Our taxi dropped us off at the checkpoint outside Nablus, so we could then walk through the checkpoint and take another taxi into the city. With the travel restrictions and hundreds of checkpoints everywhere, this is the way you have to travel, if you’re lucky enough to be allowed to travel at all.
There, on the outskirts of this ancient Palestinian city, as with every other city in the West Bank, was a heavily-armed gang of young Israeli men and women in green IDF uniforms. One of the men inspected my passport, and spent a few minutes trying to discourage me from entering Nablus. “It’s crazy in there. There are Arab terrorists. There are bombs every night. It’s not safe.” I thanked him for his warning, and thought to myself that he might have an entirely different experience in Nablus if he visited the city in a role other than that of occupation soldier.
We got into another taxi and drove towards the city center, passing one destroyed factory after another, bombed in 2002 when Israel invaded, leaving much of the city in ruins. Several of the factories used to make soap, Nablus was known for them, but no longer.
Inching along in gnarled traffic, we eventually got to the campus of An-Najah National University. I was to do a concert there that evening to a large and appreciative audience. Due to circumstances beyond my control, each organizer on my tour of Palestine had only a few days to put together a concert, and Saed Abu-Hijleh managed to pull it off brilliantly.
Contrary to the warnings of the Israeli soldier, I only met really nice people like Saed during my stay in Nablus. He was my age, in his late thirties, a good-looking man in a sports jacket. He greeted us warmly and together we walked across the campus to his office. As we passed hundreds of students and other people on this extremely crowded, bustling campus, it was obvious that Saed commanded a deep respect and admiration from everyone.
Saed is a professor, and administrator in charge of public relations. Under the current restrictions of the Israeli occupation, the only way he could potentially get out of Nablus would be on foot at great personal danger. He, and his car, are not allowed to leave the city. Before the Al-Aqsa Intifada, when travel was easier for most Palestinians, he had studied for nine years in Iowa City, and remembered his time there fondly.
We got to his small office, and Saed was showing me a lovely booklet one of his students had made with Arabic translations of some of my songs, which was to be handed out to everybody coming to the concert that night. There was a picture of a woman on his desk, and I asked him who she was. He explained to me that she was his mother, and she had recently been killed by Israeli occupation soldiers.
They had pulled up to the house where both of them lived, where he still lives, and opened fire. Saed didn’t know whether they meant to kill her or him. Her greatest crime was being involved with a program that distributed food to poor people in Nablus. His crime was being a prominent member of his community, and an eloquent critic of the occupation. Just the sort of voice the Israelis have a habit of silencing.
Later I asked Saed if he had considered trying to leave Palestine after his mother was assassinated. He seemed slightly annoyed at the question, and told me that everybody was a target. He pointed to various students nearby. “Him, her, him – they’re all targets. Why should I be the one to leave? I’m not special. These are my people, this is where I belong. I’m not leaving.” Along with the annoyance, there was a look on his face that I would describe as a sort of fierce compassion.
Events like the assassination of Saed’s mother are a daily occurrence under the Israeli occupation. You can read a blow-by-blow account on the website of the International Middle East Media Center from Bethlehem. Woman killed by Army as she tries to save man bleeding to death on her doorstep. Settlers beat girl to death in Hebron. 21 residents of Jenin rounded up and arrested by the Army. Electricity plant bombed by IDF, several towns without electricity or water. Pregnant woman and her baby die in childbirth, prevented by Army from reaching hospital. Helicopter gunship demolishes home, killing Hamas activist and family of seven. Two school girls shot by snipers as they sat at their desks in their classroom.
And for each person like Saed’s mother, there is someone like Saed, refusing to be cowed. For every school girl shot by Israeli snipers, there are a hundred more who still go to class the next day.
The daily carnage in Palestine rarely makes it into the corporate news media, but every once in a while developments are dramatic enough to warrant the reluctant attention of the New York Times. During the recent Israeli invasion (“incursion”) of Beit Hanoun in Gaza, there was a stand-off at a mosque. Sixty resistance fighters had taken refuge in it, trying to avoid being killed by Israeli tanks. The IDF had surrounded the building.
From the local radio station the call went out for women to come to the mosque and try to protect those inside, in the hopes that the Israelis wouldn’t massacre a crowd of unarmed women. Scores of women responded quickly to the call and walked in between the tanks and the mosque. The Israelis then proceeded to start firing with tank-mounted machine guns directly into the crowd of women.
One line in the Times’ article particularly caught my eye. Women were falling from the gunfire, many injured and screaming in pain, two dead, and dozens running from the scene in panic. Still other women, though, were doing something else. The Israelis were firing, their compatriots were falling all around them, but they kept on walking towards the mosque.
A few days later, Gaza once again made it into the Times. The Israelis had identified a house in Jabaliya as being inhabited by a resistance fighter. Of course, the house was also occupied by his entire extended family. And of course, his was a legitimate resistance against a brutal, illegal, horribly violent occupation. Nonetheless, the IDF was preparing to do to his house what they had done to thousands of other homes around Palestine – destroy it with missiles fired from an American fighter jet.
This time the IDF telephoned the house first and told everybody to get out, that the house would be destroyed. On countless other occasions, the Israelis have destroyed houses with no warning, or almost immediately after issuing a warning, while people were still in the house, and many people have died that way. Knowing this, the residents of the house refused to leave.
Instead, they called on the community to come join them, which they did. People packed into the house and on the roof, including the Palestinian Prime Minister Ismael Hanieh. Knowing that death was quite likely around the corner, the people stood their ground. This time, the IDF backed down, and left the house intact.
It’s in moments like these, and in the faces of people like Saed Abu-Hijleh, that you can get a glimpse of the dignity that pervades the spirit of the Palestinian people. As with the women outside the mosque in Beit Hanoun, as with the boys and girls defiantly returning to school day after day, as with those trying simply to live in their houses, the Palestinian people are increasingly faced with the reality that they have only two real choices. To stand their ground one way or to stand their ground another. To die the death of a martyr or to live the life of a hero.
Before I got to Palestine I was having dinner in Beirut with an older, well-respected Lebanese man who worked for the UN there. I asked him what he thought of Israel. His was a long-term, philosophical outlook, I suppose. “The Moors occupied Spain for 800 years, but eventually they were kicked out, because they didn’t belong there,” he said. “The Romans occupied Jerusalem for 700 years, but they were eventually kicked out, because they didn’t belong there. Israel has been a state for only 50 years.”
Whether it takes eight years or 800 years to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, there will surely be many more martyrs like Saed’s mother. And just as surely, as long as there are Palestinians left alive, there will be many like Saed -- refusing to leave, standing up, there in what remains of Nablus when the occupation is finally defeated.
David Rovics is a singer-songwriter who tours regularly around North America, Europe and occasionally elsewhere. His website is www.davidrovics.com.