Despair on the streets
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Reporter's notebook

Despair on the streets

A visit to three refugee camps near Ramallah, on the day Mahmoud Abbas spoke at the UN

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot during clashes with Israeli security forces on July 31, 2015 nearby the Jalazoun Palestinian refugee camp and the Jewish settlement of Beit El, north of Ramallah in the West Bank. (AFP/ ABBAS MOMANI)
A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot during clashes with Israeli security forces on July 31, 2015 nearby the Jalazoun Palestinian refugee camp and the Jewish settlement of Beit El, north of Ramallah in the West Bank. (AFP/ ABBAS MOMANI)

The speech given by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) at the UN General Assembly on Wednesday will hardly go down in Palestinian history. Despite expectations of a dramatic announcement by Abbas (expectations for which Abbas himself was responsible after he promised, in an interview with the Arab media, that he would drop a bombshell during it), the Palestinian public refused to join the show. While several hundred people gathered in Abu Amar Square on Wednesday night to watch the speech and the ceremonial raising of the Palestinian flag at the UN building, Abu Mazen’s statements gave them no sense of change or even hope.

“Many people were disappointed,” one of the people who attended told me. “The people were hoping for change, for something that would announce a new path, but all Abu Mazen did was repeat things that we have already heard him say in the past.”

For them, the raising of the Palestinian flag in New York was much more significant. During these mad days, even a waving flag is a source of pride for the residents of the West Bank. Mohammed, 46, from the Jalazun refugee camp, tried to explain the logic to me. “I took part in the first intifada,” he said. “Back then, you, the Israelis, would arrest any Palestinian who tried to fly our flag. Today, that flag is being flown at the UN. So yes, this is an exciting moment for me.”

There was not much festive feeling in Ramallah in the hours preceding Abbas’s speech. When I asked two young men near Abu Amar Square whether an event was planned to mark the speech, their answer was a firm no. Life in the city went on as usual, and only an image of Abbas that appeared on one of the electronic billboards with the UN’s symbol beside it and the word “Palestine” above it gave any indication of the evening’s anticipated event. The Palestinian public in Ramallah seemed confused, moving between apathy and despair over the current situation and the Palestinian leadership. A visit to three refugee camps in and around Ramallah showed clearly how, unlike the situation in the city, the apathy in these places is giving way to despair, which is becoming more dominant and tangible.

Qalandiya

Abu Rateb, a resident of Qalandiya, actually sounds optimistic for a moment. “We live on hope,” he says, “the hope of returning to our homes in the 1948 territories, to freedom. That hope is always there.”

Across the street from his office, where we are sitting, a large mural shows armed men fighting against the “occupation.” Several hundred meters away from there are the separation barrier and the filth that typify the Qalandiya checkpoint, so close and yet so far from Jerusalem. This is one of the most poverty-stricken, lawless and hopeless places in the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority is not allowed to operate in the camp since the camp is not in Area A. The Israel Police avoids operating here almost entirely, perhaps due to lack of interest and perhaps because of the danger to the combat troops. It is paradise for criminal elements, drug dealers and, of course, operatives of the many Palestinian groups. Countless incidents have taken place here in recent years between Israeli troops and young men from the camp, leading to more and more killed and wounded. When I ask where the young people are at this early noon hour, one of them tells me: “Some are in school. The ones who have jobs are at work. Others are in prison or dead.”

Palestinian protesters throw stones at an Israeli military tower during a rally marking Land Day at the main entrance to the Qalandiya checkpoint, in the West Bank, March 2013. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinian protesters throw stones at an Israeli military tower during a rally marking Land Day at the main entrance to the Qalandiya checkpoint, in the West Bank, March 2013. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

I try to ask Abu Rateb where he can go back to when the village where his family was born no longer exists. His friend Mohammed interrupts, saying: “My family is originally from Deir Naim. That’s where Maccabim is today. And I don’t agree with any solution except going back there and being compensated for all the years that we were not in our own home.”

But Abu Mazen said himself that as president, he was not asking to return to his home in Safed.

“Yes, that’s true,” says Mohammed. “And how did the Israelis respond to that? They only increased the attacks against us. We no longer believe that the Israeli public wants peace. It had its say in the last elections when it voted for a government that does not want peace with the Palestinians. As for the world, nobody cares about us. President Obama didn’t so much as say the word ‘Palestinians’ in his speech to the UN, and even the Arabs are indifferent. The nations in the region are in a situation of ‘We’ll die before we give up,’ and it’s the same for us, the Palestinians. Just as the British and the Ottomans vanished from here, you will disappear too, in the end. If Pharaoh disappeared, so will you.”

Do you believe Abu Mazen?

“He has made every effort, and he is still trying to hold talks with you,” Mohammed goes on. “But what have we gotten out of it? There is no political horizon, no military solution. The Palestinian Authority’s security agencies confirm that there will be no attacks on Israelis, and they even give you soldiers who enter Palestinian Authority territory by mistake. So there is disappointment with Abu Mazen’s idea. He gets up and says, ‘I want peace,’ and nobody in Israel stretches out a hand to him. And if he goes to elections today, he will lose because of Israel. Your government gives support to the ‘price tag’ gangs. Have they tried to stop the settlers on the hills of Nablus who attack Palestinians every day? Have they arrested the people who murdered [members of] the Dawabshe family in Duma?”

Abu Rateb chimes in: “They tell us that Jews have been placed in administrative detention. If someone among us was suspected of burning a Jewish family, they would demolish his house and shoot his mother and his father. So what is administrative detention? Talks have been going on between us and Israel for 21 years now. What have we gotten? Nothing. Just more people killed and more settlements.”

Al-Amari

The Al-Amari refugee camp is in the heart of Ramallah, like a thorn in its backside. West of it is the tony neighborhood of Al-Masyoun, and to the east it is bounded by the main highway that led from Jerusalem to Nablus. Amjad, the owner of the pool hall, shows me an indictment that was sent to his family several days ago. His brother was arrested for throwing stones at soldiers and is now on trial. Amjad knows that his family will be required to pay a fine of several thousand shekels for the crime, but his family has no way to come up with an amount that, for it, is unimaginably large.

What do you think of Abbas’s speech this evening?

“It’s ala fadi [for nothing],” Amjad says. “He will talk, but that will not change a thing. Not one thing. What’s he going to do? We are at the start of a third intifada. The Arabs are ignoring us. So are the Israelis and the Americans. Everybody. That’s going to lead to an explosion in the end. People here have no money or jobs. We don’t like violence or problems, but reality forces that on us. There is terrible disappointment with Abu Mazen. The Palestinian Authority has not managed to accomplish anything. People here are looking for bread. Even the Palestinian Authority’s officials, who receive salaries, are left with nothing every month. They have to pay mortgages and for fuel for their cars, and with a salary of two thousand shekels, they haven’t got a shekel left.”
Two young men are playing pool in the meantime. Rifat, 17, says that he didn’t know there was a speech today. “Ask Uday,” he says. “He understands these things.”

Uday, 17 and a half, is a high-school senior. “True, the young people here don’t know that Abbas is giving a speech today,” he says. “He and the Palestinian Authority have declared war on us, the young people in the refugee camps. They think that we’re troublemakers, that we don’t respect the law. But we have a single enemy, and that is Israel.”

Uday has never met or spoken to an Israeli. “Once Palestine is liberated, we will go and visit the 1948 territories,” he says. “Nobody here cares about Abu Mazen’s speech. I think that there was once a Palestinian rais [ruler] and a country of Palestine, but that was during Yasser Arafat’s time. Not now. If elections were to be held today, the people who live here would vote for Hamas.”

Jalazun

Just a few meters separate the homes of Beit El and those of the Jalazun refugee camp north of Ramallah. It is noon, and more and more pupils are coming home from school, which has let out for the day. At the center of the camp is a small café where about twenty older Palestinian men, the camp’s “elders,” sit on small chairs. It is hard to keep them from their card game.

Hassan a-Shreifa, 65, urges his opponent to keep playing as he answers questions.
“I’ve been listening to speeches and declarations for 65 years,” he says. “You know what? Even before I was born. In 1948, UN Resolution 181 spoke of the establishment of two states. So did anything come of that? It’s the same thing with the rais’s speech. It’s a joke. It won’t change a thing. Only force will do that. All the countries in the region realize today that only force works. One hundred forty countries have recognized Palestine. Did anything come of that? The American president said not a word about the Palestinians in his speech. The only solution is if all the Arabs unite, and then maybe there will be a response.”

The others agree with him. When I start to enumerate the internecine Arab wars that are now taking place, a-Shreifa interrupts me. “The wars among the Arabs did not begin today. Don’t be misled. It started when the Saudis and the Wahhabis were given responsibility for the holy sites. But without unity, the talk and the speeches will not become actions.”

And what about peace with the Israelis?

“That’s hard. I worked in Jerusalem once, with the Egged bus company, as a bus driver. But we have to tell the truth. Gasoline and fire do not go well together. Peace can happen only when both sides have strength, and not when one side tells us which roads we can and cannot drive on.”

If there are elections here, who will win?

“The ‘resistance’ — in other words, Hamas. Look, we support talks and agreements. But anyone who tries to come and say ‘I recognize Israel’ will be thrown out immediately. We have reached a bad situation. Because of the murder of the Dawabshe family in Duma, because of the damage at Al Aksa Mosque, the street wants revenge once more. It wants power once more. It wants to let off steam.”

So how do you explain the fact that there is no intifada?

“It’s because of the Palestinian Authority. The moment anyone tries to do anything, the Palestinian Authority arrests him. That’s why you allowed them to bring weapons in,” he says with a laugh.

One of his sons, 25-year-old Abed, observes us from the sidelines. He served four years in an Israeli prison for planning to kidnap a soldier.

“We support the Palestinian Authority,” Abed says. “We don’t want to go backward, but the nation is on the brink of an explosion. I was released from prison, and I haven’t had a job since. I’m not allowed to go out to work in Israel, and not even abroad. The situation is bad here. There is enormous disappointment with the leadership. But what can the Palestinian Authority do? I think that Abu Mazen’s speech is important and meaningful.”

His friend Mohammed says: “We don’t want an intifada. There is calm now, but it’s the calm before the storm. Did you know that the unemployment rate in the Jazalun camp is 50 percent among the men, according to the registries — and 83 percent in all? There is no work here, and there are no entry permits into Israel. The rais has warned the Israelis that if things go on this way, there will be an explosion, but they are not willing to listen.”

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