West Bank Story: Nablus

About two years ago, I spent an evening sitting in an alternative movie theater watching “Paradise Now”. Despite the convincing title, the movie actually doesn’t portray paradise, but the life of Palestinians trying to make their way there – it shows the background behind a suicide bombing. While it was a good story, and I’m controversially happy to see humanization of any conflict (public opinion tends to be too black and white), what really stuck with me was the sheer beauty of the city of Nablus, where the story is told.

Nablus, population 134,000 is one of the largest population centres in the West Bank, and is located approximately 60 kilometers from Jerusalem, strategically wedged in between rocky Mount Ebal, and Mount Gerizim, home of the Samarians. Abroad, it’s most well known for the olive soap which is made locally but exported as well.

Most countries advise against travel to Nablus, as it has the reputation of being a hotbed of the Palestinian resistance. In many ways, it is. Dating back as far as 1936-1939, the city was a site of local resistance against the British Mandate. Today, it harbors many of these same sentiments against Israel’s presence in the West Bank, and Israel. Regardless, Nablus is in many ways a very safe city with little violent crime.
Much of the protest history can still be seen today. Nablus’ city centre is covered in protest signs, memorials for martyrs and generally people being very interested in what is happening outside their down.

This makes sense, as Nablus is one of the most isolated cities in the West Bank. The hills are effectively no-go zones for Palestinians, as they are either difficult to climb, or are the home of other population groups, such as the Samaritans, a religion based on the Torah. Their entire population group is only 712 large, of which the majority live on Mount Gerizim.

In order to enter or exit their city, inhabitants need to pass through the infamous Huwarra checkpoint in the South, or Beit Iba in the North. At both checkpoints, any luggage and identification is verified while Palestinians wait inside a mantrap. Foreigners are allowed to pass next through the mantrap after a brief check on the ID, and some questions on “why did you visit Nablus?”. Because of the sheer beauty of the hills, madam.

Fact of the matter is that this checkpoint actually has proven its use: at a small number of occasions, someone was in fact caught with pipe bombs while exiting the city. Regardless, the way they are set up deprieves denizens of the city from their humanity, and thus increases the long term chance of violence. It’s truly sad.

I’m pretty sure there is no real solution here. At college I had a decent look at resource mobilization theory, which essentially states that while frustration incites violence, resources make it happen. Removing the checkpoints removes frustration in the long run, but in the very short run makes for a massive influx in resources. Adding checkpoints and barriers, as is currently happening in Israel, starves the society from resources, but increases frustration. As such, the path currently taken is one of long term violence, and the path which could lead to a mid-term solution is socially unacceptable.

As mentioned, Nablus is littered with signs and monuments honouring martyrs for the Palestinian cause. At first these look very intimidating, especially due to the manner in which some of them are depicted. Many of them are wearing bulky shirts or weapons.

This is in sharp contrast to the local people themselves, who are also more than happy to tell you the story behind each and every one of them.

It’s important to have some background as well: Nablus, as the centre from where resistance is often organized, is under curfew for quite a few days every year. In a period starting June 2002, granted, during the second Intifada at a period of intense violence, Amnesty International reported over 70 days of 24-hour curfews across the city.

As the IDF forces regularly enter the city, violence is common. Crackdowns generally happen on members of specific organizations, such as Hamas. During these crackdowns, deaths are not uncommon. As such, not all these “martyrs” are suicide bombers or people who took someone else’s life. Many of them were innocent bystanders.

People in Nablus are generally very outgoing. They tend to ask foreigners where they are from, and love striking up a conversation (as far as their English and your Arabic takes you). I actually ended up in a local spicery factory, tasting some of their local tea and discussing the location of Belgium in Europe with a couple of students, one of them leaving to study medicine in Germany shortly.

Nablus. Water melon salesmen.

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