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Three lives in the West Bank

January 29, 2014 at 4:14 pm

1. Samer, Jerusalem

If you live in Ramallah and work in Jerusalem, the time your journey will take to the office is an unknown quantity. It could be an hour, it could be three. Najwa, a social worker who runs a community centre in the Arab quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, does this journey every day. She is only able to travel because the Italian consulate, who support her organisation, have approved her application to the Jerusalem Municipality for a special permit. If you have a Palestinian passport, you need special papers to cross the border. Najwa’s husband, Omar, gives us a lift from their apartment to the main road out of Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank and the seat of the Palestinian Authority. From there, we pick up a shared taxi that drops us at the Qalandia checkpoint.

This is where the time lottery truly begins. The queues can be long, progress slow. But today it’s not too bad – a small group of men and women waiting before the turnstile. We stand in a wire-caged passageway for about an hour. Everyone is quiet, reading their newspapers, used to the process as part of their daily commute. Only I am tapping my foot with impatience. Eventually the young Israeli soldiers, both women, allow us through the turnstile one by one, and we put our bags through a scanner.

Once we’re through, the soldiers check our papers at the desk. They study my British passport for a long time, calling a superior over to check it, and tapping my details into a computer. Then, directly after us, they let a small group of people through at once so there’s a small bottleneck at the desk – about four or five people waiting to get their papers checked. The soldiers, who sit behind bulletproof glass, shout down the microphone, ordering people to go back, which they do, apart from one young man who asks why he should have to go all the way back through the turnstile having waited an hour to come through. Anyway, he says, it’s the soldiers’ fault for letting us all through in the first place.

It isn’t a place to raise your voice. More soldiers emerge from the office, all armed with guns, and usher him into a room off to the side, closing the door behind him. He comes out soon enough, having been questioned, but now they won’t let any of us out the other side. So we wait, hemmed into the cage between turnstiles, watched by the soldiers. Najwa is relaxed, and uses the opportunity to convince a student on her way to college to volunteer at the community centre. Eventually, we are released and walk out into the warm sun to catch a bus. The young man who had spoken up at the checkpoint boards the bus behind us and Najwa starts talking to him. He’s called Samer, and lives not far from Qalandia, right next to the wall, he says. He invites us to his home, and we accept.

Walking up the road in the shadow of the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank, Samer points up to the roofs of apartment buildings you can see on the other side. His cousins live over there, he says, pointing towards the West Bank. They used to live on the same street, a minute’s walk from each other. Now it takes at least an hour to go all the way round the wall and through the checkpoint. He demonstrates how the security works by throwing a small pebble at the wall, so it taps the wire fence that runs along the top. “Wait,” he says, and sure enough, within minutes, an Israeli security vehicle drives up the road.

The Israeli government say the wall is for security; many Palestinians describe it as an “apartheid wall”. In its physical form, it is eight metres high, made of grey concrete, and constantly monitored by cameras. Built in principle along the Green Line – the 1949 Jordan/Israel Armistice line – the wall in fact cuts deeply into the West Bank territory, and loops in east Jerusalem and other settler-occupied Palestinian areas.  In many cases, as in Samer’s family, it has divided towns and relatives. Samer shows us a little hole in the concrete where you can see through to the other side, where the rest of his family lives.

In Samer’s house, a small apartment in a white ramshackle block, we meet his parents. His father sits on the sofa, wearing a rumpled red cardigan; his mother, her long white hair falling down her back, goes to make us tea. They tell us about their situation: they have lived there all their lives, Jerusalemites by birth. Their area is an Arab quarter, officially part of the West Bank. But since the wall was built, slicing their neighbourhood in two, they have been somehow marooned – not officially part of the Jerusalem Municipality, but on the wrong side of the wall from the West Bank. It’s the definition of no-man’s land. It means that if someone in the family is sick, it will take them two hours to travel a few miles through a checkpoint to a West Bank hospital. Many of their family live on the other side, and they are aggrieved too, cut off from the city they consider home.

Samer’s parents’ main worry is where they will be buried. They want to join their ancestors in a Jerusalem cemetery, but this is forbidden – they are West Bank residents. But they have ideas – Samer’s father tells us a story, proudly, of how they skirted the authorities not long ago when an uncle who lived on the other side of the wall died. The family dressed his corpse in a suit, put dark glasses on his face, propped him up in the car and drove him through the checkpoint to be buried in Jerusalem. If they can’t live in the city they know as home, they will do whatever it takes to lie there after death.

2. Nabil, Sheikh Jarrah

On a wide street in Sheikh Jarrah, the Arab area in east Jerusalem, live Nabil and his family. To enter their house you walk through a gate, through a makeshift tent constructed out of sheets and tarpaulin, and into a back yard, where Nabil sits with his mother and friends drinking coffee and smoking. On the other side of the tent, living at the front of the same house, are Nabil’s neighbours, a group of young Israeli settlers. There is not much sign of movement from their side of the property, only a guard dog that barks relentlessly at the window.

How Nabil came to live pressed up against a settler group, within the confines of one building, is a tale of political bureaucracy. In 2000, Nabil had built an extension on to his small property to accommodate his expanding family – he lives with his mother, Rifqa, his second wife and his young children. But the court in Jerusalem decreed that the extension had not been given permission – so Nabil was not allowed to live in it. For years, the extra rooms were left unused. Then, on 2 August 2009, at 4.45am, the settlers arrived accompanied by the Israeli army. Nabil’s furniture was thrown out of the extension into the yard at the front of the property and the settlers moved in, saying that they had been granted official permission by the courts. “These people have no roots,” says Nabil, sitting in his armchair, a cigarette burning in his hand. “They have been paid to move here.”

Nabil’s family has lived in Sheikh Jarrah since July 1956, although it is not really where their roots lie either. Rifqa was born in Jerusalem in 1921, but moved to Haifa, in the north-west of the country, on the coast. The family had three restaurants there – a busy, prosperous life. Rifqa remembers going to concerts and the cinema, but “the days that have gone by,” she says, “will never come back”. Rifqa and her family became refugees during the Naqba (the Palestinian term – meaning disaster – for the founding of Israel in 1948) eventually ending up back in Jerusalem. The neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah was built to house Palestinian refugees like Rifqa and her family, but as a result, this patch of east Jerusalem has become symbolic in the struggle for territory. The Israeli authorities regularly move settlers into the neighbourhood, evicting Arab families – and in response, every Friday afternoon a demonstration takes place which attracts Israeli and Palestinian supporters from all round Jerusalem.

Nabil, born in 1954, lived for 26 years of his adult life in Kuwait, where he had gone to find work. He also married, and had his three older children. After the first Iraq War, in 1990, Nabil left and returned to Jerusalem. His older children are now scattered and have children of their own – two are in Amman, the eldest in Kuwait. They do not have permission to return to Palestine, and Nabil visits them when he can. He says, “If they had permission, they would be back here in one hour.” He won’t leave permanently, though. The protracted fight with the settlers is now his life, when he’s not earning money as a driver. His existence seems untenable – crowded into a few rooms (two bedrooms, a kitchen, a small living area) with his large family, jammed up against the settlers. But Nabil will not give up his right to live in his family home. 

The predicament of the people who live in Sheikh Jarrah is well known in Jerusalem, and Nabil is used to being a focus for protest. His house is now a landmark on political guided tours, for travellers who want to understand the complexities of the region, and step beyond the well-tended spiritual attractions of the ancient city. Small groups drop by throughout the afternoon. They are welcomed by Rifqa with soupy black coffee and sit before Nabil who tells the story of his family again and again. He is well prepared for his audience, knows every date and twist and confusion, and has at the ready blown-up photographs of confrontations between his family and the settlers: the settlers draped in Israeli flags, guarded by soldiers; a child asleep in the makeshift tent in the yard with her mother after being evicted from another house in the area; Rifqa, her face lined and creased with age. Sometimes, Rifqa says, the settlers walk past her making cow noises when she is sitting outside in the yard.

Inside their home, Rifqa evidently takes pride in the hospitality she can offer the flow of guests they receive. She gives lunch – rice, beans, bread, a tomato sauce – and insists everyone sits at the table as she bustles around. To one side is a cabinet of glassware and photographs of her grandchildren. And on top of the cabinet, standing tall in a row, are a series of five home-made houses, constructed by one of the children out of coloured card and painted in different colours, blue and red and orange. They are tall and majestic – spectacular homes of the imagination.

3. Hashem, Hebron

Borders circumscribe Palestinian lives in the West Bank. Your existence is measured out, controlled and determined by which side of a line you live on, how many times you have to go through a checkpoint every day, whether the border slices through a city, a neighbourhood, a street, a family. Hebron is a Palestinian city in the West Bank, but it contains a border: a checkpoint divides the city in two parts, H1 and H2. In H1 live around 120,000 Palestinians. And in H2, the old part of the city, live around 500 Israeli settlers guarded by a far greater number of IDF soldiers (as many as 3,000, some say). When you drive into Hebron, into the Arab quarter, H1, it is rushing, busy, bustling – the streets packed with people going to work and school, or doing their shopping. But when you walk through the checkpoint, you enter a ghost world. An old Arab street – Shuhada Street – is empty, shops long since closed down and abandoned. It used to be the main thoroughfare of the town – you can still see the signs over the windows, but now there is nothing there but graffiti on the shutters drawn down over the shop fronts.

Hashem, a physiotherapist by training, has lived in Hebron all his life, born in the house he lives in now with his wife Nasreen and four children. He is one of the few Palestinians still living in H2. Their home is perched on a hillside above the deserted market street, and to get there he has to climb over walls and clamber through gaps in hedges – the direct road has been blocked and is used only by the settlers who live further up the hillside. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, the settler communities in Hebron are illegal, but the Israeli government argues that they have to retain the territory for security purposes. Many Palestinian families left H2 during the course of the conflict, but Hashem has refused to leave, even though his daily life has become shaped by trying to protect his family and his home. Their house is overlooked by two rows of settler properties – squat mobile homes directly overlooking Hashem’s property, with their own camouflaged checkpoint on the roof.

Like Nabil, Hashem is well prepared for visitors. He depends on the attention of international NGOs and individuals to keep going with his work, and he does not seem to tire of telling the story of his family, or showing the shaky videos he has made of settler attacks on his property and the surrounding area. But he is also disheartened: for all the groups of international visitors and UN workers that pass through Hebron, the situation does not seem to change. Still, he encourages the tours. He is not asking much, he says, simply to live in peace – and to show the world that “we are not terrorists”, he says, half-joking. Next to him on the sofa Nasreen breastfeeds their baby.

Once, says Hashem, standing in his garden, this hillside was a paradise – he points to the remnants of olive groves and still-blossoming trees. His own olive trees have been cut down – he shows us where the now-dead branches have been sliced by the settlers. His greatest worry is getting his eldest daughter to school – she is often harassed as she takes the path down the hill. Nasreen has also suffered attacks – some years ago she lost a baby after she fell in a confrontation with a settler. It’s hard to believe Hashem and his family can tolerate living in such conditions – but he is insistent. “It is my right to be here,” he says. He recounts an American billionaire coming to offer him money to leave his property – the sums escalating into millions of dollars – but Hashem said no.

Now, Hashem runs a small NGO which aims to draw attention to the situation of Palestinians in Hebron. He walks through his city, considered to be an ancient, holy site by both Jews and Muslims, and hence one of the most volatile places in the West Bank. In the old quarter, which is Arab, great nets and tarpaulins are draped above the narrow lanes that lead to the mosque. Hashem explains that they are there to catch the rubbish thrown by the settlers who live in apartment blocks overlooking that part of the old town. Once the nets were up the settlers poured waste water and urine down, so they put up plastic sheeting to protect people walking and working beneath. The covers have a strange effect – blocking out the sunlight from the warren of paths below, so that, as the dusk falls, you are walking in almost total darkness.

*Sophie Elmhirst – Editor and journalist

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.