On Wednesday night I attended a talk and photo exhibit in Dublin Ireland, given by Mohammed Al-Azza. Al-Azza is a 24 year old photo journalist who lives in the Aida Refugee Camp in the West Bank. He was in Ireland as part of the Lajee Cultural Tour. Lajee is a youth center founded in 2000 in the Aida Camp to serve the young people. It is where Al-Azza learned photography and film making. The camp is 7.5 km south of Jerusalem, on the northern edge of Bethlehem. Last year Al-Azza was shot in the face while photographing Israeli soldiers policing the camp. He was hit with a rubber tipped bullet below the right eye. After 3 surgeries, he is in good health except for some disfigurement. [Above, his presentation at the Palestine Center last December.]
Al-Azza’s talk was based on his photographs of life in the camp of 6000 refugees. Al-Azza, who spoke in halting English, said almost nothing about politics. The one political comment he made—which drew applause—was that when he was 15 he threw stones at the IDF because it “was good for my heart…I have a right to resist.”
Most of Al-Azza’s photographs were of daily life in the camps—women cooking, children playing, dancers dancing. Some photographs needed no explanation, e.g. the Israeli apartheid wall, topped with barbed wire and periodic gun towers, that is built on two sides of the camp.
One photograph is of the entrance gate to the Aida camp with a giant key mounted on the top. Keys have become an important symbol in camp life. Al-Azza told us that the people, including his grandparents, who left their home in Palestine in 1948, expected to return in a week or two. They left most everything in their homes, but took their keys so that they would be able to get back in when the fighting was over.
A photograph across the separation wall shows large pots for catching rainwater on the rooftops of Palestinian dwellings in the foreground. In the distance, across the field, is a large Israeli settlement. The rooftops of the Israeli settlements do not have pots. The Palestinians need the pots for water because in summer they sometimes go as long as a month without water. The Israelis, who are allocated about 83% of the available water in the West Bank, do not need pots.
At the opening of his talk Al-Azza showed film clips of three young men who were supposed to accompany him on the trip. The clips filmed at night from a rooftop are eerie. They show each of the young men being escorted in turn through a wide flood-lit thoroughfare. The young men had been arrested the day before the trip to Ireland and are now in jail. None of the three has been charged with any crime as of this writing. Al-Azza was himself arrested last year but was released after several weeks, although he has to return to court periodically for a review of his status. A questioner asked Al-Azza if his friends who did not make the trip—one of whom was a dancer with the Lajee troupe– were arrested to stop them bearing witness about life in Palestine. Al-Azza said he didn’t know but that it was possible. The question of why they were arrested, however, didn’t seem to interest him. He told us that the justice system in the occupied territories was a “play.” When you are arrested you get interrogated again and again. The IDF are looking to get something on you so that they can imprison you.
Al-Azza told us that IDF forces frequently arrive unannounced at the camp, often at night. Most families have had their homes broken into by the IDF. More than three in four of the men in the camp have been arrested, more than the 40% that is average for Palestinian men in the West Bank. On the separation wall are portraits of 26 men who are incarcerated in Israeli prisons. One was recently released having served 23 years in prison.
Al-Azza described the many challenges of camp life, particularly the frequent incursions by IDF and the killings, 25 since the second intifada. Only last month a child of 14 was killed. Most of those who died did so because they could not get medical attention as there are no medical facilities in the camp and freedom of movement, even for a medical emergency, is not usually granted.
At the end of the talk, Al-Azza was asked why the Israelis hate the Palestinians. He answered that the Israelis want the Palestinian to leave, that they want the land. But he also spoke of the strong community spirit–”sumud”–or steadfastness. He said he could leave but would not. And that others in the camp could leave but would not.
The Israel/Palestine problem is not going to be solved by ridding the occupied territories of Palestinians; the only solution is a political one in which Palestinians have the rights of citizens. The camps may be grim but the spirit of sumud is alive.