Two Stories. Two Camps. Balata and Askar
Balata Refugee Camp, occupied West Bank – Palestine
Fateyah, mid 70’s, watched the frenzied Israeli occupation soldiers rip apart her living room couches with knives looking for guns. Just above a couch they tore the bottom out of, a giant framed tribute hangs centered perfectly on the wall; her four martyred sons.
Raids at Fateyah’s house have tragic complications, whether it’s the three miscarriages her daughter-in-law suffered after being traumatized by the violent incursion into her home in the early morning hours- or the violent arrest of her son, recently released from a ten year sentence preceded by a 75 day interrogation so bad, he asked his elderly mother to leave before he would tell the story. Before Fateyah exits the room, she stands up from her couch which bears the long gutting slices from the recent raid, and points out the various areas of damage in her small home in the Balata refugee camp. The damage is routine procedure when IOF soldiers storm a Palestinian’s family home with little to no evidence of any crimes committed and absolutely no concern for the young children who are terrorized long after their boots stomp through the broken glass and damaged belongings they leave in their wake.
Her 25 year old son, a political prisoner, spent an agonizing 18 days during interrogation locked into a chair without reprieve. Sleep deprivation, constant questioning and beatings were routine. And while blindfolded, handcuffed and locked in the chair, the interrogation officers took it upon themselves to throw him down a flight of stairs which broke his leg. The limb was set in cast and the man returned to interrogation to continue the psychological and physical torment. With no history of a heart condition, he began to suffer strange symptoms during his time in infamously human’s rights transgressing Israeli detention; fainting spells, numbness in limbs, shortness of breath and vomiting. Sub standard medical care and the the violence he endured has only served to strengthen his conviction for his embattled and occupied homeland, “This is Palestine. We are a small part of this universe. Our people are under occupation. We have no rights. And Israel tells the whole world we are terrorists. That our children are terrorists. But we are not this. We are people who love peace.”
Outside the front entrance to the home, so heavy with the tragedies witnessed within these four walls, lies a maze of narrow corridors that is the Balata, the largest refugee camp in the West Bank. Balata Camp, which lies within the municipal boundaries of Nablus and whose refugees came from 60 villages and the cities of Lydd, Jaffa and Ramleh originally- many who are of Bedouin origin- was the birthing place of both Intifadas. It is an area where regular clashes take place between the camp residents, population 23,000 on just 0.25 square kilometers of land, and the Palestinian police.
Though the camp suffers from issues of cripplingly high unemployment rates, poor sewage network, explosive population and subsequently overcrowded schools, according to it’s UNRWA camp profile, Balata residents are very active in the realms of social service and political involvement. Civil society and political actors in Balata are especially strong. The first West Bank group to defend refugee rights, the Refugee Committee to Defend Refugee Rights, was established in Balata in early 1994. The camp committee is one of the most active committees in the area. Three of its members serve on the Palestinian Legislative Council. The youth activities centre and the women‘s programme centre organise many activities as well. http://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/features/balata-refugee-camp
Fateyah’s son echoes this notion of collective concern, “I ask internationals who are monitoring the occupied Palestinian territories to listen to the children, listen to the stories from the children. Interview them about their fears. We need people to talk to our children and then document these atrocities and humiliations.”
Askar Refuee Camp, occupied West Bank, Palestine
Wednesday nights in 28 year old Iftighar’s house are tense. “All three times the Israeli soldiers raided our home, it was on a Wednesday. Now my children, my husband and I get no sleep on Wednesday nights. We are up all night waiting for them to come back.” Gathered around a large cabinet with several broken glass panels and a shelf sitting dislodged uselessly on its side are Iftighar’s 3 beautiful children along with her sister’s children. They watch wide-eyed as their mother relives the families frightening experiences with the Israeli soldiers who repeatedly raid their home, break everything in sight- including when four of them stood on and broke the children’s small twin-sized bed with their muddy boots in the middle of the night to monitor happenings outside the window beside it- and do not allow them to say a single word as they hold the parents and their terrified children, one who is deaf, at gunpoint.
“They went upstairs to my husband’s brother’s home and brought their whole family into our home. They put guns to us and went through the house. They took our phones, they broke our water tanks, they broke both front doors, broke our stove and our kitchen counter and during this, some of the soldiers went outside and smashed the glass in my husband’s car and flattened all the tires.” When their young daughter with the hearing impairment asked for some water, one of the soldiers acted as if he would hit her.
During one of the three raids, the Israeli soldiers actually brought two arrested, handcuffed and blindfolded young Palestinian Askar residents into Iftighar’s family’s home and left them there, never returning to release them, while they ransacked other homes in the camp- this so the young men couldn’t alert other camp residents that Israeli soldiers were, once again, wreaking havoc in their already struggling community. The despicable nature of these raids begs a question… why?
Does a group of violently thrashing, armed to the teeth military soldiers stomping through a families home who are suspected of nothing, truly need to threaten to strike a deaf toddler, or to smash the families property, or scream obscenities at human beings who are completely helpless at the barrel end of their weaponry? This isn’t just physical occupation, this is psychological terror.
Iftighar’s home is located inside what is termed New Askar. The Palestinian refugee camp is located on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus and was established in 1950 on 209 dunums of land. In 1960 the camp was expanded onto a further 90 dunums; this extension is referred to as New Askar. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the camps registered population is 31,629. Food rations are distributed to approximately 2086 families. Israeli occupation forces deplorable incursions into the camp are a commonality. -A sometimes daily commonality.
A careful evaluation must be made of the unique mechanisms of the Israeli occupation of what is left of the Palestinian territories. If the stated purpose is to create a homeland atop the existent homeland of an indigenous people to the ends of mass exodus, a transgression of international law- then the rabid, brutal, inhuman acts that have become the familiar face of Israeli occupation of Palestine are remarkable. Mass imprisonments, torture, abuse and the copiously applied antagonisms so prolifically exercised upon such an already embattled populous, particularly those struggling through their days inside of the 58 recognized Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, after they lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict, beg defining of the source of the seeming hatred and outright cruelties executed so coldly and so systematically against them. These are not enemy combatants. They are Palestinian families who have done nothing to invite this disaster upon themselves.
For the mass displaced inside Palestine’s refugee camps, this evaluation cannot come soon enough. Neither can the kind of change global awareness can spark to alter the dynamics of their struggle. The struggle is clear in the dark rings around Iftighar’s eyes and in Fateyah’s pensive stare. Fateyah, whose life spans just far enough back to recall the Nakba, “as though it were a dream,” a woman who lost four sons and three grandchildren into the abyss of occupation, a woman who survived in the camp from its beginnings in the 1950’s under the cover of tent before the cramped housing structures were built. Her life, her struggle and the struggle of her people is spoken in plain terms, “There is so much misery here. So much pain. So much suffering. When the soldiers come to my home I tell them, you want to take me… go ahead.”