On Sunday I traveled about an hour north into the mountains to spend the day exploring Nablus. For those of you who have seen the movie Paradise Now, this is the city the movie is set in. Nablus is famous throughout Palestine for her kanafa, a traditional dessert. The city is nicknamed “Mountain of Fire” because of its citizen’s activism during and before Intifada and their resistance to the occupation. Nablus has paid dearly for her activism, being one of the hardest hit by the Israelis during this Intifada – literally by bombing and invasions into the city – and economically. The bombings in 2002 killed dozens of inhabitants and damaged over 500 buildings. Unfortunately, the bombing was concentrating in Nablus’ old city, Al Casbah, which is residential area, and it destroyed some of the oldest buildings in Palestine. Directly next to Nablus is Al-Balata refugee camp, the biggest refugee camp in the West Bank with most of its residents originally coming from Jaffa and the Galilee. Al-Balata is know as being a very rough place, even when the Israelis aren’t around . . . one of the things it is famous for is the number of stolen cars from Israel that seem to find their way there . . .
Nablus is also completely surrounded by settlements. There are seven of them dotting the hilltops around the city, and each of them has a checkpoint. Settlements are areas in the West Bank, on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, where Jewish Zionists squat on the land. They start out small, and it doesn’t take long for them to grow into cities, complete with barbed wire and electric fencing surrounding the settlements, soldiers stationed to protect them, and tax exempt status. Once settlers are in an area, the Israelis create special roads that only settlers can travel on (by taking more Palestinian land), reroute water supplies, and demolish homes and confiscate land that is too close to the settlement – for the safety of the settlers, of course.
I traveled to Nablus with three other students, one of whom is actually an American-Jewish student at Hebrew University who has described himself to me as a Zionist. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Nablus, but it wasn’t the incredibly warm welcome that we received. After walking through the infamous Hawara checkpoint, we caught a cab into the Old City and wandered around for a while. Hawara is infamous for the severity of the soldiers who man it. About a month ago a Palestinian woman attacked a soldier with a knife and cut her. The soldiers shot her in the legs and left her there to bleed to death. They wouldn’t allow anyone to help her.
After eating some falafel, we decided to go in search of one of the soap factories (another thing Nablus is know for). We asked for directions from a local man, and were led to the site where the 13th century soap factory had existed before 2002.
While at the site (which is basically an empty lot) we met a local man at the adjacent site (an ancient hotel that had also been damaged in the bombing, but was still standing) who was doing restoration work. He gave us a tour of the site, in Arabic, then insisted that we join him in his office for Arabic coffee. After the coffee he assigned two of his students/ employees to give us a free tour of the city. The guys were between the ages of 18-20 and they gave us a three hour tour. They showed us two Turkish baths, one of which had a vividly colorful modern mural on the ceiling, a candy factory, and a pre-Ottoman palace that had been bombed during 2002. The ruins were pretty cool, we got to climb around and go exploring. Only two of us got to see everything because you had to climb over a narrow catwalk at one point to access the rest of the palace (the walkway had been damaged in the bombing). One of the guys was afraid of heights, and M is always more sensible than I am. But, I did get some awesome pictures. When is the last time you saw an orange grove growing in the middle of the ruins of a palace?
Our guides also showed us the memorial put up by the local people remembering the massacre of 2002. The plaque says in English and Arabic “Never Forgive, Never Forget”. It is across the street from a home that was bombed and a family was buried alive underneath the rubble. Because of the bombings and curfews, uninjured people weren’t allowed to help people trapped in destroyed homes. In the open area next to the plaque, a group of youngish boys were playing a pick-up game of soccer.
There aren’t a lot of foreigners wandering around the streets of Nablus at the moment (wonder why) so we were attracting attention everywhere that we went. At one point, an older man dressed in a suit and smoking a sheesha stopped us because he wanted to know where we were from etc . . . In near perfect English, he explained to us that while he wanted to be our friend, he couldn’t, because of what the US government is doing to his people. He talked about Condy, Chainey and Bush in great detail and how disappointed he was with the West for their continued financial and political support of Israel. At one point he pulled a 15 year old out of the growing crowd of listeners and he said, “This baby deserves the same opportunities, the rights to live as your babies in America.” I couldn’t have agreed with him more.
Next our tour guides led us to Al-Aqsa Sweets, which is the most famous kanafa restaurant in all of Nablus, and therefore Palestine. They insisted on buying kanafa for all four of us, and after we ate they took us across the street and showed us where an elderly man was preparing the trays of kanafa from scratch.
After a few pictures we parted with our guides to head to the summit of the mountain, the home of the Samaritans. Yes, I mean The Samaritans, as in the Good Samaritan, the ones from the story in the Bible. The Samaritans are an interesting group of people. They are Jewish, but consider themselves Palestinians. They speak Arabic amongst themselves, but they also speak both modern and ancient Hebrew. A very small community, they have a reputation for being a little odd – partially due to their isolation and partially due to a lot of inbreeding (although I can’t verify that). We climbed to the very top of the mountain and saw the site where Abraham supposedly brought his son to sacrifice him on God’s orders, according to the Old Testament. The view from the top of the mountain was one of the most beautiful that I’ve seen during my time here. I think I must type that line in every entry in my blog – but this was really breathtaking.
We stopped for tea, and G asked one of the Samaritans working at the restaurant how the relationship was between this community and the Palestinians. He didn’t even hesitate before responding, “Very Good”. When he was asked the same question about the settlement that is just past the Samaritan village, he said, “Very Bad”. The Israelis put up a checkpoint to protect the settlement on the other side of the Samaritan village, but instead of putting it between the Samaritans and the settlement, they put it between Nablus and the Samaritans. So far it doesn’t seem to have driven a wedge between the Palestinians and Samaritans, but who knows how long it will last.
We left the village just as it was getting dark, and none of us suggested staying in Nablus any later. The Israelis enter the city almost every night, so went straight down the mountain from Samaria to the Hawara checkpoint. Unfortunately, we bypassed the checkpoint because we on a settler road. I really wanted to experience Hawara first hand after all that I’ve heard about it . . .
Yesterday, the Israelis entered Nablus to arrest two Palestinians and ended up injuring 10, including a 14 year old boy who got hit in the head with a bullet. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was one of the kids that I saw playing soccer on Sunday . . .