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Palestinians hope pope visit highlights their plight

Published on 14/05/2009

Aida Refugee Camp — Palestinians living in the misery of a refugee camp at the foot of Israel’s West Bank wall welcomed Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday, hoping that his visit will ease their plight.

"People are placing a lot of hope in this visit," said Mundhir Amira, a member of the committee welcoming the pontiff to the Aida camp that is home to 4,600 souls.

The visit gave the pontiff the chance to "see how and how much the Palestinian people suffer from this occupation," said Amira, standing below the eight-metre-(25-metre)-high concrete wall that surrounds part of Bethlehem.

"We want the dismantling of the wall, which is preventing us from seeing our families in Jerusalem and the West Bank and that separates us from peace."

The imposing barrier looms over much of the camp, a collection of ramshackle, hastily erected houses on winding dusty streets.

Abu Suheib Aid, director of the Aida Youth Centre, blasted the controversial separation barrier that Israel has built to fence off much of the West Bank and which near Aida is an imposing concrete presence.

"This wall represents apartheid and the suffering of the Palestinians," he said. "Everybody hailed the fall of the Berlin wall, but Israel has built this wall in the 21st century. It is a direct assault on peace and justice.

"We hope for a just peace, but that peace would not be complete if it means the wall stays."

For Hanna, a 49-year-old whose son is among some 11,000 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails, the wall also prevents access to jobs.

"We’re like birds in a cage," she said. "There is no work because the wall prevents people from going to work in Israel. They built the wall and this cut off our source of income.

"What we want most of all is that they dismantle the wall so the people can work," she added.

For 13-year-old Khader, the wall means he no longer had access to the football pitch where he once played with his friends.

"It was better before the wall. Before, there was a football field on the other side, but now we can’t go there any more."

Mohammed said he hoped the papal visit would project a positive image of the Palestinians to the world.

"We hope he will… deliver it to Europe and the world and tell everyone that Palestinians are not terrorists and are just looking for peace."

As in the myriad other Palestinian camps dotting the Middle East, the people of Aida in the occupied West Bank demand the right to return to the villages from which they fled or were chased out during Israel’s creation in 1948.

A list of those villages hangs next to a map of historical Palestine and a Palestinian flag on the side of a building in the camp.