Dahn Ben-Amotz, “The Refugees,” 1956. Translated by Roy Holler
Earlier this week I went down to Gaza (just two weeks ago, it was easier to get to New York or Australia than visit Gaza. You can read about the developments that changed this situation in the papers). I wanted to check out, among other things, one of the Arab refugee camps. I arrived at camp “Rimal” (from the word remal, which means “sand” in Arabic). The camp sits on the coast, not too far from Gaza’s old port. It was around noon, and what looked like the camp’s main street was packed with Arab men and women who gathered in groups, staring curiously at the unkempt, geriatric Israeli army reservists who wandered back and forth sloppily in their unkempt uniforms (the traditional dress code of the IDF reserves), their STEN guns hanging on their shoulders like corpses.
The Gaza sea was stormy and murky, and the clouds gathering in the sky loomed over the refugee camp as great signs and wonders. Barefoot children wearing colorful shirts ran around in their underwear, and Arab women walked gracefully in black dresses adorned with red and purple stripes, carrying large flour sacks on their heads. The wind from the sea rippled the hems of the kaffiyahs on the men’s heads and waved the ones still hanging on the rooftops like flags of surrender. A mass of prostrated refugees (mostly Arab women and a few old men) sat cross-legged between the cabins, waiting for the food distribution by the UNRWA officials. The weekly distribution of food was delayed by twenty days because of recent events, and the people in line were angry and impatient. At the front of the line stood officers from the Gaza police, wearing blue uniforms and black berets, swearing and shouting, trying to control the crowd. The faces of the refugees were hard, and it was hard to ever imagine them smiling. Babies cried at their mothers’ bosoms, and those first in line looked at the officers pleadingly, ready to grab their baskets and break into a mad dash towards the next line, which stretched along a barbed wire, across a sandy field, and looped around the walls of the UNRWA’s warehouse. The women had no jewelry, except for the old ladies, who had worn-out silver bracelets on their arms. The men looked at the Israelis with empty, indifferent eyes, a gaze that had surpassed hatred. And in the midst of all this anxious waiting and the atmosphere of defeat, a bunch of colorful chickens ran around on the sand, as if no tragedy ever befell their owners.
Suddenly, a wave of life passed through the anxious crowd, and those at the front rose, took a step forward, only to sink back down at the sound of the officers’ shouting. A “senior” Israeli soldier in old battledress who had a reddish, unsympathetic face came running and yelled, “back! Back! Tell them move back or I break heads“ at the officers. The officers shouted again in coarse voices: “Irj’hu, kulu irj’hu, irj’hi ya bint, irj’hu al wara.” But the yelling and the pleading did not help. They sat quietly and looked at the officers with fearful eyes. The Israeli soldier (Hungarian by accent) rushed into the crowd, trampling over people, waving his arms left and right until the commotion intensified, the cries of the women and babies grew louder, and everyone finally backed a meter away. “I break heads with stick if one more time you let them move a meter,” the soldier shouted. “This is not humans,” he then said to me, “this is animals. If I don’t keep them with iron fist they attack warehouse and steal all food. They only understand force and nothing else.”
I backed away from the Israeli soldier who shifted so suddenly from being a grocer in the suburbs of Tel-Aviv to being in charge of the lives of 27,000 people. He seemed to be taking much pleasure in fulfilling his duties. Meanwhile, the men crowded the main street and the head of the Gaza police, an Arab man around 45 years of age who sported a respectable potbelly and a splendid mustache, charged the mob with his cane, dispersing them with great profanities. “Yil’an abuki,” he shouted at a young girl, “yalla, yalla ruhu ya’klab. Imshi iben sharmuta.” After each curse, the man turned his eyes towards me and the group of indifferent Israelis, evaluating the impression his aggression left on us.
The lucky ones who made it to the front of the line in the “Jaffa” group (the refugees were divided into groups according to their place of origin) entered one by one into the big UNRWA warehouse and shuffled along the wall to receive their food rations. (5 kilos of flour per person each month. 250 grams sugar, 275 grams fat, 250 grams rice and 900 grams lentils.) Outside, the women loaded the sacks of food on their heads and then rushed to their sheds, as far as they could go, away from the line, the soldiers, the police and the war.