The ongoing Nakba: Why Dheisheh camp's Palestinian teenagers are carrying farewell letters in their pockets

Dheisheh / Qassam Muaddi
12 min read
West Bank
05 June, 2023

A group of young men walk carelessly along the narrow alleys that stream endlessly between grey cement walls, covered with mural paintings of smiling faces

There is an uneasy calm this evening at the Dheisheh refugee camp, where Israeli soldiers had conducted a military raid less than a week earlier.

The young men stop at one large mural of faces of young Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, painted over a white foundation.

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The youngest, a 15-year-old teenager, begins to introduce the faces on the wall: “This is Omar Manaa,” he begins. “This one here is Adam Ayyad, and this one over here is Amr Khmour... he was the same age as me."

As Palestinians commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nakba this year, Palestinian refugee camps continue to be subjected to exclusion, living amid a lack of basic services and facing marginalisation both in Palestine and in the diaspora.

In the West Bank, however, Palestinian communities, including refugee camps, continue to face regular military assaults by Israeli forces, which have increased significantly in the past year claiming the lives of hundreds, mostly young.

In mid-May, the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank since the start of the year hit 150. It’s triple the toll for Palestinians killed during the same period of last year, during which Israeli forces killed 230 Palestinians between January and December. The UN said it was the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2005.

Out of those killed in the first five months of 2023 by Israeli forces, 24 were under 20 years old and 18 of them were under 18.

A large part of the Israeli killings has taken place in the northern West Bank, especially in the city and refugee camp of Jenin and their surroundings, where most of the media attention has been concentrated.

Dheisheh / Qassam Muaddi
Palestinian youth killed by Israeli forces are commemorated on the walls of the Dheisheh refugee camp [Qassam Muaddi /TNA]

But 96 miles to the south of Jenin and its rural landscape, hidden in the southern corner of the touristic, glamorous city of Bethlehem, another small refugee camp, Dheisheh, has been the centre of constant Israeli raids, and death among the young.

Dheisheh is currently home to some 12,000 Palestinian refugees, more than half of them youngsters. Their families originally came from 44 Palestinian towns and villages within today's Israel's 1948 boundaries.

The camp started the year with the loss of two teenagers to Israeli forces during military raids. They were aged 14 and 15, middle-school classmates and friends. They had something else in common: they both carried farewell letters in their pockets — they were prepared to die.

On January 3, 2023, before dawn, Israeli forces arrived at the Jerusalem-Hebron road that connects the north of Bethlehem to its south, running in front of the grey, packed houses of the Dheisheh refugee camp.

Military vehicles stopped at the road, as they can't enter the narrow, maze-like alleys of Dheisheh, and began to unload dozens of foot soldiers, armed and trained for army-to-army combat.

Dheisheh / Qassam Muaddi
Israeli forces arrived at the Jerusalem-Hebron road that connects the north of Bethlehem to its south, running in front of the grey, packed houses of the Dheisheh refugee camp. [Qassam Muaddi /TNA]

As soldiers advanced through the alleys of the camp, heading to the house of a resident, with orders to arrest him, young men had already spotted the uniformed Israelis and came out to confront them, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at them from behind corners and rooftops. The soldiers responded with live fire.

As Israeli forces withdrew and the sun rose, the news began to flow from house to house that one of the youngsters was killed during the raid. His name was Adam Ayyad and he was only 15. In his pocket, his friends found a wrinkled notebook paper, with 11 lines of scribbled hand-written text with grammar and spelling mistakes, the letter read:

"I had many things that I dreamed of doing, but in our country, one can not realise one’s dreams. I want to send my message to the entire world, I want all the people to wake up, and direct all your compasses towards the occupation”

Dheisheh / Qassam Muaddi
Fifteen-year-old Adam Ayyad's bullet-pierced jacket beside his pictures and plates of honour offered to his family at their house [Qassam Muaddi /TNA]

“Adam was a nice boy, playful and helpful to all people around him,” his mother said in a low, monotone voice. “He wanted to continue his studies and wanted to become a lawyer one day.”

The mother contains her voice and turns her look down as if closing her thoughts on herself, under the glance of her younger sister, who takes on the narration: “The night Adam was killed, he was staying over with his father in a separate house, when occupation forces raided the camp and reached very close to the house. His father woke up to find that he had left the house to confront the soldiers, and later we knew he was killed.”

Weeks before his last night, Adam’s mother had discovered a paper in one of his pockets while doing the laundry. When she read it, she realised it was a farewell letter.

“I was very scared and I asked him why he had written it, so he told me that he wanted to die for Palestine,” Adam’s mother recalls. “I begged Adam not to speak like that, and told him that I took away the letter and asked him not to write another."

In fact, Adam had started to familiarise himself with the idea of death for a while then, particularly, since the killing of his friend, Omar Manaa.

Manaa, a 22-year-old young man was killed in an earlier Israeli raid in December. According to Adam Ayyad’s mother and aunt, the death of Omar Manaa impacted him so much that he began to spend hours on end by his tomb at the Dheisheh cemetery.

“We only thought that Adam was sad for his friend, but never thought at the beginning that he was entertaining the idea of death himself,” his aunt explains. “He had many dreams, as he said in his final farewell letter, especially to study law and to travel to other countries."

Dheisheh / Qassam Muaddi
The mother of 15-year-old Adam Ayyad, who was killed by Israeli forces [Qassam Muaddi /TNA]

“At the same time, he knew of the occupation's violence since he was a little child," Adam's aunt continues. “He witnessed an occupation raid for the first time when he was five, and grew up seeing people in the camp and neighbourhood being arrested or killed."

Adam’s portrait hangs beside one of the house’s windows, dominating the main living room of the house, while on the other side of the room, his photos are displayed on a low shelf, beside his jacket, pierced by the Israeli bullet that killed him, and a row of plates of honour, offered by families, associations and political factions in Dheisheh; a sign of the social recognition to a martyr’s family.

As Adam Ayyad’s family brought back the moments before his death, deeper in the alleys of Dheisheh, another family was still receiving mourners at their house, who came to express their sorrow and pay their respects.

The open-house ritual usually lasts for three days, but it had been a week since 14-year-old Amr Khmour was killed by Israeli soldiers during their last raid into Dheisheh, and mourners kept pouring into his family’s house.

Down the stairs from the street, a small front yard is crowded with men sitting on plastic chairs, while a young boy walks around the yard serving bitter Arabic coffee, under the shadow of a grapevine, characteristic of Palestinian villages and refugee camps’ houses.

Dheisheh / Qassam Muaddi
The house of 14-year-old Amr Khmour in Dheisheh receives mourners, a week after his killing by Israeli forces
[Qassam Muaddi /TNA]

Above them hangs a rope line of flags of the Palestinian faction that Amr identified with. The faction’s ‘adoption’ of a martyr as one of its own also makes part of the social recognition of the family. On top of it all, a gigantic portrait of Amr hangs down the rooftop of the house on its facade, looking straight at those arriving from the street with calm, sleepy eyes almost hiding under a cap’s shade brim.

On one side of the courtyard, a small door leads to the kitchen, where several women sit in a circle remembering Amr, while family members and children walk in and out of the house between them. “Amr was a very sensitive boy, he always sought to make everybody around him happy,” says his older sister. "He didn’t talk a lot about politics, or about the situation in the camp, as he was mostly having fun with his friends, like all boys his age."

Dheisheh / Qassam Muaddi
The youth of Dheisheh wear pin buttons with the pictures of Omar Manaa, Adam Ayyad, and Amr Khmour
[Qassam Muaddi /TNA]

Just like Adam Ayyad, Amr Khmour began to display a change of behaviour after the killing of Omar Manaa by Israeli soldiers in December.

“He began to speak about Omar more often, go to the cemetery and spend time by his tomb and that of Adam Ayyad after he was killed,” Amr’s mother recalls.

“The week Adam was killed, Amr’s friends told me that he was walking by a group of young men who were painting Adam’s face on a wall beside that of Omar, and he told them to leave the space between both of them empty for his own face to be painted there. I knew nothing about him having written a farewell letter until I read it, the day he was killed," she adds. 

Dheisheh / Qassam Muaddi
The mother of 14-year-old Amr Khmour, killed by Israeli forces in the Dheisheh refugee camp
[Qassam Muaddi /TNA]

On January 16, less than two weeks after the killing of Adam Ayyad, Israeli forces raided Dheisheh again. Young men confronted the soldiers, and the latter opened fire, as they had done every time. Amr Khmour was in the front line.

“We all woke up to the sound of gunfire, I rushed to Amr’s room and found that he was putting his shoes on, so I told him that he wasn’t allowed to leave anywhere,” his mother remembers.

“I stepped away from the doorway when he seemingly complied, but then I heard him running out." Amr’s mother begins to sob as her daughter, so his older sister continues. “My father came out and ordered him with a threatening voice to come back, but Amr stopped at the outside door, looked back at his father, then rushed to join the confrontations.”

In the morning, Palestinian media circulated the written words that Amr was carrying with him in his notebook.

In the letter, he urges the people of Palestine to “wake up and realise that we are under Zionist occupation,” sends his salutes to Palestinian prisoners, mentions his mother five times, asks his friends not to leave her alone, also asks his mother to continue to welcome his friends, especially one that he calls “dear to my heart.”

In the house courtyard, a 14-year-old girl in her school uniform approaches the kitchen door, pulls a chair and sits beside Amr’s mother. Minutes later, a 15-year-old boy arrives and stands by the door. “These are Amr’s friends, they are like my children,” the mother tells The New Arab. 

The two teenagers leave the house with The New Arab’s reporter and a larger group of young people. The girl, walking behind the rest of the group, speaks to a young human rights activist and psychology trainee.

“I knew that Amr had mentioned me in the letter, which made his death feel more personal,” she says. “We were a group of friends that were very united, as we played, studied and spent most of the time in the camp together, and Amr was the one holding the group together."

Ahead of the walk, the boy describes the age group’s life from his perspective. “It was the killing of Omar Manaa that impacted all of us, but then the death of Adam and Amr made it even worse," the teenager says. “We haven’t had time to recover from the loss of so many friends, we don’t feel like hanging out these days, let alone have fun.

“Since then, many boys have been carrying farewell letters in their pockets. Just a week ago, the school principal searched a class right after Amr’s killing, and he found 14 farewell letters with boys,” he says.

Both the stories of Adam Ayyad and Amr Khmour lead back to the killing of Omar Manaa, the 22-year-old baker who was killed in late December. Both boys were impacted by it to the point of contemplating their own deaths and preparing for it.

A week before the killing of Amr Khmour, Dheisheh was commemorating Omar Manaa’s 40 days of death. The hall of ‘Al-Feniq’ cultural association in Dheisheh was packed to the very entrance door with Palestinians of all ages, who had come to pay their respects to Omar’s memory, many of them standing on their feet for more than an hour and a half, due to the lack of chairs.

Dheisheh / Qassam Muaddi
The 40-day commemoration ceremony of Omar Manna's death [Qassam Muaddi /TNA]

One after another, friends of Omar and other young men, some masked, took the stage and gave speeches enumerating his qualities, vowing loyalty to his legacy, and continuing the struggle, while a large portrait banner of Omar Manaa dominated the stage’s background.

“It was a good ceremony, wasn’t it?” Manaa’s father comments back at the family’s house, after the commemoration.

“It was, but maybe we should have printed more posters,” his wife replies. 

Dheisheh / Qassam Muaddi
A child holding a leaflet about Omar Manaa, at his 40-days-of-death commemoration ceremony in Dheisheh
[Qassam Muaddi /TNA]

“Kids, like Adam Ayyad and Amr Khmour, saw a role model and inspiration in Omar,” his sister says. “This is why his death devastated the entire camp, and especially the young ones."

In December, Israeli soldiers raided Omar Manaa’s home in Dheisheh. They forced the family into the living room, humiliated his parents, turned over furniture and arrested Omar's brother. 

According to his family, Omar couldn’t resist joining other young men who chased Israeli soldiers with stones and Molotov cocktails, in the alleys of Dheisheh after they left his house. He was killed with four bullets by withdrawing Israeli soldiers near the UNRWA school, at the camp’s entrance.

“The death of Omar left a big emptiness among all of us,” comments the teenager, walking ahead of the group of young people towards the entrance of Dheisheh. “Adam Ayyad was the one who felt it the most, as he was very close to Omar and admired him a lot, then Amr Khmour, who was the closest to Adam.”

The teenager stops in front of a large banner of his classmate’s portrait and stretches his arm up to touch it.

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Amr Khmour's friend in front of his portrait banner at the entrance of Dheisheh refugee camp [Qassam /TNA]

“I think that Adam and Amr were wrong because Omar wouldn't have wanted them to die, but to live on, and grow up to be more useful to Palestine in the future. This is what we should do,” the teenager eloquently makes his argument as he sits on a stone wall, amid the nodding heads of his surrounding friends, all of whom carry pin-buttons of Omar Manaa, Adam Ayyad and Amr Khmour’s pictures on their chests.

The young men come closer as the girls who walked behind join the group. One of them lights a cigarette and breathes in as The New Arab’s reporter closes the notebook and puts it in his backpack while pushing the camera behind his waist, signalling the end of the interview.

Only then, the teenage interviewee leaves behind his calm, low tone, stands up, and exclaims in a stressed voice: “If this is what life looks like at 15, I swear death is more merciful.”

The youngsters nod their heads again, this time ironically smiling, as they carelessly walk their way back to the narrow alleys that stream endlessly between grey cement walls, covered with mural paintings of smiling faces.

Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's correspondent in the West Bank. He co-published two books in French 'Terre Sainte, Guerre Sainte?' and  'Taybeh: Dernier village Chrétien de Palestine'. In 2021, he started the '7ara 36' blog in Arabic, featuring human stories from Palestine.

Follow him on Twitter: @QassaMMuaddi