Dheisheh refugee camp, located on the outskirts of Bethlehem, packs a population of 11,000 in a few square miles. Populated by Palestinians who were driven out and lost their homes with the creation of Israel, the camp is a jig-saw puzzle of haphazard grey concrete buildings, rising slowly to multistory structures as families add a story to make space for each new generation. Tufts of steel rebar sprout from flat roofs and walls and many buildings stand incomplete as works in progress. Many refugees spent the winter of 1948, camping with what few supplies they had, after being driven from or fleeing their homes, hoping to return to their villages when hostilities had ended. However, Israel did not honor the right of return for refugees, wanting a Jewish dominated state and possession of the refugees’ lands. Israel accordingly demolished some 500 Palestinian villages within the area of its conquest in the 1948 War to erase the claim of these refugees.
Unable to return home, the refugees gathered in squatter tent camps, many, as with Dheisheh, just past the Greenline armistice line outside of newly created Israel. Under the supervision of UNRWA, a newly created UN Refugee Works Administration, tents gave way to the first concrete houses, UN funded schools and relief. Despite UNRWA’s assistance, the Palestinians of Dheisheh have faced grim circumstances. Under the occupation, unemployment runs at 65%, the highest in the West Bank and rivaling Gaza, and poverty with all its socio-economic implications is rampant.. Israeli supplied water flows only twice a week, requiring hoarding seen in large black water tanks clustered on the flat roofs of Palestinian homes. While we were visiting Dheisheh the water had run out for a full week; the previous year, sewage had seeped into the water supply rendering undrinkable for at least a month.
Walking through the winding alleys, we saw bashful children standing in doorways and not so bashful children playing in the street, old bleached, curled remnants of martyr posters were still pasted on some walls, but it was the prominent martyr paintings and “Palestine” graffiti that caught our eyes. During the second Intifada, Dheisheh, whose residents had lost so much to Israel, became its fiercest resisters in armed struggle. The Israeli response was severe, invading the camp and searching house to house, punching through walls instead of entering through doors and traumatizing families. Some twenty multistory homes were demolished by Israelis as “homes to terrorists” despite the fact that made dozens of innocents homeless and only further radicalized those affected. Nearly everyone in the camp knows someone who was killed during the Second Intifada and many of the camp’s men have served lengthy terms in Israeli military prison without trial. Post-traumatic stress would be rampant, if the trauma could be categorized as post rather than ongoing.
Yet, Dheisheh’s residents have held on, remembering their heritage and identifying themselves as being from their home villages. Instead of agonizing, they have organized. Lacking any community space, they pooled their together their meager resources and built the Phoenix Community Center, a place now that plays host to weddings, dance troupes, educational facilities and summer camps. Today, just persisting or being steadfast- sumud in Arabic- is their main way of resisting Israeli military rule that is so hostile to their living an everyday life.