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A letter from a solidarity activist in the West Bank
"I cried over these killings"

October 4, 2002 | Page 4

IRENE SIEGEL is an activist in the International Solidarity Movement and sent this letter, which we reprint with permission, from Ramallah in the West Bank.

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I'VE BEEN in Palestine for a little over a month now, largely in Ramallah, some villages around Nablus, Nablus itself and the Balata and Askar refugee camps near Nablus.

Earlier today [Sunday, September 22], a young 14-year-old boy, Baha' Al-Bahsh, was killed during an International Solidarity Movement (ISM)-accompanied demonstration in Balata, just outside Nablus.

Actually, two young boys have been killed in Balata since yesterday: the second, whose name I don't yet know, was 10 years old.

A 19-year-old boy, Riyad Al Hashash, was also killed last night, during one of the many demonstrations that took place across the West Bank in protest against the ongoing curfew and the attacks on the Palestinian "leadership." Riyad was shot in the head and left to bleed to death as Israeli forces denied ambulances access to the Balata camp.

I cried over these boys, even though I hear about killings every day.

The Askar refugee camp, where I have been staying over the past week and a half, has been under varying degrees of siege every day. Not a night has gone by without the sound of gunfire and/or tanks, and I don't know that a day has gone by without a new report on a wounded or killed Palestinian, almost always under the age of 20.

Two nights--or I should say early mornings (as it was always early morning when the gunfire or shelling or raids would take place)--were especially striking.

The night before Tuesday, September 17, the young relatives of my host were cautiously excited about the prospect of a rumored lifting of the curfew the following day. Nablus has had only had one day of school since the beginning of the semester on September 1, and the kids were hoping to have the opportunity to go back to school.

Or, rather, to go to one of the "popular" schools which have been set up in mosques, living rooms, storerooms and other spaces in neighborhoods all over Nablus and the camps--because the official schools are closed.

At Askar, not even the "popular" schools have been available to all the students. They're generally for grades one to three only, with a few scattered classes for girls or boys in the grades above. Even these classes are often hard to get to due to army presence. Or, they have to turn away students for lack of space.

An 11-year-old friend, Shifa', described her class to me. It's held in a tiny room that crams in about 40 students. There are no seats, and barely room to sit. Most students either stand or sit on the floor for the entire three-hour session.

Only a fraction of the usual subjects are taught, and always without textbooks--whose production and delivery from Ramallah have been impeded by the ongoing curfews and closures. The students often study without notebooks or pencils as well, since their families are too impoverished by the choking, endless curfew-siege to buy them.

But regardless, the kids are hungry for school, and on this particular Tuesday, the kids were hoping to be able to get to their classes, unhindered by curfew or soldiers.

Instead, at about 7:30 a.m., I heard people outside my house discussing the fact that there were tanks on the main road outside Askar camp, and that soldiers had entered the camp and were wandering through the narrow alleys.

Why? No one was sure, but when I went outside, I could see groups of people gathered at the corners of the alleyways, looking down them in various directions. By word of mouth, people would warn each other about the approaching soldiers. You could hear their movements from the frequent gunshots or sound grenades, which were disturbingly close to our area.

The whole thing became a kind of sick cat-and-mouse game--as with much of life under curfew, where people go about their business until a tank or jeep approaches, at which point they quickly scurry inside, closing their shop or home doors behind them.

Half a block away, two men who secretly work in the local bread bakery stood waiting to sneak back in, to try to save the bread they'd left on the fire.

Samir, the sweet-faced 16-year-old younger brother of the suicide bomber whose extended family's home I was staying at, was trying to see if he could get to work at a local store--a branch of his actual job, which is located in the Balata camp. Balata was completely cut off by tanks, but even the local store was out of reach due to tanks and soldiers stationed just in front of it.

His family and I implored him to stay home, and he did--until he finally did find a way to sneak off to work, in spite of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Meanwhile, as we stood tensing for the army to turn the corner of our street, I more than once saw people on the surrounding streets running at the sound of the cry, "Jaysh!" (army) or "Druze" (as the soldiers who patrol in "army-police" jeeps are referred to, though not all of them are Druze-Palestinians). Finally, the cries were directed to our street, and we all ran inside and took cover.

This went on for hours, and as the soldiers came past our house, shooting not far away, I wondered--along with everyone else around me--what house they'd stop at. Sweet-faced Samir is just the right age for arbitrary arrest by the soldiers, living in a house ripe for an arbitrary "deterrent" demolition order.

I was relieved when they passed us, until I heard the casualty list from their visit: three wounded young boys: Muhamed Ishta, 17, who was shot in the leg, and Mazan and Faras Salam, 15 and 13, respectively, who were, I believe, shot in the neck and hand. All were standing on the street, doing nothing.

At about 2 a.m. on the morning of September 18, I woke with my eyes and throat burning, almost unable to breathe. I had been ill with bad allergies for weeks previously--the dust in Nablus is relentless--but this was a whole new level.

About 15 minutes later, I heard intense, uninterrupted tank and gunfire. Soon after, a Palestinian friend of mine from the camp who lives about a block away from the house I was staying in, called to tell me that he could see from his roof that the entire camp was being surrounded, by about 40 tanks.

They were shelling in the direction of the mosque and the school, and the tank movements were creating a huge cloud of dust and smoke that was sweeping over the camp. A big group of soldiers eventually invaded a house at the edge of the camp. It was the home of a "wanted man" who they had apparently tried to capture earlier without success. Once again he eluded them.

As the 73-year-old grandmother of my host family said to me in the midst of her worried pacings, "All of this for one man. Why do they have to put all of us through this for one man?" And all this during the oft-mentioned "six weeks of quiet."

But then there's the matter of these young boys--these latest casualties in Balata and Nablus: 10 years old, 14 years old, 19 years old.

I'm speechless. I say, "I'm so sorry," to my Palestinian colleague, who had worked so closely with Baha'. As usual, he just answers with "It's normal."

All I can think of is that no one should ever have to see something like this as "normal." Of course Israelis also see it as normal. Or, rather, they don't see it at all. The nightly news is "disinfected" of such mentions in virtually all but the most exceptional cases.

It is just so surreal to be here, witnessing all of this destruction and suffering, and hear not a whimper from the international community. Or to hear the occasional whimpering "condemnation," delivered without concrete consequences.

I keep asking myself how to break this silence--an echo of that same silence from all too recent history which so many Jews so often refer to, regarding the slaughter of our own people. "Never again" clearly only applies to one side of the Green Line.

There's a lot more to tell, so much more. I have an entire notebook full of notes from more than 20 interviews which I've done as a volunteer fieldworker with the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq, and as part of a new Palestinian-run endeavor called the "Human Shield Project" that aims to document the extensive use of Palestinians as human shields by the IDF.

I've talked to Palestinians living under choking closures in the villages around Nablus; to children and elderly men wounded under curfew within Nablus; to the families of suicide bombers, weighed down with grief and bewilderment at their sons' actions; to Palestinians whose land is being confiscated to build the infamous Israeli "security" wall (the Israeli plan to unilaterally re-draw the Green Line without bothersome negotiations). The list goes on and on and on and on.

Before closing, I have to mention that one of the most enraging ongoing insults that I've witnessed here at close range has been the tightened closure and curfew regime which has been imposed during the Jewish holidays.

My Rosh Hoshanah was spent under curfew in Ramallah, while my Jewish cohorts on the other side of the Green Line celebrated in the cozy understanding that their holiday would proceed in "security."

I had to turn down an invitation to a Rosh Hoshanah meal, though I surely could have crossed the border with my super-jet American passport. I was sickened to see this most joyous holiday, which I have come to look forward to and enjoy over the past few years, turned into a sinister and oppressive weapon against my Palestinian friends and colleagues.

Hundreds of thousands of people have continued to live imprisoned during the ensuing holidays--from Yom Kippur through the now-in-progress Sukkot.

Yom Kippur was especially hard to take. It is a holiday dedicated to reflection on the wrongs one has committed during the past year, and for concrete acts of repentance directed not only toward God but toward the wronged parties.

This deeply meaningful Jewish holiday was spat on here in the Jewish state, where it became yet another excuse to hold an entire population prisoner, subject to the random violence of the Israeli army and settler populations.

So this most massive "wrong," being committed by a state which falsely claims to speak for all Jews, falls outside the parameters of "sins" worthy of repentance.

After all, when Israeli propagandists have expertly reduced an entire Palestinian population to the status of a subhuman mass of terrorists bent on the destruction of all Jews--then imprisoning, wounding, murdering, humiliating and starving them cannot be a sin.

Can it?

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