This week members of the Palestinian Lajee Cultural Center in the refugee camp Aida in Bethlehem start their art and culture tour in Europe. In their first stop in Ireland and during a visit to Belgium next week they will perform their traditional dance and also present a photographic exhibition and a few films. Unfortunately at least two members of the cultural center will not be able to travel to Belgium because they were recently arrested by Israeli occupation forces: the 27-year old Mohammed Qasim Al-Azraq, director of activities of the cultural center, and the 20-year old Mohammed Abo Akar.
Five weeks ago, when I went to the area of the Lajee Cultural Center in Palestine with the Belgian organisation Vrede (“Peace”), Mohammed Qasim Al-Azraq was in the center telling us about the circumstances he and the youngsters of Aida are working in trying to create a space for art.
The day we visited the cultural center started early at a checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. At ‘Checkpoint 300’ the Israeli military decides who can pass the separation wall between the two cities. Here we had a meeting with Shirin Amrad, an Israeli who opposes the occupation of Palestine and regularly observes how Israeli occupation forces treat Palestinians at the checkpoint.
“Palestinians usually start waiting here from 4 AM to go to their work or to the university. Today they were already standing here at 3 AM,” Amrad told us. “Only those with a permit to go to Jerusalem can enter here.” Right in front of us Palestinians queue in a long row next to the wall to be checked before they can enter another part of their land.
According to international laws this wall is illegal because it has been built behind the 1949 Green Line. Today, the Green Line forms the border between what is referred to as Israel and the rest of occupied Palestine. “Officially this wall is on Palestinian territory. But Palestinians also have to go through this checkpoint if they need to go to a hospital, and the period of the permit is limited”, Amrad said.
One row was empty. “This entry is for women, children, sick people and tourists. But this entry isn’t always open.” A few women walked towards this special entry until after a few meters they realised it was closed that day.
We walked into the checkpoint after the row was cleared and walked towards a place where Israeli military screened our stuff. On the other side we did not continue in the direction of Jerusalem but stayed in Bethlehem and drove in a van to the Lajee Cultural Center in refugee camp Aida. On our way we saw walls and houses that often had poetry by Mahmoud Darwish painted on them. There were also many graffiti drawings that show the dreams of the many refugees who want to return to their village of origin.
In the Lajee Cultural Center we met Mohammed Qasim Al-Azraq who told us more about the history of the center in the refugee camp. “With this center we can live our culture a little. In the 1960s dance groups trained and performed in secret because those groups where seen as terrorists. It still isn’t easy for us here and people regularly get injured.” Al-Azraq told us eighty percent of the people in the refugee camp have scars as a result of gunshot wounds inflicted by the Israeli military using rubber and other bullets.
“I’ve been hit by 22 bullets”, Al-Azraq continued. “When I was 14 I got shot with bullets that caused a big wound as they opened up on entering my body. Last January I was hit in the head when I looked out of the window. I’m no exception. Most people here experienced this or have brothers or fathers who did.”
He told us about when he was in jail and saw kids aged 12 and 13 in there. “They are being held in administrative detention. This form of detention can continue up to 2 years. Some are only released when they give up the names of others who threw rocks at Israeli soldiers. This way people get arrested based on weak or false testimonies of children who yearn for freedom.”
When Al-Azraq suggested to have a coffee I noticed he used paper cups like many Palestinians did. He explained: “Palestinians get only 17 percent of the water in this area. The rest goes to Israeli’s. Because we often have no water we use plastic or paper plates and cups so we don’t have to wash anything.”
Despite all the obstacles the members of the Lajee Cultural Center stay dedicated to honour and keep alive parts of Palestinian culture and its traditions. During a tour in the center we saw an exhibition of photographs taken by young Aida residents featuring many images of the life around Checkpoint 300.
At this moment the members of the Lajee Cultural Center are preparing their European tour that starts this Sunday in Ireland, and continues next Thursday in Belgium. The Belgian tour includes various performances including the traditional Palestinian dance called dabke at, among other venues, De Centrale in Ghent, Pianofabriek in Brussels and the Berchem Cultural Center in Antwerp.
Not all members who were supposed to participate in the tour will be able to visit Europe. Al-Azraq was arrested on March 26 after a large group of Israeli occupation forces entered the Aida camp at dawn and raided his house. The Palestinian News Network wrote about his bad health condition due to the harsh interrogation he has been subjected to. Two others who were active in the Lajee Cultural Center, Mohammed Abo Akar and Marwan Frargah, were arrested on April 7.
Info about the Lajee tour in Ireland can be found on this Facebook page. The Lajee tour in Belgium will take place from the 17th to the 27th of April. You can find more info about the performances, lectures and expos organised with the Lajee Cultural Center on the cultural center’s website and on its Facebook page.
This post is also available in: Dutch