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Three brothers in the West Bank, kept apart by Israel’s war

Occupied West Bank – This is the tale of three brothers; Ayman, Yamen and Wajid. Yamen and I (Ayman, the author of this piece) are one year apart, 37 (him) and 38 (me), while Wajid is the “baby” at 35. All three of us work between the cities of Nablus and Ramallah and our home village, al-Lubban Ash-Sharqiya, located halfway between the two cities.

Now, my two brothers and I are each stuck in one of these three places with no way of reaching each other. Since October 7, the West Bank has been subjected to unprecedented military measures by Israeli forces. The only time such stringent measures have been seen before was perhaps during the first days of June 1967, the start of the Israeli occupation.

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Stringent curfews and clampdown measures implemented by armed settlers and Israeli forces on all cities, towns and camps in the West Bank have completely cut areas off from each other. Israeli forces have erected new military checkpoints and closed entrances and roads using iron gates and earth mounds. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers have ramped up harassment and attacks on Palestinian residents every day, throwing rocks and stones at Palestinian vehicles and shooting bullets at civilians who dare to leave their houses and step into their streets or fields – especially difficult during the olive season, which starts each year at the beginning of October and lasts until the end of November.

Our home village of al-Lubban Ash-Sharqiya is 21km (13 miles) south of Nablus and 27km north of Ramallah. Over the past two months, it has been closed off on three sides. The road accessing it from the east – the main one – is closed off with an iron gate, blocks of cement and mounds of dirt, and the road has been dug with trenches. The roads to the north and south are also filled with trenches which stretch for 2km from the outskirts of the village. Vehicles cannot cross. Only one road remains, leading to the city of Salfit in the central West Bank.

Wajid – in Ramallah

My youngest brother, Wajid, works as a photojournalist for the Palestinian Ministry of Information.

He tells me: “The roads are very, very difficult around Ramallah. Every time I head out to check the status of barriers and closures, they are bad. One road may be passable but it is long and winding and passes through many villages before you can get to our village.

“Since the beginning of the war, I have seen the family only once, due to the difficult road conditions. Getting out of the city would require a long detour and the route is interspersed with Israeli checkpoints. The family communicates with me regularly. Every day to check in, my mother calls at night and asks me if I have eaten and if the room is warm. She tells me every time to take care of myself and not go out too much.”

Things were not easy for people in the West Bank before October 7, but they have become many times worse since then. “Here in Ramallah, where I have remained since the beginning of the war, the city is subjected every night to Israeli raids, especially after midnight and lasting until noon.

“Every night, the sound of gunfire, bombs and gas bombs can be heard. The sun rises and life begins all over again. It is very noticeable how few people are moving around because of the closures and tight barriers around the city and the sieges of villages in all areas of the West Bank.

As for Ramallah itself, the city known for its vibrant, bustling spirit and culture, has completely changed, he says.

“There is only minimal movement around the city,” he told me. “If anyone makes it to the outskirts, it starts to feel even more dangerous.”

There are sometimes protest marches after afternoon and sunset prayers, but at half past midnight, the raids begin.

“Ramallah was the most active and lively city in Palestine,” he says. “Now it is nothing! This city that used to stay awake until dawn now closes the doors of its homes and shops shortly after sunset. Some people gather in the evening at al-Manara roundabout, where they come from all neighbourhoods to demonstrate. In the centre of the city at night the numbers grow and marchers roam the streets – mostly dominated by youths chanting for Gaza, shouting anti-occupation slogans and declaring their support for the resistance. They are not just sympathisers! They are part of this war.

Lots of people have been arrested for showing their support for the resistance, he tells me.

“The arrests have focused on everyone who participates in supporting the resistance, especially those who publish anything on social media sites,” Wajid says.

“I still believe Ramallah is safer than al-Lubban because of the permanent presence of settlers and the army,” he says. Life is hard, however. “Salaries have been delayed and the already high prices have risen even more. While I have been stuck in Ramallah, I know the family has run out of some things, but because of the state of the roads, I cannot return to our home in the village to provide them.

“Mother asks me every day when I will be coming home, but I have to tell her – I just don’t know.

“I really miss my family, especially Sarah, my niece.”

Yamen – in al-Lubban ash-Sharqiya

While security conditions and military measures have trapped Wajid in Ramallah, our middle brother, Yamen has remained in our village, in the family home. Yamen is a press correspondent for the Palestinian News Agency, Wafa.

About 3,500 people live in our village, including more than 200 who live right on the main street coming into the village in about 20 houses. There are Israeli settlements close by and there has been trouble between them and the village before. In June this year, settlers blocked the road coming into the village, preventing children from getting to school.

“The people in these houses have lived in a state of instability and daily anxiety since the beginning of the war,” says Yamen. “They are close to the Israeli settlements, apart from the rest of the village and they have often been attacked. Their homes, possessions and cars were ransacked by the settlers. In the first weeks of the war, some of them moved to live with their relatives inside the village – they were displaced.

“Then half of them began to return to their homes. They live in a state of constant anxiety, especially the women and children. They keep homes shut up all day and night.”

Yamen himself is working from home, covering events he can in the area, particularly within the Salfit governorate. “I cannot go to my workplace in Ramallah, and I cannot reach Nablus,” he tells me. “Public vehicle drivers tell me that the road is very different from before October 7, and they have not worked much since the beginning of the war – some of them have not worked at all.”

Taxi and bus drivers who do manage to work go out just once a day, rather than four or five times as would be more usual.

“The main roads are all closed and people who are forced to leave their homes must cross bumpy dirt roads between villages and are often stopped by emergency Israeli checkpoints, or what we call a ‘passing checkpoint’.”

From friends, he has heard that the trip to Nablus, just over 20km away and which used to take 25 minutes, now takes as much as three hours.

Every evening, when our mother uses her phone to try to communicate with me and our other brothers through Messenger and WhatsApp, “She is sad as she follows their news and checks on them. She often repeats that she misses us getting together, especially since the olive season, which is the season of bringing families together in Palestine, has passed without us meeting.”

On October 8, the day after the war began, the main entry to the village was closed off. That was the only road which is paved and Israeli forces have now dug a trench stretching along it for 1.5km. The other access routes to the village are dirt tracks which have been created naturally by the village’s positioning between a hill and a plain.

There is one remaining route out of a neighbouring village towards Salfit, through which you can reach Ramallah. But this adds 20km to the journey and many people do not have the money to pay for the additional fuel.

“Before the war, there were five public transportation vehicles that took villagers to the city of Nablus,” Yamen says. “Those vehicles, which are the most important means of transportation in the village, stopped completely for more than 15 days.”

One villager told him that the cost of commuting to work has nearly tripled from $2.25 to $6 and her taxi must negotiate barriers and long, dug-up roads to get there. 

“The war has changed everything in the village,” he tells me. One major issue is that children have been unable to go to school in the village since the start of the war.

Yamen explains that the village schools, from the seventh grade and through secondary school, are located on the main Nablus-Ramallah Street, through which thousands of settlers pass daily. Israeli army jeeps are stationed at the gates of those schools from 6am. While the streets of the village used to be full of the comings and goings of schoolchildren, they are now almost empty. Some pupils have reported receiving threatening messages from settlers on social networking sites and are too afraid to go out. Other students have been injured by bullets and suffered fractures and bruises.

“In the end, they [armed settlers] forcibly closed those schools with the army protecting them,” he says. “A few days ago, they stormed the girls’ school, tore down the Palestinian flag and raised the Israeli flag in its place.

“When I walk in the neighbourhood, I listen to the girls and boys from the village schools talking about how much they wish they could get back to face-to-face education and to go back to school.”

The children are not the only ones missing from the streets of our home village.

“The street outside resembles a military barracks, with nothing passing except for Israeli military vehicles, sometimes chasing and shooting at Arab cars trying to leave our village or the surrounding villages. I lived through the tunnel rampage in September 1996, during which violent confrontations continued for a week, and the second Intifada in September 2000 which continued until 2005. They were very violent years of confrontation, but not once did the street become completely empty of [civilian] vehicles like this. This is a new level of fear and caution.” Yamen says.

It is particularly unusual for the village to be so quiet at this time of year, during olive season. “There is usually a lot of movement of people back and forth to their lands to pick olives,” says Yamen.

He explains that about 40 percent of the trees are located in areas that have become very difficult to reach because of the threats from armed settlers and soldiers, who have been shooting at the farmers. Some have ventured out, unwilling to let the harvest go to waste, but say that settlers and soldiers have stolen their crops.

“More than 1,500kg of olives have been stolen here,” Yamen tells me. “That is worth $3,000. And, more than 4,000 trees remain unharvested – there are entire families that depend on producing olive oil to make ends meet. This is a loss amounting to tens of thousands of dollars.”

Ayman – in Nablus

And then there is me, their eldest brother. I remain stuck in the city of Nablus, along with my children who were longing to get to the village for the farming season.

I would like to attempt to go to the countryside but the checkpoints, harassment and likelihood of attacks by settlers make it impossible. Today and every day, my children, Julia and Amin, just wait for the war to end and for the roads to open again.

My children love the wilderness of the village, its mountains, plains and seasons. Julia wants to pick daffodils and take pictures and videos of the land. She says the army has stopped her from going to the land and chasing small insects and butterflies. Amin especially misses the tea made on firewood, a tradition in the village during the olive season. He wanted to film the wood smoke and the teapot boiling over on his phone, as he did last year.

They tell me: “We want to go to milk, even if we have exams.”

The thing that upsets them most is that the family has lost their olives this year.

I never imagined being away from my family for this long, especially since I had not visited them for two months before that. Now, four months have passed without sitting with them and sharing a meal or a cup of coffee.

Source: Al Jazeera

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