BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Pope Benedict XVI will not be standing on the stage prepared for him by Palestinians inside the Aida Refugee Camp following Israel’s disapproval of the stage’s position. The Vatican gave in to Israel’s demands not to have the separation wall and a military watchtower behind him on Wednesday as he visits this camp hosting around 5,000 of the refugees forced out of their villages since 1948.
It will go down as an insignificant footnote in the history of this troubled region, if at all, but the people here are clearly furious. “It’s the occupation,” a Palestinian Authority (PA) official told said resignedly at a press briefing ahead of the pope’s visit last Wednesday. “The Vatican has agreed to Israel’s demands, but the wall will still be very visible behind him.”
Even though the modest stage prepared for the occasion lies on the Palestinian side of the wall, Israel declared the stage illegal last week in what appeared to be an attempt to conceal the uncomely signs of the occupation.
Just days ahead of the pontiff’s visit, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a damning report about Israel’s measures that are stifling Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born.
The OHCA said that out of 660 square kilometres, only 13% of Bethlehem’s land is available for Palestinian use, and much of it is fragmented. The wall cuts Bethlehem off completely from its historic, religious and economic connection to Jerusalem, denying villagers access to some of the most fertile farmland in the area.
However, the PA official said that despite Israel’s efforts to divert the wall from media attention, the pope’s route will still take him next to the wall and a gigantic icon that symbolises the plight of Palestinians denied their homeland for the last 40 years.
In fact, as he enters the camp on Wednesday, Benedict will pass through an arch shaped into a massive keyhole with an iron key (muftieħ) above it.Many refugees forced out of their homes in 1948 still hold the key to their old homes, in the decades-old hope of returning to the villages of origin.Incidentally, Palestinians commemorate their expulsion in 1948 the day after the pope’s visit to Bethlehem. 14 May is remembered as Nakba Day (the day of the catastrophe).
Mohammed Adrahman Azza, 75, from Beit Jibrin, is one of the oldest refugees at the camp.He vividly remembers the night his family was forced out by the Israeli military 60 years ago, when he was aged 14. The Azza family owned most of the land and properties in the village.“In the summer of 1948, my village was attacked by Israeli forces. They came with war planes launching an air attack that lasted from the evening till the next morning,” he says.
The local police station was guarded by Egyptian forces, which had entered Palestine to protect the locals for a short while, but these were quickly overpowered.“The Israelis came again to attack by land. They reached the police station, mined it and exploded it, killing two and injuring many others. Most of the people were fleeing the village and started living in caves.
“The Egyptians suffered deaths and injuries. Some Palestinians stayed with them to help in the fight, but it was an unequal war. Only few tens of Palestinians were left. The city was empty. When Israel occupied the village, we had to leave through the mountains towards Hebron, where we lived between 1948 and 1963.”
We will return
During his visit to the refugee camp, the pope may see the many murals along the separation wall. One of them says: “If the olive trees knew who planted them, their oil would become tears”. The most recurrent slogan is: “We will return”. That is what Azza dreams of everyday, holding on to his old iron key. “I lost my land, my home, my friends, everything,” he says. “But I dream of returning and I keep telling my children and grandchildren that our home is in Beit Jibrin... It’s always on my mind. We have many acres of land there. Why is it forbidden for me to go to my house? There is someone from Poland, Russia, or the US on my land, and it’s forbidden for me to even touch the land where I was born.”
Before the 2000 intifada – after which moving into Israel became totally forbidden – Azza often visited what was once his village. “Everything was demolished, schools, houses, mosques... nothing remains.”
Denied to this day, the Israelis’ “cleansing” operations 60 years ago wiped out hundreds of Palestinian villages and displaced thousands of families who are still living in the multitude of refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan. For Azza, the 1948 catastrophe wiped out his childhood.
“I was the oldest of four brothers and one sister, so I was the one most responsible for them,” he says. “Our father was old, so I left school to work. I had to do lots of jobs, from carrying heavy things for people to farming. In one summer I went to Jordan on foot with my father. It took us three days to get there, but after working there we managed to buy two sacks of wheat. That would feed us for most of the year.”
After working in Jordan, he could return to school, moving on to become an Arabic language and religion teacher, but his meagre salary could not sustain him and his family.
“In 1963 we moved to Aida camp. We couldn’t pay rent or buy a house, so the refugee camp gave us shelter. My uncle was the camp leader and he encouraged us to move here. We were some 150 families at that time.”
Even inside the refugee camp, things only got worse with time. Besides the expanding families that nowadays have no more space to build new houses within the camp’s confines, refugees and Bethlehem villagers have been cut off completely by the wall erected since 2002.
“The wall makes our life much worse; we can’t work in Israel as we used to. Our sheep and cows used to feed on the mountains, now they have all died because the mountains are closed to us. Our children used to play on the green hills, now they’re confined to a prison cage. Families are getting bigger but spaces for houses remain limited, in fact we can’t build anymore. Agricultural land of the villagers from here has been stolen.”
Israeli forces still come here, especially at night, arresting people and imposing curfews.
“For them anyone could be a fighter who should be arrested,” Azza said. “They enter freely arresting people, demolishing some houses, and leave. My grandson was arrested for two years ... they said he was a ‘Fatah fighter’ but he couldn’t defend himself in a military court.
“In 1983 they arrested my 14-year-old son. Released two years later, he must have been the youngest Palestinian in prison. He was a 14-year-old fighter... throwing stones. He was beaten, tortured, hanged upside down from his legs and pulled by ropes.”
Azza clutches his old key as he speaks. His mind is clearly in his faraway village of Beit Jibrin, as he dreams like every other refugee of the right of return – a right consistently denied to them for decades.
“You know, if I had to meet the person who is staying where our house was, I can’t fight with him,” he says. “I would explain to him that this was my father’s house; it was our family’s land for hundreds of years. I would tell him ‘You came here from nowhere and took it just like that. You’re a foreigner in my house.’ Israel always teaches foreigners that they just came over to live in empty lands, or in villages where people just left voluntarily. They never admit the truth that their country is built on stolen land.”
Karl Schembri is a correspondent for Ramattan news agency in the West Bank and Gaza