Monday, November 24, 2003

Jenin Camp

Today we went north to visit Jenin city and refugee camp. Jenin city has a different feel from other cities I’ve visited in Palestine: it is not quite broken, but it is very wounded. While the people are not unfriendly, many are suspicious after what they have experienced. We visited the ISM apartment in Jenin to look at pictures for an exhibition they were preparing. The pictures, drawn by 12-year-old Palestinian children given a free-drawing task, were of tanks and soldiers cutting down trees and shooting men, women, and children. No drawing was without violence or bloodshed. One picture showed a group of children with backpacks running from a tank. A child had fallen into a ditch behind the rest and was about to be shot. Another picture showed a pregnant woman kneeling on the floor, crying at the sight of her bloodied dead son. Behind her, a large hole in the wall revealed the tank that had destroyed the house and killed the young man.

Another picture showed two soldiers standing on a tank pointing guns at two children walking to school. A friend translated the Arabic script for me. One soldier was saying, “You may not go to school,” to which one of the children was responding, “We won’t go home. We will go to school and we will learn and we will stay here to protect our land and Jerusalem, our capital.” At the top right of the page was written “Despite the siege and handcuffs, we will stay here with our people until we achieve our goal of freedom and independence.”

Jenin has a reputation for fighting back. Locals say that in April of 2002, it took 12,000 Israeli troops 8 days to capture one small section of the city because so many people fought to the death. Many residents have shown that they would rather die than surrender their homes and lives to military control. Nonetheless, Jenin is now effectively imprisoned by the Wall, which separates the city from its land and nearby villages. Most of the fertile soil for which Jenin is famous is now inaccessible. The three Palestinian villages on the other side of the Wall in the Seam are under constant pressure from the Israeli government to move. Israel frequently cuts their water and electricity off.

Two weeks ago, Palestinians and international solidarity volunteers succeeded in a direct action of cutting through a fenced section of the Wall north of Jenin. Two days later it was rebuilt even stronger, but protesters went back last Saturday to show that they would not be deterred. The second protest was successful in that it made the front page of the Israeli mainstream newspaper Haaretz, but it was also tragic in that a young boy was shot and killed by the army in Jenin during ISM’s absence. The boy was 12 years old, a fifth-grader named Ibrahim.

Violence in Jenin is not uncommon. According to locals, Israeli Occupation forces shot seven young Palestinians in a nearby village earlier this month, two of whom died. They were dressed in their best clothes, making their way home for iftar, the ceremonial breaking of the Ramadan fast. Locals also recounted an incident in which three teenage boys were taken into the forest and severely beaten. Apparently, one soldier stuck a gun in a boy’s face and said, “At the count of three, I will shoot you,” but another soldier intervened. The boys returned to their homes with bruises all over their bodies, and one boy’s eye was nearly poked out. They said the soldiers had made them eat grass like animals.

The military has maintained a frequent presence in Jenin since the violent spring of 2002. That March, a deadly Palestinian suicide attack on the eve of Passover in the city of Netanya killed almost 30 Israelis. Allegedly in response to the bombing—but using an offensive planned far in advance (in part by studying German tactics in taking over the Warsaw Ghetto, according to one Israeli officer)—Israeli soldiers driving American-made bulldozers plowed through the center of Jenin refugee camp, home to 13,000 impoverished Palestinians, a handful of whom had been putting up armed resistance to Israeli military takeover. Soldiers bulldozed homes indiscriminately, without regard to whether any civilians were still inside. According to AmnestyAmnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), Israel then prevented medical and humanitarian relief workers from entering the camp for more than 10 days, while victims perished under the rubble. Thousands of survivors were rendered homeless for the second time in recent history. Amnesty and HRW both found that most of the destruction was carried out after clashes had ceased.[1] Israel used bulldozers to minimize soldier casualties, but no one knows how many Palestinians died in the attack. With help from the United States, Israel disbanded a UN fact-finding team investigating the attack, and simultaneously denied Palestinians access to the bodies of the dead, insisting on burying them themselves. Shortly afterward, Israel announced 46 casualties, less than a quarter of their original estimates. Israeli soldiers’ and Palestinian civilians’ testimonies of unarmed men being executed and bodies being crushed suggest that this number is wildly inaccurate. Still, Israel maintains that a massacre never happened at all, and without access to the bodies, nobody can prove that those who went missing were actually killed.[2]

Jenin camp remains a field of destroyed houses, a sort of mass grave. One Israeli soldier was quoted by locals as saying he hoped they would make it into an Israeli football field, but it remains empty except for a few construction workers and several children running around playing among the ruined homes. We spoke to an old man who lived through the massacre. He told us his story:

A young girl who wanted to walk to school asked me to walk with her for safety. My son-in-law recommended that I go to the school first to check out the situation there. As I was crossing the road, a soldier standing at the window in a house 2 meters [6 feet] from me lifted his rifle and shot me in the hand. I fell down clutching my wound. The soldier told me to get up but I said I couldn’t get up because I was shot and bleeding. The soldier asked me, “Do you want to live or to die?” I pleaded with the soldier and then he shot me again in the foot. At that moment, I realized that the soldier wanted to kill me. I lifted myself up and started crawling down the street. I arrived at the village center where I found a group of Israeli soldiers hanging out. They told me to go away. I crawled into the yard where there were more soldiers. I was covered in blood. A few soldiers checked me for weapons and, finding none, they gave me a bandage. The next thing I knew I was in the Jenin hospital.

As the old man told his story, he began to cry. He looked at us and asked, “Who is the terrorist—us or Sharon?”[3] He told us that he appreciated and respected the American people, but that he could not respect the pro-Israel Jewish and Christian Zionist American lobbies and the US government, all of which continue to support America’s role in sustaining the army that is committing these atrocities.

Across the street from where the old man spoke lay the wreckage of a demolished house where a mother and her paraplegic son had once lived. When soldiers came to destroy the house, she begged them to wait a moment for her to get her son out. They ignored her and bulldozed the house immediately. Several weeks later, neighbors found the flattened wheelchair of the son. His body was never recovered.

Last April, one year after Israeli troops destroyed Jenin camp, a 24-year-old American ISM volunteer named Brian Avery was coming around a corner in Jenin with several other international volunteers when an Israeli Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) opened fire at his face with a machine gun. Witnesses confirm that he posed no threat whatsoever to the soldiers. It took one hour for Brian’s friends to obtain permission from the army to bring him to the hospital. He survived the attack but is permanently disfigured.

We walked the streets of Jenin with ISM volunteers who know Brian and are interviewing parents of Palestinians recently hurt or killed in similar attacks. We walked past a hospital that had been bombed during an incursion, and we saw the frame of an ambulance that had exploded after soldiers opened fire on it. Three of the doctors inside made it out; one burned to death. His name was Dr. Khalil Suleyman.

We met with several doctors at the Red Crescent Society clinic to whom Dr. Suleyman had been a mentor. They said their work place has suffered repeated attacks in recent years, just like the police station down the street which is now a pile of rubble. They wondered how the Israeli government can demand that the Palestinian Authority (PA) control Palestinian violence when the military systematically undermines or destroys almost every element of the PA’s infrastructure. A French artist welded together pieces of Jenin’s broken ambulances into a huge statue of a horse, which now stands in the square outside the clinic. The horse symbolizes the endurance of the people of Jenin.

I wish I had more heartening news to report. The end of Ramadan is approaching, so there will probably be feasting and celebrating over the next few days. I hope it inspires some much-needed (inner if not outer) peace and joy for the people here.

[1] “ Jenin: IDF Military Operations,” Human Rights Watch (New York, 2002), pp. 2-3, chap. 6; “Shielded from Scrutiny: IDF Violations in Jenin and Nablus,” AmnestyAmnesty International (London, 2002), p 14-25, 67; As cited in Norman Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (California: Univ. of California Press, 2005), p. 52.

[2] Tanya Reinhart, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), p. 150-170.

[3] Ariel Sharon was Israel’s prime minister at the time of the Jenin massacre and our visit to the camp.