Saturday, December 8, 2007

Visit to the al-Arroub refugee camp

From Hebron we made our way back toward Jerusalem, stopping for lunch at a pleasant restaurant, and at the al-Arroub refugee camp, established in 1950 to house Palestinians who had been forced to leave their land when the new Israeli state occupied it.

We often think of refugee camps as temporary structures, but many refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza have been functioning for decades, and in some cases three generations have grown up knowing only such a life. Of course, these camps are not prisons, and the refugees may leave and settle elsewhere, but first they need employment and money to rent or buy a house. Severe economic hardship usually means that family members stay in the camp - or spend time in prison.

At Arroub, I expected to see tents and other temporary structures, squalor and sad faces. Instead, what I found was a large sprawling mass of concrete homes and amenities, the usual level of waste in the streets (almost everywhere you go in Israel/Palestine there is some solid waste lying around in streets and on vacant land), and many apparently happy and healthy children.

Our delegation was privileged to be invited to meet with representatives of the Women's Center, who told several detailed stories of family members arrested by the Israeli Defense Force and imprisoned for what seemed to be minor misdemeanors. For example, throwing stones at a military vehicle, or a concrete surveillance tower, is viewed as a terrorist act, and the perpetrator can be jailed for several years in an adult prison with no access to family for up to two years. In addition, the family of a convicted "terrorist" is also black-listed and therefore suffers severe restriction of movement and other penalties. It appeared that much evidence was circumstantial (or open to a charge of fabrication), and that defence and appeal were often problematic due to costs.

Each of the stories was personal, traumatic and typical of the range of accounts of Israeli military activity and its effects in occupied Palestine. The women asked us to ask the Australian government and the international community to pressure Israel to:

  • end physical and psychological harrassment of Palestinian refugees

  • address the psychological damage done to children in refugee camps
  • enable greater employment opportunities for Palestinian refugees
  • free all political prisoners (an estimated 11,000, not all of whom can be "terrorists")
  • free all women prisoners with dependent children
  • free all prisoners incarcerated without trial

The women served us spiced tea, and displayed a range of handicrafts; I bought an embroidered and lined table cloth for NIS50 (or about US$13).

Top picture: some of the women and children who related stories of family members taken away by IDF; Bottom picture: a young boy whose older brother was shot dead by an Israeli soldier in al-Arroub about seven years ago, with Mr Yusef Daher from the Jerusalem Inter-Church Center.

No comments: