It was Friday, the day of rest. I watched Jamal sit in his usual place, on a chunk of shattered breezeblock at the centre of the swathe of open ground. His vantage point was sufficiently far up the slope to see across the roofs of the houses at the northern end of the refugee camp to the patchwork of fields and fertile farmland beyond, the town of Nazareth was visible on the skyline, spread across the hazy hills of lower Galilee. Kids milled about amongst the rubble, but kept a respectful distance – the scene reminiscent of a post-industrial site in England, of land cleared for redevelopment. In this case though, Jamal was sitting on his house, his family buried beneath him.
Ten months ago on 2 April 2002 Israeli tanks rolled into Jenin. For ten days they bombarded the town and adjacent refugee camp. Apache helicopters hovered overhead strafing, and rocketing indiscriminately. By the time they stopped 800 families were homeless, and 300 houses had been destroyed. At least 75 Palestinians – Jamal’s family amongst them – were killed – perhaps as many as 200 – and many more wounded. For four days, following the cessation of violence, the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent Society were denied access to the Jenin Refugee Camp. On April 18 George Bush declared, “Sharon is a man of peace”.
A few days ago I visited the Razi hospital in Jenin town. Yayia, a baby girl ten hours old, was born at midnight in a car on the wrong side of the Israeli checkpoint. Permission to cross had been refused; Yayia’s father had assisted at her birth. By the time the Israeli soldiers gave permission for the ambulance to pass Yayia was turning blue. A mother giving birth at a checkpoint is no longer news. It happens too often. But what sort of mindset must a soldier have if he can stop a mother in labour reaching hospital? How can he refuse to help and watch a woman give birth by the side of the road?
To start a day in Palestine requires decisions to be made; breakfast decisions – hot sheep’s milk with cinnamon and sugar or sweet Arab coffee? Humous and foull (bean paste) with olives, tomato and cucumber or a sandwich of freshly baked Arab bread packed with falafels and crunchy salad? Or maybe a mug of Arab tea infused with sage and a skewer of lightly seasoned lamb, grilled over charcoal, with onions and tomatoes? Decisions, decisions!
Yet, in Jenin what to eat for breakfast is a ‘no-brainer’. Naim makes the finest coffee and everyone knows that Zaid’s falafels cannot be bettered. Naim and Zaid have adjacent stalls – handcarts – in the centre of town. For twelve hours every day they stand next to each other, smiling and ‘joshing’ with their customers. Friends and regulars get freebies, and kids on their way to school stop for a chat, their breath steaming in the chilly dawn air.
Little Naim weighs sixty kilos, his wife ninety. His family tower above him and he adores them all. For thirty years Naim worked in the pharmacy nearby, but once the Intifada (the struggle) began, people could no longer afford medication. Naim now makes his living on the street. His ornate coffee pot functions similar to a thermos reversed – hot charcoal in the middle, coffee in the outer lining. The coffee is made two days in advance, permitting coffee and cardamom to fuse – for them to get to know each other. The aroma is noticeable at fifty metres.
Zaid has turned falafel cooking into an art form. His fingers can fashion ten in a minute when demand is high – each one made to order – crisp on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside. In the years preceding the Intifada Zaid earned an average of US $60 per day, now just $12. His brother was killed when an Israeli bomb struck his house so Zaid helps to feed that family as well as his own. To watch him you would think he hadn’t a care in the world.
Naim and Zaid are typical of Jenin – a town depicted by Israeli propaganda as a nest of terrorists; the truth stood on its head. In spite of the poverty, the rubble-strewn streets, Israeli bombing, random shooting and wanton destruction, Jenin is a city of light. People’s generosity, ability to survive, their determination to resist, to live and to raise their children is heroic – typical of Palestinians across the Occupied Territories – the West Bank and Gaza.
Each day, I ask myself how it is that men like Jacob and his brother Nidal, who witnessed their father’s watch shop being destroyed by Israeli soldiers in 1967 and were badly beaten in the process, how can these men after thirty five years of oppression still be so decent? How could Jacob ask me with a smile, after his son was tear-gassed at school “Why can’t the British supply the Israeli army with some of that laughing gas I am told you have in England”? And then there is Azzaldin and his wife Raida, with whom I stayed in Jenin Camp and whose daughter was shot by an Israeli sniper while standing in the window of their house. She bled to death because the doctor hurrying to help was also shot by the same sniper. How do they cope? It is people like Jamal, Naim, Jacob, Nidal and Azzaldin and Raida who the Israelis are demonising. And the world believes what it is told.
Courtesy Israel Shamir