For Local Group, Talk Is Not Enough

Beit Sahour, West Bank -- A visit to the Deheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem isn't on most tourist agendas, but for activists working to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, it is practically a given.

One of three refugee camps in Bethlehem, Deheisheh is the largest, with some 13,000 residents, the majority of them children. The camps aren't camps in the traditional sense, but slum cities within a city that sprang up on sites where actual camps existed shortly after the creation of Israel in 1948, when many Palestinians were displaced from their homes.

Deheisheh could be seen as a poster child for an ensuing Palestinian condition. So, too, could the 17-year-old who took a tour group organized by the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme around the neighborhood on Tuesday afternoon.

Walid Fararja struggled in English to tell his family's story and answer questions. His grandmother still has the key to their house in a village now in Israel, he said, and while he is the third generation to grow up outside that village, he dreams of returning.

Fararja led the Americans through steep, winding streets scattered with trash and bursting with children who smiled and laughed and said “hi” any time a stranger looked at them. The group trekked past cracked walls decked with posters of leaders of Hamas, a militant Palestinian group, and a roster of revolutionary icons such as Che Guevara.

The dusty April air smelled faintly of urine, and women dressed for going out — perhaps to work, although there is little of that to be had — moved purposefully while men hung around on porches or stared out through open doors.

In many ways, it felt not so different from the poor American public-housing projects. Families depend chiefly on welfare, ostensibly from the United Nations, which took responsibility for them after 1948.

Jiries Atrash, a Palestinian Authority official who is hosting the Old Lyme group, said there are about three million displaced Palestinians in all, some 1.3 million of them in the West Bank and Gaza. Syria and Lebanon have camps that really are camps and treat the refugees “much worse than the Israelis,” he said.

•••

Much of life in Deheisheh appears on hold, as it does to a lesser extent throughout the Bethlehem area. Many shops are closed and hotels are quiet, although the Paradise Hotel, where the Old Lyme group has been staying, is bustling with construction crews.

During fighting in 2000 in and around Bethlehem, the Israeli military bombed and then occupied the Paradise Hotel. Two floors have been renovated, and three are in the works.

Hotel owner George Abuaida said only 20 percent of tourists who come to Bethlehem now spend the night. Most, he said, tour the holy sites and head back to Jerusalem, hoping not to get stuck in traffic at the Bethlehem checkpoint.

Monday night, after dinner at the hotel, the Old Lyme group of about two dozen spent time asking themselves and one another what they could do to help the Palestinians, whose cause they have embraced even before this visit, along with an end to violence.

Later this week they will visit an Israeli holiday village and tour Jerusalem, where a visit to the Holocaust Museum is on their agenda. So far, they have heard nothing to challenge their view that the onus is on Israel to make peaceful coexistence possible.

Corinne Good, wife of senior minister and trip leader David Good, wept over what she saw as her own inadequacy. “All we do is talk,” she said. “I feel so guilty.”

Bren Dubay, from Koinonia Farm in Georgia, the precursor of Habitat for Humanity International, wanted to start identifying assistance projects. In 1974, Dubay said, she visited Israel and felt uneasy about the fate of Palestinians, but did nothing.

She recalled the land around Bethlehem as being so green then. Now, she said, much of what she saw was a sandstone monotone.

Earlier, Atrash had shown the group scores of barren hills dotted with stubs of olive trees cut down by the Israeli government for security reasons. Other hills had lost their greenery to overgrazing by Bedouin sheep and goats that, penned in by Israeli settlements and the security barrier being built, have fewer places to roam.

“I feel like I wasted 30 years,” said Dubay.

Cathy Zall, an Old Lyme associate minister, said it was too soon for her to do anything but take it all in.

•••On Tuesday morning the group met with George Saadeh, principal of the Shepherds Field Greek Orthodox School in Beit Sahour. He told of a personal tragedy, which occurred in March 2003, in the center of Bethlehem. The city has been one of the focal points of deadly violence sparked, in part, by a Palestinian intifada that began in late 2000.

Saadeh said his car was mistakenly ambushed as Israeli soldiers hunted militant leaders of Hamas. Some of their bullets hit his 12-year-old daughter, Christine, who was in the back seat. But he kept driving, Saadeh said, because bullets kept coming. Saadeh, his wife, and daughter Marian, then 15, were injured. Christine was dead.

Christian faith, said Saadeh, helps him get up and go to work every day. But many Christians are leaving Bethlehem, he said.

Saadeh joined the Old Lyme group for a midday lunch at the Arab Women's Union in Beit Sahour, where they toured a spotless day-care center run by the Union for children up to age 4 and the handicapped. Most of the clients are on scholarship, Atrash said.

After lunch, David Good presented checks on behalf of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme to aid the Greek Orthodox school, the Women's Union and the Greek Orthodox church.

“You are writing the Gospel according to Beit Sahour,” he said.
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