The Boys From Balata

In Balata, the West Bank's largest refugee camp, residents still yearn for family homes they have never seen and talk about 'return,' university education and resistance. Part 1 of 'Walking the Green Line' series.

Nir Baram
Nir Baram
Boy scouts from the Yala movement, in Balata refugee camp.
Boy scouts from the Yala movement, in Balata refugee camp.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Nir Baram
Nir Baram

A youth in an undershirt kneels on a patch of ground along the roadside. He’s blindfolded, his back bent, head lowered, hands tied behind his back. His arms are muscular, exuding strength. The winter sky is a vivid blue dome above. Nearby are Mount Gerizim and the dwellings of the Palestinian village of Burin; farther off, green hills glisten in the sunlight. Soldiers stand around the boy, weapons drawn. Cars pass by. Not one of them stops. We can’t hear sounds from our car and just stare at the odd picture outside: the youth, the soldiers, no one moving, everything seemingly frozen. We get out of the car and the soldiers charge at us, shouting, “Military zone! Get out of here, now!” Over and over we ask why the youth is bound, but the soldiers ignore us.

The photographer skirts around them and takes a picture of the youth. The Israeli soldiers scurry after him, then relent and ask him to back away, their tone of voice shifting abruptly from shouted command to friendly request. Possibly the procedures aren’t clear to them, or maybe there are no procedures. Now I see that there’s another bound youth behind the jeep. He’s completely hunched up. His hair is shaved off at the sides – the way youngsters went around when the soccer World Cup was on in Brazil. The soldiers gradually calm down. One of them, black-haired and bespectacled, is still agitated and tells us, “They came toward us and shouted something in Arabic. Suddenly they pulled out knives and rushed at me.” Another adds, “They shouted ‘Allahu akbar’ and charged at us!”

When was this?

“Fifteen minutes ago.”

They’re young infantry soldiers from the Kfir Brigade. Now I see – laid out in perfect order on the hood of the jeep – two honed and apparently new knives, packs of cigarettes, ID cards, wallets and cellphones.

The soldiers stand the two youths up and lead them to a jeep parked on the edge of the road. “Where are you going?” we ask. One of the soldiers – short, smiling, wearing a large skullcap – replies, “To the nearest pit, to Babi Yar.” “Don’t listen to him,” says another, “he’s only joking.” The two youths are now sitting upright on the small benches in the jeep. A soldier arranges their legs. We ask where they live. No answer. Zakaria, a veteran activist in the area who also works for the release of detained Palestinians, tells us that stabbing soldiers is a serious issue and it’s impossible to do anything for the youths now. Someone told him they’re from Askar refugee camp, one of several such camps in the Nablus area – along with Ein Beit Al Ma, Balata and others.

The black-haired soldier says, “They charged us with knives drawn and a crazed look in their eyes.” The jeep door slams shut and the soldiers leave. We drive in the opposite direction, to Balata camp. The road is largely deserted. We pass mounds of car parts and green hills covered with trees, around which one-story houses are scattered.

Israel Radio reports, “Near the village of Burin, south of Nablus, an IDF unit arrested two Palestinians who approached them and aroused their suspicion. Knives were found in their possession.”

The two Palestinian teens who approached Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint possessing knives. (Credit: Tomer Appelbaum)

We stop by a ridge that contains the homes of Nablus’ wealthiest families, then pass below the luxurious estate of industrialist and businessman Munib al-Masri at the edge of Mount Gerizim. The 250-dunam (62-acre) property is considered the most magnificent in the West Bank. “It’s like being in the castle of a prince in Italy 200 years ago,” an Israeli who’s spent an evening there tells me.

The alleys of Balata are cramped, the potholed streets littered with garbage and piles of earth. Sewage flows freely. From the wider alleys, long, narrow lanes wide enough for one person to pass branch off. Groups of children stream out from every alley. “How are you?” they ask in English, repeating the question over and over, laughing. The walls of the houses are covered in graffiti. Here’s a painting of a rifle with a telescopic lens; 20 meters away, two peace doves fly off. Balata’s casbah on the main street has clothing stores, vegetable shops, a small meat restaurant and a few groceries. Two girls in white dresses, one of them holding a queen’s scepter, wave to us in greeting.

Things are buzzing in the building of the Department of Refugee Affairs, which manages the camp. Doctors Without Borders is holding a clinic here today, and everyone in the camp can come for treatment. Soon, the physicians will take over the building. Medical treatment can be useful, but it’s the medicines that lure the camp’s residents. The physicians bring containers packed with medicines of all kinds. Balata has a population of more than 40,000, but only one medical center, run by UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), which operates five days a week until 3 P.M. After 3 o’clock, treatment can be found elsewhere, possibly in Nablus, but few people here can afford a private doctor.

Balata refugee camp. (Credit: Tomer Appelbaum)

The doctors speak with the camp’s leaders about a subject they’re all familiar with: Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, invited physicians from the Gaza Strip to take advanced courses, but the doctors decided not to participate, under pressure from the BDS Movement. Attending a course at Sheba means collaborating with the Israeli establishment. Some of the Palestinians here are in favor of the boycott, others against it. A young local woman who works as a nurse tells me, “Part of the effort to normalize the occupation is these tempting offers of medical or economic cooperation. The Israelis know we need this in order to improve our life, and it also helps the Israelis’ image inside Israel and abroad. It happens everywhere, all the time. We always face the same dilemma: to cooperate or not to cooperate.”

Now the conversation turns to the recent incident in which a Palestinian minister, Ziad Abu Ein, was killed following a confrontation with Israeli soldiers. His acquaintances recall that he used to call them when he was incarcerated in Nafha Prison, Mitzpeh Ramon, or in Ketziot, in the Negev, and report on the condition of the prisoners. I meet Ghassan Daghlass, who is in charge of the settlements file in the northern West Bank. He worked with the minister who died. Every day, he says, he visits villages that were attacked by settlers, mostly in the Nablus area: “There are 12 settlements around Nablus, with a population of about 2,500. It’s mainly people from Yitzhar who keep attacking the villages, hitting people, starting fires, harassing, and we protect the villagers as much as we can,” he says.

‘Impossible conditions’

I tell Ghassan I recently met Palestinians in the West Bank who are complaining about the ineffectuality of the Palestinian Authority in the face of “price tag” actions – racist hate crimes like the torching of mosques, windows being smashed, people assaulted, olive trees uprooted. They feel the PA is not responding firmly enough; that it’s tired, even indifferent, and possibly apprehensive of confrontations with the Israeli army. As a result, I was told, local initiatives – like one in Kafr Qusra, where a village guard was established to defend against the settlers – are more useful.

“What kind of talk is that?” Ghassan replies. “We don’t have real strength or authority on the ground. The army works for the settlers. We are documenting everything and doing what we can. But complaining to the Israeli army is useless, and if we use violence in return, the army will immediately take action against us. That’s just what the settlers are waiting for. I am operating under impossible conditions.”

Standing around us are some 12-year-old boys, sporting orange scarves and gray vests bearing the logo Yala. They are quiet and listen to what the adults are saying. The children and I sit down outside the building. None of them speaks Hebrew – the leader, who’s in his twenties, translates. They’re from a youth movement, part of a worldwide scout’s organization. It’s a youth group with political consciousness, they say. There are about 150 members in Balata.

“We do volunteer work here and also hold demonstrations,” says Salah, one of the youngsters. “Our focus is on volunteer work; our aim is to serve the people in the camp. There is a great deal of hardship in the camp, a lot of unemployment. We help the poor, we clean the streets and the roads. On holidays, we hold activities and put on plays.”

Today they’re here to prepare the building for the doctors, carry the medicines to the top floor – where a makeshift drugstore has been set up – and generally assist the people who will come for treatment.

I ask the boys where they’re from. From Jaffa, says one. From Jaffa, answers another. Someone says he is from Kafr Saba [the Arab village, next to Kfar Sava, that was depopulated in 1948]. Another is from Gaza. Most of them name the town or village from which their grandparents were expelled. Salah tells us that when the Israelis conquered Kafr Saba, their family fled to Qalqilyah, in the West Bank, and afterward to a village near Salfit. They believed they would return within a few weeks. His grandfather was a farmer with land in the Kafr Saba area.

Were you ever there?

“No, we weren’t,” they reply. None of them has been to Tel Aviv, either.

What political solution do you believe in?

“We don’t think bad things about anyone, only good things,” one of them says. They all laugh. “For us, Israel is the occupation. Every one of us has brothers or cousins that your army killed or sent to jail,” a bespectacled boy says as he hugs two others, much to their annoyance. “We believe in a Palestinian state and in life with the Israelis. But you have to understand: there’s a difference between an Israeli and a Zionist. The Jewish Israelis are people who believe in a religion and have a God; Zionism is a terrorist organization.”

35% unemployment

Dozens of people are waiting on the second floor of the building that houses the Department of Refugees Affairs. They have not come to see a doctor, but for a brief meeting with the director of the department, which is attached to the Popular Service Committee of Balata camp. The committee, a branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s refugee unit, was established in 1995, when the PA consolidated in the West Bank. Similar committees always existed in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, but until the Oslo Accords they were banned in the West Bank.

Cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the office of chairman Ahmad Thouqan. A large group of people sits around the conference table. The subject of the discussion is land they bought, next to the refugee camp, on which they want to build a kindergarten. The issue is money: there isn’t enough. The camp has a small area and is densely packed. The children don’t have anywhere to play, families have nowhere to go for a stroll. The chairman is occupied mainly with distributing the meager resources he has at his disposal.

Thouqan, in his fifties and a heavy smoker, is kept busy answering the phone and offering curt responses. Health issues are a crucial matter for him. It’s crowded here, he says. There isn’t much sun, the air is “no good” and many residents are afflicted with respiratory diseases, high blood pressure and diabetes. Diabetes is a major problem. There are some 1,200 diabetics in the camp, including many children. Sometimes they need to be examined several times a day, but the UNRWA clinic closes early and they have to go to a private doctor. The treatment costs money, and so do the medicines. There are people here who make 50 to 80 shekels ($13 to $20) a day, and even if a visit to a doctor in Nablus is cheap – let’s say 20 shekels – they don’t have the money, Thouqan says.

Ahmad Thouqan in Balata refugee camp. (Credit: Tomer Appelbaum)

Another issue is unemployment. Thouqan estimates the jobless rate in the camp at around 35 percent. In recent years, many residents who were jailed during the second intifada [2000-2006] have been released and returned to the camp. Mostly uneducated, they have a hard time finding a job. They want to work in the PA’s security apparatus, but are rejected because they are too old or there are no openings, or because they just aren’t wanted. A man emerges from prison at 35 with no family, no job and no education, and he has to be helped – because the camp prides itself on the contribution it makes to the Palestinian struggle. “Relatively speaking,” Thouqan says, “we have many more prisoners and people who were killed than Nablus.”

Approximately 300 Balatans were killed in the second intifada. Lately, however, the disquiet in the camp has stemmed not only from confrontations with Israel and army raids. “There is tension here,” a woman tells me while waiting to see a doctor. “Sometimes there is noise at night, sometimes shooting.” The PA suspects that some of the camp’s armed people, who are ostensibly Fatah men, are actually being funded by and loyal to Mohammed Dahlan. Once a senior figure in Fatah and its head of Preventive Security in the Gaza Strip, Dahlan was expelled from PA territory by President Mahmoud Abbas in 2011 for allegedly plotting a coup. These days he is throwing a great deal of money at the West Bank and especially in Gaza, while living in exile in Dubai, as part of his struggle against Abbas. In February 2015 there will be reports of fierce battles in the northern West Bank, particularly in Balata, between PA security forces and Dahlan loyalists. The hostilities broke out when Dahlan’s people opened fire in the wake of arrests made by the PA in the area.

“Where do you get the resources to manage the camp?” I ask Thouqan. “Not from taxes, I guess.” “We have good relations with the PA,” he says, “especially with the prime minister and Abu Mazen [Abbas], who help us. We also get many donations, and there is also UNRWA and the PLO, of course.

“But let me give you an example concerning an issue that has occupied me in the past few days and sometimes drives me to despair,” he continues. “We have more than 500 students in universities such as An-Najah in Nablus and Bir Zeit. Wages here are about 2,500 shekels a month. Families who have two children in university need about 10,000 shekels a year for each of them. How can they manage that? At present, the only way for people to escape the situation they’re in is through studies. These are people who have no land and no property. And there’s no commerce here, either. This is the way it works: You study and then work in Ramallah or Saudi Arabia or Dubai and support your family in the camp until your siblings grow up, go to school and support the family. And then you’re free to provide for your own, new family.”

He hands me a document on which the number 28,000 appears, with columns alongside it. Balata asked for help to enable families to send their children to university. The PLO sent 28,000 shekels. That’s enough to help 15 young people. But Thouqan has about 200 requests. For a few days he agonized over how to divide the money. He knows that a college degree could translate into support for a whole family for a few years. Finally, he decided to distribute the funds only to young people who have more than three siblings, none of whom is in college. But still he can’t help everyone: the average here is around six children per family.

Beyond the ongoing hardships, refugeehood underlies the camp’s political consciousness. One sees old maps of pre-1948 Palestine everywhere – pencil and paint illustrations and photographs of homes and land that evoke the world that existed before the expulsion. Like the children I spoke to earlier, many people here, when asked where they’re from, often cite the pre-1948 family home. The chairman’s story is a good example.

Thouqan relates that his family lived in the district of Jaffa, which had a population of 120,000 before 1948 and was a bustling center of life for the Arabs in Mandatory Palestine. Their village was called Al-Sawalima. The family had about 50 dunams of land and a spacious modern house, which they built in the 1940s. They grew oranges, watermelons and other fruits. They had modern equipment, such as a pump for the water supply. The family was driven out in the 1948 war and lived in several places, before arriving in Balata at the beginning of the 1950s. Thouqan’s father became listless and repeatedly compared life in the refugee camp to the way things were before 1948. He had land, money and possessed social status. His name was known throughout Jaffa, and suddenly he found himself competing with a field hand he himself had brought from Egypt for a job that paid a pittance.

“It was a combination of humiliation, rage and also shame, because he hadn’t been able to defend his land,” Thouqan says. One day someone told his father that he’d found him a job as a guard. Arriving at the new workplace, he saw that it was his land. Everything looked different, but the water engine was still there. “This is my land,” he told them. He showed them the pump and the trees he’d grown. He became so distraught that he had to be hospitalized. After that visit, he had no desire to see the place again. He died in 1990.

Thouqan’s mother grew up in the village of Jayyous, near Qalqilyah. After 1967, the village’s lands were considered part of the West Bank, and his mother received seven dunams from her father. The family’s hopes for the future focused on that land. But then Israel built the West Bank separation barrier in the early 2000s. Jayyous was seriously affected by the fence: 60 percent of its farmlands were relegated to the “seam zone,” where Israel controls access through a regime of permits and decides who is allowed to work his land, and when. In some cases, people discover that they don’t have a permit to farm their own land. Since the fence was built, the village’s agricultural produce has fallen by half – to 4,000 tons a year. The seven dunams aren’t worth much anymore, Thouqan says.

I ask him about the two-state vision propounded by his organization, Fatah, and the negotiations Abbas has conducted in which the right of return is not really on the table.

“There are Palestinians who live inside the Green Line, right?” he replies, referring to the pre-1967 borders of Israel. “So why shouldn’t Palestinians who once lived there and were expelled not return to their homes? I am definitely ready to live in the State of Israel.”

So there will be no agreement without the refugees’ right of return? You realize this will completely transform Israel.

“I cannot forgo our land, our home. I have no right to do that. My home is Al-Sawalima, not here.”

You’ve lived here your whole life.

“That is so, but this is not my home, or the home of anyone who lives here. Many people – who were expelled from their homes and their land, and from the homes and lands of their parents and grandparents – live here. Nothing was ever returned to them, they were never compensated and their tragedy was never recognized. No one has the right to forgo the land. The Nakba [Arab for “catastrophe,” the Palestinians’ term for the formation of Israel] is the story of Palestinians everywhere in the world.”

Not long ago, I heard similar comments in Chile, which has one of the largest Palestinians communities anywhere in the world. At the conclusion of a talk with Diamela Eltit, a Chilean writer of Palestinian origin, I was approached by a young woman whose parents lived in Balata, though she herself was born in Chile. “There’s something you Israelis don’t understand,” she said. “You spoke about time, 1967 or 1948, but not about space. Our spatial conception is different. For the Israelis, Palestinian means Gaza and the West Bank. But our spatial perception encompasses also refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, and also large Palestinian communities around the world. It’s a noncontiguous, separated space – but this is the post-1948 space of Palestinian consciousness.”

Balata refugee camp. (Credit: Tomer Appelbaum)

Scattered across the globe

It’s midday in Balata, and the casbah is packed. On the street opposite me, a small family – young, good-looking parents with two children dressed in white – walks between small gutters. I’m sitting with Dr. Fathi Darwish, a short, elderly man who had an interesting career in the PLO. He asks if I speak Arabic. I mumble, tell him I took two courses and come out with few sentences – and that’s sad, especially because three of my four grandparents spoke fluent Arabic. He laughs. He probably speaks Hebrew, but like many others he prefers to converse with me in English.

In the 1970s, he was involved in setting medical policy in the refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. In the following decade, he worked in Yasser Arafat’s bureau in Tunisia. In 1994, after 30 years outside Palestine, he returned with Arafat. He remembers that the Palestinians waited outside for days to greet their leader. “We were filled with optimism at that time. For us, it was the end of exile. There was hope that our children would have a better future. It was clear to all of us that the end of the occupation was very near.”

Darwish was born in 1944, in Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas neighborhood. The family lived on Kings Road (now Ha’atzmaut Street), on the first floor of a building that had a bakery in the basement. One day during the war, he remembers, instead of the aroma of bread he smelled something burning: the bakery was on fire. His father carried him and his sister out of the house, where they stood watching the bakery go up in flames. They moved to the village of Yabed, west of Jenin, and then wandered to other places. He is one of 11 siblings – four were born in Haifa, and the others in the West Bank and Kuwait. “We are a distinct example of the breakup of the Palestinian family after 1948,” he says. “Like a grenade that explodes and its fragments fly every which way, the family scatters across the globe. I have brothers and sisters in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, the United States and Jordan. Some of them I haven’t seen in more than 25 years.”

The veteran PLO figure sounds like a PA official when he talks about the future. “I believe that the government of Israel must go back to upholding the agreements with the Palestinians and the two-state vision. That means a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders whose capital is Jerusalem. In the meantime, the settlements are threatening to put an end to everything.”

Are you a two-state advocate?

“I don’t care whether there will be two states or one state. The important thing for the Palestinians is to end the occupation and to have rights like the Jews.”

In the negotiations, Abbas effectively forsook the right of return. Do you accept that?

“All over the world, refugees have a right to return. The refugee issue is a basic question in any solution.”

And what’s the answer?

“How can I explain to the refugees in Jordan and Lebanon that every Jew from every place in the world can return to Israel because he had roots here 2,000 years ago, but they can’t go back to their homes? Most of the Palestinians who were born here and expelled have territory, a home and land – don’t they have a right to return?”

So you see a future of two states and the refugees’ returning to their homes in Israel? It’s not exactly the familiar two-state solution – more like one state.

“Ask the children in the Balata refugee camp where they’re from and you will see that they answer, ‘I am from Acre’; ‘I am from Jaffa.’ Where am I from? I am from Haifa. All these people have to get an answer. I believe that with goodwill and serious negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a solution can be arrived at on the refugee issue.”

1967 or 1948?

Darwish’s replies raise an interesting point. Two different groups are emerging among Israelis, Palestinians and the international community, who are looking at the past and shaping their conclusions about the future accordingly. The two groups do not share a common goal, but their historical viewpoint is similar. The first can be described as the “1967 group,” which includes the Israeli center-left and part of the right, the international community, and sections of the Fatah movement. They all believe that the formative event was the 1967 war, and are acting in accordance with that belief for a two-state solution. (Of course, there are also Palestinians in this group who don’t consider 1967 the formative event, but recognize it as the international parameter for the conflict’s resolution.)

The second, more complex, group consists of the Israeli right, particularly the settlers, the radical left and a large part of Palestinian society. They all believe that the formative event was 1948 – the expulsion of the Palestinians from their land. Hence, the settlers’ contention that what applies to Ramat Aviv (the affluent Tel Aviv neighborhood that was built on the ruins of the Palestinian village of Sheikh Munis) applies also to Ofra (and all other settlements). Some of the people in this group think the conflict is unresolvable. Others believe in ideas such as the annexation of parts of the West Bank; one state; the return of the refugees within the framework of a two-state agreement in a completely different formulation; or, as some Palestinians I spoke to said, “Peace, free movement and equal rights – and the type of arrangement doesn’t matter.” In their view, the key to a solution entails coping with the consequences of 1948.

Tellingly, most PA representatives who refer to 1967 and the international parameters will reply to the question about the refugees as Darwish did: “They have the right to return.” In some cases, they will add reservations of one kind or another, including some that are very meaningful (“We will not change Israel’s character”). However, as they do not forgo the principle of return, the discussion with them ranges between 1967 and 1948.

One thing is clear: the majority of Israeli Jews, including the pursuers of peace among them, are unwilling to contemplate the Palestinian perception based on 1948.

According to Darwish, if Israelis would read some of the Palestinian authors and poets who have written about the expulsion – Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habibi, Taha Muhammad Ali – they would get an understanding of the Palestinian mind-set, or at least be aware of the full meaning of the loss: the moment when you lose your home and are left with nothing.

Here is Ali’s description of the expulsion of the residents of Miar, a village 18 kilometers east of Acre, including his family, in the 1948 war: “The people left the village with few belongings: a blanket or two, pillows, a little flour, jugs of olive oil, a pot and some plates. My father lugged a blanket and a mattress on his shoulders and carried my brother Mahmoud in his arms. My mother bore a half-full sack of flour on her head and in her hands held my little sister Alia and a jug of olive oil. I hurried along behind The men started to load things on donkeys and mules. Fortunate were the families that owned beasts of burden. The Jews entered the village. Sounds of gunfire echoed everywhere. The dome of the mosque was hurtled upward. A powerful blast was heard. Stones flew into the air and thick smoke rose. And the people’s journey began.” (English text from a Hebrew translation by Yehouda Shenhav-Sharabani.)

Balata refugee camp. (Credit: Tomer Appelbaum)

Israeli indifference

Darwish has fought the Israeli occupation from its beginning, almost 50 years ago, and optimistically believes the end of the occupation is on the horizon. He has worked in cooperation with Israelis for years, but now is bewildered, almost insulted, by the Israeli indifference to the Palestinian issue. “After all the killing, the land expropriations, the arrests, the checkpoints, we are explaining to our people that it is possible to live with the Israelis in peace. But people no longer believe. We see the election campaign in Israel, without a word about the occupation, the Palestinians, our rights. It looks as though your elections are in Europe. The Palestinians are busy with the Israelis all the time – we have no choice, the Israelis intervene in every aspect of our life. But now it looks like we simply bore you, right?”

After a brief pause, he adds, “I was in Tunis on the day that Arafat and Rabin signed the agreement. But the far right assassinated Rabin. And in practice they destroyed everything.” I hear Rabin’s name a lot here. In fact, he seems to be talked about much more in Balata, Ramallah or Beit Jala than in Israel.

I ask Darwish if he believes that the Palestinian state he would like to see will come into being in the wake of negotiations, or only via a strategy involving the International Criminal Court in The Hague and the BDS Movement.

Darwish: “We should remember the lesson from South Africa: the boycott put an end to apartheid. We do not intend to spend another 20 years in negotiations so that, in the meantime, another hundred settlements will be built. In the last decade, the negotiations became an excuse to freeze the existing situation and continue the building of settlements. That exercise by Israel won’t work anymore. It looks as though turning to the United Nations, the international conventions and BDS are the only things that have an effect on the Israelis – who are obsessive about their status in every place in the world, but don’t care what their neighbors think about them. If we don’t make noise internationally, and if there is also no terrorism, we are like air for the Israelis.”

Each side's story

The traffic is lively on Al-Quds Street, between Nablus and Balata. A Palestinian policeman is standing on the side of the street. Two youths are sitting in the back of his car. One of them is grim-faced and looks straight ahead, the other is smiling and lights up a Marlboro. A few hours ago, when they were blindfolded, they couldn’t see us, though they might have heard our voices. They’re wearing jeans and jerseys. A few minutes ago, this Palestinian policeman was called over to the checkpoint, where Israel handed over the two youths who earlier were suspected of charging at soldiers with intent to stab them. It’s not likely that Israel would release two people who were out to stab soldiers, still less on the day the incident occurred – so why are they free? We ask them. On the policeman’s order they say nothing, only wave and smile. We ask the policeman; he doesn’t know.

Zakaria says if they really had charged at soldiers in order to stab them, there’s no way they would be sitting here now. Apparently the soldiers exaggerated or even made up the story. But we saw the knives, I say to Zakaria. He asks the Palestinian policeman about the knives, but doesn’t get a reply. He asks the youths again. Silence. “Sometimes you don’t know everything,” the policeman says.

Many organizations and individuals – the IDF, Jewish and Palestinian human rights organizations, the settlers, the PA, various informed sources – spread rumors here and disseminate their version of every event, certainly of an event like this, which doesn’t get much media attention. Every version has a competing version – in some cases, an opposite one. In the absence of a universally accepted body to verify which account is true, each side clings to its version. Anyway, events like this happen all the time, and within a few days these two youths will be forgotten.

“Are they going back home now, to Askar camp?” I ask. As far as I could make out, the answer was a yes, if somewhat evasive. The Palestinian policeman bids us farewell; the police vehicle recedes into the distance. A light rain has started to fall and the wind turns cold. It will soon be dark. Zakaria is on the phone about olive trees that settlers chopped down and a house at the edge of the village that was stoned.

'We want you to arrest us'

Two months have passed since my visit to Balata. I meet with attorney Zidan in a small café in Hawara, south of Nablus, a village of garages, restaurants, candy stores and a relaxed atmosphere. Zidan is a young man of 25, attired in a black vest and close-fitting jacket. He’s growing a fashionable beard and sideburns. His voice is soft and he has a shy, captivating smile. We speak in English. He studied law in Jordan and for the past two years has had a small law office in Nablus. He has a varied practice. This week, for example, he’s in a Nablus court, defending a Palestinian accused of selling hashish. A minor affair: he sold only to his friends.

Not long ago, Zidan got a phone call from the parents of one of the two youths from Askar – the younger is 17, the older 18 – asking him to represent their son against the PA. It turns out the police car they were in on that Saturday didn’t take them to Askar, but to a PA prison in Nablus. The PA charged them with illegal possession of a weapon. Zidan was denied access to his new clients. When I tell him about the scene I saw outside Burin, a few minutes after they seemingly intended to stab the soldiers, he responds with an indulgent smile.

“Actually,” he tells me, “they came to the checkpoint and said to the soldiers, ‘We have knives, we want you to arrest us.’”

When I tell him the soldiers claimed they shouted “Allahu akbar,” he guffaws. “Maybe they also shouted ‘Allahu akbar, please arrest us.’”

Why would they want to be arrested?

“All kinds of reasons,” he replies. “Sometimes, young Palestinians come to a checkpoint with knives – not in order to stab soldiers, but to be incarcerated so their families will receive money, to obtain a matriculation certificate, or because someone in their family is accused of collaborating with Israel.”

But I’m talking about these two young people, I insist. Surely Zidan knows why his clients acted as they did. “They are poor, they don’t have a job or anything else, they wanted to be arrested in order to get money from the PA. The PA gives money to inmates in Israeli jails. It happens a lot.”

I tell him I heard they were in a Palestinian jail for 36 days – how did they get out? “I submitted a request for the charges to be dropped, because they didn’t have a weapon or anything really dangerous, just knives,” he explains. “The request was denied, and so was a second request. Stubbornly I went on submitting requests for the charges to be dropped. After the fourth request, I was suddenly notified that the investigation had concluded, that there was no evidence against my clients and they would be released immediately. I didn’t understand the procedure – it’s the first time I worked on a case like this. I met them for the first time when they came out of prison.”

They were incarcerated in Nablus for around 22 days, he says, not 36. Later he says they were in jail for a little more than two weeks. I ask him if they were kept in jail in order to intimidate them. He answers evasively. Attorney Zidan is cautious; he doesn’t criticize the PA, the courts or the police. He’s unfailingly polite, but his replies are curt. He tells me one of the two young people has since found a construction job in the Jenin area, which has delighted his parents. The other one is at home and his father is keeping an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t do anything dumb.

Zidan prefers that we don’t photograph him. He’s in a hurry to get back to Nablus, where the competition among lawyers is fierce, he says. Everyone wants cases to handle, whether criminal, civil, commercial, large or small – just as long as they have clients. These days, to his good fortune, he’s very busy.

Nir Baram is an Israeli author. His novels “The Remaker of Dreams” (2006) and “Good People” (2010) were short-listed for Israel’s Sapir Prize for Literature. “Good People” was translated into 12 languages and in 2010 Baram won the Prime Minister’s Award for Hebrew literature and was short-listed for the Rome Prize for literature. His new novel, “World Shadow,” was published in Israel in 2013 and will be published around the world in 2015.



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