BETHLEHEM – After visiting the Church of the Nativity, we headed to Dheishah Refugee Camp, just southwest of the city that was the birthplace of Jesus.

At the entrance of the camp, we were greeted by Omar Hmeedat, a young Palestinian man who recently graduated from college with a media studies and political science B.A. He walked us through the camp where he grew up.

The first and largest wave of Palestinian refugees was in 1947-1948. During the fighting surrounding Israel’s independence, nearly three quarters of the Palestinian Arab population of what would become Israel fled or were expelled from their homes by Jewish militias. Another refugee flow in 1967 produced a smaller number of Palestinian refugees. Millions of refugees and their descendants still live in camps like Omar’s on the outskirts of Bethlehem, unable to return to their homes.

The UNRWA, the UN Agency set up to take care of Palestinian refugees’ humanitarian needs, undertook the mission to assist the Palestinian refugee cause and provided the camps with food, medication and later on with water, social welfare and education. According to UNRWA, today more than 5 million Palestinians, or more than 40% of the worldwide total of Palestinians, are refugees.

The camp looked nothing like one may imagine a refugee camp to look like. Instead of tents or mobile-homes that serve as offices or medical facilities, the camp was composed of muddy floors, dusty air, cracked walls and homes made of cinder block and cement. While the area and its structures were either in despair or partially demolished, some blue, burgundy and olive green walls stood out. Some colorful clothing hung from the rusty iron windows on the run down homes.

I noticed a small medical center at the center of the camp which seemed to have two rooms inside to assist patients. The sign above the facility displayed “donated by the government of Japan.”

Omar Hmeedat (photo by Eleonore Voisard)

Omar explained the meaning of the ubiquitous art work that adorns the camp’s walls. The colorful yet gloomy art included Palestinian resistance symbols, freedom quotes written in Arabic letters. The walls  also displayed portraits of members of the camp who have lost their lives in confrontations with Israeli soldiers. Others were members of an organized resistance who died as martyrs– the term that Palestinians use to define anyone who dies because of conflict with the Israelis, from bystanders to fighters to terrorists. One green quote on a red wall came from Naji al-Ali, a Palestinian caricaturist and cartoonist: “Those who want to write for Palestine and those who want to draw for Palestine shall know they are going to die.” Other slogans shouted “walls and armies do not bring security. Justice will bring security and peace.”

Despite the unpleasant environment Dheishah’s residents live in, their lively personalities resonated. Each passerby greeted the group with a smile, and groups of teenagers were loudly teasing each other in conversations that ended with laughter.  “The energy that you see is because there is nothing else to do,” said Omar as children ran around in the decayed streets. “We are drained, we just want peace and freedom,” Hmeedat said.

The camps are overcrowded, and refugees who can afford it move out and settle in nearby cities

Hmeedat also spoke about the importance of education for the Palestinians’ personal and economic growth. The issue, according to Hmeedat, is that the Palestinian history curriculum only briefly touches on many vital historical events. Therefore, many end up turning to political parties for history lessons which tends to lead to radical behavior and a lack of understanding on the current status-quo.

Unemployment remains the primary concern for youth. Camps in the West Bank have the highest unemployment and poverty rates amongst the Palestinian people. According to the Palestinian Information Center, 16.8% of the people were living in destitution in 2018.

“People help each other to find jobs, and this is very important,” said Hmeedat. “And for the very poor families, people outside of the camps provide food and clothes.” Despite their difficulties, refugees have developed local businesses, such as restaurants, and some look beyond the wall for other opportunities.

Hmeedat talked about a recent awareness happening within the young refugee population. They are understanding that education is key to move their people forward and therefore are starting to collectively invest in it further.

Now that he graduated, Hmeedat wants to become a researcher in the field of forensic architecture in order to investigate state violence and human right abuses for people through architecture. By using these skills, he hopes to help Palestine gain independence from the occupation.

Israeli military forces conduct regular raids on the camp. The raids, which are often conducted in the middle of the night, regularly end with Palestinian fatalities. The trauma and unpredictability of these clashes has an overwhelmingly negative impact on the well-being of the residents, particularly children.

“Everything we do, we’re watched,” he explained , “if not by the Israeli Army, it’s by the Fatah, Hamas (Palestinian political parties) by our community or by any other political institution in place. There is no margin for Palestinians to progress because of the economic situation but also because of the atmosphere we live in.”

Another important point mentioned at Dheishah camp was one that came up regularly by a variety of faith leaders throughout the trip.  When living under the occupation of the Israeli government, the only relationship Palestinians have with citizens of Israel is with the IDF.  The IDF is often present on the ground and their presence creates a hostile and intimidating atmosphere for Palestinians, not only on the streets of the West Bank and on roads, but also in the comfort of their own homes. This causes Palestinians to only have this one image of the Israeli people. “That’s the problem and that’s why it is so hard to even bring up the topic of peace amongst our communities,” Omar explained.

We then headed for a conversation with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, an Israeli human rights activist who has led protests to defend Palestinians against Israeli settler violence. Ascherman met the class on the top of a windswept hill in Herodium during a pastel orange and pink sunset, where we could see entire villages and settlements from above. The astonishing soft green view helped take the class physically to the settlement issues Ascherman preached against. As he shared stories about his advocacy work, he pointed out settlements that encroach on, surround or eliminate Palestinian villages. Having the opportunity to see such a phenomenon with your own eyes definitely made it much realer than reading about it in the news from afar, and the impact was stronger.

Ascherman is the founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization with the purpose of reconciling both sides of the conflict through intercultural immersion. Rabbi Ascherman’s goal is to achieve the destruction of stereotypes. “The single best thing I can do to protect my children is to break stereotypes and promote this model of peace” he said.

Arik Ascherman (photo by Eleonore Voisard)

Over the course of his career, Ascherman has multiple times taken the side of Palestinian citizens and farmers against Israeli police and settlers, something he has heavily been criticized for by the Israeli Jewish community. He shared with us an incident in which he intervened in the questioning of two Muslim women who were representatives of the International Women’s Peace Service in a Palestinian village.  Ascherman followed them to the Israeli police station where the women were accused of obstructing police activities and incitement to riot because the women had questioned Israeli soldiers who had fired live ammunition into the village. Ascherman not only translated documents for them, but he also drove them back to Jerusalem after their release eight hours later.

Some of Ascherman’s interventions were more confrontational. He is known to having volunteered to act as a human shield to protect Palestinians from assault by settlers and to protect their olive harvest. “It is easier to better understand each other when you’ve both been beaten up together,” he said to further mark his point.

The main obstacle Ascherman has faced throughout his mission is the dehumanization of his leadership by members of more conservative Israeli circles. He says he has often been considered a “traitor” by his fellow people, and as someone who is misinterpreting Judaism–a charge he contests. “You can both be the victim and the victimizer at the same time,” he said. “But I make it my mission as a faith leader to prioritize our responsibility to fight for justice of all humans rather than just our people’s.” Rabbi Ascherman has decided to take on that criticism as a positive challenge. He started to also focus on working with the Israeli community to educate them about the current reality suffered by the Palestinian people. His mission is to work along both parties to break the stereotypes that divide them so much. “Israelis do hear about Palestinian attacks,” he said, “but they don’t know the whole story.  They don’t know about medics who are being targeted, about the humiliations and the excessive force against unarmed protesters. “When I talk to Israeli reporters,” he said, “they ask if my source is Palestinian or if it’s the army. The fact that Palestinians are not considered a legitimate source shows there is a problem.”

All photos by Eleonore Voisard