A week in the Middle East: Day Six

02-03-03
From Jerusalem to Qalqilya...

Today, I'm set to embark on a trip to Qalqilya, a Palestinian town in the West Bank. It has been reported that due to the rapid construction of a security wall that will hug the city like a noose, Qalqilya itself is in danger of becoming a casualty of Israeli security policy.

I set out with a driver, and with Samir, a friend, translator and assistant to Cameron Barr and Nicole Gauoette, the Monitor's Middle East correspondents. Fluent in Arabic and Spanish, Samir also speaks clear, nuanced English, and his buoyant confidence quickly puts me at ease.

Which is good. Because I'm heading to an interesting bit of turf.

On my way, informed by a stack of BBC and Monitor articles, some sage advice from Nicole, and my own nagging sense of insecurity, I try to get a mental jump on the people I'll be interviewing.

They include:

1) The governor of the Qalqilya district.

2) A farmer whose land is in jeopardy of being destroyed by the Israeli wall.

3) The brother of a suicide bomber.

During the ride, I chat with Samir about his experiences as a Palestinian from Bethlehem, and he echoes many of the news stories I've read and edited about the region. But it's the little details that stick. Travel is hard, so his son regards the rare trip out of Bethlehem as a voyage to another world, he tells me. "Small horizons," he says, shaking his head. And he says he would love to take his family overseas on vacation, but the hassle of getting the proper paperwork and clearance means that the trip would be more agonizing than therapeutic.

As an American, I can drive east or west for thousands of miles before hitting a barrier, and when I finally do, it's an ocean. My passport is good for travel nearly anywhere in the world. The roads I drive on everyday are safely in American hands. The anxiety and regret that Samir and his friends deal with daily are things I've never had to grapple with; growing up, my biggest challenge to free movement was probably the highly irritating series of tollbooths between Madison, Wisc., and Chicago.

Of course, it's easy to consider the constriction of Palestinians and overlook the way Israelis feel in an East Jerusalem restaurant. Or walking through a crowded pedestrian mall. Or even thinking about traveling to most Arab nations. There are places they can't or won't tread, and the conflict has left them with smaller horizons as well. The thought makes me sad, an emotion I'll become deeply reacquainted with as Samir and I traverse Qalqilya.

As we disembark from the cab, two competing porters and a crowd of young hangers-on swarm the car, hoping for a crack at a few shekels. Much to their disappointment, the only bag is my small backpack. Our trip from the checkpoint to a Qalqilya taxi takes only a couple of minutes, but it requires a stroll through a narrow concrete and barbed wire tunnel meant to control the movements of pedestrians.

It's an unpleasant tunnel.

In town, the streets are grungy, but shops are open, and people move freely through the city. Tattered political posters plaster the storefronts and metal shutters. As an American, my eyes are drawn to an illustration of Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein standing side-by-side and saluting - copies of it cover many of the buildings in downtown Qalqilya.

We head first to the offices of Gov. Mustafa Malki, an official of the Palestinian Authority and a Yasser Arafat appointee. The building, coming apart at the seams, is bracketed by barred windows. Except for the massive framed photograph of Arafat that smiles over the reception room, the building feels more like a rundown insurance office than a citadel of political power.

Before Samir and I are let in to see the governor, we wait in a room with a couple of city officials, who work at battered desks, shuffling colorful Post-it notes from stack to stack while chain-smoking cigarettes. Tea is served, and Samir swaps jokes with the officials in Arabic. Bemused, I straighten out my questions before heading in to meet the governor himself.

Coming into the governor's office - considerably better appointed than the offices of his underlings - I clutch two notebooks, my open backpack, a cellphone, and a cup of tea. Only with great difficulty do I manage to set my things down in a semi-organized fashion in order to shake his hand.

Gray-haired, but vigorous and focused, the governor is one of the first formally dressed men I've encountered in the Middle East, decked out in a suit, tie, and sweater vest. He speaks Arabic to Samir in a lucid, powerful manner that sometimes swings over into an impassioned harangue or a staccato recitation of facts and figures.

I ask him about the health of his governate, which includes the roughly 40,000 residents of Qalqilya and 40,000 people in nearby villagers. The prognosis is bad.

"Israeli Arabs have been restrained from entering," he says, thereby depriving the town of valuable business. "Agriculture has been heavily damaged. The curfew has stopped farmers from reaching their land."

Over the course of the interview, he unspools a litany of problems: Land has been confiscated. Medicine is running short. Poverty has become endemic and is worsening as the tight constriction of the town cuts off commerce and travel. Not having the resources to verify his remarks as he makes them, I just jot down the words and hope that things aren't as bad as he says.

The streets, however, seem to echo at least some of his message. The stores are open, but few people are shopping. For most of the trip, our car - borrowed from the governor - is the only one on the road. Youngsters gather large bundles of sticks, donkeys pull carts from house to house, and ragtag crews of men stand around idly. A looming disaster, however, is not in clear evidence; people seem to be dressed relatively well, no one seems particularly interested in begging from us, and goods seem plentiful.

We are soon at the Qalqilya side of the Israeli wall, standing in a field of cabbage as a local farmer tells us about the impact that a planned 100-meter "safety buffer" will have on his livelihood. "It will be disastrous," he says. Sure enough, the extension of a 100-meter kill zone from the wall would wipe out most of his crops, and since the wall loops around the city's north, west, and south sides, it would have ramifications throughout the city.

Even as we speak, the wall glowers over us, a long gray bulk flanked by a patrol road. Samir says that armed soldiers might be watching us even now. Press card or no press card, I feel suddenly unhappy about chatting it up in the cabbage patch.

Our next stop is houses the Israelis have demolished. Demolished homes are amazing spectacles - towering rubbish piles that lean in upon themselves, squashing and smothering the broken walls that once sheltered and shaped their inhabitants. Bits of tile and paper and plastic protrude from the rubble. What was once a home is now dust and debris.

One of the ruined houses, according to one of our minders from the governor's office, was demolished on top of its owner, the town's Palestinian Authority head of intelligence.

Suddenly, it's time to talk to the brother of a suicide bomber. We arrive at the house; by Qalqilya standards, it's really pretty nice.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" asks Samir.

I am not. But he thinks a five-minute visit is well-advised, and I agree. It's a long way from here to Boston, and I don't know when I'll be back again.

The bomber's brother is young, handsome, and intense. Between questions about his brother's attack on the city of Kfar Saba in March, he takes time to joke around with Samir and the minders who have tagged along with us from the governor's office. He talks about how his brother was always a devoted Muslim, and how he had joined Hamas with a clear conscience.

Any regrets about his brother's death?

Only that more Israelis weren't killed. More Arabic, more chatting, more laughter.

The bomber's brother serves us some fruit juice.

By the time we are done with the interview and back on the street, I am ready to leave Qalqilya.

...and from Qalqilya to Jerusalem

On the trip to Qalqilya, we stuck to the Israeli side of the green line that separates the Israelis from the Palestinians, crossing over just before we entered the town. But on the way back, Samir has the driver bring us through the heart of the West Bank. On the Palestinian side.

It's an interesting trip. It's easy to look at a map and think: "Ah. I understand. Israel is for Israelis and Israeli Arabs. The West Bank and Gaza Strip are for Palestinians."

But the facts on the ground make that less true.

Israeli settlers are often called "facts on the ground" because their long-term presence on a patch of soil gives Israel's government a negotiating chit and, some would argue, a more valid claim to a piece of previously Palestinian-controlled land. And driving back to Jerusalem through the West Bank, it's easy to see facts on the ground almost everywhere I look.

Settlements sprawl across hills. They crown the tops of ridges, one even boasting a waterslide painted in the gaudy shades of red, blue and yellow. They flank older Palestinian towns, uniform blocs of neat, modern, suburban comfort facing off against the ragged boxes and semi-occasional Alice-in-Wonderland mansions that dominate the Palestinian areas.

Roads seem to be the key, however. Roads to Palestinian sections are sometimes blocked by giant piles of rock and gravel - Samir says these are dumped by Israeli troops. Palestinians need permits to travel, and in times of crisis these can be easily choked off to shorter and shorter time periods, or restricted entirely.

On these roads, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) has staked out its turf. On one stretch, a black sign sporting a white eagle symbolizes the authority of a particular Israeli unit. On another, a white snake serves a similar purpose. Colorful real estate signs, written in Hebrew, flank the road. An expropriated Arab house, now crowned by a tall antenna and sporting a giant menorah, serves as a de facto military outpost.

I've read and edited a number of stories about the constricted roads, and the galaxy of Israeli settlements that is expanding across the West Bank. But seeing the words brought to life, in bricks and mortar, is a powerful experience.

And then, before I realize what's happening, we're crossing back into Jerusalem. Our Palestinian driver uses his fluent Russian to talk to the Israeli guard, who is thrilled to hear his native tongue again. We're through. We're back to Israel.

Out and about in the Beast of Burden

As evening falls, I am truly exhausted, and behind deadline on my online diary. I therefore blow everything off and help an old friend, the AFP's Jean-Marc Mojon, move into a new apartment. The new place is a crazy sort of space that looks one-of-a-kind - niches and strangely curved white ceilings make it feel like a cross between a Bedouin tent and a cave. It's going to look great fully decorated.

We haul his stuff over in a an armored Land Rover with plate glass windows, a loaner from his office. The windshield and sides of the monstrous beast have "TV" printed on them with masking tape; "TV" is the local shorthand for "I'm a journalist of some sort, so please don't shoot at me."

After about an hour of heavy lifting, we stop by a cafe and catch up. It's been a great night in Jerusalem.

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