West Bank Revist: Where are the children 20 years on?

At the close of 1993  the only mediated image of a Palestinian was accompanied by the word 'terrorist.' I was shown around a refugee camp in the West Bank.The trip changed my perspective entirely, it highlighted a blatant bias in western news media and simultaneously inspired my first piece of  report writing, reproduced here, with analogue photos -newly digitised- included.

If anyone recognises the children in any of these photographs and would now like me to tell their story as adults today please get in touch with me at: perryeyes@gmail.com

Jerusalem. A young soldier points his gun at the minibus window. Our driver searches for his identity card. Failure to produce papers results in instant detention. A fellow soldier inspects the underside of our vehicle. Nothing is left to chance, there is a tense silence amongst my travel companions.

Ali, owner of EL-Arab hostel, is taking us to his home,  UN refugee camp Amari, near Ramallah in the West bank. He gives simple “yes” and “no” answers to his inquisitor, the distrust between them is mutual. Ali, now around 35 years of age has been in and out of prison since he was thirteen. His first imprisonment was for terrorism, or more precisely, stone throwing. The young man with the gun standing before him has the looks of a seventeen year old, a conscript to the Israeli army. I wonder if he understands the implications of his Job. The previous day I had seen a group of soldiers standing outside of a house in the Arab quarter. I asked them what they were guarding, they said they didn't know and didn't ask why. The whole place is incongruous.

As we leave the check point I look up to my right and notice a large gun tower, there had been more than one fire arm pointing in our direction. Today little traffic is allowed through the barrier for fear of terrorism. The effect is the creation of an isolated Palestinian enclave with people dislocated from their families and sources of income. We drive through the checkpoint and the  walls of the camp. The barbed wire fences which were recently been taken down due to the latest peace process are now effectively replaced with an economic blockade. As we step out of the minibus the children come running towards us from all directions, laughing and grabbing at our sleeves, they pull us through the streets.

The houses are made of concrete and corrugated iron and are packed tightly along narrow streets. We are lead to what appears to be a pile of rubble. “The Israelis suspected the man who lived there was a terrorist, so one night they blew up his house,” explains Ali. This remember is a UN protected area.
Palestinian children pose for photographs 30/12/1993

I am staggered at the joy of the children in such squalor. I give them my camera and they excitedly take photos of each other, with what turn out to be excellent results. We are then taken to Ali's home. It consists of two rooms, one with a table and one with a sofa and some chairs. We drink sweet tea and listen to his views. He is taking a risk bringing us here. Few in the West know about Palestinian oppression, it does not make the news (Then). Ali, like most Palestinians I meet is highly educated, although I feel some of his talk is propaganda I begin to get a clearer picture of the conflict in Israel. In the end it is the location of lines on a map drawn up by the British that is the most tangible source of disagreement. The formation of a Jewish state in Palestine could now be seen as a short sighted act but at the time, under pressure of a post war refugee crisis a ready solution. What becomes apparent however, is the Israeli abuses of human rights. Detention without trial, restriction of movement, control over development, curfew, limited access to education, and other forms of subtle mistreatment are widespread. It is a quiet oppression. Many of Ali's friends have fled the country to obtain a better education, few have managed to return. The only way Ali can gain equal rights in his homeland is to join the army which suppresses him and become a citizen of Israel, he would rather die. Due to continuous frustrations  he is pessimistic about the future. For one thing he believes America has an interest  in perpetuating internal instability in order to promote international stability; giving America a foothold in the middle east.
Where are they now?

The extremists on both sides are so entrenched sabotage of the peace process has become their mutual aim. The resentments run deep through generations on both sides. Parallels with Northern Ireland are strongly evident . Times change yet some fueled by religion blindly refuse to compromise their  positions. As I am later reminded by an Israeli friend “between two extremes lies the golden way.”   Those who stand on the middle ground continue to move tentatively forward.

The Palestinian dream is a return to a self ruled land, a dream that is unnervingly similar to  that of  Jewish refugees throughout the millennia. Surely then, these two peoples have much in common with which to rebuild trust.

Authors note: 20 Years on.

From the viewpoint of today I am sadly humoured by the naivety of my last sentence. At 23 years of age -as I was when the photo below was taken- one has little sense of timescale by which to meausre the intractability of conflict. The youngest of the children in these photos will now be the same age as or older than me when the photo was originally taken. I'm doubtful they will be as naive as me; their experience, no doubt, will have confirmed that the dream of a secure self ruled land is as distant now as it was then. What I wonder, have these children witnessed and what have they been able to make of their lives?  
The children included me in one of their photographs


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