Driving to Salfit through the villages of Yasuf and Iskaka on a sunny fall day is an exhilarating experience. The asphalt road winds like a snake through hill after hill dotted by olive trees whose clusters of tiny, pastel green leaves shimmer in the light breeze. Rich brown earth, freshly turned, is strewn with stones and contoured by terraces. Closer to the road, thorny shrubs, grasses and the lazy, bleached branches of fig trees leisurely soak in the sun, anticipating the impending winter.
Salfit, a town of some 6,000 inhabitants, is tucked among the rolling hills of the West Bank about 25 kilometers southwest of Nablus. Since Ottoman times it has served as the hub of the cluster of villages in that area. Now it is in the backyard of Ariel, the largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank. The old part of Salfit, where the large, meter thick stone houses of the ‘Afaneh and Zir hamulas (clans) still stand, lies astride a knobby protrusion on a plateau. On one side is a deep valley; larger hills surround the town and block the view to the coast.
Over the past 30 years, Salfit has spread eastward from the old square that still dominates the social life of its inhabitants. Abu Farid’s house, not yet finished, is on the very edge. From his roof, one can see the last row of Swiss chateau-type houses of Ariel, but not the long line of Israeli settlements that stretch along the trans-Samaria road all the way to Ras al-‘Ayn near the coast. On this fall day in 1987, one also can see three army lorries driving out of the center of town towards Ariel, the middle one filled with poorly clad young Palestinian men, some of them handcuffed and bent over.
Though it is almost 11 am, Abu Farid and his two younger sons, ‘Aqil and Riyad, are still asleep. Only Farid, who lives with his wife and three children in the newly-built downstairs annex to the house, has been hard at work since the early morning hours. Farid’s stepmother, Umm Samhan, lets me in to the family’s diwan (sitting room), and is soon back with large cups of Turkish coffee. This week, it turns out, Abu Farid and Riyad, his youngest son, are working second shift, and their ride to the factory is not due until 1 p.m.
‘Aqil, the first to walk in, plunks on a chair, lights a cigarette and sips his coffee. He slept late for a different reason: the ordeal of a three-day detention without charge in Tulkarm prison. ‘Aqil, like scores of other young people thought to be politically active by the Israeli military authorities, was detained in advance of a national occasion — in this case, November 29, the date of the United Nations partition of Palestine and now celebrated as the international day of solidarity with the Palestinians
Even if he had not been detained, ‘Aqil probably would still have slept late, for that has been his habit ever since he decided about 18 months ago, much to the consternation of his family, to stop working. Unlike his father and brothers, none of whom finished high school, ‘Aqil is a graduate of Birzeit University, where he majored in political science, but the high unemployment rate for college graduates in the occupied West Bank forced him to work for many years as a construction worker in Israel — until, that is, he could no longer bear the contradiction between the high expectations held both by him and his family on the one hand and the reality of working class life on the other.
Abu Farid, silver-haired but vigorous, also lights a cigarette as soon as he sits down. He holds it between thumb and forefinger, Russian style. He is a confident man, essentially at peace with himself, but with deep undercurrents of bitterness, often directed against ‘Aqil. Born in 1928 to a family of landless peasants, Abu Farid has worked hard all his life just to survive, and he has little sympathy for ‘Aqil’s predicament. At age 13, looking for work, he trekked to the Galilee, far from home. For seven years, he delivered messages by bicycle from one English office to another.
Cut off by the 1948 war, he was unemployed and “hanging around in the streets” of Salfit when Fu’ad Nassar, Fahmi ‘Awad and ‘Arabi ‘Awad, all central committee members of Palestinian National Liberation League (which became the Communist Party of Jordan in 1951), took refuge there. Abu Farid, along with dozens of others, joined the party, and in the 1950s, Salfit became a major stronghold of Palestinian communists and a battlefront against the Jordanian occupation. To this day, the identification of Salfit with both communism and anti-Jordanian activities persists, at least in the minds of the older generation. A few years ago, when the assassin of a Jordanian diplomat in Turkey was identified as a resident of Salfit, the town sent a delegation to Jordan to mend fences.
“Like cats on the streets”
“If the Baath had come first, perhaps we would have all been Baathists," Abu Farid recalls in a detached manner. “We were ready to accept any party which would deliver us from the tyranny of the Jordanian regime.” Arrested, beaten and jailed in 1952, 1954 and 1956, he was finally exiled into M‘an, Jordan, where ‘Aqil was born. The charges ranged from distributing subversive literature to participating in demonstrations against annexation of the West Bank. “The majority really did not know what communism is, and after the 1956-57 crackdown, a large number quit the party.” “But,” he adds, in reference to himself, “it is impossible for a person to forego his principles if he formed them consciously.”
Until he was allowed to travel in 1962, Abu Farid and his family lived in abject poverty — “like cats on the streets,” he says. “That is how most of the people in the villages around here lived, day to day.” He immediately went to Kuwait, where he worked for four years as an unskilled laborer in an engineering firm.
He was in his hometown for a visit in June 1967. The war, as the one preceding it, cut him off from work and restricted him once again. “There was no war in Salfit,” he notes, “Not a single rifle was ever allowed by the Jordanians, who were long gone before the Israeli army came. The people were very afraid. Many thought that there would be massacres and they ran away. But the Israeli soldiers simply occupied the police headquarters and called on a loudspeaker for the people to deliver any weapons they might have.”
The first two years after the 1967 war were ones of hard times and uncertainty for most working class Palestinians. As a son of a landless peasant, Abu Farid was a member of the social group that was hit hardest during the Jordanian occupation. King Hussain’s economic policy siphoned off the West Bank’s surplus for the development of the East Bank, especially its capital, Amman. Large landowners and big city merchants prospered, while most Palestinian villagers suffered high unemployment. “There was a severe recession until the end of 1969,” Abu Farid recalls. “In Salfit the land is mountainous and all we have are olive trees. Two-thirds of the people were unemployed. As soon as the [Israeli] labor market opened, many left school and began to work.”
Farid, his oldest son, was one of the thousands of Palestinians who braved an alien world in order to make a living. He dropped out of school to work for an Israeli contractor as a plasterer and painter in 1970, and has branched out on his own since then. A skilled, honest and extremely hard worker, he has managed to make more money than most employees and college teachers. “I have a good name in Petah Tikva [the nearest Israeli city to Salfit]. I do good work, I do it fast, and for much less than Israeli contractors charge.” He has since left the Israeli labor market and is working full-time in his hometown, riding the construction boom that has overtaken many Palestinian villages since the 1970s.
Farid’s life goal, from the very beginning, was simple and traditional: to build his own home, marry and have children. To his great satisfaction, he has realized this goal. It took him ten years to save enough money to build an annex to the original family house. Soon after, his father married him off, and now he has three children. He designed and installed the house’s interior, from the modern interchangeable double windows, to the kitchen where the sink is made of smooth marble-like stone. His latest acquisition is a brand new video cassette recorder, at a cost of $1,300.
Farid is a product of that early period when job opportunities in Israel, no matter how menial or degrading, represented release from a life of extreme poverty for Palestinian villagers-cum-city workers. Consequently Farid inherited none of his father’s political commitment, and little of his profound alienation and bitterness from work in Israel. In recalling his experiences, he mentions incidents which sound to the listener racist and humiliating, but on him they leave no visible mark whatsoever. What impresses Farid is the fact that his Israeli employers usually paid on time and in full — unlike many of his current Arab customers, he is quick to point out.
“If he stops, everything stops”
The youngest son, Riyad, with his modern haircut, fashionable clothes and wrist paraphernalia, walks in as Umm Samhan prepares the table for a late breakfast. Born in 1967, reality for him is his textile factory job in Petan Tikva, his friends and Western music. The impoverished days of the Jordanian occupation, and his father’s political trials and tribulations are remote abstractions. He is a sensitive, sincere young man and is embarrassed when asked why he dropped out of school. “I was just stupid, I guess,” he answers, looking at his feet. ‘Aqil immediately interjects that the real reason was Riyad’s desire to be with his friends, most of whom are fellow factory workers. “But unlike them,” he adds reprovingly, “he did not have to leave school in order to provide for his family. He simply couldn't wait.” Riyad silently concurs, but rules out going back. “Many of my friends in the factory are college graduates,” he points out, “and they don’t get paid any more than I do. Besides, ‘Aqil has finished college and is doing absolutely nothing.”
Riyad speaks earnestly about his work experiences. “I have been working in the factory for two years now. There are close to 50 workers from Salfit and we all know each other well. I can work all the machines, but my main job is with the ‘flare’ which separates the balls of cotton, polyester and acrylic into many little strings. Father has the hardest job. He works at the first stage of the assembly line moving the bales of cotton from the belt onto little carts. If he stops, everything stops.”
Umm Samhan reappears with the usual breakfast items: olives, za‘tar (thyme), jibna (white cheese), humus and scrambled eggs. After a brief silence, Riyad continues in a sober voice. “Two months ago, a new management came in and they fired 45 of the 195 workers in the factory. All the ones dismissed were Jews who, believe me, just sat around. None of us Arabs really knew what they were supposed to be doing, though they made twice as much as we did. But they lowered our wages too. Now we get paid less for overtime and the minimum piece-work quota was raised more than 15 percent. Since then we work harder but make less money.”
Abu Farid, who has been working the same job for seven years, has a different set of complaints. “The most important difference,” he points out, “is not the wages. They [Jewish workers], get 22-23 days a year paid vacation. For us, any vacation time is unpaid. They also receive gifts on holidays, health insurance, sick leave, pension and trips to Eilat at the factory’s expense. We get none of these things, but they deduct their cost out of our wages.” Riyad continues as Abu Farid walks out of the room to get a copy of his paycheck: “Recently the Histadrut and the factory management wanted us to elect two Arabs to be our representatives. Until then, two Jews represented us, and we were not allowed to vote. Most of the workers wanted to take up this offer, but the internal regulations of the Workers’ Unity Bloc state clearly that West Bank laborers who work in Israel should be represented by their own independent labor unions. After much discussion, the workers agreed not to elect representatives to the Histadrut.”
Back at the table, Abu Farid expresses his displeasure. He has little faith in the Palestinian unions, and is not enthused about Riyad’s growing involvement. “They just talk. They can do nothing for those who work in Israel.” ‘Aqil, who has been a coordinator for the Salfit branch of the Workers’ Unity Block for some years now, reminds him of the health insurance program, and the fact that the unions are still struggling for the right to represent the workers. But Abu Farid is not convinced. In fact, he is cynical about most sacred cows of the Palestinian national movement. “We are surrounded,” Abu Farid declared after breakfast during a heated exchange with ‘Aqil. “If an ant crosses the border they know about it. The future is dark. All the Arab regimes are just like Israel — they are tied to America. They are even more scared than Israel when they hear talk of an independent Palestinian state. The occupation is here to stay as long as Israel gets American support and the people here don’t rise up to their responsibilities. All we can do is shout our opposition to the occupation. The old generation was better. Now there are drugs and immorality. We have been sucked into Israel and our blood is there. If Israel goes, where shall we go? Here, there are no factories. Amman helps the merchants, the contractors, the engineers and the government employees, many of whom get double salaries. But they could care less for the workers. The PLO is in Tunis, Iraq and Yemen, paralyzed. Sure, they are the sole legitimate representative, but how can they get to us when Jordan and Syria are off limits to them?”
Abu Farid’s cynicism does not emanate solely from the political abyss in which most Palestinians find themselves. Much of it flows from a different, more personal, source symbolized by the harsh events of 1979, when he lost his wife, his job and, in many ways, his son ‘Aqil. Until then, Abu Farid held a job he enjoyed tremendously. He was steadily raising himself from the clutches of poverty. Though it locked him out from Kuwait after 1967, the Israeli occupation reunited him with the Galilee where he had previously worked. As a Jordanian citizen, he was in a position to provide an outlet to the Arab world for his Galilee friends who hired him to look up their surviving relatives in the camps of Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. For eight years he was his own boss and travelled to Baq‘a, Yarmuk, Rashiddiyya, Tal Za‘atar, Sabra, Shatila and other places where Palestinians congregated, making contacts and arranging visits.
‘Aqil’s arrest changed all that. That winter, while a student at Birzeit University, ‘Aqil was charged with “membership in an illegal organization.” On the day of the trial, his mother, whom Abu Farid loved deeply, was killed in a car crash on the way to the court. ‘Aqil was convicted and sent to prison that day, and Abu Farid lost his job when the Israeli authorities, in a typical brush stroke of collective punishment, forbade him to leave the West Bank. With Farid about to get married and the downstairs annex under construction, Abu Farid was forced to work in an Israeli orange juice factory for over two years until he found the better paying job at the textile factory. “Imagine the irony of it all,” he once told me. “When I was poor and raising my family, I managed to avoid working in Israel. But when my children became educated and old enough to produce, I had to work there. After ‘Aqil’s arrest, I had the most difficult times of my life.”
Sense of Home
With a honk of its horn, the factory bus sweeps the men away to Petah Tikva. The family’s diwan, a large bare room lined on all four sides with skinny metal chairs, is suddenly lifeless and eerie. It reminds the visitor that there is little that gives this segmented household a sense of “home.” Everyone seems to have a social environment of his own, and differing work schedules rarely allow them to sit together for family rituals. Each has developed a world view much different from, and often in conflict with, the others. Partly this is because the men were exposed to distinctly different sets of realities arising from the successive and profound changes that have overwhelmed Palestinian society over the past 40 years.
But in this particular household there is yet another, more fundamental, reason for the fragile family ties and the lack of a common sense of purpose. As the spartan furnishings and the dormitory atmosphere suggest, there is an absence of a strong female presence. Unlike most village households, there is no matriarch here to bond the family and to function as a nexus around which the domestic economy, in all its cultural and social aspects, revolves.
Umm Samhan, Abu Farid’s second wife, comes into the diwan for a brief rest. Married at a relatively late age to a widower with three grown sons, she never really had the opportunity to fulfill this crucial role. Energetic yet calm and collected, reserved yet always smiling and helpful, she is rarely intimidated, nor does she behave as an outsider. Yet, it is clear that she is in no position to exercise any influence over Farid, ‘Aqil and Riyad. They refer to her as “my father’s wife” with a detached tone of respect, even though Umm Samhan takes care of their daily needs as any mother would.
After finishing her domestic chores and putting her two little children to sleep, Umm Samhan often sits in front of the television set until broadcasting ends at midnight. Aside from weekly visits to her family and occasional conversations with the neighbors, this is her favorite activity and she is quite excited at the new video. “What else is there to do?” she smiles. “In the past,” she continues, referring to previous generations, “there were no water lines nor electricity. Women worked day and night carrying water, gathering wood, planting tomatoes, harvesting wheat and feeding animals. Now it is considered shameful for women to work the land. After all, Salfit is no longer a village, and city women don’t work. Well, perhaps it is not shameful, but except for the olive picking season only the older women still work on the land. What is truly shameful is for women to work in Israel. Only the ones who live in the border villages do.”
Late in the afternoon, Farid walks into the family diwan. He is covered with dust, plaster and paint. His hands are even rougher than his father’s, not a common phenomenon in the West Bank. Farid takes me to his old room to show me a huge oil painting he did before dropping out of school. It depicts a young courageous man crucified on a hammer and sickle against a harsh, barren landscape. “I wanted to portray how people are oppressed because of their ideals,” he says, sincerely and without a trace of irony, though Farid is a staunchly anti-political person. “The difference between ‘Aqil and me is like that between the earth and the sky,” he is fond of saying. “The mukhabarat [Israeli intelligence] has not detained me once, while ‘Aqil is always in trouble.” Once ‘Aqil, in a bitingly sarcastic tone, reminded Farid that he had been severely beaten by soldiers several times in the past few years, yet he still ignores the relevance of politics. “True, I was beaten,” exclaims Farid, totally missing the point, “but it wasn’t because I did anything wrong. The soldiers just did it because I was an Arab.”
‘Aqil can only shrug. He is alienated from his family and is tired of being used as a measuring stick for failure. He constantly moves from town to town because he does not feel at home anywhere. Like the overwhelming majority of young, educated but unemployed Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, he has thought seriously about leaving but resisted joining the ranks of the hundreds that do emigrate.
‘Aqil does not talk about his relationship with the family, but it is very clear that they resent his idleness and the troubles he caused them as a result of his political activities. Umm Samham angrily recalls the weekly raids by Israeli soldiers on the house after &‘Aqil’s imprisonment. “They knew that we had nothing hidden but they wanted to harass us so that we would pressure ‘Aqil to quit his political work.” Abu Farid, in moments of anger, has been known to accuse his son of being responsible for his wife’s death. But in a more thoughtful moment, he takes a considered position: “I don’t blame him really, but we did not have the same opportunities. There was no one to give us money. We did not have any colleges. There was no one responsible for us. One must not despair. ‘Aqil cannot walk two roads at the same time. He must either face his situation or go backwards.”
It seems ironic that ‘Aqil, who inherited the political mantle from his father, should find himself rebelling against his father and his brothers, who are as working class as West Bank Palestinians can get. Then again, his father has long ago given up political activities and his brothers, especially Farid, are concerned first and foremost with consolidating the family's rise out of poverty.
Abu Farid and Riyad, compared to many other workers, have a good thing going. They work in a large, modern factory, are registered in the Israeli Labor Office, and receive regular paychecks. True, unlike Jewish workers they get no return from the taxes they pay; have to change shifts every week; do not receive full benefits; and work harder for less money. But their lot is much better than the 40,000 or more “illegal” Palestinian workers who flood the “slave labor” market early every morning. Such a worker leaves his village at 4 am and hopes that some Israeli contractor, when he rolls down his car window at dawn, will pick him from among the dozens vying for a day’s work. These workers pay for their own transportation and usually return home only in late evening.
For Abu Farid, the Israeli occupation, despite its ruthlessness and minute control over every aspect of his and his children’s lives, has offered more than the Jordanian occupation. At least there was a rise in his standard of living and he was able to put ‘Aqil through college, a seemingly impossible dream for a man of landless peasant stock. Farid has made his twin goal of home and family come true through hard work and a healthy appreciation for humility. Riyad, faced with a choice between education and an uncertain future or a steady job, chose the latter. He is much more politically active than Farid and his father, but at least he has made peace with the world. Only ‘Aqil refuses to accept his situation. Until something changes dramatically, he, like the over 12,000 unemployed college graduates in the occupied territories, has only two harsh options: become a wage laborer in Israel, or leave the country.
A week after this was written, in early December 1987, the occupied territories were swept by an uprising that continues unabated. The people of Salfit have given their share of blood and tears, if not more. I drove into town in January 1988, soon after the second major curfew, this one lasting for six consecutive days, was finally lifted. Almost every street was littered with the remains of barricades and burnt tires. Farid’s old car, recently overhauled, was filled with little children rummaging through its scorched shell. During a demonstration, the young protesters needed a large object to quickly cut off the advancing soldiers. Farid offered his car, which was turned over and torched.
Upstairs in the diwan, all were present except one. A week before, on January 12, just before midnight, two dozen Israeli soldiers stormed into the house, grabbed ‘Aqil, put him in a lorry and beat him severely in full view of family and neighbors. The cycle of resistance and repression had already infused the family with one mind and one spirit, an almost complete reversal of the pre-intifada period. Abu Farid broke the curfew twice in order to find out where ‘Aqil was being detained, and to give his name to the Red Cross. Umm Samhan, who had screamed and pulled at the soldiers during ‘Aqil's arrest, tearfully recounted how blood dripped from his face after a soldier smashed his glasses with a stick. Even apolitical Farid brimmed with anger and hatred. Riyad, wanted by the mukhabarat, rarely stays home at night. As I left, three helicopters hovered above. They were looking for the many young men who escaped into the surrounding hills, the same hills that Abu Farid took refuge in 30 years ago while being pursued by the Jordanian intelligence services.
Of my many subsequent visits, two during the last week of March are unforgettable. On Sunday, March 27, I escorted a busload of Western academics on a day trip to the northern region of the West Bank. We made our way to Salfit along the winding Yasuf-Iskaka road; this time, it was interrupted by stone barricades every half mile or so. After negotiating with the young men in these two villages, the bus proceeded slowly as rocks were moved, then put back into place. In Salfit, we were warmly welcomed and taken on a tour of the old part of the city. The town, like the road, was full of Palestinian flags. Acknowledged in the Israeli press as a prime example of a community in which an effective alternative structure of local control has emerged, Salfit had been “liberated” since February 1,1988. On that winter day, the Leadership Committee of the Intifada in Salfit, composed of the various underground political factions, released its first communiqué. Local guard outposts effectively kept the army out of town. The official municipal structure had long since collapsed, and the Leadership Committee established new procedures regulating daily life.
Riyad approached me and recounted the events of the past few weeks. He and his father no longer work at the factory. They made that decision soon after ‘Aqil’s arrest. “First,” he said, “all the workers refused to go beyond the minimum quota assigned to each person. Then we began a slowdown strike and only produced about 60 percent of the piece work required. Finally we sabotaged machines. You know, no one understands the machine better than the worker who labors on it all day. We found ways of causing them to malfunction so often that the factory was finally forced to close.” Most likely, there were other reasons as well. Textiles has been one of the sectors hit worst by the double blow of the intifada and the financial difficulties of the Histadrut industrial enterprises. But Riyad and his fellow workers believe they were responsible, an attitude typical of the feeling of empowerment which the intifada has engendered.
The conversation with Riyad came to an abrupt end when shouts of “army, army,” rang out from rooftops. Within seconds, the town square stood hauntingly empty. We quickly boarded the bus and made our way towards Ariel and the main road, but were soon stopped by an army command jeep and lorry. After half an hour of questioning — during which the army established our identity, where we came from and were going, and the fact that this was a Birzeit University bus — we were escorted to the trans-Samaria road. A Hebrew-speaking passenger listened to the commander relay this information to his superior.
On our way to the village of Bidya, we saw a long convoy of cars, vans, pickups and jeeps with their headlights on racing the opposite way. A few hours later, when we stopped in Nablus, we heard that a young man in Salfit was shot dead. That evening Israeli television and radio announced that the army killed two young men in Salfit while “rescuing a bus of tourists that was hijacked by an Arab mob and attacked with stones, glass bottles and iron bars.” That same evening the bus passengers quickly drafted a statement denying this version of events and contacted the media, but the Israeli newspapers carried the official story the next morning on the front page. The visiting academics held a press conference in response and by the next day the army was forced to change its story.
Wednesday, March 30, was Land Day. The West Bank was in a state of siege. Traffic between towns and villages was choked to a trickle. Five of us with a letter from the bus passengers addressed to the people of Salfit went in a taxi to visit the families of the murdered young men. We were stopped and turned back often, but four hours and many dirt roads later, we finally arrived. Our letter was copied and posted on trees, and the father of one of the martyrs recounted how his son was shot by a sniper wearing a white T-shirt and kneeling down among budding stalks of wheat. The boy’s body was carried by his comrades to a nearby hill, laid down under an olive tree and covered with grass. It has become an intifada tradition to claim the dead before the army does. Otherwise the body is sent to an Israeli morgue at Abu Kabir, dissected and then returned to the family under the condition that no one but immediate relatives be allowed at the burial, usually a midnight affair.
The young men who carried his bleeding body to the thick olive groves, leaving only his mother at his side, explained to us that this was necessary because the army’s method goes against Islamic law, costs the family hundreds of dinars in fees and, most importantly, deprives the martyr of a proper nationalist funeral. In this case they were successful. An army helicopter gave up the search after an hour and then the entire town turned out for a mass march to the cemetery.
The town remained “liberated” until, on the moonless night of April 14, the army reestablished its presence on a daily basis by executing a massive military operation, detaining 80 youths who played a leading role in the town&rsquo's struggle against the occupation. Luckily Riyad made it out safely. But the mukhabarat had a long list of wanted youths already prepared, and the parents of those who were not found were served with written orders demanding that they bring in their sons the next day. Abu Farid sent messages out to Riyad that same night, and the next day escorted him to the Tulkarm military headquarters. “What else can I do?” he exclaimed, “The military commander made it clear that if I don’t show up with Riyad they were going to come the next day and smash everything in the house.” Riyad was one of the fortunate few released 18 days later.
‘Aqil, who some believe was instrumental in founding the Leadership Committee of the Intifada in Salfit, is still under administrative detention (imprisonment without charge or trial) at the notorious Ansar III prison in the Negev. He and his family, indeed the entire town of Salfit, have been rejuvenated and marked, once again, by the long and bloody struggle for national liberation.