AS part of a trip to learn about the work Trócaire supports in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and Israel, I visited the Aida Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem recently.
We are brought there by BADIL, who are one of the groups Trócaire works with to support those affected by conflict and human rights violations in the region.
BADIL is an independent organisation working to defend and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees. We visited the Lajee Centre, a centre for young people at the camp.
There we met a hugely impressive group of young women and men, educated, articulate and passionate about their desire for a Palestinian state for their people.
As we go around the room, the young people introduce themselves by telling us their names, their ages and the villages they are from. But further questioning reveals that none of them have ever so much as seen the places they name, never mind live in them. They are the third and fourth generations to live in this camp, which is home to thousands of Palestinians packed into an area a fraction of one square kilometre.
It is their grandparents who lived in those villages and left their homes in 1948 during the first Arab–Israeli War. In Palestinian history, this event is referred to as the Nakba, which is Arabic for catastrophe.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted from their homes and their descendants remain refugees.
The idea we in Ireland might have of refugees fleeing situations of war or famine in search of new lives is not the view Palestinian refugees have of themselves.
The symbol of the Aida camp is a huge metal ‘key of return’ which sits atop the entrance gate, surrounded by graffiti saying ‘we will win’. For the people in Aida, winning would be returning to the lands left by their grandparents 70 years ago.
Resolution 194, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, states that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date’. For Palestinians, this establishes their right to return, passed down through generations. This claim is disputed by the Israeli government, forming one of the most unsolvable issues of this decades-long conflict.
Aida camp, made up of people from 27 villages to the north and east of Jerusalem and Hebron, was established in 1950.
When it first came into being it was home to a little over 1,100 refugees, living in tents. There are now approximately 5,800 people packed into the camp, with absolutely no room left for expansion, no room left for children to play as they should. The young people show us a garden they have built on the roof of the centre and a tiny playground in a patch of land behind it.
Shatha, a young woman from the camp, who works to improve daily life for her fellow residents, describes the realities they face.
“Water is a problem, there is not enough for everyone, it is less than half of WHO minimum standards,” she said. “We have access to water for six hours every two weeks.” As a result, it is vital people have water tanks in their homes to conserve as much as possible, but contamination is a regular occurrence.
The camp is located close to an Israeli military base and surrounded by military towers. People living in the camp allege that the Israeli military regularly throw tear gas for no reason, the young people tell us that often they get the sense that they are being used for training.
Shatha says many people in the camp report complications from repeated exposure to tear gas.
“People are suffering, with lung problems and allergies,” she said. Residents also believe there have been signs of mutations in crops. They would like to see research into the long-term effects of tear gas, particularly in cases of repeated exposure.
Their descriptions are supported by a University of California report published earlier this year, which described Aida as the community most exposed to tear gas in the world.
The authors of the report said ‘the long-term medical impacts are largely unknown, but given the scale of exposure in these refugee camps, it is concerning’.
They also highlighted the psychological impact of feeling under constant threat of attack.
“[Our interviews] suggest that residents are experiencing high levels of psychological distress in relation to tear-gas exposure, or in anticipation of exposure,” they wrote.
Living under these circumstances, I wonder why people don’t leave, to try and forge a life elsewhere. But Shatha says the majority stay.
“Most are too poor to move out of the camp,” she said. “The other reason is the Israelis want us to leave, they would see that as us giving up our right of return. This is a temporary state for us. We have no place to expand our homes, so some people do try to leave but have no money,” another young woman, Isra, said.
“It means people are delaying their lives, not getting married, having children, because of the lack of opportunities. But staying is also a form of resistance.”
The young people we met were well educated in schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), who carry out relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees throughout the West Bank, in Gaza and elsewhere.
This support is under serious threat since US president Donald Trump announced a major cut to US funding for UNWRA. The subject comes up repeatedly during our time on the occupied territory, with aid workers exceptionally concerned about the impact on Palestinian lives.
Children in Aida are taught in the camps at primary level, before going into Bethlehem for secondary education. There are opportunities for them to go to college, with up to 80% of young people having some type of third level education. But their lives, particularly those of the young men, are being constrained as they reach adulthood and not just by their living conditions.
The group estimate that close to 70% of the young men in the camp have been arrested for one reason or another, with many having already spent time in prison by the time they reach 20. Some are detained after becoming involved in protests against their treatment or skirmishes like stone-throwing against the armed soldiers who surround the camp. But they tell us others are arrested during night raids by the Israeli security forces, which the camp residents say happen frequently and without cause.
Mahmoud tells us he and his brother were pulled from their beds during one such raid. Through a translator, he describes being dragged from his home and taken to a containment facility where they were left in the rain for eight hours.
He was interrogated for weeks on end while sharing a tiny room, four metres square, with 10 other men. He was in custody 13 months before he was charged and spent a total of three years in prison. Not only did it remove him from his education and family, when Palestinians are released part of their conditions include signing to agree not to become involved in any activism.
Another young man in the group, Sadam, wanted to continue to study but was arrested twice aged 17 and spent two years in prison.
The level of arrests means the young men of the camp are stigmatised as criminals just as they reach adulthood, have their education and future opportunities severely diminished and make it far more difficult for them to participate in organised activism against their current treatment.
The Israeli security forces cite riots and attacks on security forces as reasons for their actions but later in the week we meet Avner Gvaryahu. A member of Breaking The Silence, he confirms that as a paratrooper on military service he took part in manoeuvres in other parts of the occupied territories that mirror the descriptions of the young people — from ‘practice’ raids and arrests to entering the homes of Palestinians known to be entirely innocent.
Breaking the Silence, which receives support from Trócaire, is an organisation of Israeli veterans which collects testimonies of soldiers who served in the occupied territories, with the aim of forcing Israeli society to address the reality for Palestinians. With some exceptions, joining the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is mandatory for Israeli citizens who have turned 18. Women are normally expected to do two years of service, men close to three.
Avner, who is a ninth generation Israeli and grew up in a religious home, joined the IDF in 2004. “I thought I could be the good soldier in a bad situation,” he said. “But I realised, as my friends in Breaking The Silence already had, that there can be no moral occupation.”
He described a regular occurrence during his duty, the creation of ‘straw widow’ posts. This involved going into the home of a Palestinian family in order to use the building as a military post. The family would be banished to a small area in their own home and would have to ask the soldiers’ permission to use their bathroom or kitchen for however long the IDF remained there, possibly a day or so.
“I tried to make it better with balloons and sweets for the children, but what good are they to children who are seeing their parents being ordered around by men with guns in their home?” Avner said.
He said the commanding officers would always take care to choose homes of Palestinians that they knew to be entirely innocent of any connection to illegality or terrorism, in order to minimise the risk to their men.
Avner said he had been uneasy about what he and his fellow soldiers were doing for a long time and one night while guarding a home during a straw widow, he sat down with the Palestinian doctor whose home it was and listened to his description of life under occupation.
Avner emphasises there is terrorism on the Palestinian side and that should not be whitewashed but it does not justify what is being done on the Israeli side.
Since Breaking The Silence began in 2004 they have collected the testimonies of more than 1,000 soldiers who have served in various parts of the occupied territories.
The Israeli establishment do not like the group’s work and they face regular attacks in the press. In July the Breaking The Silence law was passed, banning some groups from speaking in schools.
“Organisations that undermine Israel and besmirch IDF soldiers will no longer be able to reach Israeli students,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett said at the time.
But from their first exhibit of testimonies, which drew huge public interest, they have also become an outlet for soldiers who wish to tell their stories.
At the first exhibit, one soldier walked in, read what was there and turned to an organiser to say: “What we are doing in Gaza is much worse.” That soldier’s opinion of the situation is shared by many we speak to during the week in the OPT.
Trócaire also fund organisations which work with the close to two million Palestinians who live in Gaza, an area of land less than one-twentieth the size of county Cork.
One of these groups is Caritas Jerusalem led by Irish nun Sister Bridget Tighe. She has spent the last four years living in Gaza and directing the agency’s efforts there and she is afraid of potentially dire consequences of the cut to UNWRA and other US aid programmes.
Longstanding restrictions on the movement of people and goods to and from Gaza have intensified since Hamas took over the area in 2007. The restrictions severely limit normal economic life in the densely-populated area, with limited access to goods and extremely high unemployment. It is almost impossible for Palestinians to leave the area, making it effectively an open prison.
“We have a number of projects being funded by US aid,” Sr Tighe said. “We are now reaching out to partner organisations and trying to get extra assistance to keep our projects going.”
These include food parcels and medical projects, while UNWRA funding is also crucial to the schools system in Gaza. “Stopping the money to UNWRA is catastrophic and will affect everyone in Gaza,” she said. “People there feel abandoned, depressed and afraid.
“I know young children who live in the area near where I stay in Gaza and I can already see the changes in them. They run up to me to chatter and give me a hug and I can feel how thin they are.”
Lubna Shomali from BADIL, who brought us to Aida Camp, agrees.
“We don’t know what will happen without the UNWRA funding,” she said.
The funding covers the schools in the Aida camp, and waste collection and other essential services. “This latest cut is about eliminating UNWRA,” Lubna said. “They [the current US administration] can’t get it shut down so they are doing it in a roundabout way, crippling it financially and delegitimizing it.
“This falls on the shoulders of the international community.”