The light was still too dim to penetrate the cracks in the shutters when the rooster crowed. For a fraction of a second it felt like a village. But it was the Jenin refugee camp, circa two weeks ago. There, as in other refugee camps, the rooster's wake-up call is something more: nutrition for the unemployed, as well as the longing and the desire to maintain continuity, if only symbolic, with the village that once was, and has since been destroyed.
The refugee camps play an honored role in the heritage and ethos of the Palestinian liberation struggle. Jenin took the lead in the second intifada, but also made a name for itself as a barricaded enclave where the Palestinian Authority and its security apparatus have no control. However the recent campaign of arrests of camp residents, in which the objectives changed from one day to the next, gave both the residents and the refugee camp different names: criminals, gangs, a place of insecurity and of chaos.
For the consumer of Palestinian media, which present only the official line (and most certainly do not report complaints about torture), those detainees have already been pronounced guilty, without trial or clear accusations. That includes even those who have been released without being charged.
The Jenin refugee camp is located on a hill, the Rafah camp in Gaza is spread out among sand dunes. Their landscapes differ but the atmosphere in each is the same: protective, safe, welcoming.
Even when these places were patently unsafe, during IDF invasions and shellings, the people were touchingly hospitable. They were hospitable even toward an Israeli woman who suddenly showed up in their midst. Years-long familiarity with the refugee camps in the Gaza Strip gave me the courage to sneak into the destroyed and besieged refugee camp in Jenin in April 2002. I knew that I'd manage without having made prior arrangements and without any escort.
The tanks were still inside and all around the camp. My previous experience with IDF bulldozers in the Rafah and Khan Yunis camps in Gaza made the pictures of destruction in the heart of the Jenin camp familiar at first sight. A bearded man of 30 or so started talking to me. He was one of the few men around that age that I saw. The rest were older and they, together with children and a few women, wandered stunned among the piles of rubble that used to be homes. Afterwards I realized that they were looking for the wounded and dead bodies.
We introduced ourselves by name: His name was Mu'ayyed, a cousin of Zakaria Zbeidi. At the time I had no idea who Zbeidi was, because he hadn't yet paved the road that led to the Israeli media. I also had no idea that Mu'ayyed was the brother of Ziad Amer, a founder of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Jenin, who'd been killed a few days earlier in a fight with Israeli soldiers.
In 2002, I didn't yet know about Mu'ayyed's friends and relatives who'd been killed as armed fighters in battle, or as unarmed civilians (such as Zakaria's mother). But I did know that, here, as in camps of the Gaza Strip, the children and young people were growing up in the shadow of Israeli weapons and were used to the sight of guns in the hands of soldiers, but would never get used to the authority, coercion and injustice represented by those guns. This is how it came to be that many of them nurtured the belief that the answer to a fighter jet or tank is the gun, that the answer to a missile is a human bomb.
Even in April 2002, the camp moved between the two labels bestowed upon them by Palestinian spokespeople: victim and hero. Spreading the false number of 500 dead in the invasion (the IDF killed about 60 people, half of whom were civilians), intentionally or negligently, amplified the camp's victimhood and silenced the fact that its residents had decided to meet the Israeli soldiers with resistance. Whoever wished to do so, particularly women and children, had left the camp before the incursion.
Homes were gradually rebuilt. Briefer IDF incursions continued. Armed activists continued to be wanted by the army, and also to be killed, while clinging to the ethos of the armed struggle. The armed part was clearly visible, the struggle less so. The cult of weapons was a topic of arguments with Zakaria Zbeidi once I got to know him. I preferred not to write about our conversations for the newspaper so as not to provide more fodder for the urban legend.
What was not an urban legend was the fact that the residents of the Jenin camp (and other refugee camps ), many of whom were Fatah members, felt at the end of the 1990s that despite the years of struggle, sacrifice and determination to their movement, they were left outside the circle of those benefiting from the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. The ostentatious signs of newfound wealth in Ramallah were impossible to ignore, and the inability to work in Israel because of the blockade further deepened the economic gaps, as well as the understanding that the ethos of the struggle wasn't going to build a future for the children of the camp. From the very first days of the Palestinian Authority, equitable distribution of income and affirmative action were never part of its agenda.
The second intifada broke out not only because Israel took advantage of the Oslo process to expand its control of the Palestinians and their land, but also because its authors were showing their resentment of Palestinian self-rule. They linked the socioeconomic insult to the fact that the Palestinian Authority had become a subcontractor for the IDF and the Shin Bet security service.
When Israel killed unarmed demonstrators, beginning on the very first day of the uprising, the cult of the armed struggle found new justification. Fatah was governed by schizophrenia: it had become a neutered political party in power but was also still a mass movement. The green light given by its senior personnel to use arms was the result of cynical considerations. They didn't want to lose their status. Their subordinates, meanwhile, had learned that it was possible to turn the gun and the machismo that gun represents into capital, which forced the PA to take greater interest in them.
But handing out jobs in the security apparatus to thousands of young people without any educational or professional future, the solution the PA came up with in the 1990s and one to which they are clinging to today, does not really wipe out cumulative sociopolitical resentments, especially in the refugee camps. The economic gaps are now more apparent than ever, even when released prisoners are getting entitlements that are higher than ever.
The authority carried out a wave of arrests in May (which included Mu'ayyed and Zakaria) and turned yesterday's heroes into today's criminal problem. At the same time it was glorifying the Palestinian prisoners who were on a hunger strike in Israeli prisons. Many of them are not only relatives and friends of those recently arrested by the Palestinian Authority, but like them, they too turned the gun, the symbol of machismo, into both capital and cult.
Thus the leadership of the PA is again sending out mixed messages and broadcasting dishonesty. The brutality of the arrests, no matter what the suspicions, shows that the PA is afraid of the social resentments, and as a preventive measure, is suppressing anyone it thinks may be a potential representative or leader. Or, as Alia Amer, the mother of Ziad and Mu'ayyed, says, "All the talk on TV [against the detainees] is meant to justify the positions of senior authority personnel."