The Bethlehem Obama Didn’t See

The Daily Beast | Anna Lekas Miller | March 22, 2013


If President Barack Obama had landed in Bethlehem by helicopter as planned, he would have landed just outside of Dheisheh Camp—a refugee camp in the south of Bethlehem.

However, as fate would have it, a sandstorm struck Jerusalem on Friday, causing Obama to have to drive to Bethlehem rather than fly. On his way, he undoubtedly saw the separation barrier that cuts Jerusalem off from Bethlehem and the checkpoint that makes the commute between the two cities last many hours—even though they are only seven kilometers apart.

Obama’s convoy was most likely waved through the checkpoint, but he saw the separation barrier with his own eyes. This was not part of his original itinerary.

A Palestinian woman holds a photograph as she protests on the streets of Bethlehem during the official visit of U.S. President Barack Obama on March 22, 2013. (Ilia Yefimovich / Getty Images)

Obama planned to come to Bethlehem Friday morning to once again meet with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as well as to pray at the Church of the Nativity. However, many Palestinians living in Bethlehem are perturbed that the President will be paying homage to the holy child as a religious duty, while ignoring many of the daily hardships of Palestinian life under the occupation.

“If I could show Obama anything, I would show him how we live in Dheisheh,” a young boy named Majd who lives in the camp but didn’t share his last name told me.

Dheisheh Camp is one of 59 Palestinian refugee camps; it mostly houses descendants of refugees who fled from villages west of Hebron and Jerusalem. Since the second intifada, restrictions on movement and curfews on the camp have made it nearly impossible for refugees to find work, making unemployment soar to above 70 percent. Water shortage and electricity blackouts are common, and though United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) is responsible for the camp’s wellbeing, decreased funding has made their job difficult. The camp’s population of 11,000 inhabitants lives on less than a half square kilometer of land.

Today in Dheisheh Camp—one of many of the oft-forgotten parts of Bethlehem—several people gathered to protest Obama’s visit and perceived support of Israel and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. This protest was a far cry from the Ramallah protests, where at times it seemed like foreign press nearly outnumbered the demonstrators who filled the city streets of Ramallah to protest Obama’s meeting with Abbas. Instead, Palestinians from the camp assembled in the presence of few cameras and foreign press members, playing traditional Palestinian music and waving Palestinian flags and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) flags. Others held flags from many other global liberation movements. One man waved a Cuban flag with an image of Ché Guevara, another waved the Tunisian flag, and several waved Syrian flags.

“We represent Syria because they are refugees and we are refugees,” Waed Salem, one of the demonstrators carrying a Syrian flag surrounded by two Palestinian flags, told me. “Syria is rising against their government, and we wish to rise against the governments that control us. The United States is one of them.”

Many Palestinians speak of the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority as a trifecta of leadership; many reject all three.

Once the march began, two lines of Palestinian Authority security forces in full riot gear and several armed soldiers greeted the protesters as they marched. Protesters were eventually trapped by the police forces, unable to leave the camp until the city was re-opened after Obama’s visit.

“I just want him to finish his visit and leave,” one protestor named Mohammad Said told me.

After 29 minutes in the Church of the Nativity—a whole three minutes over schedule—President Obama left the way he came, by motorcade, for one last meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv before jetting back to the United States. The streets of Bethlehem opened again, and the residents of Dheisheh camp went back to business as usual.

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Anna Lekas Miller is a freelance writer in Brooklyn covering the Middle East, Arab America, feminism and activism. Read more of her work on her website,

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Refugees of Palestine in Photos

Neirab refugee camp is the largest official camp in Syria and is typical of camps in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territory.

Neirab was established between 1948 and 1950 in and around army barracks constructed by the Allied forces during World War II.

The refugees found shelter in the barracks, which they divided up, initially with sheets and later with plywood and hollow bricks, to provide some privacy and to accommodate their growing families.

Today, nearly 19,000 registered Palestine refugees live in Neirab.

More than a third of camp residents are under the age of 16.

UNRWA runs eight double-shift schools, in four school buildings, providing free elementary education to the camp’s children.

The majority of the refugees are casual labourers. Others work informally as street vendors.

While UNRWA has been able to make essential improvements and maintenance to the barracks, the housing situation in Neirab remains deplorable, and many of the shelters are the most unhealthy and unsafe among the camps in Syria.

The poor construction of the barracks results in scorching temperatures in summer and freezing conditions in winter.

The camp community suffers from high unemployment and poverty. The strain of this has led to a high divorce rate.

The kindergarten in the camp is old and in need of reconstruction.

The camp‘s streets are the only place for children to play and even they are often no wider than the span of a child‘s arms.

A shepherd walks with his flock east of Jabalia Camp, northern Gaza. Credit: Suhair Karam/IRIN

An old man sits outside his UNRWA-supplied tent in the Ezbet Abed Rabbo area of northern Gaza. His home was destroyed in the war. Credit: Suhair Karam/IRIN

And he does not know when he will live in a normal house again. Credit: Suhair Karam/IRIN

Palestinian refugees walk in the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip

Palestinian refugees go about their daily lives at Al Hussein Palestinian refugee camp in Amman January 25, 2011. REUTERS/Majed Jaber

Palestinian refugees living in camps in Lebanon

An estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon

A Palestinian Refugee family posing for the camera, April-2009, Al-Wehdat CampFiras, a Palestinian refugee child in his room, April-2009, Al-Wehdat Camp, Jordan. Photo by Mohammed Abdulkadir

One of the old generation who witnessed the war in 1948, April-2009, Al-Wehdat Camp, Jordan. Photo by Mohammed Abdulkadir

Husam on his way to school, April-2009, Hitten Camp, Jordan. Photo by Mohammed Abdulkadir

A little boy having a break during his 1 hour walk journey to school, April-2009, Hitten Camp, Jordan. Photo by Mohammed Abdulkadir

Jamal, a 12 years old Palestinian boy studying in one of the learning centres provided by the UNRWA. April-2009, Al-Wehdat Camp, Jordan.Photo by Mohammed Abdulkadir

A Palestinian kid playing football in Al-wehdat club,a club that has been founded and run by the refugees themselves, April, 2009, Alwehdat Camp, Jordan.Yaseen wearing his beloved football club’s shirt, April-2009, Hettin Camp, Jordan.A little Palestinian girl dancing on her way to buy breakfast, April-2009, Hitten Camp, Jordan.

An Old Palestinian women sitting in her house, a one room house with no doors, no furniture, April-2009, Hitten Camp, Jordan.

A group of kids wondering around outside their houses. April-2009, Hitten Camp, Jordan

17. Cloths are hanged outside a house to dry, these matchbox houses can hardly provide protection from the rain in the winter, April-2009, Hitten Camp, Jordan

Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon- Sabra & Chatila

Shatila / Sabra- Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut Lebanon – Photograph by

Shatila / Sabra- Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut Lebanon

Palestinian Refugee Camp in Beirut

After the Nakba, the exile and fleeing, Palestinian refugees remain often in camps again a target for violence. Here NAHR AL-BARED camp , Lebanon, Nov 25, 2009 (IPS) – More than two years after their refugee camp was destroyed in a war between the Lebanese army and the Islamist militant group Fatah al-Islam, Nahr al-Bared refugees the start of the camp’s reconstruction. Established in 1949, the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in north Lebanon’s Akkar region has become home to more than 30,000 residents. In the summer of 2007, the camp was totally destroyed as the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) fought a group of well-equipped, mostly non-Palestinian militants who had taken over the camp.

Palestinian refugees head towards the buses that will take them to Syria after years in Al Tanf. Refugees and still hunted from one place to another because UN decided to close the camp.

Palestinian refugees trapped in three makeshift camps along the Iraqi-Syrian border are living in very precarious conditions and their situation is deteriorating by the day, a senior Palestinian diplomat said on 18 February 2008. “The Palestinian refugees… along the Syrian border are experiencing a very grave social, health and humanitarian situation,” Dalil al-Qasous, the Palestinian chargé d’affaires in Baghdad, told IRIN. “As they enter their third year of living on the borders, they continue to face low desert temperatures during the winter and [now

Ein Beit el Ma refugee camp in Nablus is one of the poorest camps in the West Bank

Youth playing on the street in Burj El-Shemali – Lebanon

Buildings marked with marks of shelling, shooting and destruction, everywhere and no camp excluded

Beirut Camp at Night

Refugee in Burj al-Barajneh Camp, Lebanon, ( Photo:BADIL)

And also in Burj al-Barajneh Camp marks of severe violence, bullet Holes in a Building in , Lebanon, ( Photo:BADIL)

Everywhere devastation and no reconstruction, Palestinian refugees for over 44 years living in and around rubble. Destroyed Building in Burj al-Barajneh Camp, Lebanon, ( Photo:BADIL)

Even in the camps no sanctuary for Palestinian Refugees, Being moved from one camp to another. The destruction of Nahr el Bared refugee camp, Lebanon September 2007 Photo:

“Military Building” – Wavel Refugee Camp – Lebanon (Photo:BADIL)

“Infrastructure” is something you will not find inside of camps. No sewerage which leads to increased chance of health issues, but also electricity is far from nowadays. Palestinian Refugees saving themselves with the means they have…. Electric Wires – Wavel Refugee Camp – Lebanon (Photo:BADIL)

And also in Wavel camp Lebanon rubble, everywhere rubble and memories of destruction (Photo:BADIL)

Also in the Holy land, Bethlehem’s Aida refugee Camp and displaced Palestinians, lost their homes and where haunted to live in camps in their own country. For the establishment of the State of “Israel” The Illegal Israeli Gilo settlement in the background. (Photo: Badil)

Born in a camp and never seen elsewhise than destruction, war, attacks, death and misery. Imagine this would be your children. Palestinian Refugee Children in the Shati refugee camp – Gaza (Photo:BADIL)

Aqbat Jaber Camp, Jericho, West Bank Besides Refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, in Palestine only  already located 16 refugee camps  ( Photo:Nathalie Bardou/BADIL)

Many Palestinian refugees like this elderly woman from Deheishe refugee camp continue to hold keys to their homes and continue to hope and work for their right of return. They key of their homes of which they were expelled during the Nakba, have become a symbol for the Palestinian refugees – (Photo BADIL)

The rubble of destroyed buildings in Jabalia camp – Gaza Stripe. Jabalia Camp is one of the places in Gaza which is still, under continuous attacks of Israeli Occupation Forces or bomb- and shellings. (Photo:BADIL)

Processing of tents for refugees whose homes were destroyed in the Jabalia – Gaza Strip (Photo:BADIL)

The suffering of Palestinian children in refugee camps is horrendous. Living in daily danger, fear, trauma and devastation, dependant on aid but even not getting that or not enough for Israel still decides wether to open crossings, or not at all, to enter basic need or not. – Jabalia camp – Gaza Stripe (Photo:BADIL)

And the world is ignorant ot silencing, the harsh living conditions of the Palestinian people in the Jabalya refugee camp(Photo:BADIL)

Khan Younis, another refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, same devastation, same misery, same fate, oppression, closed in by the sea and the occupier. World’s largest open air prison in the world. – (Photo: BADIL)

Rafah Camp in Gaza

Children from Shu’fat refugee camp looking at the Wall and the Jewish colony of Pisgat Ze’ev, August 2006 Living in a “prison camp” looking over the apartheid wall to their “neighbours” which have annexed their land, homes, trees, crops and belongings, to destroy all and rebuild flamboyant settlements… with all needs. they are deprived of. Imagine this is your child… (Photo: Anne Paq)

For this is their reality and daily surroundings. Destruction everywhere also in this camp. A dolished house in Shu’fat Camp – West Bank (Photo:BADIL)

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