Thursday, September 29, 2005

Beginning or end?

(The bullet-ridden flag is still flying. A perfect metaphor for an occupied people.)
Today is my final day in Palestine. After that I'm off to crazy Cairo for half a day before embarking on the long journey back to Canberra, Australia. Yes, that's right, I'm returning to Canberra and my house negro ways. More on that later.

I'm tired, my arms and legs are sore, and my brain is farely drained. I've also found myself overloaded with stories of dispossession, injustice and shear victimhood. So much so that I often glaze over as, for instance, an old lady tells me of the night her grandson was detained by the Israelis, and is yet to be heard from (let alone charged).

The Palestinians are an intense bunch. Their hospitality can be stifling, much like the taste of you fifth cup of Arabic coffee in the Mediterranean heat. But it's incredibly welcoming. What has surprised me the most, although it isn't really all that surprising in retrospect, is the abject routineness of the place. That includes the occupation. People have adjusted to a life of constant humiliations, struggles and imminent dangers. Let me give you but one example by way of illustration.

For the past few nights Israeli jets have been flying over head around the clock. And when I say around the clock, I mean, on some days, every 30 mins, 24 hours a day. Yes, even at 2am in the morning! Sometimes they just fly very low to the ground, yet still too fast for you to actually catch them. Instead, by the time you hear the plane overhead, it's already way up in the clouds. On other occasions they produce a sonic boom - basically break the sound barrier very close to the ground. Again, before you know what's happened, the courageous Israeli pilot has already bailed off with his plane into the sky. At night you can see the deep red exhaust of the plane flying up over the horizon like a shooting star in reverse.

These sonic booms are pretty special, to put it in crudely ironic terms. It's like a giant, very loud clap of thunder immediately above your head. Only this clap of thunder sends a giant ripple of sound waves coursing through the walls, the windows, through your entire body. I even saw the glass in the windows wobble on one occasion! I've never experienced anything like it. The first time I heard it, I literally thought I was about to be collateral damage in yet another 'targeted' assassination. Alas, I found myself safe and sound, albeit rather embarrassed - I was all balled up on the ground as everyone else casually kept walking on to wherever they were heading.

The sonic booms often break windows. I was told just moments ago that a local school has several cracked walls. Young children, and there are plenty of those in the Hospital I am currently visiting, scream profusely. And let's not forget the dear animals. They go totally apeshit - the dogs become delirious, barking abruptly. The birds all fly off at once like a giant, tangled ball of string.

There is no other way to explain this phenomenon than thus - it is state terrorism. An indiscriminate weapon whose sole purpose is to terrify the entire Palestinian population.

So there you have it. Another intensive journey through an intense land. It will take some time to adequately begin to assess my first impressions of Occupied Palestine. Be that as it may, one thing is already clear. For me, this is not the end of the journey. No. It's just the beginning.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Just north of the Egyptian border

Rafah is as frontline as Palestinian cities get. To the immediate south is the border with Egypt, a border which partitioned Rafah and its population into two cities. Many people in Rafah have relatives - cousins, aunties, brothers, parents - who live on either the Egypitan or Gazan side. For a brief time during the Israeli disengagement last week these relatives could greet each other in person for the first time in over 3 decades. Now the border has been closed by Israel again. The city was partitioned after the 1967 war when previously Egypt-occupied Gaza fell into Israeli hands. As in the photo above, Rafah is crowded with buildings, many peppered with American-made Israeli bullets.
Most of the border is straddled by a giant metal wall. The wall was constructed by the Israelis, ostensibly on the grounds of security, thanks to Egypitan steel. Who says Arabs and Jews don't cooperate?
This used to be a tunnel between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. It was used to smuggle a range of goods, from tax free items to guns and illicit drugs.
This is Anees, one of the friendliest, most welcoming people I have ever met. Although he is only 20 he speaks and acts as though he was much older. Obviously he has seen a lot. He spoke at length about the oppressive nature of the Strip. That although the settlements were now gone, and Gazans could travel freely within the Strip (previously three checkpoints within the Strip meant that most could not leave their town or village) life was still difficult.Ruins of houses demolished by the Israelis, usually on the grounds that they harboured militants or were the houses of suicide bombers, are everywhere. The one pictureed above is right next to Anees' house.

"When they [the Israelis] demolish the [neighbouring] house, it damaged our house too. Our house is still broken."

Like so many of the people I've met in Palestine, especially young people, Anees is fed up with the situation. I could not sense any anger, although I had seen and heard of many other angry people. What I felt more deeply was a powerful sense of frustration.

"Do you think I like living like this?" He pointed to another pile of rubble heaped on the street immediately outside the front door to his house. The rubble came from another, adjacent building which had been partially demolished by the Israelis.

"This rubbish has been here for months. No one cleans it up. There is no one to clean it... Just once, I'd like to see some space, no rubbish, just clean and open... Do you think I like living like this?"

I wondered whether such scenes, the daily frustrations of simple routines forever etched into nuisances like piles of rubble and rubbish, ever made him angry, angry towards the Israelis.

"Of course, I am not happy, but I don't hate the Israelis. I don't believe in hate. I would love to meet more Israelis, normal people like me. I just don't know why the [Israeli] army does this to us. Why?"

Don't ask me.

Eventually we arrived at the beach. It was a surprisingly calm place to be given the generally hectic, cramped atmosphere of the rest of Rafah. Yet even here there were signs of the Occupation. In the distance, a lone Israeli navy vessel stood immediately on the horizon. It was a menacing image. If a picture tells a thousand words, then surely this very real image screamed out something even more profound. The Israelis were reminding everyone in Gaza that they were still around. That they were still the ones with all the power, the guns, even the ocean.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Entering the prison

The Gaza Strip is a giant open-air prison. As soon as you enter the Palestinian side from Israel you are immediately greeted by shy Palestinian officials and a landscape littered with dust, debris and demolished structures. Driving down the central arterary of the Strip is like driving down the boulevarde of nihilism. A lengthy monument to decades-long occupation, it hints at the difficulties the Palestinians will face in creating a functioning state. Most of the road is raw, the bitumen in large part having been dug-up by Israeli bulldozers during the disengagement period that ended a few weeks back. What utility do such actions have other than to create misery for the Palestinians?
Yes, there is even the savaged reminance of a synagogue (pictured above). It looks more like a twisted, heaped roll of water-logged paper than anything recognisable as a place of worship. My instantenous reaction upon seeing the wreckage was fear, fear towards the type of anger and hatred that generated it. And sadness. Why couldn't the synagogue have been converted into a mosque or, at least salvage. I've been told much of the synagogue's materials were salvage. But it doesn't look like they did a very good job.

What is equally obvious, but which has not received much mainstream media attention, is the Jewish settlement structures (particularly homes and farming infrastructure) which are now totally destroyed. The Jewish settlers deliberately destroyed everything they could not take with them, thanks as always to the Israeli Defence Force.

Access to Gaza is via the Erez Checkpoint in Israel (Israel has presently blocked access between Egypt and Gaza). It must rank as one of the most astonishing alternative tourist sites in the world.

At present only internationals with good reason to enter Gaza may enter the Strip. The only place you do this is through the Erez Checkpoint in Israel. The checkpoint is basically a giant corridor. The first segment of this corridor begins when you pass three small concrete bunkers which are manned by Israeli soldiers when the checkpoint is fully operational (aka when Palestinians are travelling through it). Passed that is the standard booth where young female Israeli soldiers do their best to impersonate immigration officials checking your passport. Once this process of procedural brinksmanship has been completed you are motioned towards a lane which resembles a giant faraday cage. The end of this cage is closed by an electric gate. There is no way of knowing when or how it will open, although there is a small video camera trained keenly at you from the roof. In my experience, the gate opened, ever so slowly, after around two minutes.

Following this electric gate there exists another, larger electric gate which completely covers a long concrete corridor some 15 metres wide, 10 metres high, and, as I soon would discover, around a kilometre long. Again, further uncertainty ensues at this juncture. Do I say something? Do I just wait? When will the gate open? This time there did not appear to be any video camera (although I am certain there was a video camera somewhere)... And eventually the gate did open, even more slowly than the previous one.As I began to walk through the opening I was startled by a loud, garbled message emanating from a mega-phone on the Israeli side.

"Oh shit, what is it now?" was my immediate, audible response.
"Don't worry, it's probably just us." Was the response from a man standing on the Palestinian side with a camera crew. Somehow I had managed not to notice them until then. This despite the corridor being long and straight. Amazing the tunnel vision you develop when you're caged in.
"Oh, okay."

I walked on through as the gate closed before the others could cross and the man who had spoken to me began to let off a string of expletives in the mega-phone's direction.* This from an 'international', a white television crew. I wonder what the locals must think?The long corridor was really something else. I've been through the labrynth underground train stations of many a major city, but the Erez checkpoint corridor took the cake. It was straight, claustrophobic (yes, that word again) and completely featureless except for the myriad of bullet holes peppered liberally along both sides of the corridor's walls. Some of the holes were neat, small and needle like. Others were chunky, messy, blob-like gaps. It was as if I was being given a free lesson on the different types of bullets you can fire from a machine gun. In the photo above you can see the part of the corridor where the Palestinian and Israeli sides begin. The Israeli side is to the right, coloured off-green.
(The Palestinian side of Erez Checkpoint.)

* I later discovered that the journalist was none other than the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Matt Brown.

Monday, September 26, 2005

One day in Hebron

Because the border into the Gaza Strip has been closed, I've decided to check out the city of Hebron. Hebron is a major Palestinian population centre in the south of the West Bank. It also happens to be one of the more volatile places in the region because it is intersected by three Jewish settlements, one of which literally juts immediately into the centre of Hebron's old city (the area marked with a box in the map below. The green area marks the settlements). Hebron has 140,000 indigenous Palestinians and 400 settlers, all recent migrants, 'protected' by several hundred Israeli soldiers.Hebron to me felt like a microcosm of the Occupation and a glimpse into the future direction of Israel's illegal expansion into what's left of the Palestinians' land. Although I only spent a day in Hebron I toured the old city extensively. The old city is the heart of Hebron. It also happens to be at the centre of most of the violence. Here's some photos I hope captures something of what life in Hebron is like for the Palestinians.*
This charming couplet of 'wall art' is courtesy of Jewish settlers from Kiryat Arba. Kiryat Arba sits on top of an old Palestinian neighbourhood. My guess is this rubbish was spray painted by some settler kids. The Israeli police can't detain kids younger than 12. As a consequence, settler kids 12 and younger are considered the greatest menace by Israeli police and the local Palestinian population alike. They routinely pelt Israeli police car with stones. I was told that one policeman deliberately did not move his car when settler kids started throwing stones at it in the hope that one of the windows would break and he could fine their parents.
Here you can see some narrow walkways in Hebron's old city. Note that all the shops are shut. This is a direct consequence of settler attacks on the locals. If you look closely you will see rubbish bulging down from nets covering the roof tops. The rubbish is thrown down by settlers who occupy the dwellings above the old city. Like the racist graffiti pictured above, you don't need to go out of your way to find images like this. It tends to be the other way around. The images abruptly confront you.
A Palestinian man smokes despondently as Israeli soldiers seize his bedroom. The door to this room is to the left of him. An international monitor who was also in the house told me that the Israeli soldiers probably wanted somewhere to sleep for the night and were too afraid to sleep at the checkpoints which are in the heart of the old city and therefore vulnerable to militant attacks. It's worth noting that the soldiers are also probably using the family as a form of human shield. Otherwise why not sleep in one of the unoccupied houses of which there are plenty?
Mr Mousa points to one of the bullet holes left when Baruch Goldstein, an ultra-orthodox Jew from the Kiryat Gat settlement, opened fire in the Tomb of Abraham mosque in 1994, killing 29 people and wounding several more. Settlers built a monument to Goldstein which I was unable to visit. Many settlers consider Goldstein a folk hero, not unlike the genocidal Custer of American folk lore, or many of the early 'pioneers' of Australia's outback.
Now the Tomb of Abraham (pictured below) has separate access points for Muslims and Jews. A tragically childish way for the two communities to worship at the same place. The Muslim section is controlled by four Israeli checkpoints all manned by those ubiquitous young soldiers.
I spoke to these four teenagers just before entering the Tomb of Abraham. By the time I came back, around 15 minutes later, they told me the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint (which is around the corner from where this photo was taken) had detained them and taken their IDs. They said this happens to them close to every day.
The Israelis routinely close off walkways within the old city, ostensibly on the grounds of security. The people who live behind this particular barrier have to walk an extra ten minutes to reach the point from which I took the above photo, which also happens to be one of the main thoroughfares through the old city. Another example of how Israel makes daily life for the Palestinians difficult. Torture by a thousand cuts.


That night I slept in a small hostel literally on the border between the (Palestinian) old city and the Kiryat Gat settlement. I didn't sleep too well. Here's why - an Israeli armoured vehicle swept noisely through the old city's narrow streets at least three times (probably more, given that I may have slept through some of the other visits). Sporadic machine gun fire could be heard what I estimate to be around half a kilometre away throughout the night, ending around 4am. How can people live like this?

* For a more detailed summary of social and political situation in Hebron click here.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Leaving Nablus

This is Hawareh Checkpoint in the outskirts of Nablus. From here I'll take a service (share) taxi to Ramallah. From Ramallah I'll get another service to Qalandia Checkpoint, enter Jerusalem, get a bus to Ashkelon in Israel, then a taxi to Erez, the checkpoint into Gaza. Wish me luck.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Beiteba Refugee Camp, Nablus

Back in Nablus today. I spent most of the afternoon meeting the head of the Women's Centre at Nablus' Beiteiba Refugee Camp. The Women Centre includes a hostel and educational facilities for Beiteba's young female population. It's Director (pictured sitting down to the right above) is one of the most influential women in Palestine. Having met several respected, male community leaders, it was refreshing to finally meet a senior, female Palestinian figure. Given that, you can imagine my eagerness to speak to her about the Occupation and life in general for Palestinian women. Instead I was forced to hear about her personal experience with the Al Naqba (Arabic for 'the catastrophe') of 1948, when Palestinians throughout the region now known as Israel were driven out of their homes, often on the promise that the eviction was temporary.

And what began, in me, as a sense of frustration - yet again, a Palestinian would not give me a sound bite, but would instead wax intensely about some decades-old injustice - ended, I think, with a slow realisation that this very old injustice was still fresh, still relevant, as though it only occurred last week. Many Palestinians, like her grandparents, still keep the old keys that unlock the doors to the houses they left some 56 years ago.

Just after 1967* her family visited their old house in Israel. It was still standing, and was now inhabited by a Hungarian family.

"My father knocked on the door... A lady opened the door and asked him who he was. He told her that this used to be his house, and she just stared at him strangely. Can you imagine how it feels to be treated like a stranger in your own home? We had to ask her if we could come inside and see our house. The lady let us in, but she didn't want to know [about their eviction], she just said that the house was given to her family by the [Israeli] Government... the house was vacant [when it was given to the Hungarian family]."
Little has changed on that front for Palestinians today. The Beiteba Community is often targeted by the Israelis, whose mountain top bases peer directly down into the camp's narrow 'streets'. The Director of the Women's Centre gave me a tour of the camp. Like Ama'ri, the atmosphere was claustrophobic, the conditions basic albeit spotlessly clean.

Despite this, the people of Beiteba continue to try and live normal lives. I was given a tour of the new Women's Centre, still under construction, which was an impressive, four-storey complex designed specifically to give women a space to live and express themselves. Perhaps here is a chance for a new start.

The young man in the picture below, a resident of Beiteba Refugee Camp, died in a suicide attack in Israel.
In response, the Israeli army bulldozed his family home (below). The top of the mountain which overlooks the ruins is an Israeli military installation. How does this prevent further suicide attacks? How is this a security measure? Collective punishment is a war crime under international law.

"Palestinian women are fighting many battles... at home, to take care of their families, [and] we are still resisting the Israelis." The Director showed me this Hamas poster as she spoke, pointing out the woman holding a rifle in the bottom left corner. It seems that a society under military occupation cannot but be militant.

* In 1967 Israel had a decisive military victory against its Arab-state neighbours, occupying East Jerusalem, the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Project Qalqilya

The long drive to Qalqilya has convinced me that occupied Palestine is a giant obstacle course. A massive putt putt golf course where the Palestinians are the golf balls. I traveled to Qalqilya from Nablus. The first stop (pictured) was Beiteba Checkpoint just south of Nablus where, yet again, an Israeli soldier queried my nationality. I even discovered, firsthand, that the revolving door which is used to farm people through the checkpoint one-by-one has a device to stop it revolving. This quickly and efficently converts the revolving door into a tiny prison cell. I'm sure some American company devised that nifty little gadget so the poor Israeli soldiers don't get overburdened with those teeming Palestenian masses.
After I passed Beiteba I caught a service taxi to Qalqilya. Okay, so that's that. Or so I thought. But no. After around 20 minutes of 'nifty' service taxi driving we were stopped by a small Israeli checkpoint (pictured above) manned by what appeared to be very young Israeli soldiers.

Me: "Excuse me... excuse me, can I take a picture of you?" Click! With that I took the photo posted below.
Soldier One: "No, no-"
Soldier Two: "What, why you want to take a photo?"
Me: "Because it's cool."
Soldier Two: "Because it's cool? Who are you, [something in Arabic]-"
Me: "Sorry I don't speak Arabic, only English. I'm from Australia."
Soldier Two: "Are you Muslim."
Me: "Yes."
Soldier Two: "Let's see your passport."
Soldier Three (another soldier who hitherto had been speaking with the driver on the other side says to him): "Okay, you can go!"
[Car drives through whilst Soldier Two looks on, still quite keen to get my passport.]

Of course those words cannot adequately capture the incredible sense of intmidation you feel when two tall, armed-to-the-teeth and very cocky young Israeli soldiers speak to you like that. I should also point out that Soldier One (the one pictured above) actually pointed his gun at me briefly, and quite non-chalantly at that.

As the taxi sped off, I couldn't help thinking what wicked things guns are. To be sure there is more to this situation, any situation where a gun is involved. But in my experience with the Israeli soldiers, and with the Palestinian kids brandishing guns in Nablus, I saw first hand how dangerous these instruments of death were. Not only because they can kill, but because they give the wielder the arrogance to believe that they are some sort of authority unto themselves. I hate guns. Really fucking hate guns. They always make me nervous.

The taxi was stopped at another checkpoint just outside Qalqilya. This time the Israeli soldiers did take my passport, all of our passports.* Eventually they returned. In the mean time several Palestinian cars drove past without the Israel soldiers even turning to look at them. It was clear to me how random the checkpoint stops were. When the soldiers returned with the passports they motioned one of the men inside the taxi to get out. I watched as he was told to stand alongside the road, inside an area enclosed by a small metal roof and concrete barricades. The taxi sped off. Very random these checkpoints...**

Mohammed, a young activist from the area, was waiting to meet me when the taxi finally arrived in Qalqilya. It was a bright, hot, quiet day in the city centre. The conditions helped heighten the sense that I was now in the eye of the storm, that region of any large disturbance which is misleadingly calm. Qalqilya is quite literally, and quite breathtakingly surrounded by the separation wall. The wall is 120 metres within Palestinian territory as defined by the 'Green Line' of 1967.*** The wall has video cameras every 20 or 30 metres which you can see in the photos if you look closely.

Mohammed explained, "Qalqilya is the testing ground for the Israelis. The wall was first built here. I think Qalqilya is the only place where there are video cameras covering every inch."Israel says that the wall was placed around Qalqilya to stop terrorists from entering its territory from the West Bank. Yet none of the suicide attackers have ever come from Qalqilya. Moreover, as has been explained to me on a number of occasions now, there are several ways to get into Israel so as to avoid the separation wall and the endless checkpoints. Indeed, many thousands of illegal Palestinian workers travel to cities in Israel to work on a daily basis this way. The Israelis know this. It is an open secret. If the Palestinians wanted to commit a suicide attack in Israel they could do it almost at will. Is it then a coincidence that Qalqilya also happens to have some of the richest sources of subterranean water in the region? Whilst Israel has refused to allow the Palestinians to purchase new motors to pump the water, another example of Israel’s control over daily Palestinian life, the surrounding Jewish settlements have new water pumps working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Mohammed told me that the Israeli side of the separation wall is raised so Israeli soldiers and police can peer over it. Whilst Mohammed and I walked the length of the fence pictured above, we heard the dull sound of jeep tyres scraping towards us. Mohammed was clearly a little distressed, although he tried to conceal it.

"Ok, no problem. Let's keep walking."

Mercifully, the jeep didn't stop. Eventually we reached the beginning of the wall, an area intersected by a road lined on the Palestinian side with rubble and the occasional structure with tired, blistered shop signs in Arabic and Hebrew.

"Along here there used to be several shops. Israelis used to come here to shop. That's why the signs are also in Hebrew... One night the Israelis came and bulldozed all the shops."

The few shops that did not get destroyed were never opened again. Once the area was closed off from Israel business seized to exist. Now the area is an eerie ghost town (pictured below).

Qalqilya is still connected to a few surrounding villages through tunnels built under the wall by the Israelis. This has improved access for the local Palestinian population, although in the process of creating the tunnels Israel has confiscated further Palestinian land. It seems there are no free lunches in the occupied territories, Jewish settlers excepted. The wall around Qalqilya was built at a sporadic rate. Mohammed believes this was done deliberately to heighten the sense of insecurity in Qalqilya.

(This is the main access point between Qalqilya and Israel, although it is presently closed. Israel is currently building several warehouse-like buildings at checkpoints like this (see the white building behind the tower to the right in this photo) to process a significant pool of cheap Palestinian labour. I got shouted at by one of the soldiers in this tower after taking the photo. For a second I seriously thought I was going to be shot at.)

"Sometimes they build quick, sometimes they build slow. At first people just thought the wall would be small [not surround the entire city]... The slow construction made people think this. Eventually people could see that it was around Qalqilya, that they were in a big jail."

And so around 42,000 Qalqilyans are surrounded, along with around 40,000 others who live in villages just outside Qalqilya.

(Farming has increased in Qalqilya since the separation wall was erected and Palestinians were prevented from leaving the city. Prior to that, most of Qalqilya's workforce worked in Israel. At present unemployment hovers at around 60-70%.)

Qalqilya wall art

Sharon (here depicted as a pig in a suit) is bottling the Palestinians, one (city) at a time.

* In truth the Palestinians don't have passports for the checkpoints, although they do have passports for international purposes. Instead they have a rather macabre identification card which lists their name, father's name, place of birth and religion. Even within their own land the Palestinians have to provide identification to the Israelis.

** Here's another checkpoint story I can't help sharing with you. On my way out of Qalqilya, one keen Israeli soldier commented that my visa had expired. Having noticed where he was looking in my passport, I politely noted that he was looking at an old Pakistani visa. "Mate, you might want to check my Israeli visa stamp." One of his colleagues had to tell him that he was looking at the wrong visa. On the way out of Nablus a (rather attractive Ethiopian) Israeli soldier did something similar when she asked me whether I had a visa. I said she could check my passport herself, after all she was holding it. But rather than doing this, she merely handed the passport back to me. These episodes make me query the efficacy of all these Israeli checkpoints as a security measure.

*** The Green Line represents the boundary of the State of Israel prior to the 1967 war with neighbouring Arab states. In 6 days in 1967 Israel occupied the areas of Palestine now known as the West Bank and Gaza. Under international law, it has widely been accepted, including by no less an authority than the International Court of Justice, that Israel must withdraw to its territories within the Green Line. More information on the Six Day War are available here.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


Salem is a rural village outside Nablus. In a perfect world without any checkpoints and separate roads for Jewish settlers (which are beautiful, smooth freeways) and the Palestinian population (which is forced to use dirt tracks or unsealed bitumen roads) the journey between Nablus and Salem would take 5 minutes by car. Instead, it usually takes around an hour because of the numerous checkpoints scattered along the way. Thankfully when I visited Salem there were no checkpoints so the journey only took 15.

I travelled to Salem with Pat, an Australian studying Arabic and teaching English in Nablus.* Pat came especially to Salem to help Asim, the son of the local Imam (Muslim priest), who is applying for a scholarship to study in England.

I came with Pat to see the famous earthen separation wall of Salem. Asid's family farm has been split into two by a giant ditch dug by the Israelis. The ostensible reason for the ditch is, yes, you guessed it, for 'security' reasons. The Israelis built a settler road alongside the farm area, so they decided to confiscate half the land in order to protect settlers driving along the road from being attacked by Palestinians.

(The land to the right in this photo has been seized as a buffer along the settler road. Some 200metres of Palestinian land extending for several kilometres.)

Forget ostensible explanations. This is a land grab. * It turns out both Pat and my parents live in the same suburb of Sydney. Talk about a small universe.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


(The service taxis wait for passengers at Qalandiya checkpoint)

Today I arrived in Nablus, one of the most populated cities in Palestine.* Two things are immediately apparent about the place. First, it is a more conservative city than Ramallah or Bethlehem. Almost all the women here wear the hijab. There is no (ready) source of alcohol. And there are posters of martyrs everywhere.

The second thing you notice immediately is that this is a city under siege. The Israelis literally peer down at the city from the neighbouring mountains. Nablus is situated between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Upon one of these mountains lies a giant mansion owned by a Palestinian telecommunications magnate. The other is an Israeli base (pictured below). If you look closely you can see a light-coloured line running across the mountain. That line marks the boundary between the Israeli military installation on the top and the city of Nablus. Another mountain around Nablus also has an Israeli base on top of it. Pat, an Australian law student teaching English and learning Arabic here, told me that the top of this mountain (circled in the picture below) is used by Israeli snipers. These snipers usually aim, extra-judicially as they do, at suspected militants. However, they have even killed children and elderly persons! The things you don't hear about on CNN...
The old city of Nablus has a great deal of character. Sadly, it is the sight of routine skirmishes between the Israelis and Palestinian militants. Because of this, the alley-like walkways of the old city are marked with bullet holes and generally are in poor condition.
Several nights each week, Israeli soldiers sweeped through the narrow streets of the old city in armoured vehicles. This inevitably leads to fierce gun battles with local militants, most of whom are with Islamic Jihad or Fatah. I had a Turkish bath last night in the old city as a gun battle raged briefly above.

As mentioned earlier, photos of the 'shaheed' or martyrs are literally plastered everywhere. Even the glass causeway surrounding the hotel lift had a few. These are the sports stars, the heroes who are liberally advertised throughout this besieged city. Although the principle behind the pictures of the shaheed is to showcase those who have been killed by Israel during the Occupation, many of these young men have actually been killed by friendly fire. Such are the dangers of machine guns in the dark alleys of old Nablus. When you walk through the old city at night it's not uncommon to see kids as young as 15 straddling machine guns.

Tomorrow I'm going to a village called Salem just outside Nablus.

* As usual Wikipedia has a good entry on Nablus here.