There were many places I wanted to see in Palestine this June and Nablus was certainly one of them. Many people were telling me not to go. It was not safe, and my plan to go on to Jenin afterwards was madness, they said. But I had things to see in Nablus, and memories to collect for friends who have never been able to go back home.
From Jerusalem, Abu ‘Issa, his wife and I made our way, hoping that we would be able to drive through Huwarra checkpoint to Nablus. Abu ‘Issa had obtained a clearance from the Peres Centre in Jerusalem for passage in his car. The Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint had other ideas. “No car - walk!” No amount of protesting changed their minds. Abu ‘Issa told his wife to take the car and visit friends in Salfit and that he would accompany me on my journey north. We would call her to come back to Huwarra at the end of the day.
With that settled, we joined the hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children walking and waiting in the hot sun to pass through the controls. Males between 16 and 45 all have to go through X-ray machines; the rest just wait until it pleases the soldiers to let them through. Foreigners are not much liked by the Israeli soldiers here. It is fairly clear that if you are walking with Palestinians, you must be a sympathiser. Two Israeli soldiers stopped me rudely and told me that I had to go back. When Abu ‘Issa checked with another soldier about clearance, he nodded his assent, but I was stopped again further up the line and it was clear that all this was done on the whim of the soldiers. No one seemed to have any authority and by this time, I knew that it was not wise to lose patience. Those that did ended up in a sort of holding yard where they might have to wait the entire day without being let through.
Finally, Abu ‘Issa and I managed to cross the checkpoint to the waiting taxis. Everyone shared them in the hope that the trip to Nablus would be quick for all of us. The journey itself, though, was made in silence. People weighed down by the burden of occupation have little to talk or laugh about anymore. All the waiting and the unknown obstacles still to come create an understandable tension that must make every day’s journey a nightmare. Nevertheless, there is a certain amount of comfort in being with people who have a closeness to humanity that we in the “free” world don’t experience. The ever-present danger that respects no one is a great leveller and I saw many acts of kindness - people offering water, offering to carry heavy bags, offering lifts, giving an arm to old women barely able to walk.
The drive to Nablus was uneventful, except for the times that taxis passing each other sometimes stopped and drivers exchanged information about what lay ahead.
Entering Nablus one can see what once would have been a beautiful city. Alas, it is no more. War has wearied it beyond recognition now and it hurt me to tell my friends that when I saw them again. Nestled in the valley between two hills, one could almost believe that Nablus was a gracious city as we drove along the divided road graced with trees, but nothing could hide the coarse acts of barbarism as we passed bombed out buildings, ripped up roads, pock-marked buildings from gunfire, uncollected rubbish, grafitti, and so much dust.
People and cars still rushed back and forth as if things were happening, but in reality, there is nothing much left to buy or sell, nothing much left to live for.
The old city of Nablus has been assaulted beyond belief. Every night the tanks roll into town and rip the awnings from the shops in the narrow streets as they pass. Every night, another family is violated by Israeli soldiers - the men blindfolded, hands bound and taken away, the women left to weep while trying to comfort terrified children whose homes have been ransacked, even destroyed. Walking in those streets somehow felt like a sacrilege because I represented something the people of Nablus under occupation could not have. Twice women came up to me begging for my help - not for money or food, but to tell the world that their people are suffering beyond anything we could imagine. What comfort could I give them when I knew that the world really does not care? Somehow talking to me must have strengthened their belief that there was hope simply because I had come there. That must mean the world is interested. I didn’t have the heart to tell them otherwise and just nodded that I would do what I could to let people know.
You can’t help feeling that you are in another reality. It doesn’t seem real, yet people still go about their business, the shops are still open even if they have very little left to sell, cars still toot their horns and weave their way in the crowds, and I saw lots of flowers for sale. Beautiful healthy flowers and plants which told me more than anyone could about the humanity. of the Palestinians. They are no more terrorists than you or I. Who would care for plants when everything else is decaying around them?
I had come to see Magida Masri, a strong and feisty woman who had achieved an enormous vote in the January elections. She met me in the Mother School which runs vocational training courses for women. That is one thing I saw throughout my trip to Palestine - so many projects and courses and incentives for women. Women in Palestine are often the sole breadwinners because their husbands have either been shot or taken away and they need to be trained to support their families. The need is great, but the enthusiasm is still there, and despite everything, hospitality is as warm and insistent as ever. A late breakfast of olives, labaneh, and warm bread is far more inviting than toast and marmalade. And the company makes it even better.
Magida took me to Balata camp where she was visiting a family whose house had been partially destroyed by an Israeli tank the night before. Amazingly, a group of men were already there mixing the concrete and beginning to re-build the walls again. There had been no warning. Everybody was used to hearing the ominous rumble in the early hours of the morning. Normally the living room that was demolished would have had ten or eleven people in it, but they had already left or gone to sleep. If they had been there, they would have died or been terribly injured because the tanks cannot really fit in these small narrow streets and they just crush everything in their way. This night would be no different, just a different house or shop, perhaps even the same one again. But as fast as Israel destroys, the Palestinians build even faster upon the blood of their martyrs.
Sometimes they don’t. In the old city, I saw the ruined homes that once must have seen people laugh and dream inside their walls. Now they stand as empty shells, reminders of what barbarian invaders are capable of when bloodlust blinds them to human decency and sensibilities. But these are not just monuments to the horrors of yesteryear; they are the crumbling edifices of the horrors being perpetrated today. And amidst it all, the Palestinians remain as steadfast and honourable as their forefathers, every story a page in their history. Anyone who wants to believe the myth that Palestine was a land without people has never been to Palestine and should say nothing more.
There is plenty of evidence of the thriving economy and industry that was Nablus before 1948, and try as Israel might, no amount of bulldozing can obliterate the endeavour and freedom that exists in the spaces levelled by these grotesque machines. Where once the famous ancient Nablus soap factory was, there are now builders creating something else in its place. Not with stones to match those of bygone years - they are newer today, but with the will to breathe life back into the spaces. Human enterprise is a wondrous thing for which Israel’s war machine is no match.
As I walked along the narrow streets, I noticed huge boulders blocking the roads with just enough room for people to pass through - certainly not cars. At the entrance to other streets, there were drums filled with cement and young boys filling new ones. I was told that these obstacles make it impossible for the army vehicles to pass and difficult for the tanks and bulldozers. It also makes it difficult for the people living there, but any inconvenience is worth making trouble for the Israeli soldiers. It might mean another house saved from demolition. Of course, it doesn’t stop the soldiers from storming down the streets on foot and smashing down doors and killing.
This takes me to the cemetery in Nablus. I had to go there to visit the grave of my friend Siham’s sister, Shadia. She had been a resistance fighter after the 1967 war and one night they came to kill her and to destroy the family home. Two other sisters had been imprisoned and were now living in Ramallah - such strong and wonderful women. Siham has never seen the grave or been back to her family home and she hasn’t seen her sisters in Ramallah. This family is very much respected in Nablus and all of them are highly educated and cultured, but barbarians have no respect for the civilised lives of others. What did they do to deserve such treatment except to refuse to be beaten into submission by the Israeli military?
The cemetery held so many similar stories and secrets in the ground beneath the gravestones and I spent an hour or more looking at the faces of the young men and women and even children all killed by Israeli soldiers. Yet, despite the sadness of so many lives cut short so unnecessarily, there was a spiritual calmness here as if those that had died knew that Israel could never drive them from their land now. Their blood had seeped into the dark earth and their bones would rest amongst the roots of the trees forever. They are the land that Israel covets, but it will never belong to Israel. In the heat of the day, the cemetery was cool, shaded by trees lovingly planted amongst those that lay there and I felt more a part of Palestine there than I had anywhere else. I couldn’t have a more haunting memory of my journey to Nablus.
Majda and some of the other women had wanted me to stay the night and travel to Jenin in the morning, but I didn’t have the luxury of time. So, with a promise to come back again, Abu ‘Issa and I took another taxi out of Nablus where more checkpoints would hinder our trip to Palestine’s northern-most town, Jenin. But that is another story. I only found out many hours later when we had returned to Jerusalem that Nablus had been closed that night and no one could leave or enter. This was the beginning of some of the most invasive sieges by Israel’s military to implement ethnic cleansing.
I have since learned that public records have been totally destroyed, ground into the dust by bulldozers, leaving thousands of Palestinians without any evidence of births and deaths or the precious travel documents that allow them to go outside and study or visit relatives. Old records documenting the history of generations of Palestinians from Nablus are gone too. All this to make them non-people, sub-human - without a past or present and certainly no future. How much more must the Palestinians endure in their caged existence before the world says this is enough and tells Israel to stop their relentless torture of a whole people?
I went to Nablus and I got out, but that is no comfort to me knowing that thousands of others had no choice. Perhaps the only consolation is that in spirit I feel with every Palestinian and that spirit never really left the cemetery of Nablus.
Sonja Karkar is an activist with Women for Palestine of Melbourne, Australia.