Baladia city

Following the umpteenth Palestine suicide attack, the Israeli army moved into the West Bank in March 2002. Operation ‘Defensive Shield’, the largest military move on the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967, had begun. For the seizure of the Palestinian city Nablus, Lieutenant colonel Amir Baram, the commander of the 890th battalion, engages a real estate devel- oper. That same day, a number of stone drills are delivered. On a housing complex under construction, that night the battalion does a trial run in dril- ling entrances, windows and elevator shafts. Next day, the siege begins; Balata, the refugee camp built up against Nablus, is taken first, and after that, the battalion marches into Nablus itself. In search of Palestinian mili- tants and suicide terrorists, the battalion shoots and drills through com- plete housing blocks, leaving behind a network of corridors. Seventeen days later, Nablus is taken and 74 militants have been killed, 155 civilians injured and 480 captured on the Palestinian side. On the Israeli side, 2 soldiers have been killed and 19 injured.
Today, the attack on Nablus is considered as a textbook example of suc- cessful warfare in urban areas and has become compulsive exercise material in Baladia City, the National Urban Training Center (NUTC) of the Israeli army. From a distance, this purpose-built ́Arabian ́ city in the Negev desert looks like a sleeping desert city, fifteen kilometres east of Rafah near the Gaza-Egyptian border. In actual fact, there are no Arabs in this city. Engi- neers of the Israeli army have designed Baladia City, in cooperation with the Americans, who have provided 45 million dollars to finance this project. It is a model city of 11.9 square kilometres consisting of 1,100 basic modu- les that can be reconfigured for special missions. Brigadier general Uzi Moskovich, at the time commander of the NUTC, said: ‘Give me seventy or eighty tractors for a month, and I’ll recreate the hills and topography of a Lebanese village. It’s a valuable centre of information which we share with our American friends who frequently come over to do training.’ According to the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), the structures of the city have been influenced by various Arab cities, but it comes closest to Ramallah on the West Bank.
The NUTC, which was delivered in 2007, is used for attacks on for instance Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon and Syria. It features 472 structures, 1200 door- ways, 2500 windows and multiple elevator shafts. There are 6.5 kilometres of paved streets and semi-paved streets, and, invisible to the unsuspecting visitor, a complete underground tunnel system. There are mosques, there is a hospital, home for the elderly, bank, school, cemetery annex football pitch and a kasbah. There’s even a police station and a fugitive camp. And everywhere you can see man-sized holes in the walls and dividing walls of the houses, which have been constructed in concrete moulds. For added realism, there are charred automobiles and burned tyres everywhere. Dressed-up Israelis, studying Arab, play-act as Arabs during the training. Every move is registered; Baladia is crowded with cameras and sensors, there is a wire connection with the troops and everything is evaluated after- wards.
I enter the mosque and go up the stairs in the direction of the minaret. It becomes dark, groping I find my way upwards, at the end of the stairway some diffuse light seeps through the chinks of a metal door, creaking and shrieking the door opens under my hands. I’m standing high above Baladia in the minaret of the Yasser Arafat mosque. Below on the central square, the SUVs are idling now that the military training is finished. In the west, the contours of Gaza become apparent.
Hamat Hassanat

Early 1993, in that piece of no-man’s-land between Israel and Lebanon, I met Hamat Hassanat, a black middle-aged Palestinian. After a series of terrorist attacks in Israel, he and another four hundred and fourteen Hamas members had been hauled from their beds and transported to this piece of no-man’s-land between Israel and Lebanon and put in a camp. Most of them went back home one year later. Hamat Hassanat invited me to visit him, as soon as he had returned to Gaza.
One year later, at the parking lot near the Eres border-crossing between Israel and Gaza. It is still early in the morning when I get out of the cab and walk the last meters to the border. An Israeli soldier observes me from behind a concrete wall. I slide my passport underneath the armoured glass opening, my name is typed in, and without a single word it is slid back to me. It is cold. Halfway between the two crossing-points, behind barbed wire, hundreds of Palestinian workers are becoming numb from the cold, waiting for a sign that the border will open for them too, to get to their work in Israel. After the check at the Palestinian border-crossing, I call Hamat Hassanat and we agree to meet at the Israeli army base in the Nuseirat Camp. I take a cab. On our way we pass a column of army vehicles heading towards Is- rael, and we are forced to wait in the verge until the column has passed by. When we arrive at the army base, it appears to be in total chaos: the Israeli army has withdrawn. Dozens of Palestinians are hanging out in the watchtowers; people flock onto the base and, after all these years, are curi- ous about what there is to see behind these walls. From the roof, El Fatah soldiers are shooting in the air, photographers rush forward to capture the image.
In the midst of this tumult, I see a man coming towards me, with outs- tretched arms. It’s Hamat Hassanat, we embrace each other, shaking hands is out of the question. We leave the base in his car and drive into the camp. We stop at one of the many walled houses; after he sounds his horn, the iron doors creak open. Before us: a big house on concrete piles. In Hamat’s room, on the first floor, there is a picture, above his desk of the house he used to live in with his parents, in the Israeli Beersheba. In 1948, the Hassanat family was deported to Gaza. We go outside to drink tea, sitting on two white plastic chairs, between the concrete piles under the house: the only shady place. We hear a motorbike arriving. Someone knocks and the doors slowly open. A bearded man wearing a djellaba cautiously drives into the yard. It is Thursday; the imam from the Hamas Mosque has come to Hamat to dis- cuss the Friday afternoon sermon. I leave them alone and go back to the former Israeli army base, where the euphoria is still great. On my way back, I visit the mosque. In a large walled sandbox, there are several children lying sleeping, others are reading the Koran while walking round. There are pictures on the walls of martyrs who have blown themselves up in Israel. It is getting dark when I get back to Hamat, the imam has left. We walk to the room where the picture of his parental home is hanging; two mattresses with folded up blankets have been put on the floor. Just as Hamat is leaving the room to wash before pray- ers, someone knocks on the door. Slowly the door is set ajar and I see the arm of a woman. That arm hands over a dish of food. It’s all that I will ever see of Hamat’s wife. Three times a day, for the coming three days, that arm carrying food will appear. The food is great, but the nights are not. Hamat sleeps right next to me on the other mattress. As soon as he lies down, a heartrending snoring starts. For three days, I do not get a wink of sleep.
The third night two dull rumbles could be heard, then a flash and silence, for minutes. After that: shouting, sirens, flashing lights and chaos. An Israeli Apache helicopter has launched a missile on the house of the neighbours. The next day, delegations from Hamas, Jihad Islamia and El Fatah, one after another come to visit the scene of the calamity. They shake hands and walk over the ruins of the blasted house. I pack my bags and leave for a hotel.
Thirty-one kilometers of asphalt

Ibrahim, a Palestine working at Petra Car Rental, walks into hotel National in Jerusalem. It is April 1994 and the first intifada has just finished. We have some tea in the hotel lounge; business is still not doing well. He says: thro- wing stones is no good for business, the tourists stay away. After the tea, we go outside. The car is parked in the empty street: a red rented Toyota Corolla, covered with Arab and Israeli texts and with a Jerusalem number plate: practical for both Israeli and Palestinian areas. Ibrahim gives me his visiting card. ‘In case of problems, be sure to call me, night or day’ and he walks down the street. I remove the Arab and Israeli texts and call my informant Yigal, a Jewish colonist.
Next day, after breakfast, I get into the car and drive out of Jerusalem, southwards over the communal road for Israelis and Palestinians. After the checkpoint at Bethlehem, on my left side I pass the Palestinian refugee camp Dheisheh; metres high fences have to prevent Israeli car drivers from being pelted by stones thrown by Palestinians. Then I drive into the hills, on my way to the Kiryat Arba settlement on the West Bank. After the check- point, at the crossroads near Hebron, colonists control the traffic: Israeli number plates to the left, Palestinian number plates straight on. I am in a row in the left-hand lane and follow the cars to a fallow parking lot on the settlement. Today, colonists have come to Kiryat Arba in large numbers to demonstrate against the Rabin government, which had closed the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The Cave had been fenced off after the colonist Baruch Goldstein had shot twenty-nine and wounded hundred and twenty- five Palestinians in the adjacent mosque on 25 February 1994. Following a path next to the parking lot, we walk to the demonstration area. A few thousand Israelis, casually carrying ushis and M16’s over their shoulders, listen to speeches; people pray, sing and have discussions. Colonists coming from Brooklyn, America, walk around with pictures of their forbid- den extremist rabbi Kahane; an incipient little fight is nipped in the bud. A man is walking around in the crowd carrying a sandwich board saying: ‘Judea nie mehr Judenrein’. Children are weaving daisy garlands. In the late afternoon, everyone goes home. At the parking lot, a man bumps into his former emigrated neighbour from Dagestan in the Caukasus. The two men, with their breasts full of honours from days long gone, dance towards each other between the cars. When arriving at my car, both my right and left tyre appear to be empty, I walk around the car and observe that all the tyres have been punctured with quite a big knife. When I ask if someone could help me, there’s no answer; I ask if there’s a garage, no answer; whether I can please make a phone call, no answer. Night is falling and I walk to the snack bar at the entrance of the settlement and call Petra Car Rental in Jerusalem. ‘Hallo Ibrahim, I have a problem, I’m stuck with four flat tyres.’ ‘I’ll get to you, where are you?’ ‘In Kiryat Arba.’ Silence. ‘I love life, in two hours I will be at the gas station on the outskirts of Jerusalem with four tyres.’ I walk back to the by now deserted parking lot, get into the car and drive to the entrance of Kiryat Arba. The locked fencing slowly slides open and I drive into the darkness. I smell the stench of burning rubber and after a few kilometres steel hits the asphalt. The car ploughs through the night like a tank, leaving behind a sea of sparks. Two hours later I can see the lit-up gas station on the outskirts of Jerusalem, with Ibrahim.
Ad van Denderen, may 2012