Twilight Zone / Tragedies, not flags
No celebrations were going on in the Jenin refugee camp this week, where families involved in the long struggle with Israel acknowledged that what concerns them now is economics - not empty declarations at the UN.
Patha Kendal was not expecting to be glued to the television screen this weekend - nor has she raised a Palestinian flag above her house in the Jenin refugee camp, as camp residents had been asked to do.
Feda, her son, was killed by Israel Defense Forces soldiers in 2006 at the age of 17; her younger brother, Ala'a Sabah, one of the commanders of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, is dead; Kendal's son Yusuf was sentenced to life imprisonment when he was 16 for killing a soldier, and is still in prison; her son Ayman was imprisoned for three years, and now serves in the Palestinian national security forces; her son Mohammed spent a year in prison; and as for Kendal's other offspringSayef was in prison for seven years, and Muayein was imprisoned for two.
Furthermore, Kendal's daughter, Hindi, was imprisoned for a year, and even Kendal herself was jailed: She spent 26 months in an Israeli prison during the first intifada. And after all that, she says now that the entire struggle was in vain: "What's important to me now is my home. I want my children - and that's all."
Late one morning, during the week when Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen ) was expected to ask the countries of the world to recognize Palestine as a state, the refugee camp looks almost like a ghost town, even as the nearby city of Jenin is full of thousands of Israeli Arabs who now cross the Green Line every day to do their shopping there.
The town's economic prosperity skipped over the camp. No restaurants or furniture stores are being opened here. Instead, the talk is about poverty and fear for the future. Only if the meager salaries of most of the residents stop being paid, due to Israeli or international sanctions, will people take to the streets.
If there is a third intifada, it will be about the economic situation. For less than that, these people won't embark on a struggle again, after they were beaten and bled here in vain during the two previous intifadas. That's what we were told by everyone, absolutely everyone.
This week we visited the homes of Hamas, Fatah and Popular Front families, we spoke to bereaved parents and those whose dear ones are in prison, we sipped lots of coffee in guest rooms with the pictures of the fallen hanging on the walls, where the tribulations of their inhabitants since the early days of their refugeehood are heartrending. There is not a home here without a tragedy - and no, the United Nations doesn't interest the Jenin camp; nobody here expects anything from the organization. We didn't find a single festive flag flying in the alleys this week.
Meanwhile, there was a traffic jam on George Habash Square in the city center - SUVs and Mercedes, Mazdas and Hyundais, most of them with Israeli plates. On Saturday night there was a show in the municipal soccer stadium: Nida Al Ashkin, a Palestinian singing group from Syria, presented a medley of nationalist songs in advance of the independence celebrations that will apparently not take place here.
Late Sunday morning, three children were walking around, upset, in the cemetery for the fallen of the second intifada: They had lost their dog and were looking for it among the uniform, quasi-military tombstones. These children haven't heard about the upcoming deliberations in the United Nations. Their dad told them something, but they've forgotten. They don't even know who is buried here.
Sculptures of a white dove of peace and a fighter armed with a machine gun, at the entrance to this new cemetery constitute the monument to the fallen of the camp who were killed in terror activities in Israel and whose bodies were never returned. Their names are engraved in stone. The dove's bill is broken.
Several steps from the monument, Taha, the nephew of our escort, Jamal Zubeideh, is buried, and here is his other nephew, Ziad. And the brother of his daughter's fiance, who is supposed to be married in a few weeks. Zubeideh collected all their corpses during the Operation Defensive Shield invasion that totally destroyed the center of the camp in 2002, and he buried them temporarily in private yards, until the fury passed and the long curfew was raised.
Zubeideh, one of the leaders of the camp and a former member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, doesn't think there will be a third intifada or even an outbreak of violence or demonstrations. He is not disappointed by President Barack Obama's America: He didn't expect anything of it.
"The United States has never been a friend of the Palestinians," he says. "The whole world knows that, the Israelis know it, too. The Israel Air Force planes, the helicopters that bombed us and the tanks, are all made in America. So what should we expect from it? I respect Mahmoud Abbas for doing what he thinks is right, but he's weak. We won't lose anything by his going to the United Nations, but we won't gain anything. The entire nation is skeptical of this step in the United Nations. Abu Mazen doesn't know where we're going and in effect no Palestinian party, neither Fatah nor Hamas, knows. We have no friends and the occupation will continue for a long time yet. We remain alone in the world.
"A lot depends on the Israeli people, but they elected a right-wing government and all the people whom we could talk to have disappeared. Maybe the demonstrations on the Israeli street will lead to change. We did everything for peace, even Hamas abandoned its opposition, and the Israeli government hasn't advanced by a single meter. Peace now depends only on the Israeli people.
"All the SUVs and restaurants that you see in the city were bought with money from bank loans. It's a dangerous illusion. A month, two months without salaries and everything will be destroyed. Tomorrow Israel will decide that nobody can enter Jenin and everything is gone. If American and Europe stop sending money and the salaries are discontinued - there will be an intifada. What do we care about Jerusalem or Al-Aqsa, if we have nothing to eat?"
The dozens of cream-colored houses rebuilt in the camp after the Israeli invasion are already shabby. The walls of some are riddled with bullet holes again.
A neighbor reaches through the bars on the window of his house to remove a photo: a picture of his brother, Omar al-Sharif, who never had a chance to live in his renovated home, after being arrested and sentenced to 18 years in prison. On the bottom of the picture there's an inscription: "The clouds will never hide the light of the sun." Prisoner Al-Sharif hasn't had a family visit for half a year.
From the adjacent house, the neighbor, Basma Zawiad, emerges: Her brother disappeared in the Six-Day War and has been missing ever since.
Next we visit the Abu al-Haija home, at the outskirts of the camp. We first visited here in June 2003, just when the reconstruction was completed. At the time the five young children of the family lived here by themselves, while their father, mother and older brother were all imprisoned in Israel. The father, Sheikh Jamal Abu Haija, the Hamas spokesman in the camp, lost his hand in the invasion, hid as a wanted man until he was arrested and was sentenced to nine terms of life imprisonment for his part in sending the suicide terrorist to the murderous attack on Mount Meron. Their mother, Asmaa, was under administrative detention at the same time for nine months, without a trial. The children have grown up since then, the ceiling of the renovated house is already damp and a huge picture of the father of the family now stands in the middle of the living room.
Jamal Abu Haija was imprisoned in solitary confinement for years; now he shares a cell with Ahmed Saadat, the leader of the PFLP. Only his youngest daughter, Sajida, is permitted to visit him. She is 15, and in another year she too won't be allowed to visit, since the regulation allows only children up to the age of 16 to come. The mother, a former prisoner, is not permitted to visit her husband either.
In spite of that, this family, who come from Ein Hud originally, keeps smiling. And it's not only the parents who have been imprisoned; three of their children have been as well. Their son Abdel Salam spent seven years in an Israeli prison and eight months in a Palestinian lockup. Now he owns a clothing stall in the city.
Abdel Salam doesn't expect anything from the United Nations either: "What's important is what happens on the ground, and in the near future nothing will happen because of the Palestinian split. Nothing will move. In the near future there's no chance for another intifada because of the weak situation of the Palestinians. The fear, however, is that Abu Mazen will agree to a state on 18 percent of Palestine and will give up the right of return. What Abu Mazen is doing is geared only to that and we're liable to lose all our rights because of him. On Friday I won't take to the streets. In any case, if I do demonstrate, the PA will come and arrest me.
"People usually don't like to talk about their economic situation, but now politics doesn't interest anyone here, everyone is only trying to find a way to live and to bring food to his children. The people in the camp, who used to be the most activist of all the Palestinians, who bore the resistance on their shoulders, discovered that they didn't achieve anything."
Abdel Salam recently married: on the anniversary of his mother's arrest, and on the day that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell. His brother Hamzi, who was a traumatized young boy when we last visited his home, was released two days ago from a Palestinian prison, because of his activity in Hamas. His brother Imad also spent a year and a half in a Palestinian prison and two and a half years in an Israeli prison, as did their brotherAsam, who was under administrative detention in Israel.
Their mother, Asmaa, doesn't expect anything either. She doesn't like to watch Abu Mazen in action, so she wasn't planning to turn on the television to watch his UN speech. A flag? They are not allowed to display the Hamas flag, and won't bother to display the Palestinian flag.
Sajida returns from school, wrapped in her traditional black clothing: She asks us to do everything possible to enable her to continue visiting her father, even after she turns 16. Last time we were in the house, when her mother was in prison and she was a little girl, she showed us the dress she was waiting to wear for her mother's return.
Several sacred books have been added to the bookshelf since our last visit to this house, eight years ago, and the clock on the wall has stopped running. The truth is that in all the homes we visited this week in the Jenin camp there are wall clocks, and for some reason they have all stopped running.