Across the Aisle, Beyond the Green Line

“The discrimination of refugees by Palestinian society is terrible,” said Muhammad, who lives in a UN refugee camp in Nablus. “If you think about it, the source of all the problems and all the devils in the world is…”

I honestly thought he was going to say “discrimination”, or “inequality”, or something along those lines.

“…Israel.”

I held my breath and my tongue as I tried to digest the bigoted non sequitur I had just heard. It’s one thing to read such incendiary statements in an academic article about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it’s an entirely different experience to hear it from the horse’s mouth. I felt a flush of anger, but how could I respond? I was sitting with a tour group in a public park in Nablus, just minutes before entering a refugee camp – not the most conducive environment for a debate.

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Public park in Nablus

Our tour guide, also named Muhammad, quickly interrupted his friend from the Nablus refugee camp. “He’s not referring to the people. He’s talking about the system of oppression,” he said. But I wasn’t convinced. What’s worse is that “Nablus Muhammad” is an English teacher to 11th and 12th grade students. Is he repeating such statements to his students?

As I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat, two thoughts entered my mind. First, my discomfort paled in comparison to the discomfort of the Palestinian refugees in the camp that I was about to walk through. As erroneous and dangerous as Nablus Muhammad’s remarks were, they are the product of socialisation within a crowded and dirty urban pressure cooker. Second, I must learn to deal with this dissonance rather than run away from it.

After listening to Nablus Muhammad for a few more minutes, we walked to the refugee camp. Actually, the word “camp” gives a false impression. When the camps were created after the war of 1948-9, Palestinian refugees lived in tents, hoping for the conflict to end soon so that they could return to their homes. But over the decades, as it became clear that a resolution was nowhere in sight, the tents were replaced by shabby concrete buildings sponsored by the UN and other states like Japan. In many “camps”, the buildings were built in extremely close proximity, creating a dense and suffocating environment.

As we approached the refugee compound, a young boy called out to us, “Ma shlomchem (how are you)?” I was surprised to hear Hebrew, but fortunately for me (as I would learn later), I replied with a weak “Hello”. We entered the maze of narrow alleys, each of which was the width of two people. As we walked in single file, I tried to decipher the graffiti on the walls of the four-storey apartment buildings that we were walking between. I noticed a hastily drawn swastika and shuddered at the thought of such a symbol amongst a population that hates the Jewish state.

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Narrow alleys in refugee camp

Privacy is non-existent in this densely populated concrete labyrinth. As we weaved in and out of the alleyways, I unintentionally peeked into several homes. The atmosphere was eerily quiet, save for the few children playing in the alleys and several men carrying out repair work. I didn’t feel unsafe at all, but I did feel a lot of tension in the air. I imagine that many residents scornfully regarded us as intrusive foreigners trying to “understand” the situation in a brief 10-minute tour. I don’t blame them for thinking that.

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Refugee camp in Nablus

There are very different opinions about Palestinian refugees. Some blame only Israel for creating the most protracted refugee crisis in the world, and others blame the Palestinian and Arab governments for abusing the refugees as pawns in their assault on Israel’s legitimacy. But regardless of political opinion, it is an undeniably miserable situation that I wish more Israelis would at least acknowledge. When I visited the Arafat Museum in Ramallah and saw pictures of Palestinians fleeing their homes and living in tents, I recalled the words of a right-wing Israeli who told me that the Palestinians are a “cancer in Judea and Samaria”. How could such a vile pejorative be hurled at refugees?

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Picture taken in Arafat Museum in Ramallah

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Picture taken in Arafat Museum in Ramallah

As we walked away, a man on a wheelchair came speeding towards us shouting, “T’azor li (help me)!” He was begging for alms in Hebrew! Confused, I asked Tour Guide Muhammad why I had heard Hebrew in a Palestinian refugee compound. He replied that many refugees suspect that there are Israeli Mossad or Shin Bet agents embedded within tour groups like ours, especially since many of them are wanted by the Israeli authorities. Interestingly, he seemed quite apologetic for this attitude, claiming that it was the fault of the Palestinian media. He also recounted the story of another tour group that he had taken to a refugee camp, where a German girl accidentally said “Beseder (OK)” to a refugee. He had to explain to the refugees in Arabic that she was just a student in Israel, and her Hebrew reply was just a habit she had picked up.


The walk through the refugee camp was the final and most memorable part of the Nablus tour which was organised by Area D hostel in Ramallah. I had stayed in that hostel for one night as part of a short weekend in the West Bank. Before this trip, I had only visited Bethlehem and Jericho, and I had never slept overnight in the West Bank.

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Nablus

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Mural in Nablus

Tour Guide Muhammad was a friendly, easy-going guide who spoke in a frank but mostly measured manner. Before taking us to the refugee camp, he showed us the main souk of Nablus, took us to a Turkish hammam, and treated us to delicious knafeh – a syrupy symphony of sugar and cheese that tantalises the taste buds and elevates the soul. He also took us to an olive oil soap workshop, where we were introduced to the complex process of purifying olive oil and turning it into high-quality bars of soap for export.

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Spices, olive oil soap, nuts, etc.

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Making knafeh

Throughout the tour, he shared his personal stories of the Second Intifada, his experiences working for several years in the Palestinian Authority (PA) government, and his thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Palestinian society.

He said a lot that I had expected – that the unjust Zionists were brutal and violent, that they had killed many innocent women and children during the Second Intifada, and that the Palestinians are cooped up in two giant jails (the West Bank and Gaza). He also said that he was unsure of his own future and the future of the Palestinian people, and that there may be no more land left to claim if Israelis continue to build settlements and place restrictions on the movement of Palestinians.

But some of his opinions were quite surprising. For example, he shared his displeasure with the Palestinian refugees who remained in the camps instead of moving to the cities like Nablus and Ramallah. “They don’t need to live like our fellow Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria,” he said. “They are the ones who are really suffering – they are not accepted by the societies they live in.”

He also said that there are many problems in Palestinian society, such as inequality, corruption, infighting and lack of meritocracy. “People get jobs based on connections and not only on qualifications,” he said. In fact, he had never heard of “internships” until he travelled to India as part of an official exchange between the PA and the Indian government.

“It isn’t right to blame everything on the Israelis,” he said. “The Palestinian people have two enemies – occupation and ignorance.”

When referring to Israel, he often placed the word “state” in inverted commas, claiming that he recognises Israel because of its power, not because it had the right to take the land in 1948. In other words, he accepts the reality of Israel’s existence but not its legitimacy, just like many other Palestinians. Since this looks unlikely to change, it seems that a future peace deal (if there ever is one) will only be possible on the basis of hard power politics and unpalatable realities.

Interestingly, he claimed that Israel is highly individualistic because it is a migrant society of Jews from many different nations and cultures. This stands in contrast to the high solidarity of Palestinian society, which he claims has one unifying culture based on time-honoured traditions spanning many generations of indigenous Palestinians. I disagree with his assessment – there is a high level of solidarity within Israeli society even though there is tension between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, as well as the Haredim and secular Jews. Also, Muhammad himself decried the inequality and fault-lines that exist within Palestinian society. But it is nonetheless an interesting perspective to hear from a Palestinian.

I share these experiences and observations primarily to educate and not to try to influence. I’ve tried to recount the most memorable parts of my tour as accurately as possible. I’ve spoken to a lot of Israelis over the past year. Over the next six months, I will make an effort to speak to more Palestinians across the Green Line.

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