We enter Dahaysha through one of several gates, past rusted oil drums piled high in a stockade and a chain-link barbed-wire fence that residents keep tearing down.
The alleyways are quiet; people must be inside. M. takes us to the home of his friend A., 27, a business student at Bethlehem University. Eight prison stints have postponed his graduation indefinitely; he has been under camp arrest for two years.
“I leave prison, my brother enters,” A. smiles cynically. Two of his three brothers are now in jail. One sister was imprisoned for five days once for allegedly throwing Molotov cocktails; his father, who works in a chicken factory in Bayt Shams, has gone to prison three times.
We sit in a back room of the house: bare concrete walls, woven orange and white plastic floor mats, two benches, a formica table covered with books, and a padded door. A. sits on the floor in paint-spattered clothes.
“When the rest of the West Bank is quiet, ” he explains, “there is revolution in Dahaysha. We had 1,000 soldiers here in November. Since the uprising, it has been relatively calm. Many are already in detention.” Out of Dahaysha’s 9,000 residents, 2 percent of the population, roughly 180 people, are now in prison.
“Dahaysha is a lab for techniques of military control,” A. says. “One of two camps totally fenced in. But we cut down 200 meters the other night.”
He disappears momentarily and returns with coffee, his mother and six other young men, all wearing jeans, windbreakers and running shoes. All have played the prison circuit. The oldest is 20. They shake our hands vigorously and then sit on the floor along the perimeter of the room. More than seven people, we now constitute an illegal assembly on the West Bank.
M. explains that we are Americans. “But they are not their government,” he tells them, “and they are here to listen.”
The question arises: What does being Palestinian mean? “Partly, it is being of the Arab nation,” says S., 19, fresh from prison two days ago. “And it is in part a special identity built by resistance, from the time of the British until now.”
“Being Palestinian means everything in my life,” says H., a sharp-featured 19-year old whose family was exiled from Zakariyya village in 1948. “It means being part of Palestinians all over the world. It is my obligation to preserve this identity with bombs, rocks, anything.”
“If you live on your own land, you have no problem,” offers Umm A., until now sitting deferentially in the corner. She explains how life was when her family lived in Zakariyya; they were expelled when she was nine.
“My husband and I told our children about the British — how they gave our land away. We told them they must oppose colonists.”
“Colonists” are not the only enemy. Nearly everyone is disaffected with Arab “support” for Palestine; the mention of Jordan and King Hussein unleashes tirades on betrayal and entrapment.
“People generally think we’re in great despair after the [Arab] summit [last November],” S. adds. “But we’re not surprised. Nothing will come of such summits for us, when the Arab regimes are friends of America.”
Palestinians have a long view of history, and the vision of statehood blurs in the distance. “I can’t say exactly whether we’ll have a secular or religious state or what,” S. says. “The cycle will take a long time. There will be a change in the balance among various factions of the PLO — a debate between religion and socialism. I see Palestine as a socialist state.”
Which means? “Equal rights — a doctor and a worker are equal. Duties and rights are equally shared.”
“We will accept other people living here,” says S., 16, slightly inhibited but also eager to talk. “Not just Palestinians, but also the Druze, Kurds, Armenians, even Jews — but not those who came after 1917.”
“We can’t accept new Jewish immigrants from the US or wherever,” A. adds vehemently. “What is this Jewish nation? Do you see Jews from all over the world rushing to Israel? They want to manufacture a nation like this package of cigarettes.” He waves his cigarettes and the room buzzes with assent.
“Everyone speaks of ‘the poor Jews,’ but we are poor also,” he adds. “Reality speaks for itself. We can’t throw them into the sea — but we cannot be the sea ourselves.”
“Our situation here is very different than the revolution in Algeria,” M. adds more temperately. “The French had their own state to go back to. We are two people claiming one land, and there must be a solution taking both interests into consideration. If anyone wants to live here, as long as they are tolerant, it is all right. Besides, for a Jew born in Jaffa in 1950 — to where do you send him back?”
Talk turns to immediate experience: prison. K., a delicate young man with a pencil-thin mustache and playful blue eyes, narrates his recent two and a half months in al-Far‘a and Atlit. His friends listen, rapt, though they must have heard the story many times, and have similar ones to tell.
“On October 27 Israeli troops raided the camp and gathered all of us age 15 to 40 out front,” he begins. “I stayed in my house, but the soldiers came to get me. I was beaten and clubbed. Then they took me to al-Far‘a, near Nablus. There were 25 of us in the prison, 14 from Dahaysha. They set those of us from Dahaysha aside, and said ‘you are a special case.’”
“There were 16 days of interrogation,” he continues, evenly. “Twelve days of hooded treatment, when we were also handcuffed and hung from the ceiling by our hands, with our feet beaten, and four days of solitary confinement. Then we went to court in Nablus and were accused of throwing stones. I didn’t confess, so they held me another 16 days. Then they took me back to court. No confession, so another ten days.”
“I left al-Far’a, with 46 others, on a bus to Atlit detention center. We didn’t know where we were going. We were slapped around, and put in a room four by six meters, windowless, with a tin roof that rain fell through, dripping on us.”
“They took us outside and made us stand in the rain. And we had roll call over and over, at all hours,” he says, standing up to demonstrate to the delight and encouragement of his friends. “They made us run around the yard, and then lined us up three by three and made us run in place and stamp down at the same time, like this.” He jogs and slams his foot on the floor.
“We weren’t tortured as before — just a beating here and there.” In addition to the standard diet of fuul, rice and hummus, Khalid laughs, “they brought seven oranges once for 47 people. And always they gave us cold tea — which they said came from three kilometers away.”
We leave to seek out one who has just joined the fight. As we pass through the narrow dirt streets, children play near the thin strip of sewer, kicking cans or peering down from rooftops and balconies made of scavengers’ scraps. All have heard of Y., a 13-year old who has just paid his first prison dues.
The boy sits outside in the sunlight, sharing a bench with his mother, a voluminous woman in an embroidered turquoise dress and a black crocheted scarf. Shielding their eyes, they both assess us, then lead us indoors for the recitation.
Y. sits off by himself on a small stool, on stage in this barren concrete room. In the audience are his mother, brother K., 25, the eldest son in a family of eight, and another brother, A., 21, in prison with Y. One is indefinitely in absentia: Y.’s father, a vegetable seller, was deported to Jordan in 1971 — four years before Y.’s birth, Umm K. says, laughing ambiguously.
Y. begins his story, in his jeans, light jacket, sneakers, snapping his gum. “The soldiers came to our house at 2 am on December 22, especially to arrest me and my brother. They took us to the headquarters of the military government in Bethlehem.”
“At noon they took us to Hebron, where we stayed for two hours, and then to al-Dhahriyya detention center. When they saw me there they said I was too young and sent me back to Hebron,” he adds, smiling. His smile is punctuated by a sound like gunshot; his brother leaves momentarily to investigate.
“I stayed in Hebron two days. We were kept in a wooden hut — four of us at first, but then 70 others arrived. The soldiers said they saw me throwing stones, but I did not confess about this,” he grins.
“The soldiers said, ‘Swear on the Qur’an,’ and I said OK. But they brought me a book in English and I said, ‘It is not sacred, I will not swear.’ Then one brought a box with lights on it and said, ‘If the lights go on you threw the stones.’ He pushed a button and the light went on. I told him it wasn’t true, and then they kicked me. They kept me in the military office and beat me.
“I’m not afraid,” Y. says as his mother passes tea around. Restless, he gets up and leans against the door frame.
“My brothers and friends told me a few things. They said, ‘Don’t talk whatever they do and don’t say you threw stones. Say you were in the house.’ They told me not to be afraid.”
“I worried,” his mother interrupts. “I began to shout at people and tried to go after the soldiers. I didn’t know where he was until three days after they took him. We found out on the fourth day when a friend got a call from the Arab police.”
“All five of my sons are involved with the security forces,” she says grandly, flashing a gold-capped tooth and waving her hands for emphasis. “The older ones are hiding from the police. They’re wanted men. They visit me during the day but at night they stay out of the camp.”