Palestine and life under occupation
A guest writer living in the West Bank sent us an account of the occupation
“Be careful around here, this place is full of Arabs.” The sentence had caught me off guard. I was in the car park of a petrol station in the West Bank. Close to the Palestinian village of Salfit and just outside the entrance to Ariel, one of Israel’s largest settlements, all of which are illegal under international law. It was one of the many places where an uneasy coexistence occurs between the settlers and the Palestinians as both use the couple of shops at the intersection. The signs are in Hebrew and Arabic but the Israeli flag and the patrol of heavily armed IDF military vehicles reveals the real balance of power and the ways in which it is enforced.
The man speaking is an Israeli taxi driver who lives in Tel Aviv. He had misunderstood my efforts to hitch a lift to Salfit from a passing Palestinian vehicle and is now warning about the dangers of the Arab population who he describes as “crazy” and “ready to kill”. The ignorance and prejudice is enough to raise my anger, but conscious of the nearby soldiers and the penchant of the Israelis for deporting foreigners at the first sign of Palestinian solidarity, I instead make my excuses and walk away from the man, choosing to make my way to Salfit on foot instead of staying to be angered further.
Except I can’t walk to the village, because I am stopped just a few hundred metres up the road at one of the many Israeli military checkpoints that litter the West Bank. The conscripted soldiers stand in front of me like the armed children that they are, confused by my stated intended journey and eager to warn me of the “dangers” of entering a Palestinian village. As someone who has spent more than a year living in Palestine I’m perfectly aware that by far the most likely cause of concern upon entering the village is that I’ll be offered so many cups of tea my journey will become considerably delayed. Eventually their superior turns up in one of the green bulletproof people carriers that bully their way along the roads of the West Bank and, taking one look at me, he issues a command in Hebrew and drives off again. His command is translated to me by one of the soldiers on duty. I’ve been denied access to the road on foot. No reason is given. This is an inconvenience — only a short lived one, as it turns out, when a Palestinian vehicle pulls up shortly afterwards and offers me a lift. But it is nothing compared to the daily hassle, intimidation and abuse that Palestinians have to endure at these checkpoints, often when attempting to complete an activity no more mundane than getting to work or school.
To explain, I have been living in Nablus since the beginning of 2011. I work with an educational NGO which offers services to ‘at risk’ youth in the city and the surrounding villages and refugee camps. Nablus was a centre of resistance in the Second Intifada and as such was literally closed off from the rest of the world by Israeli checkpoints in the years during and after. The effect this had on the city and its people is enormous. Not only was the economic effect profound, the psychological aspect was intense. Nablus is like a concentrated version of the rest of the West Bank: isolated without access to its own borders, and its natural resources plundered by nearby Israeli settlements. The feeling of being not only occupied, but increasingly marginalised by aggressive settlement expansion, is seriously damaging to the Palestinians.
In a place where lawlessness ruled for years on end, where an entire metropolitan population was contained and where the military raids of an occupying force became – and remain – the norm, an overbearing sense of resentful entrenchment takes hold. Nablus is the biggest city in the West Bank but sometimes feels like the smallest town. The importance of social connections is elevated, even more so than is normal in Arab society. These links are what helped people and families survive, and their importance cannot be understated. People’s business is Nablus’ business. People’s lives are public.
Nablus is changing, it’s true to say. The checkpoints that once formed what Palestinians referred to as “the chokehold” of the city have relaxed and the city is opening up. It still remains one of the most conservative places in the West Bank – the city is dry and so lacks the bars and clubs of Ramallah, Bethlehem or even Jenin. The religious influence is strong and it remains one of the few parts of the West Bank with a sizeable number of Hamas supporters, even if most of them have learned to be quiet about their affiliation. But the signs of progress are everywhere. A cinema resides in the large shopping mall in the centre of town, while the students of An-Najah university sit at mixed gender tables in local cafes smoking shisha pipes and listening to Arabic hip-hop. But life here, as across Palestine, is still defined by the occupation.
The stories reach me on a daily basis. A friend in a nearby village was woken in the middle of the night by screams from within her own house. She didn’t know whether it was a settler attack or an IDF raid, but neither would lead to a pleasant outcome. It turned out to be the latter and she is forced to watch as the IDF search the property for weapons. This despite the fact that the village lies in ‘Area A’ under the Oslo accords and so is, in theory, Palestinian-controlled.
The IDF leave. But she doesn’t have to wait long. The following week, the settler attack she feared takes place. They march down en masse from the nearby settlement, protected by the Israeli army, setting fire to cars and olive trees as they go. This counts as getting off lightly. Settlers are militarily protected when they take this kind of action, and almost never prosecuted. I have seen with my own eyes the racist graffiti they have left behind in other attacks, as well as the injuries sustained by villagers who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have also seen the remains of mosques that have been burned to the ground by the settlers.
Another friend tells me about the time he spent in Israeli prison. It’s an all-too-common story. Most of the adult males I meet have been inside at some point. The lucky ones are charged, often with ludicrous offences, and serve a sentence – they are lucky because at least they are released. The less fortunate become stuck in the cycle of “administrative detention”, the process under which Israel detains hundreds of Palestinians a year without charging them with any crime. The future for these Palestinians remains unknown.
As I arrive at a meeting in Balata, the biggest of the three refugee camps surrounding the city, an Israeli F-16 fighter jet breaks the sound barrier in the sky overhead. The result is an enormous booming noise that shakes the ground, knocks over shelves and rattles the glass in the windows around me — though luckily, this time, they don’t shatter. It’s not the first “sound bomb” I’ve heard but I still instinctively bring my hands up to my ears. The children playing in the narrow street in front of me don’t even flinch and continue their games as if nothing had happened. The graffiti on the wall next to them reads, in English, “existence is resistance”. It’s a phrase I never fully understood before I moved here. For the villager tending the olive trees her family has worked for hundreds of years despite daily intimidation and violence, for the schoolteacher I met who gets stopped for a minimum of an hour every day while driving from his home to his workplace with his autistic son in the passenger seat, for the refugee whose grandfather was driven out of a hometown on the other side of “The Wall” decades ago – the simple act of existing, of carrying on and of refusing to give up hope is the most powerful tool of resistance they have at their disposal.
I see these things and I hear these stories in two different languages every day. Nablus, and Palestine, has become my home. To pretend life is perfect here would be an absurdity – there are many problems, of which most exist as a direct result of the occupation. But amongst the problems, amongst the angry disillusionment of large sections of the youth, amongst the skills drain of an aid-based economy, despite the reactive nature of a population raised on conflict there is hope and – most of all – there is resistance. In every successful olive harvest, politically motivated piece of graffiti and every bold, intelligent Palestinian who stands up and refuses to be defined by the occupation and the restrictions it imposes, there is resistance.