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Rob Eshelman Strolling Around Askar

Rob Eshelman

I didn’t sleep very well; all night I heard the sound of tanks maneuvering through the streets of Jenin. Or were they the sounds of bulldozers? Why would a bulldozer be running at three in the morning? Getting up from the flat roof of an office building where I was trying to sleep I’d look over the edge of the building.

Then came the sound of distinct gunfire. The rapid crackle of fully automatic M-16 fire, the tell tale sign of the Israeli Defense Forces. They’ve got unlimited ammunition whereas Al Aksa and other Palestinian resistance groups don’t so they opt for semi-automatic bursts or single shots. I didn’t sleep much and the next day I was to travel to Salfit.

The trip to Salfit would take me through the Askar checkpoint on the northern edge of Nablus. I try to be well rested for these journeys because the Palestinian cabbies inevitably have multiple university degrees and conversing with them is always an education. And the other passengers who you share the ride with are always eager to talk and ask a million questions. And the landscape is stunning. Also, at checkpoints its good to be perky in typical American fashion so the soldiers don’t hassle you too much.

“Why are you going to Nablus?”

“Like, I’m going shopping.”

The drive is predictably bumpy, slow at times; there are ten of us including the driver of the stretch Mercedes cab. On the road just before Askar, I sense something is wrong. There aren’t many cabs on the road running to and from the checkpoint. I think, “The bastards have fucking closed it!”

Our cabbie stops to consult with another driver headed the opposite direction. Fadi, the man next to me, turns and confirms that the checkpoint is closed. We exit the cab, pace back and forth smoking cigarettes. A 30-minute conversation follows. One need not understand Arabic to know that the men are debating our options. Try another checkpoint? Go around Askar via other roads? Hike over the mountain? Whatever the case, we will not turn back.

A plan is hatched: We enter a different cab and head west up a hill that overlooks the checkpoint. Asking villagers along the route, the driver attempts to find an alternative entrance into Palestine’s largest city. We turn off the road and drive through olive groves, around large dirt mounds that serve as roadblocks and ditches that the Israelis have dug.

We finally arrive at a point where we can see the outskirts of Nablus. The cab driver stops the car. We all get out except for the driver and one man who’s decided entering Nablus by avoiding the checkpoint isn’t worth risking his life over. It’s beginning to get very hot.

Nablus has a nickname. It’s Jabal An-Naar or “mountain of fire” and I’m beginning to regret that I’ve been smoking excessively for the past four weeks as we begin our hike into town.

Three of the men, including Fadi, are in front of me. Behind me follows Mohammed carrying both of his children and a large duffle bag on his back. His wife follows a short distance behind him. I offer to carry some of their things.

We make a descent from where the vehicle has dropped us off and reach a road. Everyone ahead of me pauses, looks carefully both ways, then darts across the road, up an incline, then onto the safety of some trees. I repeat what those ahead of me have done and deduce that to my left around a bend is the checkpoint and almost certainly some IDF soldiers who would not be pleased with the subversion of their closure.

We hike a short distance through some fields jumping down from terraced walls, taking the children from the father as he jumps down after us, followed by his wife, wearing a thob, the long dress customary for Muslim women.

We reach a small village. Just as I see some individuals approaching us on a road in the village, the man ahead of me says “Jesh”, Arabic for soldiers, in a low-volume shout. Like a synchronized unit we all pivot and head back the way we came – running. Once safely concealed by the olive groves, we slow down and jog parallel to the edge of the village. We retreat to the cover of the trees but are not willing to relinquish our destination and turn back completely.

We duck down from the groves and come to a small house further down the road from where we spotted the soldiers. We pause for a moment. One man takes some water offered by the inhabitants of the house. One of the locals tells us that the soldiers are around the corner. We continue our route along the edge of the village.

More descents down terraced hillsides. More handoffs of the two children as the mother and father jump down from the old stonewalls. Burrs and sticks have attached themselves to our clothes and the soft dust kicked up from our boots has left a heavy coating on our feet and pants. Occasionally, I lock eyes with Fadi. He smiles and shrugs his shoulders as if saying, “What else are we going to do, go back?”

Our decent ends when we hit a field bordered by some barbed wire and a few stalks of corn. A herd of sheep and an old man are strolling along a road which separates the field from a house. The sight of the farmer and his herd is reassuring. No soldiers around.

Another guy in our group asks the farmer, “Jesh?” and we receive a reassuring gesture indicating its clear. A collective exhale is had by all.

We pause a short distance away under some trees and relax. Mohammed runs to a near-by house to ask directions into Nablus. Mohammed emerges from the house, picks up his duffle bag and children and points us in the direction of the city.

While walking along the dirt road into town, I start up a conversation with one of the men. His name is Shariff and he’s been to Brooklyn recently to visit his cousin who owns a gas station. He asks me where I’m heading. I tell him I’m on my way to Salfit and need to get to Hawarah checkpoint on the southern edge of Nablus.

Shariff has an auto parts store near Balata refugee camp which is near Hawarah. He offers me a ride to the checkpoint.

I’m sitting in the front seat of Shariff’s brand new white Mercedes Benz. Not many Palestinians have brand new cars, especially Mercedes. If they do they’re usually affiliated with the PA, but in Nablus the PA isn’t very popular and doesn’t have much of a presence. Likely, Shariff is affiliated with Hamas, Al Aksa or another Islamic organization.

At Hawarah, Sharrif gives me his phone number and welcomes me to Palestine. I turn toward Hawarah and take in the landscape. I’m not absorbing the beauty of the West Bank hills, though, but looking for what might be the best route around the checkpoint if I’m denied entry.