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“The days of ’48 have come again.” 15 minutes from Tel Aviv, Israel creates a new refugee camp

Inside the "Abu Eid Refugee Camp," 15 km from Tel Aviv (all photos by Guy Botebia)

Inside the "Abu Eid Refugee Camp," 15 km from Tel Aviv (photo by Guy Botebia)

On December 13, 17-year-old Hamza Abu Eid was taken out of class and summoned to the principal’s office. “The Israelis are destroying your house right now,” the principal told him. “It is best that you remain here. The last thing we want is for you to have a confrontation with a police officer.”

But Abu Eid rushed to his family’s house, hoping to salvage whatever belongings he could. When he arrived, bulldozers from the Israeli Lands Authority had destroyed virtually everything — all seven homes belonging to the Abu Eid family were reduced to rubble. A black masked officer from the Israeli yassam (the anti-riot police) prevented Hamza from entering to attempt to save his belongings. Three refrigerators and a TV set were among the appliances that Hamza’s family lost in the demolitions.

In the end, 74 people were left homeless, including 54 children, forced to sleep under the open sky during the coldest period of the year. No government social workers arrived with assistance, nor did the state offer any temporary aid. The families gathered whatever belongings they could, pitched tents like so many Palestinian refugees have done in the past, and placed a sign over their land plot that read, “Abu Eid Refugee Camp.”

Over 70 members of the Abu Eid family sleep in tents next to their destroyed homes.

Over 70 members of the Abu Eid family sleep in tents next their destroyed homes

Although the area now looks like the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza after Operation Cast Lead, it is located only 15 kilometers from Tel Aviv in the Abu Toq neighborhood of Lod. All of Lod’s Palestinian residents are citizens of Israel, however, they are treated by the state like foreigners, or worse, as a threat to the survival of Zionism.

For years, the Abu Eid family applied for permits to allow them to renovate their homes to accommodate their growing family. But the state zoned their neighborhood as agricultural land and refused their requests (for obvious reasons, applications for renovation and building permits are almost always denied to the Arabs inside Israel). Finally, the state ordered them to seek residency elsewhere because their homes were slated for demolition.

Directly beside the Abu Eid refugee camp, building has begun on a yeshiva that will be directed by an Orthodox rabbi from the United States named Yaakov Saban. And plans have been authorized to build a road directly through center of the neighborhood. Pressure of Palestinian Israelis of Lod to leave is intensifying as a result of the far-right takeover of the city’s municipality.

Widespread corruption led to the collapse of the elected municipality, enabling the Israeli Ministry of Interior to install an emergency government consisting of hand picked military officials. Because the ministry is controlled by Eli Yishai, the leader of the extreme right Shas Party (Yishai was singled out in the Goldstone Report for saying “we should bombard thousands of houses in Gaza”), the new municipality has taken the form of an openly racist cabal. “They are poor in culture, poor in behavior. No ambition,” the mayor of Ramle, a neighboring city, said of the Palestinians of Lod.

Riyadh Abu Eid stands by the rubble of his home

Riyadh Abu Eid stands by the rubble of his home

While as many as 30 demolition orders hover over the residents of Lod, and 42,000 such orders have been issued across Israel against Arab residents, Yishai has declared his intention to settle thousands of Orthodox Jews in the city. At the same time, Arabs in Lod claim they are forbidden from living in a giant new public housing complex built in the heart of the city.

I arrived at the Abu Eid refugee camp on January 25. At the end of Lod’s Helen Keller Boulevard, men sit around open fires sipping tea, while small children clamber in an out of tents erected beside piles of rubble, debris and shattered home appliances. A middle aged man named Riyah Abu Eid met me at the entrance and took me into the makeshift camp.

“This place was here before 1948,” he said. “They destroyed it because they said we had no permit. But we can’t get permits because we are ’48 Arabs. We asked many times and were denied every time. They say we are terrorists. But look around, this is the real terror. Throwing children into the street on the coldest day of the year — that is terror.”

According to Riyadh Abu Eid, many children from camp are unable to attend school because they are unable to concentrate. A nine year old girl who was especially traumatized has refused to leave her bed for days. Riyadh does not try to conceal his desperation. “We do not feel safe here,” he said. “We want to ask the United Nations and Obama for international protection from a fascist government that has proven capable of massacring the unarmed.” He added, “The days of 1948 have come again.”

The destruction leveled against the Palestinians of Lod highlights a growing trend in Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens. Increasingly, the state is replicating the brutal methods it applies in the West Bank against Palestinians across the so-called Green Line. “For years I’ve been trying to say, ‘Don’t think the Occupation will stop at the Green Line,’” Amiel Vardi, a Jewish Israeli activist who accompanied me to Lod, told me. “Now we see it’s not stopping. They’re using the same methods with the settlements, with the courts, and with the Shabak [Shin Bet] on both sides of the Green Line. Go to the Abu Eid camp or to Al Arakib and there’s absolutely no difference from what I see in the Hebron hills.”

In the unrecognized Palestinian-Israel village of Dahmash, located next to Lod, the family of Ali and Farida Sha’aban defended their home for two years from demolition. When I met them last July, the couple was camped in front, awaiting the bulldozer that could come at any time. “If there is a democracy in Israel, then why are we forbidden from living here?” Ali said to me. “You are from the USA?” he asked me. “Well, we are the Native Americans in this place.” Building plans by the Lod municipality will effectively close off all or most of the entrances to Dahmash; already a wall separates the village from a Jewish housing development next door.

Demonstrators marched to the Lod police station demanding the release of Farida and Ali Sha'aban

Demonstrators marched to the Lod police station demanding the release of Farida and Ali Sha'aban

On January 22, the Lod police violently arrested Ali, Farida, and five members of their family, accusing them of harboring illegal workers. Their detention in the city jail was unknown until Monday, when they were finally allowed to see a lawyer. A judge extended their imprisonment until Thursday on the grounds of secret evidence the Sha’aban family’s lawyer was not allowed to view — a tactic familiar to Israel’s military courts in the West Bank. Video allegedly showing the police kicking the Sha’aban’s while shouting, “Go to Gaza!” was shown during the court hearing.

Activists placed stickers on police cars mocking Israel claim to be "Jewish and democratic." They read, "Yahudit V'Gezanit," or "Jewish and racist."

Activists placed stickers on police cars mocking Israel's claim to be "Jewish and democratic." They read, "Yahudit V'Gezanit," or "Jewish and racist."

Last night, a group of Jewish Israeli demonstrators, including many from the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement, joined the Abu Eid family and Palestinian activists from Lod, including members of the renowned rap trio Dam (“I broke the law? No the law broke me,” is a lyric from their song “Born Here”), in a protest march to the Lod police station to demand the Sha’aban family’s release. The demonstration consolidated Lod as a new node in the growing solidarity movement inside Israel. On Friday, the Abu Eid’s will participate in the weekly Sheikh Jarrah demo, which was joined last week by residents of Al Arakib, and has been frequently attended by Farida and Ali from Dahmash.

Back in the Abu Eid camp, I spoke to Hamza Abu Eid, the 17 year old high school student, about what his life has been like since his home was destroyed. “I get distracted when I’m in class now,” he told me. “Sometimes when I think about the aggressive way the police treated the women — one of them kicked my brother’s pregnant wife — I get so angry I can’t focus.”

Hamza said his family plans to buy trailers to live in until the state delivers them “a solution.” He said, “For now, we have no solution. I expect that I will stay in this life and it will keep going on. The government has done nothing for me but destroy my house. As a citizen, I have no rights.”

He added, “I see a future full of darkness.”

Despite being homeless and traumatized, Hamza said he is excelling in school. He told me had just received 92 out of 100 on a chemistry exam, and that he has near-perfect marks in biology. When he finishes high school, Hamza plans to pursue a career in economics or medicine.

“I know there is a hope,” he said. “I just don’t know what it is.”