The West Bank doesn’t rank high on most people’s idea of a holiday destination but if you can get in (more on that later), it’s certainly an interesting destination.
There was never an intention to visit Israel but we could see it just across the Red Sea from our hotel room in Aqaba, Jordan. After several days of me singing “have it aaall in Israyaal” from an old Israeli tourism ad, my friend finally snapped and said if we go, will I please shut up?!
Through talking to various people we met along the way, we decided to travel from Jerusalem to the West Bank city of Nablus. We took a taxi to Huwara checkpoint and on arriving I started to wonder if we had made the wrong decision. There was a watch tower manned by an armed IDF soldier and barbed wire and chain link fencing that funnelled a group of people through a roofed pen, towards more soldiers manning the checkpoint. All of the people were Palestinian and all of them were being turned away. We were no exception and were curtly told that we couldn’t cross. We could try to contact the district commissioner for permission but that would also likely result in refusal.
I approached a Palestinian man and asked him why they weren’t letting people through and he told me that it happens often. He lives the other side of the checkpoint and they won’t let him return home. He continued to tell me that these checkpoints are illegal under international law and they stop people from crossing just to make life difficult for them. He also said that he knew a way in, if we wanted to join him.
So we got into a taxi with him and a couple of other Palestinians and drove away from the checkpoint. After a short drive the taxi stopped at the side of the road and the man pointed up a hill to a yellow van that was parked on a road high above us.
The taxi sped off without asking for payment and we began to make our way up the steep, scrubby ground. The man insisted that we picked up the pace, shouting “quickly, soldiers, quickly.” Nothing and I mean nothing makes you move up a hill quicker than the prospect of being shot at by the Israeli Defence Force, so we ran as fast as we could to the yellow van, which I could now see had had its side windows replaced with plastic sheeting. Surpressing the thought that they had been shot out, I jumped in.
As we drove along the winding dirt road a boy on a donkey drawn cart came around the corner waving his arms wildly. The driver obviously knew what this meant and told us that soldiers were coming and that we should keep quiet and don’t move. A few seconds later an open topped IDF vehicle came along the road towards us. As it crept past in what seemed like slow motion, I held my breath and hoped that his Jurassic Park logic of not moving meant that they wouldn’t be able to see us. The soldiers continued to cruise past us and once out of sight, the van occupants let out collective sigh of relief. I asked the man we were with what would have happened if we had been caught. He said that the driver would have “been taken.” I decided not to ask where.
A few minutes later the road ended at a pile of rubble and we had seemingly reached our destination. It looked as though we were still in the middle of nowhere and I was worried that we were going to be left up here, or maybe even something worse. Perhaps sensing my concern, the man smiled and beckoned us to follow him over the pile of rubble and down the track. I needn’t have worried, because after a short walk we suddenly ended up in the outskirts of Nablus and as if to further alleviate my worries, people began to emerge from buildings and shout “welcome!”, “welcome to Palestine!” I couldn’t quite believe how friendly they were.
After saying our thanks and goodbyes to the man that had helped us reach the city, we made our way to the Al Yasmeen Hotel. It had been recommended to us by some Americans that we had met in Egypt, as it was not only the best hotel in the city but it also acted as something of a hub for western journalists and aid workers. After weeks of grotty middle eastern hotels, I never thought that the best hotel we would stay in would be in the West Bank.
Once we had satisfied ourselves with flush toilets and hot showers we headed off to downtown Nablus to explore. Chance would have it that we arrived just as a protest started. Groups of veiled women and men and children with placards walked around the roundabout that marks the city centre in a surprisingly well mannered fashion. It’s quite possibly the best behaved demonstration that I have witnessed and oddly after only a few minutes the boards came down and the protestors just melted into the crowd. I can only assume that they wanted to make their point and get out of there before any Israeli soldiers turned up.
We had been told that school supplies were difficult to get hold of in Nablus, so before our trip we had purchased a few things from Jerusalem. The Americans that we had met had given us the address of an activist group in Nablus that would take them off our hands, so we set off to find them.
The taxi dropped us off in a considerably rougher looking part of town and for all intents and purposes it looked like a typical middle eastern street, except that nearly all the buildings were heavily pockmarked with bullet holes.
Again we were given a warm welcome by many of the people on the street, who waved and asked where we were from. We asked one man if he knew where the office we were looking for was. Unsure, he stopped a young man, who said that he knew the place and asked us to follow him down a particularly crumbling side street that led to a dead end. He pulled open a metal hatch in the wall and we dubiously ducked inside.
We were in a seemingly abandoned, concrete building and we followed him up stairs. We passed empty rooms littered with bits of broken furniture and rubbish, towards a door that looked as though it belonged in a 1950’s detective’s office. Through the frosted glass I could see the blurry shapes of people.
To say that we had a less than friendly welcome is an understatement. We stood there, thinking what to say whilst a man at a desk and a cocky looking woman with short hair and a patched up leather jacket eyeballed us.
I tried to explain that some people we met had told us to come here to find out more about the Palestinian situation and to give them the school supplies we had bought. The man at the desk continued to look at me blankly whilst I thought how much this situation reminded me of the start of ‘An American Werewolf in London’; where they had a similar reception in the Slaughtered Lamb pub. After dismissing us and being uninterested in the supplies, we made our excuses and quickly left.
Grateful to be back on the bullet ridden street, the atmosphere rapidly changed. Half the street started to run one way and the other half in the opposite direction. A man pointing to the far end of the street told us that soldiers were coming and promptly ran towards them. Curious and naïve we also headed that way. At the end of the street we came to a huge crossroads that was completely blocked off at three of the junctions by mountains of rubble. I later found out that the blockades had been put there by the Israelis in order to disrupt movement in the city.
There was a lot of commotion and people kept informing us that soldiers were coming but I couldn’t see anything. One man pushed us to the front of the crowd and pleaded with me to take photos to show the world what is really happening here. As if on cue, a deep grumbling sound preceded a tank and two armoured jeeps speeding over a hill in the road. They drove down through the only unblocked route and stopped in the middle of the intersection. The turret on the tank swung back and forth, before pointing right in our direction. At this point we decided that we needed to get out of there.
As we ran away from the tank we heard several explosions and I managed to get a quick photo of them firing at the crowd of civilians. When we considered it safe to stop running, I had the bright idea of making our way around to the side of the tank where maybe, at a distance we could get a better look at what was happening.
I was right about the better look and thankfully the tank still had its sights on where we had been standing five minutes previously. From our new vantage point I had a clear view of the intersection and could see groups of children throwing rocks off the top of buildings onto the tank and jeeps. Against our better judgement we moved closer to try and get some better photos. Children standing on our side of the intersection also started throwing rocks at the tank and the turret swung round in my direction. I quickly ducked behind a bin and peeked out to see one of the armoured jeeps open its door and a soldier chuck a flash grenade at the children. They must have been less than 10 years old. I covered my ears and there was a flash of light and a terrific bang. My ears rang for hours afterwards, so I can only imagine what it must have been like for the children who were only feet away from it when it detonated. Grabbing a few last minute photos we decided we had seen enough and retreated. As we did, the crackle of gunfire started.
Turning the corner onto a quieter street I looked back and caught a glimpse of the girl in the leather jacket striding towards the tank.
As we arrived back at the hotel we bumped into Silvia Cattori, a journalist we had spoken to earlier. She could probably read from our faces that something wasn’t quite right and I was glad for her comforting words and hug.
Later that afternoon we watched CNN in our room, where they had footage of the events that we witnessed; except the banner at the bottom of the screen read “Palestinian Aggressive.” I had always suspected that the media was economical with the truth, especially American media, but was dumbfounded at how they had managed to blame the Palestinians. After all, it wasn’t the Palestinians who rocked up in Tel Aviv and started shelling Israeli citizens.
In the evening we headed back into the city, determined not to let the day’s events tarnish our opinion of Nablus. You don’t have to travel far to find evidence of the sustained conflict that blights this ancient city. Whilst photographing a large, collapsed building, a man with a baseball bat approached us; not usually a welcome sight, but it turned out that he was guarding the building and wanted to show us around. It used to be one of Yasser Arafat’s offices and had been shelled by the Israelis. As if we needed any further evidence, he took us to see the remains of a gigantic missile.
We had a poke around inside and amongst the rubble was a Hamas flag. I desperately wanted to take it for a souvenir but the prospect of being cavity searched by Shin Bet meant that it stayed where it was.
The rest of the street was a repetition of the same sights: rubble, bombed buildings and blown up cars. That was until we happened upon the most unsuspected and beautiful sight. Amongst the debris, there was a small, hand powered Ferris wheel that was being enjoyed by groups of laughing children and their parents. It epitomised the staunch determination of the people of Nablus to lead as normal a life as possible under the harshest conditions.
On the way back to the hotel a 4×4 crammed with Palestinian freedom fighters armed with automatic weapons passed us. I needn’t have worried, they smiled and one of them winked, before speeding off down a side street.
That night after transcribing some interviews for Silvia, who was finding it difficult to understand her heavily accented recordings, we decided to travel back to Jerusalem the next day. Worried that we might run into the same soldiers who had turned us away at the checkpoint, we shaved off our beards and my friend removed his glasses and donned contact lenses. For all their military intelligence, it seems that nothing beats a good old fashioned disguise, because they were the same guards and after a cursory look at our passports, they allowed us to pass.
Jumping into a share taxi we started to drive off and were glad to be on the home run. That was until a soldier stepped in front of the car with his hand raised. The taxi driver was worried. I was worried. The crying woman on the back seat was worried. The driver asked if I would speak to the soldier because I was British and they would let us pass. I wound down the window and poked my head out, only to see a soldier in the watch tower aim his rifle at me. Slowly raising both hands and looking as coy as humanly possible I asked what the problem was.
“English?” he asked. I nodded. He mulled it over for an incredibly tense moment and then waved us on. Sighing with relief from every orifice, we were free to go.