The road to Nablus is a ride through a tense, cold limbo; not a solid border but a sort of national vacuum. We pass Palestinian streets patrolled by Israeli soldiers, and leaving the towns past flapping Palestinian flags, arrive at Israeli watchtowers and checkpoints. At middle-of-nowhere bus stations Jewish settlers stand waiting for transport alongside bored, off-duty soldiers. The situation becomes only more bizarre the more you know about it. The city of Nablus, cradle of the Intifadas, is policed by smartly dressed soldiers and policemen carrying AK-47s, but such power vanishes when the IDF calls to tell them they are entering the city to make arrests, at which point they take off their uniforms, put away their guns and go home. The Palestinian Authority has in fact taken over almost all the civil and administrative roles of government, such as water and electricity, etc., but executive and policing remains firmly in Israeli hands.
Touring the city gives one an equal sense of tortured duality and uncertainty. The beauty of the past, represented by the old buildings, is imposed upon by the harshness of the present, in the form of bullet hole-ridden windows and empty spaces where houses and factories stood only a few years ago. At one point we stood at a crossroads offering us views into the secretive underground streets and thin, life-filled alleyways, only to then be told that on this very spot seven people had fallen to a sniper’s bullets.
It is inside that one finds escapism from the conflict. Entering a spice shop or the covered market, one can wander for ages, just taking in the magical sights and smells and not worrying about a thing, as if having wandered into one of the Arabian Nights. From this world of scents, stuffed animals, traditional dress and tea one has only to emerge back out into the sunlight to fall back to reality. Here the walls are plastered with posters and murals, either displaying loyalty to one political faction or another, or more commonly, as memorials to the many martyrs of the conflict. These vary in style and theme. Some are dedicated to child victims, who stare out at you with innocent eyes. These could be found in any site of tragic events. Others are more unique to conflict; men in their twenties photographed proudly bearing rifles, surrounded by Arabic slogans, various political leaders of Palestine (mainly Yasser Arafat, who is everywhere) and a few of the (controversial) symbols of Arab unity such as Nasser, Sadat and even Saddam Hussein.
True to the duality of things here, the heart of this defiant city is home to the supposed tomb of the Patriarch Joseph. Having secured the area, settlers often come here to pray in large numbers.
It was dark when we arrived at Balata refugee camp, home to 30,000 it is the largest camp in the West Bank. Our first stop was a conference room where we drank coffee and listened to an account of the camp’s history given by one of the few men remaining who lived through the Nakba at the age of seven, his family having been moved here from land that became Ben Gurion airport. He recalled how it had taken seven years for the camp to move from a mass of tents to the sprawl of concrete blocks that it is now.