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Interview: A day in the life of a Jerusalem refugee camp doctor

Only one gate exists to enter and exit the Shu’afat refugee camp, a ghetto controlled by Israeli soldiers right inside Jerusalem. Dr. Salim Anati asks how it is possible that only a small minority is still capable of being outraged.

By Lorenzo Kamel

“Unfortunate is the land in need of heroes.” Bertolt Brecht was right. A land in need of heroes is often a place shrouded in suffering. The interview that follows gives a “silent hero” a voice and alludes to the story of a corner of the world marked by pain. His name is Salim Anati. Occupation: Doctor. His land is the refugee camp of Shu’afat, East Jerusalem, a spectral place, with crumbling houses amassed one on top of the other, rubbish everywhere and unpaved roads. It looks like a place forgotten by the world. And yet, it is barely 4 kilometers from the center of Jerusalem, the most contended-for city on Earth.

Anati, born in 1960 in Jerusalem, is the only resident doctor in the camp area: one square kilometer packed with 30,000 individuals. He deals primarily with assistance to children and the disabled. He has international experience and the scientific skill which could allow him to abandon Shu’afat at any time. He has chosen, instead, to continue living here, to serve his people and to share their destiny.

The text that follows is based on two interviews, the last of which took place on 19 December, at the same time as the opening of the new gate of the Shu’afat camp, the only one available allowing residents to enter and exit the place to which they are confined.


Dr. Anati, what has changed in Shu’afat Camp in the last few days?

There is a new big entrance, which resembles a border terminal between two countries, with more security barriers and small rooms in which the Israeli army has computers. We are well aware that in this way they will further limit our access to Jerusalem. That’s the reason why many clashes have occurred in the last few days between the Israeli police and Palestinian teenagers; loads of them lost their eyes thanks to the so called “rubber bullets.” Others have been arrested.


What has been the impact of the separation wall?

The wall has not only blocked out Jerusalem, but also the West Bank. Our camp physically cannot be enlarged. By contrast, the four Jewish settlements surrounding us continue to grow. The truth is that since the majority of the camp’s inhabitants are legal citizens of Jerusalem, they are seen as demographic threats to the Jewish character of the city.  This is even true for children under the age of 16, who are continuously asked to provide original birth certificates whenever they wish to leave the camp. Suffice it to say this is a problematic request, if you consider that such a valuable document should be kept in a safe place and not carried around by children.


What does the refugee camp Shu’afat mean to you?

It is a symbol, visible and concrete. The manifestation of our people’s odyssey: the injustices endured, the errors made, the pain lived. My connection with this place is similar to that of thousands of other people. The beginning of my story is by no means unique. My family of origin was large. My parents, both farmers, were originally from Lydda, around 40 km from Jerusalem. They were deported by the Israeli army in 1948, in what would sadly become known as the “Exodus from Lydda.” They lost everything and became refugees. They reached Jerusalem, and found shelter for 17 years in Mu’askar, an unhealthy and overcrowded area located in the Jewish quarter of the old City. In 1965/1966 the [construction of the] refugee camp of Shu’afat was completed, in the far northeastern outskirts of Jerusalem. The Jordanian government, in collaboration with the United Nations, once again forced my family and thousands of other Palestinians to leave their homes, with the promise that they would have homes and lands to farm. The truth was very different. Every family, ours was composed of nine people, had a single-room flat measuring nine square meters, without electricity, water or roads.

The War of 1967, followed by the Israeli occupation, made the situation even worse. New refugees were added to those of the first round. The camp, however, was always the same size. Over the years the situation has been further aggravated. The Shu’afat refugee camp, initially intended to accommodate no more than 2,000 people, has progressively attracted thousands of deprived people who considered this small square kilometer of land to be their last hope.


Why do many Palestinians of East Jerusalem prefer to maintain their permanent resident status rather than accepting Israeli citizenship and all the benefits that this entails?

First of all, it’s not so simple for a Palestinian who lives in East Jerusalem to obtain Israeli citizenship. The Israeli Internal Ministry can find all sorts of trivial objections. Let’s say that citizenship is granted.  I ask myself, why should a Palestinian who lives in East Jerusalem, an area recognized by the international community as occupied territory, become an Israeli citizen and automatically lose his legitimate claims?


How is this refugee camp different from others?

Shu’afat is the only Palestinian refugee camp inside the municipality of Jerusalem and it is also the only place that encloses the three most prickly problems at the base of the Israeli-Palestinian superimposition: refugees, security and Jerusalem. Another particularity is connected to taxes. Usually, refugee camps are exempt. Here, instead, we continue to pay taxes to the State of Israel, receiving paltry services in return. Yes, the wall has cut us off from Jerusalem, but this choice has not been followed by any change at the administrative level. The result is paradoxical: we continue to pay taxes to the Jewish State. Many “benefit” from tax remissions, but the substance of the issue does not change.


What is the thing that most disappoints you?

When I see that people have lost the capacity to become outraged. And, therefore, also the capacity to be astonished. At the moment, only one gate exists to enter and exit this refugee camp. It is, obviously, controlled by Israeli soldiers. It is, in effect, a ghetto. Beyond each of our credos, personal stories, sympathies and ideologies, is it possible that only a small minority is still capable of being outraged?


Do you have a final message to end the interview?

We know that peace is the only possible solution.  Two states for two people: there is no other way. We are a nation under occupation and we are tired of sterile negotiations made up only of pretty words. What is needed is concrete action by all parties involved, first and foremost by the Arab nations. We have lived our whole lives fighting and hoping: I would not wish that on my worst enemy.

Lorenzo Kamel is a Visiting Fellow at Birzeit University. He holds an MA in Israeli Society and Politics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an MA in Philosophy from La Sapienza University of Rome, and is presently a PhD candidate at Bologna University. He is the author of many academic articles and two books and he writes for the Aspen Institute, an American think tank, and the Italian daily newspaper Europa.

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    1. Emet

      1 single entrance for 30,000 human beings. I would appreciate if one supporter of the Israeli cause can explain how is it possible to tolerate something like this.
      The funny thing is that the US administration continue to claim that a solution can be reached between the two parties only; as if the 2 parties are equal.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Katznelson

      Dr. Anati,
      the fact that in one of the most “open-minded” site that we have in Israel your words are able to trigger 1 single comment is an answer to your question: “is it possible that only a small minority is still capable of being outraged?”. The answer, sadly enough, is YES.
      For comments I suggest you to turn to “Poor Emily got a Xmas gift”, a vital article also posted today

      Reply to Comment
    3. rachel

      i wonder what western public opinion would think if a similar place would be in europe

      Reply to Comment
    4. directrob

      The problem is not that European people would not care if they knew the problem is that people do not know. In Europe the daily hardship the Palestinians face is all but invisible.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Rachel

      peraphs you are right, but this does not explain why so many israelis continue to claim that this is a real democracy, with equal rights for everybody. And many of them are also surprised about the fact that palestinians are, generally speaking, so angry.
      Shuafat is a ghetto of 30,000 people surrounded by settlements: why no one moves a finger?
      Few days ago I was reading a comment of Bosko on this site. He tried to explain that “Netanyahu complied with that PRECONDITION for a limited time of 10 months, Abbas wasted 8 of those 10 months. He only sat down to talk again after 8 months. And then stopped negotiating again after the moratorium expired”.
      This is the way of portraying the reality that most of the Israelis share. The idea is that Israel proposed so many open-minded proposals and these violent palestinians are not able to catch them.
      Then you stop a second and you go to check better the reality. The freeze (just an example) didn’t include East Jerusalem and the freezing of public constructions, such as schools and synagogues. It applied only to new constructions, meaning that the ones already underway continued, with the result that in the weeks preceding the moratorium a boom of new buildings was registered. Moreover, in the weeks following September 26, 2010, the day in which the moratorium ended, 1,650 new houses were built, a little less than the total amount built in all of 2009.
      Europeans don’t know the reality. What about the Israelis?

      Reply to Comment
    6. Noam

      sad, sad article. as a fellow jerusalemite, i was perhaps naively happy that at least shuefat was now getting some kind of service by being connected to the tram.
      but this is only wishful thinking, obviously.

      peace. israel and palestine. two states. come on people let’s cut the crap, we all know this is the only way, even if that makes you totally
      uncool and in line with obama, merkel, abbas etc.

      sometimes thinking “out of the box” is a curse, when the only achievable solution lies within the box.

      enough with this moronic “anti-normalization” intellectual masturbation that in practice can create nothing good, and cannot break the structure of occupier-occupied. warmongering nationalist jews and palestinians abroad are this land’s biggest curse. what’s normal about creating civil bridges in our reality? what’s normal about trying to promote peaceful dialogue?
      dividing the world to the evil jewish “zionists” and arab “terrorists” will never make you see people for who they are and what they are capable of – peace.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Katznelson

      Noam, although I agree with most of the things that you have written (especially your passage about “warmongering nationalists”), it is important to stress that shuafat and shuafat camp are 2 different things. Moreover the tram has been built in that part of the city in order to make easier the life of the settlers (also the settlers that are currently sorraunding shuafat camp) and to attract as many settlers as possible there.
      for sure the tram was not planned in order to make easier the life of the palestinians. it is true the opposite.

      Reply to Comment
    8. directrob

      Sarah, as far as the people of Israel, to their defense, for them it is very hard to accept information that destroys their world view. Those with an open mind have to ignore the hasbara and find the right resources (read the Wiki entry about Shu’afat it takes quite a bit of effort to check this story). After they become aware that something is wrong they still have to accept the enormity and total evil of the situation while their whole world is telling them things are ok and the others are to blame.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Rachel

      Directrob, I guess that Sarah it’s me. I believe that there is not much to add to what you wrote. But still, something is missing. Also on this site, full of people quite and/or very open, an article like this get few comments, while persons like Ben Israel, Bosko…ect…continue everyday to write dozens of comments about secondary aspects on secondary issues. They cannot be excused just saying “it is hard to accept”, “they don’t know”..ect..

      Reply to Comment
    10. directrob

      Rachel, sorry for mangling your name. It will get me into trouble one day.
      As for the silence, the article is probably quite clear not much to add …

      Reply to Comment
    11. Ruth

      Dumb question: Why can’t this camp be dismantled and the refugees resettled in the West Bank or in East Jerusalem proper?
      What does this sentence by the doctor mean: “has progressively attracted thousands of deprived people who considered this small square kilometer of land to be their last hope”. Are these people refugees or just poor people attracted by the fact that they get something from being classified as refugees? Enlighten me. No propaganda, please.

      Reply to Comment
    12. ROSE

      the answer to your question (the second one) cannot be univocal, but I can tell you for sure that if you enter once in your life in the shuafat camp you can be sure that you will come to realize that no human beings would chose to live in a place like that in order to “get something from being classified as refugees”.
      Moreover, a person that is crazy enough to decide to move in a place like that for personal interests does not become a “refugee” (according to the UN) just because he/she lives there. In fact, even if there 30,000 people in the camp, the persons in charge to collect the garbages – ie one of the biggest problems of the camp – are just 11.
      Do you know why? Because according to the UN only less than 11,000 out of the 30,000 residents in the camp can be considered “refugees”. The UN pays 1 cleaner for every 1000 residents in the camp. It means that there are 11 cleaners – instead of 30 – for 30,000 people. People that have no choice: they can enter and go out from the camp only from 1 single gate.
      Frantz Fanon would call them “the wretched of the earth”.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Lightbringer

      “People that have no choice: they can enter and go out from the camp only from 1 single gate.”
      Before 2nd Intifada erupted Shuafat was a shopping center for entire North Jerusalem region.

      I myself and many of my friends who lived in Givat Zeev, Neve Yaakov, Pisgat Zeev and Ramot and at times even from Jerusalem downtown were often going there to buy food and what else.

      To me it all ended when a 16 years old brother of my friend went to Shoafat to buy some Marijuana…
      His body was found next morning with 14 knife wounds.

      I haven’t bought anything there ever since…

      That wasn’t single incident of course

      Strangely, with the closure of Shuafat attacks ceased…
      So why don’t you ask yourself – how many gates a population of 30000 needs to stop killing neighbors … ?

      Reply to Comment
    14. Rose

      “Before 2nd Intifada erupted Shuafat was a shopping center for entire North Jerusalem region”.
      You are making confusion between Shuafat and Shuafat Camp.
      Already in the 2nd intifada and before it Shuafat Camp was a ghetto.
      Moreover, Israel killed 5 times the civilians that the Palestinians killed in the last 20 years. Should we create some beautiful ghettos for Jews throughout Israel and West Bank so that you are to acknowledge how morally unacceptable that 30,000 people live their daily life in a prison with one gate?
      With your logic any shame or crime can be justified.
      Tell to you friend of Pisgat Zeev&co that they live in settlements forbidden by the international law. To create fait accompli is an immoral precedure.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Ruth


      Thanks. Are you with an NGO?

      Reply to Comment
    16. rose

      My pleasure Ruth.
      No, I am just a person that despise unjustice.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Lightbringer

      “To create fait accompli is an immoral precedure.”

      The Islam is extremely immoral religion, so there is really nothing bad in treating Muslims the way they treat others.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Berl

      Lightbringer, here we are again.
      wow, you have so many arguments: impressive!

      I could write you hundreds of Bible quotes supporting the use of violence, genocides and the worst sentiments that can exists between humans beings: http://dwindlinginunbelief.blogspot.com/2006/06/which-is-more-violent-bible-or-quran.html

      But of course I don’t judge millions of human beings on the base of what is written in a book. I am Christian but I respect Muslims and Jews without any sort of discrimination.
      In what you write you imply “an ethnicised Muslim identity” subjected to racism and discrimination. Antisemitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia are different faces of the same medal.
      You live as you think and write: so the only consolation is that I am sure that you live a poor life.

      Reply to Comment