Where Homeland Means Humiliation

NABLUS, West Bank – "Before the 2000 Al-Aqsa Intifadah I was very optimistic. I was ambitious and strong, but now I do not feel strong any more. We are all frustrated in our small prison," says Sawsan Aishe, a 24-year-old graduate from An Najah National University in Nablus in the West Bank.

The West Bank has been under harsh scrutiny by the occupying Israeli forces since the Al-Aqsa uprising in September 2000. The second Intifadah (the name given to militant Palestinian uprising) as it came to be known, began against the backdrop of failed peace negotiations at the Camp David summit. The uprising is named after the Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem where the violence first began.

At the height of the Intifadah the city of Nablus was the target of ruthless Israeli military attacks. These attacks have left behind much damage; many historical buildings lie in ruin, and the population has been severely traumatized.

Nablus has a population of about a quarter of a million. Most Palestinians in the region are divided between the West Bank (which is the west bank of the Jordan river, pop. about two million), the Gaza Strip (on the west coast of Israel along the Mediterranean, pop. about one million) and Jerusalem.

Palestinian movement into and especially out of the city of Nablus continues to be strictly scrutinized and restricted by Israeli forces. This city is notorious for two of the toughest checkpoints in the West Bank, Huwwara and Bayt Eba.

Huwwara is particularly infamous; it has been the scene of much humiliation for the Palestinian people. Hundreds of people line up daily in scorching summer heat or the winter cold, holding out their Palestinian ID’s, waiting for Israeli soldiers pointing M16’s to allow them through a revolving metal door at the checkpoint.

These restrictive measures and the nightly Israeli incursions into the city and surrounding villages have damaged the infrastructure of the area, and the psyche of its people.

Khawla Isleem, mother of five, hopes her children will have "a life better than their mother’s." Isleem was born in Kuwait, but she and her family returned to Palestine in 1967 to claim their identity and their land. "It was very difficult, but we had to return," she told IPS.

Life in Nablus was somewhat easier before the second Intifadah, she says. "The economy was all right and the education was good, and we could come and go without too much difficulty…The first year of this Intifadah (00-2001), however, was horrible, it was not a life."

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics found in a survey on the economic impact of Israeli measures during the current Intifadah January-March 2005 that "the rate of the total diffusion of poverty among Palestinian households in the Palestinian territory is increasing."

The survey showed that 65.2 percent of households had seen their income decrease during the Al-Aqsa Intifadah. As many as 53.9 percent reported that they had lost more than 50 percent of their usual income.

"Life is difficult for us," says Isleem. "We are afraid for our families, for our husbands and our children. We are not safe."

It is particularly hard for young Palestinians who come of age to find they have few choices. Isleem has two daughters who have graduated from university. "Many of our youth are very qualified but there are no jobs," Isleem says. "Many young men are frustrated by the lack of jobs and many young women decide to get married and start families when they cannot find jobs in the fields in which they are qualified."

Aishe has been working as a volunteer with a local Palestinian non-governmental organisation since graduating earlier this year. She also teaches English conversation courses and gives arts and crafts lessons at a local summer camp. "Getting a job is a very sensitive step in our lives," she says. "It is very difficult and we don’t have much choice, therefore I prefer to do anything even if it is without being paid."

Life for Palestinians is always unstable, but ask what makes them feel most vulnerable, and the answer almost certainly will be, the night. "This is when Israeli forces enter our city," Isleem says. "Today may be a normal and safe day but no one knows what will pass during the night, and tomorrow may not be the same."

Yusra Aqqad, 19, grew up during the years of the first Intifadah (1987-1993) and became a young adult through the second Intifadah. "From the time I am a child, I know the Israeli soldiers, I know the sound of shooting and sounds of mothers shouting for their husbands and their children – this is not a good living."

Aishe, like Aqqad and other Palestinians has similar memories. "As a child I would hide behind the curtains in my house when I heard that Israeli soldiers or settlers had entered our village. I will never forget the destruction we have endured and continue to suffer. It is like a lion eating a zebra."

Aishe hopes for peace but fears it may be impossible. "There are many different opinions on both sides, in Israel and in Palestine, and because of this it might be difficult for all of us to live in peace."

But that is Isleem’s dream. "I want my children to live like other children in the world."

Read more by Ushani Agalawatta