Settlement expansion in the Occupied West Bank – Part 2: resisting disrupted futures
Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank is a key part of an infrastructure of oppression, which deprives Palestinians of basic rights.
Insidious attacks in the night
According to UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency), there are currently 828,328 registered Palestinian refugees in the West Bank. They are Palestinians, and their descendants, displaced from their homes during the Nakba of 1948 (in Arabic, the catastrophe or cataclysm, referring to the expulsion of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians), and the hostilities of 1967. When traveling with an Eyewitness Palestine delegation as a leadership team member this past fall, I and other members of our group were hosted for the night in the home of a family in Dheisheh Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem. We had spent the day learning about refugee rights in the Palestinian context, including a lecture by Lubna Shomali at Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, and an afternoon in Aida refugee camp.
Dheisheh camp was established in 1949 and built to house 3,000 refugees. It is now home to an estimated 15,000, according to UNRWA, and an even larger population, as of 2018, of 17,503 people according to Badil’s latest survey. Aida camp was established in 1950, and had a pre-1967 population of 1,977 people. As of 2018, Badil calculates that Aida is home to an estimated population of 6,545 people.
When visiting, you do not need all these astounding statistics to notice that both camps are extraordinarily crowded. With nowhere to go but up, families have built additions on the roofs of narrow buildings, which clog the camps’ skylines, often only permitting narrow rays of sunshine to enter the camps as you walk the winding streets. UN and Badil estimates place Aida’s population density somewhere between 77,464 and 90,000 people per square kilometer, well above some of the world’s most densely populated urban centers (e.g. Dhaka, Bangladesh, estimated by the UN to be the world’s most densely populated city, has a density of 44,500 people per square kilometer). Despite these conditions, after as long as 72 years of residency, the camps reflect community efforts to make them feel like a home—artwork abounds on every corner.
At Aida Camp we were welcomed by the Lajee Center, and met with Shatha Alazzeh, Director of the center’s Environmental Unit in the camp. Shatha, who co-authored a study about the water quality in the camp and is well-versed in the health impacts that the people of Aida face due to the poor living conditions, was asked about the effects of tear gas on the camp’s residents. Shatha relayed the reports of fellow residents: “There is a high prevalence of disease and cancer … People must adapt to the constant smell of tear gas. Many women experience miscarriages, and people have allergy problems.” Shatha added that Aida appears to be some form of an “experiment” for the Israeli military—an open-air experiment with a captive population, and few or no limits on the forms of control that can be weaponized against this population.
A 2018 study by Dr. Rohini Haar and Dr. Jess Ghannam, published by the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that areas of Aida camp have been reported to be impacted by tear gas exposure two to three times per week for more than a year and, in some cases, daily. Chemical agents, including tear gas, are illegal as a means of warfare under the Chemical Weapons Convention, but as summarized by the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), “may be used for certain law enforcement purposes including riot control,” as stated in Article II of the Convention.
Aida appears to be some form of an “experiment” for the Israeli military—an open-air experiment with a captive population
In 2017, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl reported to the UN General Assembly that Aida camp residents “are exposed to more tear gas than any other population surveyed globally.” In addition to Aida, excessive tear gas exposure is rampant throughout other refugee camps in the occupied West Bank. This past March, a newborn baby turned blue and had to be resuscitated following a tear gas attack in Dheisheh camp. He still required the daily use of an oxygen machine in order to breathe more than a month following the attack.
All this is to say that we embarked on our home stay in Dheisheh camp well informed about the frequency and effects of tear gas attacks in the camp. This did not prepare most of us, however, for the burning in our noses and throats that would awaken us sometime after 3 am. Until experiencing it for ourselves, we could not have known about the sharp, acidic sensation that would worsen every time we swallowed throughout the next day, only lessening slowly in the days that followed, or the nose bleeds that would persist throughout the following week.
For reasons we do not know—for reasons that will likely never be disclosed—the Israeli military had launched yet another tear gas attack in the night, near the entrance of the camp. The effects on those of us staying in our host family’s house were, in some cases, severe, as were the effects for members of our group staying in the youth center near the camp’s entrance, with a direct view of the gas as it seeped into the navy night sky.
As I left the camp the next morning, I thought about Shatha’s description of nearby Aida camp as a place of “experiment.” I thought about an entire generation of Palestinian youth who are being relentlessly poisoned, confined to overcrowded camps like Aida and Dheisheh, with their mobility restricted to the West Bank, unable to travel outside of the Occupied Territories, including being barred from entering Jerusalem. So often, media representations of the geopolitical situation in Palestine and Israel fragments the issues: military violence is presented as justified, while devastating impacts on civilian health are sidelined, or presented as unfortunate humanitarian side effects of necessary actions. But the forced exposure to toxic chemicals being imposed upon the residents of Dheisheh and Aida, and throughout the West Bank, is part of the same infrastructure of oppression as settlement expansion and the brutality being experienced by the residents of Isawiyya in Jerusalem. These situations are all part of the infrastructure of occupation.
Forced exposure to toxic chemicals being imposed upon the residents of Dheisheh and Aida, and throughout the West Bank, is part of the same infrastructure of oppression
Streets in Dheisheh are often known by the names of the villages that the families residing there originally came from in 1948. The entrance to Aida Camp is famously adorned with a giant key, symbolizing the key that many Palestinians still keep for the homes from which they were expelled in 1948. As I left Dheisheh, I also thought about the time we spent hosted by the camp’s Shoruq and Laylac centers the day before, and the incredible Dabke danceperformance that children from the camp had put on for us on the evening of our arrival. I thought about the precision of their performance and the joy they emanated, their ability, the culmination of an art form they have carefully mastered over time while living in a context of deprivation—deprivation of resources, of clean air and water, and of freedom. The past is very much present in the camps, and the future looks to be one of both poisonous tear gas, and the dogged persistence of an unjustly oppressed but determined population.
When you meet residents of Palestinian refugee camps, it becomes obvious that the occupation is not merely about occupying, controlling, and trapping people in open-air prisons. The occupation extends beyond these already-devastating effects to stunt and damage the future of an entire population of youth and, with no immediate end to the occupation in sight, the futures of generations still to come. The antidote to this systematic brutality is resistance. The widely recognized symbol of Palestinian resistance is the political cartoon character Hanthala, who appears repeatedly on walls throughout the camp.
Hanthala was born from the imagination of Naji Al-Ali, the acclaimed Palestinian cartoonist who was born in what is now northern Israel in 1938 and was assassinated in London in 1987. In Al-Ali’s words, Hanthala “was born ten years old, and he will always be ten years old. At that age, I left my homeland, and when he returns, Hanthala will still be ten, and then he will start growing up.”
Hanthala appears barefoot and with his back turned towards the viewer, watching the injustices depicted in Al-Ali’s cartoons as they play out. His back is turned towards us, and Al-Ali’s words suggest that he intended for Hanthala’s back to remain turned until the injustice that he watches no longer requires a constant witness. Hanthala is a symbol of resistance in the unjust present, and of persistence towards a more just future. But he also helps us remember a past defined by land dispossession—a past that is essential for a comprehensive understanding of what is at stake now and in the future.
Recovering displaced pasts: ghost houses
In 2015, during my first visit to Palestine and Israel, I visited Al-Shajara, the village in which Al-Ali was born, located 14 km from the city of Tiberias. I visited on behalf of a friend whose family had been expelled from the village in 1948. Some structures from the depopulated Palestinian village, now known in Israel as Ilaniya, still stand. There is a still-intact staircase that forms part of a well. I descended down the stone steps, which were covered with damp earth, rocks, and twigs.
Once I reached the bottom, the space opened up to reveal a narrow, arched passageway, leading to an enclosed area filled with water several inches deep. I was struck by how functional the well still seemed, 67 years after the residents who once relied on this well as their water source had been forced to leave. Not far from the foot of the staircases, the well’s stone walls were covered in Arabic writing, inscribed in red and black ink. “1948 we will return,” read one stone. “The land is ours,” read another. Writings by those descended from this place? Or visitors, like me, visiting in solidarity with someone they love, or in solidarity with a cause they believe in? From the bottom of the well you can look up through a rectangular opening to the sky, the narrow limbs of a neighboring tree arched over the opening like the frail arms of a parent shielding an infant’s crib.
Now when I think of my visit to Al-Shajara, I am also reminded of a more recent visit to Mamilla cemetery, a historic Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem. The cemetery dates to at least the 11th century, and was a source of newfound contentionover the past decade due to Israel’s approval for the Simon Wiesenthal Center to build a planned “Center for Human Dignity,” or “Museum of Tolerance.” A 2011 press release from the Center for Constitutional Rights, citing a letter submitted to the UN on behalf of 60 Palestinians with ancestors buried in the cemetery, said it best: “What humanity could this possibly refer to? And what dignity? And what tolerance?”.
The list of displaced pasts, however, is of course not limited to Al-Shajara or Mamilla, and could go on and on. What about Al-Khayriyya, the expelled Palestinian village that was turned into the Hiriya landfill , only to be reborn from this literal mountain of waste as Ariel Sharon Park, an alleged “ambitious environmental rehabilitation project”—an “ecological masterpiece” (from Israel’s point of view) that is “bigger than Central Park”?
What about the aforementioned village of Isawiyya (discussed in Part One of this article series), 568 dunums of which were confiscated to construct the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1968? What about Lifta, a village in the Jerusalem district, depopulated in 1948, where the majority of structures, including several homes and a mosque, still stand in ruins?
As part of the Eyewitness Palestine delegation, we visited Lifta. When I began to describe the experience to a Palestinian friend from Jerusalem, before I mentioned the name of the village he interrupted: “yes, yes, the one with all the ghost houses.”
Daoud Nassar, Director of the Tent of Nations project located on the site of Daher’s Vineyard, an organic farm 9 km southwest of Bethlehem, told our delegation how the land has been threatened by Israel with confiscation since 1991. Daoud, whose family has owned the land since 1916, explained their approach to nonviolent resistance and their ongoing legal battle to keep their land: “We hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. When we plant a tree, especially an olive tree, we protect the future. Peace should grow up from the ground like an olive tree. [We need] peace based on justice.”
While visiting these places, and walking on this land, it is hard to avoid the sense that the land itself—the earth and the trees—retain a memory of what was here before. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote ,
"So I am sometimes like a tree
rustling over a gravesite
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots embrace:
a dream once lost
among sorrows and songs."
The courageous resistance of people like Daoud Nassar inspires one to embrace this sense that the land is alive. It is also essential to recognize, however, that one need not rely on the memories of the earth and the trees alone to realize that a just peace must acknowledge the history of displacement and dispossession in Palestine.
In Palestine, the past and the future are very much alive in the present. Palestinians themselves have expertly kept the past alive. It persists through the resistance of people, through the resistance of farmers at places like Om Sleiman and Tent of Nations, through the resistance of the children we met in Dheisheh Camp.
Resisting “expulsion from humanity altogether”
Writing about the failure of international laws to protect precisely those in needs of them—those who were stateless and displaced—Hannah Arendt wrote that the “loss of home and political status” became “identical with expulsion from humanity altogether … The world found nothing in the abstract nakedness of being human.”  In spite of ongoing efforts to dispossess and displace Palestinians, the residents of Jerusalem and the West Bank who I encountered, resist the injustice of the occupation in unique and courageous ways—they resist expulsion and in doing so, retain humanity.
A just peace must acknowledge the history of displacement and dispossession in Palestine
In July 2015, I had the opportunity to visit Jaffa and Tel Aviv during Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims—and a unique time because thousands of West Bank Palestinians normally barred from entering Israel had been granted permits because of the holiday. Normally the beaches of Tel Aviv are filled with Israelis and foreign tourists, but during this time Palestinians walked the streets and strolled along the shoreline.
I met and spoke with one young couple, whose infant son Raqim had captured my attention with a mesmerizing smile and adorable wave. Raqim’s parents, from the West Bank town of Qalqilya, north of Nablus, told me how young Raqim had never before seen the sea, despite living only some 40 km away from the shores of the Mediterranean. Noting the mercurial permit application process and the volatile political situation, Raqim’s parents’ smiles dwindled slightly as his mother noted they were not sure when the child would next see the sea again.
In his 2004 speech in acceptance of an award from the Prince Claus Fund, Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish said, “A person can only be born in one place. However, he may die several times elsewhere: in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare.”
I think of the children being awoken from sleep by the choking grip of tear gas. I think of children marching in the street alongside their parents and older siblings in protest of the deaths of loved ones, in honor of lives claimed by war and occupation. I think of the children who cannot protest, whose lives have already been claimed, who will never protest again. I think of the child who has been each and every one of these children throughout his or her life—the casualty of war, the protester, the resister, another senseless death.
The historical and political contexts of peace, and of justice, are so often written out of the narratives of conflicts
In so many cases children play all of these roles. They are forced to transcend these categories. The anthropologist Liisa Malkki critiques the depiction of children in humanitarian appeals, noting that these appeals “depend on children as generic human beings and not as culturally or socially specific persons … We see—or are urgently, benevolently, invitedto see—small bundles of humanity … naked humanity … These small figures are charismatic in their suffering. But they exhibit a profound absence of historical, cultural, biographical specificity.”
We have all seen the types of depictions that Malkki describes, children displayed as “outside the complications of history,” a process Malkki connects to the phenomenon of the “infantilization of peace.” 
The historical and political contexts of peace, and of justice, are so often written out of the narratives of conflicts. Instilling a sense of justice—and, perhaps just as importantly, a knowledge of justice’s political dimensions—is not unique to the Palestinian struggle, but a commitment to understanding these contexts is highly present in Palestine. The children we met in Dheisheh refugee camp were informed about the situation in which they live, and aware of the injustices they face. How could they not be? They are confronted with this reality constantly—with every invasion of the camp, with every shot of gunfire, with every breath of tear gas. How many times will they be forced, as Darwish said, to “die several times”?
Susan Sontag wrote, “there is no such thing as collective memory—part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction.”  Collective instruction has been weaponized against the Palestinians—quite literally, in the case of textbooks for Palestinian children, Israel has attempted to erase information about the Nakba (banning the word itself) and the histories of expelled Palestinian villages. But Palestinians have resisted. The land and the remnants of villages, like the “ghost homes” of Lifta, are proof. But, more importantly, the people living under occupation carry the living proof with them through their daily resistance. As long as people are forced to bear witness to daily injustice, there cannot be just peace.
Commenting in the context of resistance to fascism, Walter Benjamin wrote, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”  The “state of emergency” in which Palestinians are forced to live is the only proof we should need that the occupation, and continued dispossession of land, cannot go on. Justice, and peace, are always political, and always emerge out of a historical reality. Until this justice is achieved, like Hanthala, present generations, and generations to come, will be watching and resisting.
 Egoz, Shelley. “Deconstructing the Hegemony of Nationalist Narratives through Landscape Architecture,” Landscape Research 33, no. 1 (2008): 29–50.
 Rilke, Rainer Maria. Rilke's Book of Hours. Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. See page 51.
 Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1968. First published 1951. Page references are to the 1968 edition. See pages 297–299.
 Malkki, Liisa. “Children, Humanity and the Infantilization of Peace.” In In the Name of Humanity: the Government of Threat and Care, edited by Ilana Feldman and Miriam Iris Ticktin, 58–85. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. See pages 64–65.
 Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. See page 85.
 Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. See page 257.
Get our weekly email