Following the Israeli military’s recent surge of killings in the occupied territories the refugees of Aida camp in Bethlehem have renewed a campaign of resistance against the apartheid wall that encircles much of the camp.
Israel’s apartheid wall has come to dominate life in the Aida refugee camp. Directly on the other side of the wall is the only green space that used to exist in Aida camp. Prior to the construction of the wall, refugees barbecued and harvested olives in the spot. In addition, a short distance away from the camp is a compound containing Rachel’s Tomb, believed to the burial site of the biblical figure, a yeshiva and an Israeli military base. The compound has sniper towers and multiple gates that provide the military direct access to Aida camp and Bethlehem. When the gate is open, visitors to Rachel’s Tomb often stand beside soldiers and peer into Aida.
Before sunrise on Friday, March 21, the youth of Aida drilled a hole in a previously damaged section of the wall. Over the next several days, the Israeli military used various methods to repair the wall. During these operations, the military used a range of weapons and tactics. Tear gas, flash grenades, rubber coated bullets, plastic coated bullets, and live ammunition were used, and the military occupied Palestinian homes and placed trigger happy snipers on rooftops. Every military assault was met with resistance from the youth of Aida refugee camp, armed only with stones and broken pieces of brick.
While the Israeli military cordoned off the wall Saturday afternoon, contractors first installed a piece of sheet metal, ostensibly as a temporary solution. Within 30 minutes of the military’s exit from Aida, the camp youth battered the sheet metal off, leaving a hole that peered into the fields they used to enjoy. The military soon returned and began another assault that lasted until the evening.
Sunday saw another full-day operation by the Israeli military. The only injuries inflicted upon the Israeli military occurred that morning, when two Israeli Border Police were injured. A brick dropped from above hit one soldier in the head resulting in a moderate injury. Another soldier was hit with a firecracker and was lightly injured.
In response to the injured Border Policemen, the military arrested nine men from the Abu Akar home and took them to police stations for questioning. 57-year-old Mustafa Abu Akar was accused of dropping the brick on the Border Policeman, though he maintains his innocence. After being interrogated for 5 hours and held for 36 hours, Mustafa was released. All other family members have since been released.
The attention of the camp turned away from the wall Sunday night to the Real Madrid vs. Barcelona soccer match. The ability of the refugees to endure a military assault and celebrate sports at night demonstrates the collective resilience of Aida in the face of everyday state violence.
The Israeli military invaded again early Monday morning. Israeli contractors used an excavator to remove the foundational concrete of the wall. They then replaced the entire damaged section of the wall, and refilled the foundation with several feet of concrete.
With soldiers and Border Police strategically placed throughout the camp, the area in near proximity to the damaged wall was relatively calm. Throughout the day, Border Police vehicles delivered fruit and meals. The soldiers could be seen sitting on the ground and rooftops while others fired tear gas and sniper rifles at the refugees.
Injuries and Arrests
On Friday evening, an Italian journalist was shot in the face with a rubber coated bullet as she attempted to flee. The bullet narrowly missed her eyeball. She had surgery the following day and is in recovery.
At least four young refugees were shot between Sunday, March 23rd and Monday the 24th. 15-year-old Ahmed Daajneh claims to have been standing near the camp mosque, only looking at the action when he was shot with a rubber coated bullet in the left temple, narrowly missing his eyeball. His father described the mindset of the youth: “In 2000, the airplanes shot two missiles at my house. This is nothing. The kids think it’s a game.”
Monday afternoon, two young Palestinian refugees claim to have been shot by Israeli snipers. 17-year-old Mohamed says tear gas canisters landed on both sides of him. He tried to run but was unable to see, and he was then shot with live ammunition in the left thigh. Several people helped Mohamed into a car and driven to the hospital. The doctor removed a bullet from his leg which he now carries in his pocket. He was unable to show me his wound because of the swelling of his leg made it difficult to remove his pants. Doctors have not given him any timetable for recovery.
22-year-old Ibrahim claims to have been sitting on the ground in the camp when he was shot with a rubber coated bullet in the cheek by a sniper. “I didn’t feel it at first, then my face felt like a balloon.” Several youth helped him into a car where he was taken to the hospital.
One man was shot in the leg. He declined to give testimony.
On Monday night, the military appeared to have exited around 8 pm. Around 9 pm, plain clothed special forces assaulted a 20-year-old Palestinian man named Mutassim Alsurefee. Witnesses claim the special forces beat and kicked him against a wall until he fell unconscious. Mutassim’s brother claims soldiers beat him with the butt of a rifle. Alsurefee was then arrested and taken into custody. The military re-entered the camp simultaneously, taking positions to prevent access to the drying concrete. The mother of Mutassim demanded to know why they took her son. After initially refusing to speak to her, the commander informed her that he was suspected of tampering with the drying concrete, and if his hands and clothing were found to be clean, he would be released. The commander also claimed that a doctor had examined Alsurefee and that he was uninjured. Numerous witnesses described the beating as extremely violent, making the commander’s claim about the doctors evaluation doubtful. Mutassim’s brother reported that he is in Ofer prison and will speak with a lawyer.
Mohammed Al-Azraq, a prominent activist in the camp, was arrested by Israeli soldiers early Wednesday morning. They forced entry into his home and destroyed his personal belongings. No one knows where he was taken, on what charges or when he might be released.
With hundred of tear gas canisters fired throughout the camp every day, virtually every home was hit. Several windows were broken, and the burning hot canisters ignited fires.
A local activist and Aida resident, Mohammed Lutfi, broke his foot while rescuing three children from tear gas an Israeli soldier fired into their home.
The Al-Azza family reported that a tear gas canister broke the window to a bedroom. Ayad Al-Azza and his three daughters, ages 9, 4 and 2, huddled in the kitchen. He closed the bedroom door and put wet towels along the bottom to prevent tear gas from entering.
The Malash house is directly across the street from the damaged portion of the wall and the adjacent Israeli military sniper tower. The youngest family member is Bissan, a baby girl born on March 12, just nine days before the latest assault on Aida began. The family attempted to completely seal the home to prevent tear gas from seeping in, though they found a leak in the kitchen foiled their attempt. The family sprayed perfume in a vain effort to counter the tear gas.
Bissan’s aunt Sana said “There was perfurme and tear gas, but no oxygen. I became nervous and started screaming.” Bissan was in her crib in a bedroom room and suffered the effects of tear gas. Sana said Bissan’s skin turned pale and she was vomiting. Medics were called in and administered oxygen to Bissan.
Again on Saturday tear gas seeped through the kitchen into the Malash house. The grandmother came outside frantic and screaming for medics to come. Ten-day-old Bissan suffered from tear gas inhalation again. Medics gave her medicine and administered oxygen. The following day, a doctor examined Bissan and told the family she must be admitted to Caritas baby hospital. Sana Malash said Bissan has developed acute bronchitis, and she is sometimes unable to to sleep. The family hopes she will be released from the hospital soon.
With nowhere else to go, the Malash family worries about the future. “If she comes here and they throw gas again, we don’t know what will happen. I think she will go stay with another family,” Sana Malash told me.
Aida resident and activist Munther Amira claims he told a soldier that small children were suffering from tear gas shot into their homes, to which the soldier replied “It’s not my problem.”
The Resistance Escalates
After the relative quiet of Tuesday, the refugees sent a clear message to anyone who could see on Wednesday evening. Dozens of tires were set ablaze, heavily damaging the sniper tower and the replaced section of the wall. Thick black smoke billowed into the cool air for hours. As the fire died down, Israeli soldiers once again entered Aida and fired teargas to clear the vicinity of the fire. After approximately 30 minutes, they returned home.
The damage was visible Thursday morning. The fire had destroyed chunks of concrete from the tower and the rebar skeleton was visible.
Using Journalists as Human Shields
During Saturday’s initial assault, the Israeli military attempted to use myself and two other journalists as human shields. Under threat of arrest, the commander instructed us to march down a narrow street between the youth who were throwing rocks and where soldiers were firing teargas and rubber coated bullets. We refused to do so, and without explanation, the commander confiscated our press cards for approximately 90 minutes before returning them.
That evening, as the soldiers were withdrawing from the camp, I was held at gunpoint. As they raised their weapons at me, I identified myself as a journalist, raised my hands and put my face and body against a wall. They shouted at me in Hebrew, Arabic, and eventually English, saying “go!” I went where they pointed, and as they walked away a soldier threw a flash grenade a meter in front of me and another American journalist. The flash grenade created a blinding bright light and deafening bang, leaving my ears ringing for several hours. The soldiers are heard laughing as they walked away in footage filmed by the other American journalist.
Israeli Media Coverage
With the exception of a visit to Aida by two Ha’aretz journalists, the Israeli media turned a blind eye until the two Border Police were injured. Three widely read Israeli media outlets falsely reported that the incident took place in Rachel’s Tomb, which is inside the heavily fortified military compound that Palestinians have no access to, rather than inside Aida refugee camp during an Israeli military assault. These echoed the claims of an IDF tweet.
— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) March 23, 2014
Ynetnews published a piece entitled “Two Border Guard officers wounded in Rachel’s Tomb.”
Arutz Sheva reported that “Palestinian Arab terrorists rioted at Rachel’s Tomb” which resulted in the injury of the two Israeli military injuries. The article asserted that “Arabs from the village of Al Aida” attacked Border Policemen at Rachel’s Tomb. Of course, there is no village called Al Aida.
More notable is that the article claimed that a military source said the 9 meter tall walls surrounding the compound have proved insufficient to provide security and a roof may be built over Rachel’s Tomb.
Israel Hayom appears to have twice reported the same incident, one being the incorrect location and the other being inside Aida camp. The article claims that “dozens of Palestinians began throwing stones and hurling Molotov cocktails at security forces stationed near Rachel’s Tomb, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. A similar riot was noted in the nearby al-Aida refugee camp.”
Though media outlets may turn a blind eye, the thick black smoke that filled the sky sent a clear message. In the words of an Aida refugee and activist who wished to remain anonymous, “we want to return to all of Palestine and don’t want to live under occupation and inside camps. We want to send a message that we will never accept living under occupation. In the end they can take our lives but they can never take our freedoms!”
Additional photography for this article was provided by Mohammed Al-Azza. Al-Azza is the Media Director of the Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp. Please visit www.lajee.org for more information.