Light Without; Light Within
The lights go off in Bethlehem’s Dheisheh Refugee Camp. Then the lights go on. The lights go off again; then on. Power is rationed by the Israelis in the West Bank. It is a feature of the occupation that has a dramatic impact on daily life here.
Part One: Light Without
There was a haze in the sky early today, clouding view of the settlements on the hills west of Bethlehem. The Israelis are unabashedly building settlements straight from Bethlehem to Jericho, creating a dividing line in the West Bank. The hills are beautiful on the horizon, and in the haze you can almost forget that the settlements are there.
The light changes and the haze slowly lifts as the day progresses, though, revealing their presence. As the sun lowers in the sky late in the afternoon the buildings are prominent on the hills, as are the protected beautiful new roads that only Israelis can use. Lights in the settlements are brilliant at night – bright little cities on the hill.
This evening I went out onto the roof and I saw what at first looked like large bright shining stars only a few hundred yards up in the sky.
It was obviously too close to be a star, and I thought perhaps it was a different kind of firework display, unlike anything I had ever seen; or perhaps it was something like a burning lantern floating in the sky as part of a holiday celebration. Then there was the sound of planes, and several more lights appeared in the sky.
People who live here told me that they heard that an Israeli settler had been attacked, and the bright burning lights are dropped from the Israeli military planes to brighten the sky so they can see more clearly on the hills to search for the person that attacked the settler. This went on for several hours, with several of these burning flares dropping into the sky every few minutes to keep the sky bright.
With those flares burning you can see the hills even more clearly than it was earlier in the daytime. They occasionally hover over Bethlehem and the camp, and people were concerned that fragments from the flare structures would fall into the camp and start a fire, something that has happened in the past. The Israeli military sometimes drops the flares for training exercises, without any instigating situation. After several hours of this the stench from the burning flares was oppressive.
I was told that there may be an incursion into the camp by the Israeli Defense Forces during the night, so when I go back to the apartment I should close and lock all windows and doors, and stay inside no matter what I hear during the night. It seemed quite normal to them, though I could sense an underlying concern. Fortunately it was a quiet night in the camp.
Part Two: Light Within
The lights go off. The lights go on. Lights off, then on. And so it goes – off and on. There rarely is enough power here. People in the camp say that they are supposed to have 220 volts of power delivered to their homes, but they regularly seem to have less than half of that amount. Even with an additional generator my family here receives about 150 volts at the best of times. Equipment doesn’t function properly without sufficient power, so even if they have a clothes washer and dryer, most of the time they can’t use it. They hang clothes out to dry, but the weather has been very cold, and it can take several days for things to dry. Electric ovens sometimes don’t work properly, either. Families can be part way through cooking a meal when the power goes off, and they don’t know when it will come back on.
This time of year everybody wears several layers of clothing and even coats inside, and they huddle around propane and electric heaters to stay warm. Christmas time in Bethlehem.
The lights go off again, and everybody who lives there laughs and announces to their International guests “Welcome to Palestine!”
Then they pull out their phones, turn on the cell phone flashlights, and point them to the ceiling. You can get quite a lot of light with several cell phone lights in close quarters, enough to see into each others’ eyes while you talk.
Rationing of electricity is the problem in the winter; rationing of water is the problem in the summer. That said, because of the many guests and activities surrounding my daughter Maya’s wedding celebrations, they are running out of the water ration a week early.
This evening Maya’s husband Murad brought in a single powered speaker to test playing music for a gathering that officially launches a week of celebratory activities. Extended family and friends get together, play music, sing and dance together. Four generations of women make dozens of little bags with candy to give as presents to everyone who will attend the upcoming Henna Party.
We tested the music in the speaker, and at first all seemed to be working fine. But the power was insufficient and fluctuating, which interrupted the sound every few seconds. The powered speaker had a battery pack, and that seemed to help at first, but there wasn’t enough power to charge the battery. So a different system had to be located that would work better, and we were finally able to get a working sound system part way through the event. One of the sisters in the family brought a djembe, and they joyously sang and danced away until the sound system was set up. This is a normal part of life here. Many things take longer to accomplish as people creatively work around obstacles.
People here have a remarkable resiliency.
The joy they experience in each others’ company is omnipresent – the stories, laughter, sharing food, and helping each other with even the smallest daily tasks. It’s tremendously uplifting to be with them, even though I don’t speak their language. A bright sparkle in the eye, a genuine smile, a double or triple kiss on the cheek – love is a universal language, and needs no words.