“We are always looking at the Israeli guns pointing at us and we don’t notice the Palestinian knives in our back”. Bazem, the mayor of Tawayel has been waiting now for “over two years” for funding promised to him from the Nablus governorate. Today he faces unimaginable hardship but he insists the problem that annoys him the most is “being completely ignored” by the PA (Palestinian Authority). From talking to a number of local officials now I know that this sentiment is shared by many but often people also use the PA as a scapegoat to vent their frustrations.
I had gone back to visit Bazem as his community had received another two demolition orders since I last visited a few weeks ago. Tents that offer accommodation were due to be ripped down as they were built in the Israeli controlled Area C of the West Bank. This subject however takes up just a fraction of our meeting as he keeps turning the conversation back to the “real problem” – the PA. “We are on the front line against the soldiers, we are the ones defending Palestinian land by staying here, so why do those people sat on chairs under air conditioners cause us so much problem”.
I ask him if he is just referring to the money he has been promised and he looks at me scornfully, “not only do they not give, but they take. The price of barley for our sheep has gone up fifty percent because of PA tax. And where does the money go”? He leaves the hypothetical question to linger in the air and it remains hovering over us for the rest of the meeting.
I have heard from other sources that this common story around PA tax is a popular myth. Another local contact when asked about this subject commented, “the increase in the price is not caused by the PA and there is no increase in tax, it is caused by the increase in global prices of these items”. I did not know enough either way to challenge him.
I had been told previously that the road going into their community was so bad because they live in Area C and as such the Israelis would not give them permission to put tarmac down and so I asked if there had been any progress. Again, the Mayor was not interested in Israel but turned the question back to the PA, “They [The PA] agreed months ago to lay loose stones down on our road to make sure it is passable, still I hear nothing from them”. Although Bazem remains good humoured throughout our meeting I can feel his frustration building.
I ask Bazem what he will do if in a month he still has not received any of the money or help he has been promised, “first I will meet them, if I still get nothing I cannot promise what I will do. I have many ways to choose, hunger strikes, talking to the media or international friends. We cannot continue to suffer like this”. He pauses before sighing the word, “khallas” (finished).
Being the mayor of such a troubled community is clearly taking its toll on Bazem both personally but also emotionally. I ask him about his personal expenditure, how he affords to travel to Nablus and the phone calls to try and sort out these problems. He answers matter-of-factly “I spend maybe 1,200 NIS every month [about £240]” before immediately twisting the answer towards the problems his neighbours face. “A few days ago with the UN I visited some families that I had not spoken to for a while, I could not believe what I saw. One family needed 25,000 NIS [£5,000] just for their sheep food. What do the PA offer…nothing”. I didn’t ask why he thought the PA should pay for a families sheep food.
I took the decision to enter a subject area I had in the past chosen to avoid, Palestinian politics. I was keen to know whether this resentment towards the PA was synonymous with a resentment towards Fatah so I asked if he thought life would be different if Hamas was in power. Bazem pauses and leans towards me despite speaking through a translator and says, “When you build a house, the foundations have to be right or the whole house will be bad. Hamas lays bad foundations. Fatah just don’t know how to keep their house tidy”. I sought clarity and asked if he was happy then Fatah are still in control and he answered shaking his head, “All the party are no good. They are fighting each other, not looking to help the people. They think about their salaries not the people”.
A number of different village and town officials have expressed similar sentiments to me in the past but all have asked not to be named. All have hinted at corruption at a systemic level. I ask Bazem if it is OK to tell this story and he says, “I don’t want to get into trouble but I speak the truth. People must hear the truth so yes, tell your people how we Palestinians treat each other”. I knew as he said these words this story would be met with quiet support from many Palestinians but also vocal criticism. A united Palestinian voice is often stated as their most “important weapon”. Bazem later commented, “if we fraction then we lose our fight”.
I ask Bazem if the land that he is fighting for is important to him because it is his or because he sees it as his national duty to defend Palestine’s land. “This land is not mine, it is Palestine’s. I am lucky to be Palestinian and so I can look after the land. This is why I must support my Palestinian neighbours”.
I ask about its many ‘Jewish neighbours’ (in the illegal settlements) and he pauses for a considerable amount of time. It was clear he was not going to rush into this answer. Finally he responds, “Settlers are a cancer”. Again he paused and I looked at him, he clearly was not happy with his first answer. “If I have good neighbours then maybe, but at the moment it is like having your enemy as a neighbour. I cannot live beside someone who wants to swallow me whole”.
I asked him if he had ever had a good Israeli neighbour and he smiled and responded as if this was a stupid questions, “of course. In Gittit [a close by settlement] I have many friends and we visit each other and help each other”. Again he pauses and I wonder how those in the PA would respond to a man who so openly criticised them whilst talking about having settler friends. Bazem brings me back from my own thoughts though with the clarification, “They understand my problems but they cannot do anything to help because of the religious settlers. They control everything”.
I leave Bazem convinced that his community faces a plethora of problems, but non-the-wiser about the source of these problems. Is it the Israeli state, the settlers, the extreme settlers, the PA or who? I suspect it is a cocktail of the above. Regardless of whether or not the accusations against the PA hold up to scrutiny the stories are widely accepted in many villages I have visited. Is it a PR problem or fundamental lack of support from the PA? The straight answer is I do not know.