Tear-gas attack, Jerusalem, 1989. Photo by Adam Jones.
As our bus rattles out of the Arab Bus Station in East Jerusalem, the weather seems to make up its mind in our favour: a beaming, brilliant day. We roll through Ramallah and on into classic Holy Land scenery rugged, rubble-strewn hillsides, exquisite valleys full of patchwork farming plots so green they hurt the eyes. The only discordant feature is a fetish shared by Israelis and Palestinians alike: car corpses piled by the dozen at the side of the road, in backyards, in driveways.
Nablus on the nightly news seems like chaos the most militant city in the West Bank by far, full of burning tires, keffiya-clad youths hurling stones, Israeli troops blasting tear gas and charging off down alleyways in pursuit of the ephemeral enemy. So it is a surprise to find a neat and superficially calm city, glittering in the morning sunshine; only one tire smouldering away up a side street.
The impression doesn't last long.
Clark and Marita are Australians, fellow inmates at an Old City youth hostel. Together we walk to the center of town. The morning market is in full swing while, across the square, Israeli troops patrol in battle readiness, rifles raised to rooftops, shouting into walkie-talkies. The local Arabs seem to look right through them.
An elderly Palestinian stops to offer us directions. Out of the corner of my eye, I see an Israeli jeep pull up alongside us. Two heavily-armed soldiers emerge. They gesture brusquely with their M-16s, and the Palestinian edges away.
"Hello," one soldier says. "What are you doing here?"
We're tourists, we tell him. Just walking around. The soldier casts a sideways glance at his partner: Say what?
"You must go away," he says testily. "Very danger here." He points down the street at the entrance to the rabbit-warren of the Nablus casbah (old town). "Much trouble. Very danger."
As if in confirmation, two soldiers clatter past us at full trot, machine-guns at the ready. They race into the casbah. I realize I am trembling. Here we go, I think. Turned around and put on the first bus back to Jerusalem. But Clark pipes up: "How about up there? The new city?"
The soldier thinks a moment. "Yes, okay. Have a good day." He seems distracted. He and his mate get back into the jeep and drive away.
We walk up winding streets into the new town. Clark, at the rear, steps on a plastic bag - pop. Marita and I turn around. "Clark, Christ. Don't do that."
The Palestinians stop to look. Not with suspicion or hostility, but curiously, wondering what we're up to. We decide to go on the offensive. "Salaam wa-leikum," we say with cheerful smiles, "salaam wa-leikum." No Arab in history has failed to respond to that greeting, and soon the streets are ringing with "M'wa-leikum a salaam." The ice, it appears, is broken.
Up here the air of normalcy is almost surreal. Workers tap at plaster and lug ladders. Kids play street soccer and tend goats by the roadside. Still, after at least 20 minutes of roaming, we haven't once been invited in for tea. Drastic measures are called for.
"Do you know where we can get a drink?" I ask a passerby.
Five minutes later, we're sitting in his pleasant suburban courtyard, surrounded by several adults and gawking, shy-happy children. Tea is served, with much smiling and pleasantries all round. In the background work goes on: teenage seamsters hunch over shirts and blue jeans. It's one o'clock in the afternoon, and the Palestinians' daily commercial strike is underway. Shops are shuttered and a hush has fallen over the city below, but the sewing machines here whirr on.
Hassan is about 30 and calls himself an electrical technician. We sip tea and talk politics.
"When you get Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, Hassan, will you be satisfied with that? Is it enough?"
"It's enough," he says with finality.
"What about your friends? Will all the Palestinians settle for it?"
"Yes. Because the PLO says okay. And the PLO for us is, you know ... how do you say, if you for me ..."
We agree on "representative."
"What about when Palestine and Israel exist side by side? Can you become friends one day?
"Maybe. God knows."
We leave much refreshed. A couple of youths follow us down the street. One of them catches up, and we chat.
"Do you know what happened here?" He points to an inoffensive-looking patch of pavement. "Right here. "Seven people killed. Israelis, there" he points down the road "Palestinians here. Bang-bang-bang."
I remember the news stories. December 16, 1988: Israeli troops fire on a Palestinian funeral procession-cum-nationalist demonstration. "Black Friday," it was called, and was absorbed into the mythology of the intifada. When we walk away I feel like I'm walking on eggshells.
Around the corner we come across two Palestinian women with a couple of kids in tow. Salaam wa-leikum, m'wa-leikum a salaam. The women, it is immediately apparent, are fired up. Smiling, one of them rounds out her belly with her hands, imitating heavy pregnancy. She points at the kids and says something declamatory in Arabic. The gist seems to be her willingness to commit her children, and perhaps her children's children, to the struggle. I pull out my camera to take a photo and the kids rise for the occasion, flashing broad grins and V-for-Victory signs.
Further on, still high up in the new city, a young goatherd lifts his hand to wave. Suddenly he stops and points. An army jeep barrels past and disappears around the bend. The kid raises his hand again to complete the wave.
The Nablus casbah is a ghost town after one p.m. People stand in second-floor windows and look down on us silently as we pass. Walls are splashed with brilliantly-hued graffiti. Very tense, we stick to the wider streets, scanning the rooftops. Three weeks or so before, an Israeli soldier was killed here lured into an alley by stone-throwers, and felled by a large concrete block dropped on him from above. We're not sure whether an unhelmeted tourist's head might also seem an attractive target. Nothing happens, but we breathe more easily when we finally re-emerge at a downtown intersection.
We head for the spot on the outskirts of town where we'd seen the tire burning on our way in. There is a charred patch on the road, and two fresh handbills with Yasser Arafat's picture are pasted to telephone poles. Children in the empty lot across the way see us and start dancing around; more V-signs and slogan-sounding chants.
Two young Palestinian men stop us, speaking good English. "Are you from the press? What do you think about what happened this morning?"
"What do you mean?"
They eye us with disbelief. "How long have you been in Nablus? You've just arrived? You should go to the hospital. Many people were shot this morning. Do you have a pen and paper?" He scribbles in my notebook, in English and Arabic, Jabal shamali. Al-Itihad Hospital. "No, wait. We can take you."
We get in a car and drive for a mile or so. "It's just over there," says the driver. "Sorry we can't take you to the door. It could be trouble for me if the Israelis come by. I've been in prison, you see."
"I think every Palestinian has been in prison at one time or another," I say. He smiles. "M'wa-salaam."
We hike up through a hillside graveyard with a few new tombs. One is embossed with the photo of a fresh-faced young man, perhaps one of the latest martyrs. Behind us, at the end of the road, some kids have set a garbage collection bin on fire. Smoke billows and pieces of scorched paper flutter in the air. The kids dance around and strike heroic poses.
Al-Itihad Hospital is a few minutes' walk further on: two low-slung concrete blocks separated by a covered passageway. A male nurse approaches. "Can I help you? Ah, you've heard about this morning. Do you want to see the wounded? Are you from the press?"
The nurse escorts us into the emergency room, where we explain our mission to the doctor on duty. He thumbs through the hospital registry. There are names, ages, and injuries listed. As he flips the pages, I try to catch some of the entries. Plastic bullet in brest [sic]. Bullet in occipital region. Admitted after beating.
"Here's the ones from today," he says, and runs down the list. "You can see one of them in Ward Three."
A dozen or so Palestinians, family members, are clustered around a bed. The victim lies prone and in obvious pain. "The bullet hit him at the back of his head," explains a doctor.
"Was it a rubber bullet?"
"It looks like a rubber bullet. He also has a breast fracture, which is typical of a rubber bullet. But you know, this term is not very accurate. If a bullet can penetrate the skin, then it's a high-velocity bullet, whether it's rubber or 'live' ammunition."
The young man had been beaten after he was shot. One arm and a wrist are covered with contusions.
"Why was he shot? Was he throwing stones?"
The doctor shrugs. "'Why' is a real question. Why did they shoot him ... What is 'why'? Why to the Israelis meet stones with bullets? Why are they here? It's a big subject, 'why'." He smiles wryly.
Down the hall is a casualty from two days earlier: a 16-year-old from Askar Refugee Camp, shot in the groin with a 'real' bullet during a clash with soldiers. The doctor gently lifts away the bedsheet and shows us the bandaged wound. In the adjacent bed lies a 17-year-old shot in the thigh in the same clash. He is heavily doped and moves his head groggily on the pillow. His mother, at bedside, reaches over to smooth away his hair from his forehead.
The doctor is talking about life at the hospital: patients under anaesthetic seized by Israeli troops, their IV tubes removed, carted off into custody; tear-gas canisters fired into wards; patients near death from prison abuse brought to the hospital by soldiers, "so they don't die in Israeli hands, but in ours."
We walk back to the Jerusalem road to hitch our way home, feeling dazed and claustrophobic. An Israeli jeep pulls up across the street and one of its occupants jogs over, clutching his gun. He is an older man, maybe 40 a reservist, perhaps, with slightly gaunt features and dark, intelligent eyes. "Hi," he says in a friendly way. "Are you tourists?"
He asks Marita about her travels, seeming genuinely interested. A nice guy, and gentle, at least with us. But I feel uncomfortable, standing and talking with one of the occupation forces on a street full of Palestinians, and I try to hustle us away. The soldier nods and says, a bit preposterously, "Enjoy your stay."
Hitching back to Jerusalem, a lustrous sunset turning the hills dark orange, I find myself struck by an inexpressible sadness. "Did you see his eyes?" asks Clark in his Tasmanian twang. "He didn't want to be here, mate."
I regret not having stuck around longer with the soldier. I'd like to have asked him his name, where he was from; about his family; whether he was comfortable with what he was doing in the Occupied Territories. And I find myself hoping hard that nothing would happen to him on his Nablus tour of duty.
Map courtesy "The World Guide" (New Internationalist)
Well, almost. When Hanan was 16, she won a scholarship to Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific on Canada's Vancouver Island. I spent two years of my own youth at the United World College of Southeast Asia in Singapore, one of Pearson's "sister schools" in the global United World College network.
Until this point in our talk, Hanan has been busy giving me the rundown on al-Haq/Law in the Service of Man, the Ramallah-based legal organization she works for. But the coincidence in our academic careers sends the conversation in a different direction.
The professed aim of the United World Colleges is to forge bonds of understanding and amity among young scholars from around the world. In Singapore, this theme was constantly hammered home in our impressionable minds. It remained, for me, an appealing but abstract ideal, realized more concretely in all-night coffee-and-nicotine binges than in the official rhetoric. But it presented Hanan with a very real dilemma. She is a Palestinian from the occupied Gaza Strip; her parents are refugees from a village near Ashqelon. And two of her fellow students at Pearson were Israeli Jews.
"I was six months old when the Occupied Territories were seized," Hanan recounts in flawless, mile-a-minute English. "I grew up seeing Israeli soldiers everywhere. And here I was with two Israeli classmates."
At Pearson it all went reasonably smoothly. "It was fine. We were almost friends I mean, we had the same friends. But a while ago I was reading an issue of the college's newsletter, where former students were encouraged to write in and tell what they were up to. This Israeli guy, Dedi, wrote a letter to say he was back in Israel completing his military service. He had six months left. He said he was enjoying it.
"I lived with this guy for two years. We're still very close, geographically. But it seems that all these beautiful ideas have just disappeared. I mean, how can someone go from all that, to joint he army? At the very least he could have refused to serve in the Territories.
"You have no idea what I've seen, what these people do. Little children being beaten, their arms broken ... Almost all my friends are in prison. At Bir-Zeit University my roommate was shot, you know, in an army raid.
"I'm expecting to see Dedi any day. Every time I see a soldier I look closely at his face. He could be any one of them, very cruel, very brutal."
I ask her what she will do if she meets him.
"Perhaps spit in his face. Or scream at him. I don't know."
Hanan means "tenderness" in Arabic. She offers me a cigarette: Good Luck brand, made in the West Bank. "I used to smoke Marlboro, but then I thought I should be supporting local manufacturers. So ..." It tastes fine maybe because, for the first time since grade school, the act of smoking carries with it a whiff of rebellion.
Al-Haq began its work in 1979, as the West Bank affiliate of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists. Two of its founders, lawyers Jonathan Kuttab and Raja Shehadeh, are still on the executive committee a decade later.
Originally, al-Haq's main function was to stay on top of the various orders and regulations issued by the Israeli occupying authorities, and to make this information available, along with legal advice, to the Palestinian community. The intifada changed all that. Now al-Haq has its hands full just documenting human rights abuses committed by the occupying forces, Israeli settlers, and Palestinian collaborators. Fieldworkers take affidavits from Palestinians on the spot and forward them to Ramallah headquarters. There, the testimonies are collated and processed by researchers assigned to specific aspects of occupation policy and practice: labour, women, education, and so on.
The organization issues regular reports and updates on the occupation. Its crowning achievement in this vein is Punishing A Nation, a 335-page opus released in December 1988 which explores in grim and often sickening detail the whole range of abuses during the first year of the intifada. (The report received prominent coverage in the international media, including a front-page story in the World Edition of the Christian Science Monitor.) Al-Haq also has the only law library in the West Bank, specializing in military law, the Jordanian legal system (which remains the ostensible foundation of West Bank law), and the various UN resolutions governing occupation policy.
Extra staff have been taken on to cope with the spiralling repression of the intifada. Al-Haq workers themselves have paid a high price: six have been imprisoned, with two spending a full year in administrative detention. (Under the emergency measures for the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians can be jailed for up to six months without trial, with their lawyers denied access to whatever "evidence" exists or even the nature of the charges against their clients. The six-month term is renewable, easily and indefinitely. Some Palestinians at the notorious Ansar III camp in Israel's Negev Desert have received their third renewal notices. When the latest renewal expires they will have spent two years in jail without trial.)
These days, Hanan is working to gather information on the restrictions and harassment suffered by journalists in the Territories, be they Palestinian or foreign. In her spare time, she takes illegal make-up classes to continue her education. In saner circumstances, she would be a second-year student at Bir-Zeit, studying English literature and translation.
When the intifada began, Hanan remembers, it took people a while to realize what was happening. "The university was closed for a month; we had no idea it would go on longer than that. Then it lasted another month, but still ... I remember someone saying it would last a year, and I was shocked! Now well, it's become a way of life. Everybody does their shopping before the afternoon strike comes. They've adjusted."
Before I leave she fetches me a copy of al-Haq's latest casualty tally. It gives a figure of 503 Palestinians killed in the intifada through March 20, 1989 (somewhat higher than UN estimates, but still conservative, according to al-Haq). Two hundred and eighty-five of these were between 16 and 25 years old. One hundred and two were under 16; 22 were over 60. Four hundred and two were killed by bullets. For me, the most poignant statistic is the three Palestinians killed by electrocution: "while being forced to take down Palestinian flags from high-tension wires," Hanan explains.
There is also a grisly irony that ought to make anyone with a knowledge of this century's history feel extremely queasy. Forty-nine of the Palestinian deaths are attributed to the use of tear gas in enclosed spaces. In some cases, the victims succumbed when canisters were fired into their homes or shops: Israeli forces closed all windows and doors, turning the premises into mini gas chambers.
The people are intifada people, as well. They eye Marita and me more warily than in Nablus as we stroll their streets. When we ask whether there's any problem in walking up there around the bend, they often make it clear that there is a problem. Women look down on us silently from windows. And as we walk away, a few small stones are tossed in our general direction, clattering harmlessly a few feet behind us. The adults cluck their tongues. Ten-year-olds, the clucks say; they don't know any better. It's faintly irritation, but that's all. Ten-year-olds can't throw very large stones, and they can't throw them very hard or far. I find myself thinking: they shoot kids for that?
Still, the Hebronites are Arabs, after all. Down other, more prosperous streets, we are constantly smiled at, implored to stop in for a cup of coffee. At one point we are tossed a basketball in a schoolyard and invited to play and talk.
Problems of mistaken identity arise more easily here because the Palestinians are used to seeing Israelis out of uniform. Hebron is home to the largest concentration of Israeli settlers on the West Bank. They are there to lay claim to yet another Biblical "birthright" in this case, the Cave of Mahpela in the city center, sacred to all three monotheistic religions. There is an entire suburb full of Israelis: Qiryat Arba, distinguished by its gleaming condos, sprawling across a well-guarded hillside on the edge of town.
In Hebron's casbah there are a few more Jews, planted right in the middle of the Arab population, with what seems like half the soldiers in the West Bank clustered around them. We watch them as they emerge from the synagogue, clutching their Uzis, basking in the sunshine, playing with their children. They even have their own trinkets outlet. The Jewish Settlers' Souvenir Shop, it's called. The windows are heavily grilled, the walls defaced by graffiti.
We rest our tired feet in the pleasant park outside the combination mosque-and-synagogue, built over the Cave of Mahpela. (The building's dual function is unique. Inside, an old man sits hunched over a Koran, singing some verses, while at the rear three young women are muttering Torah, rocking rhythmically like birds sipping water from a basin.) Two Palestinian women catch the rays on a park bench, tickling their babies, chatting quietly. A few feet behind them sit four Israeli soldiers, at ease, gabbing away in the shade.
Perhaps the sun has gone to my head, or perhaps I'm still feeling the pangs of the encounter with the soldier in Nablus. "Marita, I'm going over to talk to them."
"Who? The soldiers?"
She comes along. "Hi," I say to one of the troops, a teenage-looking youth with a prominent Adam's apple. "We're in Hebron for the day and we've been talking with people and we'd like to ask you a few questions about what it's like for you here and ..."
The soldier listens to this babble, then turns to his three comrades, who shrug nonchalantly. "Okay. Sure."
His name is Uri. He and his fellows have been in Hebron just two days. So far they've found it pretty quiet. (But that means they must have arrived after the previous Thursday, when 20 people were wounded in and around Hebron in clashes apparently provoked by Israeli settlers. One settler shot a 19-year-old Palestinian in the head in a confrontation outside a hospital where wounded were being tended. The Palestinian died two days later. The day after the shooting, in the nearby village of Bani Naim, a 70-year-old mukhtar [village leader] was beaten up by settlers, and windows and furniture were smashed.)
"It's fine," says another soldier: Menachem, an imposing, square-jawed type with dark sunglasses. He looks a burly 35 and is, I discover, 23. "I haven't had any rocks thrown at me. I haven't beaten anybody. No problem."
We talk about the "general situation."
"It's only a small minority of people here who are stirring up trouble," Menachem tells me. "The others are too afraid. They have to go along with it or they'll be beaten up, or even killed.
"The problem is that we Israelis are too nice to them," he adds. "Every soldier, when he faces a demonstration and whether to shoot or not to shoot, is thinking, thinking, thinking. You think ten times before you shoot, because if you don't if you make a mistake you can go to jail. What do you think they do in the Arab countries? What did (Syrian President) Assad do when that village rose against the government?"
"Hama, 1982," I say. "Maybe twenty-five thousand people killed."
"Right. We're not like that, we're nicer, and we let things go on, and so everyone is screaming at us! It might have been different, you know, if when we took over the Territories in '67, we'd just kicked everyone out. I think it was a mistake not to. Look where it has gotten us." This statement murmurs of agreement and a general nodding of heads.
"I don't see why it has to be like this," says Uri. "Why can't people live in peace together? Why do the Arabs hate us here? We just want to live."
"The Palestinians in the West Bank say you've stolen their land," I venture. "You've moved in settlers, and they're taking over the land."
"So what? What's wrong with settlers living here? They don't want to hurt anybody. I mean, take this city Hebron. This is a very important place for us, for the Jews. We don't have so much space. Israel is a very small country. The Arab world is very large, many different countries. Why can't the Palestinians go there if they don't want Jews around them?"
"Aren't there many places in Israel that are very important to the Arabs, Uri? The villages their families were kicked out of? And I don't know if you can speak like that about the Arab world. I mean, it's many different countries and cultures. Western Europeans all have white skin, and they're geographically close, but you wouldn't expect the Germans to all just pick up and move to France."
Uri pauses. One of the other soldiers, a quiet, bearded man 21, the youngest in the group shifts his Galil rifle on his knees. "I'm curious. What do you think? What's the solution?"
"I think there should be a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with whatever government the Palestinians choose."
Eyes widen. "But you can't do that!" protests Uri.
"Well come on. Israel is very small. If you give the West Bank to the Palestinians, they'll be ten miles from Tel Aviv! And that won't be enough for them."
Menachem nods in agreement. "Give the Arabs a finger and they'll take your whole arm."
"Israel's small," I suggest, "but it's very powerful militarily. Can a Palestinian state really be more of a threat to your national security than the Palestinians are now? I mean, did you read about those reservist soldiers and Shamir?"
They all nod. In January, Prime Minister Shamir had toured a base for reservists outside Nablus. The visit was intended as a kind of combination pep-talk and photo opportunity. He met, unexpectedly, with anger and frustration at Israeli repression from the very people charged with carrying it out.
"Have you spoken with other soldiers about what they have to do here?"
"No," says Menachem. "We've only been here two days."
"Well, what about you guys?" I ask. "What do you think is the solution?"
Uri shifts uneasily. "I don't know. There are two extremes among Israelis. Some say we should stop being so nice, behave more like they'd behave if the situation was reversed. Then there are people like you who say we should give the West Bank and Gaza back. I think ... somewhere in between."
"So what's in between?"
He grins and blushes. "I don't know."
We really were planning to head straight back to Jerusalem. But as Marita and I walk away from the park, a young Palestinian man sidles up. "I saw you talking with the soldiers. I hope you're also talking to some Palestinians while you're here."
His name is Jamil. I tell him that since we've been in the West Bank we've been doing little else.
We walk along in the sunshine, talking political strategy. He speaks good English, and I compliment him on it. "Well, thanks. But you know, all the schools here are closed. I can't study it when I want to, and so I make many grammatical errors. Over there that's my school. Now the only people there are soldiers." He shakes his head sadly. "Sometimes, when I see it, I want to cry."
I pretend Jamil is Yasser Arafat, and together we try to hash out the entire Arab-Israeli dilemma. It doesn't take long. We come to loggerheads briefly over Jerusalem, but finally Jamil seems amenable to some kind of international solution with a Palestinian capital in Hebron, say, or Nablus.
Speaking with him, I am struck again by the openness of the Palestinians here: their readiness to consider new ideas and propositions, to work things out in a rigorous way. To negotiate. Granted, I'm not Yitzhak Shamir; granted, too, the English-speaking Palestinians I come across are obviously well-educated and more worldly than most of their compatriots. But Jamil's views seem to contrast sharply with the shallow clichés of Uri and his mates, swamped by myths and stale stereotypes. They contrast, too, with the views of Palestinians I run into in Jordan, even well-educated ones. These latter folk will tell you with perfect equanimity that Hitler was the Palestinians' friend, because he killed Jews by the millions; or that the destruction of the Jewish state is foretold in the Koran, where it is said (supposedly) that Palestine will drown waist-deep in Jewish blood.
Denied a ready-made identity and a secure national foundation, the Palestinians in the Territories a good number of them, at least have been forced to think things through for themselves. Moreover, thousands of them have worked in Israel, and nearly all of them know people who have done or still do.
Some of the human complexity of the issues has sunk in. Jamil himself has met Israeli peace activists and enjoyed his talks with them. The bitterness and frustration is no less fierce in the West Bank than it is among the exiles of the Palestinian diaspora. But here, at least, "the enemy" is not a faceless mass of walking Stars-of-David, bent on massacre and genocide.
Jalazon is one of the original refugee camps, established after the 1948 war. It has six thousand residents. One of them is Youssef's friend, Ahmad.
Ahmad is waiting for us inside the camp's entrance. He seems jittery, and we soon find out why. "While I was standing here, maybe fifteen minutes ago, some kids were shouting, 'PLO, Israel No!' One of the soldiers up there took a shot at us. Just to make us duck." He points over his shoulder, up the embankment to the main road. The troops are still there: four of them in a large jeep, scrutinizing us through binoculars with lenses half as long as my arm.
"They watch the camp 24 hours a day," Youssef says. Do they enter the camp at all? "Yes," says Ahmad. "They come in around midnight sometimes and force all the residents out of their houses to clean graffiti off the walls."
Ahmad leads us inside his house and serves coffee. He is a smooth-skinned, cherubic boy, "Fifteen-and-a-half years old." He sits across from us, fidgeting and chain-smoking, old beyond his years.
According to him and I probe his story hard, looking for inconsistencies, finding none to speak of he was arrested on his fourteenth birthday and accused of stone-throwing and tire-burning. The usual delinquencies. He spent eight months in a total of five Israeli prisons for these "crimes," and was finally released only in June 1988.
We are clearly astounded, and a little skeptical. So Ahmad leaps over to the couch Marita and I are sitting on and pulls a tattered copy of an Israeli paper from under the cushion. On the front page is an article describing the detention and trial of a group of Palestinian youths, one of them Ahmad. He reads us what he says is an Arabic translation of the article, scribbled in a notebook, and Youssef translates that into English. The story describes the youths' court appearance: their families present but unable to touch or meet with their children; their mothers "kissing them with their eyes" from the rear of the chamber.
Ahmad says when he was arrested he was beaten and tortured to make him confess to stone-throwing. "This was in al-Far'a prison, near Nablus. They gave me electric shocks on my fingers and toes. During the day I was kept chained to a chair with a hood on my head. That went on for three days." There were four interrogators, he claims. "One would tell me, 'I'm going to kill you!' Then another one would step in 'No, don't do that, he's a very good guy.'" The old good-cop, bad-cop routine. "They threatened my family. But I wouldn't confess. I said, 'You are hitting a camel to make him say he's a deer.'"
He is animated and voluble, often getting up to mime the stalking movements of his interrogators or the fetal crouch he adopted in his dank isolation cell. Ahmad says three months of his prison term were spent at Ketziot (Ansar III), the notorious "Dachau of the Desert" in Israel's Negev wastes. Repeated calls for the institution's closure have come from international organizations, to little avail. Certain improvements have been made since the time of Ahmad's imprisonment. Still, a couple of days after we speak, a story appears in the Jerusalem Post, citing the contention of the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights that Ansar remains "illegal and inhuman."
Ahmad is more blunt. "Ansar is fascist," he says calmly. "We slept in tents, 28 people to a tent; there wasn't even room to lie on your back, only your side."
He claims he was the youngest inmate at Ansar, out of a population of about 4500 (the Post story mentions 2,577 still held there, including 1,126 "pre-trial detainees"). The oldest prisoner, he says, was 80. "There were even some handicapped and blind people there jailed for throwing stones.
"We weren't allowed any mail. In all my time in prison I had just one visit from my family. We hardly even knew the intifada still existed. Every month the Red Cross would visit, and they told us a little; but we couldn't piece it together.
"The food (at Ansar) was just enough to keep you alive. For breakfast we would get two small pieces of bread with two olives, a piece of onion, and a slice of tomato one tomato was divided among four people." What about medical care? He grins facetiously. "No matter what was wrong with you diarrhea, say, or a pain in your leg they'd give you an aspirin. That was it!" It squares with the other firsthand accounts of life at Ansar that I've read, recorded by al-Haq, Amnesty International, and others.
"No smoking allowed, nothing to read," Ahmad continues. "If you wanted to talk to someone, you had to hide, do it in secret. You weren't allowed to walk together with anyone else. If anyone even laughed out loud, he was tied up to an electricity pole in the center of camp and kept there for eight or ten hours."
I ask what effect the eight months in jail had on him. "Getting out was a really great experience," he reminisces, the way a North American teenager might describe being tossed his dad's car keys for a big date. "Now I know what is the real face of the occupation. It's an ugly face."
Afterward, Youssef and Ahmad take us on a tour of Jalazon. The camp is a spider's web of narrow alleys, tumbledown buildings with corrugated roofs, open drains running down the middle of the street. Within five minutes of slow strolling we see three destroyed houses: crumpled masses of concrete and twisted metal. Youssef says ten houses have been destroyed here by the Israelis since the intifada began. Numerous others in the vicinity have been damaged by blasts or bulldozers, and another 15 sealed up by troops. They belonged to the families of children accused of stone-throwing or other misdemeanors.
This, it appears, is Israeli justice in action. Throw a rock and get tossed into detention for six months renewable, with your family's home razed to the ground for good measure. Bury four Palestinians alive, as two Israeli soldiers had done in February 1988, and get two-and-a-half months' incarceration. Throw a Molotov cocktail and you're looking at eight to ten years; kill a Palestinian with a dozen bullets in the stomach at point-blank range and get off with twelve months.
Youssef contemplates the rubble. "You know, I would rather they killed me than destroyed my home. It's a really big crime." He translates some graffiti sprayed on a shattered slab of concrete: "On March 30, Land Day, we send greetings to the owner of this house."
The first Land Day protest, in 1976, was sparked by the expropriation of 20,000 square meters of land in the Israeli Arab areas of Arrabe, Deir Hanna and Sakhnin. The land was designated for military training grounds and Jewish settlements. Six Arabs were shot dead by Israeli soldiers and police on that March day thirteen years ago, and another 70 were injured. Originally a day of protest by Israel's Arab population, Land Day had spread across the "Green Line" into the Occupied Territories since the start of the intifada. Now it was a nationalist strike day, championing the bonds among Palestinians on either side of the Line. In the most recent commemorative protests, which took place four days before our visit to Jalazon, two Palestinians had been killed and another 50 wounded in violent clashes.
Up the road from the sign is a barren lot where, according to Youssef, there once stood an eight-room house, home to 23 people. Now there is a ragged tent, filled with wrecked appliances, sinks, and other domestic matériel salvaged from the ruins. Three people are left. One is the family matriarch, a 75-year-old grandmother. She radiates pure anguish.
"The soldiers came at 1:30 in the afternoon and told us we had one hour to evacuate the house," she says, clutching Marita's hand tightly. "They said my son had been caught throwing a Molotov cocktail." She has eleven children: eight sons, three daughters. One son was just released after five years in jail. Another has spent seven months in Meggido Prison.
Ahmad begs off accompanying us back to the camp entrance. "It's dangerous for me. Last time I had some journalists in my house, the army came down afterward and beat me up." We say goodbye furtively behind a clump of tall trees. There are tears in his fifteen-year-old's eyes. I feel sick.
The procession moves along its route, torches spitting cinders in all directions. I strike up a conversation with a pleasant woman in her early 30's who holds one end of a peace banner. "I inherited this (activism) from my parents," she says. "I was just a kid in '67, but they were already involved, already aware of what the Occupation would mean to Israel and the Palestinians. And when I grew up I found out they were right."
The crowd chants something in Hebrew, and she translates it for me: "Peace Yes, Occupation No." Is that the official Peace Now slogan? She shrugs. "Well, peace and occupation we can't have both, can we?"
Across the street a small knot of counter-demonstrators has gathered. They are Kach members, supporters of the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. One of them, a burly man who matches everyone's picture of the typical Israeli settler, is sitting on a low wall, legs splayed. He cradles a noose in his hands and strokes it ruminatively. He speaks good English.
"Who is the noose for?"
"Traitors," he says flatly.
"Who are the traitors?"
"Anyone in this country who is working for the destruction of Israel."
"Can you give me any examples?"
"Yeah. Have you heard of this guy Vanunu?" Mordechai Vanunu, kidnapped by Israeli agents abroad after spilling the beans on Israel's nuclear program; imprisoned after a secret trial; adopted as a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International. "And those people over there" he gestures in the direction of the demonstration "who support the traitors."
"What is your program?" I ask.
"We want to kick out our enemies. The Arabs. I don't care if every Arab lives to be a hundred and twenty, as long as he does it somewhere else."
"They have twenty-three countries!" chips in his sidekick a skinny, pimply teenager in a bright yellow "Vote Kach" T-shirt.
"God gave us this land," says the noose-wielder.
"How much land, exactly?"
"Well, it includes Sinai, which we gave back. Some of Lebanon, too."
"What about Jordan?"
He thinks for a moment. "If they start another war, then yes, boot them out and take it over, why not?"
This is Ariel, near Nablus. It's not the oldest Israeli settlement in the Territories, but it's one of the largest: ten thousand people, with two thousand more expected this September to occupy the new subdivisions snaking their way up the hillside.
Eli moved to Ariel from Natanya five years ago with his wife and kids. He now runs the settlement's promotions office, based in comfortable quarters around the corner from the local ice-cream parlour. He's a friendly man, mid-30's, neat and well-groomed.
"Business is fine here," Eli says, gesturing at the map of Ariel on his wall. "It's a little slow now because it's winter. But that's true ever year, and I can really say, every year we're getting more people."
The stereotype of the Israeli settler is of a bearded and pugnacious fanatic, toting a Torah in one hand and a gun in the other, defending the Jews' God-given right to all the land of Eretz Israel. These people exist, even in Ariel, and in many other settlements they predominate. But not here.
"Let's say we're a couple from Tel Aviv up for a visit, Eli, and we want to know what Ariel has to offer. What do you tell us?"
Eli slips easily into his salesman's patter. "Okay. Here we have fresh air, for one thing: not like Tel Aviv. And we have a special kind of people. They come here to live together, like on a kibbutz. Everyone knows each other and helps each other.
"We have a school with high-quality teaching. Over there on the mountaintop we even have a university, affiliated with Bar-Ilan! And of course, prices are lower here than in Tel Aviv, whether you want to rent or to buy."
For the imaginary big-city couple, it's this kind of spiel, rather than appeals to some mystical notion of destiny, that seems to clinch it. "About three-quarters of the people here chose Ariel for the cheap land and easy mortgages, and for the quiet life," Eli says. "The government wants people to move here, so of course the mortgages are favourable, and for anyone who builds here the land is free. If you're a family with a couple of kids, it's an attractive prospect."
I am surprised to learn from Eli that material motivations were paramount even for Ariel's original settlers. "In 1978 forty families arrived to set themselves up. They didn't have any great idea that the land was 'theirs'; they were just working with the military in Petach Tikvah (near Tel Aviv) and wanted to get away from the city, from the heat and humidity down below.
"About 75 percent of the originals stayed on. The others were disappointed by how rapidly the town grew, and they left to found another settlement, Balkan."
Ariel today covers a narrow but elongated stretch of land about 300 meters by five kilometers. Like all the Israeli settlements and there are 131 of them in the West Bank and Gaza, with 70,000 inhabitants in all it is built high up, commanding the surrounding terrain. The view is spectacular: rocky hills and plunging valleys, steeply-sloping terraces and olive groves. Three or four Arab villages cling to their minarets across the way.
The view within Ariel's boundaries is less pleasing to the eye. These settlements are blatant political and demographic intrusions, and everywhere the architecture reflects this. Eli tells us that we, the couple from Tel Aviv, can take our pick from luxury villas, chalets, "British cottages," or floors in three-storey condos. But all the dwellings seem equally incongruous and out of place, with their vapid Leggo-block construction, bizarre modular twists-and-turns, and garish red-tile roofs. From below which, until now, is the vantage point I've been seeing them from the settlements seem to float in the sky, utterly divorced from the landscape around.
This schism carries over to the local economy. The olive groves below Ariel are Arab-owned; Ariel itself is essentially "a bedroom," as one of the locals readily conceded. Sixty percent of the working populations commutes beyond the Green Line every day, to Tel Aviv, Natanya, Petach Tikvah. On Saturday nights the settlement's young people drive into Tel Aviv to party it up, and come back to Ariel to sleep it off.
How are relations with the local Arabs? I ask Eli. We've seen a few Palestinians in town, behind the counters of grocery stores or labouring on construction sites. ("What's the big deal?" one resident offered. "It's just like the Turks in Germany. Every country needs its brickworkers.")
"Ariel is very special in this regard," Eli says diplomatically. "We've had very good relations with the Arabs. In fact, the Arabs here have suffered a lot since the intifada began. Ariel people used to buy a lot of things from Arab stores. Now they don't.
"You know, a little while ago I was speaking with one of the Arabs. He told me, 'We don't want the Israelis out. We don't want to go back to Jordan. We'd rather have electricity and running water and good roads.'"
I find myself wondering when was the last time this Arab visited Jordan, but I keep my mouth shut. "So I said to this guy, how come you have this uprising? And he said, 'It's not us that have it, it's the others, the militants. They force people to go along.' Anyway, despite everything, relations are still okay."
What about the impact of the intifada on Ariel itself? Eli shrugs. "Obviously, everyone's concerned and talking about it. But the main effect has been to bring us closer together. Some people picked up and took off to Tel Aviv. But others in Tel Aviv felt they had to be here, so they moved to Ariel!
"When something happens bottles thrown, or Molotovs we feel nervous. Anyone driving carries a gun. But everyone feels this is part of Israel. We don't want it to go back."
"The intifada has only accelerated an historical evolution that was already underway," Randa tells me. "It's acted as a catalyst. Women have been freed from any restrictions on their political activity demonstrations, for example. Social barriers have been removed. Now, even the most religious families let their daughters demonstrate. Still, we have to tread carefully in trying to organize women.
"As for the male response, it's clear to them that the present situation demands everyone's involvement. There's no problem when it comes to the political side of the struggle. But the social and economic aspects are much more sensitive.
"Since the occupation began in '67, women have been forced to work. Everyone accepts that. But there used to be a huge difficulty, for example, with women who'd been detained and harassed by the authorities. The Israelis have a real shortage of resources and facilities for women prisoners, so it's been very important for them to extract confessions with maximum speed.
"That means torture, while beatings have become a daily feature of life in the special prisons and detention centers for women. It has also meant the authorities have zeroed in on social vulnerabilities. The violation of honour is taken very seriously in Palestinian society. So, in order to discourage the community from allowing women to take part in the intifada, the interrogators who are mostly male have been in the habit of stripping women naked before questioning them. Similarly, to get confessions from men, their wives have been brought in and threatened with rape before their eyes.
"It worked for a while. But now people say, 'So what? They're probing a weak point here, and we have to take away that power.' One woman, a friend of mine, was interrogated recently. They told her to take off her clothes. So she started to rip them off very aggressively! The interrogator stopped her 'Okay, that's enough, let's go on ...' The community has started to understand that detention is an honour, not something shameful. We're adjusting and adapting, trying to go on the offensive as well as working out defensive strategies.
"Women have been involved in the intifada from the start, because their families were involved. What's clear from the record of beatings and injuries of women is that, although some have been directly involved in confrontations, most have been hurt while trying to protect their families.
"The four women's organizations that exist today have become the core of the neighborhood committees. They plant land, build co-operatives, provide food during curfews, give first aid, and so on. It doesn't mean women aren't involved in political actions like strikes and demonstrations. In fact, that sort of involvement is increasing; but provision of services has remained the key.
"Nowadays the women's organizations are attempting to shift women toward a more progressive role, urging them to come together, play a part, share experiences, meet and discuss issues. But they have to deal with the fact that throughout the whole history of the Palestinian women's movements, the political struggle has remained the overriding feature. To this extent they haven't been feminist movements in the western sense of the term.
"Even the Marxist-Leninist-oriented organizations have fallen into the political trap. Only now are they asking questions like, if we get our state, are we going to return to the (pre-1967) Jordanian Family Status Laws, or not? After all, these were formulated for a traditional Bedouin society, with all the strictures of shari'a (Islamic law).
"That's where al-Haq can help, by taking the lead on legal issues. That's what the Women's Rights Project concentrated on at the start. But we only had three or four months before the intifada started, and then it became impossible to focus exclusively on legal and social aspects of women's rights with human rights violations taking place against Palestinian women every day. Now our main task is recording those violations."
Randa hands me the Project's latest press release. Al-Haq has documented 52 deaths of Palestinian females during the intifada, ranging from children a few months old to 70-year-old grandmothers. There are nineteen cases of administrative detention of women. "That may seem insignificant when compared to the thousands of men detained. But given the role of women in the family, it's a big number, and it's had a real effect. Some are mothers of seven kids, some are pregnant, and so on. Most are members of the women's organizations. Still, none of them were detained for more than six months. That's something unique to women."
In Randa's view, Palestinian women, in comparison with their counterparts throughout the Arab world, "have immeasurably improved their status in every field. But preserving the achievements will involve a lot of planning, hard work, and organization. We don't want to repeat the story of women in other Third World societies Algeria is the classic Arab example who were involved and motivated and briefly emancipated, but then returned to their traditional roles."
Once in the Strip, we are surrounded by donkey carts, ragged goatherds, ramshackle huts of cloth and tin. It looks exactly like any number of Egyptian Nile cities I've seen. This makes some sense, given that the Egyptians occupied the Strip from 1948 until the Six-Day War. But next to nothing has changed since, and the sight of Israeli flags hovering over the squalor seems frankly obscene.
I find it hard to imagine what it's like to cross from Gaza into Israel every day to work in Tel Aviv or Natanya, as some 45,000 Gazans do, even in the era of the intifada. But it's no surprise that the uprising started here, on December 9, 1987; and it's no surprise that Gaza remains the scene of the most violent and desperate clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians.
We are met in Gaza City by Baha, a young Palestinian who works at the newly-established Gaza News Service. Over coffee and cigarettes he and a co-worker, Qassem, give us the statistics. Six hundred and fifty thousand people in the Strip as a whole, crammed into 360 square kilometers and reproducing at one of the most prolific rates in the world. Two hundred and fifty-five thousand of them are refugees in camps, with another 205,000 refugees living outside the camps. There are eight camps altogether, under the administration of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). At least two or three of them are under curfew at any one time (five on the day we arrive). Baha himself spent 17 years living in the worst camp of the lot, Beach Camp, which was closed tight the day of our visit.
The Gaza News Service is working to compile research articles on life in the Strip. It forwards information and tip-offs to various news agencies, and escorts foreign journalists around the area.
Yes, it's dangerous. "The Israelis don't like journalists," says Baha, "but they make a distinction between Palestinian and foreign reporters. They'll come up to a group and ask, 'Does anyone here speak Arabic?' and if they find one, they'll beat the hell out of him. There's no law here at all. They can do anything they want." Two days earlier a Palestinian journalist had been shot in the back escorting a Belgian camera crew around a camp under curfew. Baha manages to pass for an American in such situations: he's spent a couple of years with his brother in Houston, Texas, and his English carries a convincing Yank drawl.
We take a taxi out to Jabalia Camp. It's Gaza's largest, with 54,000 residents just emerging from twelve solid days under curfew.
Jabalia is not Calcutta, or Jakarta, or even Cairo. But it's a serious shit-hole nonetheless, a sprawling shanty-town with a handful of comfortable-looking houses plunked down among formless one-storey block dwellings (it's illegal to add extra floors) and rickety rag-and-plywood lean-to's. Drinking water comes from the rain barrels on every roof. The roads are dirt and slime; drains and sewage channels cluttered with refuse run along the streets. There are kids everywhere: playing, sitting in the dust, crying.
"Do you want to talk to some people?" Baha asks. So we do, and we find people are bitter. At the Israelis, of course, but also at us, representatives of an outside world that has left Gazans to fester in their camps for more than forty years.
"You journalists," says one young man to me. He sports a bright T-shirt that reads, Happy Birthday I Take My Holidays With Gymnasium. "You come here and you write your stories and take your pictures, then you go away. Nothing changes."
"Where are you when the soldiers are running wild and beating everyone?" sneers an old woman. Suspicions have been heightened, Baha says, by an Israeli ruse that was established beyond doubt only a few days before our visit. Secret police agents were being disguised as foreign journalists in order to gain access to Palestinian suspects. Apparently Israeli settlers have been getting in on the act as well, putting "Press" placards in the front windows of their vehicles.
The brutality in these lives stuns, then numbs. We trek around Jabalia for three hours solid. By the end, my notebook is a disjointed jumble of grim fragments, images, snatches of conversation. Women, men, grandparents, young children serve us drinks and tell horror stories everyone, but everyone, has them. I write mechanically, a pounding headache for company, wondering whether I'll be able to make sense of the scrawl later.
Demolished house: 2 old people living in tent. "Yesterday the army came and ordered us to remove tent where shall we go? 'Not our problem.' We don't know what they'll do when they find we haven't taken it down." [Another destroyed house:] Father looks around at ruins "Who are the terrorists? They say it's him" touching his son who sips on orange pop & smiles bashfully "because he threw a little rock. Well, look around you who are the real terrorists? My kid goes out after curfew and gets caught I have to pay $1000 fine." Other kid is mentally retarded and has ugly gash on elbow beat him too. "A week ago. During curfew."
Woman who lost her rt. eye to a rubber bullet 1 1/2 months ago went out to dry her clothes knew he was shooting at her Look into this face Israel, and weep if you still can. 50 yrs. old. 7 children. Her son has spent fifty days in detention and pulls out a sheaf of Red Cross reports for injuries sustained there "20 yr. old schizophr. who develops another relapse of his illness ... he is in very disturbed [illegible]." Detained for "security offenses" Baha says e.g. member of pop. comm., PLO etc. detained 7 months ago 18/07/88 - 02/09/88., "They did everything to make him talk."
9 yr old kid blinded in right eye on June 4th, rubber bullet, left eye also in trouble. Father is splattered with fine flecks of white paint mother beaten up; broke into the house child standing in front of house shot there during curfew (which had been lifted for two hrs) eight kids in family no insurance or compensation (father: "Ha!") costs him 100 shekels monthly for child's trtmnt (he is unregistered refugee and not elig. for UNRWA) he has no chance to work because most of time camp is under curfew had to sell furniture. "Israelis are the real Nazis, treat us like animals." WIFE: "The Arabs who gave us millions we don't see any of it but it's us in the camps that make the sacrifices, not those who live in villas and drive fancy cars ..."
Baha: New ID's show if holder has been detained not allowed to work in Israel or leave the country. "So the punishment doesn't end when you leave detention. You go from prison back to the big prison, the Gaza Strip."
What does Baha think will happen?
He shakes his head. "I don't think the Israelis are going to give up the Territories peacefully. Armed struggle would be the next step, I guess." The guns, he speculates, are already there in the community, awaiting the right moment.
"But I believe in coexistence. I believe we can live with Israelis, if we have our own state."
Coughing comes from the stairwell. An elderly Palestinian woman, overcome by gas, is curled up on the steps, hacking and weeping. The hostel proprietor, a Palestinian, leads her upstairs and fetches an onion for her to sniff. I get a slice, too. It helps.
Up on the roof, a small crowd has gathered to watch the proceedings. A hundred feet away, six soldiers stand on an Old City rooftop, hammering canister after canister of gas into Jerusalem's Christian Quarter. They aim almost at random; sometimes they plant the stocks of their weapons at their feet, and fire in a steep arc into the air. Gas wafts across the quarter like a mountain mist.
It goes on for a good fifteen minutes. Much jocularity is visible among the troops. When it's over, they toss the empty cartridges into a rooftop litter bin. Then they look over at us, and wave.
Created by Adam Jones, 1998. No copyright
claimed for non-commercial use if source is acknowledged and notified.
Last updated: 12 October 2000.