As I was walking from the house at the top of the hill, occupied by Israeli forces from beginning to end of the sixteen-day invasion of Jenin Refugee Camp in October/November, schoolboys on the road asked me this question. It is a refrain that punctuates my comings and goings, and it is one that leaves me tongue-tied.
The question is not, “Do you talk to them?” because anybody can do that. What matters is if they respond with words rather than gunfire. The nature of the soldiers’ response is a source of curiosity for people who are always in danger of being shot rather than spoken to. The initial question is often followed by “What do they say?”
I had just come from the Abul-Hayja house, delivering fresh vegetables to the family. As I approached, I called out to let the hidden snipers know this was a humanitarian visit, and that I was not someone to fear and shoot at. They did not talk to me immediately, but after a short wait two armed guards appeared on the balcony. One asked me where I came from, and then said that his mother also lives in America, in New York. I told him I could have my mother call his mother to converse. The idea rattled him slightly and then found a responsive chord. Another armed guard opened the door and escorted me past another two guards before reaching the single room where the family was confined, whereupon the officer supervised my five-minute conversation from the threshold.
When I visited the house before Ramadan, I asked an officer how long the Army would be here, until the start of Ramadan? He replied, “Way beyond that.” Venturing a little humor, I asked, “Will you be fasting for Ramadan?” Instantly he arched the brows over his bright blue eyes and clicked his tongue in the Arabic expression for “no.” But he also caught the humor and smiled, though he would not even consider my constant request to permit the thirteen family members fifteen minutes of fresh air per week.
One day during a brief lull from the tanks shooting at children in the middle of downtown, I walked by a passageway between limestone buildings in the Old City. A group of soldiers in new uniforms were at the other end in an inner courtyard, and the officer called to me, motioning me to come inside, “I just want to talk to you.” I thanked him, but went my way. I was wary since an international had been confined by soldiers for hours until escaping the night before. Afterwards I wished I had talked with him, but the closed space had made me uncomfortable.
Later that day I accompanied a man whose family had been expelled from their home by occupying soldiers. They had taken refuge with relatives, but he wanted to get clothes and food from the house. He approached first, feeling quite confident because of his Hebrew. The soldier at the window refused and had no interest in negotiating. I walked up the few stone steps to the porch and spoke with the soldiers at the front door. The spokesman refused in a soft-spoken way, but said to come back after 4:00, in about two hours. I knew that transport would be impossible: We came in an ambulance because the householder’s car had been turned back. I pressed the soldier again and he agreed, but said that only I could come in. I persevered and got him to let the homeowner go in by himself. He returned with armfuls of meat from the freezer, clothes, and valuables as the soldiers are well-known for their looting. The soldier I spoke with helped carry things, even though the troops were eating lunch.
This is a familiar pattern. When the soldiers give an absolute refusal, it is often because they are eating a meal, or getting ready to change shifts which leaves them vulnerable.
One day I volunteered to accompany a water-tank truck past a recalcitrant tank full of soldiers. I summoned a soldier to the hatch and he appeared just so I could see his glasses, but he was adamant that we could not pass until after 4:00 p.m. He ignored my continued questions and disappeared inside the tank, snapping the hatch shut.
While I was waiting for the truck, some boys asked me to help them across the street. The danger was that the tank would open fire on them for the crime of returning home after visiting relatives. I walked across the street and turned the corner with them, calling out to a crowd of boys to stop throwing stones at the tank As I came into the intersection, a transport vehicle disgorged a contingent of foot soldiers who were now aiming huge rifles at the boys and firing shots in our direction. The boys surrounding me, as I provided international accompaniment, called out, “Tahani, do you want to go to heaven?” referring to the destination gained by anyone killed by the Army. I considered the question as I walked forward, a smile as my shield. I kept telling the other boys to stop throwing stones, and one that I was escorting seconded my motion, “We just want to cross the street.” They did and went their way. I had come around two sides of the block, and now turned to complete another leg of it. As I approached the intersection, a tank came roaring through. As it passed, some of the boys ran close behind with their David-style weapons and called out in Arabic, “I love you.” There was no verbal response from the soldiers.
Soldiers refusing to serve in the Occupied Palestinian Territories tell how they are trained to make the children fear them, for otherwise they will not dominate the population. With all its murderous successes, the Israeli Army has failed to a large extent in this. Children follow tanks, jump up on the back, steal the loudspeaker, sling a rope around and skid behind. There are certainly people who fear the Army: “She has been timid ever since the April invasion,” explains a grandmother of a pretty little girl whose name means “light-filled/Nouran.” But her shyness is an exception.
Back to the intersection in full sight of the parked tank, I am still urging the boys to stop throwing stones and to stay back, while I motion to the blank window of the tank not to shoot and I call out to this effect, though from a distance. The water truck arrives and parks. We have over an hour to wait. I am in the intersection with the boys over the driveris objection to leave them to their peril: “Where are their parents?” The boys back off a bit though they are still present. The soldiers shoot less though they are still in evidence. As I climb into the cab of the truck, several of the boys give me the greatest compliment, “You are good/malih!” an honor bestowed with enthusiastic approval.
We use the time to make another water delivery and return see the tank ascending the hill. We follow behind as it is nearly 4:00. However soldiers insist that we back up, and my appeals to quench the thirst of neighbors are in vain. After we return to the intersection, I see why. There was an armored personnel carrier behind us, and they did not want us in the middle of the convoy as they changed shifts.
Of course, others talk with the soldiers but it is usually when ordered to answer questions. When the Army went in force to turn a house upside down looking for a wanted man, one of the thirty soldiers saw a liquor bottle that the resourceful housewife had retrieved from the rubbish for preserving olives. It contained some of the yellowish olive-preserving water and the soldier asked her, “Is this whiskey,” unlikely in the home of observant Muslims. With perfect English and perfect irony, she replied, “Yes.” Her young sister-in-law’s house was searched also, but by a single soldier. When he saw a blanketed bundle, he asked her, “Baby?” She had the same answer, “Yes.” “Ohhhh,” he said, urging his comrades outside to hush their voices to a low volume.
Samih tells me of the time they were looking for Iyad Sawalha, and asked about his whereabouts. He said he had only heard his name. The officer told him that Iyad was a “mukharrib,” which does not translate exactly to the English word, “terrorist,” but they use it thus. When Samih saw that the officer was reasonable — “many of them are democratic” — he told him that before they look for a wanted man, they need to look for the reasons that he is involved in resistance against the occupier: What is happening every day throughout Palestinian lands? He also told the officer that Sharon and Arafat had become sweethearts. The officer laughed. But Samih said that if a soldier looks angry and determined, he doesn’t try to talk with him.
I think of the soldier who ran up to the body of young Fuad Abu Ghali. His murderous confusion had boiled into one concern as he shouted, “Where is the weapon?” — the imaginary reason that impelled him to kill his contemporary. As he held a rifle to the ambulance driver’s head, it didn’t occur to me to discuss democratic processes. I sought only to calm his rage.
On another occasion, a soldier asked me quizzically, “Where did you come from,” pointing his gun from behind the heavy blanket covering the window. I had called out to inform him that I was nearing the occupied house, but I had surprised him by coming from a door in a wall at the side of the path. It was explained later that a sentry at the top of the hill communicates via a headset in his helmet, to alert his fellow lookout down the hill of any movement from above. I had not come from above. I appeared without warning. Hence his query, “Where did you come from?”
Do the Occupation soldiers talk to me? Sometimes. Sometimes they ask where I come from. As they make bristling fortifications of homes and orchards and intersections, I have the same question for them: “Where do you come from?”
No conversations but the language of firepower last night and this morning [14-15 January 2003] as Israeli Army forces pummelled a section of the Saniiiyya District in east Jenin from the air in their pursuit of Palestinians. Meeting resistance from the ground, it took the Army from 7:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. to capture four Palestinian men. Refugee Camp residents said it sounded like the April invasion.
Dr. Annie C. Higgins specializes in Arabic and Islamic issues, and is conducting research in Jenin, Occupied Palestine.