Meanwhile, What is Going On in the Occupied Territories?
Kazam Jadban, 56, is the proprietor of a small grocery store on a corner of Shweike Square in Tul Karm. He stood at the entrance to his shop and gazed in disbelief at the Israeli tanks crossing the square and moving slowly up the street until they disappeared from view. It was Thursday, March 7, the second day of the Israel Defense Forces incursion into Tul Karm (in the occupied West Bank). A group of children, 5 to 10 years old, was running through the streets, shaking hands with two journalists wearing helmets and flak vests, clustering around them, making the "V" for victory sign with their fingers and pushing themselves into the range of the camera lens shouting "Take my picture, take my picture." This is a scene that every news photographer in the territories knows well.
Mohammed Abu Ali Botter, 9, was among them. Five minutes earlier he had bought ice cream from Jadban and he was still licking it with enjoyment. Jadban saw him scampering up the street in the wake of the journalists, and then he heard a shot. One bullet. A while later, perhaps a few seconds later, it seemed as though time had stood still - the boy was seen running shakily toward his home, but immediately he fell. "His ice cream was full of blood," said Jadban.
His brother, 13, who had been sitting the whole time on his doorstep, leaped toward him, picked him up in his arms and shouted to the shocked grocer to call an ambulance. But the ambulance was slow in coming. The tanks are blocking its way, they told Jadban over the phone from the Thabet Thabet Hospital. Mohammed's brother began to run toward the hospital on foot, and the doctor promised to meet him. From the steep and narrow alley behind the grocery store one can see the hospital on a small hill beyond the main road. Five minutes, the time it takes to drive to the hospital, became a fateful half-hour. The boy died in his brother's arms near the olive tree on the slope of the alleyway. Someone hastened to scribble graffiti in memory of the martyr on an iron door leading into a courtyard, through which the brother and the doctor had hoped to pass with the wounded child into the hospital.
The rumour that the boy had thrown a stone at the tank and was therefore shot immediately captured hearts in the streets of Tul Karm. A little boy with a stone facing tanks, they commented this week with a bitter smile, and said no more. The child's blue eyes were visible at every corner of the city, on hoardings, facades of houses, on the windshields of the few cars driving through empty streets. Not far from the square where the boy was killed, a tank still blocked the way from Baka al-Sharqiya, despite the IDF announcement of a withdrawal from Areas A. During the day they're quiet, but at night they continue to shoot, said Munir Aboushi, a resident of Tul Karm and one of the heads of Preventive Security in the territories.
Shweike Square - "The most flourishing place here before the intifada, the focal point of the Israeli underworld's car theft activities," as Aboushi said jokingly - was silent. Thabet Thabet Square, which was recently renamed for the secretary-general of the Fatah in Tul Karm who was assassinated by Israel, was also quiet. This is the silence of poverty, unemployment and exhaustion. Everywhere there were portraits of martyrs from all the intifadas.
The 16 dead and some of the 50 wounded in the IDF incursion into Tul Karm are but a tiny comma in the story of the suffering of the occupation, they emphasize here. In the frightful balance of bloodshed on both sides of the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 border, this equals one or one and a half terror attacks in Tel Aviv, Hadera or Jerusalem. Even those who with all their hearts oppose terror attacks against Israeli civilians, or any terror attack "within the sovereign boundaries of the State of Israel from 1948," as Aboushi defined it, feel that Israel has left them no other way out of the humiliation and the occupation, and they cannot but take a bit of pleasure in the taste of revenge.
The dusty town, with its small squares and winding streets, looked like a heap of tombstones, the materials from which a national ethos is built. It would seem that the IDF's main success in the latest round of bloodshed in the territories has been to focus the popular national Palestinian consciousness on their struggle for freedom and political independence.
Jews don't kill children
"I don't believe in peace," wept the mother of the dead boy, Nura Abu Ali Bitter, pulling workbooks and notebooks out of the orphaned schoolbag. "Look, everything is `Excellent, Excellent', an excellent boy. What a kind-hearted boy." She clasped her chest. "Sharon and the notion of peace don't go together. If Sharon isn't ousted there won't be peace. He is Satan, everyone knows him from the pogrom in Lebanon. He is fighting us with tanks and Apaches - isn't he ashamed of himself? If we had their tanks and helicopters we would have vanquished Israel a long time ago."
"Satan, Satan," muttered the father, a tall man with a gaunt face and white hair. "There is only one peace," continued the mother. "Peace is an independent Palestinian state and a complete withdrawal to the 1967 borders. We won't give up the Al Aqsa Mosque at any price. It's ours, it says so in the Koran. Where will we pray?"
Heatedly she sprang from her seat to answer a question about the right of return. "My parents are from Jaffa," she said, "but as far as I'm concerned all the refugees can return to the West Bank and we'll establish our Palestinian state." This was a simple family, which refuses to identify with Hamas or with Fatah. It was one voice among many different and contradictory voices, which loss has not diverted from its aim.
Crowding and poverty were evident everywhere in the home of the 12-member Bitter family. The father, who suffers from diabetes, has long been unable to work in his trade as a cab driver. Since the incursion, Nura Bitter has also had in her home a 70-year-old aunt, half of whose home was knocked down by an IDF tank. The narrow streets of Tul Karm made movement difficult for the tanks, which were "forced" in several cases to crush houses that stood in their way. Nura found her elderly aunt sitting in a corner of her destroyed home, shaking and praying in fear. Her little boy, Mohammed, was still alive, and he immediately volunteered to run and bring his father to pick up his aunt and take her to their home. "How he cried," recalled the mother.
The following day the tanks came to the square opposite their home and Mohammed ran to watch them. Long years of living with soldiers around had dulled the inhabitants' sense of fear. Mohammed asked his father for a shekel to buy ice cream at the shop downstairs and he gave it to him. "Here in our neighborhood it was quiet," wailed the mother. "The war was in the refugee camp, the tanks were just passing by and I didn't imagine that they would shoot little children. What did a little child do to them?"
She herself went downstairs to fetch some water from the broken water pipe in the yard. One of the first steps the IDF took against the Palestinians population when it reoccupied the cities was to cut off the electricity and the water. "The house was empty, there was nothing to eat or drink, so I went down to fetch some water," she related. "I had just managed to say to him, `Be careful, my son,' and when I got back upstairs to the door I heard a terrible ruckus. I ran downstairs and I saw him covered in blood in his brother's arms. I screamed: `Save my child, help,' a helicopter fired above me, I ran after them but I hadn't the strength. I fell on the sidewalk, I fainted."
From the rumours that spread about the circumstances of the boy's killing, the mother has adopted the version involving the undercover unit of IDF soldiers who operate in disguise. She tends to believe that the journalists were soldiers in disguise who fired from the television truck, but she is not certain. "When the bullet hit him he yelled: `Mommy, mommy, mommy,'" she reconstructed, with renewed weeping, what she had been told, fingering his blue woollen hat. "He always drew pictures, pictures about peace. What do little children understand about war? They don't imagine that a tank can shoot at them. It's not Jews who do those things," she said suddenly in a moment of self-conviction. "I can't believe it. Jews don't kill children. At the roadblocks I see Lahad's men, from the Christian Southern Lebanese Army. We recognize them by their accent, and now they've brought them here to do the dirty work."
Her 14-year-old daughter did not agree with her. "The people who killed my brother are evil Jews," she said, gritting her teeth. Her older sister is married to a Palestinian born in Hebron, who after a seven-year stay in the United States lost his right to return to his homeland under the arbitrary laws of the occupation. The sister added in white-hot anger: "If my daughter dies like that, I swear I'll kill a thousand Jews."
Policy of revenge
The battered Tul Karm refugee camp, the main focus of the IDF tanks' activity, radiated suppressed anger. Everywhere there were bullet-pocked houses, broken streets, smashed water pipes, torn electricity wires, piles of stones and sometimes bits of demolished
houses - a single story, a fence, a balcony. And sometimes entire houses, some of them destroyed as punishment, some of them destroyed for no particular reason, by 'mistake', the privilege of an "enlightened" army. Here and there boards covered holes that the soldiers had made in walls through which they moved from house to house, casting fear into the hearts of old people, children and women, in all too familiar scenes that the IDF chose, most horribly, to take pride in and invited cameramen to film.
"Sharon should know that we can behead him," was the pathetic cry of a graffiti slogan on one of the walls, alongside congratulations to a new hajji (pilgrim to Mecca) and wishes for "Paradise for the martyr Sami Balawani." Not far from there, the names of three of the dead in the invasion were inscribed: Ziad Jirad, Mazuz Larashi and Alid Ghanem. According to the inhabitants, only two of the wanted men and two members of the Palestinian security forces were killed. All the others who lost their lives were ordinary civilians, they stressed in the camp.
This week, the day after the tight encirclement of the refugee camp was lifted, quite a few of its armed men could be seen walking about unhindered in twos and threes in the narrow alleys. If helicopters appear in the skies over the camp, they will vanish. This is the nature of a guerrilla war, explained Aboushi. The army's clumsy tanks could move - crushing everything in their path - only in a few of the wider alleys. The IDF did not dare send its soldiers in to move on foot in the narrow alleys that became a no-man's-land. Through them, the wanted men ultimately fled on foot to areas outside the camp, the inhabitants related with satisfaction mixed with scorn.
The IDF itself has admitted that of the 700 men arrested in Tul Karm, only a minority were armed and were wanted, some of them were Palestinian police with permits to bear arms. The only real damage done by the war that Sharon has declared on the territories, said Aboushi, was to the Palestinian Authority's infrastructure outside the camps - PA offices, its jails and its government institutions. All the computers were destroyed, though most of the data had been backed up on discs deposited beforehand in safe places. Many PA officials lost their jobs, and others had to move their offices to their homes at their own expense.
"How does Israel expect us to stop terror without prisons?" asked Aboushi, raising the key question in the traditional absurd dialogue between the PA and Israel.
The impression is growing stronger that the IDF action in the camps was above all a demonstration of might for its own sake, the purpose of which was to prove that the IDF can reach everywhere and do anything it likes. A policy of revenge designed to frighten the
population, which will be repaid by fanning fanaticism in Israeli public opinion and increasing the hatred in the territories. In many ways it was a media war. A propaganda extravaganza aimed at internal consumption, the dubious achievements of which, in Tul Karm, for example, were mainly bloodshed, destruction, the killing of two members of UNWRA and Red Crescent ambulance crews, mass arrests, failure to evacuate the wounded, delay of medical treatment, starvation and harassment of a civilian population - deeds that border on war crimes.
`I've never been so afraid'
"It was awful," said Khaled Hassan, 20, a father of five who works harvesting flowers in a village near Netanya. The soldiers took his family by surprise when they broke through a wall. "The moment we herd the pounding, we knew that the soldier were coming," he related. "The rumour had already gone around; the children were screaming with fright and it was impossible to calm them down. The soldiers turned the house upside down in their searches. I don't know what they were looking for. For four days the family lived without food or water, asking the neighbours to throw them a some food. Other neighbours had jerry-cans of water at home, and they shared.
"Believe me, what happened here is a second Lebanon, just plain cruelty. I know families whom the soldiers crowded into one room and they slept in the other rooms, with one soldier guarding them all the time. I know people who had money and gold stolen from their houses."
Hassan and his two brothers were taken from their home on Friday, the third day of the invasion, after midnight, with their hands cuffed, to the local UNWRA school, which had been turned into a collection centre for the detainees. His 70-year-old father, who suffers from an intestinal disorder, was also arrested.
Hundreds of men were already at the school, their hands tied and their eyes blindfolded. "It was so frightening," he said. "I've never in my life been so afraid. I hadn't done anything, and suddenly I see myself in handcuffs. I was afraid, I have children, and the little one is only a bit over two, and who will take care of them?"
The IDF entered the camp from three directions under cover of helicopter fire, related Mustafa Zdudi, the Fatah representative in the camp, a tall, heavy, bespectacled man with a moustache. "In Afghanistan they didn't use helicopter fire like this. Everything all around was fire," he said. "The armed men hurried to hide in houses and to conceal themselves in alleys with their rifles at the ready and here waited. There was no medical aid for those who were wounded by the helicopter fire, until they opened the UNWRA clinic. The only way out of the camp, to the Tul Karm hospital was blocked by an armoured vehicle. Mazouz Jirashi bled for hours by a tank and no one could get near to help him. The armed men defended the houses and the alleys, there was infernal fire there. When the IDF suspected that armed men were hiding in a certain house it fired at it from helicopters and tanks. There are houses that were bombarded with explosives."
On Friday afternoon, the IDF called over megaphones for all men between the ages of 13 and 60 to come out of the houses with their hands up. "One of Lahad's people was talking over the megaphone, I'm convinced. We recognized the Lebanese accent," claimed Zdudi, and was immediately answered with a wave of testimonies about SLA soldiers who entered one house or another. "Our megaphones answered them: `Sharon has sent you to die here. Get out of here.' It was clear to the armed men that they would not turn themselves in," continued Zdudi, "and fighting didn't stand a chance. In conversations between inhabitants and armed men in the houses where they were hiding and in coordination over the phone with other people, it was decided that masses of civilians, men, women and children, would go out to the soldiers and separate themselves from the armed men. This is how we made it possible for the armed men to get away."
The army made do with the population that went out to it, claimed Zdudi. The men were separated from the women and taken to the UNWRA school. Zdudi was also taken there. "The soldiers yelled at us the whole time: `Hands on your heads,'" he laughed. "The moment our heads dropped because we were so tired, they yelled: `Hands on your heads.' They smeared their faces with red and black, like Rambo. Spotlights on the tanks, or I don't know what, blinded us. The cameras never stopped filming us sitting on the floor with our hands on our heads. On the second floor were collaborators, who were apparently supposed to identify armed men, wanted men and people who have official positions in the camp."
The next day at 3:30 P.M. Zdudi was taken with about 50 others to the courtyard of the district command office, he related, and for an entire day they were forced, he said, to sit without moving, their hands tied behind their backs. "We didn't eat and we didn't drink and our eyes were covered," he testified. Anyone who needed the bathroom was taken aside to the end of the hall. The floor was full of urine. Anyone who by chance leaned against the fence was beaten on his legs. Anyone who fell asleep had cold water poured over him, "and the person would wake up like a lunatic." Curses, screams, slaps, and you're tied up, so what can you do?" said Zdudi. "Those were the most difficult hours. There were people who had had surgery recently; sick people. There were people who cried all night and if anyone had a pullover they took it away from him together with his shoelaces."
From the UNWRA school, Zdudi was placed under arrest at Kedumim. Hassan was taken with hundreds of others to a caravan site opposite the moshav Nitzani-Oz and then to the Ofra army camp near Ramallah. A third group of detainees was sent to Hawara, claimed Dudi. They spent eight to 10 days there. During the first two days they were given hardly any food. Then they began to bring them schnitzel, bread, cottage cheese, oranges and apples, also two cigarettes a day. There was only one bottle of water for five detainees a day. They were not interrogated even once, he said. When they were released they were made to sign a "prisoner of war" form. Hassan saw the clubs in the hands of the soldiers and signed. Zdudi refused to sign. Many refused. "We kicked up a fuss, a hunger strike," related Hassan.
`I hate the Yahud'
As time went by, the sense of oppression in the camp increased. Basel Shahab, 25, wandered around his burnt-out house with an expression of despair. A strong stink of burnt rubber came from the rooms. The bedroom was full of shattered glass and the closet was completely burned. When men from Palestinian Military Intelligence who had evaded the IDF broke into their house, the family members went to live in the grandfather's home. He does not know how the IDF found out, apparently with the help of collaborators, but on Saturday morning soldiers burst into their home, and when they left in the evening they blew it up with dynamite. He himself was under arrest at the time at the UNWRA school. He had forgotten his identity card at home and offered to go home and get it; the soldier agreed. He went and didn't return. "It's hard for me to believe that they found explosives here, because my mother had cleaned up before they got here and she didn't find anything," he said, pointing helplessly to the burnt walls and the shaky foundation stones of the house. "What can I say? God meant this for me," he muttered. "Not Zinni and not anybody will bring peace. I'm sure that anyone who wants peace doesn't behave like this."
Two young men who joined the conversation did not conceal their pent-up rage. Of course they want peace, but "peace with security," they said, mocking Israeli slogans with challenging look. "Peace with rights," they reiterated with focused quiet. They will not compromise on anything less than an independent state and the right of return, they said. Without the right of return that will redeem them and their children from these godforsaken alleys and a life of eternal poverty and failure - there is no peace.
"What kind of peace is this? You'll keep on living in your villas in Jaffa, and what will become of us? Where will we live? Here? I'm finished," one of them burst out, "But I won't let my son go through what I have been through."
Outside, scores of children filled the crowded alleys, playing soccer, carrying improvised wooden rifles tied with strips of black rubber, the big hit in the camp since the invasion. Huge graffiti covered the walls in Arabic and Hebrew: "We shall not forget and we shall not forgive." In Arabic, the word "Death" was added. Without any unnecessarily detail, concisely, with restrained hatred that no longer finds relief in its verbal expression. Taunting me, one boy of about 14, wearing around his neck a medallion of his brother who was killed, shouted: "I hate the Yahud [the Jews]."
Previously published in "Ha'aretz" 22/03/2002