Past a waist-high metal gate, through twin sets of gardens, children rush to join me as I make my way to the house. At the front door, I am greeted by a solemn faced man, Salaam Aleikum, he says. Peace be upon you. After shaking hands and exchanging greetings, I am told we cannot meet in the main sitting room. It is near the main road and this is where the Israeli tanks roam.
Another morning, another visit to yet another martyr’s home.
Tanks rule the towns and villages, while F-16s and Apaches rule the skies above Tulkarem. My first night at the Red Crescent, where I stayed for two weeks, I was unable to sleep due to the constant chopping of Apaches overhead. Later, in the Summer School courtyard, children directed my attention to an Apache overhead, apparently surveilling the town for future missile attacks. “Maybe they will kill us”, some of the children shouted in perfect English. This is the humor of children whose schools and homes have been destroyed by missiles and tank mortar. Israeli tanks shoot into this family’s home because it is on the main street where the tanks spend most of their time grinding up and down the streets and sidewalks, shooting down street lamps, running over the city’s beautiful metal gates. In all the villages and towns I visit in the West Bank, the homes nearest the tank’s path receive the most shelling and are covered in fist-sized pockmarks.
I am ushered into another sitting room.
Walid was fourteen years old on November 6, 2001 the afternoon he was killed the Israeli military. He was throwing stones at a tank. For this, he was shot, by a tank, in his chest. When he turned to run, he was shot, again, in his back. He died before he could reach the hospital.
Coffee is served on silver trays; small chocolate samples are passed along. Two photo albums are brought to me by another, younger, son, Mohammad. Inside the wide photo album cover: “Walid as a baby. Walid as a toddler. Walid as a child wrapped inside in the flag of Palestine, lifted in the air, through the tank torn streets of Tulkarem by hundreds of weeping boys and men.
Since September 29, 2001, the start of the Second Intifada, 1,724 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli military. 324 of the dead are children under the age of 18.
Five months after Walid was killed, his father was taken by the Israeli military at a checkpoint. His younger son, Mohammad, who is twelve, was with his father in the taxi when the soldiers took his father away. When the soldiers removed Mohammad’s father from the taxi, Mohammad asked, repeatedly, “Why are you taking my father away?” The soldiers replied, ” He is a wanted man”.
Mohammad’s father was wanted in the same way his sons Mohammad and Walid are wanted, the same way all boys and men in Palestine are wanted. The Israeli military arrests and detains Palestinian boys and men under “administrative detention”, a means by which the Israeli military can take a boy or man at gunpoint to an Israeli prison for no reason. After three months of prison, the detained receives a court trial where another three month can be added to the prison sentence without evidence of wrong doing.
During my stay in the West Bank, it was rare for me to come across a Palestinian man who had not been arrested or detained at some point. As a volunteer with the Red Crescent, I learned of the frequency with which the Israeli military soldiers harassed and threatened the ambulance drivers. Tales of being forced to undress before Israeli soldiers were common. It was also common for soldiers to shoot at the ambulances while in transit. One night, while traveling in the ambulance, we came across two tanks. We immediately stopped, but the tank, before us, continues to move toward the ambulance until it was a mere hand’s length from the front of the ambulance window, the barrel of the tank directed at myself and the driver. When the driver, backed up in response, the tank moved forward, again. After being ordered, by speaker, to exit the ambulance, we were asked questions, the soldier’s machine guns aimed at us. And all of this was done in the presence of Internationals. It is difficult to imagine the behavior of soldiers when white Internationals are not present.
Recently, in Tulkarem, boys aged 6 and up have been “arrested” and detained for three days by the Israeli soldiers. I spoke with 12 year old boys who were “arrested” by the soldiers and detained for three days inside a military jeep in the sun with no food or water. When I asked “Why?, the boys were unable to find an answer. These same twelve year old boys have scars on their necks and faces from being beaten by soldiers with guns.
After Mohammad’s father was taken, Mohammad was removed from the taxi, handcuffed and blindfolded and left beneath a tree.
When Mohammad enters the room, his arms are loaded down with bullets, tear gas canisters, a missile, and various sized ammunitions shot from tanks, Apaches, and F16s. He stands before me, in silence, waiting for a response. “Made in America”, he says, finally.
The children I meet in Palestine collect the various weaponry aimed at them by the Israeli military. During a visit to the Tulkarem summer camp, the children bring me live bullets shot from a tank just two days earlier. Tulkarem, like much of the West Bank, has been under non stop curfew. The day of the bullets in the school yard, the Israeli soldiers announced curfew was lifted for four hours from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. To everyone’s shock, at noon, one after into the lifting of curfew, the soldiers began shooting into the crowds of people shopping. The children were playing in the school courtyard when a tank began shooting bullets into the yard.
After photographing the weapons, I peer closer at the tear gas canister. In English are a set of warnings, one of which reads tear gas should not be aimed at people as doing so may result in death. Despite this, or because of this, the soldiers continue to shoot tear gas at crowds and at children.
Another round of tea, another round of chocolate and photographs. Walid was fond of soccer. In photos he looks like a typical teenager with his handsome face and high cheekbones. When I ask the family whether they have anything they would like me to tell America, on their behalf, this is what they say:
“Nowhere in the world do people use F-16s against people with no weapons”, and ” We want two countries with no problems. That is all.”
When I ask Mohammad, who is sitting with two friends on a beautiful gold and red rug at his mother’s feet, what he and his friends wish for, he replies:
“We want to live as all children in the world live. I want to play soccer in the fields, not in the streets. I want to dance and sing”, and “We want to live as children in America do”.
Cynthia Cruz is a poet living in New York City whose work has been published or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, Pleaides, Chelsea, Third Bed, and Spinning Jenny, among others. She is a writer-in-residence with Teachers and Writers Collaborative and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She has been the recipient of various awards including the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award and residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. She recently spent two weeks in Tulkarem