The Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus is a concrete maze of twisting, narrow, sometimes shoulder-width paths, two main streets for the schools and the markets, and a jumble of houses leaning towards each other at odd angles, obliterating the sunshine as the residents search for nonexistent space for growing families and multiple generations.
The camp started in 1950 with a lease from the town of Balata for one square kilometer of land for five thousand refugees mostly from Yaffa from the 1948 war, which explains the name of the guest house (Yaffa Guest House) where we are staying. The United Nations set up tents that turned into tiny cramped, one-room houses and finally this jumble of construction. Sewer and water arrived in the 1960s.
The houses are dark, small (mostly nine to twelve square meters per family, which is typically large and multigenerational), fairly stark, wires dangle between buildings and the rare geranium. Bright graffiti adorns some walls and Japanese artists have painted a kaleidoscope of flowers near the girl’s school, which has 2,100 students, and the boy’s school of 1,000 (if they actually graduate). After ninth grade the students study outside the camp.
So, let’s stop a minute. Ten years without sewer or water? There is no privacy between or within houses, there is no more room to build (forget green space and play grounds), there is massive unemployment (estimated at 56% in a population of thirty thousand) and little hope or opportunity. It is hard to escape this environment, so people live their lives, marry their sweethearts, have families, take care of each other, and struggle from day to day. If you have the misfortune to suffer from a heart attack or ruptured appendix or a bleeding pregnancy, you have to be carried (I am not talking on a gurney here) down these twisted concrete paths, often turning sharply angled corners, the stone surfaces irregular and rocky, to get to an ambulance. If you are dead, the corpse sometimes is hoisted roof to roof across houses to get to a wider street. If you are in a wheelchair, if you are trying to bring in newly bought furniture, if you are having a seizure or a stroke, the hurdles are unimaginable.
Remember this the next time someone discussing the “peace process” says nonchalantly, “Oh the refugees are off the table.” The refugees are actually the main course. You can imagine why Balata was one of the leaders in the two intifadas; even the dead are angry.
We sit around a long oblong table, and Mahmoud breaks into an engaging warm smile. He is a successful son of Balata. Born in the camps, he received an excellent education from UNRWA schools, and as the oldest child, went on to higher education at Birzeit University and studied and worked all over the world including the United States; his siblings are high level professionals. He presents us with a very worrisome report that mirrors our discussion the last time he spoke to our delegation: years of Palestinian dehumanization and resistance and Israeli retaliation; thousands injured, dead, imprisoned; generations of children traumatized by violence and the frequent experience of Israeli soldiers, tanks, artillery, and Apache helicopters.
As I write this blog, my thoughts are interrupted by repeated bouts of rapid gunfire. I am starting to fear this is not a wedding celebration. After all, Hebron in the south is under curfew after three Jewish yeshiva students were kidnapped (no one mentioned the six Palestinian boys disappeared from their beds in the tiny town of Asira last week, but I digress), and people are a little edgy.
Netanyahu is ramping up the rhetoric and arresting Palestinians; one was reportedly killed.
Mahmoud is not optimistic. In Balata, “life is a war.” The children who were out of school for months during curfews during the Second Intifada are the teenagers who are now illiterate, violent, and difficult to engage. Mahmoud runs programs for youth: music, arts, crafts, computers, film, photography, psychosocial support. He sees the depression, the rising drug abuse, and the suicidality (boys walk unarmed into Jewish settlements hoping to be killed and martyred).
He notes that especially with boys aged ten to fifteen, 50% of ninth graders are illiterate and cannot even write their names. The girls do better; they are more protected, have less exposure to the street, and in general are more focused, resilient, and studious. And then those folks who actually get employed barely make a minimum wage; most people in Balata are becoming vegetarians. One kilogram of meat costs fifty shekels; many men work all day for forty. So who is going to buy meat? Mahmoud worries about the future. “Look around at the radicalism taking over the world, even in Denmark where 27% voted for an extreme right candidate. Craziness brings craziness, fanaticism brings more fanaticism.”
He admits that his well-educated brother does not know how to deal with his own son. This is a very angry generation that does not see a future for itself. Even Mahmoud’s seven-year-old son, who lives in a nice apartment with trees and a park outside the camp, said to his father, “?I want you to get us out of this country.
This is not a country, there is no happiness here. Everybody is sad, nobody laughs.’ Of course, he is right.” He thinks of the struggles his parents endured, his father working as a bank employee barely able to feed his six children, all of the energy and effort that went into educating the next generation, the immense suffering and trauma his mother experienced. Born in 1948 from parents who fled the area near the future Ben Gurion airport, she was born in a cave, had seven children herself, cradled them when they were shot, injured, imprisoned, and she herself was beaten during the Second Intifada while trying to stop the IDF soldiers from invading her house. Mahmoud says softly in a broken heartfelt voice, “She has never had justice.”
The future? He is more optimistic about women, their strength, focus, and perseverance. He urges us to educate our communities in the US, to vote and pressure our governments. “We do not hate Jewish people, we want justice and peace for everyone?the voices of reason all losing the ground.”
The rounds of gunfire are now accompanied by throbbing boisterous music. I am voting bachelor party.
Later in the day we tour the Old City of Nablus, which dates back some 4,500 years (the Romans and Ottomans were clearly here, but they were latecomers) and is surrounded by mountains splattered with houses, mosques, and twinkling lights. Much like Jerusalem, there is a maze of stone streets, halls, walkways, arched roofs, endless markets selling trinkets, fruits and vegetables, electronics, schlock Chinese products, Palestinian pastries, dresses, hijabs, and an occasional gem. There are rows of mannequin heads, each wrapped in a more creative and alluring scarf; I guess you make your fashion statement where you can. There is a musty smell of dank stones, scrawny cats, human sweat, and the occasional miraculous spice shop where we lose ourselves in the sacks of aromas and flavors while sipping bitter coffee and sniffing soap flavored with cinnamon and pomegranate. Young boys wheel carts stacked mountain high with fresh pita and we stop to fill ourselves with crispy, cheesy kenafe soaked in rose water. This is my kind of shopping. Most everyone is polite and solicitous and begins and ends the conversation with, “You’re welcome.” Little boys ask where we are from and how old we are. I keep spotting splatters of old bullet holes from previous battles engraved into the ancient walls and metal doors.
At one point we stop to visit the restoration project of Khan Al Wakala, a former market place dating back to the Romans, now owned by the Nablus Municipality. In the 2002 Israeli invasion, part of this extensive building was bulldozed by Israeli tanks to create an opening for tanks to enter the old city. (The tanks weren’t made for the winding stone paths.) They destroyed numerous other ancient buildings to make openings for their machinery of war. The renovation is spectacular, with rows of columns and a lovely open floor space (formerly for animals), rooms for businesses, meetings, a restaurant, a hotel, and incredible rooftop vistas. We take in the hills of Nablus, spot the Israeli security tower that apparently has an unobstructed view of all of us in the city (that’s me with the floppy hat and water bottle taking your picture) as well as all the way to Iraq. On another hilltop there is a massive orange-pink palace that is owned by the gazzillionare brother of the guy who is funding the city of Rawabi. The view is breathtaking and there is a brave little kite flying serenely above all of this chaos and insanity.
The only hitch is that the Municipality has not found an investor to finance and develop this very good idea. Any millionaires out there interested in socially responsible investing? I highly recommend this as an investment opportunity, the craftsmanship is excellent, there is an up-to-date institutional sized kitchen with shiny modern equipment, lovely stone tiles in the bathrooms; you can even see the original Roman tiles and the old well?oh, but of course, this is Nablus.
We drag ourselves back to the Yaffa Guest House, a few bites of kenafe has a way of slowing us down, and we are met by a pack of ten-year-olds pointing plastic guns at us, making shooting sounds, and demanding our money. But this is Balata where real children have guns and real people die and this was a little too real for me