In the wake of a recent military operation inside the borders of pre-1948 Palestine, which claimed 17 lives, the Israeli occupation forces re-occupied Jenin 17 days ago. The military re-invasion’s official pretext is a search to arrest or assassinate 21 wanted activists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, however, as in previous campaigns involving large-scale collective punishments, the Israeli forces present here continue to illustrate that while only a minimum of its manpower — in the form of commandos and special forces — is actually being used in this hunt, the majority of the over 1,000 troops presently residing here are equipped with a very large number of Merkava tanks, armoured jeeps, bulldozers, Apache helicopters, live ammunition, rubber bullets, stun grenades, pepper gas, and racism — which all translate into weapons of considerable destruction when unleashed on a confined civilian population. The troops are clearly stationed with orders to collectively punish, brutalise, and humiliate the entire population of Jenin camp and city, and to continue in the perpetration of the types of war crimes seen on such a massive scale during the April invasions.
From the beginning of June onwards with the imposition of a suffocating curfew — enforced by live ammunition and resulting in an almost daily death toll of students, journalists, market workers, olive harvestors, activists, taxi drivers, mothers, fathers, and children — Jenin has essentially been under re-occupation.
This is the longest period of time that both the camp and city have been under effective 24-hour curfew without respite, since the April massacre. Water and electricity lines were cut over two weeks ago and any attempt to repair them is met with either the detention or arrest of municipial workers. With the targeting of any groups or individuals that attempt to provide such basic rights as healthcare, running water and bread, a number of Red Crescent ambulance drivers and paramedics, water truck drivers, the entire staff of the only functioning bakery in town, local UN workers, doctors, and the head of a local group that provides support for Palestinian political prisoners, were all arrested in the course of one day and detained at Salem military base.
In the course of the house to house searches by the Israeli occupation forces during which, generally, everything that can be broken is broken — plates and windows smashed, wedding photos and pictures of shaheed (lit. “martyrs”, typically family members killed by Israel) torn up, clothes burnt, cooking pots shat into, mattresses slashed open, walls grafittied, life’s savings, cell-phones and gold stolen, people beaten and insulted — over 1,500 Palestinian men between the ages of 13-65 were rounded up and taken into detention at both Salem and Jelame military bases.
Most of these men are held for 2-3 days — blindfolded, handcuffed, often stripped down to their underwear, beaten severely, held without food or water — before being released, sometimes with their IDs (which are the Israeli equivalent of the Apartheid-era’s pass cards) confiscated, which can result in being held for up to three months in administrative detention if re-arrested without the ID card. When released, some of the detainees were threatened with death if they tried to return to their homes before an Israeli withdrawal from Jenin, and have spent the last week with friends or family in surrounding villages, while others face the risk of being shot as they return on foot on deserted streets where curfew is being enforced by snipers and foot patrols of trigger-happy soldiers.
Those who have not yet been released are thought to have been more formally arrested and will probably join the ranks of the over 9,000 Palestinian political prisoners arrested since early April and held in overcrowded Israeli prisons (over a 1,000 are of them held in administrative detention, ie. without charge) regularly tortured, without regular access to lawyers. Trials — if held — are held in military courts, by soldiers, in Hebrew, no family visits (holders of West Bank IDs have been prohibited from visiting their family members for prison visits since the start of this Intifada except through co-ordination with the Red Cross which, in the context of Palestine has shown itself as inept at best, complicit at worse. As has the UN, UNRWA, etc., through it’s regular submission to Israeli bullying and it’s policy of remaining ‘apolitical’ and ‘neutral’ even when its foreign workers are on the ground witnessing war crimes and tremendous human rights violations, clearly have a responsibility to speak out but rarely do
Over the course of the past 17 days, between 35-40 homes have been occupied by the Israeli army. In all of these homes, with the exception of two (where the families were allowed to come and go from room to room) the entire populace of the homes were locked into one room — sometimes up to 40 people with little or no food, drinking water or access to a toilet. To gain permission to go the kitchen to cook food, to use the toilet, to gain access to medical care, required families engaging in often hours-long negotiations with the soldiers. If permission was granted, the activities were then done at gunpoint, that is, both women and men are forced to use the toilet at gunpoint, which here is a source of intense shame for women.
The official Israeli reason for the imprisoning of people in their own homes differs only from any logical person’s interpretation of the act in the language used to describe the violation — the army calls it a “security measure” to deter any attacks on the soldiers in the houses by Palestinian fighters, the rest of the sane world knows it as “human shields”. Human shields, despite the fact that a decision was passed in the Israeli supreme court in May prohibiting the further use of unarmed, unprotected Palestinian men, women, and children, being pushed ahead of fully-armed, bulletproof vested Israeli soldiers into possible lines of fire — often handcuffed and sometimes blindfolded — have been used repeatedly over the past 17 days, in the house-to-house searches and trashings.
With Palestinians facing arrest or being shot at if they try to move outside their homes, the responsibility of trying to assume some of the burden for the very resilient, courageous people around us falls on the shoulders of the four foreigners on the ground here at the moment, to carry food and medicine to the inhabitants of the occupied homes, to stay with families at risk of home demolitions or violence because of a family member’s affiliation to a resistance group, or to accompany soldiers on house-to-house searches in the hopes of minimizing some of the brutality inflicted on the people of Jenin, or trying to get in between the daily clashes where soldiers use live ammunition through snipers’ scopes with an aim-to-kill policy against cooped-up, stone-throwing, passionately mature children, most of whom lost at least one family member or their home in April.
As much as the incredibly racist Israeli mindset allows for our minor interference in their operations which repel us to the cores of our respective beings, being white, foreign, is a privilege that we all exploit here, however reluctantly. In that vein, I visited the house of friends of mine, the Abul-hija household, on a daily basis for 14 of the 17 days it was occupied. For the first three days that it was occupied 14 of the 15 family members were held in one room while one of the brothers, a 50-year-old who had just undergone a colon operation, was held in a small, dark, windowless room by himself — without a mattress, blanket, water or food for three days.
When I found out that he was being held, and convinced the soldiers to allow him to join the rest of his family in their collective captivity, I challenged them about the legitimacy of treating a human being in a manner that they would not subject even a dog to in Tel Aviv or whatever internationally recognized illegal settlement they came from. They told me that they were “teaching him a lesson”. One of Muhammud’s brothers had been part of Hamas. He bled to death from a shoulder wound in April because not all the international condemnation in the world could get one ambulance into a refugee camp during a massacre. The soldiers had found a picture of this brother with a weapon (not at all uncommon among Palestinian young men) and Muhammud was punished because a family member chose to take a stand, and had been active in the social infrastructure of Hamas — which is often overshadowed by the actions and strategies of it’s military wing — in it’s targeting not only of soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, but also of Israeli civilians within ‘48, which is a cause of much debate even within Palestine itself, as to whether it is a legitimate strategy — strategically and morally.
Hamas’ social wing, however, like that of Islamic Jihad and to a lesser extent that of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and the PFLP, fills the void left by a very corrupt, very inept Palestinian Authority — whose complicity in the facilitation of Israeli assassinations and arrest of almost the entire infrastructure of the armed or political resistance to the occupation was glaringly obvious from April onwards. The nature of these groups, with local community organizing, is that they provide both a welfare system and a variety of services that the government doesn’t. Because their aims are legitimate — an end to a brutal military occupation and a liberated Palestine — they can speak to the pain of their people, over 3 million oppressed people living in a series of increasingly smaller concentration camps and denied not only the right to resist but also to exist. The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, speaks for the preservation of their own material interests and little else, and thus cannot command the same legitimacy or support.
The Abul-hija family’s children, all nine of them, were allowed out once in the entire time of their captivity — 17 days — into my “custody” as the soldiers phrased it when they allowed me to take the children for a short walk around their olive grove. They followed us around videotaping the withdrawn, exhausted kids, most probably to add to the video library of of the ‘IDF benevolent occupiers’ — an Israeli army video camera is always on hand for the one time out of every fifty they allow an ambulance to evacuate a wounded mother of five, shot at close range while trying to buy bread for her family, because the basket she is carrying looked like a “security threat” to a sniper with a telescopic sight.
The same language “to teach them a lesson” was screamed at me through a window by a soldier four days ago as I stood outside an occupied house with the mother of a 12-year old boy who was being held inside. The’them’ was the boy and his mother. The boy, Ahmjed, had thrown stones at a soldier. Against his gun, and uniform and what he represents to most stone-throwing children which is an occupying force of oppression and destruction — destruction of Ahmjed’s home, future and family — five of his relatives were killed during April, including his uncle Jamaal, who was shot at close range and then driven over by a tank until his body (I saw it in April — or rather smelled it before I realized that it was a human body) was only a sheath of skin and crushed fragments of bone.
The “lesson” that they tried to teach Ahmjed was to fear — as we tried to wrench open the locked door we could hear the beating that lasted all night as his mother wept outside and a group of adults put a hood over the head of a skinny 12-year old and beat him savagely. The same “lesson”: to fear and comply or risk subjugation by force they tried to beat into the memory of ten other children between the ages of eight and thirteen on the same night in different occupied houses.
There is no sense of accountability when dealing with the Israeli occupation forces — they have gotten away with and continue to get away with far greater violations in their assault on Palestinian culture, identity, resistance, livelihood, infrastructure, and well being — as another soldier screamed down to us as we implored them to stop “he’s lucky we don’t kill him”.
One of those killed and the majority of those wounded over the past two weeks (16 people shot over the course of the past 17 days, which is actually a record low for Jenin — from June onwards there has generally been a much steadier, higher death toll) 14 of those are deemed children by international standards concerning physical age, although most Palestinian parents stress that childhood does not really exist in a place where schools are targeted by gunfire and closed and their childrens’ playgrounds become running battles with the tanks. A couple that I know say that’s the hardest realization, knowing that they cannot keep their children safe, no matter how hard they try — that they cannot shelter their 10-year-old 24 hours a day.
I was standing next to a young friend of mine 15 days ago, trying to get in between a group of stone-wielding children and three snipers positioned in a nearby building. I wasn’t particularly worried for Khaled because he was much younger than the rest of the group and I was busy trying to put my body in between the snipers’ scopes and the older boys, whom I thought more likely to be targeted. Khaled, a 13-year-old with empty hands was standing next to me when a sniper shot him just below the heart, and lay in my arms for a full 3 minutes choking on his own blood until an ambulance, under fire, could get to us. Khaled lived, others don’t.
Having lived in Jenin camp since April 16 I’ve witnessed more deaths, in their different forms, than I thought possible for the human heart to bear. One adapts though, to be able to process all the collective pain that is Jenin refugee camp now, and remain strong, to witness small limbs torn apart by bulldozers that leveled the main neighborhood, or the ten bodies of men and women and one of a small girl, in her nightgown — curled in the foetal position — that we dug out with shovels and picks and our bare hands in April because man made disasters don’t warrant the type of international attention and deployment of search and rescue teams that natural disasters do.
To grow to love and respect a community while choosing to stay here to try to assume some of the burden that an incredibly brave, strong, loving, spiritual race of people are being forced to carry in this long, painful walk to freedom and choosing to share in the pains and joys of that struggle and the people who inhabit it — of making friends and loving them and witnessing the casualness with which they’re killed — a stray bullet — or the intent — having dogs set upon them, before every bone in their body is broken, before being shot at close range through the head.
I have a young friend — a little girl called Samah — whose two young uncles were killed within an hour of each other in the April massacre. She sits out on her front step every afternoon and draws a picture about her day. I visited her family in early March when I was still living in Balata refugee camp in Nablus and she still had her two uncles, and we were both considerably younger then we are now. After the invasion, amidst all her depictions of tanks, and Apache helicopters and brave, bloodied smiling young men fighting to the death while clutching a Palestinian flag were drawings of stones with tears coming out of them. When I asked her about them she said that April was such a sad time that even the stones wept — if stones can weep you can imagine what Jenin does to the human heart. Sharon called the camp a ‘nest of cockroaches’, Hamas called it a ‘nest of angels’, both living and dead. Today Samah’s picture showed a sun with a cloud over it’s eyes “because it doesn’t want to see what is going on down below”.
Fifteen homes have been blown up over the past 17 days, the market place destroyed, every window in town smashed, stores vandalized and looted by Israeli soldiers, two schools shelled, the mosques and bakeries trashed, the roads reduced to dust by tank tracks, schools, universities, and offices closed. A few days ago a lone tank drove around town uprooting every tree that lines the main road before driving into the graveyard, destroying an entire wall and all of the graves in the eastern section. On the first day of Ramadan the first floor of the national hospital and the courtyard of a maternity hospital were teargassed from an army jeep as soldiers yelled out “Happy Ramadan!”
Most residents of Jenin readily point out what becomes more obvious with each successive, random act of desecration and material damage — that this is not a military campaign. This new campaign, as many others, is a campaign of terror, a form of collective punishment for being Palestinian, for refusing to be broken, that in return for refusing to give up a righteous fight, for freedom and dignity, that people can expect no mercy at the hands of the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) — that there is no refuge for vulnerable human flesh, that no place is sacred — not a home, or a hospital, or a mosque. That Palestinians continue to defy the status quo — a culture of imposed death — by continuing to live and learn and struggle for everyday existence is testament to a strength that continues to throb in the veins of every man, woman and child and which speaks its truth to any observer.
Caoimhe Butterly is an Irish national who lives in Jenin Refugee Camp and has been working in solidarity with the Palestinian community in Jenin since March 2001. Her activities include providing moral support and physical protection to
children as well as adults in homes, schools, streets — where children are especially vulnerable, ambulances and other venues where the Israeli Army poses a threat to people’s lives.