In July of 2018, I visited the city of Bethlehem in Palestine. Bethlehem is a city of contrasts, the locus where old blends into new: the birthplace of Jesus Christ remains amidst the layers of two thousand years’ worship; goatherds can be seen leading their flocks in the shadow of tower blocks; the call to prayer and the channels of ritual that have for so long echoed through the streets now mingle with the screech of tyres on blistering pavements and the blare of music from car radios. It is, of course, like any other city the majority of the time, and yet at moments the weight of centuries of pilgrimage and praise, crusade and conflict, is quietly present.
Folded within the midst of this city, just off another of Bethlehem’s dusty roads, is a community of refugees living in the Aida Refugee Camp. This is where they have been since 1950, since the war in 1948 that forced them from their homes. Walking into the camp, the first thing to meet the eye is a huge, iron key that rests over the entrance gate. Our guide tells us the key is testament to the promise of the return of the displaced to their homes. It is the most movingly domestic of symbols: when the families left their homes they quite naturally thought to bring their house keys with them in the belief that they would soon return. This everyday act has now taken on the weight of resistance. After David Ben-Gurion reportedly said ‘the old will die and the young will forget’, the presence of these keys hanging in the adopted homes of the camp are a quiet defiance, a preserved promise that, no, they will never forget their true homes or the injustice that was done to them. Even as the camp grows and permanent houses and streets replace hastily erected tents, the young continue to inherit the memory of the generations before them with the passing down of these keys. The ominous Separation Wall built by the Israeli government looms over the camp: on the other side lies Jerusalem, the home of so many of these people. Less than five miles away, they may never return in their lifetimes.
I am here in the camp alongside the Girton College Chapel Choir as part of a wider tour of Israel and Palestine. We were given the opportunity to be here by the McCabe Trust, a Christian organisation who help to fund various hospitals, schools and orphanages in the city. The stories of the people living in the West Bank become integral to our visit; as we hear more about the difficulties Palestine faces as a nation and the effect the conflict has on individuals, the importance of listening to these stories first-hand, without the distortion of the Western media, quickly becomes clear.
Continuing through the gate into the camp, we pass vibrant street art on all sides. It seems as though every inch of wall is covered in messages of hope and, at times, despair. It is an organic and ever-growing testimony that exudes the spirit of the people who live here, and juxtaposes all sides of the Palestinian experience. One wall is adorned by a young boy triumphantly astride a gleaming blue horse, brandishing that symbolic key aloft as he leaps over the Separation Wall towards freedom; yet, emblazoned elsewhere upon the dull bricks of the Wall are the desolate words ‘We can’t live, so we are waiting for death’. And more painful still is the long, long list of Palestinian children killed during an Israeli assault in July 2014, painted near the camp’s entrance.
Passing through this beautiful and painful expression of what are everyday emotions here, we are led to the Al-Rowwad Centre. The centre is dedicated to teaching creative arts to young people to preserve Palestinian heritage and promote peaceful resistance, and we are introduced to its founder, Abdelfattah Abusrour. A warm and passionate man, he tells us a little about life in the camp and Al-Rowwad’s role within it, keen to deliver its history to us due to his belief that “it is important that young people come and see, search and reflect, and don’t allow any media to do brainwashing and stereotyping.” His words reveal the hardships and oppression within camp-life, from the restricted water supply to the nightly patrols of the Israeli soldiers; the frequent use of tear gas on the inhabitants of the camp to the killing of an unarmed 13-year-old boy named Aboud Shadi, shot from a sniper tower. Abusrour tells us that “sometimes we have eight or nine year-old children saying ‘I want to die”’. Exclamations like this, from children so young, are shocking, but these are children growing up in a place where the murder of a young boy can go unpunished, and where the arbitrary arrests of their friends are commonplace. Abusrour describes how, when the soldiers patrol the camp, they will often take children away at random to prison, sometimes for a few days, or a few months, sometimes a year. Our guide tells us later that he was arrested in 1990 and held for a year without having committed a crime, at only fourteen years old. The effect of arbitrary arrest by fully armed adult soldiers on a young child does not need to be explained, but is undoubtedly a contributor to the sense of claustrophobic despair. Abusrour’s account shows me that Palestinian oppression is not a single act completed in the past, a people once displaced but living fully elsewhere; their oppression continues daily as the land that they own is further diminished, their heritage and national ties are fragmented, and their children are killed. The right to return may burn at the centre of the injustices done to their people, but this old scar only sets the basis for the further cruelties that continue to wound their present.
Seeing how Palestinians live and hearing about the difficulties they face every day, I wonder how anyone can openly commit such atrocities against so many, let alone people who have themselves felt the weight of persecution, oppression and diaspora hanging over them for thousands of years. My feelings only deepen when I visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Israel. Yad Vashem is a sombre and harrowing place, but it somehow captures a beauty in remembering those who perished under the Nazis. Between the long, still rows of trees there is a sense of the lives lived as well as the deaths they were so abominably sent to. The Children’s Memorial, a pitch-black room filled with millions of reflections of just five candles, tiny pinpoints of golden light stretching infinitely in every direction, is rich with this same feeling. While the candles cannot lift the oppressive darkness that surrounds them, they continue to flicker steadfastly, filling the room with quiet beauty. Israel is a country full of people who know what it is to lose their children, a nightmare still in living memory and a threat still existent for them today as anti-Semitism continues to thrive.
As I wander around the museum, it narrates the beginnings of the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews, from labelling them as other and arbitrary arrests, to outbursts of anti-Semitic violence and the suppression of Jewish artistic expression, and, ultimately, the expulsion from their homes into ghettos. It is not helpful to compare the conditions for Jews in the early days of Nazi Germany to the Arab-Israeli conflict, as the disproportionate horror of the Holocaust must remain on its own terms, and though the events are historically linked, they are unique from each other. And yet, just ahead of me there is a group of Israeli soldiers, the same age as me and fully armed, walking around the museum reading each caption and looking at each photograph just as I have done. I wonder if they feel the same jarring feeling that I have watching those displaced people staring restlessly out of black and white photographs, the expression of an uprooted people forced from their homes and bereft of security. Does it occur to these soldiers that they play a role in hurting so many the way their relatives were once hurt?
On stepping into the blazing sunlight outside, a small plaque catches my attention as if answering my thoughts. It reads:
THE CHILDREN’S TERRACE
Dedicated in honor of our dear parents
SAM & GLADYS HALPERN
They saw a world in which one and a half million Jewish children were murdered
And they survived to witness the birth of the State of Israel and millions of Jewish children.
These words help me to understand what the soldiers saw in the museum. For so many Jewish Israelis, the State of Israel represents a place of comfort, safety and sanctuary, a right that was so difficult for them to find within twentieth century Europe. Israel has become a home for those who were adrift for so long, a shelter from the threats of anti-Semitism and a symbol of birth after so many deaths. It is a country in which millions of Jewish children can be born into freedom.
But this freedom has come, unnecessarily, at the expense of Palestinian freedom. The Wall separating Israel from the dwindling remainder of Palestine is just a concrete reminder of the more solid barrier of lived experience that pits Zionism against Arab nationalism. For Zionists, Israel is a treasured sanctuary that holds so much significance to those who needed its shelter, but this sense of belonging, of homecoming and return, has engulfed the experiences of those who already lived there. The vast chasm between these two worldviews is apparent in language: the war of 1948 in Hebrew is called the ‘War of Liberation’, and in Arabic, ‘Nakba’, meaning ‘Catastrophe’. The same historical event holds such vastly different significance for Arabs in comparison to Zionists that the gap between them seems unbridgeable, as what seems to be hard-earned freedom for one means oppression for the other. This conflict is a result of the pain, both inherited and current, that make up the experiences of both peoples. But, later, Abusrour says to me that “having suffered cannot be exploited to make others suffer, especially those who have nothing to do with your suffering”. If the experiences on both sides are so deeply saturated in feelings and memories that only reinforce the barbed wire and concrete walls, how is Israeli occupation ever to end?
Abusrour’s answer is to use these very feelings as a method of resistance, precisely because the experience of them is present on both sides of the wall. He calls this ‘beautiful resistance’: to protest Israeli oppression through art, theatre, music and dance, creative arts that both defiantly celebrate Palestinian heritage and communicate the Palestinian experience to the rest of the world in a medium that reaches out to common human feeling. It is not resistance like that which the media has sometimes used to demonise the Palestinian plight: there is no violence, no bombing, no protestors walking, unarmed, unflinching, towards their deaths at the hands of open Israeli gunfire. When the real desperation of their situation calls for these kinds of actions, why have Abusrour and the inhabitants of Aida chosen a different route?
Abusrour says “I don’t want any child to die for my country – we should live for our country.” The belief in beautiful resistance envisages a future for Palestine, by preserving its culture and humanity, by nurturing its children and giving them something to live for in the present instead of dying for a freedom they might never live to see. It encourages those children who see no use in living to find what wonders there are in their daily lives and in their individual creative spirit despite being forced to live in the darkest of times. Abusrour wants to teach the children of Aida “to express themselves in the most beautiful and creative, truthful ways to live to defend their causes and not think that the only way to change anything is to die for it, or blow oneself or burn oneself or kill everyone who disagrees. We need to flourish the world of future generation with life and hope and trust that every day that comes will be more beautiful than the day that goes.”
On understanding this kind of resistance, I realise that resistance is present everywhere in Palestine, not just in the protests on the borders of Gaza. It is present in the street art and the paintings on the Separation Wall, it is in the research of the Palestinian Natural History Museum, in the students at Bethlehem University, in any act of living a full human life pursuing passion and creativity despite occupation. It is through this kind of resistance, Abusrour believes, that those seemingly concrete barriers will begin to crumble. “Theatre, arts and education are great means to build bridges among us as human beings because they reflect the purist form of humanity where stereotypes disappear and we are influenced by what touches us as human beings regardless of where it comes from. That is a power that hopefully pave the way to build bridges, and see that we share a lot of similarities that should bring us closer to each other, and whatever differences we have should be ways to enrich us.” The arts are a form of communication that touch what we all share, that may begin to open up a conversation between these two apparently alienated worldviews. It appeals to a sense of beauty and sadness such as that I felt in Yad Vashem: these feelings really are present in both the Israeli and Palestinian experience. In light of this belief in the power of creative arts, it was wonderful that my experience of Palestine was underpinned by music, singing the music of Palestrina with the Girton Choir on both sides of the wall.
My visit to Palestine and my words here only convey a tiny portion of a huge and multifaceted situation, so this can claim to be nothing more than an account of my thoughts and feelings on meeting the people of the West Bank, and an attempt to convey their message to a part of the world that often chooses not to listen. The issues faced by Palestinians and Arabs living in Israel worsen every day, so it is hugely important to spread their story as far as possible.
For more objective information about the history of the conflict and the current state of the Arab-Israeli relationship, I highly recommend the links below.