||[Jan. 26th, 2008|05:39 pm]
The day before yesterday, two young men from Beit Ummar, a village on the boundary of Hebron and Bethlehem areas, entered Kfar Etzion settlement dressed as Israeli soldiers and started to attack settlers with knives. Both of them were killed inside the settlement. They did not kill any settlers before being killed themselves.|
I got a call from someone in ISM asking that we try to find out which village they were from and go there, because in cases of ‘suicide missions’ like this, the army regularly carry out collective punishments on the families of those who made the attacks, as well as on their whole town kind of by default. They used to routinely demolish the family homes of the attackers but now the Israeli High court has forbidden this.(Incidentally collective punishment of this sort is against international law – internet down as I write but will try to remember to look up the exact laws later…). Experience in other areas shows that Israeli court decisions favouring Palestinians are regularly not implemented, but apparently the routine demolition of homes in such cases has stopped.
I spoke to a contact in Beit Ummar who confirmed that he’d just heard on the radio that the 2 men were from there. We did not go straight there but waited until he called us saying the army had invaded the village (at about 11.30am). We decided this because he did not sound too worried when we spoke and there was a lot of activity here due to a settler funeral (unconnected)… it is really hard to make decisions and prioritise where to go each day when I have so little experience of life here, and anyway it is SO unpredictable… feel like maybe it was the wrong decision…. but anyway when we did arrive, as only 2 we were not able to really be useful.
The army had left the village after arresting 3 ppl (probably from the families of the 2 men), and throwing tear gas into their homes. Also, we learned later, they had forced all the women from one of the houses to walk in front of their armoured personnel carriers as kind of human shields. The youth of the village were throwing stones and bottles (also later I saw a molotov cocktail flying), and some of the women were injured as the young men did not see them in front of the vehicles. Also the army shot rubber coated and live bullets and sound grenades during this visit.
Before I progress to the hellish afternoon that followed, I want to say something about the feeling of all this…. So, the 2 guys who did the attack in Gush Etzion were about 18 or 19 years old, friends, and had just been released from 3 years in jail, a few weeks ago. This creates for me a disasterous picture of two boys deprived of their liberty and dignity at such a crucial age, that by the time they were released they were so full of hopelessness and anger and hatred and zeal, that ‘martyrdom’ was the most appealing option. (Of course, I am imposing my western view on this… especially I am conscious that I do not share the experience of living as a muslim and the meaning of a shaheed (martyr) in this framework, and most especially in the Palestinian context. But also I feel like locking up a 15 or 16 year old for 3 years is something very likely to produce a violent or in some other way very negative outcome.
But then I can see perhaps from round a corner how it must or might seem to Israelis of a certain view. First, a random and violent attack on people just going about their lives in a settlement. Second, the feeling that if this is what happens when we release prisoners, we should not do it (rather than seeing this as the result of having imprisoned them in the first place).
Also I want to say something about language. All yesterday I was referring to these 2 boys as ‘the martyrs’ because that is what all the people in the village call them, just as they call anyone killed by Israelis or as a result of the occupation. The word is not that comfortable for me, having as it does such a positive connotation. But also I feel that the way it is used by all Palestinians across the spectrum of political and religious beliefs displays not only a recognition of the pain of the loss of any son or daughter, regardless of their actions, but also a deep awareness that even the most violent killer is also in some way a victim and a product of this intolerable, intractable occupation.
So in this piece I am struggling to describe them. I can call them ‘those who did the attack’ describing them by what they did, or ‘those who were killed’, describing them by what was done to them. Somehow the second seems to diminish the fact that they attacked first before being killed, but maybe the first diminishes the whole context of occupation. Somehow to speak of this at all is propaganda one way or the other.
In the ISM training we had a section called ‘definitions’ to discuss just this issue, and when we spoke about ‘suicide bombers’ I asked Sarah, the American who was giving that section, how Palestinians refer to them (I mean specifically, distinguishing them from other martyrs). She asked Abed, who said fist “we don’t like to speak about them” and when pressed, said they might be called “those who wanted to be martyrs”, as opposed to all the many many unwilling martyrs here.
Of which there was another yesterday. By the end of the day I would have to amend my terminology, to say “the first 2 martyrs” or “the first 2 that died”.
After arriving in Beit Ummar we had a cold drink and then took a walk around with a young guy who used to work with ISM. He showed us the homes of the 2 dead men, and at the second spoke to the boys brother. We stood for a few minutes and when an elderly man, maybe the father, arrived in tears we moved away wanting to give respectful space to the family.
Maybe another wrong decision, cos within a few moments the army were back, apparently in that house, shooting tear gas and soon rubber and live ammunition (now I think I can tell live bullets from rubber by their harsh ‘crack’ sound). We could not see the soldiers, caught as we were around a corner, seeing young men on rooftops in front of us hurling stones, bottles etc, and others on the street corner dodging bullets, moving back then forward again. We did the same, but further back, guided by our friend who was trying to get us to a place where we could take pictures of the army firing live ammo (our only real use in such a hectic situation.) We were driven back several times by tear gas, and people gave us pieces of onion to help us breathe more easily (tear gas tricks yr brain and lungs into thinking you cant breathe cos you think there’s no air only gas, and onion disctracts yr brain and lets you breathe better), and once when some kind of bullet ricocheted off a wall and hit our friend in the head (he was ok, no blood even, but it shocked us back a bit).
We were near his home and he kept pausing in between dodging and running to point out and introduce members of his family. This, and the constant phone calls I was making in some kind of desperate attempt to do something useful (the army was not very reassuring, saying in such a situation this level of violence is basically to be expected), jarred a bit with the running up, running away.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, at about 1.40pm, we heard shouts from ahead that someone was hit in the stomach with live ammuntion, and saw crowds of boys running back past us shouting ‘sayyara, sayyara! (it means car) for the Palestinians Red Crescent ambulances. One sped up the street, and at the same time a group of young men ran up carrying the injured guy. The ambulance took him and sped away. I could not really see him in the middle of the group of guys.
The shooting continued for a short time more, and then the army left the village again, having injured at least 8 people, We sat at our friends house (outside cos the power was off at that time in the whole village). Everyone was very worried about the boy, now confirmed as an 18 yr old in his last year of high school, a member of our friend/guide’s extended family, called Mahmoud Mohammad Awad. Within an hour the family called the hospital who confirmed that he was dead.
Our friend said that Beit Ummar had not seen such a terrible day since the first intifada (1987-93), with 3 martyrs in one day.
The rest of the afternoon was a bit of a blur of other people’s grief and the anticipation of more violence. We waited in the street where the whole town had gathered outside the family’s home. His death was announced from the mosque. There were a lot of women crying. Mohammad told us he felt jealous for the women as they were able to cry but for a man it is very hard. He said he thinks if you see a man crying you know there is a very good man inside. He had tears in his eyes but he held them in.
Masked men carrying weapons, apparently from Fateh, ran through the town to ensure all shops were closed in respect and get everyone out on the street (I could talk about the meaning of this kind of enforcement but maybe not now eh…)
Eventually the ambulance returned and the boy was carried into his home, on a stretcher above the heads of the men. Then he was carried to the mosque, his face uncovered, where first the men then the women entered to pay respects to him. His mother collapsed and was carried in by others.
Lina who was with me took a picture of him as he passed. She told me she did not really want to photograph a dead boy, but did it as she felt sure she recognised his face from the street earlier in the day, and wanted a chance to confirm this for herself later.
At this time we were wating for other international volunteers to arrive, as ppl feared violence from the army during the procession to the cemetary or the burial. The 2 of us alone were not enough it seemed to be any use, or for example to protect the homes of the first 2 dead men.
We decided to go ahead of the crowd which was now starting to move with the boy towards the cemetary about 2km away. We ran ahead and with 4 other internationals decided to go ahead so as to be seen by the army before the crowd arrived, in order that our ‘more valuable’ foreign lives might be treated more carefully and hence be generally protective.
Anyway when the crowd arrived things were fairly calm. I and 3 others stayed outside the cemetary as the women did not want to offend by being caught up in a crowd of men (the procession was totally segregated by gender). Most of the mourners entered the cemetary and left again quickly, but as the last ones dispersed the army started firing and many stones were thrown (I honestly don’t know which started first). We ran around a corner with some boys to avoid the line of fire and stayed there until most people had moved, when we walked back into the vilage. The army was shooting tear gas into the village from outside but did not enter the village.
During all this, stoned were thrown at a car with a familt of settlers inside. Trying to escape this, they drove into 3 people (whether on purpose or in desperation I don’t know). Today we visited on of them in hospital, he has head injury but is going home today. Of the other 2 one is already home, and the other in a serious condition in another hospital. This incident is another certain to fuel hatred and fear on both sides.
Several times yesterday Palestinians said of Israelis (whether they meant the army, settlers or all Israelis was unclear, but it is definitely the case that it is the axctions fo the first 2 that provoke the sentiment) that they are not human. This is quite painful for my ears, but I feel like its firstly an emotive response to a horrific and tragic day (and a horrific and trasgic occupation), and secondly a result of very delibrate Israeli policy to force and keep Israelis and Palestinians apart, their only meetings being through violence and cruelty. I even hesitated to write about that, especially thinking of Israeli friends who might read it. But the situation is so complex and full of almost impossible impasses that it seems quite wrong to leave out something because it is inconveniently hard to digest. Only by trying to look at all the facets of reality fearlessly can something be done to change this situation in a deep and real way.
In the evening we were welcomed in peoples homes, fed and given beds. As I struggled to proccess the day (as I’m still struggling to proccess such proximity to the end of a life, while also thinking about giving English classes and shopping for food), the family we stayed with (also no doubt doing some processing) were watching tv, and seeing bits of english language films somehow jarred horribly in my head, a flash of something familiar, associated inextricably with a life far more known and comfortable, piercing into the totally alien and intense and intolerable day I had had.
This was only made worse when the channel changed, to a Lebanese version of the x factor, called superstar. I could not understand the words, but the familiar montages of tears of anguish from the rejected contestants and tears of joy from the successful turned my stomach a bit. I remembered what Mohammad said about men crying and thought, it doesn’t really apply in this case.
At around 3am I woke to the sound of shooting, not very close. We could not see anything. It continued and eventually we decided to go back to sleep, but I was restless until I got up at 9am. The shooting continued sporadically until about 7am. In the morning we learned that shooting from army watchtower at the entrance of the village, and stones being thrown towards it, are an almost nightly experience.
This was a fucking scary experience, also very intense. I am now in Hebron, but when the bodies of the first 2 dead men are returned to the village, probably tomorrow, people expect worse violence when they are buried, so we will return! I think it will be nasty but OK.
The bodies are right now in Tel Aviv. Maybe there is a good reason for keeping the bodies and performing autopsies, but its not clear to me and I cant help wondering if it is partly a decision to further punish the families (and the men themselves) by violating the muslim requirement to bury someone as soon as possible after they die. (Also in Judaism you should be buried the same day that you die).
Not a tidy end, but many are not.