When we arrived in Taybeh, soldiers turned us back at the checkpoint. We quickly spotted a taxi driver who drove us to a hilltop and then asked us with a kindly smile, “Can you run?” Grabbing our gear, we scrambled out of his car and began sprinting down the mountainside, across fields strewn with rocks. 30 minutes later, relieved, exhausted, filthy, and grateful for cell phone contact, we connected with three residents of Taybeh who awaited us with a car at the foot of the mountainside.
Our hosts took us to a school in Taybeh which was one of several centers set up in villages surrounding Jenin to house and feed to refugees from Jenin. The men and boys we met there were twice refugees, all from families that had earlier settled in the Jenin refugee camp. They had been captured by Israeli soldiers during the first days of the attack on Jenin, but were among the fortunate ones who were released. We recorded some of their testimony that night and then returned to our host family’s home.
Meeting with about a dozen internationals who had been there for several days, we were assured that it was impossible to enter the city of Jenin, much less get into the refugee camp. They had tried to head toward Jenin through the mountains, but there were too many soldiers deployed in the area for this strategy to work.. They told of journalists who had been turned back roughly at the checkpoint. Several journalists were arrested. One reporter’s passport was ripped up.
There was nothing to do but wait, it seemed, and to use our time to document stories of refugees who had reached Taybeh and the surrounding villages. In Rumani, Kamal Abu Mohammed was the first of five men to tell us his story. He is of German nationality. His brothers are in Germany, and the mother of his children is German. At half past five in the morning, on Saturday April 6, the Israeli army entered his house. “I am peaceful” he said. oThere are 13 people in my family. Israeli soldiers broke the windows and entered my house. The soldiers phoned the helicopters and the helicopters attacked the house from four sides. The soldiers around the house started shooting and there was a fire on the second floor.
He understands Hebrew. When an Israeli soldier saw his UN ID card he accused Kamal of being a terrorist under UN cover. The soldier then laughed and mocked Kofi Annan, saying “tell him to come here because I want him to sit with me.”
After ten minutes, soldiers allowed him to take his children out of the house. When he tried to step out of the door, holding his two children, the soldiers started shooting. “They ordered me to put my children on the ground. Next they made me take off my clothes. They handcuffed me, blindfolded me.” Kamal showed us his wrists, covered with purple and red bruises from the tight plastic handcuffs that bound him for several days.
The soldiers tied him together with his thirteen year old son, and used them as human shields in order to enter further into the camp.
They moved from one place to another, stepping on bodies and corpses.
After what seemed like two hours, they went to a three story house where 13 people were gathered. Among them were his five brothers and three cousins. The soldiers told him to sit down in the dark room. He was still tied to his son. From outside somebody shot at an Israeli soldier. In Hebrew, one soldier told another, okill each one every five minutes and throw them outside in front of the fighters. Let’s start with the boy.”
Kamal heard shooting. He thought it was his child, but the soldiers didn’t kill the child. Instead they hit him. Then they took his second son, leaving 11 people in the house. That evening, they led them to another place where they used Kamal and his son as human shields, one for each window at the front of the house. In order not to be killed by snipers, the soldiers used his shoulder as a gunrest. (Kamal showed us his swollen shoulder).
When they used him as a human shield, the fighters stopped shooting.
They stayed in the situation for about an hour and a half.
After that they were tied by their hands and legs. The soldiers ordered them to sleep on the broken glass. The son was weeping because the handcuffs were so tight. Kamal asked that the soldiers kill his son rather than keep him in this situation.
In the morning they led them away again, bound and handcuffed. All the people in the house were arranged like class rows. As they walked, each had a soldier at his side. Soldiers used the rows of Palestinians as human shields. Again, they stepped over corpses and animals.
They led them to a far place. They didn’t know exactly where because their eyes were covered. They slept there, on the ground, until 11:00 at night when soldiers put them in Armoured Personnel Carriers. Kamal asked them to tell him where his son was, but they didn’t answer.
oWe spent four days naked without food and water, in cold weather.oe Soldiers wouldn’t unbind them to relieve themselves, so they were forced to foul themselves with urine and defecation.
The soldiers said they were going to take them to Sbuba town.
Then the soldiers entered the bus and threatened to kill all 38 people on the bus. From conversations he overheard, Kamal wasn’t sure whether or not they would be executed. Eventually, soldiers phographed them and then brought them inside the square for a second interrogation. At 9:30 they ordered them to again board the bus. This time, they detained his younger brother. “They were negotiating our executions until 3:00 in the morning,” said Kamal. He heard a soldier say, ‘We have to kill them because if they go back to their camp they will start shooting again’. Another said, ‘They must die here’.
Kamal says he saw children who were killed, their bodies left in the street. He assured us that there are children who know nothing about where to find their families.
Finally, the soldiers warned them that they are not allowed to go to the camp until three days after hearing that the Israeli soldiers have withdrawn from the camp. Upon release, Kamal walked to Rumani, where villagers gave him clothes, water, food and shelter.
‘My son,’ he said, ‘is in a bad shape psychologically, his nerves ucollapsed.’
He has been in Rumani for five days and still knows nothing about the fate of his wife and the other ten children. He knows that five of his cousins are dead. He has three brothers.
We also heard the testimony of Rami Abu Ghalioun, age 18. He was sitting in his home when he saw an Apache attacking his house. ‘It threw phosphorous material that hit my leg, so that the Apache can see me wherever I go. It’s like a dye.’
His leg was also injured by shrapnel. Rami and his family members sat in a corner of their house for 40 minutes. “The Apache helicopter attacked us with another rocket. A woman was hiding with us. She lost her leg. The young men and the woman decided to surrender. When they came out, they saw the army execute Jamal Sabakh. He was a deaf young man who could not hear their orders. Jamal carried a bookbag on his shoulder. The soldiers told him to put it down . He is deaf and didn’t hear. Then the soldiers ordered them to take off their clothes and take off their trousers. Their hands were tied and they were left there for an hour. They were then told to go toward the mosque where the army awaited them with tanks and loaded them into armoured personnel carriers.
In the afternoon they took the fighters from the camp who were captive and they told Rami’s group, ‘You are going to leave, you are going to Assadi forest.’ They covered their eyes, they took them to the Salem checkpoint on the second day.
At Salem they kept them for four days under the sun, without water. ‘All the time, tortured us and tormented us.’ When it was his turn to be interrogated by the Shin Bet, they started hitting him. ‘They ordered me to tell them who are the fighters inside the camp.’
The next morning, Scott, Grace, and Audrey rejoined us. We recorded more testimony from refugees in Rumani and Taybeh.
The following morning, after seeing footage of refrigerated containers apparently holding corpses outside the Salem checkpoint, we decided to attempt to reach Jenin and, if stopped, at least assert that as citizens of the country responsible for contributing millions of dollars to Israel’s military, we should at least be allowed to verify whether US tax dollars were used to kill civilians, and that we could begin to do this by documenting what was inside the containers alleged to contain corpses of people killed in Jenin.
Carrying a white flag, we entered the Salem check point, Several soldiers said we did not need to carry a white flag, that no one was going to hurt us.
Brief exchanges with soldiers at the checkpoint were the first of many such encounters throughout a long day’s journey into Jenin. We did a U-turn, left the checkpoint, and headed along Route 66 toward Jenin. We were soon stopped by soldiers who ordered us to turn back and called Israeli police when we refused. In retrospect, we’re amazed that we reached Jenin later that day. We were steadfast in refusing to turn back. Jeff and Scott were arrested and taken back to the checkpoint. When Audrey, Grace and I sat down on the roadside, soldiers and police faced a dilemma inasmuch as the rules required them to summon a woman police officer to remove us. Eventually, a soldier named Offel pulled out water and bread from his jeep, handed it to othe three nice girls,oe warned of the dangers ahead and drove off. “Really, I prefer your way to our way,” he said, obut believe me we have no choice at this point.oe Later, Offel caught up with us on a return trip and gave us a packet of handi-wipes. oYouAEll need these,oe he said.
Upon release, Scott and Jeff headed toward the mountaintop, scanned the hills below, and decided on a route which would lead them down one mountain side, up another and then down to the foothills of Rumani where they guessed that they could make their way to Route 66. Through cell phone contact, the group stayed in touch. Audrey described experiences of othe three nice girls,oe and observed that while she’d been arrested several times, in the U.S., for sitting down when police refused to let a group proceed, this was the first time she’d ever seen nonviolence work.
Jeff and Scott scored a brief taxi ride. After walking a short distance in one direction, they intuitively felt they were headed the wrong way and headed toward a home they’d just passed. There they met a civil engineer who drew them a map (complete with tank locations), showed them the best route, gave them water, and guided them back to the road. At about 3:30 p.m., we reunited and quickened our pace in hopes of reaching Jenin before nightfall. Soldiers stopped us at regular intervals. “What? What are you doing here? Where are you going? It’s very dangerous. You should go back.” We persisted. At one point, a soldier named Yahrive assured us that his patrol was the final one to stop us. Rounding a bend we saw a huge encampment filled with soldiers, tanks, armoured personnel carriers and tents. By this time, we were seasoned in dialogues with soldiers. We exchanged the predictable lines. Soldiers said theyAEd be responsible for us. We said we felt responsible to learn what was happening inside Jenin. We agreed it was risky for all involved, but we disagreed about whether or not they had a choice. Scott appealed to religious beliefs. I suggested that it was in the soldier’s best interests to let unarmed pacifists go forward as a demonstration that nonviolent methods could make a positive difference for all. Jeff asked the soldiers who they had more in common with, us or Ariel Sharon? A commander was called. He reiterated that there was no possibility for us to go forward. We agreed together that we should just walk on. At that point, one soldier said, “Look, why don’t you just go back 100 meters and walk through those fields?”
“Sounds good. So long!oe We followed his advice and soon were plowing through onion fields, then wheat fields, tripping over string, stumbling over ridges, but confident that we’d reach Jenin before the sun went down. Jeff spotted three children playing in the distance. “That’s where we should go,” he said. “Children aren’t out playing in front of snipers.”
When we reached the street where the children were playing, we began asking if there were any hotels open. Adilah understood our broken Arabic and led us to the school where she and her family are among 800 refugees from Jenin camp sharing space in chaotic halls and rooms of a four-story building. We ducked out of the bedlam into Dr.Jamil’s crowded but relatively orderly office.
He was glad to see us. He told us that his life had completely changed in the last six days. He is a general practitioner but also a public health administrator. He and a local dentist have worked night and day, aided by a sturdy crew of young Palestinian Medical Relief Committee volunteers, to coordinate distribution of food, water, medicine, and blankets, to run a 24 hour clinic, to organize clean-up, and to preserve some semblance of order in the center.
Thawra, a relief worker in her mid-twenties, entered with an 18 day old baby in her arms. Thawra’s name means “revolutiono” in Arabic. Like most of the young women we met, she wears a hijab and blue jeans. But she stood out, we agreed, as one of the most capable and courageous of the volunteer leaders.
She quickly explained to us, in broken English, that baby Ziad was born the first night of the attack, that his father had seen him for exactly one minute. The father had then left the hospital and was immediately captured by the Israeli soldiers. Audrey cradled baby Ziad while we pieced together more of Dr. Jamil’s story. He emphasized that the city had gone for 18 days without electricity, that this center was one of the few places, tonight, where electricity worked. He described the main health problems of people coming to the clinic: lowered immunities, gastroenteritis, respiratory diseases. Jeff and I exchanged grimaces, reminded of what Iraqi doctors have recited to us during the past seven years of Voices in the Wilderness delegation work in Iraq.
Dr. Jamil’s eyes widened as he said, oI am asked again and again, how many have died. I try my best to tell what I know, but the truth is no one knows. It will take time.oe He shrugged, but it is not the gesture of someone who is giving up. Rather, he seems to be calculating, with relative calm, what the best next steps are. “He’s the man,” said Jeff. We agreed that we wanted to rely on his advice and help.
A woman we met in Ramallah, Chivvas, bursts into the clinic with two young women. oI stole them,oe she said. “Stole them! And now it’s too late for them to go home. They’ve hardly ever left their families, but they helped me distribute some food and find out where the refugees are.” Chivvas, age 57, is slight, sturdy, fearless and fun. Palestinians dubbed her “Chips,” and drew plenty of fortitude from her determined accompaniment.
She assured us that we’d be able to enter the camp, but saed we may have to be patient at first.
The next morning, wanting to assure that Scott and Grace would be able to both make their return flight to the U.S. and bring with them eyewitness reports from inside the camp, we headed off, with our white flag, to enter the camp.