Israeli killings and raids make for a dark Christmas at Bethlehem refugee camp
BETHLEHEM // This Christmas season in Bethlehem, death, depression and anger are in the air at Aida refugee camp, three kilometres from Nativity Church.
Aida, wedged between Israel’s West Bank separation barrier and an army checkpoint, has been a major flashpoint of clashes during the two-and-a-half-month-old wave of violence known in the Palestinian media as the haba shaabiya or popular rising.
At least 126 Palestinians and 19 Israelis have been killed since the beginning of October, according to the Palestinian Maan news agency.
Five of the Palestinian dead were from the Bethlehem area and two from Aida camp, including Abdul Rahman Shadi Obeidallah, 13, who camp residents say was killed by a sniper on October 5 as he stood in the street with friends.
A senior army officer said he was killed “unintentionally” as he stood near the target of the gunfire during clashes.
In the heart of the camp is a larger-than-life picture of the smiling, brown-eyed boy.
“My soul will remain here, chasing the killer and motivating my classmates,” reads the inscription next to Obeidallah’s picture.
At a shoe shop just inside the camp, salesman Mohammed Mashtayeh, 19, has Santa Claus slippers on display for the festive season, but no customers. He says frequent clashes have forced him to close for much of the past ten weeks and that fear of violence has scared people away even when the shop is open.
“Today is a day of rage,” he says, referring to days when factions call for an escalation of confrontation. “At 1 or 2pm, after school and university are out, the clashes start and we go home.”
The clashes generally begin with stonethrowing by youths at an Israeli army position just outside the camp. Soldiers use tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and sometimes live ammunition against the protesters who hurl stones and sometimes petrol bombs.
Death has hit close to home in the tightly knit camp of 5,000 registered refugees. These refugees include those who were expelled or fled at Israel’s creation in 1948, along with their descendants.
On walls near Mr Mashtayeh’s shop, graffiti reads: “No justice without return” and “Perhaps we will die but we will uproot death from our lands”.
Malik Shaheen, a 19-year-old killed on December 8 in the nearby Dehaishe refugee camp where he lived, was a school friend of Mr Mashtayeh. He was shot dead in clashes that erupted after Israeli troops launched an arrest raid in the camp.
“We cried and mourned for him,” says Mr Mashtayeh. “For three days I refused to open the store. The owner would call and say open, but I refused. I wanted to go to the funeral and to be with his family.”
Mustafa Al Araj, a resident of Aida camp, says Israeli army arrest raids in the camp have increased since the start of October. Troops now conduct four or five raids in the camp every month, usually at around 3 or 4am. Sometimes the soldiers make the arrest and leave the camp without residents in other houses knowing. But on other occasions residents are woken up and youths throw stones from the top of houses to which the army responds with live ammunition, he says.
“A lot of people get shot at night,” he says, adding that even if troops find the person they came to arrest “they break all of the stuff in their house and turn everything upside down”.
Meanwhile, Mr Mashtayeh is uneasy. He just read on Facebook that there will be an Israeli raid on the camp imminently, he starts to say, before being interrupted by a customer – Fuad Huzainah, an elderly Christian resident of the camp who is considering buying new shoes for Christmas.
The Facebook warning of an imminent raid was posted by a Palestinian friend of Mr Mashtayeh, but it turned out to be a rumour. The Israelis do not give camp residents prior warning of raids.
Business in the shoe shop is so bad that Mr Mashtayeh slashes the price of a pair by nearly 50 per cent and Mr Huzainah buys them. But he is still loath to spend money at this time of uncertainty.
“If the intifada becomes more violent who knows where it will lead,” he says, explaining that he is trying to cut his spending this Christmas. “It’s a critical situation, not a game. I’m keeping my money because I want to see what will happen.”
One of Mr Huzainah’s austerity cuts has been to not buy his wife a Christmas present.
“She said: ‘Buy me something’, but I said: ‘Love is enough’.”
Mr Al Araj, who works as a volunteer counsellor at the camp’s youth centre, says Israeli forces have arrested 25 people from the camp in the past 10 weeks and that some residents have boarded up their windows against tear gas canisters.
Last month a tear-gas canister went through the window of someone’s home, starting a fire that badly damaged the building, he says. This prompted some residents to start boarding up their windows.
“What people talk about here is that someone was arrested last night or that someone is about to be released,” he says, adding that in such an atmosphere, the marking of Christmas should be modest.
“Last year there was a big festival with lots of people in Manger Square enjoying music and having fun and doing this isn’t respectful for the people who died. It should be only religious activities,” he says.
Still, the Palestinian Authority wants celebrations to proceed in Bethlehem, although in Ramallah, the PA’s de facto capital, municipal authorities have cancelled all events in the city this year.
“We will celebrate and we will also be in pain because of the situation and the martyrs,” says Jiries Qumsiyeh, the PA tourism ministry official responsible for Bethlehem.
“Our message is to celebrate because this is Bethlehem. Our slogan this year is ‘Pray for peace in the holy land, pray for justice’.”
Local authorities are putting up decorations – except near Aida where Mr Qumsiyeh says there is too much firing of tear gas to put up decorations safely – and are organising concerts and events. An event on Monday (December 14) featured antique cars on display and people dressed up as Father Christmas, he says.
But very few tourists were visible in Manger Square on Tuesday (December 15) and tour guides stood idly in front of Nativity Church.
In the Manger Square Hotel, only two rooms out of 220 were occupied. At the same time last year, the hotel had a 60 per cent occupancy rate, reservation manager Luna Sahouri says. “Everyone’s afraid to come,” she explains. “Of course this affects our mood. There’s no work and we’re just sitting here.”
The hotel is fully booked from December 23-26 but reservations drop off again in January.
Meanwhile, tour guide Mathew Qasis says ruefully: “I can’t compare my business to previous years. It’s zero right now.”
Asked if he would celebrate the holiday, he adds: “When I see people killed on television it pushes me not to celebrate. I will celebrate it but without feeling.”
Updated: December 19, 2015 04:00 AM