Night Falls in Palestine

In a refugee camp occupied by the Israeli army, private life is an illusion that ends with a knock on the door


| November-December 2003


In June 2002, writer and activist Starhawk traveled to Palestine to take part in the International Solidarity Movement, or ISM, a nonviolent campaign to protest the Israeli occupation. While she was staying in the Balata refugee camp, she saw firsthand how continuing violence not only killed people in the street but attacked family life at home. And yet decency and hope somehow endured among the people she met. While there is no easy solution to the conflict, a worldwide plea for basic justice in Palestine would at least be a step toward the light, reminding all sides that they share a common capacity for joy and anguish.
—The Editors

I am in Balata refugee camp in the Nablus district of occupied Palestine, where the Israeli Defense Forces have rounded up 4,000 men, leaving the camp mostly to women and children. The men offered no resistance. All the shops are shuttered, all the windows closed. Those who remain in the camp hide in their homes. A deathly quiet is shattered by sporadic bursts of gunfire and explosions.

All day I have been encountering Israeli soldiers who look like my brother or cousins or the sons I never had, so young they are barely more than boys armed with big guns. Along with the other American women in my immediate group, I’m one of many people from around the world who have traveled here to assist the Palestinian-run International Solidarity Movement. As ISM volunteers, we work side by side with Palestinians as nonviolent witnesses to the violent acts that have become everyday occurrences during the Israeli occupation.

It is nearly dark, and Jessica and Melissa and I are hurrying through the streets, looking for a place to spend the night before curfew. Eight of our friends and colleagues have already been arrested this evening. We know that we, too, could be caught at any moment. “Go into any house,” we’ve been told. “Anyone will be glad to take you in.” But we feel a bit nervous.

A young woman with a beautiful smile beckons to us from a staircase. Her name is Samar. She invites us into the three small rooms that house her family: her mother, big bodied and sad; her older brother’s wife and children (Samar’s small nieces and nephews); and her other brother’s wife, Hanin, round-faced and pale and six months pregnant.

We sit down on overstuffed couches. The women serve us tea. I look around at the pine paneling that adds warmth to the concrete walls, at the porcelain birds and artificial flowers on a ledge. The ceilings are carefully painted in simple geometric designs. They have poured love and care into their home, and it feels like a sanctuary.