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part 3 of 3

by George Arida

We moved on to another house, the Abdel-Hadi mansion,  in the heart of the Old City of Nablus. Much of the building had been demolished in April 2002, and then was partially destroyed again last week. I saw a room where new construction had been completed since the April 2002 attacks and then damaged badly again in this most recent one. I spoke with Mr. Abdel-Hadi, who told me how he and other residents had been made to leave the building so the soldiers could use their homes as a base of operations and set up sniper positions. When the Israelis rounded up everyone in the building, Mr. Abdel-Hadi was the first one they got to. The soldiers took him with them door-to-door. Mr. Abdel-Hadi was made to stand in front of them with an M-16 in his back; they used him as a human shield.

We walked over to a school that had been shelled by Israeli tanks at close range. As with many buildings I saw,  pockmarks from heavy machine-gun fire were all over the walls. I met the headmistress and her class, about 25 little students between 4 and 7 years old. They were very friendly, as was everyone I met in Nablus. The kids were in a makeshift classroom below the school. The stone wall had been blown out, so they had erected a temporary wooden wall to keep out the cold and rain. Men were already busy rebuilding the school upstairs.

After visiting with the schoolchildren and their teacher for a while, our taxi driver, 'Alaa, took us to his friend's home in the Old City. The building had been partially destroyed. At first it appeared they had been "lucky"; their neighbors’ house had taken worse damage. 'Alaa knocked on the door, and a woman and a young man greeted us and invited us in. We met two more young men inside;  these were the woman’s three sons. We sat in their living room and talked. A young woman, the wife of one of the sons, brought us mint tea.

 I explained that we were interested in learning about and seeing what had happened in Nablus. The woman shared with us her family's experience. There were seven flats in the building, housing seven families. When the Israeli soldiers came nine days earlier, they had come into their building and cleared everyone out. They had used one of the sons as a human shield as they went from door to door in the building.

Along with the six people we were sitting with, an additional three people from another family had been brought into the room where we sat. In all, nine people had been closed into this 10'x10' room with its couch, two chairs, and TV for four-and-a-half days while 20 Israeli soldiers took over the rest of the building, using it for a base of operations. The woman and her son showed me where snipers had taken up positions in the stairwell leading up to their front door. The rest of the building’s residents  had simply been evicted from their homes and left to find nearby friends or family to take them in. Fortunately, all of them reached safety; it is dangerous to be wandering around when the Israeli army has moved in, taken up positions, and started with the home demolitions, machine- gun fire, and worse. Our friends found themselves prisoners in their own homes. They had to ask Israeli soldiers’ permission to leave their own family room and walk down their hall to use their own bathroom. One son and his wife took us to their room and showed us the damaged roof, which had been hit by a tank shell just before the soldiers had come and taken over the building.

Another young man knocked on the door and joined us, a friend of the family and a Palestinian police officer. Just like the policemen I had met in Qalqilya, this man had only a day-glo vest to identify him as a policeman.  No gun, no weapon of any kind was allowed — just the vest.   He told us about his friend who had been killed three months ago. He wasn’t overtly emotional, yet his sense of loss was palpable. During the 12-day siege that had just ended, six Palestinians had been killed by the Israeli army and 50 more injured. Of the dead, three were children.

The hospitality this family had shown us was remarkable, given what they had just been through. Yet it was typical of what we had experienced everywhere we’d been in Palestine.

We left Nablus’ Old City and took a circuitous route back out, so we could see other sites on the way. We saw the old British prison that had been converted to a municipal building some decades ago. In the mid-section was a huge pile of rubble; it had been bombed by F-16s last year. We saw Yasser Arafat's Nablus residence. It was literally flattened, also the result of an F-16 attack. What had once been a three-story building now stood six feet high. We passed a couple of buildings in the downtown commercial area that had also been hit by F-16s and tank shells. Many downtown buildings had taken heavy machine-gun fire and had countless pockmarks to show for it.

We stopped at Joseph's Tomb, a site of archaeological and religious significance. It also had military significance; the Israelis had bombed it over a year ago (the dome and outside walls were damaged) and then had later used it as a base of operations. The soldiers had left a spray-painted Star of David on the ancient stone wall. This spray-painted souvenir was left by the Israelis on the walls of many buildings in Nablus.

We saw more archaeological sites — Jacob's Well and the convent there, an ancient church, and a mosque — and then we went on to Hawarra.

Once we got through the checkpoint, we looked for Antar where we had left him parked. There were no vehicles at all on that side of the road. We looked over to the other side of the road, saw him there waving at us, and walked over. He told us that soldiers had come over to where he and others had been waiting and had made everyone clear out. There was no apparent reason, but they ordered everyone away, waving their M-16s around. There were two unattended vehicles; the drivers had apparently gone on an errand, a walk, or something. The soldiers shot tires out of each of these vehicles, presumably as some kind of lesson to the drivers. When they returned, each would find one of their tires in shreds. These weren't flats that could be patched; an M-16 bullet shot at close range into a tire complete destroys the tire, and possibly the wheel.

Driving back from the Hawarra checkpoint, we saw over and over the familiar sight of Palestinian roads with deep trenches cut across them and large mounds of rubble piled a few yards away from each trench.  I didn't see any Palestinian roads that were intact; on virtually every stretch, the Israeli army had dug a trench, collected the broken concrete and earth, and bulldozed the pile onto the center of the road creating a double barrier of valley and mountain every hundred yards or so.  These blockades cut off commerce between towns and villages, family contact or other social movement, commutes to school or work — between these unmanned blockades and the maze of manned checkpoints, freedom of movement is essentially non-existent for Palestinians.

Coming back from Nablus, we asked Antar to drop us off at Qalandia checkpoint. We went into Ramallah to have dinner with another friend, Sam Bahour. Sam's from Ohio, American-born of Palestinian parents. After a successful business career in the United States, he is now building businesses in Ramallah, helping create jobs, and living there with his family.

Sam is a remarkable person, with unbridled optimism for what is possible in the face of seemingly impossible odds. He recently completed construction of a shopping plaza in Ramallah in spite of intermittent Israeli army raids into the city, which on occasion caused damage to his project. Not to be deterred, Sam repaired whatever was damaged and moved ahead with his plans.

After dinner with Sam, we took a taxi back to the Qalandia checkpoint, crossed on foot, and caught a shared ride back to Jerusalem. As I sat and talked with some new friends in the hotel restaurant, my fellow traveler Jennifer came in. She had just gotten back from Gaza on this Saturday night, and we were planning to leave for Tel Aviv in a few hours to catch an early morning flight.

Tel Aviv was a real experience. Outside the airport, we were stopped by soldiers, our passports and driver’s ID checked, and the car emptied and searched. On examining my passport, a soldier asked me the familiar questions about my name: “How is this pronounced? What is the origin?” I was getting accustomed to the grilling, and had come to expect the same particular choice of words in asking about my ethnic background. It was always the same; the soldier would zero in on my middle name ("Gamil") and ask how it was pronounced, and then "What is the origin?" By now I expected it, but was irritated with the non-stop ethnic profiling. This time I asked the soldier to clarify his question — what did he mean "what is the origin?” He repeated the question more slowly, as if I just didn't understand the first time. I responded that it was my middle name, and the origin was that my parents gave it to me. The soldier tried again.

"No, what is the origin of this name?  Like, is it Italian, or Spanish, or maybe Arabic?"  So I told him the name was of Lebanese origin. The usual series of questions about my family, my travels, and my intentions ensued. I was singled out to bring my luggage into the station and have it all searched. I was frisked and put through the metal detector. I was asked the usual questions about my trip.

When I entered the airport terminal, the same process repeated itself. On entering the ticketing and check-in area, it happened a third time — only this time, the security folks probed a little deeper with questions about where I had been, who I had seen and why. Several different people interrogated me, each one asking many of the same questions as the one before — just like when I arrived at the airport a week earlier, except this time I wasn't sequestered in an isolated room. In addition to going through all my luggage again for a third time (examining every article of dirty laundry, tearing open wrapped gifts, reading papers and books in my brief case), the security officer also decided to examine my digital camera. He called another officer over and gave him the camera, speaking some instructions in Hebrew. The second man took the camera over behind the large scanning apparatus, and stood about 15 feet away with his back to me as he started fiddling with the camera, pushing buttons and looking at the LCD view window. As I watched him tinkering with my camera, I worried that he'd find and erase the many pictures I'd taken of checkpoints, home and building demolitions, road blocks, illegal settlements, etc.  

I discovered that my resentment at being treated in this way had built up during the week. Knowing that my taxes paid these men's salaries made it all the more difficult to stomach. As I watched this security officer go through my pictures, my aggravation peaked. I became irate and spoke up to the man taking my luggage apart in front of me.  I pointed to the other man.   

"What is he doing to my camera? He is looking at my pictures. Those are my personal pictures, my private property. I want my camera back and I want it right now," I said.

He was a bit taken aback. I was a little surprised myself. He quickly walked over to the guy playing with my camera, said something to him, and took the camera from him. He walked back and handed it to me. "I'm sorry, Sir; he was not looking at your pictures; he just was checking to make sure the zoom worked." I looked to make sure my pictures had not been erased. They were all there, along with a new picture. The man who had been playing with the camera had accidentally photographed his own feet as he pushed buttons with the camera towards the floor.

I have honestly never in my life felt so unwelcome as I did in Tel Aviv. As we sat in the airport near the gate, Jennifer was perhaps more angry than I was. She felt sorry that I had been subjected to such extreme scrutiny and rudeness while she went through without a hitch. Of course, it certainly wasn't her fault. I've been to many places, and nothing I have experienced is even close to Israel, in terms of a police state.  A few hours later we boarded the plane and flew home.

Reflecting back on the trip, one of the things that really struck me about Palestine is how quickly and drastically things can change there. I noticed that in Jerusalem, life for Palestinians was on the one hand profoundly difficult, full of an endless barrage of obstacles that created frustration and uncertainty about every aspect of life — how long one may have to wait at checkpoints on the way to work or school or to see family, whether one will be able to get to one’s ultimate destination at all, or how long one will wait in line at the interior ministry for any number of permits or paperwork required by Israel for travel between towns separated by just a few miles, for registration of vehicles, for registration of newborn babies, or for permission to go to a hospital or medical center for treatment, to name just a few examples.

But on the other hand, I saw Palestinians in Jerusalem going about their everyday lives with determination and dignity, despite every effort by Israel to create impossible conditions. It was amazing to see how people adapted to these conditions and lived what had become "normal life" in some sense. And I saw the same thing in Qalqilya and Nablus and Ramallah and AbuDis. But I also became aware of how quickly life can change from a frustrated calm to a shattering wave of violence, with no observable pattern or predictability. I happened to visit Nablus and Qalqilya during times of relative safety and calm. During both visits, I witnessed the aftermath of what had occurred just a few days prior to my arrival, and I later learned of the violence that transpired immediately after I departed from both places.

After I left Qalqilya on Jan. 15, I had been lamenting not having gotten pictures of the collossal wall recently built there. I had stopped for quite a while to talk with the group of young men I met just inside Qalqilya, hearing their personal stories, and having them show me various sites of historical and humanitarian significance. A couple hours had passed, it was starting to get dark, and I was beginning to feel some time pressure. My friend and driver, Intar, was waiting for me on the other side of the checkpoint. I wasn't sure when the checkpoint would close that evening — it's arbitrary and unpredictable — so I played it safe and headed out. As I made it to the other side, I felt remorse at not staying longer and spending time viewing the wall here. This particular section of the way snakes through the heart of Qalqilya, cutting apart neighborhoods and separating areas of the town that used to be contiguous. Many residents now found themselves on the opposite side of the wall from their extended families, friends, schools, places of employment, shops and hospitals.

As I walked away from the checkpoint and toward Intar, I was kicking myself for not staying to study the wall firsthand and take pictures of this cruel and surreal creation. I'd seen pictures of the wall in Qalqilya, but I wanted to view it for myself, in person, to get a real sense of the scale of this thing, and of the destruction to the land and the society, and the isolation of the people from each other and the outside world. I kept my feelings of regret to myself for the ride back to Jerusalem, and mulled everything else I had seen and heard in Qalqilya that day.

Two days later, on Saturday, I expressed these sentiments to Intar while we were driving to Nablus. He told me that the Qalqilya checkpoint had closed on Thursday evening about a half hour after I came through, and then the town of Qalqilya was completely sealed off and put under curfew. Even as we spoke, almost two days later, Qalqilya remained under siege, as Nablus had been just prior to my visit. Anyone poking their head out of their door or window risked having it shot at. If I had stayed in Qalqilya another half hour, I wouldn’t have made it out. I would have had to find a place to stay, possibly for several days. Given the hospitality I had received from residents there and everywhere else in Palestine, I have no doubt I would have been welcomed into the homes of any number of people.  

I was perplexed by the Israeli Army’s decision to go back into Qalqilya that Thursday evening. I had been there just half an hour before the re-invasion and curfew started, and there was absolutely nothing going on. All was quiet;  I had seen it with my own eyes. Why had the Israelis decided to attack again? Perhaps the more relevant question is, why would I be surprised, given what I had seen up until now?

Qalqilya had been one of the sites where internationals and Israeli citizens were joining Palestinian peace activists in nonviolent protests against the wall and the military occupation. On Saturday morning, Jan. 24, the Israeli army erected four new military checkpoints on the main road into Qalqilya. The next day, the Israelis put up a sign at the eastern entrance warning that any Israeli entering Qalqilya would be fined 3,500 shekels (about U.S. $900). Qalqilya has been under siege intermittently since I was there; its residents spend days at a time living in what effectively becomes a maximum-security prison during these sieges — only here, residents have even fewer rights than convicted inmates in many countries. People have been shot through the windows of their homes — I met a young man whose little brother had died this way — and when curfew is in force, they are not allowed out to find food or other goods and supplies. The siege is interrupted unpredictably with days of "normal life" interspersed throughout.

The timing for the Nablus visit was similar: We were there on one of the few days in January when things were relatively calm. Nablus had been under siege for 12 days straight up until a few days before we arrived. And the day immediately before we went to Nablus, there had been trouble — not the full-scale invasion and curfew we saw the aftermath of (home demolitions, major destruction in the historic Old City of Nablus, a school destruction, Israeli soldiers' vandalism in the homes they occupied and used as bases) — but rather a more isolated incident where a man was shot coming home from the funeral of his 5-month-old daughter. I didn't witness this myself, but a young Canadian photojournalist, Brent Foster, saw and photographed the incident and he shared his pictures with us that same evening back at the hotel in Jerusalem.

Brent works for the Windsor Star and was staying at our hotel. Cisco and I had dinner with him in the hotel restaurant and he told us what he had seen. Brent said the man was walking in the open with his family, not doing anything that appeared unusual or threatening, when he was suddenly shot by soldiers. The soldiers then put plastic handcuffs on the man and took him, with his arms bound in front of him, into their jeep. Brent captured a series of images showing this sequence of events. Some of his pictures showed the man with blood running down his face, but it didn't appear that he had been shot in the head. He was able to stand and walk with the cuffs on, and it seemed his head injury was superficial. He had been out of Brent's line of sight a couple of times as the soldiers handled him, and Brent figured either he had fallen and hit his head when he was shot, or he may have been hit by one of the soldiers.

An ambulance approached but was kept away at gunpoint by the soldiers. While the man was held in the jeep, the soldiers began to look at Brent and point to him as he snapped pictures, talking among themselves. Brent began to get the distinct impression that they were waiting for him to leave and would not do anything more until he was gone. He waited a little longer and took more photos, and then decided that his presence may have been delaying medical care for the shooting victim. He left and headed back to Jerusalem where he told us the  story and showed us the photos documenting the experience.

The day after seeing Brent’s photos, we made the trip to Nablus ourselves. We saw the evidence of the horrible things that had occurred over the past days, weeks, and months, but life seemed to be back to "normal" there. Beyond the Hawarra checkpoint, there weren't any Israeli soldiers or tanks visible in Nablus. I later learned that there were still homes and buildings occupied by soldiers, but the tanks had withdrawn and curfew was not being enforced that day. Children were back to school for the first time in almost a month (not because of a winter break, rather because the Israeli invasion and curfew had shut everything down). People were going about their business.

Two days after we left Nablus, the Israeli Army picked up its activities there again. Six days after our visit there, I read an e-mail report from Kelly Bornschlagel, an American living in Nablus. I had spoken with Kelly on the phone from Jerusalem earlier in the week as I started making plans for a trip to Nablus. I    wasn't able to reach her by phone the day we ended up visiting Nablus, so we didn't connect with her there. Kelly is actually from Wisconsin. A few years ago, she had attended a presentation on Palestine given by Jennifer, and Kelly had argued with her, defending Israel's actions and policies and characterizing them as "self-defense." That was before she went over and witnessed firsthand what life in Palestine is like.

Kelly provides a remarkable firsthand account of events that transpired in Nablus in the days just after we had been there. Her article can be found on the web at www.jerusalemites.org/articles/english/jan2004/25.htm. It offers a deeply moving and profoundly disturbing picture of life under siege in Nablus. Kelly describes what she saw and what she and others experienced while under attack.

When I had been in Nablus I witnessed the aftermath of incredible destruction, and I heard the stories of the residents who had lived through it — but all was relatively calm on the day I roamed around the city. I can only imagine how much worse Nablus looks now, after the events Kelly described and others have since transpired, and how heightened the sense of loss must be for those whose families had been terrorized yet again or torn apart with yet another round of violence. What a difference a  couple of days makes in Nablus.

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