Me, Larry and Louise.
Negotiating a broken light socket fitting, jutting out into the hallway, and an overturned plastic chair blocking what looked an otherwise disused stairwell, we made our way up to the hostel on the first floor.
Osama had driven us to the hostel through the wet evening streets of Nablus in his beaten up Peugeot, all the while frantically gesticulating, trying to impress on us the severity of the situation in this city, perhaps seeing us as his or Nablus’s only chance to share a Palestinian perspective with some internationals. With one eye on the road and one arm on the back of the passenger seat, turning to talk to us in the back seat, Osama told us of the closures, the curfews, the checkpoints and the difficulty of moving about freely. Between narrowly avoiding oncoming cars as he occasionally veered into the opposite lane he told us of the nightly Israeli military incursions, the rocket attacks on the refugee camps, the shootings and assassinations, the house demolitions, the funerals and the loss of innocent lives. But for all we were told perhaps the most upsetting thing for me was to see this desperate attempt to squeeze as much information as possible into what was no more than a 10 minute car journey. Most, if not all, Palestinians have shocking stories to tell, and are more than willing to share their opinions about the occupation and the hardship it has created, but nowhere as much as Nablus have I felt that this to be a need and certainly never one so desperate. Osama questioned us, “What life is this? Where is my dignity? Where is my dignity? And what of my son? What life is there for him?” We had no answers. All we could do was sit solemnly and nod, the windscreen wipers jolting back and forth as we continued through the wet streets. My mind wandering, I remembered that very morning when we had come through Hawara checkpoint, just to the south of the city. As we passed through wire mesh walkways, not unlike the pens used for livestock herding before a final despatching at the abattoir, and crossed a wasteland to where Nablus bound minibus taxis waited in muddy pot-holed car park, I watched an old lady, perhaps of grandmother age, tiptoe through sloppy mud to a wheel spinning taxi, its back end sliding out down the slippery dirt mounds. The old lady hitched her traditional style black embroidered dress, at the same time trying to pass her plastic bagged wares to a fellow passenger, finally being dragged aboard before the mud sprayed taxi bounced and skidded off across the wasteland rank. I thought of my own grandmother in a similar scenario, humbled by the relative immobility of old age and humiliated by a blind oppressive system that continues to punish the innocent in ways that are slowly becoming an excepted norm. While the Palestinians continue to put up with life as it is, to see it anew with an outsiders perspective is shocking. It simply isn’t right. Osama’s question came back to me then as it always will whenever the immense disparity between freedom and oppression makes itself even subtly apparent. Where is the dignity? What life is this?
The hostel’s reception desk, tucked away in a dingy corner of a strip lit room, was dead apart from where between nicotine yellowed walls the proprietor sat, stooped over a cigarette and a game of cards with another of the guests. A television set flickered and chattered away, ignored in the corner, and from an ashtray on the card table a column of Brownian smoke rose from the lodger’s unstubbed butt. Creaking out of his low chair, and shuffling across the room he took a key from the wall behind the desk and beckoned us to follow him. The better of the two rooms we were shown had what looked to be a relatively new a bullet-hole in the window. Broken reflected light from the florescent on the rear wall accentuated the fissures emanating from the crude hole, and a dent in the opposite wall betrayed the bullets trajectory. “Don’t worry.” Osama told us, “It’s just a stray bullet, probably from children throwing stones at soldiers from the roof.” With that and a recommendation that we didn’t go out, just to be on the safe side, Osama left us. Deciding on a supermarket purchased bread and hommous dinner and an early night, we took Osama’s advice.
Later, back in the smoke-filled reception room I sat with Samer, a construction worker from Hebron, in the south of the West Bank. Over the game of cards he continued to play with the proprietor, communicating in broken Arabic and English I learnt that he had no choice but to stay in the hostel during the week due to the difficulty in travel between Hebron and Nablus. Hebron would be just an hours drive away, unhindered, but with at least three main Israeli military checkpoints, and the further possibility of “flying checkpoints”, a system of permanent structures manned only on what seems a random basis, travel has become extremely difficult with no guarantee of reaching work on time, if at all. This, coupled to the rise in oil prices and the longer tortuous routes Palestinians are forced to take around any Israeli territory, including the illegal West Bank settlements, has become a serious issue for travel between all of the West Bank’s major cities and regions. This inefficiency of flow through the West Bank, these restrictive measures upon money, trade and people, has to be looked upon as a very shrewd move by Israel that has a very predictable outcome; a slow death for the Palestinian economy and a gradual chipping away at any chance of a viable Palestinian state. Looked at in terms of Nature, impeding blood circulation between body organs is a sure fire way of killing any organism.
At least the closures and checkpoints benefit hostels. The dribs and drabs of tourists though Nablus are certainly too few to keep the hostel industry afloat. In the centre of the city the tourist information centre is now used as mission control for Nablus’s street cleaning operations. We dropped in just to share the fact of our tourist status only to be met with apparent confusion and asked if we wanted the Turkish Bath, Nablus’s biggest attraction. When we again tried to make ourselves understood, we were just met with a shaking head, a smile, and asked if we wanted tea.
Just a short walk through the bustling new city reveals obvious signs of ongoing violence. Bullet dents in shops’ steel shutters, shattered, bullet pierced windows in some of the high rise buildings, bill board sized posters of young and proud Kalashnikov toting “militants”, the latest to be killed or assassinated by the Israeli military; one even of a father with his arm around the shoulder of, presumably, his son, not older than 12 years old and bearing an AK47 machine gun. In the old city, these “martyr” bill posters can be found on every free wall and shop shutter, the older sunlight faded faces progressively covered with those of new victims. I can’t help but feel that these serious posters lend further an underlying oppressive air to the everyday comings and goings of an otherwise culturally peaceful society. While I understand the natural principle of action and reaction, these young militants must understand that their activity can only ever at best be a gesture of resistance, never the real thing.
Due to its geographical location in the mountainous north of the West Bank, Nablus was at one time a stronghold of the West Bank Palestinian resistance whose militants posed a real problem to Israeli troops during the second Intifada. Now, however, the grinding occupation, closure, siege, and continuing violence has seen this resistance all but crushed, and large parts of the city’s infrastructure damaged with little hope of near future repair. The destruction that Israel has caused the city, both infrastructurally and socially, in retaliation for the actions of relatively few Palestinian militants really amounts to a collective punishment of the city’s population, a population that still live in fear of nightly Israeli military incursions, and even, as a visiting friend experienced last year, sonic boundary breaking Israeli fighter jets flying just hundreds of feet above Nablus city rooftops. I hate to think of the effect these deafening sonic booms have upon the developing inner ear of any young child. Beyond 10 o’clock in the evening the city’s streets are abandoned to Israeli soldiers and whoever they manage to taunt into a showdown. In the narrow alleyways of the old city, Israeli soldiers have been known, locals say, to shout out to anyone in range, “Mujahideen. Show yourselves and fight.” Any rise, usually from stone throwing youths, will be met with live ammunition and more often than not new statistics to add to the ever growing discrepancy between Israeli and Palestinian casualties. The fight, slowly but surely, is becoming a one sided campaign that not only represents continued harassment of the local Palestinian population and provokes disenfranchised youths into bloody confrontations; this fight is even further polarising the impressionable minds of teenage Israeli soldiers, youths that grow up believing popular right wing media and what life in the military instils – hatred for a perceived enemy.
Earlier in the day I had visited Al Lod Charitable Society in Nablus’s Asker refugee camp. Asker camp along with the infamous “Balata”, are among the most frequently targeted areas on the Israeli military’s agenda, and where any trouble can rapidly escalate. These camps are the usual sites of stone, Molotov cocktail, and gunfire exchange between angry yet apathetic Palestinian youths in disbelief of their ability to affect social change through peaceful means, and young indoctrinated Israeli soldiers. It was, in fact, the riot in Balata camp following the funeral of a youth killed by an Israeli sniper in 2000, that is partly attributed to the sparking of the second Intifada. I had been sent to photograph some of the donations and projects funded by Muslim Aid UK, an NGO that channels money, food, and education to Al Lod and similar organisations. I sat with Jamal in his office at the Al Lod centre while, over a cup of tea, he showed me some of the centre’s work: charitable donations of meat and money during the Eid festival; computer and Internet facilities for the surrounding camp neighbourhoods; educational and school materials for local children; even a “Charitable Cheese Project”, distributing 400 tons of cheese to camp residents. Besides charitable donations the centre is also involved in art workshop programs that help children deal with internalised emotional issues. Jamal showed me a collection of some of the art produced. One workshop was based around each child producing two drawings; one of a world in which the children would like to live, and one with life as it is in the camp. Flicking through the pages I was met time and time again with the same, or similar images; the idealism of young minds, rainbowed pastures and sunny hillsides, large rabbits eating carrots from a child’s outstretched hand, kite flying and park scenes – nothing materialistic, simple desires. Contrasting these images to the scenes of perceived camp life, green men chain-sawing trees, tanks demolishing homes, barbed wire, walls, rocket launchers, and war planes, a faceless brutality, it is austerely apparent that the occupation is forging young minds warped to the extremity. As I played with local children, called in off the streets to model for a impromptu photo shoot, some of whom had probably produced the drawings I had seen, I realised that these are the Palestinians in need of real help. These are the children whose only contact with Israelis is with armed soldiers sent to demolish a neighbour’s house, or arrest and drag away a youth in the middle of the night. These are the children amongst which real seeds of anger are being sown. All the while Israel is busy tackling its own perceived “security threat”, it is in the process of creating another perhaps more real future threat. If this brutal contact between Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers, this inequality, is propagated much further into the future, Israel will only respond with ever more extreme measures; measures that will not only further escalate violence, but measures that will portray the State of Israel’s already tainted human rights track record as beyond all international acceptance. This further alienation of an already insecure state is not only dangerous; it is far from being in the global community’s interests. Without concerted effort and political pressure, Israel is itself in danger of becoming a “rogue” state.
That night, as I lay in bed, I could hear the distant bangs and echoes of stun grenades and bullet split air reverberate up and down streets and alleyways. Jeeps passed by outside, given away by the whirring of off-road tyres on tarmac, and their familiar throaty engine tone. I could not help but think that, in the morning, after sleep has come to us all, maybe, just maybe in those awakening moments, before the reality of the world we live in comes flooding back, before all the complex interactions that have formed the evolution of our social structures, there is a moment when all is well, when peace seems the only possible way, and every sole is equal. If only we could hold on to this innocence and let it permeate into our day.