Twilight Zone Last Refuge

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Welcome to Banana Land, the first Palestinian water park, the only place where people in the territories can sail in a boat. You can have your picture taken with a snake, dance with a parrot, swim with a life preserver and barbecue meat. If only you can cross the checkpoint.

So where were you for Passover? And where will you be on Independence Day? We spent time this week in Banana Land. On the northern outskirts of dying Jericho, on a site with three natural springs, among the banana groves, the former mayor has opened the water park - the territories' amusement park.

An engineer from India built a fountain there that could rival the one on our own Dizengoff Square. They also brought in a mini-soccer field from Holon, pedal boats from Eilat, as well as snakes and parrots from Tel Aviv, so now thousands of families and schoolchildren from all over the West Bank come to wade in the cement canals and two tiny swimming pools. Soon an Olympic-size swimming pool will be built here, along with water slides and a covered pool for women only.

Meanwhile, the school outings are divided between boys and girls - Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday for girls; Monday and Wednesday for boys; Friday and Saturday for families. Entry to young unmarried men, without their families, is always prohibited "so there won't be problems." On Sundays, only on Sundays, Samer Jadallah, a son of refugees from Yazur, ignores the bottles of beer and vodka Christian families from Bethlehem sometimes bring with them. The beer sold in the restaurant is "Hamas beer," as the waiter puts it: Birell, non-alcoholic beer made in Zurich, which tastes like water.

The former mayor, Abdul Karim Sidr, has already invested $1.8 million in this initiative, with his three partners from Ramallah and Jerusalem. They plan to invest another $1.5 million here, in the lovely area under palm, ficus and cypress trees at the foot of the hills. About 20,000 people have already visited the place since it opened last October; now is the season of Palestinian schools' annual class trips, so the place is bustling. The row of buses parked outside reminds one of any Israeli vacation spot. The bus drivers sit in the cafe complaining about the checkpoints they passed on their way here. They say that if Nablus were open they would go there, but Nablus is under siege, so they come here.

A Machsom Watch volunteer, Hagar Lipkin, sent a report this week about what happened to another class trip in the territories. Five buses with children from the village of Azoun Atma on their way back from their annual trip were delayed for four hours at the checkpoint that shuts in their village. When the head of the local council arrived to get them out, soldiers fired with rubber and live bullets and several people were wounded. The children arrived home very late.

Banana Land is open from 7 A.M. to midnight - all you have to do is pass the Jericho checkpoint (which sometimes takes an hour in each direction), pay an entry fee of NIS 10 and another NIS 10 to get into the pool area (there's a discount for students and children). Here, of all places, you can spend an old-fashioned day of fun. Everything is naive and pathetic. Teenage girls swing for hours on swings meant for toddlers, others play soccer, wearing headscarves. Their friends go into the water, perhaps for the first time in their lives, wearing all their clothes. Others pedal on the pedal boats in the narrow cement canals.

There is not a single swimmer here without a life preserver - where would a Palestinian child learn to swim? Even the Dead Sea, which is so close, is not open to Palestinians, although Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently promised publicly to the Americans and Palestinians to open the checkpoint that separates Jericho from the Dead Sea.

So Barak promised, so what. The checkpoint was open for two days and was closed again. Now the only thing left is this water park as a last refuge for the hundreds of thousands of children and families in the West Bank to come and take a momentary break from life's tribulations. An oasis in the occupation, in the Jordan Valley.

A huge poster of Murad Sweiti hangs at the entrance to the park. Who is Murad Sweiti? He is Jericho's candidate for the all-Arab "Superstar" competition (a version of "American Idol") in Lebanon. Visitors to Banana Land are asked to send text messages supporting their local version of Boaz Mauda (who won the Israeli version of the competition). The Lebanese singer Fairuz is heard over loudspeakers, smoke rises from the family barbecues already in the morning and the place looks like a park on our Independence Day.

Entrepreneur Sidr was mayor of Jericho from 1997 to 2004, but in the last elections, after one of the city's leaders, Saeb Erekat, supported his candidacy, he lost. So he decided to open a water park. Until the current mayor, Jericho never had a mayor who came from the city; Sidr is from Hebron. An Israeli friend took him on a visit to water parks in Israel; he visited the ones in Rishon Letzion and Holon and decided to build a similar place near home, in Ein Diuk, which is now Banana Land. A city resident and acquaintance of ours, Bassam Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group in Jerusalem, shows us around. Welcome to Paradise.

The female students of the UNRWA high school in the Qalandiyah refugee camp circle around their teachers, who bang on darbuka drums as the girls sing. An elderly couple from Ramallah has placed two plastic chairs in the water canal. With pants rolled up, her feet in the water, the woman makes coffee in a finjan and the husband smokes a narghile. This couple spends the entire day like that, feet in the water and heads in the sky. A worker is building a pay booth for the swimming pool, and families set out their lunch on old- fashioned wooden tables.

In the T-shirt shop you can have your picture taken and print the photo on a shirt right there. You can also print photos on pillows and coffee mugs. "I love you more than my teddy bear," is the inscription in English on one of the shirts, "but don't tell him that," with a picture of a teddy bear. A group of boys, like a pre-army group in Israel, was photographed sprawled on the grass, and had their picture engraved on a coffee mug, 15.4.08, forever.

The shop next door offers a different type of photo. A yellow python lies in an aquarium and there are another two red-tailed boa constrictors in a Styrofoam box. NIS 10 for a photo with a snake. The python eats eight small mice every two weeks. It cost its owner NIS 3,500; he bought it on Levinsky Street in Tel Aviv. When he passed the checkpoints he hid the snake from the soldiers. Once every six months a friend from East Jerusalem comes and takes the snakes to veterinarian Dr. Tamar Ben Zvi from the Emek Refaim Veterinary Clinic for a checkup.

The owner of the shop himself, a muscular young man, can no longer leave Jericho. He gives his emissary a letter in Hebrew from veterinarian Ben Zvi: "To whom it may concern - this boa constrictor asphyxiates and is not venomous," perhaps so the soldiers won't panic. He also has an explanatory page he downloaded from an animal-care Web site: "If the snake receives proper and dedicated treatment it can live for 40 years in captivity," just as long as the Israeli occupation, incidentally.

And there are also parrots in the shop: The parrot Cuckoo is supposed to dance to the strains of "Happy Birthday" in English, but refuses. The song is played very loud, but Cuckoo doesn't move a feather. The shop's says that Cuckoo dances at night. As proof he shows me the pictures of the dancing parrot on his cellphone.

There is also a Bedouin tent, as well as ponies and camels for riding. But a white Alpine dog, a very rare sight in the territories, brought by a family from Bethlehem, attracts more attention here than the camels. On the mini-soccer field the girls play on synthetic grass.

On the entrance gate there is a sign: "The State of Israel, Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport, the Israel Soccer Association, the Israel Sports Betting Council" with the symbol of the state on it, the State of Israel. Entrepreneur Sidr explains that the field arrived from the supplier in Holon with these signs, and he decided to leave them there. If it doesn't help, it can't hurt. Needless to say, none of these groups gave even a single penny for this playground, which cost $35,000 in Holon.

And of course there is a mosque. A water park without a mosque? It's divided into a men's section and a women's section. The children's swimming pool has a maximum depth of 70 centimeters, the adults' pool is two meters deep, and a lifeguard stands next to each pool as the girls make noise and splash.

Families invite us to join their meals. Come and eat - after all, today is the Jewish-Moroccan festival Mimouna, which nobody here has heard of, of course. The areas with greenery look like similar development attempts at vacation sites in Sinai. Everything looks as though it was taken from a 1950s film.

We finally sat down to eat at a local restaurant. Salads, a grilled half chicken and a Birell beer. A pleasure. Recommended for Independence Day.

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