From Here to Here: Palestinian Lives Under Occupation

by Mohammad Al-Azza

This photo essay depicts the daily lives of Palestinians, primarily from Aida Refugee Camp, located near Bethlehem in the West Bank. These photos place the historic struggles for Palestinian freedom as a backdrop against the vibrancy and hope of Palestinian communities.

I call this photograph “Map of Palestine.” In 1948, Palestinians lived a nakba or catastrophe. During the 1948 war, more than 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed, and over 700,000 Palestinians became refugees. They were never allowed to return to their homes.Today, these refugees and their escendants number approximately 7.4 million, 5 million of whom are served by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). In my grandmother’s face, I can see the decades of Palestinian suffering, from 1948 until today.

In 1950, the UNRWA established Aida Refugee Camp in 1950, and refugees from seventeen different villages settled there. Today it is home to about 6,000 refugees. Since the start of the second Intifada, twenty-eight people have been killed by Israeli forces, and hundreds of others have been injured. Israeli forces have imprisoned more than 400 people, the vast majority between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five.

In its early years, UNRWA provided food aid and other assistance to all camp residents, established quality schools, and employed many refugees. Today, Aida Camp, like many Palestinian areas under occupation, is in economic crisis, with an unemployment rate over forty percent. These days, UNRWA provides emergency food aid only to the neediest families. UNRWA schools in Aida are overcrowded, and mothers and fathers can see that their quality has declined since their own years in school.

This photograph is from a series called “Images Behind the Screen.” All the photographs in this series are taken through a television screen. In it, I show the many elements of Palestinian politics and society that are not represented in mainstream news. All of these images also include movement. For me, the movement symbolizes the need for people to act in response to what they learn about Palestine. This hotograph in particular depicts violence against Palestinian journalists. A 2014 Amnesty International report, “Trigger Happy: Israel’s Use of Excessive Force in the West Bank,” finds that journalists, human rights defenders, and medics are often injured as a result of Israeli soldiers’ use of excessive force, and shows how “in some cases, they appear to have been directly targeted.”

After the first nakba of 1948, Palestinian refugees have been living an everyday nakba. One element of this ongoing catastrophe is the severe water shortage experienced by residents of Aida Refugee Camp. In the summer, people can never be sure when they will receive water. It sometimes runs through the pipes as rarely as every three weeks or once a month, because Israel controls eighty-three percent of the water from the West Bank, leaving only seventeen percent for Palestinian use. When people run out of the water they store in rooftop tanks, they must come to fill bottles from the central tap in Aida and carry them to their homes. My documentary Everyday Nakba explains more about this issue.

Before Israel built the Apartheid Wall surrounding Aida Camp, camp residents could play soccer or graze sheep and goats on a large piece of land next to the camp. Today this land is behind the wall, and the camp is extremely overcrowded. In whatever way they can, children try to break out of the siege, racism, and confinement that the wall has brought.

While the Apartheid Wall was being constructed, camp residents staged constant resistance against it. After the last watchtower was installed in the wall in 2007, there was a period of calm, as many of the people who had protested against the wall were in prison. In November 2012, with the beginning of a new war on Gaza, protests began throughout the West Bank in solidarity with Palestinians there. In Aida, these protests transformed into a new movement of resistance against the wall, and they continued long after the war on Gaza ended.

Since the protests started, the Israeli army has injured about 100 people and killed one child, SalehAl-Amarin, sixteen years old. Protesters threw stones and burned the watchtowers, and the Israeli army repressed the protests with tear gas and both rubber-coated metal and live bullets.

Here, two children are throwing rocks with homemade slingshots at Israeli army positions. Techniques for resistance against the occupation are passed down from generation to generation.

Since the protests started in Aida Camp, the Israeli army has shot thousands of canisters of tear gas. Often the tear gas is directed at people’s houses, and not at the protesters. In this way, the Israeli army tries to create division among camp residents. In this picture, taken on the main road f Bethlehem right next to the camp, a young man kicks a tear gas canister back toward the soldiers.

In the winter of 2012-2013, residents of Aida Camp came upon a new idea for resisting the wall. They brought hundreds of tires and burned them next to the wall. Over time, the fire started eating the concrete, and this made a big hole. Three children managed to go to the other side of the wall. For the people of Aida, this was the best moment in the movement against the wall. Five minutes later, hundreds of soldiers besieged the area. They stopped people from moving by shooting everywhere from eight in the morning until eight at night until they closed the hole. Still, pictures of the burning tower spread throughout the West Bank, and others began burning the wall in their own neighborhoods in order to destroy it.

Lajee Center was established in Aida Refugee Camp in 2000 by young Palestinians who sought to support the new struggling generations to achieve justice and equal rights. Today, Lajee Center has a thriving dabka traditional dance troupe and specializes in media production and human rights education.

After the construction of the wall, there were no places in the camp for children to play. Lajee Center undertook the project of reclaiming, cleaning, and finally purchasing the only open land near the camp, which had been an informal garbage dump. Today this 4,000-meter square space holds a soccer field, a playground, and a cistern.

One of ajee’s newest projects is a rooftop garden. This garden is a prototype for gardens that may be built on residents’ homes in the camp. Not only does this project help to provide food for camp residents, butit also allows them to revive their tradition of agriculture. All of the families of Aida Camp were farmers before they became refugees.

This picture represents the traditional Bedouin lifestyle in the Jordan Valley, in the eastern West Bank. Today, less than fifteen percent of the Jordan Valley is available for Palestinian inhabitation, with forty-six percent of the Jordan Valley declared a closed military zone. Israeli authorities are trying to displace 10,000 Palestinians who live in more than twenty small communities in the Jordan Valley. Many of these Palestinians are Bedouin whose livelihood relies on a presence on the land as they raise livestock and cultivate the land.

Many Palestinians in the Jordan Valley face demolition orders, because they live in areas that the Oslo Accords designated to be under full Israeli control, called Area C. From January 2006 through April 2013, the Israeli military destroyed at least 315 houses in the Jordan Valley. These houses were home to over 1,500 people. The Israeli army has also destroyed schools built for Bedouin children. Jordan Valley home and school demolitions are part of a larger problem: 267 homes were demolished in the West Bank including East Jerusalem in 2013 alone. Palestinians in the Jordan Valley also lack access to water, even though the Jordan Valley has abundant water compared to the rest of the West Bank. Israeli settlers in the Jordan Valley consume an average of 450 liters of water per person per day, as compared to around sixty liters per day for Palestinians.

This picture is taken at Qalandia checkpoint on the outskirts of Ramallah. Qalandia, which divides Ramallah and Jerusalem, is one of sixty-one permanently staffed checkpoints in the West Bank (as of September 2012). These checkpoints, along with partial checkpoints, roadblocks, earth mounds and other unstaffed physical obstacles, not only divide Palestinian areas from Israel and from Israeli settlements in the West Bank; they also divide Palestinian communities from each other. There are a total of 542 obstacles to Palestinian movement in an area about the size of the state of Delaware. Checkpoints and watchtowers in particular militarize space. Throughout Palestine, Palestinians live in constant danger from Israeli military presence.

About the Author

Mohammad Al-Azza is a refugee from the village of Beit Jibreen who was born and lives in Aida Refugee Camp, Palestine. He directs the Arts & Media Unit of Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp. In this capacity, he helps youth to produce photography and video projects. He is also a journalist with the Palestine News Network, a documentarian, and photographer. His first documentary, Ali Wall, won the Global Jury Prize of the It Is Apartheid Film Contest (2010), and his documentary Everyday Nakba (2011) has been screened in numerous festivals and mobilized an international movement to improve access to clean water in Aida Refugee Camp and other Palestinian communities. His award-winning photography on media representation, refugee rights, and popular protest has exhibited in Palestine, France, and the United States, among other places. In the fall of 2013, his exhibition, "From These Streets" exhibited at the Slater Gallery of Tufts University.

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