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.