Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Thieves in the Night

Last night at 10 p.m. a friend in Marda called to say the army was uprooting trees near the road. My colleague Hannah and I rushed to the scene where we found two jeeps and a van patrolling the area as an American-made bulldozer dug out tree after tree. The soldiers were not pleased to see us and tried to make us leave. We asked them why they were uprooting trees in the middle of the night and they said, “This is no place for two girls at night.” Each time we repeated our question the soldiers would answer, “All we want is for you to be safe. Now go home.” Finally one soldier answered us. He said some boys from the village had put rocks in the road, causing a car accident between a Palestinian and a settler. Hannah said to me that she recognized the story and had heard it used before to justify collective punishment. We wondered whether or not it was true.

My phone rang. An Israeli friend had learned that the uprootings were unauthorized by the army and that it would be stopped. But 10 minutes later the same source told my friend a different story. Now the soldiers were uprooting trees because Palestinian boys had hidden behind the trees as they threw Molotov cocktails onto the settler highway running through their village land.

So many stories. Were the uprootings because of a car crash, or Molotov cocktails, or something else? Or was it for nothing at all? Did it matter? Regardless, it was collective punishment. Those trees didn’t belong to the boys, if there were boys at all. The soldiers were stealing the livelihoods of several families right before our eyes, like thieves in the night. But they had nothing to fear: There is no regulated accounting for the actions of the military. Meanwhile, actions taken by Palestinians are retaliated against ten-fold.

Hannah said she once talked to an army official who explained the army’s policy of collectively punishing Palestinians. They acknowledge that the vast majority of civilians want peace, but they harass entire cities and villages to encourage the majority to convince the minority to stop getting in the army’s way. Of course, the more people suffer, the angrier and more vengeful they become.

The soldiers eventually left with their two jeeps, Humvee, bulldozer, and van, but not before throwing two sound bombs in the village to wake everyone up. I was glad to see them go. We returned this morning to find the shattered trunks and branches of 17 olive trees scattered around the leveled landscape like broken bones. We wondered if there had been more; sometimes the army removes entire trees and replants them in Jewish settlements or inside Israel for the charming ambiance that the old trees bring. We looked for whole trees that the farmers might replant, but the army had taken the time to chop up each individual tree that they left. It felt like a burial ground, and I thought about all the families that had nurtured and cared for those trees over hundreds of years. Perhaps their owners didn’t even know yet of their demise.

This evening we received a call that the army was in Marda again. Our friend in the village said the soldiers were driving around in jeeps and throwing sound bombs, forbidding people to come out of their houses to see what was happening or to look after their children, and simultaneously preventing villagers outside from going into their homes. Our friend told us the soldiers were going into people’s houses and that one person was arrested. When we arrived the soldiers had left, but then one army jeep came back and detained five young men while checking their IDs. We asked what was going on, and the soldiers said someone had thrown a stone that broke a car window.

I noticed that the license plate of the jeep was the same as the one we’d seen the night before. I asked the soldiers if they knew anything about the uprooted trees, and one replied, “Someone threw a stone. That’s always the reason.” I said that was the third story I’d heard. I continued:

“So when was the court hearing for this stone-thrower?”

They looked at me like I was crazy.

“Where I come from, people aren’t punished for rumors. People suffer penalties if they are proven guilty, but not before, at least not in theory. What you’re doing here and what the army did last night is extra-judicial collective punishment. And it’s illegal.”

The soldiers didn’t seem to be listening, but I continued, perhaps more for my sake than theirs.

“Let’s say I threw a rock at you. Would you attack America?” This made them laugh. We asked them if they would be back there tonight and they laughed again, avoiding the question. Soon they left and we walked to the roadblock on the village outskirts to catch a shared taxi home.

Two of Marda’s three entrances are obstructed by dirt roadblocks. People can go around them, but cars can’t. Yesterday, the army opened one previously-closed road and closed the previously-open one. It makes no sense. It can’t be for security, because cars can still use the now-open entrance.

Same with the checkpoints: No one personally familiar with the situation could believe that checkpoints keep Israel more secure. Anyone who wants to get into Jerusalem or Nablus can; there are roundabout mountain roads everywhere. Twice I “snuck” into Nablus, once over a mountain and once through a family’s field. When the roadblock in Haris was up, villagers drove their cars through rocky fields into other villages to get to the main road to drive to work. When Zatara checkpoint closed after the bomb attack in Tel Aviv, passengers pushed their taxis up rocky hills around the Yasouf roadblock nearby to drive to work via a long detour.

I once stayed with a woman near Bethlehem who wakes up every morning at 3 a.m. to get to work by 6 a.m. at a place 15 minutes away. The sole income-earner in a family of six, she has worked for several years as a nurse in West Jerusalem, illegally because people with her type of ID aren’t legally allowed to go to Jerusalem. Every morning and afternoon she takes an elaborate roundabout route to and from work that involves switching vehicles, walking a long time, and changing the shape of her headscarf at one point to make herself look like a religious settler. The commute is absurd and costs her 40% of her income, but it’s reliable. Again, anyone who wants to get from the West Bank into Israel can.

The army surely knows about all the alternative routes, so why do they bother making roadblocks and manning checkpoints? I believe the answer is control. The status quo keeps Palestinians guessing and running around, like mice in a maze. One week an obstacle goes up and another goes down. This happens so often that it seems there is no point to the restrictions other than to assert power and slowly break the will of the Palestinian people until they eventually give up their claim to the land and leave.

It is midnight and we have just learned that the soldiers are back in Marda. I’m so tired of this. Apparently they are driving around the village throwing sound bombs again, and this time they’re also banging on people’s doors. If that’s not terrorizing, I don’t know what is. If there was ever any doubt in my mind, it is gone. The soldiers are not preventing terror; they are provoking it. The Israeli military is informed enough to know that, but most of the Israeli and American public are not. And so the violence continues.

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