Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Children Find an Island of Near Normalcy

Mel Frykberg

BALATA REFUGEE CAMP, Nablus, Jul 5 2011 (IPS) - It is a warm spring day as citizens go about their business. Colourful bougainvilleas climb the building housing the Yaffa Community Centre (YCC). Inside the centre’s kindergarten children play while older students attend a class at the media centre. A group of foreigners is touring the attractively decorated building and getting a brief introduction to its history.

YCC, named after the city of Jaffa in Israel, was established in 1996 by a group of Palestinian intellectuals. It was established to teach the next generation of Palestinians about their culture, history and the Palestinian political struggle.

It was also established to provide young Palestinians with a cultural outlet, a place for social activities, and equipping them with educational and vocational skills. In addition to the media centre and kindergarten the centre has a restaurant, a guesthouse, offers psycho-social counseling, drama, language and communication courses, and summer camps.

The centre, situated in Balata refugee camp, and its activities might look like those of any youth centre anywhere in the world, but this centre has a bloody and bitter history.

Balata refugee camp sits nestled among the mountains in the city of Nablus in the northern Palestinian West Bank. It has a population of approximately 26,000 cramped into one square kilometre, one of the most densely populated places on earth.

The camp was established to house Palestinian refugees who either fled or were driven out of their former homes in Israel by Israeli military forces during Israel’s establishment in 1948.

During the second Palestinian uprising, or Intifadah which erupted in 2000, Balata was considered a “hotbed of militancy” by the Israeli authorities with many leaders of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militia affiliated to the Fatah political party in the West Bank, operating from the camp.

Nightly raids by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), shootings, killings and arrests were the norm. Around 365 Palestinians, 75 of them children, were killed by Israeli forces. Several hundred have been left permanently disabled.

Over 12,000 Balata residents were imprisoned by the Israelis, with 400 still incarcerated. Many among them have been sentenced to 100 years or more in jail. Nasser Awais, 40, a former Martyr’s Brigade leader is serving a sentence over 1,000 years for directing suicide bombings against Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Unemployment in the camp is around 43 percent, and those lucky enough to find employment earn an average of 400 dollars monthly. Sports and educational facilities are almost non-existent.

It was against this background of bloodshed and deprivation that the staff of YCC hoped to create new realities for Palestinian children.

“We have over 400 children attending courses and classes daily. Last week 35 kids completed a leadership course,” says Shahab Bedawi, 40, one of the founders.

“The improvement in their attitude and their behaviour has been phenomenal. The children used to display a lot of violence and aggression,” Bedawi tells IPS.

“Three years ago we had one 11-year-old boy who wanted to become a suicide bomber as he saw no reason to continue living, even at his tender age. He became involved in some of the classes and his turnaround over the last few years has made him into a child who interacts positively with others and has hope for the future.”

“The children have been through a lot of trauma after seeing their fathers shot dead by Israeli soldiers before their eyes or having lost other male relatives to death and imprisonment,” employee Mustafa Farrah, 28, tells IPS.

“Now the children have seen another side to life and another side to Israelis. Many of our visitors are international and Israeli peace activists. Some of them come to volunteer their time teaching courses or just expressing solidarity with the Palestinian struggle,” says Farrah.

But although the children are shown a future offering hope, they are aware of their status as refugees and of their dispossession by Israel.

The walls of YCC have maps depicting Palestinian villages and towns razed and cleansed in what is now Israel. The children know their origins, and when asked where they come from, will give the Arabic names of their family villages and towns which now bear new Hebrew names.

“We will return to our former homes one day,” says Taiser Nasrallah, 50, one of YCC’s directors. Nasrallah is also the director general of the Nablus governor’s office and a leading Fatah activist. He was active during the first and second Intifadahs, and targeted and imprisoned by the Israelis.

“Israel doesn’t want peace. Israeli settlers still rampage through Balata village guarded and protected by IDF soldiers. They attack Palestinians and damage their property. The settlements continue to expand and new ones are being built. All the positive developments since the end of the second Intifadah, including stability, some economic progress and reaching out to the enemy could be reversed in the future,” Nasrallah tells IPS.

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