The final frontier: Our first steps into the West Bank
The sense of elation on reaching the West Bank was something I had not experienced for a long time, the bus was full of cheers, singing and laughter once we had made the final crossing – the trepidation that had weighed so heavily in the 48 Areas dissipated instantly, and the music volume went up with our spirits.
Our first port of call was Nablus, where we stayed in a newly opened guesthouse, run by refugees from the local camp. Despite it’s traumatic and bloody history, the old city has its retained charm and character, as the local university students were keen to point out to us. Buildings were riddled with bullet holes, particularly around the windows, where Israeli snipers had fired on any faces that appeared after curfew during the intifada. We were awed into silence in the centre of the old city on hearing the stories of the second intifada, the streets here are so narrow that tanks couldn’t pass… The Israelis response was to simply take the tank through several buildings, including some where families were still inside, killing the children while they slept in their beds. The posters of the martyrs were all over the city – young boys portrayed as heroes, painted with guns held high, their families oblivious of the negative image these pictures paint to the Western world – the text-book visual of a terrorist, so keenly lapped up by the media. I was amazed to learn however that these boys were often not leaders, rebels or assassins, simply schoolchildren and grandchildren who had been caught up in the struggle and who had wanted to be thought of as heroes – most of these boys had never even laid hands on a gun.
As part of the tour, our guides insisted we take a pit stop at one of the many sweet smelling knafeh stands – we couldn’t come to Nablus and not indulge in the region’s best dessert – and I am pleased to say it lived up to the hype, sending our sugar levels into orbit! The artificial high was much-needed in order to head to Balata Refugee Camp. This camp is known as one of the toughest and most intense refugee camps in Palestine and you could feel it from the moment you stepped inside. This visit was possibly the most negative experience of the trip, and the only place in Palestine where we had not been welcomed with open arms and broad smiles – we later learned the reason why. Balata is regarded as a breeding ground for resistance fighters, and as such, is the most targeted by Israeli troops. Only two nights earlier troops had stormed the camp, arresting and beating local boys on suspicion of activism. This, combined with the latest trick of posing as foreign observers in order to enter the camp and start aggression, certainly explained the suspicion and distance that we felt. We did a quick tour without really talking to anyone or taking pictures, I felt so guilty for being there – the observer with the flashy camera and sunglasses, hiding the tears that threatened to break loose all too frequently.
From Nablus, we took a trip out to Tulkarem for our first close-up view of the infamous apartheid wall that rings the town and divides Palestine – an ugly and imposing eyesore that serves as a constant reminder to residents of their status as prisoners of the occupation. The organisers of the Stop The Wall campaign shared with us some eye-opening stats of Israel’s 2025 Vision for Sustainable Ghettos. I was shocked to learn that 82% of water resources remain under Israeli control, meaning that Palestinians have to buy it back at hugely inflated rates. Also, of the 1,400km of paved roads in the supposedly unoccupied West Bank, Israel controls 1,200km – these Israeli-only bypass roads as well as the buffer zones on either side swallow up Palestinian land and physically divide people and towns. Between the wall, the roads, the checkpoints and the industrial zones, Israel is visibly dividing in order to conquer. Even during South African apartheid, there were not separate roads where black people were not allowed to set foot!
The industrial zones and factories which we saw up close in Tulkarem may well provide employment for Palestinians but the workers are exploited and provide complete control to Israelis – over work/pay, food, import & export, water and movement. Workers need to be up as early as 2am for some in order to get through the checkpoints to work on the Israeli side. We took a trip out to see the checkpoints – you wouldn’t force animals to pass through there – huge caged tunnels with long winding queues and no exits – I got claustrophobic and panicked just going into one when it was empty and the gates were closed, let alone in the morning rush! The gates are only open from 4-6am hence the need to get there early to queue, and they open again at 5-6pm for workers returning home, despite the short time frame there are only 1-5 windows for ‘immigration’ for 10,000 people per day so movement is slow. These workers have to face this every single day – I hope the memory stays fresh in my mind for the times I complain and struggle to get out of bed at 6am to drive to work!
During our time in Nablus we were treated to a rare privilege with a visit to the Samaritans, as they rarely open their doors to outsiders. The High Priest met us to talk through the history and bloodline of the Samaritans which can supposedly be traced right back to Adam and Eve. It was an interesting insight into a rarely seen culture, and although we weren’t necessarily convinced by all of their views, I felt honoured to be let inside or a few hours.
Our last day in Nablus was another emotional day for us all with a trip to Askar Refugee Camp and a visit from one of the freed prisoners. The camp experience was much more positive than the previous – here we were guests who were warmly welcomed. We were taken to the annual summer camp where we were treated to a fantastic dabke dance performance from some of the children, who also tried to impart some of their dance knowledge to us – relatively unsuccessfully! I found myself again fighting to hold back tears as our host and guide at the camp shared sad stories of how he was imprisoned from the age of 15 until his 20’s and so feels he didn’t have his childhood. Meanwhile, the camp’s treasurer, who was also present, had lost his mother in the first intifada and his 8-year-old nephew in the second – tragedy and loss is present in everyone here.
The female prisoner we met later was only 26 years old and was arrested two weeks after her graduation because she was a member of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and detained for nine months. She described psychologically harrowing conditions – and in looking at such a small, sweet young girl telling the story, it was hard to imagine the torment she had endured. The trauma is not even over now though, she faces ongoing problems as employers don’t want someone who could be perceived as trouble and she gets harassed at every checkpoint. She also explained that she may face problems trying to find a husband too as people believe that every female prisoner is raped (she was quick to assure us this is not the case) and therefore people assume she is no longer a virgin. Despite the implications these rumours have for her future, she was not concerned, preferring to share her story and risk the consequences, rather than stay quiet to make her life easier – an inspiration to us all.