This afternoon I observed Huwwara, the southern checkpoint into and out of Nablus city. There I met up with several Scottish volunteers from Women in Black, an international peace network opposed to war, militarism, and other forms of violence. When I arrived, the Women in Black were panicking because my colleague Kate was in danger of being arrested for arguing with soldiers at the checkpoint.
That day, the rule was that most women, old men, and young boys were allowed through, but men between 15 and 40 years of age were denied passage. Period. It didn’t matter where they were going, it didn’t matter where they were coming from, it didn’t matter who they were. If you were a Palestinian young man, you couldn’t get to work, or to school, or to the hospital, or wherever you were going. All the men had gathered in a ditch next to the checkpoint to wait and hope the rule would change. A few men in the ditch started to pick up trash around the area and I wondered why.
The Women in Black volunteers wanted to go into Nablus to get some money, but said the soldiers had told them it was too dangerous. One soldier said, “You don’t know what the Arabs are like. They don’t care who they hurt. They will do anything. This is for your own protection.” One Palestinian woman behind the Scots tried to get through and was also denied. She looked at the soldier pleadingly and asked, “Do you have children?” The soldier stuck the barrel of his rifle in her chest and pushed her away.
One man said he asked a soldier in English, “How can you do this? We are fellow human beings. We offer you peace.” He said the soldier stuck a rifle between his eyes and replied, “We offer you blood.”
Huwwara is historically one of Palestine’s most violent checkpoints and we were surprised that there weren’t more international volunteers observing. The main objects of our concern were two men who had been blindfolded and handcuffed 4 hours earlier. They were both fasting for Ramadan, and we began to worry about heat exhaustion as they sat crouched in the sun.
A friend of one of the blindfolded men came and told us what had happened. He said one of the men, Wahit, was sick and had been referred by a doctor in his village to a heart specialist in Nablus. The soldiers told him he could not enter, and handed him a trash bag saying he should start picking up trash around the checkpoint instead. Wahit refused, saying he needed to go to the doctor and would not pick up trash for the soldier. The soldiers insisted and, when Wahit refused and tried to push his way through the soldiers, one of them struck him twice—in the gut and in the shoulder—with the butt of his rifle. He then handcuffed Wahit, blindfolded him, and sat him down in the sun next to two large trash bags.
I never got to hear the story of the man next to Wahit. Having avoided arrest, Kate came to say that there was nothing we could do and we hurried to another checkpoint, hoping to get into Nablus before dusk. Two Machsom Watch (Israeli Checkpoint Watch) volunteers stayed behind to work on getting the men released.
We made it through the second crossing (Awarta checkpoint) easily—evidence of how arbitrary checkpoint rules and security can be—and spent an hour in Nablus. The city was more vibrant and welcoming than I had imagined. I had expected that the Occupation would have diminished Arab hospitality in Palestine. Not so. I took a walk through the Old City to try and clear my mind of all the misconceptions about Arab culture that I’d picked up from Western media. Although Arabs are portrayed as violent fanatics opposed to any values or habits different from their own, in my experience this could not be further from the truth. All over the Middle East I have been welcomed with curiosity, tolerance, and respect, sometimes all the more because I am a woman traveling alone and an American choosing to look beyond the stereotypes about Arabs propagated in the United States.
As I walked through Nablus, children and adults came up to ask my name and where I was from. When I said I was from the US they were quick to point out that their distaste for the American president did not affect their positive feelings towards the American people. They welcomed me to Palestine. “Peace be upon you,” I would say in Arabic. And their reply: “And upon you peace.”
We left Nablus via the Huwwara checkpoint to see if the blindfolded men were still there. They were not; the Israeli volunteers had gotten them released. Additionally, there were several ISM volunteers on the scene. Unfortunately, the atmosphere was still tense and there were now close to a hundred young men in the ditch. One young man showed me his university card, saying he was a student in Nablus and he hadn’t been able to get home to his village to see his family for an entire week. It reminded me of a man I had seen that morning trying to enter Nablus to see his mother, who was dying. He was worried he wouldn’t be able to reach her before she passed away.
After 15 minutes, one of the men still waiting in the ditch yelled “Allah Hu Akbar (God is great)” twice to signal sundown and the end of the fast, and within seconds everyone in the ditch was passing around water, dates (the traditional food for breaking fast), and cigarettes. It was a moment of peace and thanksgiving.
Just then a Palestinian boy who had walked out of the checkpoint line-up was grabbed by his collar and thrown against a concrete block. The young boy put up his arms and cooperated with the soldier who had assaulted him. A large Palestinian who had been waiting for several hours bellowed at the soldiers to let the boy go. The man’s voice was strong, but he was clearly on the brink of tears. The soldiers handcuffed him for causing a ruckus. An ISM volunteer calmly tried to intervene, but the soldiers arrested her as well.
Night was falling and we were worried about making it home. One soldier motioned for us to pass ahead of all the men, and we reluctantly accepted the privilege. The soldier looked at my passport and told me it was illegal for me to be in Nablus. He said, “It’s violent and dangerous in Nablus.” I told him it was more violent and dangerous there at the checkpoint than in Nablus. I asked him if he’d ever been to Nablus without his gun. He shook his head. I smiled and said, “It’s different from what you think.” He appeared to be considering my remark when I was pushed with the crowd through the line and hurried into a service taxi bound for home.
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for many things. I am thankful that I can leave my house, my town, and my country any time I want. I am thankful for options, education, medical care, money in my bank account, and food in my stomach. I am thankful that we do not have a wall outside our house in Haris, although that is likely to change soon. Most of all, I am thankful for the miracles amidst the ongoing tragedy in Palestine, and for the hope and steadfastness that remain in this war-torn land. I hope well-off Americans remember to be thankful for their relatively luxurious, peaceful lives today. The Palestinians have no trouble being thankful for what they have, so neither should we.
Hundreds of Israeli veterans have come forward with stories of the army illegitimately detaining Palestinians. Their testimonies can be found at www.breakingthesilence.org.il