Reportback from Daniel
Part 2: the North: Agriculture, Theatre, a Cough to Kill for
I took a 3 day, 2 night trip through the northern West Bank that started by going to Qalqilya, a fairly large Palestinian city that is almost completely surrounded by The Wall. The only way in and out is through a very narrow “bottleneck” with the wall on both sides, and the one road that has a checkpoint. The city is often completely shut off from the rest of the world thought the simple closing of this checkpoint.
While in Qalqilya I contacted Sharif, a farmer in the Village of Jayyous north of Qalqilia. I had gotten his contact from a friend in NY and when he heard that I know Pat, he insisted that we come and spend the night with him and his wife. At this point I was traveling with a very interesting young South Korean woman. We took a service and arrived in Jayyous in the late afternoon. Sharif had told me that he would be at his farm and unavailable until 6:30 but that when we arrive we should just ask anyone in the village to take us to his house, and in typical Palestinian fashion, a couple of young kids were immediately dispatched by a local shop owner to show us the way.
On the way, however, we came across a tall thin obviously western 60-something year old man. He turned out to be part of a three person team from The World Counsel of Churches that maintains a presence in the village. Their purpose is to monitor the three “Agricultural Gates” on the outskirts of the village. After the “security barrier” was completed in this area, 70% of the village’s agricultural land was on the other side. In order for the farmer to get to there land they must go thought these gates which are “open” for a very limited time in the mornings and afternoons. Once at there land, they must stay there all day.
There are so many problems with this system that makes the farming of this land very difficult. For example, if a farmer has a large plot and he needs to hire workers, the only people available to him are other farmers that also own land and have the proper permits. Because of this, Sharif never knows how many workers he will have on any given day. If they don’t need to work there own land, they show up at his house in the morning. Even his children, who live elsewhere, can’t help on the farm when they visit without a huge amount of paperwork. In the morning we went with the gate watchers to see this insane process. One farmer arrived about 3 minutes late and was not allowed through. These are simple peasant farmers that must now follow these strict timetables and navigate this incredibly complicated system of rules, regulations and permits which quite often the Israeli authorities make even more difficult by screwing up the paperwork.
From Jayous we went north to the City of Tulkarem where we met with people from the International Women’s Peace Service who were there to meet with a local Palestinian woman’s group. This Palestinian group has many internationally-funded projects going on but the main discussions had to do with their problems getting their beautiful workshop crafted embroidery out to the international market. The only way that it is possible, even with the backing of mainstream international NGOs, is for international volunteers that visit to buy it and personally take it with them. The woman from IWPS did just this, with maybe $150.00 worth.
From here we were off to the City of Jenin where we visited The Freedom Theater in the Jenin Refugee Camp. This is an amazing project that has built a professional theater right in the middle of the refugee camp. It has become a center for cultural and social activity within the camp and is very busy and hectic. They have also built a large, maybe 16-station internet computer lab. While I was there I attended part of a kindergarten “graduation” performance, that in many ways was just like any kindergarten theater project anywhere except that some of the segments portrayed the realities of the Occupation with the kids playing soldiers and demonstrating portrayals of violence. I also attended a meeting of teenage boys that discussed some of the political issues that are currently at work within Palestinian society and within the camp. Community leaders from different groups which I think included Fatah, Hamas and some of the militias addressed the teenagers on behavior towards “guests” of the camp, drug use, and mostly on Palestinian unity. They are working very hard to keep what is happening in Gaza from spreading to this camp.
In the camp I saw the results of the frequent Israeli military incursions: demolished buildings, bullet marks all over, and, in the cemetery, the graves of the people killed by these actions (martyrs). At this point, the incursions happen a few times per week in the middle of the night.
The area south of Jenin is beautiful with alternating small mountains, large farms and, of course, the ubiquitous olive trees. About 30 minutes into the trip, the driver received a cell phone call and turned around. There was one guy in the van that spoke a little English and I asked him why we had turned around. He told me that the Israelis had closed the road ahead and again. We had to backtrack, than take a different road, than travel for maybe 5 miles on very rugged trails thought the farms to get around this closure.
About a half hour later we came to a checkpoint that I had been through a few times before but the line of vehicles was much longer than I had previously seen. As we got closer I saw that there were many more troops than the other times and that they had people out of their cars. When it was our turn, they opened the door to the van, collected our papers and then started to question everyone in the van. At one point, at another checkpoint further on, one of the guys in the van coughed and one of the soldiers said something that just shut everyone else up. They let us pass and I asked what the soldier had said. He had told the guy who coughed, “If you cough again without covering your mouth, I will put a bullet in you head and your 3 children will never see you again”.
I really wanted to see Nablus and the Balata Refugee Camp while I was on this trip so a few days before I left to come home, I contacted someone in Ramallah who put me in touch with a guy name Mark Turner from Colorado that is currently working in the Balata Camp and he agreed to meet me in Nablus and show me around.
Basically the only way that people can get into Nablus is to walk in through one of the checkpoints that isolate the city from the rest of the West Bank. Most of the cars in the city can never leave. A guy who let me use his phone in the van to Nablus took me with him in a shared cab, gave me his card and told me that I should just go to the “Center City” and look around, which is what I did. I got out of the cab and started walking through a market area. I decided that I wanted an apple and went to one of the venders, picked up an apple and asked the price. The guy said, “one kilo” and I said, “no, just one apple”. He gave me this great big smile and said, “Welcome, where are you from?” I told him that I was from the U.S. and he said “Bush is bad” and I wholeheartedly agreed. He gave me the apple, a hug and a pat on the back and sent me on my way. I pulled out my phone which was getting sporadic reception and I notice that it was almost completely uncharged. I had forgotten to plug it in the night before. I decided to go to a mobile phone store to see if I could get it charged.
I walked into a small store on a corner and asked if I could have them charge my phone. They spoke no English but, through gestures they understood what I wanted. They took my phone and gestured 10 minutes. I walked around for maybe 15 and than came back and they gestured 5 more minutes. When I came back they gave me my fully charged phone and would not let me pay them anything. Mark was still not available so I walked around a little more, got a carrot juice and than thought that maybe I had the wrong number. Mark had e-mailed me his number and so I started trying to find a place to check my e-mail. I couldn’t find anyplace but than I notice what looked like a (relatively) pretty nice hotel. I walked in and asked if they had internet. There was one guy in the lobby who spoke English who told me that they didn’t but then he offered to take me to his office where I could check my e-mail. His name was Farouq Masri and he turned out to be head of the water and sewer department for the city. We walked about 5 blocks to his office, where he sat me down at his large, impressive desk, in his large impressive office (relatively speaking) and said, “OK, now you’re the boss.”
The Old City of Nablus is an incredibly vibrant place with a large market stretching through and off of its main passage. The wonderful smells of spice venders, coffee roaster and shawarma stands mix with the stink of live chicken sellers, open hanging lambs and the ever-present cigarettes. The sounds of the venders hawking there wares mixes with the calls to prayer and the din of the packed-in people. It is hard to believe but the Israeli military often conduct operations within this area.
I had had such good experiences so far asking for help that I decided to return to the water department and ask Farouq if he knew someone that could show me around Balata. I had been told by a few people not to go there alone. He was not in his office but the other workers there called him on his mobile and he arranged to have one of his workers that lives in the camp take me there. The guy took me in a cab that he refused to let me pay for to the entrance of the camp and than we walked to a local NGO within the camp where there was a young Palestinian who spoke perfect English (I believe his name was Ahmad). I told him that I was supposed to be meeting Mark Turner and he was somehow immediately able to reach him on his phone. While we waited for Mark, we discussed the history of the camp, the almost nightly Israeli military incursions and the work of this NGO over Arabic coffee.
After Mark arrived, the three of us went walking all around the camp. It turned out that the other guy was a very religious man who was the keeper of the keys to the mosque, which he was very proud of. He also turned out to be a very friendly guy, with a great big contagious smile, and kept pointing things out and introducing me to people to me as we walked. They took me through all the little alleyways and into areas that they said that they don’t usually bring internationals. All along the way they kept showing me all the damage done by the military incursions. They told me that there are no street lights in the camp because the Israelis keep shooting them out. They have night vision scopes and by shooting out the lights they keep the advantage. They do things like come in with armored bulldozers that have a hook on the back and just drive down the streets ripping up the pavement as they go. They shoot randomly, and I saw plenty of evidence of this on almost every buildings.
I think that what I saw is the continuing institutionalization of the Israeli project to keep as much as possible of the area that was historically known as Palestine with as few of the indigenous population as possible.