One image that sticks is the one of a boy throwing a rock at a tank. The boy, a Palestinian, is poised on the edge of release, one foot raised, rock hand stretched back, frozen in perigee. The Israeli tank too is frozen by the camera’s shutter, stopped in mid-trundle for the photogenic instant before lurching forward like a mindless metal beetle. The boy’s back is to us, he is between us and the tank which, filling the background and facing us, suggests incessance. There is something relentlessly sinister about the composition, it seems to offer a promise, and a threat. The boy is all defiance, resistance, and with these, albeit reluctantly, hope. He also hints at an unremitting hopelessness that must sound something like the dull clang of a rock on plated steel. This image was on a poster on a door in an apartment in Nablus. Another poster in the same apartment offered a pair of images bracketing the caption “From the children of Israel to the children of Lebanon.” The top image showed a neatly ordered stack of ordnance. Two smiling girls kneel next to the stack. The nearer girl, wearing pig tails, writes a message with a permanent marker on the blunt tip of one of the bombs while the other looks on. The bottom image is messier, less composed, showing merely the skewed body of a child, presumably a Lebanese child, presumably skewed by one of these bombs or one like them. And through it all, despite what these images suggest or offer outright, Israel manages to keep up the David and Goliath bit with a straight face, often to applause, as the children from these images and what they represent are sold on the market of world opinion as an existential threat.
The bombing of Lebanon’s infrastructure and civilian population was going strong as I flew into Tel Aviv. I had expected panic, rage, or fortitude from my fellow passengers, but all I could perceive was a glib chatty indifference, if a little ragged around the edges. The atmosphere in the airplane was a little buzzed, like we were vacationers possibly flying into a hurricane. Hurricane or war, in any case a bigger thing than individual experience or responsibility, condescending to alight for an instant from the empyrean of headlines and special report onto the stifling fabric of the exitless everyday.
I landed, passed through security without the anticipated questions, gawked at a painfully pretty eighteen-year-old chatting on her cell phone outside with her M-16 carelessly slung over her shoulder like a backpack, and caught the shuttle to Jerusalem. Where I spent a couple more days gawking, listening to the philosophical musings of round-the-world backpackers at the hostel along the lines of “Why can’t they just get along with each other?”, poorly navigating the seams of that much-walled city, walking into a shop in the Jewish quarter for example with an idiot’s smile and a well-intentioned salaam alaykum! And then I was off, after a stop in Bethlehem, to Nablus, where I was going to live and work for August as a volunteer with Project Hope, a local organization set up in 2003 to try and correct a little of the havoc in educational and recreational opportunities wrought by the nearly forty-year old occupation in general, and the Israeli repression of the second Intifada in particular.
Despite the media fatigue of hearing the same story over and over, despite the occasional bigger war that comes along now and then, the occupation continues, and continues to get worse. The audience may have left the theater, in boredom or despair, but the film rolls on. Since the strategic withdrawal from Gaza last year, touted by the media and politicos as the ultimate Israeli sacrifice, it has become even more of a prison than it once was; progress continues apace to similarly reduce the West Bank. In Nablus, the IDF raids the Old City and the camps nightly, and increasingly, daily. To leave the city for any other part of the West Bank, nominally under Palestinian Authority control, one must pass through an Israeli Army checkpoint. These checkpoints are humiliating, and dangerous. Waiting in the fenced enclosure, herded slowly forward, babies crying, the soldiers waving their guns, making bored jokes with each other, telling people to move forward, move back, move faster, move slower, lift up your shirt, lift up your pants, take off your shoes, empty your bag, pass through, go back, beat it, it becomes clear what there might be not to like about the occupation. The soldiers, like cops anywhere, eject commands and questions with the arbitrary violence, exasperated and mocking, of the entitled. Palestinians endure the searches, the insults, the denials with a patience and dignity that can startle. Like much dignity, it contains its fair share of rage, and not much that’s happened in the last ten years has tended to make this rage any less.
It took nearly a week for me to get classes organized, so I used those days to walk around, get acquainted. Nablus is a bright city nestled between two mountains, the blocky white structures that compose it cast across the facing sides of these. The center of town is in the valley, and from the dry hilltops above, the IDF looks down. But down in the city, things go on. The market burgeons with fruit and vegetables, yellow cabs honk at fares, actual and potential, kids run up to you and shout “Hello! How are you! What’s your name! Where areyoufrom!,” shy challenging greetings thrown your way with a grin. The Old City’s narrow streets are cool, music comes out from shops, meat hangs pendant and bloody in the butcher’s stall, kids pedal their bikes up to speed and slam on the brakes, skidding the tires across the worn stone streets. There’s just a razor’s edge suggestion of threat in the Old City, these days, behind the shops, just around the next corner. The Kasbah had it bad in the siege of the city four years ago; because of the fierce resistance the IDF developed a tunneling tactic, moving from one house to the next by blowing holes in the walls, avoiding the open streets. These days they use plainclothes agents to assassinate militants, and two members of Islamic Jihad were killed the day before I got there. I read while I was there that a senior Hamas leader in Damascus had narrowly escaped assassination by two Israeli agents posing as international volunteers. So suspicion towards foreigners is understandable.
I taught mainly in Balata and Askar, two of Nablus’ refugee camps that have been around for more than fifty years. Balata is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, its 30,000 inhabitants living on less than 2 km2, a simple arithmetic that leaves any sanitizing language in the news about IDF actions looking somewhat sheepish. The camps were once tent cities of those displaced during the Naqba, or catastrophe; now they are concrete ghettoes housing their descendents. The streets and alleys are narrow, wires run overhead, now and then sewage runs above ground, down the streets, instead of beneath them. Bullet holes are easy to find, and walls and roofs are often made from unexpected elements, like corrugated metal, a bare mattress frame, old bits of gate, chicken wire, or a refrigerator door.
My students in my Askar English class, just a few of the many known as terrorists, sympathizers, or collateral damage in the news, called me Teacher Teacher. They would raise their hand impatiently when they knew the answer, or for me to check their work if they finished early, children and adults alike. They laughed at each other for their mistakes, corrected each other, asked me where I was from, if I liked Palestine, was I married and why not. They horsed around, they kidded, they said hello at the start of class and goodbye at the end. They were like students anywhere, and sometimes they’d tell me about friends and relatives killed or in jail, and once they showed me bullet wounds. None of my students was alive before the Naqba, or catastrophe, in 1948. All but a few were born after the start of the occupation in 1967; most were born after the start of the first Intifada in 1987, and the youngest few after the start of the second in 2000. The occupation is what they know, and it’s difficult to imagine what they imagine as long-term prospects. If the resistance has taken on a religious, messianic tone, it’s because it has had to. When people can no longer remember the alternative to living under a violent occupation, it is only natural that hope might come to hinge on an all-or-nothing view. Israel’s religious and military establishments, with more than their fair share of power, are also playing towards the endgame, and by consistently denying every other form of political expression and action, are trying to create the Palestinian people in the image of the fundamentalist terrorist, which is what Israel has been telling the world for years the Palestinians are anyway. The American media would like nothing more than to believe that a colonial conflict is about religion, a view that absolves Israel of its originary responsibility as colonizer and denies the element of conscious political choice to any Palestinian action. The danger lies in the possibility that reality comes to resemble the myth.
I did my month and left Nablus, its unbearably brash noons and unexpectedly cool evenings when the crackle and static sonority of the call to prayer would settle over the valley like a cloak. I said my farewells to students and colleagues and left, because I can. I hoped I had lodged at least a few solitary nuggets of knowledge in their brains, but of course that’s only half the point. The other half, maybe the weightier half, is the contact. To help them create a space where they can be students, have fun, laugh at each other’s mistakes, know that they haven’t been forgotten altogether; an empty-handed gesture of solidarity, futile perhaps in the long run, and an attempt to give an answer to the question I heard too often “Is it true Americans think we’re all terrorists?” So I left them there, how easy it would be to forget them all, secure behind that massive rearing wall.
The other day, more than a month later, I was sitting at my kitchen table in rainy upstate New York, developing rolls of film from that impossibly distant month. One roll I developed, stopped, fixed, rinsed, and pulled dripping from the plastic container. They were pictures I’d taken of a drama class at Balata I’d helped with, boys and girls aged seven or so to thirteen or so, posing against a freshly muraled concrete wall in the courtyard of the center in the pouring sun. I looked through the negatives’ ghost images one by one, remembering the faces but few of the names. It had been the last day of class, they jostled and laughed to get their picture taken, shoved each other good naturedly away when they wanted a solo portrait, posed with friends, with wooden swords they’d gotten somewhere, making the peace sign, trying to look natural. There were a few of me in there too, when I’d given in to their demands to take a picture, worrying about focus, aperture, shutter speed. It seems an impossible thing, yet so elementary, that these faces are held in smiling sanctuary by these plastic strips, and at the same time back there, in Nablus, in flux through the ceaseless continuum of expression. That the images will remain, in a three-ring binder, later perhaps in a box, while the children age and change. Some will doubtless die young; some will receive the crippling blow of rubber bullets, rubble, or truncheons. All will lose people, parents, or children, if not lost themselves. All will live under checkpoints and military rule. A couple will likely become militants, then martyrs, I have a couple guesses who. And most will persist, somehow, grieving and moving on, rebuilding and moving on. It is possible that the occupation will end, some day. The only ward against despair may well be to act as if this were inevitable.
CARL GELDERLOOS lives in Lansing, New York. He can be reached at: email@example.com