January 10, 2011 Qalqilyia: On a clear day I can see Tel Aviv

Qalqilyia, a bulge of land protruding westward against the Green Line, was the first city in 2002 to be fully enclosed by the separation wall, with one checkpoint, like the neck of a bottle, emptying the inhabitants into the West Bank. Once known as “the city of peace,” Israelis from Kfar Saba used to shop in Qalqilyia and there was a vigorous commercial and agricultural relationship between Palestinians and the nearby Jews. I first visited the area in 2005 and I am happy to see Suhad Hashem again who offers to take us on another tour of the area.

Her personal story touches me deeply, a human face on painful political realities. Dipping into distinctively spiced foul and humus, smoking an Imperial cigarette (made in Palestine), she reminds us that 2002 and 2003 were very difficult times as the Israeli military invaded much of the West Bank and the city was largely under closure or curfew. She remembers empty shops, patients unable to get to doctor’s appointments, and cars unable to leave the city. Suhad, who grew up in Qalqilyia, was living in Nablus at the time, when her 62 year old mother had a heart attack in Qalqilyia and was taken to the local UNRWA hospital. She needed to be transferred to a higher level hospital but this was not possible. “One week later, she died.” Suhad took a Palestinian Medical Relief Society ambulance to be able to get to the funeral. On 3/21 her family gathered to mourn, and she then found herself trapped in the city for six weeks.

The day Suhad finally got out, she trekked through the mountains at 4 am, was caught by an Israeli patrol who took her IDs and made her sit on the side of the road next to snarling black dogs. She and her young daughter were released, continued their hike through the mountains, sometimes walking and sometimes driving off road through the rocky hills in a car. Once they reached Anon they took donkeys, were stopped again in Jit by the IDF, took more donkeys and the entire effort lasted six hours.

She later returned to see her grieving father in Qalqilyia, again in 2002, got caught up in the closure, and did not return to her flat in Nablus for one year. After these terrible experiences, she decided to devote herself to working in Qalqilyia on political issues and educating internationals about the conditions. Her underlying hopefulness led her to purchase an elderly childless aunt’s land which is beyond the wall and currently inaccessible. She wants her daughter, now 17 and taking exams for university, to have clearly documented land that she will inherit Her elderly father, a former citrus grower and merchant has only one wish: to see his land before he dies. She adds that she spent her childhood playing in those fields so the Israelis “have confiscated my childhood…My story is everyone’s story.”

So what was happened in the last five years? The poverty level in Qalqilyia is second only to the Khan Younis Refugee Camp in Gaza. Many families have lost their land or their ability to work in Israel so there is a “passive transfer” occurring with families moving deeper into the West Bank cities or sometimes outside of Palestine. She pointed out one house where the owner is forbidden to go up to his roof because it allows him to see over the wall. Qalqilyia is 12 kilometers from the Mediterranean and now surrounded by 12 settlements, so the Jewish settlers are now than half the population in the Qalqilyia Governate. Because the city is on top of the largest water aquifer in Palestine and has rich agricultural land, Suhad fears that the Israelis are squeezing Qalqilyia so that in a future land swap this area would go to Israel.

Suhad is involved in the boycott, divestment and sanction movement supported by NGOs, working with Al Mubadara, (the Palestinian Initiative). She pulls out a collection of documents and animatedly tells us that the West Bank is the second largest market for Israel. She works with students and adults to increase awareness that “even one shekel” is important. Her message is to buy Palestinian whenever there is an alternative. For instance, Israelis sell $35 million of milk, $17 million of ice cream, $6 of Acamol (like Tylenol), $25 million of cigarettes, and $8 million of cosmetics to the West Bank annually, but there are alternative products. The numbers are impressive. She argues that even a 5% decrease in consumption of Israeli goods will create the opportunity for 100,000 new jobs in the West Bank and will impact the financing of the military machinery of the occupation as well.

We hire a cab for a driving/walking tour of the city: the busy souk filled with brilliantly colored piles of fruits and vegetables, the zoo (now open), donkeys trotting briskly by, goats, cages of chickens and doves, acres of cabbage, cauliflower, Jawafa fruit, avocado and thick, wet, red dirt. Suhad takes us to the latest development in this walled city. The Israelis have built a worker terminal, rows of chutes where workers from all over the West Bank come, starting at 4 am, to wait on the slowly winding lines, and to pass through the turnstiles and three security checks. 5,000 day laborers make this journey every morning, many working in the black market in Tel Aviv where they need to be by 7 am. The checkpoint is intermittently closed and the laborers are largely seasonal, without job benefits or security. As we photograph the familiar barbed wire fences and yellow gates, a soldier yells at us from a guard tower. “Who are you? You can’t be there.” Five years ago, annoyed IDF soldiers shot live ammunition over our heads, so I guess you could call this an improvement.

The iconic eight meter high concrete wall is surrounded by demolished homes and farms, but since 2005 there is a new development. A farmer living in the southern neighborhood of Qalqilyia can now go to an administrative office in northern Qalqilyia, and apply for a permit (separately for himself, his car, or his donkey) to farm his lands that are often visible from his home, but inaccessible due to multiple electric fences, barbed wire, and bypass roads. If successful (often only the grandfather or one member of the family gets a permit), he then has the unique privilege of returning to the southern area and taking a tunnel under all of the previously described obstructions into the equally inaccessible town of Habla. In Habla there is a checkpoint (two metal fences, barbed wire, yellow gate, turnstile) that is open briefly and somewhat unreliably three times per day that allows farmers to reach their vegetables and fruit trees imprisoned between the walls. Suhad points out her family’s land and the land she bought for her daughter. She has no permit and mentions that whenever she takes a delegation here, she feels a choking sensation in her neck. This arrangement is apparently more efficient than the long trip through the main checkpoint on the east.

I am haunted by new graffiti on the concrete wall. There is an enormous snarling pig (Ariel Sharon) growling at a huge baby in a bottle (the children of Qalqilyia). I think of the many Israelis I know who have told me they are really sorry the wall has “inconvenienced Palestinians” but security comes first. I would like to invite them to Qalqilyia to feel the consequences of that thinking and to meet this dynamic and hopeful woman.

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