West Bank City Life: Young Palestinians playing next to the bombed-out school in the Nablus Casbah. Sidewalks reduced to rubble are common in the Casbah, as it hosts nightly clashes between the Israelis and Palestinians.
I never did find out why the professors left their apartment; all I knew was that I was standing on their porch looking out on the Old City of Nablus, Palestine.
The sun had just gone down, my fellow volunteers were out, and something was up. The air was filled with tension from the Israeli arrests-turned-imprisonments the evening before. Pacing like a maniac, I went to the door to examine the already locked deadbolt for the tenth time.
Earlier that day, I had asked a Palestinian college student, “Who actually governs Nablus?” He muttered something about Hamas or Fatah militias but then grew uneasy when he answered, first looking around and lowering his voice: “Israel.”
Arabs by day, Jews by night, and it was getting clear that both had become accustomed to the hells of occupation. My mind was swirling through a vortex of insanity that can only be found on a battlefield. What was I doing here? I grew up surfing in California!
I had decided, on a whim, after six months of Middle Eastern traveling and a good conversation at a Jerusalem hostel, to volunteer in Nablus. I had heard that the northern West Bank city is the gem of Palestine, a place not to miss during any Westerner’s visit to the West Bank. And being a curious American college student, I wanted to see if the Israeli occupation — which is being subsidized by our tax dollars — is really as ghastly as some claim.
The author, Jesse Aizenstat, in June 2007, standing in front of the highly controversial separation wall, on his way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Occupation aside, Nablus has a unique personality that from past to present has proved both deadly and alluring. Even the most feared Roman of the ancient world, General Vespasian, encountered fierce resistance when his legions settled the coveted land in 72 ce. The people of Nablus joke that there has always been something in the water that gives them the strength to resist occupation. Perhaps that is why Nablus is the only city on the West Bank that has defended itself from having an Israeli compound stationed in its center.
Earlier, the leader of our volunteer group had taken us on a tour of the historic Casbah, or Old City. “Since the breakout of the second Intifada,” he said, “tourists don’t come here anymore.”
Pausing for impact, he added, “So, you are most welcome.”
I soon learned that Nablus’s hospitality is as gracious as that of the Biblical Samaritan woman, who had once offered water to Jesus no farther than a mile from where I was standing.
We continued to walk. I kicked a soccer ball with some kids of the Old City; they all spoke English. Then we went to sample a fresh batch of kunafa, a divinely sweet Nablus pastry baked from a recipe that is probably as old as the covenants themselves.
Soon our volunteer group arrived at a school that had been reduced to rubble by an Israeli air strike. Curious, I started to enter. A gruff old Palestinian man yanked me backward by the collar of my shirt. “What’s your problem?” I demanded.
A teenage boy standing next to him quickly explained that he had just saved me from stepping onto a land mine. I was too stunned to reply.
Later, I learned that leaving explosives behind in demolished buildings was a common tactic used to keep Palestinians from rebuilding.
So there I was in a stranger’s apartment, recalling my day in the Casbah as my friends and I gazed at it from the porch of the high-rise apartment to which we had been assigned. I looked down at my watch: It was nearing midnight. I had a feeling the Israelis would be starting their raids soon, so I reached for the only kind of beer you can find in Nablus, a nonalcoholic one.
I shot up from my seat. Cracks and explosions thundered throughout the Old City. Israeli convoys came and went, but my eyes were glued to the dull, yellow glow of the mystical Casbah. I kept saying to my friend in a crazed voice, “We were just walking through there!” A quick flash, a bang. Firefights were erupting between various Palestinian militias and the Israeli army. We were watching war.
Questions came racing through my head: How could humanity let this happen? Why is the West standing by while the Israelis and Palestinians continue to destroy one another? And why is America, a so-called beacon of social justice and self-determination, supporting Israel as it continues to turn the West Bank into a giant refugee camp?
For a time, I had no answers. Even back in California, I was tormented by what I had witnessed. I would say to myself: “What can I do? I’m a college student with no money and no power.”
It took time, but I slowly came to terms with what I believe: America needed to be exposed to the realities of the occupation. And to me, at least, it seems that the more Americans learn about the situation in Palestine, the more they will support a two-state solution.
While my time on the West Bank exposed me to the suffering of the Palestinians, I discovered that many of the Jews in Israel also felt enslaved by the occupation. The physical and psychological burdens of the occupation were not part of the Zionist dream imagined by Theodor Herzl [in his 1896 Der Judenstaat]; and I remember many conversations with Israeli Jews expressing their desire for an alternative policy to occupation, and a sincere desire for peaceful coexistence.
With President-elect Barack Obama headed to the White House, the press has begun a frenzy of speculation about positions he will take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not that Obama has particularly differed from other American politicians vis-à-vis their unconditional support of Israel, but it is widely held that his pragmatism and global roots — coupled with the leverage of the American presidency — offer the best chance yet in finding a sustainable peace.
When I close my eyes at night, I often remember sitting on that porch, fearfully mesmerized by the dull glow of the seemingly endless violence of the Nablus Casbah. I think: What about those kids playing soccer amid the land mines in the Old City?
Originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent