Living in a cage: On jail, running and the Shuafat Camp

As a conscientious objector, being confined in prison made Moriel Rothman’s chest fill with pain and panic. A year later, the feeling resurfaced while visiting Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem.

By Moriel Rothman

A man walks toward the military checkpoint at the entrance of Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem, December 27, 2011 (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)
A man walks toward the military checkpoint at the entrance of Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem, December 27, 2011 (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Last October, I spent 20 days in Israeli military jail for refusing to serve in the army. I got a brief sense then of what it is like to live in a cage, to have my every move scrutinized, to have to request permission to move, to fear that if I made the wrong move, my time in the cage would be increased. I felt like my soul and my body were both short of breath. The need to not think too hard: because if I thought too hard about the fact that my freedom is entirely in the hands of others, my chest started to fill with pain and panic. And this was all in 20 days.

Soon after being released from jail, I took up extreme-distance running. I never thought of my running as directly related to jail until now, a few days before my first 61 km ultramarathon and almost exactly a year since I was put under arrest for refusing. Or maybe it was a few days ago that I first felt the link when visiting the Shuafat Refugee Camp.

An inside view of the military terminal located at the entrance to the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, December 27, 2011. (Photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)
An inside view of the military terminal located at the entrance to the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, December 27, 2011. (Photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

“This is a jail.” That was the first thought that came to my mind as we passed through the checkpoint which separates between the 20,000 Palestinian residents of the Shuafat Refugee Camp (technically inside the Jerusalem municipal borders) and the rest of what Israeli officials often call “United Jerusalem” or “Greater Jerusalem.” Aside from this checkpoint and another checkpoint on the West Bank side of the camp, the camp is surrounded by what Palestinians often call “the racist separation wall” or “the racist apartheid wall.” (Quick survey: Which concept seems more fictional, “United Jerusalem” or “the racist apartheid wall?” Quick epistemological reflection: Perhaps every narrative is not equally true?) This place is a jail. I’m not the first one to think this. When I shared that reflection with Mohammad, the kind, slender man who showed us around the camp, he nodded, of course, right answer: this is a jail.

The narrow, crowded roads are littered with trash. Fact: Israel doesn’t pick up trash here.

Trash piles up in Shuafat Refugee Camp, Jerusalem. August 26, 2007 (Photo: Activestills.org)
Trash piles up in Shuafat Refugee Camp, Jerusalem. August 26, 2007 (Photo: Activestills.org)

On these narrow, crowded roads, if someone gets in a car crash, there will be no ambulance to take them out. Feeling: Israel doesn’t pick up trash here.

Feeling: my chest starts to fill with pain and panic. I want to run (literally). I’ve been here for a total of 20 minutes. I imagine living here. If I wanted to run, I guess that I could jog over trash mounds and through speeding cars, knowing that if I were to get hit, I may bleed to death before friends could get me into their own car, through the crowded, narrow streets, over the trash piles, along the wall which surrounds the village entirely, and outside of the only exit from the refugee camp and into a hospital Ramallah.

On my way, I would pass the settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, built on land that used to belong to Shuafat. I would pass the open space, the parks, the children’s playgrounds. In the Shuafat Refugee Camp, there used to be one playground. It was demolished to make room for the wall. No playing in jail. When I was in jail last October, we rolled up a shirt and made it into a soccer ball, and kicked it around for 30 seconds under the jailers saw us and began shrieking at us to stop. I think they threw one guy into solitary confinement for talking back, or threatened to. I’m not sure, because I was released that weekend, back to my real life in which I had the right and ability to play.

A Palestinian child sitting in front of a section of the Separation Wall in the refugee camp of Shuafat, East Jerusalem, December 27, 2011. (Photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)
A Palestinian child sitting in front of a section of the Separation Wall in the refugee camp of Shuafat, East Jerusalem, December 27, 2011. (Photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

There was talk in the past months in the media about whether or not Israel should release the few hundred Palestinian prisoners held in its jails as a way to jumpstart the “peace process.” But Israel doesn’t hold a few hundred Palestinian prisoners in its jails: it holds hundreds of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in its jails. Jails like the Shuafat Refugee Camp, situated inside of United Jerusalem (but for the racist apartheid wall).

This piece is a poor polemic: it has no sweeping conclusion. Just that I feel real tightness in my chest and shortness of breath after spending a few minutes in the Shuafat refugee camp/jail.

Moriel Rothman is an American-Israeli writer, poet and activist. He is a member of the All That’s Left Collective, recently moved to Tel Aviv, and blogs independently at www.thelefternwall.com.