A Journey into the Heart of Palestine

 

The trip through the West Bank is one that for me started in Tel Aviv –the so-called “Bubble” of Israel- and brought me to Nablus –the heart of the Second Intifada and one of the souls of the Palestinian community. The trip through the West Bank is a trip through time and space, a trip that brings to experience reality in its purest and most painful form, and that leads to the discovery of a fascinating land with a unique history and a troubled present.

Driving out of Tel Aviv along Route 5, the first grasp of reality and the first sign that outside “the Bubble” there is a different world, is given by the remains of the Palestinian villages that once constellated this rocky land and that were uprooted by Israel in 1948. The Zionist project of state building for the Jewish people, in fact, turned into one of destruction and exile for the Palestinians living that same territory, and today the spars ruins of the Palestinian houses that were dotting the land testify how unfounded was the Zionist narrative of “a land without people for a people without land”. That land –call it Palestine or Eretz Ysrael- did indeed have a people. A people that had been living and working there for generations and that in 1948 saw itself uprooted in the name of the Zionist national dream.

Today, however, only a few signs of those ancient Palestinian villages remain. Since the time the first houses were demolished and its inhabitants expelled, in fact, the Israeli government has always been concerned about cancelling any possible proof that a Palestinian life ever existed there. As it can be easily understood, the aim of this policy was twofold: deny the legitimation of the Palestinian nationalist claims and foster among the Israeli public a misperception and a misunderstanding of the other’s history that still persists today.

It is this misunderstanding and this lack of awareness that can only explain one of the most inhuman contradictions that the State of Israel has brought to life within its borders: the Separation Barrier. Proposed by the Sharon government in 2002, the Wall was built by Israel to restrict the movement of the Palestinians and to isolate Palestinian communities, obstructing in this way their economic development and their socio-political interactions. In order to move freely across the areas separated by the Wall, in fact, Palestinians must hold special permits that though are not easy to be obtained and are often denied by the Israeli authorities.

The Barrier, which is 709 km long and alternates parts of barbed wire with parts of concrete wall, runs through the West Bank and in many tracts it deviates from the Green Line (the line that according to the UN partition plan of 1947 should mark the eastern border of Israel), passing through Palestinian villages and Palestinian agricultural land that Israel has deliberately included within its territory.

Such brutal appropriation and dispossession has given rise to waves of protests on part of Palestinians but also on part of Israeli NGOs and Israeli citizens who refuse to associate themselves with Israel’s de facto colonial policies. The international community also has on more than one occasion raised its (perhaps too feeble) voice against the Wall, but not even the ruling of the ICJ –that in 2004 declared the Wall a violation of international law- was enough to deter the Israeli government. Today, the Wall is still under construction and is regarded by the Israeli government as the country’s future border.

While travelling through the West Bank towards Nablus, the painful reality of the Wall can be seen in Qalqilya, a Palestinian city closed by the Wall on three sides and whose economy has been unavoidably damaged by this forced isolation.

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Past Qalqilya, it does not take much to reach the Israeli military checkpoint that marks the entrance into area C of the West Bank, there where administration falls in the exclusive hands of Israel. At the time of the Oslo Agreement in fact – when the handshake between Arafat and Rabin let the world believe for a while that the conflict might end for real and that a Palestinian State could finally emerge from the ashes of the Naqba – the West Bank was divided in three areas: area A (18% of the West Bank), under the control of the Palestinian Authority; area B (22% of the West Bank), under joint Palestinian civilian control and Israeli security control; and area C (60% of the West Bank) under exclusive Israeli control. At that time, the division into the three areas was aimed at realizing a gradual transfer of power to the PA and was meant as temporary. However, with the collapse of the agreements and a pacification of relations that never came, the division created in Oslo has crystallized (thus making extremely problematic the territorial definition of a future Palestinian state) and the lives of those 300,000 Palestinians who live in area C have turned into a daily struggle. In area C, in fact, Israel limits the settlement, construction and development for Palestinian people and Palestinian towns, and conditions of living for Palestinians are deliberately kept as rudimentary as possible.

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A first understanding of the Palestinian reality in the West Bank starts from the outskirts of Nablus. Here, the poor investment in public services and infrastructures is counterbalanced by considerable investments in private houses, whose construction sites prove the region’s possibilities of economic growth and industrial expansion that remain though largely underexploited.

This perception of an economic potential that is forcibly kept under-expressed -as if a lid was kept on top of a pot of boiling water whose vapour seeks a way out- is a feeling that will accompany me in any moment through the discovery of Nablus, of its touristic beauty and its hard-working people.

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It is on the way to the city centre that me and my fellow travellers are joined by Amir and Mohammed, two Palestinian brothers who have guided us to discover and understand the deepest essence of this magical city.

Even before getting off the bus and looking at the city through the window glass, the atmosphere of Nablus is there to be perceived. It is there in the rocks of its old minarets, in the veils of its women, in the Arabic names of its shops, and in the yellow and black flags (symbolizing respectively al-Fatah and the memory of the Naqba) that wave over its streets. It is as if the city was attracting the eyes with its beautiful mosques and its colourful fruit stalls to then embrace you and make all five senses get lost in its hug. Entering Nablus is like surrendering to the charming chant of a beautiful mermaid that wants to conquer your heart.

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Out of the bus and immersed in the city’s scents and noises, the first stop is at Jakob’s Well, an Orthodox church that not only represents one of the holiest places in Samaria but also stands as reminder of how Nablus manages to rest on a peaceful coexistence between its Muslim majority and its Christian and Samaritan minorities.

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Opposite to the church, though, a far less peaceful reality exists: that of the Balata refugee camp. The largest one of the three refugee camps that surround Nablus, the Balata camp was planned in the ‘50s to host all those Palestinians who had lost their homes during the Naqba. Today, the camp is home to 40,000 people and the UNRWA is the agency responsible for services such as education (the camp has 2 schools for boys and 2 schools for girls) and health. Nevertheless, the funds at disposal of the agency to run the camp have been constantly decreasing over the past years, and this reduction in the budget (that has unavoidably brought with it a reduction in the services provided), together with overcrowding and an unemployment rate of 80%, is the source of deep problems and tensions that make life in the camp a somber tunnel with no way out.

Aware as anyone is of the existence of refugee camps, only walking through the Balata camp could I become truly aware aware of what life within these camps really is and means for the thousands of Palestinians who have found themselves stuck in a conflict they did not seek – reaping the rotten fruits of a hatred they did not seed in the first place.

The first emotional impact, as soon as I set a foot into the area, comes from the many posters of Palestinian boys as young as I am (if not younger) whom the war has taken forever. Young boys who not only had lost their family’s homes and land but who eventually lost their life. They look at me from the walls, with guns in their hands and Arabic phrases commemorating their martyrdom. It is like being hit in plain face by a reality that is simply too painful to be completely understood. And with the confrontation with this reality too many questions come: what do fight and sacrifice mean in a context of occupation, hopelessness and subjugation? Where does martyrdom bring to? How can it ever advance the cause of an oppressed community?

It is with these questions left to float unanswered in my mind that I find myself in the middle of the market’s street, the main street of the camp where the smell of spices and that of meat compete with each other and make it impossible to decide which one is stronger.

Following Amir through the narrow and nameless streets of the camp, I also come to realize all the tension and suspicion with which the entire outside world is perceived in the camp: the impressively strong community and family bonds that shape life within the camp’s walls are counterbalanced by a basic (and understandable) hostility towards everything and everyone who is outside. And my condition of outsider is marked by the little stone with which a kid hits me in the back as I walk.

Back to the entrance gate, I feel as if coming out from a reality made of suffering and strife that words cannot express and only senses can grasp. I feel no UNRWA webpage will ever be able to express what life as a refugee is, and that only getting lost in the narrow streets of a permanent camp like Balata can one understand alienation, anger, and hopelessness.

After the Balata camp, we head to Tell Balata – an archaeological site surrounded by olive trees and cactus plants. The site contains the ruins of Shikmu -one of the most ancient Palestinian loss cities- and stands there in the open field to testify the historical and undeniable roots that the Palestinian people have in this land. Roots that no government can ever cancel and that archaeology is helping bringing to light.

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After lunch in a typical restaurant where we are given the opportunity to discover the spicy and delicious taste of the local food, comes what has been to me perhaps the most interesting part of the tour: the old city of Nablus, with its six neighbourhoods that call to be discovered in an endless succession of narrow streets.  Following Amir in the heart of the old city, we climb to the rooftop of his grandparents’ house, and from there the view is simply breath-taking. All around, the old and light-coloured houses stick close one to the other and make a blatant contrast with the Israeli military base which can be spotted on top of the hill – a reminder of the precariousness of peace in Palestine. Through the stories of Amir, then, we are guided in a journey through time, back to that bloody 2002 when the Second Intifada was in full sway and Nablus was militarily occupied and kept under the constant threat of Israeli snipers. The entire old city bears the signs of the war of that time. Each family has its own stories of destruction and sufferings, each roof conceals stories of pain and death. And from the top of Amir’s house, the signs of the Intifada seem to float in the air, brought by the breeze from one roof to the other.

Walking in the streets of the city, those signs become even more real: they are in the stones on the ground where so many youngsters fell dead, in the memorials built for those who succumbed, in the tiny windows of bathrooms once turned into snipers’ positions.

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In the following neighbourhood, though, the painful memory of the Intifada is alleviated as we enter the spices store, where each step brings deeper into a cloud of sweet and inebriating smells. Sacks full of spices fill the room and the air, and senses get lost in a unique atmosphere which reminds of other times and places. An immersion in perfumes and colours, that culminated in the small cave built at the end of the shop, where the owner’s personal collection of Bedouin handicrafts leads to the encounter with a lifestyle as ancient as this land, and a local culture as fascinating as this hidden cave.

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The discovery of Nablus old city, of its culture and its people’s life, though, is not completed until we visit two factories active in two traditional and leading sectors of the local economy: sweets (in the specific candies) and soap. It is by visiting these factories, by meeting the families who have been running them for years and years, and by experiencing the quality of their products, that again I am impressed by the economic development that the city and the region could reach if their entrepreneurial potential was left free to express rather than obstructed and kept in chains. The noise of the machineries, the smell of the sugar and of the olive oil, and the stories of economic and trading ambitions of the factories’ owners are the clearest and most direct expression of a city that could be vibrant and prosperous if the occupation to which it is victim was not a curb to its economic realization.

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If there in the factories it is through eyes and smell that we understand what Nablus is, once out of them the journey becomes one of flavours and sounds. The sweet and cheesy flavour of the kanafeh brings us to join (more than once) a cheerful queue of locals who stand –dish in their hands- waiting for this delicious typical sweet to be served; and in the background the muezzin’s call to the afternoon prayer opens my heart with its musical sounds, and the feeling of love for this unique place becomes an overwhelming experience. In no way could the perception of Palestine and of the Palestinian culture be more totalizing. In no way could I feel closer to it.

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Left Nablus behind, the road to the Jordan valley is one that runs through a rocky terrain, populated of olive trees and shepherds. The nature that surrounds the roads is so beautiful that no words can do justice to it. It is like travelling through a heavenly place frozen in time that accompanies until the opening up of the Jordan Valley, where infinity becomes real, where the land and the sky touch each other and a light fog conceals their embrace. No words could ever be enough to express the beauty of the scenery in front of my eyes: the dying sun, with the moon ready to take over it, in a valley where Magic meets Nature and History meets Man.

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However, as most of the places seen during the day, the Jordan Valley has also a story of sufferings, blood and conflict to tell. Some 88% of the land in this area had been designated as Area C, while the rest of the land is made up of enclaves of Palestinian communities designated as Areas A or B. Today, 39 Israeli settlements, including nine illegal outposts have been established in the Jordan Valley. Israel forbids Palestinians the use of most of the land. In addition, it denies to the Palestinian communities who live in the area access to most of its abundant water resources and this – together with the restrictions imposed on construction- hampers the development of the Palestinian economy and agriculture.

On the way back to Israel, we go through Ariel, in order to experience first-hand the reality of Israeli settlements. Built on top of a hill, Ariel is the fourth largest settlement in the West Bank, built in 1978 on Palestinian farmland to block Palestinian contiguity between the large town of Salfit to the south and a group of Palestinian villages to the north, and to bring under Israel’s control one of the most important routes that travel west-east. As all Jewish settlements, Ariel constitutes an expropriation of Palestinian land on part of Israel and is recognized as a violation of international law. As all Jewish settlements, Ariel is the concretization of a policy of occupation and oppression that continues to mark the pace of the relations between Israelis and Palestinians and that condemns to eternity the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As all Jewish settlements, Ariel is the living expression of an Israeli policy that closes any possible room left to negotiations, that obstructs any possibility of a two-state solution, and that forces Palestinian lives to a gloomy reality – one that can be understood only travelling through the West Bank and discovering what a magical place Palestine is, what a friendly people the Palestinians are, and what a rich heritage does the Palestinian culture preserve.