About 16,000 people live in the Jalazone refugee camp in the West Bank. The situation is alarming. Some youths see violence as their only way out. Sven Pöhle reports from Ramallah.
Dozens of posters line the alleys of Jalazone, a refugee camp northeast of Ramallah. There are commemorative plaques everywhere. Faces look out from large billboards above the roofs of houses as well. “Those are the martyrs of Jalazone,” says Thaer, a young man in a striped polo shirt who says he is a teacher.
“Shahid” – or martyrs – are those who die battling the state of Israel. All of the posters show images of young men, some barely teenagers. Sometimes the logo of the governing Fatah party adorns the posters; other times it’s that of Hamas or another faction. “Don’t die without being a hero” is written on the plaque of a 20-year-old killed by Israeli soldiers during an incident in June 2014.
Fatah representative Hussein Elayari and several young men are waiting on the second floor of a building that features a street art portrait of another deceased young man on its exterior. Elayari is the president of the local committee of Jalazone, something like a mayor. Next to framed photographs of the previous and current Palestinian presidents, respectively Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, are even more portraits of young men who have died for their cause.
Jalazone is one of 19 West Bank refugee camps. Some 16,000 people live here on approximately a quarter of a square kilometer (one-fifth of a mile), Elayari says. At first it was home to 2,000 people who sought protection during the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War. Elayari says the Red Cross originally took care of the people. Then the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) took over the camp. The word “camp” no longer describes the place. The tents that stood here 66 years ago have been replaced with concrete houses.
‘Our kids have no hope’
As refugee status is hereditary, the number of Palestinian refugees goes up daily. As the number of refugees increases, so does the number of problems. “We have ever less money for ever more people,” Elayari says. Funds for education, health and welfare are constantly being cut. Unemployment is over 60 percent. He says the camp is attacked every night by Israeli security forces or settlers. “We have warned everyone that our kids have no hope,” Elayari says. “Repression leads to explosion, but young people here will fulfill their own hopes – no matter the price.”
Thaer adds: “We would sacrifice everything for our country.” The young men in the room nod in agreement.
“The military conflict with Israel has just made everything worse,” says Mohammad Arar, who represents the governing Fatah party here in the camp. Peaceful resistance changed nothing. He says the fact that young people from Jalazone throw rocks at security forces is the effect of desperation: “They do it, even though they know that their stones will be answered with bullets.”
Ramallah at a standstill
The young people of Jalazone meet at the Alhuk Cafe in the middle of the camp. It is early afternoon, and 22-year-old Ahmad Shahman smokes a hookah and drinks coffee with three other young men. The news is on in the background; one sees familiar images: rock throwing youths, Palestinian flags, Israeli soldiers. “We can’t sit still,” Shahman says. The rocks are their message to the world.
A dusty street leads uphill to the community center, where a group of mourners has assembled. In their midst sits Abdullah Sharakah. Forty-eight hours ago, his 13-year-old son was buried. It was a large funeral procession; all of Ramallah was at a standstill until 1 in the afternoon. Shops and schools remained closed so that all residents could attend the funeral. Ahmed’s casket was carried to the grave cloaked in a Palestinian flag and mourned by hundreds of people. A typical ceremony for a martyr.
Sharakah speaks with a soft voice. He says his son was a good son. He says he didn’t know that Ahmed went to demonstrations. At the Beit El checkpoint behind the nearby Israeli settlement, young men regularly burn tires and attack Israeli soldiers and police with rocks, even Molotov cocktails. Security forces answer with tear gas, even bullets. Ahmed was shot during one of these clashes, probably with a rubber bullet. “Ahmed died of a blood clot in the brain and internal injuries,” the boy’s father says. Then he excuses himself. He has to go to the entrance of the community center to greet former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has come to offer his condolences.
A few boys are playing outside in front of the house. Some are not even in their teens. They claim that they were there when Ahmed was killed. One proudly shows off a scar on his face. He says it came from an Israeli-fired rubber bullet. No less proud, another says his brother is already dead. A father looks somewhat awkwardly and shrugs his shoulders. He says that he can’t stop them, as he puts his arm around his young son. Why do they do it? “For Al-Aqsa!” cries one of the kids. “It’s our country,” another says. “We’ll carry on.”