September 2001

Saturday September 15th
On Friday 7th Hamas held a special rally in Manger Square, Bethlehem. The purpose of the rally was to show respect and support for those Palestinians who had become “martyrs” (Shuhada). Each martyr (Shaheed) holds a very special place in the hearts of those left struggling against the injustice of the occupation of their land. In particular, this rally was in support of the suicide bombers; those who willingly die for their cause.

A Palestinian suicide bomber, along with the belief in his cause, has the added dimension of having little or nothing to lose. Life for many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is truly miserable: they, their family and their friends suffer many forms of privation, persecution, trauma, violence and injustice. Another compelling factor is the strength of their faith, and the unfailing belief that the Shaheed has a special place by Allah’s side in Heaven. This is a lethal combination that makes it easy for these young men to strap explosives to themselves and then detonate the device in the hope that they can kill as many Israelis as possible.

Manger Square was being made ready for the rally with hundreds of chairs being set out and a large stage being erected. On the façade of the Peace Centre hung two massive Hamas cloth posters, very reminiscent of Communist imagery. A friend was with me and we sat in one of the alcoves along the front of the Peace Centre. I didn’t want to go and sit with the women, who had their own section, and I wanted to see what peoples reactions were, so from here we were facing the crowd directly. It was also extremely hot and sunny and there was a tiny bit of shade in the little alcove. That was fine until Orla Guerin, from the BBC, turned up.

Their little crew was standing in the square chatting, then she marched over to our little shady spot, sat herself down next to us and said, “just need some shade.” She stuck out her hand and introduced herself. “Orla Guerin, BBC.” My friend responded but I turned away. (For those who haven’t seen Ms. Guerin’s reports, she is the kind of reporter who does not appear to recognise the occupation. She often makes the comment, “..and what the Palestinians call an occupation..” as if it is just their opinion.) My friend noticed that I pointedly had not reciprocated to her greeting so asked me about ‘our cousins’. This is a euphemism for Israelis so I told her that there were many friends of our cousins, so she got the point. I also noticed that they had no interpreter with them and I am sure none of them spoke Arabic.

Ignoring the BBC crew we then played with some of the kids, chatted in Arabic (OK, I struggled in Arabic) and decided we did not want to sit there any longer. We moved off to the side of the square, away from the womens’ section. Some of the boys we had been chatting to ran over with chairs for us so we had our own, very special seating area. I looked across the BBC crew and noticed one of the guy’s nudging his friend and pointing at us. The square was quite crowded by now and there was quite a mix: young and old, men and women, lots of children and quite a few firearms, slung casually over shoulders.

The rally started with passages from the Koran, then a variety of Hamas and political figures addressed the multitude. The crowd was obviously very enthused by the whole thing. Following these first speeches, rather loud music suddenly blared from the speakers (Arab PA systems seem to have a whole volume range that is not found on similar Western equipment).

Standing up on my chair I realised there was some kind of procession weaving its way around the square. The group consisted of some very young children, aged about five or six, right up to shabab, those in their late teens and early twenties. They were all wearing fatigues or black clothing, and some of the little boys had camouflage paint on their faces. The older boys and Shabab were all fully masked. They marched and stomped around the square, carrying in their midst a model of the Haram al Sharif, the Dome of the Rock. Back at the front again they set about burning a few flags, as is par for the course, and giving a little show to the crowd.

The crowd was really getting into the spirit of things, with the women standing on chairs and clapping along with the music. Then, of course, there was the customary gunfire. Masked gunmen on the roofs fired volley after volley into the air. Some of the children who were with us (foreigners such as us seem to be a bit of a status symbol for them to be seen playing with) were scared by the shooting and looked quite frightened. I thought if I told them we were too they may not feel so upset and it did seem to work.

Then there were a few more speeches. I told my friend that some of the men next to us in the crowd would start shooting skywards too, which they did, and the man who had been speaking let of a massive round of fire from one of the biggest guns I have seen. Obviously a fairly important person in the world of Hamas. Then we noticed that the group of shabab in front of us, perhaps bored with the same old speeches from the same old faces, had all turned around and were just watching us watching the proceedings. We thought this was probably a good time to leave but just before we went we were given a leaflet and a poster.

The leaflet referred to the most recent suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Interestingly, the propaganda in their leaflet did not correspond with what had been reported. Although only the bomber died they claimed that five others had been killed. They also promised more of the same. The poster showed a couple of pictures of some recent Shuhada, as well as Abu Ali Mustafa, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was assassinated on August 27th.

That was a typical move on the Israelis part. He has been replaced by someone who is far more hardline in his attitudes and actions. And as long as they continue to practice such executions, send in their tanks and helicopter gunships, destroy peoples homes and hopes, then there will be rallies such as this one with many more young men waiting for their chance to become a Shaheed too.

Thursday 13th September
Hebron is truly hell on earth. Nothing I have read really quite prepared me for the complete and utter despair that is life in this Biblical city. A militant and extremist Jewish enclave, numbering approximately 400, lies in the heart of this Palestinian town. The Arab residents total 120,000, and Israel has a military presence of over 2,000 personnel protecting the Jewish settlers. The heart of the old city, the Arab market, has in parts become a no-go zone. An area that, when one enters, one takes a risk with one’s life.

Some parts of Hebron are under complete Israeli control. The Palestinian residents live under total curfew. This curfew is occasionally lifted once or twice a week, usually for a couple of hours, allowing residents to leave their “prison” and stock up with more food, and buy essentials, such as medical supplies. Their water and electricity is strictly controlled and can be turned off on a whim by the Israelis for days. Children receive no education. Children cannot play. The curfew is absolute. No one breaks it as outside there is the risk of being shot by a soldier or a settler.

There has been much tension and animosity here, and it is increasing. There are many stories in the news regarding the shootings of Jews and the attacks on Arabs. The news however concentrates little on the smaller, daily events: the ongoing 24-hour-a-day war of attrition that makes life here utterly, utterly wretched. Much of the news I have seen concentrates more on the attacks against the Jews, rather than the Jews’ attacks on Palestinians.

Last week I met an English woman who, while taking photographs of some settler children stoning an aged Palestinian man, whose head was streaming with blood, was surrounded and attacked by a group of adult settlers. She was spat at, verbally and physically attacked, then had her camera wrenched from her hands and smashed on the ground. The soldiers stood by and watched.

I was with a friend, who is Arab and grew up in the West. She has never been here and was quite unprepared for what we saw and how we felt. Firstly, one has to negotiate the Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints. All Palestinian towns and cities have had their transport routes blocked so one has to get out of the car, walk through mounds of earth, boulders and concrete blocks, and find another vehicle on the other side. From Bethlehem to Hebron this also involves walking across a major arterial road that links Jewish Jerusalem with Jewish settlements in the area. Crossing the road one sees new and expensive cars speeding past, buses transporting the many settlers to and fro and lorries delivering fine foods and supplies to the wealthy Jewish residents of the settlements.

Having found a kind guide to direct us to the centre we left him on the edge of the market as it was too dangerous for him to come with us. A group of young boys surrounded us and said that they would show us the way but I told them that they were to come no further and if they did, we would turn around and walk straight back out. The Jewish settlers have no compunction in shooting at anyone, especially Palestinian children. If they were seen with us they would probably become targets. My friend was horrified when I told her this was my reason for not allowing the children to come with us.

We proceeded into the deserted alleyways and the most unpleasant feeling of foreboding and dread swept over me. We passed the sign that declares “you are entering into an Israeli controlled area.” The place is desolate. One minute behind us were shops and people, noise and bustle, in front there appeared to be nothing other than abandoned shops and deserted streets. Nothing moved, there was no sound, but I knew we were being watched. As we walked I spoke loudly in clear, firm English. I had also hidden my camera; settlers hate journalists. I have become far more attentive and sensitive to my surroundings since living here and I surreptitiously indicated to my friend the roofs where I could see where little shooting posts set up. Corrugated iron sheets forming little sniper nests; army style webbing thrown over was hardly camouflage but instead conveyed the message very clearly. Again, my friend was rather shocked.

I said that we must be careful engaging anyone in conversation, that we were probably being watched and that it could be dangerous for any Palestinians there to be seen with us. A little old lady wandered into view. Very surreal in such a barren place. She was fully veiled and came up to us. “Salaam aleykum.” (Peace be unto you.) We responded in kind, quietly. She spoke for a few moments and told us how dangerous it was to be walking here. She then offered to take us to the home of X, a martyr who had been assassinated by the Israeli army last night. After she assured us that it would not cause her or the family any problems we followed her.

To start with the family were very distrustful of us, and understandably so. They had already lost a family member due to information given to the Israelis by another relative, so they were hardly going to welcome us with open arms. I went into the bedroom where the young man had been killed. They had already started repairing and redecorating so it looked unremarkable. A room with bare plasterboard and fresh paint. However, on closer inspection I noticed black marks, the effects of smoke and heat from the explosion. On the roof they showed me his bed. One end was charred and the mattress a solid mass of plastic. The missile had hit his head as he slept. A little boy of about four, quiet and sullen, came and stood by me. I noticed his right arm was in plaster and I pointed at it. His mother told us he had broken his arm the day before his father was killed.

We remained for a while with the family, talking about life and the events they have seen. We felt we had taken up enough of their time and their trust so we made to leave. The old woman who had brought us insisted on taking us to another family. In the street there was a truck, used by the father of the family for his business. The army had targeted it with large calibre ammunition and it was a wreck. The cost to repair it will be almost $10,000. This was the family’s livelihood. All of the walls of the houses and shops along the street were pockmarked with bullet holes.

Up some dark stairs we came into a sitting room where a few young women and a young man were watching television. After being made comfortable in the room reserved for guests, the young man shuffled in and sat with us. He told us how, a few weeks ago, he had been sitting on a step in the street with friends. Suddenly, there was noise and he remembers his friends start to run. Then it all went dark. He pulled off his baseball cap and I was very glad that I used to work in a hospital. I have seen scars very much like this before, but they were a result of brain tumours or car accidents, not being shot. He showed us where the bullet went into his brain, about an inch above his right eye. He showed us how they had to peel his scalp back to be able to operate, and the patches where he will remain bald. He woke up 16 days after being shot, which was almost two months ago. Still, he was lucky. His speech was very mildly impaired and he had trouble walking for more than a few minutes, but apart from that he was OK, he said. I wasn’t; I wanted a cigarette or a stiff drink. Both preferably.

We had a quick tour of the family home. The front of the house looks onto the Jewish enclave, and I could see, as I peered through the sand bags, the little tell tale iron huts and camouflage webbing where the snipers lay.

The whole of the house lay in a murky half-darkness, all the windows on the front side were sandbagged. Inside, there were a variety of bullet holes: in the bedrooms, the bathroom, through internal doors and windows. Up on the roof I looked across the centre and there, in the heart of the old city, stood a huge, and very new, building. A large menorah (ceremonial Jewish candelabrum) was engraved on the side. Tanks (water or gas?) were painted blue and white, with the star of David dotted around the middle. High fences (electric?) and barbed wire surrounded the compound. In the distance, on the brow of the hill in the Palestinian neighbourhood, sat a tank on the rubble of what was once someones home.

Walking out from the area where it was so eerily silent, the noise of the outer part of the market drifted across, calling us back to reality, or a sort of reality. Along the narrow alleyway we met a few more people going about their business; a sign that we were entering some form of civilization, although that word seems rather inappropriate when used in Hebron. Another young lad, who was 17, showed us his bullet scars. The entrance wound he wouldn’t show us, as he was embarrassed, but the exit wound he did. It took up a large part of the lower right hand side of his abdomen. “Look over there,” pointed another man, “four people were shot and killed here.”

When we got back to Beit Sahour that night George, from the Rapprochement Centre, called me to ask if I could help him; he needed to send out an urgent press release. Two members of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) in Hebron had just been physically attacked by settler children, and again the Israelis would do nothing to apprehend or punish them. (Go to the PCR yahoo group to read this release, along with other PCR information.)

I rang one of the women who had been attacked and interviewed her as she was on her way to the Jewish police station in the settlement of Kiryat Arba to file an official complaint. The CPT has been subjected to persistent and increasingly violent attacks over the last few months to the point where they have had to withdraw from the Jewish areas. We were very lucky that it wasn’t us who had been surrounded and attacked today. But then, there is always tomorrow.

Wednesday 12th September
Just before 9.00am EST yesterday “events that change the course of history” were witnessed in the most horrific and unbelievable manner. The shock and horror of what has happened in America still has not sunk in properly. It is a chilling, brutal and evil attack, the consequences of which could prove to be even more devastating. Disturbingly, the repercussions of this horrific act will, I am sure, result in the loss of more innocent victims. It will without doubt add to an already volatile situation here, and this will ripple around the world. Or am I overreacting and expecting an apocalypse that could never really happen?

Already there has been growing anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiment, with Arabs in some Western countries being advised not to wear traditional clothing for fear of attack. Arab and media organisations are receiving hate calls demanding that the Arabs are bombed. The images beamed worldwide of a few groups of Palestinians celebrating has done the most damage. Despite the number involved being very small, the propaganda machine jumps upon this as evidence of Arab complicity. Of course, it is human nature to need to attach blame to this horror, to know what one is dealing with, but it is all too easy to point fingers and apportion blame without conclusive evidence. Remember Oklahoma? For 48 hours Palestinians were blamed for that atrocity only to discover a disgruntled former Gulf Vet GI was responsible. So, maybe it will be a group who are Arabs or Muslims, but what reason is that to punish over one billion people for the acts of a handful?

Ask anyone who knows the capabilities of Palestinian organszations whether they think they could be responsible they will respond with a wry smile. “Palestinians could never be that organized!” is the reply. No one who genuinely seeks peace and justice could ever condone such an act as we have seen, nor could anyone who has the interests of humanity at heart ever be responsible or complicit in such an inhuman act. The Independent’s Phil Reeves was in Bethlehem yesterday, assessing the reactions and feelings.

Neither the actions nor the sentiments of a few can be seen as representative of a nation, but sadly they often are, despite there being absolutely no foundation for this. Robert Fisk, thankfully, is one commentator who is able to sift through the avalanche of fact, fiction, opinion, action and reaction and be able to write an articulate, incisive and informed article, albeit it a sad indictment against the human race in general.

Listening to the radio all I hear is “it is war, it is war” and the response will be “appropriate.” I just fear whose interpretation of appropriate will be used, and how it will affect each and everyone of us.

Saturday 1st September
I have spent the last two days helping out at Beit Sahour municipality. They are under terrible pressure to try and find emergency funding to help those families whose homes have either been destroyed or are in need of repair, following the bombardments earlier this week. I am assisting with the proposal writing and PR. Some homes have been completely destroyed so those families have to be re-housed, and some of the other homes are uninhabitable until repair work has been done. The situation is actually very bleak.

The last night of real shooting (ie. constant) was Wednesday. I watched the gunbattle between the Israelis stationed at Jebel Abu Gnheim (Har Homa) and Palestinian gunmen in Beit Sahour. There were two helicopters constantly buzzing overhead and when the electricity was cut we wondered whether the tanks were on their way in. As it turned out the army actually left Beit Jala in the early hours of Thursday morning, but not before they sent more tanks in to frighten everyone. Last night, too, the power was cut off for a time, and I have discovered that this is one of the many terrorising tactics used against the civilian population. When the power goes everyone starts to wonder what is going to happen next. One friend told me how terrified one of his young children becomes each time this happens. All the stories I have heard this week relate how utterly hopeless life seems right now. Most young people are trying to emigrate, those who are left have no work. Seventy percent of families in the occupied territories live below the poverty line. And the misery goes on. Yet I still am amazed at their capacity to welcome a stranger, to give all that they have to give and to share their homes with me. Still they manage to laugh and joke, despite everything.

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