugee law. Israel’s official position on this is that second and third generation Palestinians born in the West Bank cannot be considered refugees by international standards.


I came back from Palestine believing that everything I saw there clearly represented the impossibility of a two state solution. I thought that Israelis and Palestinians were incapable of breaching the status quo. Just three weeks after my return, end of July, direct peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian chief negotiators were resumed in Washington. Peace talks had been frozen since September 2010 mainly due to the settlement issue. As a sign of compromise, Israel agreed to free 104 Palestinian prisoners.

According to the BBC, US Secretary of State John Kerry, who in the last five months made six official visits to the Middle East in an effort to restart negotiations, announced the goal of reaching a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians within the next nine months.

Cynics say they heard this all before. A handful of optimists are allowing themselves to hope.