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A Visit to a Palestinian Refugee Camp and a Jewish West Bank Settlement

'We want to live side by side with the Jews--but the camp is a continuous, bleeding wound': A Visit to a Palestinian Refugee Camp and a Jewish West Bank Settlement.

The Refugee Camp

A continuous, bleeding wound.

That is what the director of the Dheisheh Camp on the west bank calls life in his Palestinian refugee camp.

We visited the camp on Nov. 16. After A/Qader Shahin Hussein spent about half an hour with our group in his office, he invited all 21 of us to his home, about a 5 minute walk through the camp's winding streets and tiny yards. The brown-eyed and blue-eyed children we passed gave us big smiles and several of us remarked how much they reminded us of a niece, nephew or neighbor child back home.

Forty-five years ago the camp director was born in the camp. He became a father and grandfather there. His dream is to go back to the village of his parents and build a small home. He says he doesn't care what flag flies over his village.

When the Dheisheh Camp was established by the United Nations' relief program in 1949, following the Arab defeat by the Israelis in the 1948 war, it had 4,000 refugees from 40 villages. They thought life there would be temporary.

Today the camp has 11,000 inhabitants in the same small area. The United Nations provides educational and health services and help for special hardship cases. The camp, which is south of Bethlehem on the main road between Jerusalem and Hebron, is one of 19 on the West Bank.

The camp director, who was appointed to his position a several years ago, has seen life in the camp ebb and flow from difficult to "very difficult" to "very, very difficult." Suffering was intensified in 1967 during the Six Day War and in 1987 when the Intifada (the Palestinian uprising) started. Fences six meters high were constructed around the camp. Even the top of the camp was covered. "Essentially we were sealed inside the camp," the director recalls. Nineteen people were killed inside the camp, and seven were deported.

During the 1991 Gulf War the situation in the camp was "very, very difficult." In March 1993 when the Israelis declared the area a military zone, unemployment rose to 85 percent and the director feared starvation was around the corner.

But in 1995 the peace process started. "We pray for peace," the camp director says. "We believe peace is the only solution for any society to get rid of its problems. But we believe in peace based on justice which gives us the right to establish a Palestinian state. We have many fears for the future. We don't know our destiny. The refugee camp is a continuous bleeding wound with continuous suffering... We are against violence and terrorism, but we need real peace."

The residents of the camp are not imprisoned there but - as with all Palestinians - their travels for shopping, work and pleasure are restricted by the Israeli government. A few families have moved from the camp because donations from family and friends enabled them to purchase land. But most are economic prisoners.

When we entered his home the camp director instructed one of his children (he has six, but not all are still at home) to prepare tea for us. He said his wife was in Jordan obtaining a bride for their oldest son, who is 20.

Our entire group managed to find seats on three large rose-colored sofas and a few stools and chairs. The room, with clean white walls, was lit by two lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling. There were three small tables and one large one. On the wall was a picture of the camp director's brother-in-law. We learned he died a violent death, leaving seven children "and a miserable wife."

Every family in the camp has at least one member who was killed or who is in prison, the director told us. He said about 5,000 Palestinians are in prison.

We asked the director if he had ever been in prison. He said he was imprisoned at age 18 for four years because he was a member of the Palestinian General Union, a student group. He showed us scars on his leg caused by prison beatings with an iron pipe.

His son, very tall and strikingly handsome, entered with glasses filled to the brim with boiling hot tea. The glasses were too hot to hold, but when they cooled we enjoyed the tea, which had lots of sugar.

The camp director called for a cigarette which his son, who was smoking, brought to him.

He told us about his daughter and son-in-law who were shot. Her life was saved by a doctor who just happened to be in the area.

"Peace must be between people," the director told us. "You are in my home. There is no fear. But if I go to Tel Aviv five minutes after I arrive I'll be surrounded by Israeli soldiers... We would like to live side by side with the Jews. We are not against the Jews."

As we left his home and walked back to the entrance of the camp, the director told me about the stress he is under. He has many responsibilities "but no authority whatsoever." He is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A vacation or foreign travel is impossible.

"There is no difference between you and me," he said, "and you are living in human being conditions...

"If you imprison a cat, this cat will be changed to a lion. Any violence will be on the shoulders of (Israeli Prime Minister) Netanyahu himself. He needs the peace far more than we need it. I hope America will take more and more of a role in facilitating the good results we are waiting for.".

The Israeli-Palestinian Land Dispute in Perspective

For half a century the conflict between Arabs and Israelis has been over the sacred land known once as Palestine.

On Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to end British control of Palestine and called for the partition of the country into Jewish and Arab states.

The Jews, with ownership of only 7 percent of the land, agreed. But the Arabs, who owned 93 percent of the land the new nations would divide, denounced the plan.

When Israel came into existence on May 14, 1948, Arab nations attacked. After a bloody war, the Arabs were defeated and the State of Israel was established on 78 percent of the total area of the land of Palestine, leaving the West Bank of the River Jordan (including East Jerusalem) in Jordan's hands and the Gaza Strip under control of Egypt.

Israel quickly set about to control vast tracts of Arab land within its new borders. The result was that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were exiled. Many of the Arabs who stayed lost land through ''legal'' means.

The Palestinians who had not fled or been expelled remained on their land within the Israeli state. They were placed under detention by the Israeli military, denied freedom of movement and kept from cultivating their lands. Those lands later were declared ''neglected'' by the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and were then sold to Jewish owners.

Israel defeated the Arabs again in the Six Day War in June 1967, resulting in Israeli control of all the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.

Since that time Jewish settlers have been allowed and encouraged to establish permanent homes on the Arab lands in violation of international laws and regulations stipulated in the Geneva Convention.

The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, whose family has lived in Bethlehem for hundreds of years, is pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem. He and Daoud Nasser, a Bethlehem Lutheran parishioner who works with the International Center of Bethlehem, related to us a story that illustrates the continued land-grab push by the Israelis.

The Daher family of Bethlehem, of which Nasser is a member, has owned a vineyard south of Bethlehem (which we saw on a day-trip to Hebron) since the beginning of the century.

In 1991, the family learned by accident that the Israeli government intended to confiscate 75 acres of their land. The reason was that the land had lain fallow for some time.

The reason it was not being utilized was because it was impossible for the Daher family to obtain the water necessary to cultivate all their land because the Israelis have limited the Palestinians' water allotment.

Israel reserves almost 80 percent of the water in the occupied West Bank for its own use. For the 20 percent remaining, the Rev. Raheb said Palestinians pay four times the price.

The reason the Israelis wanted the land was because the Daher vineyard occupies a lovely hilltop surrounded by three Israeli settlements. The plan was to confiscate the land for another settlement for Jewish religious extremists, the pastor said.

Seeking help, the family turned to the Lutheran minister. Pastor Raheb, who is highly respected in the Bethlehem community, sought support from various Christian groups, Muslims, and Jews involved in the peace movement. Their organized efforts have been successful so far in preventing the confiscation, but the issue has not been finally resolved with the Israelis, Nasser said.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict over land came closer to resolution with the Oslo Declaration of Principles of September 1993. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat expressed readiness to forego the elimination of the State of Israel and recognized Israel's right to exist in peace and security. The Israeli government under Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres accepted the right of the Palestinians to self-rule and reconciled itself to the emergence at a future date of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The election of the right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 led to a virtual stalemate in peace talks until this fall. Full implementation of the October Wye Agreement, a step toward trading land for peace, has been held up by Netanyahu over disagreements about Palestinian efforts to ensure security.

Resolution of bigger issues - future control of Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state - now seem far in the future.

The hope for peace and tranquility in the Holy Lands remains a distant dream. Yet, while right-wing Jews quote the many Old Testament references to Palestine being given to the Jews by God, the Bible also has a reference about how Jews should treat other people who live within their borders.

The passage is from Leviticus 19:33. It is God speaking to Moses:

"When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God."

A Different Tale at a Jewish Settlement

We went to a controversial Israeli settlement called Efrat immediately after we left the Dheisheh Camp on the West Bank.

Efrat is a short drive from the Palestinian refugee camp, but light years away quality-of-life speaking.

The 6,000 residents of the gated, hilltop community enjoy beautiful gardens and spectacular views.

The smallest apartments start at $180,000.

Most of the residents are highly-educated professionals who work in Jerusalem.

Efrat is controversial because, like most Israeli settlements, it is on land the Palestinians claim belongs to them. Every time a settlement is created or expanded Palestinians lose more land. Almost every settlement has some kind of expansion under way.

The spokesman for Efrat was Ardie Geldman, a native of Chicago. He and his wife, a native of San Diego, have five daughters and a son.

"We paid a pretty penny for these homes," Geldman told us. "It's a good, healthy place to raise your kids."

He said the homes, which are all privately owned, range from $180,000 to "the sky's the limit."

As dusk descended, Geldman spoke to us while we were seated in our bus driving around the immaculate, well-planned community. Some of us got off the bus to use the restroom and thereby saw part of Efrat's shopping area. Stylishly dressed residents briskly made their way home or did last minute errands.

Geldman told us Efrat was created on paper in the 1970s. The first families moved there in 1983. He said Efrat is a "religious town" and the Sabbath (Saturday) is a quiet day for eating, visiting and going to the synagogue. (He later told us that, in contrast to Efrat's residents, most Israelis are not religious, "they are very secular.")

About 40 percent of the residents of Efrat are from North America and English is their native language. Sixty percent are native born Israelis.

Geldman said their lifestyles are very similar to those in the U.S. because of television and the Internet. However, the boys and girls of Efrat are educated separately; the boys' education has more emphasis on traditional Jewish law.

The land Efrat is built on was Jordanian state land, Geldman said. "The vineyards below belong to Palestinian families," he said. "That land has not been touched. We did not take away the agricultural land of Palestinian Arabs living near Efrat."

He said the master plan calls for settlements on the two hills past Efrat, toward Jerusalem. "Even though those hills are part of the master plan it's deemed politically correct not to build on those hills," he said.

Geldman, who works in Jerusalem in grant development for social programs, said a few residents of Efrat work with computers and develop software in their homes. But basically Efrat is a "bedroom suburb" for physicians, scientists, rabbis, attorneys and building contractors. They choose to live in Efrat because the quality of life is better than in Jerusalem. Families with five to six children are common.

Geldman said a characteristic of Americans is to think there's a solution for all problems. But he said in the Mideast some problems don't have foreseeable solutions.

"In the Mideast there are intractable feuds connected with pride and ego," he said.

He said the "angst" of the Israeli people is based on the fact they have the most powerful military force in the Mideast "but our people are afraid to walk through the streets... We want peace just as much as the Palestinians but we do not have the sense of security we feel is reasonable to expect for a final agreement... I cannot go into Bethlehem without being in fear of my life."

Geldman said Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat hasn't put an end to terrorism and "that's what keeps us from buying into the peace process."

Geldman claimed the Israelis and Palestinians are "two very different peoples" and neither is interested in confederation. "There can be a Palestinian state someday," he said. "That notion is seeping into the heads of more and more Israelis."

He didn't say where he thought a Palestinian state should be located.

"Israel belongs to the Jewish people," he told us. "We are not making this up. The Bible shows a strong connection (whereas) the identity of the people of Palestine is only 50-60 years old. I came here in 1982 because we believe it is our destiny to live in our homeland. Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Palestinians have the opposite idea. They believe there has always been a Palestine. We are dealing with two totally conflicting realities."

Geldman said he doesn't know why refugee camps such as the one we visited still exist. "Why don't the millionaire Palestinians who live around that camp put their money together and help those people and give them proper housing?" he asked.

He didn't tell us where that housing could be located.

Grace Witwer Housholder, author of "The Funny Things Kids Say Will Brighten Any Day" (Volumes 1, 2 and 3), a reporter/columnist for The News-Sun, Kendallville, IN, and her husband Terry, managing editor of The News-Sun, were in Israel and Jordan during November 1998. For more stories and pictures visit "The Holy Land Close Up" at

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