This is every night in Balata

A boy in Balata refugee camp holds up the Quran (Matthew Cassel)


“…My children don’t be scared of the wolf, the wolf is eating only the children who are scared of him…”

— From the Lebanese song “Al-Awlad Waadeeb” (The Children and the Wolf)

The neighbor’s baby is sick. How do I know? There are only two thin walls and about 15 feet of separation between them and us. These thin walls also create for a magnificent arena to echo the shots of M-16 fire which ring throughout the night. It’s impossible to sleep, at least for me — I’m not used to this. My friend says that he sleeps through it just fine most nights. Although, when the larger Israeli vehicles come with their big artillery I don’t think that sleeping is possible.

At night I lay in bed trying to fall asleep but it’s impossible when I’m also trying to prepare for the gunshots. Ten minutes go by, then another ten … not sure if I’m sleeping or awake, I hear them and I shoot up. I grab my chest to be sure my heart is still beating. After I know I’m OK, I tense up even more and curse to myself, furious that I can’t sleep. After a minute I lie back down with my eyes wide open and I say to myself, “stop, stop, stop, stop …” Another shot, and another and another … “fuck!” It goes on and on … next thing I know I’m waking up at 8:00 am to the noise of children playing in the street.

This is every night in Balata.

I was told 17 checkpoints surround Nablus. Of course, if you need to you can make trek that takes at least a few hours on foot and walk through the mountains to avoid these checkpoints. Ask anyone in Nablus about it, everyone here knows. Everyone here knows that every time Israel says “security,” life for Palestinians will become more difficult.

And by the way, Kofi Annan, did you just condemn Israel for breaking the cease-fire with Lebanon? Wow.

“What, you’re surprised that Kofi Annan said this?”

“Actually yes, I’m very surprised. How many countless cease-fires with the Palestinians has Israel broken? How many human rights violations does Israel commit on a daily basis?”

“Oh, would you stop being so radical.”

“Right, you mean radical like those who spoke out against Apartheid South Africa 30 years ago?”

I hate that word, “radical.” Why does one have to be a “radical” to oppose Apartheid Israel? Yesterday I watched BBC World, on which Israelis were being interviewed at the beach complaining about their situation.

Sitting at the beach for four hours with your wife and your three kids — or, sitting, or rather standing at a checkpoint for four hours with your wife and three kids …

If only the world could understand that checkpoint.

This morning was hot, about 85 degrees (30 Celsius). I waited at a checkpoint leaving Nablus. I watched the people’s faces around me. I looked ahead at the young Jewish soliders, all of them armed with M-16s. At least one kept his gun pointed at the Palestinians as they went through the turnstile one by one. A larger Palestinian man’s face turned red when the soldier made him lift his T-shirt all the way up to his neck. He turned around slowly in a 360-degree circle with his shirt lifted. A female soldier near by giggled while looking at the man’s exposed torso.

At one point I had a railing to lean against. I stood there staring at a row of Israeli flags attached to a string flapping in the wind.

Matthew Cassel is a photographer from Chicago. He is part of the “Picture Balata” photography project.

Related Links

  • A dialogue at Huwara checkpoint, Zachary Wales writing from Nablus (5 August 2006)
  • Bombs and tanks in the night, Jenny Digi writing from Nablus (3 August 2006)
  • Terror and occupation in Nablus, Linda Spence writing from Nablus (21 April 2006)
  • Balata refugee camp under attack, Adri Nieuwhof and Walid Abdelhadi (25 February 2006)