Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Last Week in Brief: Nablus and Nir David

I have just completed my fifth week as an intern at ANERA, which means I only have three more weeks to learn as much as I can while I’m here in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). After my splurge of blogging about my trip to Gaza, I fell off the wagon for a bit, and found it more useful to seek experiences that were worthy of my recounting at a later date.

Well that date has now arrived, and I sit before my computer, an insomniac. It is 3am, and I have work tomorrow, but I can’t sleep tonight for some reason. I figure that I might as well take advantage of my extended waking hours to write about this last week, about which I have kept all of you in the dark.

I traveled to Nablus on Tuesday morning to visit the ANERA office, and meet with the staff out there. If you are a Hebrew speaker, you may know Nablus more readily as Shechem, the name that appears in the Torah. Although I managed to forget my passport in my room, I remembered that I had done so with enough time for Julia and I to swing past the Augusta Victoria and pick it up.

We drove north to Nablus, and were ushered through the Huwarra checkpoint with ease. This came much to Julia’s surprise. In her previous experiences, says Julia, Huwarra is a nightmare. It is known to be the slowest checkpoint with the most traffic, often leaving travelers waiting for over an hour in line. We had no difficulties crossing into Nablus, and found ourselves in the ANERA office within minutes.

With a cup of Arabic coffee in my hand, I spoke with Rabah, the head engineer in our Nablus office. Rabah has served in many civil engineer positions for various prestigious organizations over the course of his career, and now works on ANERA’s Emergency Water and Sanitation (EWAS) projects in the Northern West Bank. Rabah began by describing to me the various EWAS projects that he oversees, two of which we had the opportunity to visit firsthand.

In addition, Rabah brought to my attention the plight of the West Bank town, Qalqilya (which is also a governorate). Qalqilya is a town in the western half of the West Bank, and is entirely enclosed by the separation barrier. The only part of the town that is not obstructed by the wall is where the checkpoint governs traffic moving in and out of the city. According to Rabah, nearly 80% of Qalqilya’s private businesses have fled the town seeking a better economic situation.

Rabah’s information session ended with his interpretation of the “politics of water” that serves as a major obstacle to any form of peace agreement. The majority of water sources that exist in the West Bank are within Area C, a term to indicate full Israeli control under the Olso Accords. Israel has taken some liberties with this form of partition by also placing the Jordan Valley (an important source of water) within Area C auspices.

The majority of ANERA’s water projects occur in Areas A or B, which are under full Palestinian control or joint Israeli/Palestinian control respectively. This proves hellish for Rabah in terms of logistics. In order to tap into the water sources in Area C, Rabah must deal with messy, inefficient and often non-compliant Israeli bureaucracies.

We took to the street from the Nablus office and visited a site in a small town outside of Nablus. ANERA is installing pipes in the town in order to bring water to the 50% of the residents who were previously without running water. When Rabah recounted that fact to Julia and I, he assumed a very proud expression. “Yes, we’re doing good work.”

Our next stop required us to climb to the top of Mt. Girizim, which serves as the famous location of the small Samaritan community. The Samaritans number about 750 in the world, and maintain two main communities: Mt. Girizim, and town farther west in Israel. Almost all Samaritans, however, must own property on their holy mount because they spend their Pesach there. Samaritans consider themselves to be the original, legitimate Jews, and speak a form of Ancient Hebrew as their language.

Apparently this small community was losing much of its water through leakages in the piping system. They approached ANERA, who decided to fund a project to reinstall piping for the town. We visited the work site, and then drove up further on Mt. Girizim to an ancient site where the Samaritans believe the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing the lamb truly occurred.

While we were staring down at the expansive sprawl of Nablus, an entourage of suits approached us. They were the entourage escorting the Palestinian Minister of Tourism on a visit to this site. I became confused by this prospect, based on the fact tha

t this site had a giant Israeli flag flying from the top, and this minister had absolutely no jurisdiction within Mt. Girizim. She likely had to apply for a permit to enter the Samaritan community in the first place.

**Side note: Samaritans hold both Israeli, and Palestinian identification cards, and some still hold Jordanian cards from back in the day.

Before leaving Nablus, Rabah took us to the famous “Arafat Sweets” where we tried some luscious kinafeh, which is a traditional Palestinian pastry, and one that was made famous by the city of Nablus. I love it.

We said goodbye to Rabah and made our way back to Jerusalem, where I decided to attend a screening of Turkish film called “My Only Sunshine” at the Jerusalem Film Festival. The screening was held at the Begin Cultural Center, and although I found the film to be tedious, pretentious and overall, bad, I explored a part of Jerusalem that I previously had not.

I’ll skip ahead to Friday. Jonah and I met up at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station in order to get to Beit She’an before Shabbat. We were going to visit our good friend Sivan who is spending time with her family at a kibbutz called Nir David. While we were waiting in the terminal, I got to talking with some Israeli soldiers, one of whom made aliyah from Boston. I was talking to him about my experiences on Taglit-Birthright, and I mentioned Bernie Madoff and the financial troubles of many Jewish philanthropists that came from this scandal. This guy didn’t even know who Madoff was, much less know what he ponzied.

The bus came eventually, and we got up to the hot, hot, heat of the Jordan Valley and Mt. Gilboa. We met up with Sivan at the bus stop, and her mom took us to see the Jordanian border crossing at Beit She’an. They wouldn’t let us through without our passports. Darn!

Our time at Ir David was really relaxing. We went swimming in the natural spring that runs through the kibbutz, and stays at a warm temperature all year long. I played with a puppy, Jonah fell a few times, Sivan tried to drown Jonah a few times… It was all good. We ate “Shabbat” dinner (I use the quotes because we ate a non-kosher meal at this completely secular kibbutz) and started walking around after a nice dinner conversation. I must add that before we got up, I beat Sivan in Backgammon/Sheshpesh.

We ran into a group of young people sitting around outside. They invited us to come hang out, and we complied. Jonah was tired, so he went inside of the home of these complete strangers and fell asleep immediately. That was the end of Joner. It turns out that the majority of these people had made aliyah from South or Central America. Two were from Chile, and two were from El Salvador. Who knew there were Jews in El Salvador!?

They showed us a good time, and we were out and about until about 4:30am, at which point I went to wake up Jonar. He missed the whole night, but I think he got some good sleep out of it.

The next morning, Sivan took us to a very nice extension of that natural spring which serves as a community gathering place (called the Sachne). There were hundreds of people swimming among the waterfalls and jumping from the trees into the water. It looks like an artificial water park, which makes it all the more amazing when you realize it is natural. We swam around for a bit, and then returned to the kibbutz where we sat and ate plums and watched “The Dog Whisperer.”

It was almost time to go, but we had just enough time for Sivan to take us on a bike tour around the peripheral road of Ir David. We saw the factories where they used to make agricultural equipment, and she took us to this beautiful cemetery on the grounds with Mt. Gilboa looming over the resting place.

At this point, it was time to head back to Jerusalem. That weekend was a perfect combination of fun and relaxation. I was able to enjoy the natural beauty of Israel, while taking a break from the fast-paced tension of Jerusalem’s city life.

I left my swim-trunks at Nir David though. SIVAN! GIVE THEM BACK!

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