Stories of life under occupation in Belfast Palestine Arts Festival

Ahead of the Belfast Palestine Arts Festival, which starts this Sunday, Michael Jackson speaks to festival organiser David Callander and Palestinian photojournalist Mohammad Al-Azza

Aida refugee camp was established after Israeli independence. This photo will be on display in the Resist to Exist exhibition, part of the Belfast Palestine Arts Festival 
Aida refugee camp was established after Israeli independence. This photo will be on display in the Resist to Exist exhibition, part of the Belfast Palestine Arts Festival  Aida refugee camp was established after Israeli independence. This photo will be on display in the Resist to Exist exhibition, part of the Belfast Palestine Arts Festival 

BELFAST is set to play host to an array of Palestinian talent as the Belfast Palestine Arts Festival launches at the Crescent Arts Centre this Sunday.

The festival will feature a diverse programme of free events including film screenings, exhibitions and dance. Sunday's launch will include a traditional Palestinian dance performance from the Lajee Dabke Dance Troupe from the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, who will then deliver a talk on their life and work.

“The idea of the festival was that it could bring people together in a positive way – people who wanted to do something in a creative way,” one of the organisers, David Callander, explained. “We wanted to give a platform for Palestinans who don’t really have a voice the opportunity to have a western-city exhibition.”

Callander believes the event will give people a greater understanding of the lives of Palestinian people.

“People will be able to speak to them person to person, to understand what is going on in the West bank and in Palestine,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it. That’s where a lot of the power is – hearing the stories person to person.”

One of the festival’s noteworthy events, titled Resist to Exist, takes place on July 26. This is a photographic exhibition and film screening from award-winning film-maker and photojournalist Mohammad Al-Azza, who was born in and lives in Aida refugee camp.

Conditions in the camp are harsh, Al-Azza (26) told me last week on the phone from Scotland, where his work was on show as part of an international tour.

Set up as home to Palestinians fleeing Jerusalem and Hebron after the establishment of Israel in 1948, there is overcrowding, a poor water supply and extreme poverty. The camp, which is home to around 6,000 people according to the UN, is surrounded by military observation towers and part of Israel's huge – and hugely controversial – 'separation wall'.

“The occupation makes it more difficult for refugees,” he explained. "It’s not easy when the soldiers come into the camp – especially in the middle of the night. In the last three years it has been very difficult. They’ve killed a number of children, and [earlier] in 2016 they killed a 19-year-old student on his way back from university to the camp; they shot him in the chest and he died."

Al-Azza said that since the Second Intifada – the Palestinian uprising which began in 2000 against the Israeli occupation – Aida camp "has become one of the most attacked places by the Israeli army".

"Even if they don’t come to the camp they shoot tear gas into people’s houses.”

Despite the conditions, Aida is home to the Lajee Cultural Centre, where Al-Azza works as director of the Arts and Media unit. Started in 2000 by a group of volunteers, the centre has helped create a community garden and a football field, and it teaches a wide range of skills to the youth of the camp, including dance, music, environmental skills and photography – in fact it was here that, in 2005, Al-Azza himself learnt photography.

“The camp needs this kind of organisation,” he said. “It helps the children and older generations. It is very important for the community.”

Al-Azza teaches photography and videography at the Lajee Centre, but his own work has another important function. “When there’s invasions into the camp or the city it’s important for us to catch it in the moment and show what is happening in this land,” he said. “A lot of journalists don’t do that; they are scared to do it.”

Three years ago he himself was shot in the face while photographing an Israeli army incursion into the camp from the balcony of the Lajee centre – the centre has consistently been the target of Israeli military attacks, he said.

“They enter our organisation; they occupy the centre; they don’t allow the workers to go in, and they keep people locked inside,” he said.

“They put snipers on the roof of the centre and they have broken lots of equipment inside the offices. They know our organisation works with youth and focuses on growing their skills, teaching them and educating them. They are not happy to see Palestinians becoming more creative and reaching the world outside of Palestine. They want to break our organisation any way they can.”

Despite this, the centre has reached countries throughout the world with its work. Al-Azza said coming to Belfast was a great opportunity.

“The pictures I’m bringing to Belfast will be showing the last three years in Aida camp – showing what life is like in the camp and what has been happening in the past three years, especially in relation to the attacks from the Israeli army.

"We are happy and lucky to be here because sometimes it’s not easy for Palestinians to leave the country. It is very important for us because it a chance to show the people the reality of our life.”

:: Belfast Palestine Arts Festival, July 24 to August 9. For details see belfastpalestineartsfestival.org.