On Saturday I traveled to Jenin with R and D because I wanted to see explore the north parts of the West Bank, and because I wanted to visit the refugee camp in Jenin that is famous for the house demolitions and massacre that happened there in 2002. We knew that traveling to the north would be difficult, so we all met in Ramallah at 8am. Jenin is only about 1.5 to 2 hours north, but depending on checkpoints, it can take a very long to get there, and an even longer time to get home (as I found out).
I bumped into Tamer, a guy from Birzeit who studies at the Arab-American University in Jenin while I was waiting for R and D – talk about good luck – so we all traveled north together. This was great because Tamer new a taxi driver from the area, and we all got a good deal. It was interesting, because I learned that currently, Palestinians are only allowed to travel in the immediate vicinity of their IDs meaning that Tamer isn’t allowed to cross checkpoints heading to his university because his ID is from the Ramallah area. This meant we had to circumvent as many checkpoints as possible, and cross our fingers at the rest of them. Luckily, I thought to keep track of the checkpoints and military presence that we saw on our drive, and I even wrote down the exact times. Check this out:
9:10 – We passed through the permanent Atara checkpoint, just north of Birzeit.
9:20 – Flying checkpoint at the village of Turumus Aye. We literally turned right onto a path, drove around the checkpoint, and got back onto the main road. Most of the traffic was doing the same thing, and the Israeli soldiers watched us do it. So much for security.
9:27 – We passed through a permanent checkpoint at a roundabout (near a settlement). The didn’t even check our IDs
9:37 – Flying checkpoint in the village of Jeet
9:45 – Flying checkpoint at Deir Sharaf. Again, they didn’t check our IDs. After this checkpoint we left the main road and started driving down dirt paths and tiny villages to avoid more checkpoints.
10:15 – Kabati checkpoint
At this point we stopped at the Arab American University and Tamer gave us a tour of the campus. Then the driver took us to the refugee camp. We passed army jeeps on the side of the road on the way into Jenin, but they hadn’t set up a checkpoint yet, if that was their plan.
The refugee camp was very similar to the other camps that I’ve seen. Lots of houses stacked together in very close quarters, but there were a couple of unique elements. First, there is a huge statue in the center of the camp. It is a horse made out of scrap metal from all the cars and buildings that were destroyed by Israeli tanks during 2002. It is interesting because you can see license plates, shop names, and even an ambulance sign incorporated into the structure. Also, someone has been going around the camp and painting the walls with beautiful murals of nature scenes. Many of the scenes depict a crumbling wall with trees and flowers growing though the cracks. One of the murals was of an older woman wearing traditional Palestinian dress grasping the key to her family’s home in a fist held above her head, with blood dripping from her clenched palm onto the ground. I asked a local shop owner who the artist was, and he said he wasn’t sure, but that is was someone from the camp.
We also visited the area where the homes were demolished in 2002. No one is clear on how many people died – between 50 and 100 – a whole area of the camp was bulldozed (sometimes with people still inside the homes) and Jenin was under siege for several weeks overall. NGOs have donated money for the families to rebuild their homes, so the area has houses again, not just rubble. Interestingly, the shiny new homes are only marred by one thing – bullet holes. Throughout the camp you can see evidence of the IDF through bullet holes and broken windows. The new homes are no exception.
We walked from the camp to the city (not very far) and ate lunch at a little restaurant whose walls were covered with political posters, cartoons, and commentary. The chicken sandwiches were awesome, as was the cappuccino. We walked around the town, took some pictures, and I bought Meshari’s Christmas present while we were there. I asked the store owner to pack Meshari’s gift carefully because I was traveling back to Ramallah that afternoon. He paused, and said, “You can’t go to Ramallah today – the soldiers are closing the roads south right now. They are here in the city already.”
R, D and I raced to the taxi stand to find that the store owner was right – the roads were closed. Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly average person in the bravery department – and I had absolutely no interest in staying overnight in Jenin. I’ve heard enough about what happens in Jenin when the soldiers come in that I knew I didn’t want to be there. So, after some panicked discussion, R, D and I decided we’d rather take our chances in Nablus than Jenin, so we got into a service headed that way (still south, closer to home). Suddenly a man starts calling for Ramallah – I guess one crazy driver decided to try to make it to Ramallah despite the closures. We hopped out of the Nablus service, and into the ancient station wagon that would navigate me safely down deer paths and up mountains in ways that I didn’t think SUVs could handle.
Our driver was a young guy from a village north of Nablus. He didn’t say much, but he was an amazing driver and he seemed very determined to get to Ramallah. We think there was a girl there waiting for him, but it is all speculation. We couldn’t leave Jenin the same way we came in, so we ended up driving on a road parallel to the main road, but quite a bit above it. This meant that I had a fantastic view of Israeli army jeeps and tanks that were scattered across the road and blocking the entrance to the city – I even got a picture. Our return trip was longer, with more off-roading and checkpoints than the trip up to Jenin. Lucky for you, I recorded it.
2:32 – Main entrance to Jenin is closed by Israeli soldiers
2:38 – Off roading in ancient station wagon.
3:15 – Try to return to the main road, but another car, trying to get off the main road, is blocking the exit from our path. Our driver gets out of the car and starts moving a pile of stones to make enough room to squeeze past the other car. Our driver gets stuck, everyone pushes.
3:25 – Back on the main road. Hit checkpoint traffic jam. Our driver wants none of it, so we start off-roading again, get around the checkpoint, then car gets stuck on the steep incline back onto the road.
3:35 – Everyone pushes, then jump into taxi and take off quickly before we get caught.
3:36 – pass an IDF jeep on the road
3:38 – Flying checkpoint. This one isn’t letting any cars through, at all. Our driver decided to take a chance and use the settler road, which is illegal for Palestinians, because he has three Americans in the car.
3:45 – Another flying checkpoint. No way around this one, so we had to wait.
4:02 – cleared the checkpoint
4:04 – the infamous Zatara checkpoint south of Nablus. At this point, I and all the smokers in the car just get out to have cigarettes because it is obvious that we won’t be going anywhere for a while.
4:38 – we clear the checkpoint, but our driver isn’t allowed to pass. His ID is from the Nablus area, so he is forbidden to travel to the Ramallah district. We tried to talk to the soldier. The soldier said our driver couldn’t pass because he might be a suicide bomber. I said, well, check him and the car and let us through. The soldier refused. At one point he almost agreed that the rule was ridiculous, but he wouldn’t let our driver pass. I felt really bad for him, in the end all we could do was tip him well.
4:48 – checkpoint.
4:55 – clear checkpoint.
I think I got home around 6pm, almost four hours after I left Jenin. Of course, I was lucky to get home at all. According to the newspapers, over 1,000 Palestinians were trapped on the roads at checkpoints that day.