Balata is the densest place on earth, in human terms. It is the size of about two football fields, approximately 1.5 square kilometers. In this small space, wedged between the Tomb of Jacob to the east, the Jerusalem-Nablus road to the north, and Balata village to the west, live about 30,000 Palestinian refugees. These people are decendents from people who fled villages near Jaffa, a city now known as Yaffa, which lies inside the borders of Palestine '48 (otherwise known as Israel). Some of the people in Balata are old enough to have actually made the trek themselves; there is a film on the Balatacamp.net website that includes interviews with older women who still remember the fragrant orange and lemon trees of their former home.
Dense as it is, people have little choice but to build up. When a Palestinian man gets married and has a family of his own, he must either live with his parents or build a flat on top of his parents' home. The blueprint of the camp is like a maze to outsiders. This is because in 1952, when Jaffa refugees finally settled here after nearly four years of poverty stricken wandering, the UN gave them tents in which to build their new lives and community. Those tents form the foundation of the camp today. In 1956, after four years of suffering through cold, rainy winters, and hot, mericless summers, the refugees of Jaffa finally accepted the UN's offer of concrete blocks with which to build homes. The people had perceptively denied accepting the offer even through great suffering; they did not want to build permanent structures here because they were determined to go home.
Well, fifty years later, they and four generations of their decendents are still here. Grandparents and great-grandparents pass down stories to the younger ones about what life was like in that pristine, beautiful oceanside land they still call home. Even four year old children know about their people's troubled past. When asked where they are from, most children do not say Balata. Without hesitation, they say 'Jaffa!'
Because the camp started as a tent city, the buildings are impossibly close together. Some alleyways are so narrow that fat people cannot pass through them. In many houses in the camp one cannot ever tell the difference between day and night; the sun rarely shines into Balata.
The past few nights have been on par with what is considered normal here. The night before last, the army came. They drove through the streets in about 15 jeeps and then drove away without doing much of anything. Last night they came again. This time, they brought with them a few bulldozers and set off five soundbombs. The purpose of these missions? Purely to terrorize, to remind the people here that they are here, that they have not gone away. Not that the people could forget; only a few kilometers from here is one of the largest occupation military bases in the West Bank. From the camp each night, you can hear the occupiers training their young thugs. Between this gunfire and the shots the fighters in the camp ring out each night, many people go sleepless. Others are simply accomstomed. I must admit I am in the latter camp. There are only so many times that aimless gunfire can startle you. A famous poet once remarked that human beings get used to war faster than almost anything else. It's true.
Today, M. and I head out to speak with a few people who we want to become involved with the school project. Due to the miserable situation among the Palestinian factions here, we have cancelled the idea of starting a full-on school. Instead, we plan to do an after school program with many of the same goals. A large part of the project will still be college prep work, with an eye toward assisting students in applying to, gaining acceptance to and finding funds to attend universities throughout the world.
(Speaking of the in-fighting among Palestinians, I have some pretty harsh condemnations of the US, the EU and Israel to unleash. I don't, however, have the time. Instead of writing something now, I am copying an article I wrote for the Bard paper a few months ago. I hate to say it, but I was right. Please read on if you'd like to know how this situation became so bleak. I'm sure the NY Times is not telling you what is really going on...)
The liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz recently reported that US military advisors have for about a month been working to train Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Presidential Guard in expectance of what the US and Israel believe will be an inevitable---and bloody---civil war between the ruling Hamas government and Abbas’ party, Fatah.
The US government and the EU, presumably at the behest of Israel, have since the Hamas’ democratic election to Palestinian government in January of 2006 done everything possible to oust the democratically elected leaders. Israel, for its part, has arrested and jailed more than 30 Palestinian Parliament members from the Hamas party. Israel refuses to acknowledge the Palestinian right to democratically elect its own leadership, evidenced by these arrests, the state’s endorsement of international sanctions against the PA, and the general intensification of the occupation throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The international community and the Israeli occupying forces are punishing the Palestinians for voting their conscience.
The results of US/EU sanctions against the Palestinians have been shocking. Hunger and malnourishment in Palestine have skyrocketed. The unemployment level is higher than it ever has been. All public school students (more than a million pupils) have stayed at home since September, some students being turned away from the schools each morning, fighting with hope against hopelessness that their teachers will have stopped their strike. Why are teachers striking? The Palestinian government, shrunken and penniless, cannot pay their salaries. This situation is even more devastating to Palestinian youth and families because the major checkpoints that separate Palestinian cities from one another have been near impossible to pass.
A Palestinian friend of mine from Nablus, for example, has not been out of the city-prison since April 2006. The soldiers at the checkpoint south of the city have informed him that ‘no men’ are allowed to leave Nablus for the foreseeable future. To put this in context for readers unfamiliar with the terrain, it is important to note that Nablus is in the dead center of the West Bank. Therefore, the situation has nothing to do with Israeli ‘security’ interests. Palestinians are prevented from traveling even within the larger prison that is the West Bank. In Gaza the situation is even worse, as Israel bombs without hesitation what it cannot or will not understand.
The same Nablusi friend who has been trapped inside his city for months told me that the situation inside the city is worse now than ever before. Besides the crippling poverty, unemployment and restrictions on movement between towns and cities, the army has gravely stepped up its violence against Palestinian civilians. During the holy Muslim period of Ramadan, for example, the Israeli army killed four people at Huwarra checkpoint, south of Nablus. One of these men was planning to go to neighboring Ramallah to meet his wife and visit with her family for a holiday dinner to break the fast. The man was denied passage through the checkpoint at Huwarra, and proceeded to do what many Palestinians do in such circumstance: he started to walk through the hills, trying to go around the checkpoint. Unfortunately, he was shot point-blank from a military sniper tower and killed. Within the Israeli military, no questions were asked. Now, for his family, none are answered.
In this context of increasing oppression and violence, US involvement is striking. Never before has the US military engaged with the Palestinian via military training camps. So why are they doing it now? According to Ha’aretz, the “U.S. administration is…certain that the sanctions against Hamas will inevitably result in a violent confrontation between Hamas and Fatah, and in such a scenario, they would prefer to strengthen the "good guys" headed by Abbas.” In other words, they, along with Europe and Israel, are forcing a civil war on the Palestinians (via sanctions) and then choosing the victor (via the training of death squads).
The US hopes that Fatah’s Presidential Guard Force 17, under the supervision and leadership of American military man Keith Dayton, will grow from 3,500 to 6,000 men. One only has to look back at the numerous examples of US military training intervention throughout Latin America to see how this spells disaster for the Palestinian people. Disaster, spelled: flagrant human rights abuses against Palestinian civilians and the enactment of widespread US-sponsored, US-supported and US-educated terror.
A friend connected to the conflict remarked on what may result from such terror: “One might imagine that hundreds of thousands [of Palestinians] would flee an internecine bloodbath; then Canada and the EU-- or Jordan and Lebanon-- take them in as refugees, and later they aren't allowed to return home. Voila! Greater Israel's problems are solved.” While such a terrible ending may not result from these US meddlings in its ‘New Middle East’, the terror is surely to come. And when it does, it would benefit us all to remember that it is not, in a certain sense at least, the Palestinians’ problem. Responsibility for intra-Palestinian violence lies squarely upon Israel, the US and Europe. Let us not forget it in the coming months.