Tomatoes, Gas, Coffee and their Stories

A Palestinian vendor from Balata refugee camp sells watermelons on the way to Ramallah, 20 June 2006. (MaanImages/Mushir Abdelrahman)

Every single object carries significance that goes far beyond those things we would normally associate with them. Here, in occupied Palestine, life is hard. Objects tell stories just like the people do: constant, beating stories. Like fierce monsoons, they pelt at you, daring you to challenge their significance. And yet like individual raindrops in a monsoon, each story is but one of millions. Like raindrops, each story takes a slightly different shape, but they all carry the same “Made in Israel” pollutants. Life here in occupied Palestine is hard.

Objects carry significance here that a visitor simply cannot imagine. Each object carries with it millions of stories; they fill my heart and my head and make me feel at once like crying and screaming.

Take first tomatoes: the Israelis have started a sinister campaign of buying nearly all of the Palestinian farmers’ tomatoes. They are then sold to Europe, for prices many times more than what the destitute farmers receive for their toil. This has had a double effect on the Palestinian economy. It has made local, Palestinian tomatoes so expensive that Palestinians cannot afford to buy them. Thus, they buy cheap, GMO and pesticide-filled Israeli tomatoes, injecting millions of shekels into the Israeli economy and boosting the subsidy-fat Israeli agricultural industry. (Bear in mind that the land upon which ‘Israeli’ tomatoes are grown has, all of it, been confiscated from the Palestinian fellahin.)

The Israelis also force their will upon the Palesitnians through their control over the movement of gas. Most Palestinians rely on gas to survive. In the camps and villages, as in other parts of Palestine, there is no central heating or cooling in homes. People use gas powered heaters, and everyone uses gas to cook. The Israelis play a dangerous game with people’s lives: each month, here in Balata refugee camp, there is no gas for at least one or two weeks. Why? The Israelis close off the Jordanian and Egyptian borders to gas only. Israel will not sell gas to the Palestinians. ‘What do people do without?’ I asked. ‘They don’t cook, and they stay in bed,’ a friend said. No hot food, no hot showers, and no warmth beyond the waves emanating off of loved ones, or the smile of a child. This is but one example of many nefarious strategies Israel deploys in what Israeli academic Ilan Pappe has called an ethnic cleansing campaign in the Occupied West Bank.

Another object through which we outsiders can better understand the socio-economic and political problems here is coffee. I watched a film a few nights ago, made by a Nablus university student. The five-minute short tells the agonizing story of a boy, twelve years old, from a village near Nablus. The best student in his class, his life changed drastically when his father became ill. Life in the villages is very difficult. Not only are the people almost universally impoverished (economically, of course), but they bear the brunt of the worst kind of Israeli racism. Settlements tower over them, or lie hostile on the hilltops next to them. Settlers frequently make a game out of terrorizing Palestinian villagers, beating children, harassing women, killing men. This all occurs under the protection of the Israeli occupying army.

After his father became ill, the young boy, the eldest of 15, became the breadwinner for his large family. With little options for work, he set out to sell coffee at the Huwarra checkpoint, south of Nablus. Each morning he rises with the sun, sets out on his bicycle, and makes for the checkpoint with his two thermoses of hot, sweet, Arabic coffee. He sells until his classes begin. After school, he returns immediately to the checkpoint to sell again. In the film, he tells of his trials in selling coffee. More than three times has he been beaten by soldiers, his thermoses cracked, the brown, gooey coffee spilling out on the dirty ground. His crime? Delaying Palestinians who were ordered to ‘COME!’ by the scared, angry teenagers who rule the checkpoints like arrogant princes.

During the shooting of the film, the young boy’s father died. He tells of his life: ‘After I started working at the checkpoint, my grades plummeted. I was making A’s, and now I am making B’s and C’s in all of my classes. I cannot play with my brothers and sisters. I cannot watch TV with them. I have no time for myself.’ Those meager free moments he cherishes he spends at the cemetery, visiting his late father’s grave. There is little hope for this young man, though he manages to crack a smile through his tears as he stares wide-eyed into the camera.

And who knew that the subject of horror films could dredge up memories of real life horror? A friend of a friend came over to the flat a few evenings ago to help us do a few things on a laptop I brought for a friend. His English was impeccable (a rarity in the camp), and he seemed excited to talk with me about American films and rap music. He is somewhat of a computer whiz, and opened up his server on our laptop, providing me with a plethora of American films to choose from for our (bootlegging) viewing pleasure. He spoke of a few, and then his eyes widened.

‘Do you like horror films?’ he asked. ‘Sort of,’ I said, ‘depending on my mood.’ He pointed to one of them and told me that it was positively terrifying, that if we were to download and watch it, we should keep the lights on. In half jest and half earnest, I mentioned in an aside that it seemed silly to watch horror films in a place plagued by so much true, everyday terror. At first he laughed and shrugged, saying, ‘What is there to be afraid of here?’ ‘The army,’ I replied, without hesitation. He immediately responded: ‘No! The army isn’t to be feared. They are cowards.’

‘Maybe so,’ I said, ‘but they kill people without abandon. This is truly terrifying, more so than any American horror flick could even aspire to be.’ This friend of a friend became suddenly quiet, and I saw tears budding in his large brown eyes. ‘I suppose you are right,’ he said at last. ‘It is something to watch your own brother take his last breaths and slip away from you, right in between your two hands.’

‘I suppose you are right.’

Finally, I’ll end with another story, one that says everything and nothing all at once.

A good friend and I were just talking, wading together through the ocean of tears, walking head on together into the monsoon of polluted water without anything but the cover of our friendship and his unbreakable spirit to keep us afloat.

We ended up, as we usually do, speaking of the tragedy of occupation and dispersion and death and violence and poverty and racism in broader terms, taking in the shapes of the monsoons of yesterday and of those breaking through into the horizon that will be tomorrow. Without the flowery language, what I mean to say is that we ended by discussing ‘the conflict’ as it is felt by Palestinians and Israelis both.

He told me, ‘You know as well as I do that this will not stop just because we fight against it. It must stop because they too want to make peace with us, a real and lasting peace based on mutual respect, dignity, and most of all, trust.’ Of course I agreed with him, and he continued.

‘But it is not easy, and sometimes it is hard to shake my hopelessness. You know me,’ he said. ‘I am a good man, I want nothing but peace for my children, for the children of Palestine and for Israel’s children as well. But how can we have peace if we cannot even stand to talk to one another?’

‘I had a friend,’ he said, ‘who worked with an Israeli group called Breaking the Silence. This is a group of former Israeli occupying soldiers who have come out against the occupation, and who publicly repent for their sins by telling their own stories, telling of how they individually (and of how their army collectively) abused the rights and dignities of each and every Palestinian each and every day. They speak in America, in Europe, in Israel. This friend of mine, she knew that I had been involved with the resistance. And she knew one of the soldiers who had come out and broken his and his nation’s collective silence. She asked me if I would meet with him. I agreed, excited to have the opportunity to speak with one of the men who occupied and terrorized a house of people I know, here, a few years ago. The soldier said that he wanted to personally apologize to the people who lived in that house. Anyway, we went to meet one another. Me, a Palestinian who spent time in an Israeli prison. Him, a colonial soldier who participated in human rights abuses against my people, my neighbors, and me. We met with a larger group of people, and we sat together in that group for four hours.’

‘Do you know,’ he said to me, ‘that I could barely look at him? We came together because we wanted to talk, we wanted to hear one another and try to understand the other man, and by extension, his nation, his people, his sorrows and his joys.’

‘So how did it go?’ I asked.

‘We did not say one word to one another for the entire time,’ he said, mournfully but with purpose. ‘I could not speak. I did not know where to begin.’

Kole Ellis (a pseudonym) is a writer and activist based in upstate New York. He is currently working in the West Bank city of Nablus, starting an after-school program for youth from the city, its camps and surrounding villages, and is living in the Balata refugee camp, south of the ancient city. He can be reached at