x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

West Bank refugees build a stage the pope might not be allowed to use

Israel is fiercely opposed to the construction of a stage Adia refugee camp residents hope the pope will speak from during his visit.

Construction workers finish a stage being constructed for the Pope's visit to the West Bank.
Construction workers finish a stage being constructed for the Pope's visit to the West Bank.

AIDA REFUGEE CAMP, WEST BANK // Munther Amira, 39, surveyed the view from the rooftop with a shake of the head. "This is how we live. This is what we want the world to see." He stood on the roof of a house in the Aida refugee camp, home to about 5,000 people, and looked over an open space where workers toiled on a stage residents hope Pope Benedict XVI will speak from when he is scheduled to visit on May 13.

The view from the rooftop is compelling. To all sides except one, narrow alleys jostle for space around houses built in several stages, added floors crowding on to added floors. The refugee camp houses people who hail from 25 villages west of Jerusalem, some now destroyed, who were displaced in 1948. To the side of where the Pope's stage is being built, a lush, green olive orchard stretches away from the camp, a shock of green amid the constricting grey of the camp's concrete.

There, camp residents used to harvest the olives, which belong to the Armenian Church, under an agreement that would see them keep half the harvest in return for their work. It was also a place where children could play and adults could walk. Now, it is off limits. Between the orchard and the pontiff's stage, a 9metre-high concrete wall, part of Israel's separation barrier, rises out of the dirt, severing the camp from the only green area in its vicinity. Seen from the rooftop, the wall traces a complicated path along the edge of the camp, dipping in near the camp cemetery to include, on the other side, Rachel's Tomb, an area of religious significance to Jews, before running its course around Bethlehem and out into the distance.

The wall has had a huge effect on Aida refugee camp since it was erected in 2004. Apart from severing access to the olive orchard, the watchtowers are a constant menace, say residents, and although violence has tapered off, the local United Nations Relief and Works Agency school still bears the pockmarks and broken windows of previous shootings. The school has also had to allow the children of the camp to use the schoolyard after hours since there is no open space left elsewhere for them to play.

Israeli travel restrictions since 2000 combined with the wall have also caused a spike in unemployment among the camp's already impoverished residents, many of whom used to work illegally in Israel as day labourers. Today, unemployment hovers around 70 per cent compared with 25 per cent nine years ago. Most of the few industries in and around the camp have had to close down and lay off workers. Iskander Qamar, 86, one of the camp's few Christian residents, had to close his textile factory in 2000, before the wall came up just across the street from his house, but after Israel implemented tough travel restrictions on West Bank Palestinians.

Of the 28 employees that used to work there to weave towels and kitchen apparel, only one remains, and then only to maintain the last remaining functioning machine. "We used to sell to Tel Aviv. But after the restrictions and then this wall, I had no choice, I had to close the shop," said Mr Qamar, who is originally from Jerusalem itself, rather than a surrounding village. "In all the years I have lived here, nothing has had a greater impact than this wall. It is the final division of Palestine between Palestinians and Jews." Mr Amira is a member of the Aida camp committee in charge of arrangements for the Pope's visit.

It is easy to see why the committee wants the pontiff to speak at the stage they are erecting here. Flanked on one side by the wall and on the other by the squalid misery of the camp, the pope would address an estimated 1,000 capacity crowd with an Israeli watchtower directly behind him. Pictures of the occasion would, Mr Amira predicted, neatly sum up the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "The pope will be here when we mark the Nakba [the displacement of 800,000 Palestinians in 1948]. The refugee camp is a reminder of the fate of those people, who have not received any justice. The wall is a reminder of the continuing oppression we face."

The stage, however, may never be used. Pope Benedict is scheduled to speak at the Aida refugee camp, but initial arrangements had him addressing the crowds at a school. Israel is fiercely opposed to the erection of the stage, and the Israeli civil administration, which is in charge of civil affairs in the occupied territory, has issued orders for construction to end. Camp officials also said they had received threats that if construction did not end, Israel would demolish the stage. It has not deterred the work, even if Mr Amira admits the Pope may not end up speaking next to the wall.

"I hope he will. It is an important visit. The Pope's message is one of freedom and peace. Our message is that without freedom, there can be no peace." Mr Qamar was less overwhelmed by the imminent papal presence. "I want to see the end of the division of Palestine between Palestinians and Jews. I am prepared to live until I am 120 to return to Jerusalem. But how will the Pope's visit help with this?"

okarmi@thenational.ae