Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Least of These

I ventured up to Ramallah yesterday and then on to Nablus where I spent the night in a very rustic hostel, Pension Al-Estikl, sharing a room with a Dutch convert to Islam who was praying toward Mecca when I entered the room. A wee bit awkward for me but apparently not at all for him. The only other non-Palestinian in the place was from Japan. For 30 shekels (less than 7.00 USD) I was happy for a room with a view onto the street and a ceiling fan.

Nablus is only about 30 miles north of Jerusalem (and 3 hours and 3 different shared taxis) but now, on my return, it feels like I’ve been to another planet. With my friend Mohammed I visited half a dozen agencies where foreign aid (UNRWA, USAID, UNESCO, CIDA, NGOs, you name it) is hard at work. I was impressed by several sharp, tough-minded women running clinics and community centers, offering hope to women and children when they weren’t writing grant proposals for their next project. As usual, the children won my heart.

But even rays of hope can’t pierce the poverty and pain hanging thick over Nablus. The Old City continues to foment resistance to Israeli occupation, which means it routinely experiences nightly incursions — Israeli troops looking to take out “terrorists" or, among Palestinians, “wanteds” and “fighters.” (I place all three designations in scare-quotes because I reject the politics behind each of them.) As my hotel was two blocks from the Old City I was warned several times not to venture out after midnight.

During the day I heard occasional, sporadic shooting, but around 11:00 p.m. (tucked “safely” into my hotel room) I heard several sustained series of shots. (I counted 25 rounds in one series.) But that was just Palestinians playing with their toys; I’m guessing they were shooting up toward the Israeli outpost on Mt. Ebal. Round about 2:00 a.m., however, a huge boom summoned me from deep sleep. Bolted upright in bed. The Israelis were answering back. I expected more blasts to follow - on my last visit they continued for about an hour — but for last night that was it.

I’m told that nighttime street fighting is routine in Nablus. The Old City is a warren of alleys and passageways where “fighters” lurk and strike and where the Israelis lose much of their strategic advantage. Mohammed gave me a long tour during the day when Old City markets swarm with children and when old men gather and talk, but only a fool would go in there at night.

Regrettably, I return from Nablus with even less cause for hope than ever. Three reasons come to mind:

1. Grinding poverty and a failed infrastructure: notwithstanding the swarm of agencies and programs, a large part of the city is desperately poor, filthy and decidedly “third world.” (You try showering under a trickle of water.)

2. Checkpoints: men under 40 are singled out and forced to stand in corrals for hours. Women, children and older men have it slightly better. (I stood vainly with the young men for all of 35 minutes, but when the line barely moved I backtracked, climbed a barricade and entered the road where I flashed my Canadian passport and breezed through.)

3. The sense of solidarity against a common foe: however much the Israelis (and I) might want the Palestinians to lay down their arms and swear off violent uprising, the air in the city pulses with the passion to resist, with the honor-bound need to strike back even if Israel’s awesome firepower means several Palestinians die (unreported in the Western media) nightly. Posters of "martyrs" and shrines for the fallen herald the nobility of the cause. Poverty (see #1) and humiliation (see #2) fan flames of resentment. Corporate solidarity and Arab fraternity mean one man's pain is shared by all.

I pray this passion for violence won’t be passed on to the young children in the school grounds and community centers I visited today. But everything I’ve just seen - provocation, hatred on both sides, disdain, despair, fraternal solidarity, legitimate grievance, unreasonable expectation - everything suggests otherwise.

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