Sunday, June 4 — We are writing to you from Burj el-Barajneh Refugee Camp in Beirut where the withdrawal of Israel's soldiers from southern Lebanon has meant a phenomena unprecedented. For the first time in 52 years, the Palestinian refugees can visit the border and see their homeland.
People from Burj el-Barajneh have been making the journey throughout the week. When they got there, they found many Palestinians had come to meet them. Many were surprised to find relatives waiting for them, some they had never met. People shouted their names and from which village they came, and this led to many discoveries of relatives.
Some had made the journey on their own and many had gone with Hizbullah on organised bus trips. Seven buses went on June 2.
The Women's Humanitarian Organisation in Burj el-Barajneh was organising two busloads for June 4. Most of the women were extremely excited to be able to make the journey and some had arranged a rendezvous at the border with relatives from Palestine.
Others were reticent, with mixed feelings about how they would cope being able to see their dream of returning to their homeland so close but still beyond reach. They were aware of the possible pain of meeting relatives for the first time and not being able to hug them or kiss them because of the barbed wire fencing obstructing them.
Walking in Burj el-Barajneh camp this week we heard a group of young men discussing visiting the border. One was critical about going when it is such a painful experience. Another Palestinian youth who had already gone described how the Lebanese made fun of them, saying: "Look at us we are strong, we are able to push the Israelis out. Look at you, you are quick to accept peace without thinking about your future, you gave up everything."
We heard on the news that people from Tarshiha village only a few kilometres across the border near Acre had promised to be at the border every day until Wednesday. There are many from Tarshiha village in Burj el-Barajneh, including Olfat.
Nasser, a relative of Olfat, had gone on June 2 and filmed his mother meeting his sister, her husband and children from Bethlehem. That night, we watched the video in tears as family members tried to kiss each other through barbed wire with Israeli soldiers and jeeps patrolling the crowd. The Israelis had erected two sets of barbed wire fences three metres apart to restrict contact once they realised the magnitude of the crowds building up. Somehow, some were able to get closer. Rings, jewellery and food were being exchanged through the fence.
Despite all the mixed feelings, we were all very excited about the potential trip on Sunday (June 4), although Olfat was still trying to ensure we would not be stopped from entering the zone by Lebanese soldiers.
Attempts in Beirut to get permission from the army failed but we were told about the possibility of using the UN road, which is not used by the military. Another option was to join the Hizbullah convoy. We were still waiting for permission from the Hizbullah when there was an announcement from the camp's mosque that "the Hizbullah trip to the border on Sunday is cancelled".
We were all wondering why. On the Hizbullah news channel, we heard that the Israelis had erected another fence three metres from the previous two fences. There was concern that the people would get out of control and in frustration destroy the fence.
Also, the Israelis had classified the area as a military zone. We heard that one Palestinian had been shot, though we were not sure on which side.
People in the camp feel Israel is preventing them from making contact with relatives at the border to stop the international community seeing the human side of this catastrophe. Even some of the Israeli soldiers were being affected emotionally by seeing people meet for the first time. People in the camp reported that, to their surprise, some soldiers even assisted them to pass letters to their relatives on the other side of the fence.
It is a sad Sunday as we all sit and wait yet again for the day Palestinians can return to their homeland.
BY CECILY MICHAELS & OLFAT MAHMOUD
[Cecily Michaels works for APHEDA. Olfat Mahmoud works with the Women's Humanitarian Organisation, Burj el-Barajneh Refugee Camp. Michaels will be speaking at a public forum in Sydney entitled "Palestine: redressing the balance' on July 14, 7.30pm, Guthrie Theatre, UTS Sydney, Harris St, Broadway.]