The dominating watch-towers built into the side of the West Bank barrier look-out over a piece of waste-ground. Streaks of red-paint run down the side of them, like blood running down grey concrete skin. On the hill opposite stands a mass of two-storey concrete houses — the Aida refugee camp — living under the shadow of the winding walls of this barrier of segregation. The camp was established in 1950 by the United Nations Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA) to cope with Palestinians fleeing from the newly-created Israeli state.
Across this waste-land walked Muhammad-Ali, a 48 year-old Palestinian who lives in the camp. He explains that last year, on this piece of land, four children playing here were shot by Israeli soldiers from the watch-tower. The image of the paint running down them suddenly represents the bloody repression which is issued from within their walls.
We walk across to Muhammad’s house in the camp as he explains that soldiers regularly leave their concrete enclosure at night, coming into the camps at two or three o’ clock in the morning, hammering on doors. They force people out into the street — children are crying as they are made to stand outside in the cold & the rain — and their houses are searched. The lump on his 76 year-old mother’s wrist is a reminder of the night, seven years ago, when she was thrown to the ground, breaking her wrist. She still has pain in her shoulder. People here are scared every night when they go to bed.
The camp is severely overcrowded — in 2006 it was estimated to have a population of 3,260 refugees, covering an area of 0.71 square kilometres — although it has not been able to expand significantly since its creation sixty years ago. The buildings are limited to two-storeys. Thirty-one people live in the three rooms of Muhammad’s family’s house.
In the summer, there are shortages of water, and the sewage and water networks in the camp are poor. There is no ground on which they can grow food, yet the on other side of the wall I can see open hillsides rolling below the Israeli settlements.
Unemployment is also a major problem. The UNRWA quotes unemployment at 43%, and is “affected by the increased inaccessibility of the Israeli labour market”. Muhammad explains that he used to work as a mechanic, but with the creation of the wall, he lost his job as he could not travel there. The UNRWA try to provide some employment — such as street-cleaning — but there are not enough jobs. Once you sign-up, it may be possible to work for one, two or three months in a year, but this is all. He would like just a small amount of money with which he could start a shop, selling fruit & vegetables, but right now, it is hard enough finding money to buy food for his family.
Despite the hardship that they face, his family were incredibly friendly, welcoming and hospitable. As they served tea, and sent-out a child in search of biscuits, I felt incredibly guilty taking the food of these people who struggle for their daily existence. But trying to refuse offers of food and drink in Arab cultures is impossible. Offering money to them is offensive.
Back in the hostel that night, people would ask “have you had a nice day”. I didn’t know how to reply.