Letter from Jenin

Above: A poster with images of Rashad al-‘Arrabi, killed by Israeli troops in Jenin.

Israel’s Election Day, 28 January 2003

On the twenty-eighth of January, young men were letting out triumphant whoops and jumping up and down in a victory dance. Campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv? No, Faisal Street, a main artery in downtown Jenin. The Army snipers on the roof of a commercial building are congratulating one another on their ‘victory’ over an unarmed Palestinian policeman in civilian clothes, Rashad al-‘Arrabi, wearing no protective vest or helmet, and having no tank or airborne defense.

The first attack downed him but he was still breathing, recounted a shop owner whose cubby-hole shop has a full panorama of the scene. So the tank snipers finished him off.

When another shop owner went to offer help, Nidal Mahmoud Kastouni, 18, Israeli soldiers shot him dead with 7 live bullets in the back, the abdomen and the feet. The snipers could afford to waste more bullets than necessary - plenty of funds rolling in from US tax coffers.

The owner of the cubby-hole shop remains surprised that the Army shot a dying, and then a dead young man so many times. “They are supposed to be protecting people here,” an almost incomprehensible reference to the battered Geneva Conventions which stipulate that the Occupier protect the occupied population. A deep abyss separates the statute from practice.

A journalist, Seif Shawqi Sa’id al-Dahla, 28, with clearly marked PRESS garb approached to photograph the scene, and the tank sniper shot him in the leg. Two men were dead on the ground, and there was nobody else in the vicinity. The Army targeted the journalist at exactly the same spot across the street from where they fatally targeted photographer ‘Imad Abu-Zahra in July 2002.

A friend of the Shahid (“martyr”), Rashad al-‘Arrabi, who reached the body shortly after, said there was a beautiful fragrance emanating from the wounds, just like perfume. Blood is said to have the aroma of misk (“perfume”) in the eternal gardens, thus giving evidence that Rashad had gained heaven. Another friend with a toddler named Jad, is now calling him Rashad in honor of the shahid.

Rashad was killed shortly after the polling stations opened in Israel at seven o’clock in the morning. A quarter of an hour later, Nidal al-Kastuni was killed in the same opening to the alley, falling a meter behind where Rashad fell. These two early morning triumphs in Sharon’s military campaign surely aided his election campaign. Before most people went to the polls, they were able to hear of the incumbent Prime Minister’s killing success. Within hours, the campaign could also boast two more scores, Sa’id Tubasi and Yusuf Sa’di.

The number, but not the names of those killed by the Israeli Occupation’s bullets was announced in Israeli news bulletins. All four young men were killed in the same line of fire, each one a meter behind the one previous. When an eyewitness demonstrates where each one fell, I think of animation drawings for a cartoon - bing, bing, bing, bing - although in this case they were de-animated. And with each hit, the snipers on the rooftop danced. Blood still clings to the local limestone cladding.

Again, blood is proof of celestial gain: “There was a fragrance of misk,” says Yusuf Sa’di’s mother of his shroud-wrapped body, brought for a final farewell within hours of his death. Her home fits the flower pattern in a creative way. Several modern paintings of flowers in stainless steel frames grace the walls, with bouquets and hearts elegantly arranged. Light reflecting on a small mirror catches my eye, and then something else - have they noticed that the metal mirror frame is a six-pointed Star of David? Jenin merchants tell of buying goods in Tel Aviv to sell in their well-stocked market in better days.

Talk turns to the spies who have been taken to an unknown locale for questioning. “They should be executed,” says one housewife. “Yes, look at the deaths they cause in the community,” agrees another.

I hear with relief that a voice of religious authority is reported to have said not to kill them, but to keep them essentially under house arrest. I think of the spy I met last night. He had been wounded during questioning, so his interrogators brought him to the Emergency Room for treatment. When he received a slap on the face I said, “Let him be,” and inquired who was staying as his murafiq (“companion”) in the hospital. Nobody. Nobody from his family wanted to be associated with him. I thought of staying but had serious doubts. And I reflected on the family of the man he fingered for assassination. I spoke about the spy’s value to the community if he were forgiven. He could be twice as loyal, and could help to keep others from being tricked into spying. Several later concede that he fell into a trap of explicit Polaroids and threat of scandalous exposure.

My attention returns to the group of mourners. The shahid’s eldest sister says she was like a second mother to him, caring for him when he was the age of her own infant during their mother’s illness. Yusuf’s mother speaks of his last meal, his favorite maqlouba/rice and meat she had made. “He was martyred on a full stomach,” she says, finding maternal comfort in this. The other mourners have left, and she insists on filling my stomach, too. “For Yusuf’s sake. To honor Yusuf’s spirit!” How can I refuse? I think of these young men, so vulnerable, so hunted, dedicated to their homeland and loved in their homes. Perhaps I lingered at the House of Mourning to find solace for myself.

Palestine’s Holiday of the Sacrifice, 11 February 2003

On the first of four days of ‘Eid al-Adha (“Feast of Sacrifice”) Holiday, I decide to stretch my legs, passing people on their way to the morning prayer. I greet a friend who works in the Hospital, and he tells of the Army’s pre-dawn raid, inviting me inside to see the damage. The Army is resourceful. They use local materials and conditions to improvise oppression.

Mud. Not a tool of death, just rain-induced mud from the clay-rich orange ground. The ten soldiers must have stamped around thoroughly in viscous puddles to make their boots instruments of filth. They stepped on everything - the rugs, mattresses, sofa cushions, and all the winter quilts including the baby’s little quilt with golden teddy bears inviting the child to dreamland. They scraped the mud onto the bottom of cupboards, tables, the television, and the children’s schoolbooks. Dogs mark their territory in a similar fashion. I hold up a stuffed bear to clean off and announce to my new friend as in a broadcast: “The mighty Israeli Army. Versus…the teddy bear!” She laughs and her laughter brings the house back to normal more than all our cleaning.

The mighty Israeli Army versus the photo album. They threw this onto the floor and stepped on the family photos with their mud. I point out that the framed photo of Arafat on the wall is intact. Clearly the Palestinian family is a greater threat than Abu Ammar (the president’s nickname). Try as they might, the Israeli Army cannot sap the strength of the Palestinian family. They assassinate; they imprison men and women without charge; they forbid the prisoners personal visits and phonecalls; they step on photographs; but nothing weakens the links or the love of the family, or convinces them to take their existence elsewhere.

Beneath Arafat is a model of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, where the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) ascended into the heavens astride the swift beast, Buraq. The glass casing is broken, but the Dome remains intact, just like the ‘Eid gifts. The soldiers ripped packages open but left the new clothes, including the baby’s, intact but muddy. What a holiday. Every child looks forward to this traditional gift of a new outfit, and waits patiently for the day they can open the package and wear it. Can you imagine the soldier’s Action Report? “I was a brave soldier today. I wiped my feet on a baby’s bunting and blanket.” The medals are being forged even now, of muddy clay.

The soldiers did a more thorough job with new Eid clothes when they killed Rashad on Election Day. His mother told him to wait until the Eid to wear his new clothes, but he was insistent on wearing them, even though the Eid was a week and a half away. He was buried in his holiday garments.

When I first came into As’ad’s house to see the damage, he and his wife insisted on serving me coffee. “It’s already made!” As’ad dandled the baby on his knee and said, in nursery-rhyme fashion: “Did the Army make you go outside in the cold rain? Were you cold outside?” He smiles and the baby follows his lead. Energy is best preserved for patience rather than anger. It was cold and rainy, and when the Army expelled the family from their sleep and their shelter, they did not even let them get socks for the children. Little bare feet versus muddy Army boots. But they were not shot or tortured. If you were merely sent into the winter street while soldiers ransacked your house, might you consider yourself blessed, too?

Hanan and I remove almost all the quilt covers for washing. We do that wonderful sweeping wash, flooding the floor with water, sweeping with a handheld broom, and then squeegee’ing the tile floor. This is when you appreciate the tiler’s skill in making a smooth, level surface. Hanan thanks me sincerely rather than effusively, “I was mentally enervated. I did not know where to begin, and on the first day of the Holiday! If you hadn’t come along, I might be in the hospital.” It is she who is the hero, she and her neighbors who rise to the constant occasions of invasion. She explains how the house was so beautiful before the Big Invasion, pointing to chips in the pink bathroom tiles. It is this constant chipping away at the home and the family that characterizes the Israeli Occupation. Hanan points out where the soldiers have dented the woodwork, and denounces Arab countries for their silence.

Her sister-in-law has been performing the same restorative operation in her home. All of the apartments in the building were hit. A little daughter wants to wear her new Eid sweater, but it is still wet where her mother cleaned off the mud. She is so disappointed that she cannot wear her new gift to go outside and play with her friends. I tell her that the yellow sweater she is wearing is bright like the sun, and matches her mother’s. This is no consolation, but the little girl accepts her lack of choice. “What can we do?” says her mother, smiling a little sadly and repeating the common refrain to the myriad joykillers of the Occupation.

When I arrive on the ground floor, I discover that As’ad’s mother is one of my Quran study colleagues. Beside leaving mudprints, the Army took away As’ad’s brother without charge. Again. They had him for ten days recently and then released him. Why have they taken him again? Perhaps to put pressure on another brother who is in prison, to get him to sign a false confession?

This holiday morning has also witnessed another episode in the disturbing trend of arresting wives of men who are imprisoned or dead. “Why? They already have him in their clutches.” “Why? They killed him two years ago!” The most high-profile case is that of Ahmad Sa’dat’s wife, arrested en route to anti-globalization meetings in Brazil. In Jenin, everyone pours out sympathy for Asma’, the wife of the imprisoned Shaykh Jamal Abul-Hayja. They took her from her family before dawn on this first day of the Eid. She is the mother of small children, and is struggling with cancer. Israel is also holding the wife of Iyad Sawalha since they killed him in November 2002.

After the Holiday when I am walking down the dirt street, a woman calls me into a shop, embracing me and taking my hand, “I am Hanan’s mother. Thank you so much for helping her that day.” Which day, I wonder. Ah, that day! Hanan!

I think of her and of the last thing we set in order in her house, the two smooth wooden hearts her husband crafted, “One for As’ad and one for me,” she told me, blushing and smiling. The hearts of the home were among the few things the Army did not desecrate. Hearts are beyond its reach.

Dr. Annie C. Higgins specializes in Arabic and Islamic issues and is conducting research in Occupied Palestine.