Hoping to escape isolation

SUN JOURNAL

Palestinians: West Bank villages struggle under restrictions brought by the current conflict.

April 25, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAYBEH, West Bank - They are father and son, and each wants the best for the other. The father wants his son to work and have a good life. The son wants the same, but knows the only way to that life is to leave his village and his father's butcher shop.

It is not easy to break apart a family in a tradition-oriented society. Mansour Mansour, 30, must decide soon - should he use his coveted American visa and join a distant relative working at a Los Angeles grocery store or stay behind in a community from which most people have fled?

"I don't want to put up any obstacles to his future," says the father, Ne'ametallah Mansour, 69, who plans to close his shop if his son quits, ending a business that his great-grandfather started. "At the same time, I don't want him to leave."

The Mansours are Christians, living in a mostly Christian village, but theirs is a dilemma shared by thousands of Palestinians living in villages and hamlets scattered around the West Bank that have become isolated because of road closings and Israeli army checkpoints put up at the outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the fall of 2000.

Tensions and poverty may be higher in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian cities where deadly clashes have become a way of life, but the army's responses to the violence reverberate miles away, stranding towns that dot the rugged, rural hills and in many ways serve as the lifeblood of Palestinian society.

Taybeh is just 12 miles northeast of Ramallah, but the trip into the city for Palestinians takes one to three hours and there is no guarantee that Israeli soldiers will allow passage.

Employment woes

Villagers here are dependent on three types of jobs - olive oil cultivated from 100,000 trees spread over several hilltops, construction and hotel jobs in Israel and the casino in Palestinian-controlled Jericho. Israel is off limits, the casino closed 2 1/2 years ago and the army clampdown prevents olive oil from getting to market.

Taybeh, a once lively village that two decades ago was home to 15,000 people, now has just 1,500. Hundreds fled when the Palestinian uprising began, including 15 families in the past six months. They were people with contacts abroad and money, and they left behind spacious limestone villas tucked away in the olive groves, now empty reminders of better times.

"You see all these new houses, but nobody lives there," says Nahi Ma'arouf, 34, who runs a coffee shop called the Las Vegas CafM-i, a hangout for out-of-work people who while away the days playing cards. "The ones who have the opportunity leave. I would say they are the lucky ones."

Mansour, the butcher's son, knows that as much as anyone. To prove the point, he opens the large stainless-steel doors of the shop's two refrigerators. The first one is empty; in the second hangs the carved remains of a cow and a goat. Only two people have bought any meat in the past three days, and the carcasses are in danger of spoiling.

"If things get better, I will cut up my visa and stay here," says Mansour, who used to deal blackjack at the Jericho casino. Today, he's wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a cap promoting the Orlando Magic basketball team, a stark contrast to his father's traditional Arab headdress and flowing black robe.

"I don't want to leave," Mansour says, "but what else can I do?"

Taybeh's residents are overwhelmingly Christian; its skyline is dominated not by a mosque minaret, but by the spires of three churches - Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic, and the only sounds that break the quiet are church bells, children and the soft rustling of olive branches.

According to the Bible, Jesus and his disciples stopped here on their way to Jerusalem before Passover, when the village was called Ophrah. Today, the streets are clean and the tidy, humble houses sit against a backdrop of ruins of Byzantine and Crusader-era churches and a castle. The Muslim warrior Saladin gave the name Taybeh, which means delicious in Arabic.

But adults seem to wander the streets aimlessly, and shopkeepers stand outside, their arms folded, desperately waiting for customers. The most active are the men playing cards. The real despair can be seen in the limited statistics kept by the churches.

A United Nations truck delivers food once a month. The Red Cross brings medicine to the lone doctor. One hundred people are over the age of 70, and 51 of the women are widows. Of the 380 families left, 150 get weekly assistance to survive.

Banding together

Because Ramallah is blocked, Taybeh has banded together with a string of 13 other villages to form one communal organization of 85,000 people. They come to Taybeh to see the doctor, putting a strain on already limited resources, and students have flooded the small church schools because the private institutions in Ramallah are no longer accessible.

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