“This is our life.”–Dispatch from Palestine

Dhesheh Refugee Camp houses 17,000 people in less than 1 square kilometer. It was established for two waves of refugees in 1948 and 1967 by the United Nations, which is still in charge of providing medication, education, and maintenance.

The streets were empty when we arrived at 10am. The night before, all night long, there had been raucous raids by Israeli military soldiers in Dhesheh. Two residents were known dead, another critically wounded. 

Our guide Rafat directs us through the narrow, rubbled streets of the refugee camp. “People are still in bed,” he said. “There was fighting in the streets all night long.” Some buildings are demolished and signs of the conflict are everywhere in broken glass and littered stones, but it is also clear that the camp residents do their best to make this a livable place. Murals of camp martyrs, Palestinian poets, and other revolutionaries like Ché Guevara brighten the small streets.

As he leads us, Rafat speaks of a trip he took to witness Aushwitz and Birkenau, with a group of Palestinians, to try and understand Jewish trauma. He was shocked at the concentration camps and he recalled his disturbance in two categories. One, of course, was witnessing the unimaginable brutality of humans and the demonic Nazi creativity to torture the Jews. The second shock came in a moment when he listened to a tour guide say to a group of Jewish schoolchildren, “If given the chance, the Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians would do this again.” When he heard this he pushed into the crowd, wrapped in his keffiyeh, and he corrected the guide. He said, “You cannot say such a thing to these children. It is not true. We do not deny the Jewish right to a homeland. But it does not mean we must become homeless.”

Rafat led us into a nearby home of a family that had suffered the raid. The family members waited in the shadows behind their broken door, a heavy steel entrance that had been bent and twisted and smashed by forced Israeli army entry. We entered and saw that every door inside the house, even light wooden doors that were unlockable, were torn off their hinges, splintered and tossed aside. Drawers full of clothes and jewelry were emptied on bedroom floors, mattresses were pulled off beds and strewn on the floor, large furniture pieces had been upended and pulled apart. Windows were smashed, televisions shattered, and decorations pulled off walls and demolished. The family hovered, haunted, cowering in broken and dark halls.

A woman in a hijab entered, clutching a baby. Her husband was the man in critical condition. The Israeli soldiers—a group of hulking bullies aged 18 and carrying assault rifles as long as their bodies—had beat her husband senseless after he had pushed away a soldier who was harassing his elderly grandfather. We reflexively greeted her, saying hello, how are you, and she replied, “I am not fine, never ever fine. Damage! Damage in my house! Damage to my husband!” This was not the first time. Two months ago the soldiers had torn apart their home, ripping down closet doors and stealing all the money they held in the house, she said, 2000 shekels, about $580.

I thought of our visit yesterday to a bulldozed Palestinian home, demolished by Israeli forces because it was a quarter mile from the Green Line wall. Though the owners of that home had claimed that the demolition was senseless, I had found myself insisting (in the silence of my heart) that there was surely a coherent, rational, well-reasoned, legal military argument behind the action. I refused to believe that Palestinians would be displaced out of sheer malice or intimidation. 

But gazing at the suffering, brutality, and trauma of the Dhesheh refugee camp raid I lost my faith.

This was no cold, steely-eyed military efficiency. Where was the rationale in a shattered television screen? In a broken closet window? In wrecked home decorations and family memorabilia? There was nothing logical or coherent about this mess. This was unjustifiable. There was glee and malice everywhere, in the broken windows and stereos, the slashed mattresses, the upended drawers. The violence was excessive and unnecessary. 

The only explanation is war, bringing brutal cruelty and racism, soldiers too young with too much power, residual trauma from the Jewish state’s history. But even the Holocaust does not offer clearance for such wreckage. It is only replicating itself, an alien kingdom of horror duplicating itself like genes passed through generations. To complicate the power of the Holocaust as an excuse, most Palestinians argue that it is invoked manipulatively, as a blank check, permission from the rest of the globe to demolish whatever inconveniences Israeli existence.

We lingered awkwardly in the hallway, feeling invasive, not wanting to impose more upon the suffering family. “Welcome, come in,” the woman said, leaning over to dust rubble and broken glass off a chair, apologizing for the state of the house. I noticed she was wearing makeup, that all the women in the home were well put-together and that the home must normally have been  lovingly kept. They were ravaged, exhausted, but beautiful. They were clearly trying to go on and pick up the pieces and take pride in themselves.

I sidled up to one of the women and touched her shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” I tearfully offered, and she looked at me with strength and tenderness, as though I was the one who had been attacked. “Don’t worry,” she murmured. “We will be alright. This is our life.” Through the window a group of children gathered on a fire escape to play with marbles.

Another group of white people, tourists or activists, doing whatever we were doing, passed under the window with cameras and gaping, shocked faces, following another Palestinian guide.

The woman sat on the couch to feed her baby.

We retreated back through the narrow streets toward our van. More people had emerged and were lifting the stones and broken furniture from walkways and setting up the fruit and vegetable market. At the border of the camp we climbed into our air conditioned van and drove away, sharing fresh plums from the Dhesheh market, harvested in local soil by Palestinian farmers. I had never tasted more flavorful or crisp fruit. It brightly signaled that the land still holds promise.

Image courtesy of the author.

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