One week after I left Nablus I found myself again looking out across the city’s majestic sunlit hills, this time from one of the highest mountains in the West Bank. In all my reporting on Israel’s invasion and human rights violations, I never mentioned how beautiful the ancient city is, from the surrounding mountains to the enchanting Old City, so easy to get lost in. Both remind me of Damascus (one pessimistic Palestinian pointed out the comparison early on during my stay, claiming that the Nablus invasion was practice for an attack against Syria). My last day in Nablus I got to discover another one of the city’s gems: An-Najah University. I immediately took to the old architecture mixed with modern sculptures on the main campus, but what inspired me most was watching thousands of students return to the frantic bustle of daily university life so soon after soldiers had released the city from hostage. Resilience is a defining character of Palestinian identity in my experience, and I was more impressed than surprised to see Palestinians asserting their determination to get an education even in the most difficult circumstances. Just another example of the ever-pervasive Palestinian nonviolent resistance.
The night before visiting I had passed by the empty campus — abandoned since the army took over and classes were cancelled — in a taxi driving home with the family that was hosting me. I had grown quite close to the warm family with Leninist communist leanings, and felt happy and comfortable in their home covered with posters of Che Guevara, David Beckham, Shakira, and others idolized by the three teenage daughters. As we were driving and chatting after having visited some friends, we were suddenly surrounded with jeeps driving through the city to and from seemingly every direction. We panicked. Was there curfew? Would we be shot for being outside? Screeching to a halt, we tried to back up to the neighborhood we’d come from, but jeeps were swarming in that direction as well. Where were we supposed to go?
The jeeps left as quickly as they had come. Apparently they were doing a practice invasion, presumably to train new soldiers, as they’ve been doing a lot recently in a village called Beit Lid near Tulkarem (even though nobody in the village has been accused of threatening Israel’s security). I will never forget that feeling of being suddenly surrounded, the confusion and panic, the helplessness. There was something about sitting together to a cheerful family breakfast the next morning that felt like a kind of nonviolent resistance too: the insistence on ordinary life and pleasures no matter what havoc occupation forces are wreaking just outside.
I returned to the Nablus region a week later to accompany a teacher named Addawiya and her family to plow land they haven’t been able to work for six years due to soldier harassment. The next plot over hasn’t been plowed in 26 years for the same reason. There are Israeli military posts on all the highest West Bank peaks, among them the mountain where Addawiya’s land lies. As we cleared away stones that had overrun the land over the last half dozen years, Addawiya told me about the day she was picking olives with her brother when the soldiers came and threatened to shoot her brother if he didn’t leave the land immediately. He persisted in picking olives until the soldiers began shooting into the air to show that they were serious, at which point he ran off terrified. Addawiya was left alone, and on her hands and knees pleaded for her life, all along sure she was going to die. Her fear was not unjustified. Three years ago, Addawiya’s sister was taking a walk on the family’s land near the village with her husband when a group of soldiers popped out from the foliage and open-fired on him. The 33-year-old teacher died instantly.
The Israeli army came and apologized to Addawiya’s family. Apparently they were intending to assassinate a wanted man and shot the wrong guy. Addawiya’s sister, who was 23 and pregnant at the time, is now a 26-year-old going on 60. With nobody to support her and two young children to raise, she had to move back in with her mother. Incidentally, the mother invited me to move in too when we returned from plowing (as an unmarried, childless 27-year-old woman, I’m practically an old maid around here). I declined politely, and we began the journey back to Haris.
Our first stop along the way was Huwwara, the southern checkpoint out of Nablus city, where as usual hundreds of students from An-Najah and other universities were waiting unhappily, squished together like cattle as it began to rain and everyone squeezed under the roof to wait behind metal detectors and turnstiles to leave the city.I remembered passing through Huwwara a few days earlier on a trip accompanying other farmers in the area. Since the solidarity effort was organized by the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights, we were driving in an Israeli car with yellow license plates, so we didn’t even slow down as we breezed through on the Israeli-only road parallel to the one where Palestinians had been waiting for hours if not days.
On the way back from Addawiya’s land, a colleague and I decided to stay at Huwarra to do checkpoint watch, i.e., witness and document any human rights violations. There was already one sick man whom the army had refused to let pass and we took his story. At first the soldiers didn’t seem to mind our presence, but after some time one soldier told us we weren’t allowed to stand where we were. He pointed to a line drawn on the floor nearby and said we could stand behind it. We began to protest, but quickly realized a fight would translate into longer waiting time for the Palestinians being processed by the same soldier, so we walked a few paces to the other side of the line. Ten minutes later, a different soldier informed us it was illegal to be observing the checkpoint at all, so we would have to leave immediately. We didn’t even dignify his absurd claim with a response. He stood next to us awkwardly repeating himself a few times and then eventually went away.
We were approached by a third soldier, speaking only Hebrew. When we said we couldn’t understand, he told us in broken English that it was illegal to be there if you didn’t speak Hebrew. This was a new one. Another soldier showed up to translate the soldier’s original message, namely that in fact we could look but not take pictures. The soldier regretted to inform us that he would have to delete my photographs. At that point we decided we preferred to leave rather than lose the photos, so we began to walk away. As expected, the soldier didn’t chase after the supposedly “illegal” pictures. Just before we left, we saw the sick man previously denied passage try his luck with a different soldier at a different machine and get through.
Israel claims that its checkpoints are for the security and safety of its citizens. What makes this claim so difficult to believe for those observing the institutions is how inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary the army’s actions and “laws” so frequently are. The sick man got through on his second try. Had that failed, he could have sprung for an expensive taxi ride to an alternative checkpoint 10 miles north that is scarcely monitored at all (when we passed through on the way to Addawiya’s land there were no soldiers in sight). The whole trip north and then around again would cost him several hours and paychecks, but he could exit his city with relative certainty. Anyone who’s spent time in the West Bank knows that if you’re desperate, you can get anywhere. There is always an alternative road, even into Israel, even with the Wall, which is full of holes so as not to disturb settlers commuting to Israel. Israel is not stupid. It knows that Palestinians can get around the army’s blockades if they just drain enough energy and resources to do so. So why does Israel do it?
As our shared taxi from Huwwara to Haris left the checkpoint, the driver pulled up next to several drivers to ask how Zatara was. Zatara is a permanent checkpoint between Huwwara and Haris, but there’s an alternative road through Jama’iin village, which drivers take when the checkpoint line is too long or slow. The ride takes much longer, and is painfully bumpy and curvy. When our driver chose the detour, the woman next to me grimaced and took out some plastic bags, which she spent the ride vomiting into. I rubbed her back, not knowing what else to do, thinking about the short, straight, paved road that could have eased her suffering if it were not rendered so endless for non-Jews.
The taxi eventually dropped us off near the Haris bus stop, which soldiers have surrounded with large concrete cubes leftover from the roadblock that used to block our village. The blocks mean that waiting Palestinians cannot easily get from the sheltered bus stop to the road, so at least one traveler must wait always wait on the road to spot and flag down cars, even when it’s raining. Each time I’m forced to drench my backpack and jeans waiting to start a day’s journey, I think about what Israel has to gain by making even a bus stop inaccessible without struggle, by rendering what could be a smooth drive home into a nauseating miserable ride. I think about why the roadblocks were set up to begin with outside Haris, when villagers either had to drive their cars to the entrance, park, walk around, and take a taxi the rest of the way to work or university, or they had to take their cars along a strenuous unpaved detour through the countryside to reach the same outside road. What’s the point of making life so frustrating that people reconsider even going to work or school? What happens when daily life in Palestine becomes just too unbearable?
My questions are answered almost every day when strangers call or approach us desperate for help getting a visa to Europe or North America. They say they can’t take it anymore — first Israel took their land, then their sons, and now their dignity. What Israel wants more than anything isn’t to harm Palestinians; it wants for Palestinians to leave. Israel is the first to admit that the “demographic problem” of too many Palestinians in an exclusively Jewish state threatens Israel more than any suicide bomber ever could.
Addawiya told me she wanted to leave as we were walking back from her groves. I asked her where, and she told me it didn’t matter — she wasn’t going anywhere. “Because no country will give you a visa?” I asked, and she shook her head. “Because that’s what they want us to do. They want us to flee as we did in 1948, so that the Jewish National Fund can again expropriate our land and reserve it for Jews only. But I won’t leave. I will stay here because it’s my right and it’s my duty, to myself and to my children.” For Addawiya, even staying in her village and working her land is nonviolent resistance, the kind almost every Palestinian partakes in. It’s not the type of resistance that will make it onto headlines or the six o’clock news, but it is there, it is strong, and it is not going away.
All images by Anna Baltzer.
Anna Baltzer is a volunteer with the International Women’s Peace Service in the West Bank and author of the book, Witness in Palestine: Journal of a Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories. For information about her writing, photography, DVD, and speaking tours, visit her website at www.AnnaInTheMiddleEast.com