Former Yachad intern Jess Weiss describes a day trip to Jenin, a town inside the West Bank.
At this point in time there are only two volunteers here at the Fauzi Azar Inn. There’s me and Pat, an Australian student from Sydney. So on our days off, or before our shift, we’ve done some exploring together, sometimes just around Nazareth and sometimes to the big cities. Before my shift yesterday, Pat asked me would I like to go to Jenin with him.
“Sure.”… “Pat, where is Jenin?”
Jenin, I found out, is a town located by the Gilboa-Jalame crossing/check point in the West Bank. It is known to some as the Martyr’s capital due to its history, and association with various extremist groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas. It was the place from where 28 suicide bombers were dispatched. It also was a centre of violence during the second Intifada, with 23 Israeli soldiers and 52 Palestinians killed in an intense battle over 10 days between April 1st– 11th 2002. Just the place for a nice Jewish girl from North London to spend her day off!
We left at 8am via a sherut (a shared taxi) and reached the border 40 minutes later. To be honest, I didn’t know what really to expect from Jenin itself; however, in my stupidity I thought I knew what was going to happen when we got to the checkpoint. I expected to be hauled off the sherut due to the fact we were the only westerners and given a grilling by a scary looking soldier. All I got was a bored looking one who, upon entering the sherut, looked at me, then my passport, then back at me. Then he gave it back and waved us through.
There are no immediate dramatic changes upon entering the West Bank, and Jenin itself is just like any other Arab town. It has a bustling main street filled with people going about their business in the noisy and colourful shuk, trying to not get hit by the cars which whip around the corner at ridiculous speeds. Yet there are Palestinian flags hanging everywhere, posters of ‘martyrs’ and Arafat lining the walls. There are also very few Westerners, which meant as soon as my friend and I got out of the taxi, we were immediately a sight to see for the locals. Throughout our progress through the main city area, we were shouted after in various languages, introduced to complete strangers and repeated our story countless times.
During our progress through the market, we had decided to go to the refugee camp just to take a look around. Entering a neighborhood made up of concrete houses which we later found out was the refugee camp, we came about a bright yellow building. This was the Freedom Theatre, a grass-roots acting school started by Israeli actor Juneo Mer Khamis in 2006. The aim of the school is to provide a way for the young people of the West Bank to deal their frustration and anger in a non-violent way whilst giving them skills they can use for the future. The students learn a range of techniques and how to use different forms of media, which we were shown whilst on a tour of the school. There are regular performances by the school in Jenin and across the West Bank for the community. Some of their productions are available on Youtube such as “Shattered dreams” and “Fragments of Palestine” which I highly recommend, as the language barrier doesn’t hold back the emotions which penetrate through the pieces and leave you feeling isolated, enclosed and helpless. They also run a Freedom Bus which takes actors to the wider community across the West Bank, creating on the spot live plays based on the audiences’ past experiences and present emotions. The Freedom Theatre is in many ways doing the work the politicians should be, and are not doing.
On the way back from the Freedom Theatre, after I asked a group of girls what a particular building was (it turned out to be a security compound for the police), we got chatting and somehow got invited back to one of their homes for lunch. We accepted the invitation and received a private tour of Jenin on the way. Walking around Jenin, I got the sense that there already a nation here, bubbling alive under the surface and all that is needed is the official stamp. People talk about two states, but in many ways there already is two states: it’s just not “official” yet.
Our new friend is called Samach and she is one of nine children, studying to be a nurse at the American Arabic University nearby. We meet Samach’s father on the way at his shoe shop and in the end we’re given a lift to her house by him which was further in the Refugee camp. As soon as we arrive at Samach’s home we’re embraced by the entire family, Samach’s mother, younger siblings, her aunts, uncles, and cousins and we’re treated to a wonderful Arabic lunch. We were asked a dozen question, difficult at first to answer them all due the language barrier, but we spent a lovely afternoon in the warm sun on the roof, sipping tea on pillows and eating amazing home-cooked dishes.
During the afternoon, we spoke about many issues from schooling, family life, to the conflict, Arabic customs, the West Bank and the future. Could there be peace between Israel and the Palestinian people? Yes. One day. What would need to happen for there to be peace? A lot of things would need to change. The stopping of settlements. The end to rocket attacks. The end of the blockade. Was it going to happen in the near future? Probably not. But there is hope. Hope that things will start to change for the better. We all came to the conclusion that there has to be some sort of dialogue between the sides and concessions have to be made no matter how hard it is to do. Samach watched her neighbours’ home being bombed, and had lost two uncles during the second Intifada, and I have family who have been, and still are, in the Israeli Army. Neither of us want to see more fighting or worry about family members getting hurt any more. We were in agreement that peace was what we wanted.
We were forced to leave the happy gathering in the late afternoon, and after a lift to the Checkpoint, we started the journey back. This was a glimpse into the reality and encounters Palestinians and soliders in the Israeli Army experience. I know different people have different experiences of them and each checkpoint is different; however, the experience left me feeling unsettled. When going through the checkpoint, you are only allowed proceed at certain times, controlled by red and green traffic lights and Thorpe Park ride-like gates, which in many ways dehumanise both you and the official overseeing it. Everyone is just going through the motions of the system.
First you go through into a pen -like area caged with metal detectors and proceed to a warehouse-like building. After some more metal detectors, you put your bags and whatever else through x-ray machines and again head through more metal detectors. Next to the x-ray machine, there is a window with a soldier who inspects your luggage by asking you to come up to the window and showing them whatever they want to see. I had a few too many books in my bag and had to come to the window and flick them each through and answer the questions I had expected that morning. How long have you been in Jenin? Where are you staying? Who are you visiting? Where are you from? Why are you coming here? These questions stopped after I flicked through my travel siddur, a gift from RSY Netzer two summer ago whilst on Israel tour. The soldier got friendly after seeing that and my British passport.
After being deemed ok to move on, you pass into one of three separate rooms, give your passport, look into a camera, then enter a large room which reminded me of a poorly lit concrete version of immigration at Heathrow Airport. Again, you answer the same questions and have your passport checked, and if all is ok you are free to return to Israel. As I was answering a question, I saw a soldier on a platform in front of me, about my age with a very big gun smirking down at me. That was slightly off putting and needless to say I was very happy to be on the shruet back to Nazareth.
I’m glad I went to Jenin, and I would encourage more people to go both there and the rest of West Bank, as it will open your eyes to the other side, a side which you may not like to see but must. The conflict can’t be solved if we don’t look at where the other arguments are coming from. Yes, you will have your beliefs tested, questioned and you may even start to have doubts. But how can you talk about the other side when you do not know them or what they want? You can’t. By not knowing or experiencing the other side, it becomes a black, fictional void, something not to be taken seriously. I know can’t say that I suddenly know what all the Palestinian people want after a day trip. But I do know from the people that I’ve talked to and their stories that they want a peaceful, safe place of their own.
The Palestinian people are no longer a faceless being: they are real and human to me.