Gracing the walls
Saleh from Bethlehem
His face is everywhere. You can’t take two steps without seeing it, stenciled in red and blue on brick buildings. The black-and-white portrait, printed on withering pieces of printer paper, clinging to their posts. Over and over ad infinitum, dotting a city block walked daily by tourists and the refugees they don’t know exist.
In his honor, Saleh’s picture is emblazoned on posters tessellating around the green, black, red, white of a Palestinian flag. For his friends, Facebook has become an endless mosaic of photos etched with one inspirational quote or another. Above his family’s doorpost he stands, in HD, superimposed next to the Dome of the Rock. On dozens of plaques gifted to his father by his friends, Yasser Arafat reaches out to shake a glowing Saleh’s hand.
For Bethlehem’s refugees, Saleh al-Amarin became a well-known name in the year following his death. When the anniversary of the incident comes around, three different memorials are held. One in his own Azza camp, commemorating the day he was shot; a ragtag military parade a few days later; and on the day he succumbed to his wounds, a two-hour service in Dheisheh camp’s Phoenix Hall, complete with the national anthem, local celebrity attendees, and a children’s dabke crew. Saleh was a martyr, speakers say. A hero. We should all strive to be like him.
When I moved to Bethlehem from Michigan seven months ago to take a reporting job at a Palestinian news agency, I noticed his face immediately. As I passed by Azza refugee camp on the way to the bar, a coworker told me a one-sentence version of what had happened. He was a fifteen-year-old who was shot and killed at a protest near Bethlehem last January.
We cut back through Azza camp on our way home. Clustered dwellings hodge-podged together, a maze of alleyways dividing them. Ubiquitous walls shadowing the moonlight – the perfect locale for a stabbing. A hint of garbage in the air; an elusive drip, drip from a nearby roof. We walked the slight downhill single file, arriving at an exit; a streetlamp reflecting off the thin stream of water draining between our footsteps. And then we popped out right onto one of the most touristy streets in Bethlehem.
Within a few weeks of my arrival I started tutoring English in the camp. After one of my first sessions, some of Azza’s shabaab invited me to take part in a funeral march for a man from the camp who had died of mysterious causes in northern Israel. Curious but uneasy, I walked with the crowd of hundreds, many waving PFLP flags and chanting. “Rest, oh martyr! We will finish the fight!” and “There is no god but God! The martyr is the beloved of God!” Later, in the nearby Aida camp, another boy pointed out to me the spot where Saleh died. “Saleh was martyred here,” he said.
After the body was delivered to Aida’s cemetery, I walked with a boy named Mohammad back to Azza. As we entered the camp, he pointed at Saleh’s blue face.
“This is my friend,” he said.
“How did he die?
“The Israelis shot him,” he said.
At work the next day, I clattered away at the daily news behind my desk. The typical overnight arrest raids and clashes. Settlement construction announcements from the Israelis and condemnations from Palestinian officials. I marveled at the casualness with which I could write about it all. To me, the politics of the occupation were abstract, forming the words of the sentences that I composed for a living. But for the boys I knew from Azza, politics were very physical. Politics was their cramped city block of a neighborhood, the wall that snaked through their town, the soldiers they threw stones at, the prison bars at checkpoints. Politics was the reason they had never seen the lands of their native Beit Jibrin, which lay mere miles away from them on the other side of the wall but had since been converted into a kibbutz. Surely Saleh had never seen the land — but ended up dying for the right to return to it.
As for Mohammad and the other boys, I was glad to see that the politics that ultimately claimed Saleh’s life had not entirely tainted theirs. There were still leftover moments for enjoying youth, like seventeenth birthday parties.
They were still kids. There were still many new things to be tried, new successes and failures to be had. They’d still surprise themselves and others on a regular basis. Their existence was not etched entirely in stone. There is some noun less potent than the word hope to describe what is possible for their future. “On this land, there’s something that makes life worth living,” writes Mahmoud Darwish. “The beginnings of love, grass on a stone … the invaders’ fear of memories. … The hour of sunlight in prison, a cloud resembling a swarm of creatures … and the tyrants’ fear of songs.”
I wanted people who read the news to be able to put a face to the politics of Bethlehem’s refugees. Any of these kids could have been Saleh. I’ve never experienced the tragic and sudden loss of someone I’ve been close to, but through these kids I feel like I’m getting to know a post-mortem Saleh. I needed to figure out exactly what happened when the fifteen-year-old was shot in Aida camp on January 18, 2013. His friends were keen to tell the story.
“Everyone was there at the march,” fifteen-year-old Nour told me. “Saleh was there. We were throwing stones and marching.”
I imagine Saleh waking up late, his mother scolding him as he rushes to get dressed for mosque. He fidgets and yawns through the service, and afterwards, as his father lingers in conversation with the neighbors outside, he catches Nour’s eye from across Azza camp’s main road. Saleh squints and gives a quick tilt of the head. Nour nods, and Abu Saleh barely notices as his son slips away through the crowd and out of the camp.
A whiff of tear gas on the air, Nour and Saleh pick up speed as they reach the entrance of Aida camp. It has already started. Cutting through the center of the camp, they join a group of shabaab standing near the Key of Return. They see a few rogue boys down the hill — older, masked in kuffiyehs, twirling their slingshots, launching rocks at the concrete watchtower a hundred feet in front of them. Saleh gathers stones and gazes down at the kids with the slings, his heart beating faster. His sweatshirt pockets now full of rocks, he eyes Nour with a smirk and makes his way down the hill.
“The soldiers started shooting live bullets,” Nour said. “But the bullets they were shooting were silent.”
A soldier shows his helmeted face from on top of the watchtower, slips the shaft of his launcher out of its rectangular concrete window, and fires, a stream of thick vapor wisping through the air. When the tear gas grenade hits the ground, Saleh is ready. The canister bounces and rolls, but soon it’s in his hands, burning just for a moment before he steps and rockets it back towards the wall. More canisters hit the cement and other boys do the same. Meanwhile, more people make their way down the hill from the Key of Return.
“The bullets would be shot but you couldn’t hear anything, so the bullet came and went right into his head.”
All of a sudden, Saleh is on the ground. Nour squints to get a better look. He’s not moving. The yells of the boys and the clanking of gas canisters become muted, the world in black and white except for the miniature pool of red forming around Saleh’s head. The boys all gather around him, shouting voiceless curses, pulling out cell phones. Nour is on his knees, grabbing Saleh’s shoulders. The gas hits his tears and they streak red down his dusty face. Soon, Aida residents who have been watching from their windows come running. Then, sirens.
I imagine Saleh as a rowdy teenager with a contagious smile, always surrounded by a group of guys. I picture him pacing up and down Manger Street, or standing in a crowd near the Church of the Nativity to laugh at the swarms of tourists drooling over a Christmas tree celebration. I imagine high-fiving him as I pass him in the street, or trying to get him to listen to me as I tutor English in the camp. As the school year ended, he might find a summer job. He’d return to the camp, sweaty after work, and spend the cool evenings playing pool or watching soccer with his friends. Instead, he watches from the walls as their youth fades along with the paint of his smiling face.
It’s hard for me to fathom the truth that Saleh is just one of the 1,400 Palestinian children killed by Israeli forces since 2000. That his death was not something out of the ordinary. Just a few weeks ago, two boys were shot and killed while protesting near Ramallah. In March, another fifteen-year-old was shot dead while trying to cross the separation wall. These among others. Maybe the idea is to send a warning message. This is what happens if you mess with us. But for many of Azza’s shabaab, it has just the opposite effect. All the boys I asked said that after Saleh’s death, they participate in clashes with soldiers even more than before.
“I go because of Saleh,” they told me, proud to say he was their friend.
But what if you ended up like him? I asked.
“That’d be fine,” one of them said. “I’d be a martyr.”