Refugees from Reality
When Ingo Way visited the Palestinian refugee camp of Aida and met the people who live there. Startled and almost scared, he reports on their grim hope to "return" one day to a country in which many have never set foot.
The Aida refugee camp has been in Bethlehem since 1950. Today just over 3,000 people live there - descendants of those Arabs who fled during the war of 1948 from Israel. the Aida camp is maintained by the UNRWA and it doesn't look like one would imagine a "camp." Aida consists of massive houses and is thus more like a neighborhood than a camp - not even a slum. The entrance to the refugee camp is decorated with a gigantic key, written in English and Arabic, which reads: "Not for Sale". What is not for sale is not difficult to guess: the Arabian soil from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, which must not be abandoned for any peace treaty with Israel. Is this an uncharitable interpretation on my part? Let's see.
I enter the Lajee Center, a kind of community center for residents of Aida, with lounges, a tea kitchen, an Internet cafe and an exhibition space, in which they are presently showing a photo exhibition with pictures from several other refugee camps. Upstairs I meet Khouloud Al Ajarma, who according to her business card is the "Arts & Media Center Coordinator of Lajee Center." Khouloud was born 23 years ago in Aida; her grandmother came from a village in Israel that does not exist anymore. She studied in England, so she speaks with marked British accent. And she talks a lot - eloquent, fluent, confident. Khouloud does not wear a headscarf; instead she wears a pink knitted cap that covered her entire head of hair. On top of the pink sweater she is wearing a black jacket, a checkered skirt that covers her knees, but that allows a look at her black tights and fashionable ankle boots. I like Khouloud - she is educated and pretty with I've always liked British accents.
After her graduation, Khouloud returned back to Aida. She is aiming to "return" to Israel, although she has not been there before. "To remain a refugee is a political decision," she admits. Hence it is for her and for the other inhabitants of Aida out of the question to start a new life elsewhere, or to even become ordinary citizens of Bethlehem - because then they lose their refugee status conferred on them by the UNRWA. "We want no normalization," says Khouloud. "We want to remain refugees to exercise our right of return one day."
At this point something must be said about the UNRWA. The United Nations has two refugee relief organizations: the UNRWA for Palestinian refugees, and another, the UNHCR, for all other refugees in the world. And for all these UNHCR refugees their status will end after the first generation. The status of refugee is not inherited. And accordingly it is the responsibility of UNHCR to ensure that refugees get full civil rights in the countries in which they have fled. Life in refugee camps is a status that UNHCR resolves to end.
UNRWA has a completely different mandate. They regard it as their task to attend to the refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon, in Jordan and Syria, and they extend the refugee status over generations. And there is no end in sight. Khouloud is also, according to UN definition, a refugee - she would be even if she had stayed in England - and her children will be too. Khouloud's sister lives in Jordan and is married to a Jordanian. Through this marriage she is able to choose whether she wants to become a Jordanian citizen or remain a Palestinian refugee. She chose the latter. This inheritability of refugee status is an exception that the UN has established for Palestinians and for nobody else.
Khouloud doesn't protest this in any way. She says, "Yes, it is a special privilege. But this special privilege is our due. Why? It's about justice!" Tt is therefore not surprising that Khouloud doesn't grant any importance to the negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. "Our people do not want a two-state solution. Our leadership is not acting in our name. And the Israelis know that as well." But what do "the people" want, what does Khouloud want? "It's about the right of our country," she says. "To renounce this right would not only be a betrayal of the refugees, it would be a betrayal of Palestine. That's not what our martyrs died for."
I get a little queasy. Before me is not a screaming fanatic like Shirin A., but a young woman with a Western education that speaks with a quiet and serene voice of blood and soil as if she were discussing an upcoming business meeting. She speaks very clearly of what they wish for: a single state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, in which all Palestinians, the descendants of refugees from 1948 and are now scattered all over the world return to live, can return to live. Toclarify the scale: In the wake of Israel's independence war of 1948 left about 700,000 Arabs left the territory of present-day Israel. Some were forced, some went voluntarily, hoping to come back for a victory of Arab armies. But the Arab states lost the war they had begun. Today there are between four and five million people who hold the status of "Palestine refugees". Khouloud even speaks of eight million. If it were up to her, they would all be allowed to settle in Israel.
For Khouloud it seems to matter little that this will never happen by peaceful means. Because for the Israeli side, it is unacceptable - it would be the end of Israel as a Jewish state. "Why do we need a Jewish state?" Khouloud asks rhetorically. "Surely we can all live together in a democratic state of Palestine." This would, she says, of course, have a "Palestinian majority. " And what would happen to the Jewish minority in such a state? "Such small things," says Khouloud, "are not important. For them a solution will eventually be found."
What I find so frightening about Khouloud Al Ajarma is not so much her complete lack of self-criticism. It's not so much her radicalism -in comparison, the settlers spokesman David Wilder from Hebron comes across as a conciliatory pacifist (and he, by the way, represents only a tiny minority of Israeli society). What really frightened me is this: No representative of the UN, who built the schools and community centers in Aida, nor the EU, who gives the refugee camps such as this financial support, nor the employees of all the Western aid agencies and NGOs that are active here- none of them would tell Khouloud straight out that her demands are not only inhuman - because of course they count on the expulsion and disenfranchisement of Jews in Israel, and this is still the most favorable interpretation - but also unrealistic. Not one says, "You will not get your demands. Work instead towards a peaceful compromise with the Israelis, advocate for a two-state solution and waive your threatening right to return. Finally take over responsibility for yourself and your own people, build an infrastructure and tear down the refugee camps. Stop getting nannied by the UN and the EU, get a grip on things yourselves." No one tells them this because no one thinks that way. No one is bothered by the graffiti, which is found on every house, showing an undivided Palestine and reaffirming the explicit Palestinian claim even over Greater Tel Aviv. And that's the most depressing experience I have had in the Aida refugee camp.
I go back to the checkpoint, countless Christian tourists are with me in the queue, others approach me, little boys trying to sell us wooden flutes (recorders.) Once on the other side, I take a deep breath. I have the feeling to return to something that the writer Michael Klonovsky - also during a trip to Jerusalem and also reluctantly - called "my own value system." And I enjoy that feeling.
UPDATE: SoccerDad reminds me of another enterprising reporter - the famous Martha Gellhorn -who actually bothered to speak to Palestinian Arabs who were in camps, in 1961 and 1967. Sounds very familiar!