Nablus, Palestine: January 17, 2016
Floating in this landscape of Palestinians, crammed into the municipality of Nablus, confined to the shoulders of the two mountains on either side, I am perhaps the sole Jewish resident other than the Jewish Palestinians (Samaritans) living at the summit of Mount Gerizim.
Being hosted by the friends and colleagues of the local civil society association, the Tanweer Palestinian Cultural Enlightenment Forum, I find my way to the third floor day after day. Each step is a small effort toward breaking out of a military occupation that has lasted since 1967, now 49 years. We are in what the Oslo agreement of 1993 calls “Sector A.” At the entrance to this city of 134,000 is the infamous checkpoint named after the nearest village Hawarra—called “Marsoum Hawarra” by the soldiers from Israel. With frequent closures of that primary entry point, the city resembles a ghetto as once enclosed the Jewish residents in Tsarist Russia.
This city, founded by the Roman Flavius some 2000 years ago as “Flavia Neapolis,” became Arabized as Nablus. It is known by the biblical association with Shechem, of 4,000 years, which is now the site of the Palestinian refugee camp of Balata.
Looking out from the balcony of my hostel room, some ruins of the old city are to be seen with their skin of vegetation. The major portion of the old city down the street of Shara Hittan are the markets of organic vegetables and fruits sold by shouting venders who insist that their wares are the least expensive. At about five shekels a kilo they make a good deal.
Each shop is a small chamber, often with arched roofs in stone. Actually, everything is built in stone, including the streets, which are only five meters wide, with cars plowing through the human traffic, sometimes in both directions. The contrast between Mercedes Benz cars slipping through the poorest of the poor in the old city shows not only the sharp disparities in income, but also the lack of interest by a public administration that is incapable of halting such traffic.
Political inertia is the general condition, generated by the Palestine Authority (PA) governing apparatus set up in Ramallah city by the Oslo Accords. The only apparent reason for its continued existence is the efficient security coordination that it provides Israel in hunting cells of resistance among the Palestinians themselves.
One hears a common complaint that the PA does nothing for the people. A general sense of pessimism is all-pervasive. The taxi driver who complained to me that the PA is a non-government was actually a policeman during the rest of the week. Even officials and employees of the PA will say the same. Meanwhile, the PA is provided with sufficient funds to pay 100,000 salaries in the West Bank, thus ensuring its survival for the moment.
From time to time disputes with Israel result in import tax revenues being withheld by the Israel State to the PA. Therefore, its employees, such as the police, continue working without salaries until the PA gives in and halts its legal actions at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. US pressure usually is applied as well. And after each such occasion, when the tax revenues are transferred, salaries are paid in full, giving some social backing to the political impasse.
Having become accustomed to the minus 10C daytime winters of Montral, the sunny 12C days of the Nablus winter resemble summer to me, except that after sunset the stone and cement housing here sucks the heat from your body. There is no residential central heating and warmth is only generated by propane gas burners or electric portable units, if you have them. Though we are situated in the mountains, there is no snow at all and the increasingly hot summers are signs of global warming.
Out on the street, I am easily identified as a non-Palestinian and elicit stares of curiosity and disbelief. Few visitors arrive during this current Intifada uprising, for random attacks on soldiers and Israeli civilians are a daily occurrence. Over the years, the shootings of Palestinian demonstrators and stone-throwers with live fire have taken a toll on the general emotional condition, making spontaneous knife-wielding assaults on checkpoint soldiers a common occurrence. The paranoid reaction of the military to any suspicious-looking Palestinian may result in his immediate execution, thus generating further popular revulsion—especially when knives are planted on the dead bodies.1
Nonetheless, I go shopping in the old-city markets, where the greeting “Welcome” is the best-known English word, and often the only word. With the accumulation of my Arabic numbers and food names, my efforts to feed myself have succeeded. The meaning of “welcome” may also have a further connotation—meaning that you should buy something, for otherwise you will be held in poor esteem. Poverty is endemic and unemployment is rampant, especially amongst university graduates: more than 60 percent! When befriended on the street by English-speakers, the inevitable question is about how to get immigration to Canada. It is sad that so many Palestinians would leave their country if almost any country would admit those under occupation, under siege in Gaza, or in the refugee camps in the surrounding countries.
At the Tanweer Forum, my workplace during my previous visit in 2011, there still remains a scene of desolation: the “Rachel Corrie” computer room that I worked to establish. That public facility was not spared when the soldiers raided at night on December 9th. They took all the hard drives away from the eight computers, leaving their shells idle. Managing to revive the office computer, we are able to resume the weekly transmission of the Internet radio news program on “Nurvo Resistica Radio (Italy),” which seems to have been the irritant that provoked the raid.
Introducing myself to friends of friends is somewhat problematic, since the soldiers are called “Yehudi” or “Jews” and my very Jewish name makes me question how to identify myself. “Doctor ibraheim” suffices but produces a perplexed look, since I am evidently not Arabic. Politicized friends, though, are very comfortable with “Dr. abraham.” When children shout out, “What is your name?”—the only English they know—I am at a loss to answer, so “Abie” suffices, except that it may set off a rhyme of A,B,C,D”.The frequent affirmation that Palestinians are ready to live with the Israelis in peace when the occupation is ended is true enough in my case, which provides a microcosm of what would be possible in this tormented land. My article published by Peace Magazine in 2014—“Israel: A Nation-State?” was entirely republished in Arabic by the major Palestinian newspaper Donia Al-Watan Voice, as an opinion piece. Considering that no major Canadian or Qubcois newspaper would do the same, it is an admirable democratic feature in Palestinian political culture that deserves attention.
What do the Palestinians hope will happen? Well, there are many answers. The first one is no answer at all, for there is a consensus that things will not change—except perhaps to get worse. The prospect of another reoccupation of the municipalities as the general, Prime Minister Sharon, did in 2001 is considered realistic. The Israel governments are expected to continue their rightward drift, to become either “fascist-lite or -hard.”
Meanwhile, in the Israeli public mind there is disillusionment with Prime Minister Netanyahu to a level of 71 percent, with a certain fraction preferring a more right-wing choice but the greater proportion seeking a move to the centre. The Palestinian Israelis, who have the right to vote and comprise 20 percent of the population, have previously voted for the Palestinian parties’ united front called the “Joint List,” which gained 13 seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Since only 50 percent of the Palestinian Israelis voted in the last election, an increased vote can produce a substantial bloc of seats that could be included in a coalition government that might hold the balance of power. However, the Palestinians in Nablus have little to do with the Israeli Palestinians, who are perceived to be pursuing their own interests alone.
Going beyond the general pessimism, the immediate political option centres around the recognition—or rather the non-recognition—of Palestine as a state. Even while such recognition is not expected to take place any time soon, it is considered the act of justice that is most lacking at present. However, the recognition of Palestine is not considered a solution in the context of a two-state solution. That would just be the beginning and not the end of the process expected. In the netherland of political prospects, the Right of Return for the seven million Palestinian refugees is considered a matter of principle, but one that the State of Israel would never even consider. Not even the Palestinian refugees from Syria, who are now dispersed for a second time, were considered for repatriation in their previous villages, which remain empty. Statements from the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy and even the Labour Party leader Herzog to that effect, were but fluff in the wind.
In the evenings, the sound of weapons fire echoes even more than the chants from the minaret towers during prayer times. We are between two mountains that produce an echo chamber—enchanting when one hears the singing from the male voices over the multiple loudspeakers, and disturbing when it is the turn of the automatic fire. One never knows why the guns are set off. Here next to the old city, it may be the threats of one clan against another, or it may be the celebration of a wedding; then again, it could be the celebration for the release of a prisoner or a simple test of a newly acquired weapon. When it sounds as if it is coming from the street below or the building next over—well, one does not go to the window to check it out.
In the evenings there are no police, since the Israel soldiers take over at night and conduct their incursions into the city to escort settlers coming to visit Jacob’s well (called Jacob’s tomb) or simply to surround a house to arrest a family member to join the 6,000 to 8,000 prisoners. I hear different numbers, since recent arrests have totaled some 3,000 since the uprising escalated after October 1st. In addition, of course, more than a thousand were shot with bullets and others with rubber-coated steel bullets. To be targeted, one need not have been throwing a stone, and in any case there is no account of soldiers being injured by stones.
In a condition of general despair, it is natural to despair, yet when there is no hope, change is almost inevitable, since current conditions are unacceptable. Nothing (and everything) is possible.
As compared to the mood in 2011 or 2003 when I first arrived in Nablus, there no longer prevails a paralysis of fear, as was the case in 2003 when the Mukata government complex of Yassar Arafat was demolished. At that time, armoured personnel carriers roamed the market street of the Balata refugee camp with impunity and Israel’s bulldozers dumped an earthen five-foot high obstruction at the entrance and exit of the Balata camp, as well as on the main street running through the city—barriers that remained in place for a year thereafter. Each new generation brings with it the hopes and desires for change, as well as its martyrs. Since October, more than 190 of various generations have been lost and buried. Whether the prospects for peace will be buried alongside them remains to be determined.
I’ve been immersed in the Palestinian mindset here in Nablus for a month and have another four months to go. On the other hand, any analysis of the Zionist mind, aside from the Israel Jewish opposition, is more like attempting psychoanalysis. How else, for example, is one to explain the plight of the admirable and exceptional young woman Tair Kaminer, who is now going to military prison for refusing service in the so-called, “Israel Defence Force”?
The mainstream, though, still holds the opinion that force makes rights and, since Israel has sufficient military force, it shall take what rights it deems necessary, even if not essential to its well-being. The Zionist mind does not see in a manner judged logical by any general consensus other than its own. Take, for example, the Gaza strip. While having withdrawn from the occupation there, Israel still occupies Gaza’s waters offshore, so as to take possession of the undersea gas fields there. When fishing boats pursue fish stocks a little too close to the gas fields, they are shot. Forget about the people who want to eat something.2
If the majority of the United Nations General Assembly understands the slogan “Free Palestine” to mean a call for the liberation of the Palestinian People, the Zionist mentality sees “Free Palestine” to mean: Just take everything for free and never mind anybody else, especially the Palestinians. I’ve heard respected Israel diplomats affirm on Geneva television that Gaza was being treated in a humanitarian way by allowing 100 truckloads of food and materials into Gaza—though the minimum necessary for its now two million people is 400 trucks a day.
As for the recent UNGA resolution calling for the respect of Palestinian natural resources, well, not even Canada’s new Liberal government voted in favor, despite the overwhelming majority support from the world.
When will they ever learn? Certainly not on their own. It’s time to teach the Zionists what respect means.
abraham Weizfeld is a peace and justice activist who lives in Montreal and works to support the rights of Palestinians.