The bread they have cast on the waters: Balata and Nablus

This is one of a series of essays, which I will be posting gradually, that I wrote about my experiences on the American Jews for a Just Peace Health and Human Rights Project delegation to Palestine in June.

“People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.” – James Baldwin, No Name in the Street

The city of Nablus, in the northern part of the West Bank, is well-known as a center of both unarmed and armed resistance to the Occupation, having played a major role in both the First and Second Intifadas. It’s a city where Hamas is popular, not so much because of any love for Islamic theocracy as because they’re perceived as more willing to do something about the Occupation, and small secular socialist and Communist parties have nontrivial support. It’s a city where in 1980 the mayor lost his legs in a car bombing by Israeli Gush Emunim terrorists, and where the current mayor, a member of Hamas’ political wing, was arrested and held for 15 months without charge during Operation Summer Rains in 2007.

It is also famous for its soap manufacture and for its superior kanafeh (a Palestinian desert of cheese and dough and syrup). It has a wonderful, museum-like spice and tea shop where I got saffron for the equivalent of about $1.60/ounce. It is a city of ancient history, busy marketplaces, and a beautiful new guesthouse in a post-IDF-destruction rebuilt building, that is supposed to open soon. All of these things are true and important. But it is also a city where you see reminders of blood even as you partake in all of the many other things it has to offer.

A Nablus marketplace

As we walked around the Old City, we saw several memorials, with names and sometimes photos. These were memorials to people killed in those spots during the Second Intifada. I was struck by how many were of mixed-gender groups where all or nearly all had the same surname – these were places where whole families had been killed. Our tour guide pointed out an area where the IDF had simply destroyed the civilian houses during a Second-Intifada-era incursion because the narrow streets weren’t wide enough for its vehicles to get through. Some buildings had parts that were obviously newer than other parts. Some had never been properly rebuilt. A group of teen boys hanging out in the area noticed us walking around and were eager to show us the memorials and talk about them. In one case, one of the dead was related to one of the boys.

One of the Nablus Second Intifada memorials

We stayed two nights in Balata, one of the refugee camps in Nablus. Balata is the most populous refugee camp in the West Bank, with an estimated 30,000 people, thousands of whom are not even registered, packed into a square kilometer. And it has some of the worst conditions. As with all Palestinian refugee camps, at its beginning, Balata was a tent city, but now it is a crowded mass of concrete, the most crowded in the West Bank (as all refugee camps are the same fixed size and it has the largest population). It continues to grow in population, but there is no room for it to expand. Each house is 60 to 80 square meters, and often, three or four generations live in one house. And not everyone even gets those – the very poorest of the camp’s residents still live in the remaining “UN Units” that were built in the early ’50s as a temporary replacement for tents; 3 meters by 3 meters each. Close to three quarters of the population is under 18. Much of the population is Bedouin – a traditionally nomadic or semi-nomadic ethnic group.

There are two real streets that are wide enough for a car to get through. Most people don’t live on those streets, they live surrounded by “streets” so narrow that only 1-2 people can fit through them at once. When our delegation toured the camp, one delegate asked what happened to people if there was a fire bad enough to require firefighters, rescue teams. Our tour guide said simply “They die.”

Adjacent to Balata – or possibly inside it; the exact location is disputed – is one of the possible sites of Joseph’s tomb. Sometimes Israeli settlers want to pray there. They enter the camp to pray at the site with the help of IDF soldiers. IDF vehicles invade Nablus and storm Balata and soldiers escort settlers, sometimes hundreds of them, or even more than 1000, on buses. The soldiers in and around Balata fire tear gas and stun grenades into the camp. Sometimes young people throw rocks at the soldiers.

Balata is considered among the most political of the refugee camps, and it has paid a heavy price. The First Intifada started in Balata, and the first Palestinian to be killed in it was killed there. During the Second Intifada, Balata was a center of activity, there were many armed militants there, and there was a great deal of violence both within the camp and against it by the IDF. 246 residents were killed. The IDF shut the camp down completely for a time, blocking all entrances and imposing frequent 24-hours-a-day curfews lasting from one to 100 days. By 2002, the entrances to this overcrowded space were open for a few hours every three days to let people go out to get food and let humanitarian workers in with aid. Children did not attend school during the curfews, and the camp’s educational system, once considered one of the best in the West Bank and the main path through which people might escape the camp if they wanted to do so, was all but destroyed. As things stabilized, the cost of living increased, with food prices quadrupling, but typical wages did not.

According to testimonies from former IDF soldiers collected by Breaking the Silence, in Balata during the Second Intifada, soldiers would stage mock arrests in marketplace shops, going in firing in the air, throwing stun grenades, and knowingly arresting an innocent person who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the hopes of drawing out militants, while snipers invaded nearby houses and waited to shoot any suspected militants who approached the mock arrest. The innocent arrestee would be taken to a detention center with his eyes covered, interrogated, and released. The testimonies also say that the IDF would take civilian camp residents and use them as human shields when going to arrest someone they thought could be dangerous. They say that the army would go into Balata to create intentional disturbances, throwing stun grenades and tear gas around solely to provoke riots so that they could shoot the legs of any rioters who threw explosives. That they conducted ambushes in built-up areas.

According to a psychosocial staffer at the community’s Yaffa Cultural Center (many Balata residents’ families were expelled from the Yaffa area), the once-proud camp educational system never recovered from the devastation during the Second Intifada. Half the boys who are entering 10th grade (which requires commuting from the camp) are functionally illiterate, and most drop out within a year. The girls are doing better, but not well. Nearly all the children have PTSD, but there is only one counselor in the schools for every 2000 of them. A few years ago there was a rash of adolescents trying to commit suicide-by-soldier, and even a child who walked into a settlement unarmed in the hopes of becoming a martyr because suicide is taboo. Some parents don’t know what to do with their children – while conditions in Balata have always been bad, there was a chance to become educated and rise in society, there wasn’t previously the same feeling that things were out of control and hopeless. The Yaffa Cultural Center provides a variety of activities, including music therapy, drama therapy, and other psychosocial support, but it never seems to be enough – the staffer became overwhelmed nearly to the point of tears when talking about the desperation of trying to do right by the children. He emphasizes again that it didn’t used to be this way in Balata, not before 2000 – he himself got out through a university education and came back to work in the camp. Every day there are multiple fights in the schools that are serious enough to require at least minor medical attention for involved children, and the most violent children are the ones with a parent that was killed in the Intifada or otherwise killed by the Israelis. There are periods where twice a week, the IDF comes in and arrests a few teenagers and nobody knows why, or if they will see those teenagers again.

During our first night in the camp, we hear gunshots. Nobody knows what they are about. I feel a bit awkward that our surroundings in the cultural center’s guesthouse, while hardly luxurious, are obviously orders of magnitude better than what the people who live in the camp get.

When we tour Balata, a few youngish boys and men tag along after us, apparently curious to see what our tour is like. We are cautious about taking pictures – in a place where nearly every adult male and not a few children have spent time in prison, a place with a reputation, a place that can easily be targeted, a well-meant picture could paint a target on someone.

When we get back to Balata the second night, after touring Nablus and other activities, we encounter a large group of small boys, no more than eight or ten years old, playing happily with toy guns outside the cultural center. When the little boys see us, the run up to us. A few of them start shouting “Money, money!” They aim their little toy guns at us and “shoot” repeatedly, the toys making little clicks as they pull the trigger. Again, that night we hear gunfire. This time we also hear music and fireworks. Apparently there is a wedding happening and people are firing into the air in celebration.

The next morning, when we get up and go outside, our Palestinian tour leader speaks to a few young men hanging around the cultural center, talking at length with one of the young men who tagged along during our tour. As we leave, we find out what happened after we went to sleep, relatively secure in the guesthouse. While we slept, the IDF invaded the camp and arrested 10 people, including the young man, as part of the crackdown in response to the kidnappings of three Israeli teens a few days earlier. According to him, they were looking for two specific people, including his brother. They arrested him after he told them that he didn’t know where his brother was. They took him to a detention center and interrogated and beat him, but he was released a few hours earlier. Most of the other arrestees, he said, had not yet been released.

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