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Leaving Balata

by Amanda D.

I’m on the plane home. Much as I want to see people I’m not sure how to talk to them. Much as I wanted to go home and do laundry and take a bath I’m figuring out how and when I can get back. I was sad yesterday to leave the family I had been staying with in Balata. I was sad to leave both because they are wonderful and I’m not sure if I’ll ever see them again and because I can leave. I can pack up and go home to my own bed where I no longer am afraid to sleep at night because there are not tanks on the street outside, and my house has not been spray painted with arrows to lead the Israeli military right to it so they can destroy it with tanks or explosives. The family I stayed with cannot even go to the neighboring city, Nablus.

Balata is a refugee camp with 20,000 or so refugees in it. These are people who have been displaced since 1948 and cannot get out of the West Bank to return to their cities or villages in what is now known as Israel. There are three families in Balata who have requested that internationals stay with them because they are afraid their houses will be demolished. The Israeli government has a policy of demolishing the homes of “suicide bombers” or other fighters. The people here call the snipers or bombers “martyrs.” But some call anyone who has died for Palestine a martyr. So, for example those nine children killed recently in Gaza are martyrs as well.

In the last few months, Balata has had several martyrs. There have already been house demolitions, and also areas that were bombed from F-16s or Apaches. The name of the son who died in at the home where I am staying is Mohanned. He was 18 years old when he died, I saw his picture. His family is still grieving. He has 9 brothers and sisters. If the military were to demolish his house they would displace his entire family who are ALREADY refugees from Jaffa. His younger sisters love doing my hair at night. I don’t speak Arabic, and a few of the siblings understand English but only a little. Still, we got to know each other through charades. They have opened their home to us, feed as very well and laugh with and at us. One of the sisters taught me a card game called five. The oldest brother, Mohammed, loves music and he fixed up the family’s stereo. We had a little music exchange- they listened to our American music and played Arabic music for us. The biggest hit was Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’ which I happened to have with me. Mohammed likes love songs (his little brother made fun of him) and so he played a few by Egyptian and Lebanese artists. The idea of this family losing their home is infuriating and heart breaking.

One of the problems is that the military doesn’t always evacuate the other homes, or warn the neighbors of a demolition. Again this is in a refugee camp, the houses are all really close to one another. This can mean neighboring houses also go down- with people in them. The brother of the family some of the other New Yorkers are staying with had the first floor of his home destroyed by tank shelling. He and his son were inside. His son was okay but he broke both of his legs and was wheelchair-bound, now he has canes.

Nablus is under its 41st day of 24 hour curfew today (Monday). I feel like I haven’t adequately explained curfew. All the stores except a stray one here and there are closed. Schools, factories, offices- closed. Nobody can work or go to school so there is no money being made or exchanged. Ambulances can run, but some of the neighboring villages can’t be reached by ambulance because of road blocks and (when I say this I mean 6-9 feet piles of big rocks, stones and gravel sometimes dug out of the road itself and pushed to form a pile that all over the road and on either side so you can’t drive around it) or snipers. Sometimes you see men in the street, children, and every once in a while women. The doctor at UPMRC and a friend pointed out that this is harder for women and children because they are in the house more.

But, in the airport in Switzerland I saw in an article that the population of Nablus had ignored curfew today and the whole city had opened up as if there was no curfew. The only sort of Palestinian resistance we see in the news is sensationalized “suicide bombers” or when snipers attack settlements or settlers that are misrepresented as civilians or villagers. Friends saw people in kuffiyehs passing out communiqués on Friday. They were told that the people were from Fatah. When my friend asked them what it was they said it was ‘for the children.’ The second time they asked about it they were told it was a message to people to open up the city and resist the curfew. I always knew terrorist was not the right word to describe these people or their struggle. After seeing the activities of the Israeli military here, that characterization is insane. The Palestinians are facing the 4th or 5th largest army in the world (!) and according to international law, the occupation is illegal.

And further in the international law department- it is illegal under the Geneva Convention (I’m told, I need to double check but I know it is illegal) to occupy homes where people are living during wars. It’s also illegal to use hollow point bullets, which both the Israeli military and the New York City Police Department use. But I met this man who had his house occupied 5 times in the last 12 months. He said, “The Palestinian people are not terrorists, the Israeli soldiers are terrorists, they occupied my home.” This family has a beautiful house with a panoramic view of the valley and Nablus. We went Saturday to try and get a statement about the occupation of their house. I guess because of its position and view, the army decided it would be one of its bases of operation.

The family: husband, wife, 2 teenage girls and 2 younger boys were welcoming, although we didn’t meet the mother. She’s been ill since the occupation, she has a heart condition and was sleeping when we arrived. They said the noise of tanks and helicopters at close range sets off her heart and too much stress could be fatal. After sharing lemonade and coffee with all of us, we sat on the family’s porch to talk. The house is empty of furniture except for beds. Because the soldiers move all the furniture and stain it, it’s all stashed away, piled up in one of the small rooms. The father says they’ve spent nearly $100,000 repairing the damage after the soldiers left. That’s why the walls have not been repainted and the furniture waits in a room- so when the soldiers return they won’t be able to destroy anything. They also paid the electricity and water for the times they were kicked out and the soldiers were there, they have received no compensation from the Israeli government.

They spent 12 years building the house and lived in it for one week this December before the soldiers occupied it the first time. The girl, 17, tells us each time they come it is the same, but we focus on the most recent occupation. In December, the soldiers were there for five weeks. They were there in February twice, April, and then this last time starting on June 20th for 32 days. At 8 a.m. on the 20th, when 10 family members were there, they heard 20 tanks, 10 APC’s and 1 Apache helicopter overhead and coming up the hill to their house. They all threw themselves on the floor, but then heard loud knocking. From past experience they knew if they didn’t open the door the soldiers would break it down. The father opened the door and 40 or 50 soldiers with machine guns streamed into the house. The family refused to leave and all ten of them were forced into a small bedroom on the first floor. This, the fifth time, they were allowed to use the bathroom and the kitchen. The other four times the Red Cross brought them food and tried to make sure they could use the bathroom.

The soldiers brought in all kinds of equipment and guns. The family sent the younger kids to stay with a neighbor or a family. The soldiers shot out of the windows down into Nablus and killed two men just down from the occupied home who had been standing on a little porch outside their window. One of the worst things, according to the family, is when the soldiers would bring groups of 3 or 4 Palestinian men handcuffed and blindfolded to the house. The family could hear the men being beaten in the next room. Sometimes the soldiers would throw away their I.D. cards, the father said he would go out and look through the trash for them later on and try to return them. After 10 days the family was forced to leave. 22 days later the soldiers left their homes. So they are now with no furniture waiting. They say it is hard to sleep-especially for the kids- who have nightmares about the soldiers and the beatings.

We’re getting closer to New York now, I haven’t finished my customs declaration yet. I wonder what will happen if I put Occupied Palestine for #9 “Countries visited on this trip prior to U.S. arrival.” My friends saw the video that Jihad (whose family my friends stayed with) and Mohanned (whose family I stayed with) did before they died on T.V. in Balata. Both of them mentioned that the Palestinian people were going through so much, and internationally people were silent and that no one comes forward to help the Palestinians. I am furious that my money is paying for the occupation, and that those are our weapons the Israelis use.

Time to get a little sleep.

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