The view surrounding the Balata and Askar refugee camps outside of Nablus in the West Bank is stunning. The peaks of Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim to the west are still capped in snow, as are some of the mountains of Samaria to the east.
In the valley, the tight alleyways point to a reality that is in stark contrast to the surrounding beauty. A cluster of homes, one on top of the other, streets lined with piles of trash, and lots of men, both young and not-so-young, standing in the doorways of their homes, gazing off into the distance, as if waiting for some sort of salvation.
The First Intifada, in many ways, started here, in Balata, a few days before the infamous incident in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza, in which four Palestinians were killed in a traffic accident involving the IDF. In addition, the first cells of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, Fatah’s armed wing, were established here at the start of the Second Intifada by Nasser Awis, who was a local legend until he was captured by Israeli security forces.
And now, these refugee camps are back in the headlines. Almost every arrest the IDF carries out in the camps turns violent and ends with casualties. The Palestinian security forces, who successfully carried out an operation in Jenin recently, have been cautious about entering these camps in recent weeks, drawing criticism from the Israeli security establishment.
In the heart of Balata sits the house of Hussam Khader, one of the heads of Fatah and its community-based Tanzim offshoot in the West Bank. At the outbreak of the Second Intifada, he was considered the political patron of Awis.
“I took part in and led many intifadas and conflicts: Land Day in 1976, during the 1982 Lebanon War; in the First Intifada in 1987 I was considered one of the leaders of the clashes, as well as in 1996 and in 2000, when the Second Intifada broke out,” Khader told this reporter on Wednesday.
“And today I say it clearly: I am opposed to a Third Intifada. I am for negotiations, even if nothing comes of it. Do you know why? Because in a struggle like this, you don’t just need a people willing to pay a dear price and to suffer casualties, you also need brave leadership. And today, we don’t have that leadership. We have a corrupt and cowardly leadership. It cares more about its economic interests more than anything else, and these are tied to the Israeli occupation — to their VIP passes, to free movement, to everything.
“I am for revolution and a Third Intifada and even resistance in all its forms, but only if it leads to a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. And for now, at least, that is impossible.”
“The next intifada, sadly, is already on the way and I tell you that in 2014 there will be an unprecedented outbreak of violence, and Israel is responsible for it,” says Hussam Khader, one of the leaders of Fatah.
“In addition,” Khader continued, “I know that this is my personal opinion and many others want a Third Intifada, especially the younger generation. Take my son Ahmad, for example. Two months ago, when he wasn’t yet 16, he went out to protest near the Hawara checkpoint (south of Nablus). When I showed up to bring him and his friends back home, I was struck by their readiness to sacrifice, to endanger themselves.
“Ahmad tied a Palestinian flag to an IDF jeep. He is ready for an intifada and I tell him there is no point. What would we be fighting for? For those same people who send their children to universities abroad and receive the title ‘minister’?
“There are tens of thousands of youth here who want an explosion. This generation is desperate, frustrated, and wants an intifada, even though there is no logic in this. They have no future. There is no work. And even those who go to university and finish their studies have no opportunities for employment.
“In the camps themselves we are suffering from ongoing neglect on the part of the PA, and it seems they are cooperating with Israel in order to harm the residents of the camps. The Palestinian Authority tries to suppress the nationalist movements in the camps, because, among other reasons, it knows it doesn’t have real sovereignty or authority. Its forces are afraid to operate, and there are significant criminal problems here.”
Khader, 52, was arrested by Israel 75 times throughout his life. During the First Intifada he was expelled from the West Bank, after being shot and injured.
“The next intifada, sadly, is already on the way and I tell you that in 2014 there will be an unprecedented outbreak of violence, and Israel is responsible for it. On the ground, elements of an intifada are there: Palestinian civilians are hungry, unemployed, their olive trees are uprooted or burnt by settlers, and time and again there are provocations on the al-Aqsa mosque [Temple Mount]. The PA and Israel are collaborating in pushing the people into a corner.
“And if [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu doesn’t grant the Palestinians their rights,” he continued, “and Abu Mazen [as PA President Mahmoud Abbas is known] doesn’t present a national plan based on unity, things are going to look very bad. You need to remember that Palestinian civilians are looking for the opportunity to get rid of the corrupt PA figures. That means that if there is an outbreak here, it will be not only against the army and the settlers, but also against symbols of corruption in the PA. This will happen deep inside Israel and it will lead to a civil war of sorts. And don’t think that just because there are no suicide bombs today, there won’t be any in the future. The groups will fight amongst themselves over who can carry out the most attacks.”
Meanwhile in Askar
The movie that Saleh and Majdi, members of the Askar camp’s services committee, are screening is a little confusing. It shows an incident that took place a month ago, filmed on a camp resident’s cellphone. A group of soldiers stand at the entrance to a house — helmets on their heads, bulletproof vests on their bodies — and they are trying to arrest one of the residents. Facing them are dozens of youth flinging stones. Once in a while, a soldier throws one back. Then the firing starts. At first in single shots, focused; then it turns into long bursts. During the incident, Amjad Udah, 30, a married father of five, was accidentally killed by the gunfire.
The “soldiers” are actually Palestinian policemen.
Afterwards, riots began that didn’t dissipate for more than a day. It’s possible that this very incident is an example of why the PA has refrained from operating in the camps in recent weeks.
16,500 people live here on approximately 52 acres. Majdi Mabruk, who heads the services committee, said that the unemployment rate at the camp had reached 60%. Almost every family has a son who has been killed, or one that is sitting in an Israeli prison.
“The economic and social situation here is entirely different than in the cities or villages,” his friend Saleh Abu Fayed says. “The overcrowding, the unemployment, the lack of investment by the PA, the lack of resources. The people of means can be found in Ramallah or Nablus, not here. The unemployment and poverty that were at the root of the two previous intifadas are undermining the situation now, as well.”
Najwan Jamous, another member of the committee, explained that the youth don’t have anything to do, even after completing higher education. “Almost every night an IDF force comes in, and this causes friction.”
And still, all three emphasize that they don’t want a Third Intifada.
According to Majdi, the public wants peace with Israel, “even if it comes today. The problem is that Israel is causing the escalations. The killing of youths in Jenin and Qalqilya, the damage to al-Aqsa [mosque]. Combine this with the lack of a future for the young and you understand where the unrest comes from. The youth are talking about an intifada, about being martyrs because they don’t know anything else.”
According to Saleh, the lives of the young generation are ruined. “What can they do? Jump off the roof? You see how the camp looks. One UNRWA strike and the whole camp is filled with garbage [workers of the UN Relief and Works Agency went on strike Wednesday to protest a delay in receiving their salaries]. If I could, I’d leave the camp, but I don’t have any money.”
We go into the home of Umm Asan. Two of her sons were killed in the Second Intifada. The first, Bashar, in the incident at Joseph’s Tomb, and the second, Saman, three years later.
“If only one of them were still alive,” she says and starts crying. Her son Sultan lives with her. He finished his university studies in economics recently, but like many of his neighbors, couldn’t find work. Here, one can really see the poverty and the great gap between the camp and the expensive restaurants in Ramallah, and the hotels bursting with tourists in Bethlehem.
A few hundred meters from her house lives Adnan Saker. Her son, Khaled, was also killed in 2003. The house looks like a collection of bricks, barely connected to one another. There is no real wall. The roof isn’t sealed — cement blocks had apparently fallen from the roof during the last storm.
Six people live in the tiny house. There is no kitchen. And in one of the corners they have arranged a cooking station over candles. The bathroom is separated from the rest of the house by a small wooden door.
“And where do you shower?” I ask. Adnan points to the middle of the room. “When someone wants to shower everyone else goes into the bedroom. There is a tub and we use water from the sink.”
On every block of Askar, the scene repeats itself. Garbage, neglect, running water, children running up and down the street, and men without work standing at the entrance to their homes, staring off in despair.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon claimed this week that incitement on the part of the Palestinian Authority had brought about the latest wave of violence. This claim is only partly true.
For Ya’alon, like the rest of the Israeli leadership, it is easy to ignore the growing frustration of the young people in the West Bank, for which Israel is at least partly responsible by way of settlement construction, settler violence, and the stagnant economy. These conditions are as much responsible, if not more so, for creating hatred and violence as any senior Palestinian official who is furious at Israel.
Staring at these alleyways, it isn’t hard to imagine that, if someday a Third Intifada breaks out, it will start right here.