By Rich Wiles
From the barred windows of a four storey house string runs across the narrow main street of Aida Camp, well above head height, to the caged fence atop the walls of Aida Camp Basic Boys School. Small plastic Palestinian flags hang down limply from the string. The outside walls of the school are adorned with political graffiti, and its two white metal doors are scarred by bullet holes. Two towers dominate this stretch of the street. One is tall and thin, and green lights glow from its minaret. The second tower, at the end of the street, looks much sturdier and is without damage from gunfire, unlike Aida Camp’s mosque. No lights glow from this tower and it is impossible to tell if anyone is inside or not. The small windows in the bullet proof glass at the top of the tower are covered by thick caging with just a small purpose-built rectangular hole in the metal, its width is sufficient to accommodate the barrel of a US-funded M-16 when the IOF who use this watchtower in the Apartheid Wall decide it is time to shoot at the camp. The facing wall of the four-storey house provides testimony to the effectiveness of this practice.
Stars glisten in the clear night skies overhead but the air is still and stuffy. The heat is stifling even though the sun set several hours ago to break the Ramadan fast. Placed with their backs against the school wall are a range of battered chairs and broken sofas on which various residents of the house and assorted friends sit on every conceivable seat and broken sofa arm. Half-empty coffee cups rest alongside everyone’s feet. This open-air living room is completed by a small crackling portable TV which is powered thanks to a makeshift series of cables which lead down from the upper floors of the house via the narrow stairway. The evenings’ TV viewing is disturbed every few minutes as cars drive down the unaccommodating street slowly passing between the TV set and its and audience.
The family has setup this unconventional new ‘room’ to escape the stifling temperatures inside their overcrowded house. With around 30 people currently living inside the four apartments in this tall yet cramped building, and with air-conditioning nothing more than a dream, this house, as with most in Aida Camp, is uncomfortably hot at this time of year. Palestine is always hot in August, and inside the camps the tall buildings and overcrowding only increase this feeling of suffocation; a summer breeze is never felt inside the camp due to the overpopulated and lofty nature of its construction. Current temperatures are soaring with predictions of peaks reaching the mid-40’s over coming days. These temperatures, combined with the daily Ramadan fasting which includes abstaining from drinking water whilst the sun is in the sky, present serious challenges.
One of the cars that momentarily interrupt the evening’s Television viewing is a taxi driven by Abu Majd. He began to work as a taxi driver due to the unavailability of other work, and his rented taxi is shared with other family members. Due to the fasting and soaring temperatures, many workers involved in manual work are currently working only after sunset and continuing into the night, but for Abu Majd this is not an option as a taxi driver:
“I have worked 15 hours today and I cannot eat or drink during the day as I’m fasting. But this work is shit; there are no people outside anywhere. In 15 hours I have earned 70 shekels (about $18) today. Everyday has been like this recently. 70 shekels – and I need to pay rent for the car and buy benzine (car fuel) from that money.”
Having four children and a wife to feed, Abu Majd works long hours, but what little is left of his daily earnings doesn’t stretch far as prices for fresh food such as fruit and vegetables always rise noticeably during the Holy month. The cheapest fresh meat is chicken, which at 20-25 shekels per kilo cannot figure in his family’s daily diet whilst scraping such a meager existence. Abu Majd also has other pressing concerns:
“Two hours after I started working this morning my shirt was wet through, it’s so hot. I needed a shower but what can I do, I have had no water in my house for ten days now…”
Although water is not drunk during daylight hours because of Ramadan, the search for it does take up much of the daytime activity for many of the camp’s residents. This summer, much like every summer, has seen a severe drought in Aida, although ‘drought’ is maybe not a suitable term to use given its possible implications of a ‘natural’ phenomenon. The water shortages in Aida, and in all of Palestine, are entirely man-made and intentionally enforced. A report published by the Maan News agency on 11th August (‘Israel to give Bethlehem more water for Ramadan’) claims that the Israeli Civil Administration has decided to “furnish the Bethlehem municipality with an additional 2,000 cubic meters of water per day for the month of Ramadan” to address the shortages. The same report however, made no admission of the fact that the reason for the water shortage is that Palestine’s water supply is occupied by Israel and that Palestine has no control of its own natural resources. In effect, Israel is apparently making a tiny extra amount of the water that it steals from within Palestine (in this case specifically the area known as the ‘West Bank’) available to the people from whom it was stolen. In Aida, people are yet to see such ‘extra water’ evident in the camp’s supply. Over recent months, long queues of people have gathered at the one tap linked to the invariably almost empty main water tank alongside the camp armed with empty juice bottles and large plastic containers, in a desperate attempt to ensure that at least a gallon or two of water may be available for daily needs. They are forced to do this as the underground water system that is meant to provide water directly to the houses fails to achieve this goal day after day and week after week in many cases. ‘Bidna mayyah’ is one of the most oft heard phrases during daily conversation – ‘We want water’.
Water shortages are nothing new in Occupied Palestine, but for those people internationally who have yet to accept the true Apartheid nature of the Israeli regime these practices must be understood clearly. The houses in the Israeli colony of Gilo, that are clearly visible from rooftops in Aida Camp when looking past and over the Apartheid Wall, have no water tanks on their roofs. They have no need for them given the constant supply of clean water provided to the Settlers by their Government. On many occasions when passing these ‘West Bank’ colonies, Settlers can be seen watering their gardens to retain deep greens and reds in the summer flora, whilst Palestinians living in disjointed Bantustans cannot wash or water their children.
Ramadan is also a time of year when traditionally more people would be visiting Al Quds, and particularly al-Aqsa mosque, than at other times of the year. Such trips are impossible for most Palestinians these days given the Apartheid Wall, the checkpoints, the closures, and the need for acquisition of permission papers from the Occupation authorities that are unattainable for the vast majority of people. Those few people locally who do secure these ‘luxuries’ are forced to queue for long periods to pass through the border-style terminal that is Bethlehem checkpoint. Earlier this week, one family attempting to reach Al-Aqsa mosque instead ended up in an ambulance on the way to Al Maqasaad Hospital after a 10 month old child has his arm mangled inside one of the rotating turnstiles that control passage through that particular ‘prison’. Most of Aida’s refugees cannot get close enough to the checkpoint to even see those turnstiles. Al Quds, although it is only 7km from Aida Camp, may as well be on another planet.
Life today in Aida is not filled with the often daily sound of IOF gunfire that it was up until about three years ago. The incursions by the Israeli army into the camp are less frequent than they were, although they do still happen, and no-one is sure how long things will remain this way. These peaks and lulls of IOF violence have been the norm over the decades’ long history of this refugee camp. The Occupation is not responsible for the stifling summer heat or the decisions to fast that are made by most although not all people in Aida. But Aida Camp exists today has it has done since 1950. It exists, as a refugee camp, because today as for over 60 years there are still Palestinian refugees, because Palestinians are still denied their rights.
Today in Aida Refugee Camp, people wait for the sun to set so that they can quench their thirst and hunger, even if only in a small way. People are waiting for the opportunity to find decent work. People are waiting to see when they will find some water. People are waiting for a chance to see Al Quds again. People are waiting today, as they have done since al-Nakba, to return to their homes…
– Rich Wiles is an artist and independent writer. His latest book is ‘Behind the Wall: Life, Love, and Struggle in Palestine’ (Potomac Book, March 2010). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit: www.richwiles.com.