Today, we toured the old city of Nablus, built on top of Roman ruins (the Roman name for the town was Neopolis — new city — or Nablus in Arabic). There, we stood in front of the home that was bulldozed by the IDF in April 2002 (during the Second Intifada). The eleven innocent family members who were inside at the time, including an infant, were buried alive. The IDF soldier operating the bulldozer claimed not to have heard the screams. He went unpunished. There is now a memorial to the family at the scene, as well a commemorative plaque for the seven other Palestinians who were killed during that April incursion into Nablus.
The old city is much like that in Jerusalem, with a maze of small living spaces rising above ancient stone paths. Lining the paths and tucked under low, centuries-old arches, are the merchants’ wares — as in Jerusalem, everything a resident of the city would need, without as many cheap trinkets for the tourists. The marketplace in Nablus lacks the crowds of pilgrims found in Jerusalem, but it is dirty and the residents seem starved of fresh air.
From the old city, we drove through the heights of modern Nablus, where ostentatious homes are being built and flower pots hang from courtyard gates. Before we knew it, we were looking at dire poverty once again in the form of the Balata Refugee Camp, established by the United Nations in 1950 to house refugees from the nakba who were forced off their land in surrounding towns; there is also a sizeable group of Bedouin residents at Balata. Originally meant to be temporary, this camp as well as dozens of others in the West Bank, began with families living in tents. As the prolonged nature of the refugees’ displacement began to emerge, crude concrete structures were built. As families expanded, levels were added above. In this 2.5 kilometer area filled with nearly 23,000 residents, the only place to build is up. There is one main paved road through the camp; what appear to be no more than narrow alleys between buildings are the camps’ streets, on which children play and tired women seek fresh air. There is little fresh air in Balata.
Tonight we are staying in the ancient village of Sabastiya, with a fascinating history. Our guest house is part of a 12th Century mosque built by Saladin’s nephew, Husam ed-Din Muhammad, on the site of a Byzantine cathedral that houses the tomb of St. John the Baptist (recognized as a prophet by Muslims). The cathedral was built on top of Roman ruins, and a joint archaelogical project between the Palestinian Authority and the Italian government has unearthed and preserved ancient columns, stones, and roadways. Every few hours, we hear the call to prayer played on loudspeakers throughout this Muslim town.
It has been a difficult day, filled with scenes of poverty and confinement contrasted with wealth and opportunity, and too many stories of death.
I am missing my own family. From this evening’s perspective, it feels like there is a very long week ahead.
Tomorrow we move to Jenin.