Is there something we should be doing for the Palestinians?

May 26, 2009
*Special to asia!

The Separation Wall built unilaterally by Israel has been turned by Palestinians into a canvas to showcase the Jewish state's Most Wanted - past and present.

Between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is some ten kilometres and a checkpoint, with a bright yellow sign in English, Hebrew and Arabic, “Entrance to Palastinian(sic) Authority territories. No entrance to Israeli citizens”.

Israelis are not allowed in the Palestinian territories. Given the hostilities, it made practical sense. If only the checkpoint did as well. We got out of the vehicle, to walk through a long passageway into a hall, go through a turnstile, watched by two bored officials. There were no passport checks, or for that matter any point to the exercise either. 

All it did was make the trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem's al-Azeh camp that much longer. But I guess we couldn't really complain. Unlike Joseph and the very pregnant Virgin Mary two thousand years ago, there was room aplenty at the inn. Alright, it wasn't quite an inn. It was the very opulent and luxurious Intercontinental Jacir Palace hotel, converted from a stylish Ottoman-style palace .

There it stood, right smack between the al-Azeh and Aida refugee camps, as our guide

pointed out to our group of Palestinian Literature Festival delegates. 

I thank God my expense account obliged me to stay at a  humbler hotel.


al-azeh refugee camp

al-Azeh refugee camp, Bethlehem

With the jibe out of the way, our guide - a resident of al-Azeh and an anthropologist, led us into the camp. The word “camp” should not be taken literally. This was not a tent city like many refugee camps in other parts of the world. In 1958, ten years after it was established, the tents were replaced. What it was was more of a commune of concrete buildings, somewhat like a “settlement”.

Not that you could call it that though, since the Israelis have long absconded with that word.

Just like they had with the former Palestinian villages, our guide added. After the creation of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent Arab-Israeli wars, they were turned into parts of the Jewish state. What's left of these destroyed Palestinian villages were mere memories, kept alive by Palestinians like those here in al-Azeh, who named each of the alleys in the camp named after them.

At the end of one of these alleys was Hanzala.


hanzala and a resident of al-azeh

Hazala, and residents of al-Azeh refugee camp

There, painted on the wall, was the cartoon character whose name means bitterness in Arabic. A figure personifying the Palestinian struggle for nationhood, only Hanzala's back is ever seen. The reasoning was that the world had turned its back on the Palestinians and accordingly, Hanzala turned his back on the world, looking instead towards his homeland. 

Hanzala was the creation of Naji al-Ali, a Palestinian who himself grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon. He later moved to London where he was shot to death. The inheritance Naji left behind gave Palestinians a powerful symbol to hold onto. For the rest of us, he bequeathed the charge on our conscience of a refugee crisis we have yet to resolve.

As I looked out of my hotel room window later that evening, Hanzala again came to mind.

A few years ago, I would have been looking at a green zone that ringed Bethlehem. Now all that had given way to brand-new Israeli settlements. 

They are closing in, someone later said to me. 

Like Hanzala, our backs are still turned.


Jewish settlements

At the far end are Jewish settlements built since 1996 around Bethlehem



dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi