Friday, August 31, 2007

Day 12: Nablus and Tulkarem

Saed arrives as we finish breakfast. He takes us to our last stop in Nablus- the cemetery. The first grave he shows us is the Shu'bi family's, whom I spoke about yesterday. Again we hear how they met their terrible end. The anger in Saed's voice is unmistakable, as he calls the Israeli soldiers cowards. I agree with his description- if they had any courage, they would have walked into the old city of Nablus, not bulldozed their way from one house to the next.

Walking through the graveyard is a gutwrenching experience. Two teenage brothers killed within months of each other. A mother and son buried next to each other. Row after row of children's graves, some of them infants. A deaf and mute man walking in the street, shot in the back by the Israelis. In all, Nablus has lost approximately 1000 people since the year 2000.

We finish at the grave of Saed's mother, Shaden abu-Hijleh. As he reads out the inscription bearing her name and date of martyrdom, his voice cracks. He manages to say to us, 'We Palestinians are not terrorists. We are peace-loving people. Our violence is born of desperation- the result of 60 years of Israeli oppression. And we feel that the world has abandoned us'.

I have managed to retain my composure throughout this trip. However as we take Saed's leave, this is no longer possible. After a tearful embrace, we part, promising to stay in touch. The others are overwhelmed by emotion as well.

Back at the hotel, we order a servees to take us to Tulkarem, our final stop in the West Bank. An Israeli soldier stops us at a checkpoint. After inspecting our passports, he asks me what the purpose of our visit is. 'We're a multifaith group visiting religious sites', I reply. 'Ok, have a nice day,' he says. I simply turn my face away. Has he ever wished a Palestinian a nice day?

In Tulkarem, we are received by Abd al-Karim Sa'adi, a Palestinian working for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. He takes us to meet the governor of Tulkarem, who again voices his helplessness and frustration at the continued harassment of his people by the Wall, the numerous checkpoints around the city, and the omnipresent soldiers. He reminds us that recently, the Israelis released 250 Palestinian prisoners- this was hailed in the world media as a great concession. However what escaped everyone's attention was that more than 300 others were arrested during the same period.

We then proceed to our lodgings for the night. One of our Palestinian friends in Manchester is from Tulkarem, and we are staying with his parents. Once again, we experience the Palestinian hospitality we have come to love- figs, fruit and mint tea. After a brief rest, it is time to hit the road again. Sa'adi takes us to Nazlat 'Isa, a nearby village. Driving through a residential neighbourhood, we notice that the street seems to come to an abrupt end in the distance. As we get a bit nearer, we see why. The hideous Wall goes across it, dividing the village into two.

And in Nazlat 'Isa, it has actually divided a house. I am not joking- the Wall goes through a house, dividing it into two. This has to be one of the most obscene things I have ever seen. The owner is a man called Abdul Haleem Ibrahim al-Hassan. His misery does not end here. The top two storeys have been occupied by the Israeli army, who have placed a rocket launcher on top. The soldiers enter and leave the house with impunity, using his doors and hallways. He had a freshwater well in his garden, which they have destroyed by pouring cement into it. The soldiers also use his electricity and water, for which he receives no payment. It is heartbreaking to hear him say, 'I don't mind them using my roof- but why don't they leave my house alone?' (The pictures of the house are taken from opposite sides of the Wall.)

Abdul's daughter and sister live next to him. But they might as well be in another country, as they are divided from him by the Wall. His land is also on the other side. To visit his family- and farm his land- he has to use an 'agricultural gate' in the Wall which is only open briefly on Thursdays. This gate is 30 km away. This man's story is well known; indeed, he tells us that the British ambassador was here recently. Pictures of his house have been splashed across various international magazines. Yet this outrageous situation continues.

We take his leave, filled with disbelief at what we have seen. We pass the market- or what used to be the market- of Nazlat 'Isa. In January 2003, 82 shops were razed to the ground by Israeli bulldozers in the space of a few hours. In August later that year, the remaining 100 shops were destroyed as well. When the villagers went to court, they were simply told that it was a 'mistake'. Needless to say, the Israelis did not rebuild the shops. The only thing that has been built here is the Wall. 203 Palestinians have land on the other side. They can only access it once a week, and are not allowed to use vehicles to bring their produce back. They must carry it in bags and buckets through a checkpoint. As you can imagine, most of the produce remains unharvested- that which is harvested remains unsold.

Sa'adi takes us to his house for the obligatory mineral water and mint tea. We talk for hours, then drive back to our hosts. While the others rest, I nip out with the father to a Palestinian takeaway- to get some freshly prepared hummus and falafel, fried in front of our eyes. When we return, the mother has laid out some salads and cold meats as well. A simple but absolutely mouthwatering feast.

After dinner we sit on the patio and drink more mint tea. The local International Solidarity Movement (ISM) coordinator pops in- he has heard that there are some visitors from Britain. He and our host talk about their experiences in Israeli prisons. You will find it hard to meet any Palestinian male who hasn't been to prison- in fact, it is almost a badge of honour. We listen for hours, fascinated. They show us the objects they made in prison to pass the time. Picture frames made out of the plastic of water bottles. An engraving of al-Aqsa on a stone.

The greatest treasure of all is a letter written by the husband to his wife. But this is no ordinary letter. The Israelis only allowed prisoners to write very brief letters, which would be inspected before being posted. The way people got round this was by writing in very small print on cigarette paper, which they would roll up and insert into a medicine capsule. Every time an inmate was released, he would swallow his fellow prisoners' capsules before leaving. You can imagine how the letters were retrieved! They were then given to the respective families.

If there is one thing I have enjoyed the most on this trip, it is talking to ordinary Palestinians. Everyone has a wealth of experience to share. And the hospitality extended by people we have never met before has been overwhelming. The thought that this is our last night in the West Bank is almost too much to bear. However, Jerusalem beckons tomorrow and we need to make an early start.

Tisbah ala-Khair. (Good night)

Day 11: Nablus

We wake up to the sound of an announcement from the mosque's loudspeaker. The staff at the hotel tell us that a man was shot and killed by the Israelis in Askar camp last night. Nablus is preparing to bury another martyr.

After breakfast, we are visited by some students- A, Y and S- from An-Najah. They are members of Zajel, the university's youth exchange programme. They have kindly volunteered to take us round the old city today.

The old city is a maze of narrow alleyways and colourful bazaars. Its layout makes it an ideal hiding place for resistance fighters. During the 2002 siege, the Israelis were determined to forge a path into the area. The story of how they did so is horrific.

On 6 April 2002, a D9 Israeli army bulldozer destroyed the house of the Shu'bi family- over their heads. Eight members of this family were killed- including 3 children, their pregnant mother and their 85-year-old grandfather. Y narrates how their cries of 'we're still in here' went unheeded. Their neighbour, Ahmed Fu'ad al-Najjar, came out of his house and pleaded with the soldier to let the family leave the house first. The soldier responded by firing at al-Najjar. Today, the site of the massacre is marked by a plaque with the names of the family. Visit for more details and a video.

Nablus is known for its Turkish baths, and we had the chance to visit one- one thousand years old! You can use a steam room, then receive a massage. There are separate days for men and women. Once you have had your bath, you can relax in the exquisitely decorated foyer. The Israelis did not even spare this historic place. However, the determined owner has single-handedly rebuilt the baths and they are functioning again today.

We make a brief stop to sample knafeh, a famed Nablusi sweet. If you are on a diet and wish to undo all your hard work, I invite you to sample this calorie-packed delicacy. It is cooked on huge platters- the bottom layer is cheese, which is topped with sugar-laden semolina. A few teaspoonfuls and you are full. Delicious.

As I said before, Nablus used to be the commercial centre of Palestine. One of its famous products was olive oil soap. We were taken to the site where an 800-year-old soap factory was decimated by F-16 bombers in 2002, to create another passage for the Israeli army into the old city.

The walls of old Nablus are pockmarked with innumerable bullet holes, bearing testimony to the terror the residents have lived through. There are posters of martyrs plastered everywhere. One which catches our eye is of 11-year-old Mahmoud Hamza Zaghloul, shot in his house on 30 September 2002. But he is only one of 952 Palestinian children that have been killed since the year 2000.

A recent martyr is Rami Shana'a, 25, a student at an-Najah. He was killed on 9 June 2007 while working in his family's butcher shop. He is the 56th student of the university to be martyred.

As we walk back to the hotel for a rest, we are overwhelmed by anger and despair. Nablus has lost 1000 people since 2000. And the killing continues. Do you ever hear about it on the news? I cannot help but think that a Palestinian life is deemed less worthy- and therefore less newsworthy- than an Israeli life. Let me give you one simple statistic. In 2006, 660 Palestinians were killed by Israeli 'security' forces. These included 141 children. The total number of Israelis killed by Palestinians in 2006? 23.

In the evening, we have a meeting with a Hamas MP. We are looking forward to hearing what she has to say, having met members of Fatah in Ramallah. She cannot receive us in her office- it has been burned down. (We visited it later). So we meet in a restaurant.

She starts the meeting with an apology- for being unable to introduce us to her colleagues. She reminds us that 46 Hamas MPs have been in Israeli prisons for months. This is a staggering fact- can you name any other country where 46 members of the government are in jail?

It is worth remembering that the 2006 elections in which Hamas came to power were witnessed by numerous international observers and were deemed to be free and fair. However, the election result was not to the West's liking. So the Palestinians were punished with sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, resulting in record levels of poverty and unemployment. The hypocrisy of the West is astounding- it is almost as if they are sending the message, 'You can have democracy- as long as it's the democracy we want'.

The excuse given by the West is that 'Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist'. I find it laughable that Israel, a country with the 4th biggest military and 11th highest standard of living in the world, is somehow dependent for its existence on recognition from a Palestinian political party (most of whose members are in jail or underground). We are constantly reminded by the Western media that Hamas' charter talks about the destruction of Israel, therefore they are evil. Has anybody noticed that Israel is actually destroying Palestine by continuing to kill and imprison its people and steal its land?

The logical thing for Israel and the West would have been to talk to Hamas. Even if they were the worst government in the world- which they were not, compared to the Arab regimes on America's payroll. Negotiations would have been the only possibility of making them give up their more odious demands. Remember that there was a time when the PLO didn't recognize Israel- until they were spoken to. And the IRA at one time promised an endless war against England.

But the boycott of Hamas continues; and now Israel and its allies are falling over each other to talk to Fatah, hailing the current government as the 'true representative of the Palestinian people'. This is amusing- before Hamas was elected, nobody was talking to Fatah!

The course Hamas took was far more pragmatic than anyone gives them credit for. After winning the election, they offered Israel a 10-year truce during which negotiations could take place. Israel declined. Hamas still observed a unilateral ceasefire. On February 13, 2005, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal declared that Hamas would stop armed struggle against Israel if Israel recognized the 1967 borders. The West and Israel responded by strangling the Palestinians with sanctions. So much for embracing democracy. On June 9 2006 Israel blew up 8 members of a family on a Gaza beach and Hamas ended its unilateral 16 month ceasefire.

We spend our last night in Nablus in the hotel, and are joined at dinner by the Manchester students we met in Ramallah. Their Scottish friend who is married to a man from Nablus comes as well. She and her husband normally live in the UK but are visiting his family at the moment. An Englishwoman working for a local NGO also pops in to say hello. And of course, Saed arrives for a chat.

It's been another upsetting day. Before I retire, I am reminded of the following quotes from the leaders of 'the only democracy in the Middle East':

"We must expel Arabs and take their places." -- David Ben Gurion, 1937; Ben Gurion and the Palestine Arabs, Oxford University Press, 1985. (Israeli PM)

"There is no such thing as a Palestinian people... It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn't exist."-- Golda Meir; statement to The Sunday Times, 15 June 1969.

"[The Palestinians] are beasts walking on two legs."-- Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, speech to the Knesset; quoted in Amnon Kapeliouk, "Begin and the 'Beasts,"' New Statesman, 25 June 1982.

"(The Palestinians) would be crushed like grasshoppers ... heads smashed against the boulders and walls."-- Israeli Prime Minister (at the time) Yitzhak Shamir in a speech to Jewish settlers; New York Times, 1 April 1988.

They have certainly proved true to their word.

Day 10: Nablus

It is a morning of meetings again. First, Saed takes us to the stunning new campus of An-Najah University ( the largest university in Palestine, home to 15000 students- more than half of them women.

The university has always been a beacon of resistance to the occupation, and Israeli forces have never been able to enter the campus. Unsurprisingly, they have labelled it 'the terrorist university'. The university has had the land for the new campus since 1970 but the Israelis prevented any building work until 2000, when construction finally started. Recently, the students' union of the University of Manchester twinned with An-Najah, much to the dismay of the Zionist lobby.

First, we are received by Dr Husni Maqbool, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. He starts by explaining how the Israelis did nothing to improve the Palestinian healthcare system under occupation. The Palestinian Authority has been trying to improve matters- still, at best, the system here is a 'filter' which is forced to refer complex cases to Israeli and Jordanian hospitals. (The Israelis charge the Palestinian Authority for this 'service'- even though under international law they bear responsibility for the health of people under their occupation.)

Dr Maqbool told us that students and staff are often delayed or even prevented from making it to lectures at checkpoints. An-Najah does not have a university hospital of its own; this is in the pipeline. Meanwhile, students obtain training in the city hospitals. For many specialties, the only centre where training is available is Maqassed in Jerusalem. However, students from the West Bank need a special permit to enter Jerusalem- this is almost impossible to obtain. He also narrated the case of a cardiologist of Palestinian origin who trained in the US and was appointed to An-Najah. He arrived on a tourist visa, but was denied a work permit by the Israelis and was ultimately forced to leave.

The medical school has 35-40 students in each year. The selection process is rigorous; it is a combination of high school scores, a test and an interview. This year's interviews were held two days before our visit- 102 students with high school scores of more than 97% turned up. Dr Maqbool told me that they were all appointable; but, at the moment, An-Najah's finances simply cannot accommodate any more medical students. As a result, most aspiring doctors are denied their chosen career, unless their families are wealthy enough to send them abroad.

Did you know that the Palestinian literacy rate is 91%? Also, they have one of the highest proportions of university graduates in the world. Imagine what they could achieve if they were free of occupation. So much for the Western stereotype of Palestinians as backward, hot-headed extremists.

We next meet Dr Nabil Alawi, the Director of Public Relations for An-Najah. He reminds us that Nablus is still under siege and has been for seven years. The Israelis even control the water supply- this runs only once a week. Needless to say, the illegal Jewish settlements have fountains and swimming pools.

He commends our presence here as a symbol of defiance. He says that Palestinians feel abandoned by the world, but visits such as ours give them some reassurance that they haven't been forgotten.

The economic situation in Nablus means that two-thirds of students have to take out loans. Their academic performance is adversely impacted by the fact that journeys of barely 20 km can take up to 4 hours. He narrated an incident from 2004 when he and the Speaker of the House were stopped by the Israelis at Huwwara checkpoint. They were ordered to walk into the middle of the road and undress. This was in full view of 2000 female students who were stuck at the checkpoint. When the men disrobed, all the students looked away- to the intense annoyance of the soldiers.

We are on our way out when we bump into the Dean of the Faculty of Nursing who insists that we sit down for a cup of tea with her. She fled Palestine for Sweden many years ago and was not allowed back in until she obtained Swedish citizenship- she is now here on a visitor's visa!

The next stop is Rafidia Hospital, the main general hospital in Nablus. We are met by Dr Sadaqah, the Deputy Director. He tells us that each time the Israelis invade Nablus, the first thing they do is to encircle the hospital, preventing the passage of staff and patients and resulting in unnecessary deaths. Sometimes patients need to be transferred to hospitals in Jerusalem or Israel- however the Israeli authorities create hurdles at every opportunity. Often by the time permission is obtained (a minimum of 2 days even for an emergency), the patient dies- this happened to a burns patient two days before our visit.

At the height of the 2002-2003 invasions and curfews, Rafidia received 8-9 cases of serious injuries every day. Staff ended up living in the hospital for 23 days. The Israeli army prevented casualties from the Old City from going to Rafidia- a clinic was set up in a mosque in the Old City to deal with them. Dr Sadaqah told us that this clinic had to perform two emergency amputations without anaesthesia. The Israelis would also prevent bodies from being taken for burial- as a result the hospital morgue overflowed and ice-cream trucks had to be used to store the bodies.

He also told us that the Israelis would regularly enter the hospital, and actually removed 4 patients from their beds. One of these was actually an intensive care patient who had just returned from major surgery. When the doctors and nurses asked for reasons, they were simply pushed aside. We were horrified to learn that when the soldiers removed patients from the hospital, they were accompanied by Israeli doctors who never tried to stop this happening. The soldiers would often remove patients from ambulances while they 'checked' them.

Dr Sadaqah then takes me on a tour of the hospital. We visit the 4-bedded ICU. In 2002-2003, patients ended up being ventilated with rudimentary operation theatre machines- often on the floor and in the kitchen of ICU.

On one of the wards I meet a young man called Ayman Tayseer. He was walking in the mountains near an Israeli settlement when he picked up a metal object. This was actually ordnance left by Israeli soldiers. It exploded, blowing his right hand off. I ask him if he has anything to say to the camera; he says, "don't pick up strange objects".

Our next stop is Balata, the biggest refugee camp in the West Bank. We are received at the children's Yafa Cultural Centre by Tayseer Nasrallah, its chairman. The name 'Yafa' is significant as the majority of families here were uprooted from the Jaffa (Yafa) area in 1948.

Balata has always been a symbol of defiance against the occupation. In the year 2001, it was the first area to be put under siege by the Israelis- this was in an attempt to break the nucleus of the resistance, which they believed to be in Balata. There are still regular invasions, in fact we are told that there was one the previous night. To move from house to house, the Israelis blast their way through walls, without warning the families on the other side. Random firing upon civilians is the norm. We are told the story of an MP living in Balata whom the Israelis came to arrest- even though he had only one room, they destroyed the whole building. They also assassinated several of his family members.

Tayseer wonders why the world is silent on this daily state terrorism committed by Israel, while demanding perfect behaviour from the Palestinians. The media goes to town about suicide bombings by Palestinians, but when was the last one? Why is it that when an Israeli life is lost, it is front-page news, with pictures of the victim and interviews with the grieving relatives; whereas when a Palestinian is killed, the news is tucked away in a corner- no names are given, just something along the lines of 'a Palestinian died today.....'?

We are then taken round the camp. I have never seen anywhere so crowded. I thought Deheisheh was cramped, but in Balata 24000 people are crammed into 1 square kilometre. That translates into an area of 10 square metres per capita- that includes toilet/washing space. Whereas Israelis get 3200 square metres per capita.

Some of the alleyways between the houses are so narrow that even the thinnest person in our group has to turn his whole body sideways to walk down them. Saed tells us that when sick people have to be taken to ambulances, they have to be passed from roof to roof. 'When Israel celebrates 60 years of independence, this is what these people celebrate,' he says bitterly.

There isn't a single street corner or lamppost which isn't riddled with bullet marks. We enter the camp's graveyard- there are rows upon rows of graves of young people here. The cemetery is in direct view of a special Israeli military post on the hill opposite. Recently 5 resistance fighters sitting in the graveyard were killed by shelling from this post.

The Israelis will insist that they come into Balata to root out the 'terrorists'. However, the reality is somewhat different. Try the case of 7-year-old Khaled Walweel. On 27 March 2004, he was looking out of his window when he got shot in the neck. His uncle carried him down the street to an ambulance, but an Israeli jeep tried to prevent him from doing so. When he finally reached the ambulance, the jeep tried to prevent it from leaving the camp. By the time he finally reached hospital he was dead. (See picture in right-hand margin)

Khaled's case is just one of several. Visit for many such stories. Faced with the daily violence of the Israeli military machine, I am not surprised that some residents have taken up arms to defend the camp. They have every right to do so. I refuse to call them terrorists- they are resistance fighters. It is not as if they are going into the cities to kill and maim civilians.

The terrorists are those who invade the camp every night to kill and injure innocent people and demolish their houses. Yet the world continues to turn a blind eye.

It has been a sobering day. After a brief rest, we meet in a pizzeria which does the most amazing grilled chicken sandwiches and beefburgers we have ever eaten. The owner could teach the Americans a thing or two about their own food!

We walk back to the hotel with Saed. It is past eleven and the streets are quiet. We pass the Nablus Football Club and the owner, who knows Saed (by the way, Saed knows everyone) insists that we stop for tea. Inside the club are displayed various trophies won at tournaments. One of the walls is also plastered with pictures of dead footballers- all killed in the prime of their youth by the Israeli army.

We sit outside the club on stools, sipping the most delicious sage tea. About a dozen tough-looking young men in t-shirts and jeans appear. They huddle shyly in a group a few metres away from us. 'These are the tough kids of the neighbourhood,' Saed tells us. 'But they have good hearts. They have all lost fathers, brothers and friends. They have come to welcome you because you are friends of Palestine'. We nod at them respectfully.

Someone reports that the Israelis are about to invade a camp tonight. We have to leave abruptly. We walk through the city- it is completely deserted. Some children wave at us from their balcony above. Although the streets are eerily quiet, we feel safe in Saed's company. When we reach the hotel, we feel a sense of accomplishment- we have just walked through Nablus in the dead of the night!

I go to work on the blog again. The gunfire tonight is louder than yesterday. The tanks will be rolling in, but the people in the camps will be resisting- as they do every night.

Goodnight Nablus. I salute your spirit.