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A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to travel with some good friends up north to the city of Nablus (I talk about that part of our visit in the next blog post) and the nearby UN refugee camp known as Balata, because of the village they still lease the land from. Operated by the UN since its creation in 1950, the camp today is incredibly large in terms of population, but extremely small physically: it is a one square kilometer piece of land with 26,000 people living on it. The official UN figure given is closer to 22,000, but they haven’t done a recent census according to the refugees who showed us around the camp. That is getting slightly ahead of myself, though; the trip to even get there is quite an endeavor in and of itself.

We departed in the early morning on Saturday, taking an Arabic bus from outside the Student Village towards the nearby Palestinian provisional capital of Ramallah (as a point of pronunciation, think “ruh-MULL-lah”). On the way, we had to pass through the massive walls around Jerusalem, and then walk through them on foot to go find a shared taxi towards the north. In the middle of Ramallah, the taxi drivers all congregate in a massive parking garage structure where there isn’t really enough room for all the vehicles present, but nevertheless they eke out a successful living based on squeezing people in between taxi vans to climb in for the ride. And what a ride it turned out to be – a whole bunch of firsts for me that day. It was the first time I got to see the very conservative fashion for Muslim women, where they wore not only a hijab (head-covering) and a long skirt, but also a veil and even gloves, to cover all skin except for their eyes. It was the first time I had driven through a large Palestinian town which was so clearly Muslim in character, so the character of the street was different than Bethlehem for example, where one could see nuns walking past Muslim girls with their hijabs. We got to see a great many settlements on our way north, since our status as foreigners afforded us the right to take the settler’s road which had much fewer roadblocks and was of much higher quality than the roads taken care of by the Palestinian Authority. The two other points of interest were things I was unable to get photographs of as we drove by so quickly. First, we drove past a small Palestinian neighborhood’s town square with a monument in the middle. It wasn’t just any monument, however; it was a stone tablet with the iconic image of Saddam Hussein firing a gun upon the front, and the Iraqi coat of arms going down the side. Not what I was expecting to see, but that is how life goes here. Speaking of which, the other point worth mentioning was that we passed by a Palestinian furniture store being raided by 10 or more IDF soldiers, but it seemed fairly calm – perhaps a “routine” check or some such? I will never know, but it was another reminder of where we were.

We had to get out of one van and into another at a certain checkpoint, and traveled the rest of the way to our final destination. We arrived in the outskirts of Nablus near the Jacob’s Well church, and walked towards the Balata camp entrance. One of my friends, Zehra, is a student who spent a summer volunteering with the people of the camp to try and alleviate the suffering of the 6,000 children there through enabling them to plan, set up, and then film short movies about whatever subject they can think of. As such, many people in the camp knew Zehra and we were treated as esteem guests. We went in and already saw the signs of problems – many of the buildings were very old already, and the first several signs of the UN looked rusty enough to be the original signs from 1950.

We got into the Cultural Center (read more about it in the next paragraph), and got a minor introduction to the state of affairs in the camp. Everyone who currently lives there is either still a refugee from the 1948 Israeli declaration of statehood, or has inherited the status from being born into the camp. Unfortunately, the presence of 26,000 people in such a small community which is only residential means that many of them are unemployed. We were told (and the following is merely reporting what we were told, not personal opinions on my behalf) that the IDF makes it their practice to invade the streets of the camp at night and either kill or make warrantless arrests of individuals from the camp. This was awful to hear, but it is also important to remember the other side of the story: Nablus and Balata have been hotbeds of active and violent resistance to the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank, spawning such groups as the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade (see the photographs – I got within 10 feet of their Martyr’s Shrine with their distinctive yellow flag flying above it, which is slightly concerning in retrospect). I cannot pass an easy moral judgment on the situation, and for good reason: this entire conflict is one huge exercise in “who can you actually blame for the original wrong committed?” Is it the fault of poor and frustrated Palestinian refugees raised in an environment free of hope and opportunities? Is it the fault of Israel for continuing the occupation? Is it the fault of the British Mandate for not doing a better job at ceding their control of this area? Is it the fault of Abraham for favoring Isaac (according to the to Jewish tradition) over Ishmael (who is the favored son in the Muslim tradition)? These are only partially rhetorical, as both sides have done all sorts of things wrong. Perhaps the situation would benefit from 1) both sides being able to admit that they have done wrong and thus contributed to the situation and 2) after apologizing to the other side, working with them towards a one-state solution (a two-state solution, I am sorry to report from personal experience, is an awful idea that cannot work-more on this opinion in a future post).

Amidst all of the difficulties, there exists at least one island of calm and healing. This organization is known as the Yafa Cultural Center (YCC), and their name refers to the Arabic city of Yafa/Jaffo, which since the 1950’s expanded and grew into Tel Aviv. They named it this because many of the residents of the camp are from the city of Jaffo, and they feel the need to educate the younger generations about their culture that they were forced to leave behind, and also provide creative and constructive outlets for the rage and sensation of being powerless shared by most of the children in the camp. In addition to being staffed entirely by people who were born and grew up in the camp, the staff plans daily activities of all sorts to keep the kids busy and focused on something other than the problems. As one of our guides explained, they will fight tooth and nail to ensure that this current generation of kids grows up understanding what “hope for the future” means, as the previous generation did not. Although much of what we encountered that day was terrible and saddening and hopeless, there was a humorous detail amidst the hope of this cultural center. Apparently, using a donated computer lab, many of the children of the camp all take turns playing daily rounds of Counterstrike. I am not kidding – they spend a lot of time playing rounds of a computer game famous for placing terrorists against counter-terrorists, and the kids do this to reduce internal senses of aggression and violence that can and do arise from their situation. Having spoken with some of the kids, I can tell you that they had intense positive gains from this virtual method of letting out anger; I am intrigued by the possibility of doing some sort of study there, although the reality is that I would be not entirely safe (given the consistent IDF-resistance clashes that take place there).

I don’t know how to impart all of what I saw and hear and experienced for most of that Saturday in Balata. I have attempted to impart some of what the experience is like, but I think the only way I can even come close to truly conveying the experience is to have a conversation with interested parties in person; face-to-face. That is an offer, by the way, to whomever is so interested on my return home.

The photographs I have chosen to include offer a good mix of the positive and negative aspects of life in the Balata Camp; I just want to try and show what life is like for those 26,000 people visually.

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