A photo story: contrast of lives in the West Bank

Young martyrs depicted on a wall in Al-Arroub refugee camp.

At the time of writing, more than 25,000 innocent lives have been lost in the Gaza Strip since October 7, 2023. For many who followed the conflict for years, the war started almost a century ago. For some, October 7th is considered the beginning of something completely new, having no past or future. This conflict has deep historical roots involving years of daily struggle for Palestinians—a reality that may not be familiar to outsiders.

While the war continues in Gaza, the other part of Palestine—the West Bank—stands witness to the situation. My colleague, John Charles Fenech, visited the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Israel only a week before October 7th. Here we share the stories he captured about daily life in Israeli-controlled Palestine.


I visited my Palestinian friend in his home in the Al-Arroub refugee camp between Hebron and Bethlehem in the West Bank. I was always told that once you go to Palestine there are certain things you cannot unsee or change, but I could not understand the true extent of it until I went there. Palestine is a country of contrasts. On the one hand, the occupation looms heavily on every single aspect of life, from checkpoints, to control towers, to areas A, B, and C, and most of all, people’s struggles. On the other hand, Palestine is a story of beauty, resilience, and a thirst for life.

The Refugee Camp

When you hear ‘refugee camp’, what do you think of? Big tents set across an open space? What happens when a space and a people have remained in a state of refugee camp and refugees respectively for over 75 years? How does a refugee camp transform in the span of generations? How do people who are born and die as refugees live? How do they build a functioning society despite the obstacles that they face?

When I arrived at Al-Arroub, I was shocked to see a village. One in very poor conditions, but a village nonetheless, officially inhabited by over 15,000 people. It is small and compact, with very narrow alleys separating each building, and large families living in small spaces. My friend Mohammed explained that access to water was not always adequate. Until 1982, no one in Al-Arroub had water at home. They either had wells or received water daily from UNRWA trucks, from which each family could take up to a gallon (3,8 litres) of water. After 1982, the Israelis told them they should have water at home, which they would supply them with only twice a week. This is why everybody had to make sure they had a well or a big tank to store water. Since the first Intifada, the Israeli forces started cutting their water supply regularly as a form of collective punishment.

Mohammed told me that in the past, every 15 to 30 families had to share one outhouse, which was extremely unsanitary. They didn’t have any electricity till 1989. The camp itself is surrounded by Israeli checkpoints. The main one is a control tower with rifles on the front façade where Palestinians in Al-Arroub catch the bus every day. Many elderly refugees who lived through the 1948 Nakba and subsequent displacement are originally from cities and villages in what is now Israel.


From left to right: 1) A martyred 17-year-old teen; 2) A poster of a martyr at the door of a barbershop; 3) Martyrs depicted on a wall in Al-Aroub refugee camp; 4) A graffiti of a martyred teen in a street of Al-Arroub refugee camp.


From left to right: 1) A child in the refugee camp; 2) People of Al-Arroub; 3) A child of Al-Arroub on a bicycle with the Palestinian flag; 4 & 5) People of Al-Arroub.


From left to right: 1-3) People of Al-Arroub; 4) The shabab (boys) of Al-Arroub; 5) The shabab (boys) of Al-Arroub, all eager to talk about their experiences and to share their stories about the occupation.


From left to right: 1) My friend Mohammed overlooking the refugee camp and the neighbouring towns, as well as a settlement in the far background; 2-4) People of Al-Arroub.


From left to right: 1) People of Al-Arroub; 2) A poem by a Palestinian refugee who went to prison; 3) A street in Al-Arroub; 4) A man working on a new restaurant he wants to open in the refugee camp; 5) A boy walking through one of the many narrow spaces in the refugee camp.


From left to right: 1) New construction in the refugee camp; 2) People of Al-Arroub; 3) UNRWA Distribution Center; 4) Image of a depopulated village in what is now Israel; 5) Wedding preparations in the refugee camp.


From left to right: 1-2) People of Al-Arroub; 3) Al-Arroub Refugee Camp; 4) Sunset seen from Al-Arroub.


From left to right: 1) Bullet hole; 2)Bullet holes on the wall; 3) Evidence of struggles between the Israeli forces and the refugees.


I could see two contrasts during my stay in Al-Arroub. On the one hand, there is the dire state of the camp, the control tower, the bullet holes, and the suffering. On the other hand, the happiness, the comradery, the new restaurant their friend is opening, children playing in the street, guys talking at the barbershop, and their constant smiles. In contrast, I was told that a week before my arrival, a child was shot dead by the Israeli forces who argued that he threw a rock at them.

Al-Hajj has been a refugee since he was two years old.

This man, known as Al-Hajj, is 77 years old. He was born before the Nakba (1948) in the village of Aggour, located in what is now Israel. He has been a refugee since he was two years old and ended up in Al-Arroub. Most refugees across the globe hold their citizenship regardless of their refugee status. However, Palestinian refugees have no citizenship. They are refugees in their own land, which makes them eternal refugees and citizens of nowhere, like this man. Al-Hajj suffers from many illnesses, but medication is too expensive. His sons are unable to buy it as a consequence of the ongoing war. He depends on other refugees’ generosity. He receives 60 shekels (around five euros) worth of aid from UNRWA every 3 months. 


Our understanding of refugee conditions is often abstract and removed from the harsh realities they face daily. What is perhaps most striking is the permanence of these conditions. Refugee camps that were supposed to provide temporary solutions have now become ‘home’ for most of them. This challenges our perceptions of what it means to be a ‘refugee’. Growing up with the status of ‘refugee’ probably shaped a huge part of their identities. A perpetual reminder of a lost home.

From left to right:
1) A man sitting in front of a shop looking at the Israeli Control Tower at the entrance of Al-Arroub refugee camp. Palestinians in Al-Arroub are subjected to it every day, especially since buses that leave the refugee camp stop in front of the tower.
2) Close-up look of the Israeli flag and rifles on the control tower. Palestinians are subjected to this every day.
3) Control tower is seen from another angle in Al-Arroub.


Hebron

Hebron, or Al-Khalil, as it is called in Arabic, located in the south of the Occupied West Bank, is one of the most scarred cities in the context of the occupation. The city has been sliced into areas A, B, and C. Most of the historical centre of the city has been occupied by Israeli settlers for the last thirty years, after kicking out most of the locals. To move between the occupied area and the non-occupied area requires moving through several checkpoints. In the occupied area you can find thousands of soldiers protecting a few hundred settlers. There are even streets that have been divided from top to bottom, with the upper floors of the buildings in the street occupied by settlers. Checkpoints separate streets and alleys that used to form part of an interconnected labyrinth—typical for historical Arabic cities.

From left to right:
1) Palestinians waiting to cross through the checkpoint to get to the occupied side
2) In this image you can fully observe the entrance of the checkpoint, Palestinian women, men and children are waiting to cross. One can observe the smart shooter rifle above them and how it’s normalised for children to pass under it every day.


From left to right:
1) A Palestinian child looking through a fenced window in the occupied neighbourhood.
2) Inside the occupied area. One can observe the emptiness of the street, all shops have been closed and all the local life pushed out.
3) Outside the occupied area. This street greatly contrasts with the one in the occupied area. It’s still full of life thanks to the locals who make up the soul of the city.
4) A Palestinian school turned into a synagogue by the Israeli settlers.
5) A checkpoint inside the occupied in front of a house where a local Palestinian still lives. He has to go through the checkpoint every day to leave and re-enter his house.


From left to right:
1) Walking under the fence. The street is surrounded by the occupied neighbourhoods, from the sides and has been separated from up to down. You can see stones and other things that have been thrown down on the fence, which is there for the protection of local Palestinians.
2) The open market of Hebron, sandwiched between two occupied neighbourhoods. Observe the net above, it’s meant to protect the local Palestinians from anything the illegal settlers might throw since the upper floors in the street are occupied. Only the shops on the ground floor are still owned by local Palestinians.
3) The upper part belongs to the occupied neighbourhood. One can observe the trash thrown on the fence.
4) The upper floor belongs to the occupied area. It was shocking for me to see a building divided from up to down, with the upper part taken over by the occupier.


From left to right:
1) The open market of Hebron, most shops can be seen closed.
2) The open market of Hebron is surrounded by the occupied neighbourhoods. A huge portion of the shops have been closed.
3) The wall separating an occupied neighbourhood from the rest of the city.


The wall

The wall, constructed by the Israeli forces, divides Palestine. Many Palestinians are not allowed to cross to the other side and thus have never been able to visit Jerusalem or even see the coast. The ‘lucky ones’ are permitted to cross for work or short visits. However, they have to return by 5 pm or otherwise risk getting arrested. The border crossing journey takes long since Palestinians cannot cross by car—unlike the new Israeli settlers. They have to pass through multiple security checks and catch transport to go to the workplace, which might be as far as the coast.

The Wall from the West Bank side.
The Wall from the West Bank side.

At times, during important festivities for Palestinian Muslims and Christians, in which many Palestinians visit Jerusalem, only a few gates are left open. This creates an accumulation of people at the checkpoint, intending to discourage Palestinians from visiting Jerusalem. I experienced this on September 28th, when my friend and I went to Jerusalem for the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. Out of all the security gates, only two were kept open, some people had been waiting for hours.

From left to right:
1) An accumulation of Palestinians trying to cross the wall on 28th September 2023, on the feast of the birth of Prophet Mohammed. Only 2 gates were kept open by the Israeli forces.
2) Crossing through the wall’s security checks.
3) Entrance to and exit from the Wall from the West Bank side.
4) Entering the wall.
5) Men waiting outside the separation wall on the West Bank side on a ‘normal’ day.


Over 2 million Palestinians reside in Jordan. Most do not have the right to return home. Watching the sun set over Palestine from Jordan together made us reflect on how Palestinians here in Jordan must feel, being able to see the sun set over their homeland every day, being so close, yet never being able to touch it. This collective pain has spanned generations since 1948. Many families still own keys to the houses they had to flee from.

Sunset over Palestine and the Dead Sea seen from Jordan.

By Milena Ayvazyan & John Charles Fenech

All photographs courtesy of John Charles Fenech.

February 2, 2024

2024 © The Perspective – All Rights Reserved