As the peace efforts between Israel and Palestine have come to a halt, the Palestinians in Nabi Saleh dream about access to the Mediterranean Sea – still out of their reach.
All of a sudden – a flash. A grenade blows up. It’s the beginning of February and the dead of night, when the army swoops in. No one looks surprised. «Usually they come a little later,» says Manal Tamimi – a well-known Palestinian female activist. From behind a window, and with an M16 gun sight aimed at her direction, she starts live streaming for a local Palestinian TV station.
Six or seven soldiers jump out of their armoured vehicles and start to scatter around the street. They fire into the air, stun bombs – bombs that daze and duzzle, not hurting anyone. Suddenly there is tear gas everywhere, and immediately on the roofs and in the courtyards, you see the silhouettes of Palestinians – replying back with slings and rocks. But the raid seems to have no clear target. The soldiers are not searching for anyone in particular. They don’t enter any house. Everybody seems relaxed.
«First they shoot you, then they save you […] It makes no sense.» – Bilal Tamimi
On the night tables in their bedrooms, Palestinians keep both an alarm clock and a gas mask. «At the end of the day, you are safer in jail than outside,» Manal says.
She speaks from experience. Like most Palestinians, she has been arrested several times. But from the water taps in her house, water hardly comes out. Water is now a desired resource that is being fought over in Palestine – equal to that of land. When talking about the prison, Manal sarcastically remarks: «Great showers.»
The new Malala
Nabi Saleh is an ordinary group of houses in the middle of the West Bank, but the area has been in the headlines worldwide for months; it is here that the 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi – after her cousin ended up in coma with a bullet in the head – noticed a soldier in front of her home. While telling him to leave, she started hitting and punching him, and eventually, she slapped him. It was December 18. A few hours later, the army came back and took her away. Since then, Ahed has been in jail – charged with assaulting security forces. For international activists, she is the new Mandela, or the new Malala.
For the Israelis, she is instead an actress. The legislative branch of the Israeli government, the Knesset, ordered an investigation to verify if Ahed – with her blond hair and blue eyes, and no hijab – is really Palestinian. Or if she’s perhaps paid, together with all her family, to liven up the long resistance of Nabi Saleh that has been standing against the nearby Israeli settlement of Halamish since 2010. Of the 600 inhabitants in Nabi Saleh, 350 have gotten wounded, while 50 inhabitants – including Ahed’s mother – are now permanently disabled.
A stripped landscape
Nabi Saleh reminds you a bit of south of Italy – the backcountry where nobody lives anymore. During the day, Palestinians are all in Ramallah, which is a half-hour drive away from Nabi Saleh, and some 10 kilometres north of Jerusalem. In Nabi Saleh, there are only single-storey, shabby buildings, located around a square which seems as an empty space. There is a gas station and a small grocery store, but nothing more. Among the chickens and the cicadas, plastic bags blowing in the wind; you can hear a drone buzz – reminding you that you’re never alone. It’s hard not to think that if they didn’t have to oppose the Israelis and defend their homeland – probably they would have all moved away a long time ago. The same goes for the Israeli Halamish, and all these nearby settlements – built on the top of these barren, godforsaken hills – sunburnt, and suitable at the most for goats.
Since the erecting of the 708 kilometres-long wall that started in 2000, Israel stopped the suicide attacks and the Second Intifada – the Palestinian upspring against Israeli repressions. But it also fragmented the West Bank and turned the life of Palestinians upside down, who started protesting every Friday. But now it’s different; there aren’t clashes anymore – no actions and reactions. When the morning comes, you walk amidst the leftovers of the raid of the night before, among the glass shards, stones and shells; you suddenly start to inhale gas. Then you start coughing, gasping, and spitting blood.
«Keep your mouth open.»
Ibrahim Tamimi, one of Ahed’s cousins, lives just at the entrance of Nabi Saleh. They are all relatives in this area. While serving coffee, a rock suddenly rains down. A boy missed his target; we hear bullets whistling, and then two stun grenades. «Don’t worry,» he says. «Keep your mouth open, so that your eardrums won’t break.» He lines up the chairs towards the soldiers, just as if we were in a cinema. «We’ve got used to it. It’s like that all the day,» he says, then adding: «All the days.»
«Keep your mouth open, so that your eardrums won’t break.» – Ibrahim Tamimi
When I come back, Manal’s house has vanished into a white cloud. But inside, they’re dancing and having a party. Still, it is dangerous. After a while, a 17-year-old is rushed to the hospital with a bullet in his ankle. The nearest hospital is an Israeli hospital. «Sometimes, they send even a chopper,» says Bilal Tamimi, Manal’s husband. With his camera, he has filmed the entire story of Nabi Saleh. The only video he hasn’t filmed is the video of his own arrest. «First they shoot you, then they save you,» he says. «Basically, it makes no sense.»
‘A double occupation’
As a consequence of Trump’s statements on Jerusalem and following Ahed’s arrest, many analysts expected a new Intifada. But in Ramallah, the only demonstrations these days are for the 3G network. “Because Oslo changed everything,” Manal explains, referring to the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1995. «Its main idea was to postpone the agreement on all the thorniest issues, like the future of settlements, or refugees, and start to build this famous independent state. The development would have relieved tensions, and eased negotiations. And somehow, yes, our life improved,» she says.
As a consequence of the Oslo Accords, the occupation has been outsourced to the Palestinian Authority, which spends a third of its budget on the police. It’s Hamas and Fatah that count now, rather than Israel to deal with public order, that is, to silence dissenters. In exchange for monopolies and privileges of all sorts in the economy – the Palestinians are faced with what is referred to as ‘the double occupation’.
«But the wealth you see around is an illusion – an illusion and a trap. Our economy is based on debts, on bank loans. And if you work all around the clock to pay back your debts, you have no time for an Intifada. No time for anything […]most of the job opportunities are in Israel, or in the public administration, and for both, you have first to go through a security screening. Which means: to get a job, it’s better not to be politically active.»
An Israeli training camp
A few years ago, Israelis in Nabi Saleh were dragged into a battle every Friday. But now the videos of Bilal’s Youtube channel are part of history. No one comes anymore – not even the expats of the countless NGOs of the West Bank. «They spend their weekends on the beach in Tel Aviv,» says Bassem Tamimi, Ahed’s father. «You arrived to teach us democracy, but you actually destroyed it. You destroyed our civil society, by replacing it and replacing politics with technique,» he says, while he goes through the clashes of the afternoon on his phone, like a football match in slow motion. «But how can we rival jihadists?» he asks. «Syria, Iraq? Beheadings? In the end, what’s happening here? Nothing,» he concludes. «Just some gas.» «We are out of fashion – today the trendy cause is Kurdistan.»
For the Israelis, the West Bank is now a training camp – a drill, and nothing more. They are on patrol, and they yawn. Only reporters are delighted, filming the Palestinians while they watch the Israeli settlement Halamish – north of Ramallah – in the documentary of a Belgian film-maker. They are fascinated; the grass lawn, the swimming pool. It seems as a different world – a world they’ve never seen.
«We are out of fashion – today the trendy cause is Kurdistan.» – Bassem Tamimi.
In Halamish, on the other hand, they have never seen Nabi Saleh. For the Israelis here, the Palestinians are invisible. At its best,, they are all the same. The Israeli army happens to mix up the twins Loai and Odai Tamimi, arresting the wrong sibling on occasion.
The backyard of war
«Today it’s all quiet,» I’m told by a Israeli soldier. And indeed, on that same day – February 10 – Israel has just hit an Iranian drone in Syria. One of its F-16s has been shot down, and Israel continues bombing Damascus. At the same time, Hezbollah is vowing to wipe it off the map.
But it’s evening now, and Bassem’s place, which looks like a community centre during the day – a meeting point for all activists and journalists – is empty. It’s also in a mess after the end of a party. There are bottles everywhere; plates, cigarette butts. Also his wife Nariman Tamimi is in jail, for filming Ahed’s slap of the Israeli soldier, and thus inciting violence. He is alone with his three boys. They dine on a small square table now, in between the fridge and the fish tank, that all families have here – symbolising the sea they can’t reach. In the background, the numbers of those who all over the world are signing the petition for Ahed’s liberation are constantly being updated. The board reads 1,728,106 people as they dine alone, silently with their heads down.