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Middle East Diaries Part 4: Meeting the Mayors
Our host in Nablus was both highly motivated and competent
Our host in Nablus was both highly motivated and competent. As well as organising almost every aspect of our routine here, he managed to secure for us some interviews with the mayors and Council heads of Nablus and some of the nearby villages.
Our first appointment was at the seemingly idyllic village of Burin, reached after a short ride from the city, passing through green rolling hills and in full of the walled road carving through them. The road, effectively linking the settlements with Jerusalem, is for settler and international use only. The settlements themselves sit as vast, ugly monoliths upon the hillsides, growing at shocking speed, engulfing the land around them, which is largely out of bounds. Lower down stand ramshackle Bedouin villages and huge quarries, shipping Palestinian stone away to various Arab emirates.
The settlements surrounding Burin are of a much different nature to those on the bare hillsides. In place of giant stone slabs, many are seemingly temporary metal structures, or just caravans parked on the hills above the Palestinian towns. The people living in them are not the poor, accepting in ignorance the cheap living opportunity but messianic fanatics, heavily armed and all too aware of the people they are imposing upon below.
Such houses sit on the shepherd dotted hills overlooking Burin, pointed out to us by the mayor Shahed Urdan as we stood on a road blocked by IDF defences preventing movement up the hill towards them. Two army bases also guard the place from the hills, but for how long one cannot know as many of these small settlements began as army outposts before being populated. Such encirclement has harmed the village’s economy over the years. Restrictions on movement leave farmers with just seven days in olive season to tend their trees and a handful more days throughout the year. In the remaining months the farms lie dangerously close and unprotected from the settlements. Since 2005 over 9,000 olive trees have been uprooted, either by the army for security purposes or in attacks by the settlers, and many animals shot or stolen.
As we talked we passed by the small village school where children ran playing in the courtyard, their innocence imperilled recently by a poisoning of the schools water supply by the settlers. Water is indeed the key to the struggle for this area, becoming a weapon of attrition. Settlement sewage systems flow into the village water supply, making it, as Oxfam tests showed, undrinkable for man or animals. Now the village receives its water from Palestinian Authority sources.
The interview also carried some aspects of hope, We heard the story of American Jews who came here to help plant trees, and even settlers who had changed to solidarity, working with Earth First, even though this group had been attacked by settlers, it was a glimmer of support. Mr Urdan ended the interview by compelling us to share the story of Burin with the world.
Leaving this place we embarked on the ten minute ride to Iraq-Burin, which then became a half-hour detour when our car was turned around at an Israeli roadblock. With our time greatly cut short we hurried into the large council room, receiving tea and biscuits passed around by various men while we chatted to the council head, idly beading a rosary through his fingers. He began by softly criticising the worldview of Palestinians as terrorists and nomads, before relating the history of the village.
Settlement began near here in 1988, in similar style to that near Burin, again with military bases being converted into settler homes. This year alone has seen three deaths in the village. The first was a young farmer, shot by a settler in his fields. The other two were at a nearby protest, this time at the hands of the army. Portraits of the three dead boys adorned the walls of the room we sat in, as well and one of an aged Arafat, contrasting against their young features significantly.
On the whole those we had met were quiet men, simply trying to protect their communities while they could despite the odds. That evening we visited the house of a very different man. Entering the hallway of a large white house in central Nablus we were ushered into a long, warm room which we soon filled, huddling round a sofa where a wizened little man sat, propped up by a pillow. His small stature was the product of both extreme old age and the fact that both his legs were missing, blown off by a car bomb in 1980. The presence of Bassam Shaka, former mayor of Nablus, did not match this outward appearance. The old battle-axe had a remarkable story to tell us, translated largely through our guide and the mayors’ remarkable wife whose presence in the room matched that of her husband, even more so since she had become his legs ever since the attack.
At the time of the Nakba Shakaa had fled to Syria, a move similar to our guide, who as an impressionable and angry teenager was all set to join the jihadist brigades until he reached Syria where the relative calm had allowed him an education. Returning later to Nablus he first came to prominence in 1967, when Jordan was hiding weapons from the locals he, as a member of the city’s guiding committee urged people not to flee. It was around this time that he began the boycotts and non-cooperation campaigns that would continue for years to come, despite constant deportation of comrades around him.
He did not run for mayor until 1976 when the resistance was better organised and united, in an effort to unite the many factions. Soon Nablus was self-sufficient with a rise in patriotism and group effort. When three were killed in protests against a new value-added tax from Israel a strike was initiated. After army commanders failed to curb these with threats of school and city closures he was sent to the Israeli war minister who warned him that if the policy of strikes and protest continued he could expect physical violence. Months later, on 2nd June 1980 this threat was made good upon when Shakaa’s car exploded in a Settler car bombing. Having lost his legs he managed to calm his wife and get her to call an ambulance, only to find the telephone lines cut, adding suspicion of settler/army cooperation. When he did reach the hospital he threatened to pull the IVF tubes from himself until they let journalists in, whom he then told that, by removing his legs, they had now been made closer to his land, and that they could cut off his legs, but not his struggle. At the time he refused President Carter’s apology as a humanitarian act, saying that this was a political crime, not a humanitarian issue.
At this point a painting was passed around of his dismembered legs, a copy as the original had been confiscated by the IDF from an Israeli museum.
The man seemed to exude the air of resistance so entrenched in Nablus, complimented by his formidable wife. Having been split by conflict and shrunken by age, he seemed to be the very essence of Palestine. In this sense it is very telling that he remains under house arrest imposed by the Palestinian Authority.
Written by Giles Longley-Cook