Saturday April 9 : Activities in Al-Arroub

Friday 9 March 2012
popularity : 91%

This morning we are awaited at the EJE centre, a two-storey building that stands a few steps away from our "home sweet home" [1].

Samaher, the young and (very!) pretty coordinator of the centre welcomes us in the central room, a large hall decorated with drawings and pictures of little boys and girls from Al-Arroub camp. We agree with her on different types of activities we could do with the children next week. She advises us to start with outdoor games – we tell her briefly about games we call in French “Lemon Lemon”, “the Conductor”, “the Enchanter “ - in fact, games we play (or used to play) at home with the scouts. Samaher thinks the children will enjoy them. Then Margot, who thought about it well before we left to Palestine (she is such a pearl!), tells everybody about a do-it-yourself workshop she has imagined : helping the children to make each for themselves some sort of “happiness notebook", actually, a small customized notebook in which the children will draw things they like or that make them happy: objects, people, animals, landscapes, celebrations, whatever. When they feel down or sad, they can open it and, hopefully, feel a bit better when they remember that there is something else than the quarrels at school, the soldiers in and around the camp, the nightmares at night... Samaher nods her approval, this can only do the children good.

Samaher invites us now to have a look at the toy and game library and, why not, try ourselves at some of them, so we can better understand what the children can learn when playing them. There are wooden games the children made together (for example a quoits game that makes Tanguy’s day!). In less than 5 minutes, Margot has made friends of the little girls that surround us. They are all so cute with their wide eyes and long black hair tied in braid or in a ponytail...

Tareq has rejoined us. The school he works in lies a bit further down on the road. He has a break now and has come to take us to meet his headmaster. He looks tired. Because Anne-Claire is being insistent (yes she can be!), he finally tells us about what happened last night: soldiers came up to arrest one of his neighbours, who is living just across the street."But this man hasn’t been home for a few days. As they couldn’t find him, they broke all the doors in the whole building, entered the other people’s places, knocked them over, yelled at them, pulled gunshots and finally woke up everyone in the neighbourhood… Didn’t you hear anything ?" We look at each other, no, we heard nothing... The fact is our flat is situated at the far end of a street that is perpendicular to the one Tareq lives in, and also, all our windows open onto the back yard. Tareq goes on: "I didn’t sleep for a minute. I spent most of the night down on my knees, peeping through the shutters... Asking myself if they would come back, enter our place, come to arrest me, or Sarah, and when they would...”. "They”: the soldiers, a word Tareq almost never utters. He says "they", which means nobody, no individual people whom he could talk to but a vague group of armed uniforms. We ask him: why would they come to get you? Have you done anything special? Tareq shakes his head: "In Palestine, you don’t need to have done something special to get into trouble with them. They come just like that, without a reason, break your door, smash all your belongings, frighten the children, take the people away, and put them into prison, or not. Depending on their mood of the moment...”

Visit of the Boys’ School and Reunion with Ribal

Hearing this sends shivers down our spines. Last night is not so far: one or two hours only after our young Palestinian friends had given us examples of problems they can have with the soldiers, Tareq was going through another traumatic experience. He’s really astonished that we didn’t hear anything. “They” really made a noise, with the shouts and the gunshots.“ But that’s it”, he says with a smile. “This is over now. Life goes on…”

We say good-bye to Samaher and follow Tareq to the school where he teaches: the UNRWA Boys’ School. The headmaster receives us in his office, a long narrow room that opens on the playground. He is still busy for two or three more minutes. We tell him it is Ok, he shouldn’t worry for us. On the walls, there are yeargroup pictures and, of course, aview of Jerusalem with the shining gilded cupola of the Dome of the Rock in the middle. The Palestinians of the West Bank don’t have the right to go to Jerusalem. But nobody can’t prevent them from thinking about it and loving it from far.

This room is where the teachers come to have a glass of tea during the breaks or, as is the case now, at the end of their day’s work. They smile back at us and kindly offer us their seats. They can’t hide their surprise at our being here. We are not old enough to be international officials : who are we then? What are we here for?... Sandra told us that it was not commonplace for the inhabitants of Al-Arroub to have groups of visitors of our age.

The headmaster is about to conclude the discussion he has with a lady, most probably a pupil’s mother. While waiting for him, we watch the comings and goings of the children in and out of the school buildings. They invade the UNRWA white-and-blue playground, chase one another, their satchel on their back: school is over, they are going back home.

The lady has left now and the headmaster welcomes us : “Marhaban!” He says he hopes that all has gone well for us since we arrived in the camp. He has glasses of tea brought to us, a sweet and hot mint drink that symbolizes welcome (we’ll get some more during our stay here, in fact each time we’ll visit somebody!). At Tanguy’s request, the headmaster first gives us some information about the school system in the refugee camps of the West Bank. Then he’ll tell us about "his school" :

“All the schools in the Palestinian refugee camps are managed by the United Nations (UNRWA). The school path is imposed on us: there are six years primary school and three years secondary school. The children attend UNRWA schools until they are 15 , that is up to the ninth form. Next, they must do their last three years of secondary school in a Palestinian state school, that is under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Our school organizes the fifth to ninth forms. All the children have Arabic, English, Biology, Physics and Chemistry classes as well as Data Processing, Social education, Civics and Education in the human rights. In all the schoolbooks we use, there is a chapter that focusseson how to integrate human rights to the subject taught, be it English or Maths, and supervisors/inspectors come to check that, indeed, all the teachers do teach this part in their course.”

How to integrate human rights to the subject taught?... We look at each other, nodding appreciatively (we can’t pride ourselves on doing that in Belgium!). And also, we remember the press conference we attended in Jerusalem, just before we left: the Israelis accuse the Palestinian curriculum of provocation, justifying thus the Israeli government’ decision to replace it with the Israeli curriculum in all the Palestinian schools of Jerusalem. “False”, one of the speakers had said, “we teach peace to the children we are in charge of”... Obviously, this applies in the UNRWA schools of the camps too.

The headmaster goes on: “The characteristic of all the UNRWA schools is their denominational neutrality, the only way to ensure that they are safe places for the children (state schools, on the other hand, are under the control of the Palestinian Authority and have a religious character.) The teachers are paid by the UN, which are also responsible for the functioning of the schools. The latter also receive financial help from different NGO, thanks to which additional sport or artistic activities can be organised (competitions, dance or theatre festivals, PE shows). Every year, some European and North-American NGO take charge of a limited number of pupils and students (20 out of 600, that’s not much, the headmaster comments), so as to offer them a little change and the opportunity to do some self-development work or to do their hobby, etc."

He stops talking for a while: there are so many things to say, and obviously we are a different public than the one he is used to meeting. Tanguy picks up the threads of the conversation: what kind of school problems do you meet with the children? What specific problems do the children in Al-Arroub have? The director rubs his forehead:

“Before talking about the problems that our children encounter, I’d like to remind you of the situation the inhabitants of Al-Arroub are in. All of them are 1948 refugees. Most originate from 13 villages that were destroyed in the south of today’s Israel. They first lived under tents, which the UNRWA had set up for them. As the possibility of their going back home in a near future was slowly melting down, the UN started to replace the tents with permanent structures, in fact basic buildings in which several people had to share a room. Time passed, the first refugees’ children grew up, got married, had children in their turn. As the camp couldn’t develop horizontally, the families started to build additional floors to their house with the help of their neighbours, and the camp has taken the appearance which you know today.”

"There are no playgrounds for the children inside the camps. There is only the street, with all its dangers. The main problem for the inhabitants of Al-Arroub is the much too frequent clashes there are between the children and the soldiers. The latter enter the camp when they feel like it, in a jeep or on foot, always in a group. The children’s reaction is immediate: they start throwing stones at them. The soldiers answer back with real bullets. The night following the incursion, the same soldiers come into the houses to arrest children, on the grounds that they threw stones at them. Yesterday, for example, they took three, one of whom was on his way to the mosque with his father for the Friday prayer... If the parents want to get their child back, they have to pay a 2000-shekel fine (about 400 euros): a fortune."

We glance at Tareq, who confirms all this with a nod. Sandra told us about it on the day we arrived here, didn’t she?... How unreal our idyllic picnic in Mar Saba seems to us now: just imagine! If "our" young Palestinians had not come with us yesterday, where would they be now ?

"The children of the camp are psychologically damaged. All of them have a member of their family who was arrested or killed, many of them have been arrested and taken to prison at least once in their school life. As I said to you, there are no playgroundsor sport ground in the camp where they could play safely after school. So they spend their time watching rubbish on television, or chasing each other in the street, screaming or arguing with each other. The only place where they can play safely is the school playground, which stays open every night: indeed, no one wearing a uniform or carrying an arm, be they Israeli or Palestinian, can enter a UNRWA school."

We ask: don’t children have classes in the afternoon? The headmaster answers: "They have classes from Sunday to Thursday, from 7.30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Then, school finishes and the children go back home to do their homework or to play. In our school, there are only about twenty teachers to take care of all the children. But,"he adds, pointing at Tareq, "Tareq alone is worth five teachers!" We smile at Tareq, who blushes, lowers his head while making a sign to the headmaster: “Please, stop it! Let’s talk about something else! "

“The teachers stick together. They also try to involve the people into the activities that are organized by the school. Theyhave helped setting up a parents’ board and a students’ board... Yes, the children are difficult... There are three teachers on each floor who are there around the clock to watch that no child goes through the window. But after 2 pm, there are no adults anymore to kep an eye on the children… Consequently, in the morning, it is not rare to find broken window-panes, all the more as it is not only the children of the school who come and meet here…"

"The school and the EJE cultural centre try to set up activities for the young ones. We invite counselors, social workers, psychologists to speak with the children, help them express their aggressiveness, their fears. But, some children are really difficult: they destroy the school furniture and equipment. I admit that I often feel powerless. I have the feeling that what I do here is pointless… Before I came here, I used to work in a school around Jericho. It was closer to the wall, but the children I was in charge of were a lot more smiling, also more motivated by school. Here, they are much more frustrated, more violent."

"What the children here like most is going on a school trip, going out of the school, out of the camp. Last year, we organized a little journey to Jerusalem, which is 30 km away. This was a big first: most of the Palestinians of the West Bank have never set foot in Jerusalem. They are not allowed to. The children were jumping for joy at the idea of leaving! Not a day passed without them speaking about it…"

We are discreetly interrupted by a man who beckons to the headmaster from the door of the office : he is needed. We all stand up, thank him for the time he has given us and follow Tareq up to the first floor of the building: we are now going to attend a song and dabkeh workshop. [2].

As they enter the classroom where the workshop is about to begin, Tanguy and Anne-Claire just can’t believe their eyes: one of the workshop leaders is none other than Ribal!

Ribal, the 19-year-old man who made such an impression on them in 2009. One of the few who, as they will learn afterward, is still working at Al-Rowwad Centre in Aïda [3]. Indeed, many of the people they met with the Taayoush group have distanced themselves from Al-Rowwad Centre. As Sandra and Martine will explained later, the Palestinian society is still terribly clan-like and, little by little, there were only members of the director’s family left to run or participate in the different activities of the centre: too bad for the others. But Ribal stayed. It must be said that he is sort of "the" success of the Al-Rowwad project: he joined the theatre company when he was just a kid, climbed up the ladder, became a workshop leader and a coordinator. What’s more (Sandra told us discreetly), when his father died last year, the director of A-Rowwad really supported him during the difficult times he had to go through: being the elder in family, Ribal is now in charge of his mum and of his little brothers. Anne-claire and Tanguy are shocked and disappointed to hear what Al-Rowwad has turned into: the director’s great speeches seemed to indicate something else than that. But would we have acted otherwise? Not sure. And why should the Palestinians be better thanmost od the people?

We listen to Ribal while he tells them how the "old ones" are getting on : Salam has got engaged and should soon get married, Oussama works in another centrer, the "Freedom Sons" Mazen, Jamal and Mahmoud no longer sing together, Youssef is abroad with his basketball team, Marwa, Samira… This reunion is a bit strange for both Anne-Claire and Tanguy: this is Ribal and, at the same time, this is not him. He is distant, as if he needed some time to put the pieces of the puzzle together again. But he seems happy to meet them again too. Tanguy tells him that we are going to Aïda soon to attend a cooking workshoprun by the women of the camp. Will he be there? What about the others, Mazen, Jamal, Mohamed... ? Apparently, he hasn’t kept in touch with those who have left Al-Rowwad, but he promises to do his best to tell them that we are back to Palestine. Tanguy also tells about the copies of the book the group Taayoush wrote together as a testimony of their 2009 trip. Ribal is interested in getting one, even if it is still only in French… Anyway, it is nice of him to contribute to the activities in Al-Arroub!...

In the meantime, the children who participate in the workshop have all arrived. In the workshops, in fact, for there are indeed two taking place at the same time: some of the children form a small choir and practise singing together with a music teacher who accompanies them on the keyboard, while the others work at their dabkeh steps with Ribal.

There are six singers, all boys aged 10 to 12. One is dark-skinned, two are fair-haired with clear eyes. This surprises us: they don’t correspond to the idea of an Arab we usually have in Europe.

Petits chanteurs 1

When they sing, they do so with all their heart. They stand well upright, in semi-circle, in front of their teacher, whom they don’t let out of their sight while he’s playing the keyboard or marking the rhythm on a tambourin. One of the children sings some lines solo, than the others fall in behind him.

When the song is over, they sit down and watch the other half of the group work their steps with Ribal: six dancers too, in jeans and sweat jackets. They hold each other by the shoulders, thus forming a line that moves according to the tempo given by Ribal, who counts: “wahid, thniin, thalath, arba, wahid, thniin, thalath, arba, wahid, thniin, thalath, arba”. They must be in harmony with rhythm of the music coming from the tape-recorder, cross their legs, jump, move back, then forward, jump again, all as one… Ribal makes them do it again and again.

Atelier dabkeh avec Ribal

He is a wonderful teacher, his instructions are clear and precise, but he is exacting: one of the children who has obviously come more to make his buddies laugh than to work is simply sent out…

It is the singers’turn again: sounds of cimbalon, flute and tambourin. Here and there, we recognize the word “filistiin”, Palestine, which they sing with obvious pleasure and pride.

Petits chanteurs 2

We give them a big round of applause : their voices are just as great as those of “Les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois” at home: same purity, same grace.

Then, their teacher makes them work the technique, practise the scales (in French! Do-ré-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do! It’s so cute!). All together, then one at a time, the one after the other. Now, they work on the chords while the teacher accompanies them on the oud. We are a little surprised to be surprised: but yes, they use the same scales and chords as we do, although their songs and music sound so differently from ours…

Petits chanteurs 3

Their teacher sometimes stops them and sings for them, explains to them how he is doing it. They listen to him very carefully then imitate him on the melodic line only, then once it is clear for them, again, with the instrumental arrangement. We wouldn’t be able to do so, that’s clear!

Petits chanteurs 4

Meeting at the EJE Centre

The workshop lasts one hour and a half. After that, we go back to the EJE centre where Nidal, the director, is waiting for us. He welcomes us in his tiny office and explains to us that this centre is part of a whole "Children, Games and Education"-network: there are other similar centres in Jericho, Tulkarem, Shu’fat (close to the checkpoint we crossed with Daoud), in Ramallah, Gaza … Nidal supervises the work that is done in the different centres of the south of the West Bank.

"The first trip the children of the camp were able to do was an excursion to the seaside, which was organised by volunteer of the French Catholic Relief. The children had dreamt about it for weeks beforehand. We had put a map on the wall and drawn the itinerary that they would follow to get to the sea. Of course, we had difficulties getting the travel permits from the Israeli authorities… Last year, eight children who play soccer were able to cross the border, go to the airport, take the plane. It was the first time they were going to France and playing against international teams from Brazil, Soudan, …"

"Stéphane Hessel is one of the main founders of EJE. We regularly receive foreign delegations from France, Egypt, the USA, England, Greece, Italy... Last year, we even had a group of volunteers from Louvain, in Belgium. People come to see us and to inquire about what we need."

“"We work in collaboration with the schools of the camp. We take care of the children after the classes. Our first objective is their security: they have been through so much during the 2000 Intifada. The soldiers of the IDF (Israeli army) really harassed them. They still do. Some children (25) were put in prison. All have psychological problems. 8,400 people live in this camp, on less than a square kilometer, and the children are desperately in need places where they could play and grow up. Our aim when organizing workshops is to try to reduce the violence in which they are forced to grow up: there is violence at school, violence at home, violence during the military incursions in the camp. What we did too was to set up a crises awareness workshop.” [4]

“It is the schools that send us the children, all of the "difficult" cases for whom we provide feedbacks. We try to help these children express their problems through artistic and play activities. Our social workers meet about seventy families a year, people who are in deep pain."

We listen carefully to this man. Everything Nidal says corroborates what the headmaster of Tareq’s school and what Sandra have told us on the subject. We slowly begin to make a clear idea of the extent of the problem.

"Now, you must know that more than 75% of the Palestinians go to High School or University : it is the highest percentage in all Arab countries. The explanation is simple: the people lost everything during the 1948 Naqba (= “catastrophe”) so now they invest in their children’s education. And, indeed, the children usually encounter few school problems during their studies. Droupouts are only 1%."

"The problems they have are of another kind. Psychological, as I told you, but also due to the pervasive presence of the military in and outside the camp. Here an example among hundreds of others: the case of the young Malek Al-Sharef. This boy participated in our media workshops [5] and he shot a film called "The Trap", which was published on the Web... After that, he was arrested on a day when he was coming back home from school, and he stayed in prison for six months. The soldiers left him starving for three days. They put him through other mistreatments too, assaulted him sexually... This is not an isolated case: a lot of young boys are rapped in prison but, most of the time, they refuse to speak about it afterwards - shame, disgrace, fear to be rejected by their family or the community... I just let you imagine in which state Malek came back to us...”

Shivers down our spines… How can one do such things to a child?...

"We have set up programs to help the children of the camp to grow up. It is important for us to teach them tolerance, that they learn to accept the other one and develop another attitude than hatred. We teach them that it is better to fight with words, say "this is also my country!", rather than resort to violence. We don’t encourage a culture of hatred. You will never hear a word of hatred here. This centre was created away from politics, for the children, so they can escape the street and the soldiers’ brutality."

These words: the same speech as the one the 2009 Taayoush Group heard in Silwan, Aida, Hebron and Nablus. The same as the one we heard at the press conference in Jerusalem : "We don’t encourage a culture of hate". These are not only words. This is exactly what emanates from all the people we have met since our arrival in Palestine.

Experiencing Occupation through « The Trap » and « The Gates »

Nidal suggests we should now watch two short films shot by young boys who participated in the media workshop of the centre. The first one, "The Gates", is both funny and tragic: we follow a young Palestinian on his journeys to his school, journeys of variable lengths according to whether the Israeli soldiers decide to open or not the gates of the refugee camps he lives in (in this case, Al-Arroub) and those of the town where his school is located (still in this case, Beit Ommar). There are moments in the film that make you smile, but the subject is grave: it is an illustration of how se riously occupation affects the children of the camps’ schooling.

The second film, "The Trap" was shot by the young Malek Al-Sharef, whom Nidal was talking about a few minutes ago. This film was shown in Jerusalem, in France and in England. It tells the story of a pupil who is letting himself get dragged into collaborating with the Israeli occupation. This is not a fiction, Nidal says, but the sad reality of a lot of Palestinian children,who are forced to work as informers for the military officers and to denounce, for example, as is the case in Malek Al-Sharef’s film, the children who threw stones during a military incursion in the camp. Iin fact their own neighbours or school friends. This is not without a risk for them and for their families. The film shows us that the child is clearly a victim of the situation, but he will pay dearly the consequences of his acts. As Nidal explains to us, the "collaborator children" find themselves completely isolated afterwards: they are considered as "traitors" by their family and the whole community.

In this second film, the actors are all children, like in the first one. But "The trap" really makes us feel uncomfortable. It is rather unsettling indeed to see these kids playing"the bad ones" so perfectly, take up their gestures and use the same humiliating words as the ones they must have heard the soldiers use with their neighbours or members of their family… It is not difficult to understand why this film displeased Israeli propaganda. As to imprison and torture the young Malek for that, there is room for debate...

Nidal tells us that the EJE centre organizes awareness sessions in an attempt to try to solve the problem and to lead the children to being careful, not to let the soldiers convince them to give names and betray their fellow-countrymen. “The camp has been rather quiet for a year now,” he confides to us, “but the soldiers are constantly looking for a fight. They yell at the children, provoke them until they react. Hence, the importance of keeping the children occupied as much as possible. The ideal thing about the centre is that it is located quite far from Road 6O, which makes it a safe place. You can be sure that this centre has, without any doubt, saved the life of several children. The fact is that, since 2008, when the activities started, there have been fewer brutal confrontations and more discussions."

Nidal concludes his information telling us briefly about "Defence for Children international" (DCI), an organisation that takes care of the children who were raped, beaten or confined. He tells us briefly about the young Karam who was arrested in Hebron on his way back home from school. Another example among thousand others of what the children of occupied Palestine have to go through.

Visit to our landlady

We thank Nidal for the time he spent with us and go back "home", quite shattered by what we have heard and seen... Some of us reach for their guitar and strum it thoughtfully, some others go and lie on their mattress for a while, while the rest sets out preparing supper. Anything will do that can help empty our mind. Anne-Claire asks if anybody is interested in accompanying her: she thinks it is time to climb to the first floor of the house and pay a visit to Youssef’s mother, who owns our flat. Marie-Gaelle and Caroline follow her. The three of them climb up the outside stairs that lead to a kind of security door with wire fencing on its window.

Youssef opens the door. He’s happy to see us. Youssef has a round baby-like face and a lisp. Later, we will learn that, indeed, he has a nervous problem, a consequence of the blows he got during a military raid. He shows us into the "sitting room", an almost bare place. On the ground, there a few rugs. On the rugs, alongside the walls, thin foam rubber matresses. Sitting on one of them is Noah, Youssef’s younger brother, the one who should have got married and should be living in the flat downstairs. He gets up, greets us kindly then goes back to his computer – a crock, in fact: the screen is broken and Noah can get half of a picture only.

Youssef is back with his mother. How old can this lady be? She looks old, a little plump and her face is wrinkled and wizeled. She smiles at us, as if we descended from Heaven, keep our hands in hers for a long time. We sit down on the matresses with her and listen to her. Anne-Claire and Marie-Gaëlle don’t understand a word of what she’s saying. There is no need to: smiles and gestures are. She purses her lips appreciatively at Marie-Gaelle and Anne-Claire’s beautiful fait hair, and at Caroline’s too, of course (but black is definitely less exotic here!). We tell her the same about her magnificent long dress: a toobla, the traditional Palestinian dress. Black fabric with red cross stitch embroideries on the bodice, all down the sides and on the borders of the long sleeves. Anne-Claire adds, as if it was necessary, "jamilah!". The old lady applauds: bravo, anti tatakallam alarabiah jayyidan! you can speak Arabic!

She struggles to get back on her feet again. We want to help her, but she waves us not to move. She goes out of the room, comes back two minutes later, carrying a bundle wrapped in brown paper, which she opens for us: other hand embroidery work, each piece more beautiful than the preceding one, one of which she made at the age of seven and which represents a camel and a palm-tree. An American offered her several hundreds of dollars to have it!, she explains to us (Caroline translates). She refused. That is all what is left of her past life...

Youssef tells us that they will come and visit us"at our place" tomorrow evening: his mum would like to cook a meal for us or bake cakes, it is up to us. Anne-Claire, who has a sweet tooth, votes in favour of the cakes. The old lady laughs: that is a deal! And she will come with all her dresses: we will be able to try them on if we feel like it and take pictures to show our friends and parents in Belgium! We get up to leave: smiles, hands pressed against one’s heart, strokes on the cheeks - this lady is really touching. Youssef takes us to the door. In his arms, he is carrying his young son who has just woken up. The little baby-boy has a disarming look and the hair of an angel. Marie-Gaelle immediately falls in love with him, he’s so cute. She tickles him, makes funny faces and makes him laugh, under the tender eye of his grandmother, father and uncle.

As they are coming down to our flat, Anne-Claire suddenly has a revelation: this empty room upstairs… In fact, they have taken down everything they have to furnish "our" flat! All the mattresses and blankets: when they are piled up, they must serve as couches in their sitting-room! And the three little tables on which we have our meals, the TV and TV stand, the two beds we use as seats! Everything!... Wow! It is hardly believable but there is no other explanation !... If only we had realized earlier, we would have thanked them accordingly!... Such generosity! Above all: such discreet, behind-the-scene generosity… And so, in every corner of Palestine.

Evening Together with the Young Palestinians

The evening meal is quickly swallowed: "our" young Palestinians are already there, neat and groomed. Abed has come with small dessert pots. He, Majd, Marie-Gaelle, Caroline and Margot all meet in the kitchen to make some tea and coffee for everyone: the two guys turn out to be awfully funny, so full of attention and so sweet! In the beds-couches Laurie, Natalia, Paul and Sébastien joke together with Hashem, Hassan and Baha. Mahmoud and Wassim, who are more reserved, or more shy, listen to them, laugh at their jokes but don’t speak much. Bassam, for his part, goes up to his usual antics and game of seduction in front of the two girls...

When everyone has got a drink, Tanguy sits down too and asks our new friends if they would mind telling us about yesterday’s clashes in Al-Arroub: what happened while we were all in Mar Saba ? Was the scene we found ourselves in the middle of just before leaving the camp the beginning of something serious? The jokes and laughters stop immediately. Hashem and his friends look at each other then he answers soberly: “Nothing unusual for a Friday. The Israeli soldiers entered the camp, threw smoke grenades and tear-gas bombs into the mosque during the prayer. People usually come out of it crying and coughing, some will have their lungs and eyes burning for several days on end”. And he confirms the information we got from the headmaster of the school this morning: three children were indeed arrested and taken to prison. He hands out a document he has prepared for us: a series of figures. The number of people whose life is affected, when not broken, by occupation:

- 17,000 Palestinians have spent more than 15 years of their life in prison;
- more than 10,400 Palestinians are currently kept prisoners in about thirty Israeli prisons;
- up to now, seven Palestinians have spent more than 25 years in prison, 57 more than 20 years;
- at present, there are 117 young women imprisoned, four of whom four are under 18;
- currently, there are 379 children in prison and... four ministers;
- 25% of the Palestinian population have been to prison;
- more than 700,000 Palestinians have been to prison since 1967.

Bassam has left. Apparently, the turn things have taken did not suit him anymore. Anne-claire questions Tareq : You all look so serious, she tells him, so responsible. From Wassim, who is only 15 to Hassan, who is 20. And you too. You have all such a strong political consciousness, you are all so anxious to act, to learn, get informed and inform the people about what happens in Palestine. With Bassam, it’s different, isn’t it? I have the feeling he doesn’t really care and only thinks of having fun, joking with the girls of the group, smoking his chicha. He is almost 30 though and has a wife and a child... Tell me, how can you be friends? Tareq smiles gently: "Yes, I know. Sarah always asks me this question too. It is true that Bassam is a little bit “majnoun”, a little bit crazy. He can even be really stupid sometimes. It is true too that he accepts things as they are and that the only thing he is interested in is having fun. He’s not the only Palestinian to react that way... It is a pity, of course... But at the same time, it does me good: I am all the time thinking and worrying. About Sarah, about Watan, about my students, my family, my friends. He makes me laugh... And I need that. But maybe one day, I won’t be able to stand him anymore." He says the last words with a gentle smile. Tareq makes us think of Daoud: the same wonderful sweetness, and the same great determination too. No wonder Anne-Claire has decided to consider them as her two Palestinian sons!

In the meantime, other people have knocked at our door: two Danish guys, Yeppe and Esben, who are in Al-Arroub for a few months in the context of a sort of "international civil service", and Malek and Nour, whose families put them up. They have heard about Belgians being there and have come to meet us. Our young Palestinians are not really sure they want to share us with them… But the day, which again has been quite rich in meetings and emotions, ends peacefully in music, beautifully played by Jeppe on the guitar, Malek on the derbouka and the handsome and mysterious long-haired Nour on the violin… Wow…

Musique vespérale

Margot’s comments after her first week in Palestine:

"I expected to see horrors inside the camp, but the situation is even worse than what I imagined. What has shocked me most is what the young Palestinians have told us about the Israeli soldiers that are stationed at the entries the camp: they don’t really have much to do, so they are bored to death. They work on 8-hour shifts and each team have their sport or favourite pastime: shooting at anything that moves in the air (birds, cans they throw themselves, the children’s football ball while they are playing on the streets of the camp); organising raids in the camp at any time of the day and and of the night in order to "check the identity cards"; provoking the inhabitants verbally, insulting them, yelling at them without any reason... Only to while away the time, to forget how bored they are because, indeed, there is nothing to do. These soldier are little more than big armed teenagers, who are allowed to do as they please and who sow terror among the people, just like in the tougher districts of Brussels or Charleroi. [6]

“I am frightened to hear that children are jailed and that there is no special department for them in the prisons. But, it warms my heart to know about the huge solidarity there is among the Palestinians and that, inside the prisons, the older ones take care of the younger, organize classes or activities so that they don’t fall behind too much in their schooling."

“I just can’t believe Palestinian people are put in jail without having the right to see a lawyer, without being allowed to get visits from their family and more than often on imaginary or made-up motives. Accused, for example, of having thrown stones although, in the facts, the child was at school at the given moment, as was the case with the young son of the man who talked to us under the Solidarity Tent in Jerusalem. I find it hard too, to swallow that trials are usually postponed: Palestinian prisoners sometimes wait for years before they can know what they have been jailed for: this is incredible!”

“I’m appaled to hear about torture being a commonplace thing in the Israeli prisons. I can’t but make a parallel with an American prison in Cuba, in which, at a certain time, shady things were taking place too …”

“Who can explain to me why, when an Israeli is put to prison, you read and hear about it all the time in the western media, whereas noone says a word about the Palestinians who are imprisoned in the Israeli jails?”

See pictures of the children and teenagers of Al-Arroub

Read on about our trip

[1as a reminder : it is one of the cultutal centres of the « Les Enfants, le Jeu et l’Education » association.

[3Read Ribal’s interview which we made in April 2009 in the refugee camp of Aida.

[4See an example of a photo workshop filmed in 2010.

[5Examples of work done by the media workshop : films produced in the context of the “Re-imagining project", a program of story-telling and media workshops run by "Voices Beyond Walls" in Al-Arroub in June/July 2010.

[6On this subject, read the testimonies of former soldiers collected by the Israeli organisation Breaking the silence.

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