“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.
This week’s post is written by Kara Newhouse, author of the blog Rogue Anthropologist. She published these posts individually for Israeli Apartheid Week, a week focused on educating people about “the nature of Israel as an apartheid system” and the injustices therein.
Kara taught and reported from Palestine in 2010. She is now a journalist for the Perry County Times and fights for the human rights of all people in Pennsylvania. Additionally, Kara is an aspiring children’s author, tinkers in portrait photography, and sells hand-woven scarves.
I’ve lived in an unusual array of places in my young life, and I try to be compassionate in my responses to the misunderstandings I hear about those places. I don’t shout when I’m asked if I was forced to wear a burqa, and when someone substitutes Pakistan for Palestine, I chalk it up to alliterative confusion. When people tell others I lived in Israel or ask me what it was like to live in Israel, though, my reaction is a bit different. I have never lived in Israel, nor have I ever said I did, since that would be political erasure of a people and their history. I lived in the city of Nablus, which is in the West Bank of Palestine. Here are five things you might not know about Palestine.
1) Contemporary Palestine consists of two territories: Gaza and the West Bank (so named for being on the western bank of the Jordan River). In 1948, the creation of Israel through the forced expulsion of the Palestinian people who lived there sparked a war with surrounding Arab countries and Palestinians. At the end of the war, Israel had taken over 75% of historical Palestine and obliterated more than 500 towns and villages. What remained of the Palestinian land was the West Bank, which came under Jordan’s rule, and Gaza, which came under the rule of Egypt.
In 1967, Israel launched a successful surprise attack on Egypt and took over large swaths of land, including the West Bank and Gaza in what’s known as the six-day war. Israeli forces have continued to occupy these areas for the past 46 years—hence the term “Occupied Palestinian Territories.” This means that to get into and out of the West Bank, I had to go through Israeli border patrol. While this meant frustration and delays for me as an American, I met many Palestinians who had no hope of ever being able to get through those checkpoints to visit Jerusalem or another country. Military checkpoints are also set up throughout the territories to restrict Palestinians from free movement within the area.
Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is illegal. Under international law, is it not acceptable for countries to acquire territory through war.
2. I know dozens of Palestinians and zero terrorists. It hurts my soul that I even have to include this on the list, but the stereotype of Muslim terrorism broadly and Palestinian terrorism specifically is still present in America. Contrary to that image, in the six months I lived in the West Bank I was joyously invited into Palestinian homes and hearts in a way I’ve not experienced in any other place on the globe. When I have guests in my own home now I try to give back the same hospitality I received. The bar is high.
3. Palestine is not a desert, but the desserts are great. The images of sand and blood that characterize the modern Middle East in U.S. news and history books were the only ones I had to draw from when imagining the land I headed for in early 2010. To my delight, those images were far from accurate. Here’s a description I wrote that spring in my beloved new home:
“The region around Nablus is full of rolling green hills with craggy gray rock breaking out from the grass. A few weekends ago, the TYO staff went on a ramble (“hike” by Nabulsi standards, “long walk” by mine) through the countryside, where my spirit soaked in the sun and pastoral scenery of goats and sheep among the olive groves. Even on the city streets I pass lemon trees, orange trees and many flowers in bloom. My friend Mary constantly asks if I smell jasmine, although we haven’t actually seen the plants.”
I miss those olive groves and citrus trees, and I also miss Palestinian sweets, like kanafeh.
4. Palestine is not underdeveloped. It’s been de-developed. I dislike the terms “underdeveloped” and “developing” as ways of describing countries. These words harm our understanding of people around the globe, and slide past the history and contemporary politics of the world economy with a one-dimensional economic attribute. The terms also hold an assumption that all countries are or should be moving on a trajectory toward being like the U.S. and other “developed” countries. What’s happened to the West Bank since Israel began building a wall between the two areas in 2002 is an example of economics working otherwise. An American woman I interviewed in 2010 who’d married a Palestinian before the wall was built spoke to its dramatic economic events:
“Palestine has been de-developed so rapidly. You know, people are so much poorer now than they were even ten years ago. It’s really remarkable, and pretty unusual to have within less than a generation — to have such rapid imposed poverty. I don’t think internationals can quite comprehend…how huge of an impact that has on the ability of Palestinians to effectively organize…Up until the second intifada and the beginning of the real closure, people could work. It wasn’t great, but farmers could sell their produce, and you know, all this stuff. It’s been literally in ten years, people going from okay, a low economic standard of living to real economic insecurity.”
5. Refugees. For my first three months in Nablus, I taught after-school art classes to children from the city’s refugee camps. “How can there be Palestinian refugees in Palestine?” a friend recently asked me. In 1948, when Palestinian villages were burned and families fled the area that is now the state of Israel, they escaped to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Some also took refuge at camps in other parts of Palestine—the territories that are now the West Bank and Gaza. Sixty-five years later, those refugees and the subsequent generations still identify their homes as the land across the border, which they cannot go to. “I live in Nablus, but I’m from Haifa,” is a common thing to hear, even if the speaker is 20 years-old and has never seen Haifa or the Mediterranean coast along which is sits.
While the refugee identity and belief in the right to return endure, other features of the camps have changed. Mainly, the population in camps has grown exponentially while the amount of land allotted for them to live in has remained the same. For example, Balata refugee camp — where many of my students lived — is home to 20,000 inhabitants in a 1 square-kilometer area. Contrary to the popular image of refugees, the dwellings in these camps are not tents. They are concrete apartments squeezed in between and on top of each other as the population has swelled. Many of the homes get little sunlight, and children — like my students — have limited areas to play in.
This post cannot encapsulate all that is life in the West Bank–nor even, can the six months I spent there–but calling the place by name and listening to the stories of the people there is a start to understanding all of the beauty and suffering of contemporary Palestine.