Tuesday, March 1
Written by Rabbi Joel Nickerson
Be thankful for what you have in your life. That’s what I learned from today’s tour of the West Bank Al-Am’ari Palestinian Refugee Camp and the city of Ramallah (the capital of the Palestinian Authority and home of their leader, Mahmoud Abbas). My brain is a little overwhelmed by the amount of information I’m trying to download, decipher, and decode and this post will not do it justice. My goal right now is to just get a few thoughts down and let some of the pictures I took speak for themselves.
We left East Jerusalem with Rami Nazzal, founder of the Beyond Borders Tours, which takes people into the West Bank to see a world that few are exposed to on a stereotypical tourist trip to Israel. Rami grew up in the West Bank and while he comes from a successful and well-known Palestinian family, he spent his youth hanging out with a tough crowd in the refugee camps. Because of his family’s connections, he went to elementary school in Jerusalem with the children of diplomats and went to college in the United States. He came back to Israel for a short bit, met his wife, and then moved back to the US where he lived for some years. Only when his father begged him to return to Israel/Palestine did he come back to East Jerusalem. Initially, he had no work but again, because of his family’s connections, he was able to secure work as a journalist for Time Magazine and later, for the New York Times. He is currently a correspondent for the Times in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. But his real love is leading these tours, for he feels he is able to provide insights into a world that most only read about in the papers. Because of his excellent English, his understanding of both Israeli and Palestinian cultures, he is able to lead a very good tour. Of course, he has his agenda and his perspective, but everyone you meet in Israel has their own perspective and opinions – that’s part of the beauty of this damaged and beautiful country. By the way, the first Jew that Rami met was Rabbi Leonard Beerman, the late rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Beerman hosted Rami and his parents one summer while Rami’s parents were teaching at UCLA (both are professors).
We drove through East Jerusalem to the checkpoint that leads into the West Bank Palestinian territories. While there was a long line of cars waiting to come into Israel-proper, we had no trouble driving right through and into the territories.
Our first stop was the Al-Am’ari Refugee Camp. It was one of the most depressing places I’ve ever been. We learned that those who live in the refugee camps within the West Bank are treated by the Palestinian Authority as second-class citizens. They are so abused economically and politically, that the Palestinian Authority security forces don’t even enter refugee camp areas. If there is an accident or a problem within the camp, the people must bring their cars or their issue outside the camp before they call the security forces for support. Therefore, each camp has created its own council, made up of residents of the camp (by the way, the camp we visited is only about 1.5 square miles and contains about 10,000 people!). These council members help solve conflicts and issues that people have within the camps. If a family is in need of financial assistance (more than 50% of West Bank residents live below the poverty line), the council members provide funds for them, often funds donated by wealthy supporters of the camp (there aren’t many of these supporters).
We met with one such council member, named Ahmed. He was a little hazy in describing his past, but he did make it clear that he spent 21 years in Israeli prisons. When we asked him what he did to deserve such a sentence, he responded with “I protested the occupation.” We were left to guess what that actually means. After a few minutes of sitting in the youth center (a small building near the entrance to the camp and full of trophies from the camp’s fencing and soccer teams – the soccer team from this camp is one of the best in the territories) and listening to some thoughts by Ahmed, we were taken on a tour of the part of the camp. Let’s just say, these people live a miserable life. No matter what your political view on the Arab/Israeli conflict, there is no doubt that the lifestyle of these families is unbelievably depressing and deprived. Whether that is the fault of the corrupt Palestinian Authority or the result of Israeli ‘occupation’ is too much for us to cover in one blog post and is beyond the scope of my capacity to interpret this crazy and convoluted conflict. Regardless, as we walked through the camp, meeting a few residents, watching as an entourage of young children grew in size around us, meandering through the decrepit streets and alleyways, seeing the graffiti and martyr posters on the walls, and listening to stories of residents, I became more and more aware of my blessed life.
The following are a variety of pictures from the refugee camp. If you had an image in your mind that a refugee camp was a bunch of tents, you’re wrong. There are people who have been living in this camp for their entire lives. Keep in mind that ‘refugee’ is a term used by the Palestinian people to mean people who someday hope to return to their ancestral homes within the 1967 borders of Israel. In other words, land that is completely controlled by Israel and is not technically ‘disputed’. Even Ahmed said that if peace was attained, he would not need to go back to his ancestral home in Lodz (near Ben Gurion airport) and would be fine to live where he does now.
Click on the pictures to see them full size.
After our tour of the refugee camp, we boarded our bus once again. By the way, we had to switch buses before we went on this journey – we had to use an East Jerusalem bus, not our usual Israeli bus; and our tour guide, Einav, couldn’t come with us because if you’re Israeli, you have to sign a waiver when you go into the Palestinian sections of the West Bank saying that you understand that no one will necessarily come to rescue you if something goes wrong. For good reasons, Einav decided that he’d take a rain check.
Rami took us on a tour of the surrounding area (near the refugee camp), including a stop outside a Jewish settlement that was literally down the road from a wealthy Palestinian neighborhood. He introduced us to the owner of a home that told us about the settlers and IDF soldiers who threw rocks at his home and broke his windows.
Our tour through the area showed us large business centers, beautiful homes, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, Prime Minister Abbas’s home, and even the Chinese embassy in the territories. Most of these things were in the city of Ramallah, the capital of the territories and known for its wealthy Palestinians (which only make up about 3-5% of the Palestinian population). It was a reminder of the corruption and failed distribution of wealth among this community. Our tour ended with a lavish lunch in the most upscale neighborhood of Ramallah. After that, we took a scenic and beautiful drive along an area of the West Bank that few Israelis (and even fewer foreigners) ever see.
It was an intense and enlightening day. I could write much more, but the day has been long and exhausting and it’s already very late. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post. Today was a wonderful reminder of just how blessed I am. I recommend that everyone takes a tour similar to ours. It is not for the faint of heart and yet, it adds a layer to the complexity of this conflict that can’t be found anywhere else.