The Most Surreal Place in the Occupied Territories

Alex Levac
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Israeli soldiers at al-Aida refugee camp.Credit: Alex Levac
Alex Levac

It is perhaps the lowest point in the occupied territories: the roof of the home of the Abu Aqar family in the Al-Aida refugee camp outside Bethlehem, which Israel Defense Forces soldiers took control over earlier this week. Briefly, it was also perhaps the most phantasmagorical place in the occupied territories.

The roof was the setting for an incongruous gathering: Israeli soldiers under the command of “Major Yazid,” a Druze officer; activists from the camp’s Popular Struggle Coordination Committee; a few of the building’s inhabitants; and a Jewish-American photojournalist from an ultra-Orthodox family, who had come as a child to celebrate his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall, later visited Israel on a Birthright trip, and until recently resided in Al-Aida as an act of solidarity.

An unlikely group portrait: a Druze officer, Jewish-Israeli soldiers, Palestinian activists and a Jewish-American photographer, all on the roof of an occupied house in a refugee camp.

Stones and black pellets were hurled from the street at the dozens of soldiers and policemen who made their way through the camp’s alleys and along the roofs. The soldiers responded with rifle fire, stun grenades and tear gas. Occasional thunderous booms shook the buildings; now and then a stone struck the water tanks on the roof we were on.

The street below was littered with spent cartridges, tear-gas grenades, rubber bullets, “tutu” (0.22-inch) rounds and other ammunition. The soldiers’ rifles, of a bewildering variety of models, were placed on the improvised position created on the roof, along with their protective gear.

A short time earlier, a 12-year-old boy, Khaled Saker, had been wounded on the street below – local residents say he is mentally handicapped, the soldiers said he was holding a stone. Now he’s in the hospital in nearby Beit Jalla, with a plastic-covered metal bullet in his leg. The day before, a soldier was lightly wounded here.

But amid all this, the spontaneous conversation on the roof proceeded.

It revolved around the military service of Maj. Yazid in the IDF, an army that shoots children who throw stones.

“Are you a Zionist?” Diana Alzeer, from Ramallah, the Popular Committee’s communications coordinator, snapped at Yazid. Yes, he said, he is a Zionist. “Then you should know that Zionism is based on a Jewish state, and it will expel you, too,” she asserted.

Alzeer, a militant and determined young woman who went to school in Britain, did not let up. “What do you feel when you look at yourself in the mirror? What do you think before going to sleep? That you shot children today? That you seized a Palestinian house? Are you pleased with yourself? With what you’re doing? You and the others are an army machine that is meant to shoot and kill. Look at what you’re wearing and the way you’re armed – and we are the ones who are terrorists?!”

An embarrassed smile crossed Yazid’s face. He tried to be polite, and replied patiently: “Don’t worry, I sleep soundly and my conscience is at ease. I at least don’t have to deal with the Palestinian Authority.”

A camp activist, Muntasar Amira, the director of the nearby community center, whose roof was also taken over by soldiers, said the soldiers had never spoken to in the way that were doing now, on the roof of the Abu Aqar house.

This surrealistic scene was played out during another day of serious unrest in the refugee camp. Between last Thursday night and Friday morning, youths had smashed a hole in the separation barrier which chokes this small camp and segregates it from the Gilo neighborhood and the rest of Jerusalem. The breach in the wall was dubbed the “Gate of Freedom” in the camp.

Since then, the guardians of Israel have neither slumbered nor slept: A large force of soldiers and policemen entered the camp, while repairs were being made in the breach in the wall by Israeli workers with the use of heavy machinery.

This site, adjacent to Rachel’s Tomb and behind the luxury Intercontinental Hotel, is a veteran battlefield. The fortified watchtowers are black from the smoke of Molotov cocktails, the walls are covered with bellicose graffiti and the streets are littered with spent ammunition. A year ago, I wrote about a boy, Salah Amarin, who was shot here from a tower.

The words “Gernika [Guernica]1936 – Palestina 1948” are painted in large letters on the separation wall here, and a huge “key of return” lies atop the camp’s entrance gate. While Bethlehem enjoys moderate prosperity, the seeds of the next uprising are being planted in this refugee camp adjacent to the city. This week it already seemed to be caught up in an intifada.

Al-Aida is not an armed camp, like the Jenin refugee camp. The resistance here is of a popular nature, not violent, as far as possible, with the exception of stones and Molotov cocktails. It’s the presence of soldiers and policemen that invites opposition, of course.

The school opposite the wall, which is run by UNRWA, the United Nations refugee agency, was closed this week because of the events, as was the community center. As we neared the breach in the wall – another deep hole had in the meantime been created as part of the repair work – an armed female police officer approached us. “Go away,” she barked in her polished English. “Go now.”

On Saturday morning, troops fired large amounts of gas through the hole, creating a pall of smoke over the camp.

The army evacuated the three-story house of the extended Abu Aqar family on Sunday. Before that, all 45 of the occupants, including children, were shut into their apartments. The order to leave the building, which was declared a closed military zone, came at midday.

The eight men who were in the building were placed in detention at the police facility in the Rachel’s Tomb compound and not released until late at night. The women and children were taken to neighbors’ homes. One occupant, Dia Abu Aqar, remained in custody.

“Are they allowed to enter a house and seize it? Do they behave like that in settlers’ homes, too? Let them at least show something in writing,” said Mahmoud Jawahara, a popular resistance activist from the neighboring village.

Murad Abu Aqar, 27, the father of two daughters, was one of those detained on Sunday. He was released at midnight. The gas seeped into the house across the way, an armchair caught fire, and the inhabitants, also part of the Abu Aqar clan, left until the situation calms down.

After we arrived that day, a jeep had careened into the street near us and stopped with a screeching of brakes. It was carrying an advanced new device that can fire a number of tear-gas grenades simultaneously. We’d crossed the intersection quickly, for fear of the stones, and climbed to the roof of the Abu Aqars’ house, now an army position.

The soldiers wandered around between the water containers up there. One rolled a cigarette. “Where’s the pellet, Oppenheimer?” a soldier asked his buddy after yet another black pellet whizzed by them. People are looking out through all the barred windows on the street below.

“What’s it feel like to hold the rifle?” Amira, the community center director, asked a soldier. “Do you feel like a human being?”

The sound of renewed shooting by the troops could be heard. Mohammed Khaled, 14, appeared on the roof and showed us his scarred stomach and chest. He was wounded here a year ago by rubber-coated bullets.

More and more soldiers ascended to the roof. One took our picture with his cellular phone.

Alzeer asked Major Yazid if he’d heard about the movement of Druze conscientious objectors. “You are an Arab,” she lashed out at him. “You don’t see anything past your rifle. Look at us and look at yourself, and tell me which of us is the terrorist.”

To which Amira added, “It’s all summed up in one word: occupation. There aren’t two words. Only one. Occupation. Think about the fact that you are firing gas into people’s homes. I have a baby at home. This could kill her. Think about it. But none of you think. You are trained not to think. They don’t want you to think. That’s the problem. Our only message to you is: Think about what you are doing. About the fact that we also have children and women and old people, just like in Gilo.

“We want no more than that – just for you to start thinking. Look at yourselves at night. Ask yourselves why you are here and why you need all these weapons. Do you know why? Because you are occupiers. Your government is pulling the wool over your eyes. Tell your mothers what you are doing, and afterward go and become conscientious objectors.”

The major’s patience had run out by now, and he ordered everyone to get off the roof immediately. That, too, he did politely.

Soldiers walked up and down the stairwell of the Abu Aqar house, as though it belonged to them.

Israel, Amira said, wants a third intifada, but armed and violent, not like the residents here want, popular and nonviolent.

More soldiers wheeled into view on the street, among them the commander of the Etzion Brigade, clad in a metal helmet. The word “Panthers” was woven on the collar of his shirt, visible below the protective vest.

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