In a West Bank Refugee Camp, Stones Take Place of Hope

In the Al-Fawar refugee camp near Hebron, the hope shared over a decade ago by a few has disappeared, without a trace.

It was on the evening that Milan played Barcelona, on Tuesday of last week. All the young men of the refugee camp wandered aimlessly on its main and only road, waiting for the start of the game, which they planned to watch on the televisions set up in the dismal coffee shops and on the scarred road with no sidewalk.

The place: the Al-Fawar camp, home to some 12,000 people living in one square kilometer - one of the remotest and poorest of the West Bank's camps, south of Hebron.

A little after 9 P.M., a convoy of three jeeps and a larger armored vehicle belonging to the Israel Defense Forces hurtled toward the camp. The stone-throwing commenced immediately. Three of the vehicles disappeared up the road to Yatta, but one jeep got stuck. Dozens of youths pelted it with rocks.

The six soldiers sitting inside the vehicle did not respond at first. Maybe they were paralyzed by fear, maybe they were showing restraint. Now the youths summoned up courage and began to approach the jeep. A few climbed onto its roof and tried to rip off its antennas; one youth managed to open the door and pull one of the soldiers out.

The soldiers began shooting with live ammunition and the youth who was trying to pull out the soldier was badly wounded in his abdomen. The dozens of young men retreated in panic. They took shelter at the corner of Beit Jibrin Street - all the alleyways in the camp are named for the lost villages of 1948, from which their residents originated - and resumed throwing stones from behind a wall. Peeking, throwing and then taking shelter. In the meantime more IDF jeeps arrived, and their soldiers began firing live ammunition at the young men.

Mohammed Titi, an Islamic Jihad operative, was hit in the face by a bullet, and was killed on the spot. Just six days earlier he had been released from a Palestinian prison. Titi was in and out of Israeli and Palestinian jails in recent years. Between one arrest and another he set up a website for his organization's youth movement in support of other Palestinian prisoners.

Titi's funeral was among the largest the camp had ever known. Now we are standing on the spot where he fell: There are dozens of bullet holes on the walls of the houses, and in the windows and the iron doors of the barbershop and local restaurant. Pictures of the shaheed (martyr) hang in the display windows. The words "Immortality is yours, O Mohammed," are written on a wall.

Titi, with the neatly kempt goatee, lived in the Iraq al-Manshiyya alley, which is as wide as a man's body. Torn Palestinian flags flap in the wind on the countless electricity and telephone wires that crisscross the main street of the camp. Even late at night the street, in which trash is piling up, is still bustling with dozens of young men who have nothing to get up for in the morning and no reason to go to bed. "The street is our park," one youth told us this week.

The entrance to the camp is covered in soot from the dozens of tires that were burned here in protest over Titi's killing. Idle youths huddle on every corner, sending blank and sometimes also hostile glances. Most of the camp's young men are unemployed, including the university graduates among them. An emergency program administered by UNRWA provides them with work-relief employment for just two months each year, cleaning or guarding schools for $420 per month.

Ever since residents were barred from working in Israel more than a decade ago Al-Fawar has sunk into deep unemployment and even more abject poverty than before. Throwing stones at an IDF jeep is the only bit of excitement in a camp, whose boundaries the occupants demarcate thus: It starts at an iron gate (on Route 60 ) and ends at a cemetery.

Same wretchedness

A musty stairwell leads us to a tiny apartment on the third story of a building that was never completed, and probably never will be. Here we meet with some of the camp's residents. Thirteen years ago, on the eve of the new millennium, we met here with the same residents: Some of the adults we spoke with then still believed that the future awaiting their children would turn out better than theirs was. They thought, back on New Year's at the dawn of 2000, that the despotic regimes of Arab states were destined to fall and that this would bequeath change to them as well. Other residents were hopeless then, too, just as they are today.

When I read the description of the camp that I wrote at the time, the picture it paints is exactly identical to the one I now witness. The same wretchedness, the same overcrowding. And now even the hope shared then by a few has disappeared, without a trace. Now the adults too know there is nothing awaiting their children in their lives, other than poverty, unemployment and despair. There isn't even money to use to get married anymore in this camp, and hundreds of young people grow older single, leaving their helpless parents sad and frustrated.

The adults' fiercest longing is for the years when they worked in Israel. "We were in heaven, and now we are in the abyss," says Yousef Makoussi, who used to work at a gas station in Ramle, where half the camp would come to visit him. "I was a king when I worked in Israel, and now I am beneath the floor tiles."

Hitham Janezra fondly recalls the years he worked at Dimona Textiles. Sometimes Janezra tells his wife, Hena, he's going to work, just to hide the shame of being unemployed and sitting idly at home. He has six children with Hena, a teacher who barely manages to support her family. Janezra says he would have no problem stealing into Israel. "Give me two hours and I'll call you from Tel Aviv, but who would give me a job there today?"

The bitterness here is actually directed largely at the Palestinian Authority: "What has it done? Brought us nothing but hunger. It merely freed Israel from handling education and health." They make a point of referring to their camp as a kfar (village), in their laborers' Hebrew.

Musa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher for the B'Tselem human rights organization, who was born and raised in Al-Fawar, before he moved out, to the other side of the road, says that the camp's graves - due to a shortage of space, the dead are interred above ground in stacked burial vaults - remind him in their size and shape of the camp's original homes, the ones to which his family was forced to flee from the village Iraq al-Manshiyya in 1949, after the war had already ended.

How do you see the future, I asked. "Bleak," someone replied. And what about Barack Obama's visit? "A joke," someone else responded, and everyone in the room burst into laughter, loud and bitter.

Alex Levac