Between conflict and pragmatism: Palestinians in Bethlehem look at a bleak future

Family of bus bomber blames Israel's policies for his choice as locals insist his action was a lone wolf attack.

Graffiti on a wall in Bethlehem commemorating a female 'martyr' (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Graffiti on a wall in Bethlehem commemorating a female 'martyr'
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
“Aluminum Nida” says the small faded sign in Hebrew and Arabic above a closed shop in Dahaishe refugee camp. Below the sign, a small black-and-white poster of Ahmad Sa’adat, the imprisoned secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) has been plastered to the shop’s metal door. The sign and the poster represent a kind of history of this refugee camp of 15,000 people, crammed into a warren of small streets and concrete houses.
“I remember Israeli soldiers used to patrol here,” says Adnan, a 50-year-old Palestinian resident of the camp. “The schools were run by Israel in the 1980s.” Before the first intifada Israelis would come here to shop and the main road from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion ran alongside the camp. Then came the intifada and Israel built a large black fence between the camp and the road to protect traffic from frequent clashes.
After the Oslo Accords the fence was torn down and the Palestinian Authority took control of the area, leaving only a small metal turnstile as a reminder of the days when the camp would be subjected to military closures.
Originally designated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in 1949 for only 3,000 refugees, the population has rapidly grown. UNRWA claims it has a population density of 45,000 per, roughly four times that of Manhattan. Walking the narrow streets, one still sees people pouring concrete for new homes, but those camp residents who can afford it dream of moving somewhere else.
Adawi Mutaz, a student who has taken off time to work in hospitality in Bethlehem, and grew up in Dahaishe, says that in the last months they have experienced nightly raids by the army. “They [the IDF] come to the camp after midnight usually.” Youth who call themselves Huras al-Mukhayim or “camp guards” frequently clash with the IDF, throwing stones.
Mutaz describes it as a kind of cycle.
“When they take a guy to prison, so he will say ‘so and so was with me [throwing stones]’ and each time they will arrest another one.” This is the kind of the low intensity conflict that takes place outside the media’s eyes and has become routine.
“This camp is one kilometer on each side; it’s unbelievably crowded.
We live with seven [family members] in a small apartment. It’s another world, a world of suffering.
There is no privacy here. At 24 I share a bedroom,” says Mutaz.
“Why do they go to clashes or stabbing?”, he asks rhetorically. They have nothing to lose, he explains – “only to lose this hell,” so they do anything to escape the misery, he concludes.
The pictures of those who have “escaped” by attacking Israelis are plastered throughout the camp.
Every concrete wall up to eye level is festooned with graffiti and posters celebrating either historical figures such as Yasser Arafat, or more recent young men who were killed. This is the martyrology that seeps through every facet of life.
Near the entrance a large monument encased in Jerusalem stone points like a finger to the sky to commemorate the shahids, or “martyrs.” Nearby is a large blackand- white image of Ayat al-Akhras, a female suicide bomber. She wears a black-and-white keffiyeh and holds a pistol. In 2002 she was driven to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Hayovel and detonated a bomb at the entrance to the supermarket, killing two people and herself.
Despite the heroic posters and graffiti, there is a resignation among many of the older camp residents to the obstacles they face in their dreams for a Palestinian state.
One man named Husam who has worked as a Palestinian activist for years said that the world is focusing on Syria and no longer cares for his cause. “International powers are waiting for the situation in Syria to be settled. The whole world is now suffering terrorism and that affects Palestinians as well. Some say the occupation is the reason for much of this terrorism.” He looks at the political map of Palestine, with the Palestinian Authority controlling parts of the West Bank and Hamas controlling Gaza. “Today we have two states in reality.”
They see a decline in US power in the region and outsourcing of US interests to Saudi Arabia. Many people interviewed also claimed that the destabilizing of the Middle East was due not only to US policies in Iraq, but also because the US “created al-Qaida, ISIS and even Hamas.” The latter comment led to a dispute about how the US was behind Hamas, a group that is receiving only bare sympathy in Dahaishe, where most residents are loyal to the PFLP or Fatah, the ruling party. “The US weakened Arafat and Hamas emerged, and then the US lost control,” concluded one man we spoke with.
It is part of an overall dim view of US policy and resignation that whoever wins the 2016 elections will not help Palestinians. “Except Bernie Sanders, even though he’s Jewish,” said Husam. “We cheered Obama when he won [the US election] but nothing changed. Every day there are Israeli raids, the message they send is ‘work with us or you will see what happens.’” The man describes a younger generation of Palestinians involved in clashes with the IDF. “Even many girls now, some have been arrested just for posts on Facebook.” He looks at his own kids, age 18 and 20 – “Their view is negative, they have no hope. When there was the [2014] Gaza war, all the soldiers [Hamas fighters] who went to war didn’t know what is the occupation, they had not lived under it. It’s like the kids doing the stabbing [from here], they don’t even know Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem they claim to fight for.”
He thinks it is the same on the Israeli side, the total separation since the second intifada means Israelis have no confidence in peace, and they don’t like Palestinians.
“People don’t know each other.” Like the shop with the Hebrew on it down the street, the men look at the tunnel road – that connects route 60 with Jerusalem and Gush Etzion and was completed in 1996 to allow Israeli traffic to bypass Bethlehem – and they see a symbol of separation.
“We are the backyard of Israel,” says Husam. “In the future we will be together. Israel wants this situation to continue and in the end there will be a Palestinian state in Gaza. It was our dream to have a state but we need peace at the moment. It’s an issue of what you can do, what is in your hands. If we were like Hezbollah, perhaps it would be different.” Hezbollah has Iranian support and it has an arsenal of some 100,000 rockets. These men can only look back to the second intifada when they had small arms against Israeli tanks. For them life has been a series of defeats at the hands of Israel. In the 1980s they fought the IDF in the camp with stones. Under Oslo they thought there would be peace and a state.
They look back with some fondness on days of coexistence gone by, and they fear the chaos sweeping the region and the rise of Islamist extremism.
“We lost almost everything in the second intifada. We lost confidence and Israel got [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, we got the wall [security fence]. You can’t win.” The acceptance that Israel will not be defeated militarily is coupled with other concerns about the future. They fear their children being involved in clashes and one man says he encourages his son not to watch the constant news reports on war that appear in Arabic media. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is getting older, which is a concern for maintaining stability.
“After him the problem [we face] will be accelerated,” says Adnan.
They don’t see a clear front-runner in taking the mantle of leadership, neither exiled former Gaza politician Mahmud Dahlan, nor jailed Palestinian mass murderer Marwan Barghouti.
Camp residents also claim that they face everyday struggles, such as a cut in aid by the UN, and lack of proper sanitation. Prices outside the camp make affording an apartment difficult. “Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by Israeli settlements,” says Adnan. Overlooking the camp from its highest point is a community center named for the fabled bird Phoenix. It has guest rooms for NIS 50. A destroyed car sits in a corner of a parking lot.
There is a helicopter pad here built when Yasser Arafat was president of the PA during the Oslo years. It was supposed to serve his fleet of helicopters which were disabled in Israeli strikes in Gaza in November of 2001. Today the Phoenix Center is being used for a wedding. Like so much here it has an intangible quality, which he compares to the mythological Phoenix, a bird that regenerates from its own ashes.
“The phoenix is a bird that rises, a symbol of the refugee camp rising, and of hope.”
A short drive from Dahaishe, down the crowded main street toward the center of Bethlehem, is the Presidential Palace of the Mukata.
Another relic of the Arafat years, it was where he greeted guests, and is now part of the extensive Palestinian Authority government infrastructure.
One of the houses next to the Mukata on Gamal Abdel Nasser street, looks like a leafy estate. It is the home of the Abu Srur family, whose suicide bomber son Abd al-Hamid Abu Srour blew up a No.
12 bus in Jerusalem, wounding 20 people on April 18. It was the first bus bombing in Jerusalem since 2004.
“He was from a wealthy family, so we don’t understand it. We think he didn’t intend to kill himself but to leave it [the bomb] and go,” says Mutaz. Like many attacks here, the bombing in Jerusalem is an object of gossip and theories.
After the bombing, when Israel released details about the perpetrator and Hamas claimed responsibility, the family set up a mourning area to receive visitors at the entrance to the Aida refugee camp north of Bethlehem. With a population of 6,000 it is smaller than Dahaishe, but like Dahaishe, has played a central role in Palestinian politics and the conflict with Israel.
Unlike Dahaishe, it has many more Hamas supporters, and their flags were visible all around the entrance to the camp as men paid their respects to the family. But there was also a PFLP banner and some Fatah flags.
Palestinian security sources said they conclude the attack was a lone-wolf event; the family is not known to be connected to Hamas, and is not involved in political activism. A friend of the family who spoke on their behalf said that the young man was “modest, normal, he had an innocent smile.” When Abd didn’t come home on April 18 the family didn’t connect his being missing with the bombing. The next day they went to ask the Palestinian police for information, a request that was eventually answered, they say, when the Palestinian security services contacted the Israelis. Only a day after the bombing did the Israelis tell the family their son was accused in the attack.
“The main reason for what he did is the unfair occupation and [Israel Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is responsible for the boy’s response [to Israel’s actions],” said a source close to the family.
The mood at the mourners tent was somber and it was clear the family seemed out of place among the politics of the situation. A small lectern had been set up for speeches, but the crowds were relatively sparse.
Everyone seems to agree that this bombing was an outlier, not part of a new wave of attacks directed at Israel.
Driving back toward Beit Jala for lunch, the taxi driver was griping about the lack of cellphone coverage in Bethlehem and the Palestinian areas, necessitating him having two phones, one from Cellcom and one from Jawwal, a Palestinian provider. It’s a reminder that Palestinians here only recently received permission from Israel to use the 3G network that many parts of the Western World take for granted. But the driver was annoyed because, according to him, Palestinians caught selling SIM cards supporting Israeli cell services were being fined NIS 10,000 by the Palestinian police.
Taking stock of the overall situation at Barbra restaurant overlooking Beit Jala and the route 60 tunnel road, Adnan pondered the future.
“Israel can make peace. They are the strong power and can be courageous, like Sharon who left Gaza.”