“Have you visited Afghanistan? Pakistan? Yemen? Do you have a weapon? Do you have a credit card? Give us your email address. Do you know anyone in Israel? Do you know anyone in Jordan? What is your novel about? What did you do yesterday?”
It only took an hour and a half to get through the border. They were closing early because it was Yom Kippur, yowm al-ghafran in Arabic, the Day of Atonement.
The driver who met me said he couldn’t go to Nablus, not now, it was getting too late, because the car had Israeli plates and settlers were throwing stones, he could take me to Ramallah instead, although it was further.
“Won’t we be alright with Israeli plates?”
“We need Palestinian plates. They’re throwing stones at Israeli cars because they don’t want Jews driving on the holiday.”
So we went to Ramallah, south through the West Bank. We drove down the confiscated Jordan valley. A couple of memorials to settlers shot here during the Second Intifada were set up at the roadside. To our east, closed military zones and then the hills of Jordan rising. To the west, ochre desert mountains and hardly any habitation.
“Look at this space they won’t let us use,” said the driver.
“Jews dropped rocks on my car in Jerusalem last year,” he went on. “Everything was smashed. It cost thousands of shekels to fix. But they’re not all bad. Maybe ten or twenty per cent of them are good people. I’ve seen the good ones and the bad ones arguing at the checkpoints. The good ones tell the bad ones not to treat us so badly.”
The driver liked Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority’s unelected prime minister. “Israel and America like him. This is very important. Fayyad understands that the Palestinians will be happy if only they can make some money. Every intelligent Palestinian likes him.”
Over the next three weeks I never met another Palestinian who liked Fayyad.
Near Jericho we twisted dramatically upwards, a raw mountain road, and then to the Qalandiya checkpoint which excludes West Bank Palestinians from Jerusalem. The driver showed me to the right bus in Ramallah’s station.
Ramallah, spiced up by EU/PA funds as well as Palestinian-American returnee money, was bustling. The minibus whistled along the road. There were USAID placards overhead picturing exemplarily grateful Palestinians. “I’m really happy,” said the speech bubble from a boy’s mouth. “I have a new school with a playground!” The slogan underneath: ‘The American people and the Palestinian people: together we’ll fulfill our hopes.’
Somebody had painted an essay over one of the placards.
I was dropped at the Yasmeen hotel as dusk was falling. I called my contact and drank a cup of tea.
Nizar walked me through the closed-up Nablus souq. “We’re living here temporarily,” he said. “Maybe there’ll be peace for a couple of years. Then they’ll drive us out. When they’ve finished stealing Jerusalem it’ll be our turn. That’s how they work, in stages.”
I wasn’t listening properly. I was bewitched by the white shadows of the old city. There were arched tunnels and buttressed domes and stairways leading up and down. Then suddenly there was emptiness to my right, an open area and a few mounds of rubble
“They did this with an F16,” said Nizar.
We crossed a busy road. We passed a yellow flood-lit concrete area where men and boys were playing football. On the other side of the street a collapsed building mouldered in the shadows.
By now all roads out of the West Bank had been closed for Yom Kippur. Nobody was celebrating the occasion in Nablus, of course, although I heard that some old Muslim ladies in the villages nearby light candles on a Saturday, “because it’s what we’ve always done.” (See Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” for an explanation – how the ancient Judeans stayed on their land and converted slowly to Christianity and Islam).
In Israel, police were spreading out through mixed Jewish/Palestinian cities, especially in Acre, where a couple of years ago Jewish stoning of Palestinian cars on Yom Kippur led to fighting and then a mini-pogrom in which Palestinian houses were burnt.
The night was hot and buzzed by mosquitoes. People talked about Israel’s assassination that morning of Hamas leader Iyad Shelbaya, shot dead in his bed in a village outside Tulkarm.