Under Siege: 2-15 April 2002

I went out of my house today, for the first time in four days. The Israelis allowed us to buy food but we can only be on the streets for two hours. The city is destroyed. Cars on the side of the road crushed flat like pizza. Tanks rolled over them. Trees lay broken and dead, shops destroyed, streets dug out, buildings burning and yet the snipers are still on the rooftops looking for prey.

I wave a victory sign to all Palestinians walking down the streets of Ramallah. They smile back with a victory sign. A foreign refugee-AID volunteer asks me to honk my horn to prove we are alive. Beeb Beeb Beeb. All the cars are now honking the horns. The Israeli soldiers are watching and wondering what is going on here? They thought they killed us all, but we’re still alive.

I wave a victory sign to a carefully hidden sniper carrying an M16, then I give him the finger, he aims to shoot at my car, but, for some odd reason, he doesn’t. I smile at him and speed away.

Two doctors are walking dressed for an operation, I offer a lift, and they step in my car. They both smile. No words are said, just an exchange of warm smiles. We’re alive. We will not die. I know where the doctors want to go, they are looking for a supermarket. I drop them in front of a small store, but only peanuts are available. They buy five kilos. Five kilos of peanuts. They offer me some, I share their feast. The meal is most delicious. I’ve never tasted anything so satisfying. Peanuts.

It starts to rain. It pours. The snipers are still watching, the sounds of the horns are louder than the echo of the rain. The tanks are still there, waiting like wolves for victims.

The streets are full of life, not death. We did not die. We will not die. Life is good.

Ramallah (April, 04, 2002) — Still under siege. We remain in high spirits. We were not allowed out of the houses again today. The Israeli army declared Ramallah a war zone. Funny, I thought this was a vacation of some sort. I am glad the Israelis clarified the situation. All these dead bodies, all this destruction needed an explanation. We finally got one from our benevolent captors. A war zone.

I called my friends in Egypt and around the world, I called my Jewish friends too. Both are in shock. I asked my cousins, the Jewish friends, “are you better off today than you where before Sharon?” I got no direct answer, albeit, I got some anti-terrorism sentiments and “we must defend our civilians” comments. I hear every word over the phone clearly despite of the sounds of the Israeli guns shooting at, oh yes, civilians.

Limited water supply. No bread, electricity is on and off (pun is intended) and the Israeli army is moving from one house to the next looking for terrorists. God, with three million Palestinian-terrorists still alive, the job is difficult to conclude. Two of my terrorist neighbors (one is three years old the other is the CFO of Palestine’s first mobile network) are gingerly looking outside through their window. A father and his daughter, two terrorists, in turmoil. The mother (she is a pregnant terrorist) is asking them to move away from the window. The father, always upbeat, calls me and invites me to his house for lunch. Just think of this reckless invitation. He is willing to share his food and water with his neighbor. Reckless, yet inspiring. I decline, and I offer to come for tea instead. He insists. I decline again.

Inside our complex, two workers (blue-collar terrorists) are going about their business…fixing the generator, checking on the water level in the tanks, looking for more electricity outlets for emergencies and preparing other terrorist activities. A knock at my door. I answer. He stands there with a smile that makes me jealous. He has just changed the flat tire in my car and he is offering me two tangerines and an avocado. I decline. I am tired of declining those tempting offers. He insists. I accept. The avocado looks delicious.

He is from Gaza (another terrorist haven). He insists that the Israelis have planned this entire raid just to come and take him back to Gaza. I try to convince him that he is safe and will remain here working in the complex. He looks at me in shock. How can I miss the fact that he is being pursued? “We’re all pursued, my friend.” I say with pride. He disagrees. A tank hovers by, he rests his case. “I told you they are coming to get me,” he says with a smile. I am jealous again of that smile. How does he do it? I try to smile back. I fail. I try again and again. Failure. His name is Mohamed and he is a heavy smoker. I give him a pack of cigarettes. He smiles. Enough already. He walks away, holding the cigarettes with both hands. A valued gift that he will honor for the next twenty four hours.

The TV is showing a man next to his dead mother and dead brother. Forty eight hours he’s spent next to his dead mother, his dead brother. The Israelis denied him an ambulance. A terrorist he will become. Can anyone blame him?

A message on my mobile phone. More bad news, nine towers are down. What do I do? I feel useless. All my training, all my experience, all the management techniques I know by heart are deemed useless. I was not prepared for this situation. I failed to realize or to plan for this eventuality. I am devastated. At this low point of the day I get a call from Khan Younis, Umm Basma, a subscriber I met in Gaza a few months back. She is checking on me. Umm Basma offers to help in any way. She offers to buy me refill cards to charge my phone remotely. The offer is so innocent, so inspirational. The CEO of a mobile company is being offered refill cards from his subscriber, free of charge, just to help him in this difficult time. My lips are wet, it’s my tears touching my mouth, comforting my soul. Suddenly, I am somebody again.

Ramallah (April, 05, 2002) — We were out today for the second time in nine days. Two hours allowed to get food, drink and other necessary under siege goods. I drive my car to the nearest supermarket. Nothing. Only honey and corn flakes (no milk). I drive to the city center searching for more food variety. The first thing I notice is the asphalt on the streets. I realize for the first time why the Israeli army includes tractors and drilling machines in their arsenal. The asphalt is all uprooted and destroyed. Another anti terrorist technique. But the streets are in good shape compared to the sidewalks. The glass from the windows is on the sidewalks. The glass from the stores and shops is scattered all over. Trees are destroyed (technically killed). The buildings are all black from the smoke, all burnt from the fire. The walls are more holes than walls. The bullet holes are a little bigger than I imagined them to be, a little deeper than I hoped they’d be. Every floor, every window, every door, is riddled with bullets. They are a signature of Israel’s struggle for peace.

I see people in balconies looking cautiously. Shopkeepers are opening their stores just to make believe that business is as usual.

The Israeli army is on every street corner next to their tanks and armored vehicles. They seem surprised. You see, people are not crying and pleading. Palestinians are congratulating each other for just staying alive. Everyone is smiling and everyone is avidly telling his/her story to anyone they see on the streets.

Ramallah city center is filled with people now, most are just happy to be outside. “Hamdellah al Salama, Hakam, park your car and come down for a drink of arak with me.” It’s my friend George with a group of guys hanging out between the rubble. “Hi George, we’re alive.” I shout through the passenger window. I drive for a few meters to the parking lot. My god, there are at least thirty cars that are as flat as a loaf of Palestinian bread. This is not true. It can’t be true.

George is already opening my car door and demanding a big male hug. He walks with me back to his friends. Cameramen and journalists are filming the destruction, photographers are taking picture of “Checkers Mall.” Well, they are taking pictures of what’s left of the “Checkers Mall.” Every store has a crowd of people in front of it seeking food and water. The rule set here is Mothers with babies buy first. That really doesn’t help organize anything, since every Palestinian woman has a few babies.

George introduces me to his friends, and he insists I join him for a shot of arak. I don’t feel like drinking, but George looks me straight in the eye and says, “Hakam, for the past eight days I’ve been at home with my wife.” He didn’t have to say anything else. I take the shot of Palestinian arak. Warm. No ice. It’s sweet and minty.

I excuse myself and cross the street to join a journalist talking to an Israeli soldier standing triumphantly next to his tank.

“Hey soldier, do you speak English?” I say slowly but loud enough for the journalist to hear me. “Yeah, I speak English” the military man answers. “Well, I just wanted to tell you that we’re alive. You didn’t kill us all. Fuck you and have a great day.” I turn away and walk straight to my car. I can hear the soldier shouting obscenities at me, my family, my god and my president. I will not look back. I am too scared to look back.

I need a camera. This is too much. The main square in Ramallah, the Manara Square, is an army barrack. At least thirty tanks and hundreds of soldiers are stationed in the main square, in my town. My town. I look at my favorite falafel store on the road parallel to Manara Square. It’s completely destroyed. That was the best falafel store in the world. I know every worker by name. They know that I like my sandwich spicy.

All traffic signs, lamp-posts, statues, plants, billboards are, like my favorite falafel store, completely destroyed. Phone lines dug out, electric cables burnt and yet people are all insisting to offer Hamdellah al Salama to each other. What Salama? Is this Salama? Are these people crazy or are they blind? It will take us years to re-build the city. Don’t you congratulate me for my safety. Look around you, everyone. I realize that my thoughts are all in vain. George is in a car behind me, his wife is now next to him and his three kids are half way out of the car window. He blasts his horn, sticks out his head and yells “Hakam, Hamdellah al Salama.”

Ramallah (April, 08, 2002) — A letter to the new, improved Sharon. Hey Sharon, I saw you on TV giving your victory speech in the Knesset. Your public relations consultants are doing a magnificent job. Definitely worth the forty million dollars you paid them last year. Worth every American cent.

Your message to the Knesset personalizes Israeli victims, de-humanizes the Palestinians, generates hope to the Israeli public, resonates power and kisses some American ass…big time. Your PR consultants even got rid of your excessively-used brown jacket and your blue, unbuttoned shirt. You’re now a statesman, not a war monger. You are a new, improved, more compassionate Sharon dressed up in a matching suit and tie. A la mode. I am impressed. The only problem is that your diet doesn’t seem to be working.

I had to turn up the volume on my TV, the noise coming from your tanks are way too loud. As you continue your Oscar caliber performance, I can see from my window two tanks and an armored personnel carrier bombing a house on a hill. The house is only half a kilometer away from my window. This is Betounia, Sharon. A town destroyed by your peace efforts. Are there any “innocent civilians” in this house? Of course not, does your army ever terrorize and murder civilians? No, No. In fact, the Israeli definition of terrorism does not include killing civilians with tank shells or rockets from jet fighters, only with suicide bombers. A logical certainty promoted eloquently by the new, improved, more compassionate statesman.

As I listen to you describing how you’ll un-occupy Palestine, your tanks conclude their shelling of the house. Eight peace-promoting soldiers run out of the armored vehicle towards the house. They start to fire their machine guns inside the house. No fire is returned from the house. It takes them about fifteen minutes to wrap up their firing frenzy.

I turn up the volume again. Come on, guys I want to hear Sharon. The soldiers wave to the armored vehicle. Three new, excited soldiers jump out of the armored vehicle and run towards the house. The three new soldiers are convinced that the job remains incomplete. So, they start firing. Again. Now, all soldiers are in a firing competition. Still, no firing is returned from the house. Finally, it’s quite again. But, your soldiers are still implementing your peace plan. They storm the house. They are inside now.

I hear the familiar squeak of an ambulance. It cruises down the hill on the road leading to the house. An Israeli jeep blocks the ambulance’s path. What? Why? I thought you said you have no issues with Palestinian civilians? The ambulance drives back up the hill in defeat, albeit, still squeaking to save face. Of course, you know which army started the fad of blocking ambulances from reaching injured civilians? Do you know who wrote the book on leaving the injured bleeding to death? Well, I’m sure you do, Sharon. My decency disallows me to even mention them in my letter to you. Ahhh, the price of peace, Sharon, is certainly hefty. I salute you general Sharon. I salute you.

I go back to my TV set. You’re still on, preaching peace. You’re not as efficient as your soldiers. They took over the house before you could finish your speech. You are still assuring the Israeli public and the American administration that you are not planning to stay in the territories. I wonder if you will explain to the viewers the thirty four settlements built last year? You don’t. You promptly go on to the next pitch; the “extended hand in peace” routine. Applause. Sharon, you’ve really changed. You are now as slick as Bill Clinton, as smooth as Barlescouni, as soft-spoken as Gandhi. You are the new, improved Sharon. You don’t shout back at hecklers on the Knesset floor. You maintain composure. You offer to live in peace with the Palestinians (or whoever is still alive of the lot). Your soliloquy is staged in a straight, solemn face. Bravo. A well practiced Thespian, you’ve become. Even Sir Olivier applauds your performance. Hell, you almost had me fooled.

Mohamed (see April 4th entry), is knocking at my door. Does he have to interrupt us now, Sharon? I open the door to see Mohamed in a new attire (you are already rubbing on people, Sharon). He shaved. His hair is still wet from a vigorous shower (the water was back on this morning). His just-washed t-shirt is carefully tucked in his freshly ironed pants (the electricity was back on last night). He is holding a pack of cigarettes. He is smoking a cigarette. He smiles at me just to irritate me further. “Look, Hakam, the Jews took the house on the hill in Betounia. See?” He points towards the hill. “I saw that Mohamed.” I answer in an intolerant tone. “No, No look now.” he says with surprising enthusiasm. As I look again, Sharon, I see your soldiers have raised an Israeli flag on the house. Congratulations. Another Israeli triumph. I am dazed at the site of the Israeli flag in my back yard. At what price, Sharon? How many civilians killed in that house? How many will bleed to death laying at the feet of those who shot them? How many will live? How many will live to take their revenge? How many of your people, Sharon, will pay for this? But, honestly now, do you really care?

“Hakam, I think the Jews will allow us to go out again today. Can I come with you? I need some sugar.” Mohamed insists on his smile. I hear your words in the background Sharon, you are proceeding with your sales pitch. I can vaguely hear you talking about a summit with moderate Arabs. The remote comes in handy. I turn you off. Go screw yourself, Sharon. I have to see if I’ll be able to get Mohamed some sugar.

Todah (thank you in Hebrew) and Salam (peace in Arabic).

Ramallah (Tuesday, April 10, or is it Wednesday, April 11? I lost count of the days) — “It’s the 11th of April, Hakam, Wednesday,” my neighbor guides me over the phone. He thinks they might let us out again tomorrow. “Let us out?” How patronizing. But hey, I will not let my pride get in the way of my freedom. If the Israeli army “lets me out”, I’ll come out.

For the past two weeks I’ve been cooking three meals a day and cleaning after three meals a day. The planning stage for meals is an intricate process. I first check what I have in stock, and using a complicated mathematical formula, I subtract the amount needed to cook from the total amount of food available. I then multiply by the number of days I think are remaining under siege and then divide by the effort I deem necessary to conclude my home cooked meal. And Voila! The meal is ready. Gourmet baked beans (out of a colorful aluminum can), and what I think is vegetable soup (out of a convenient plastic pouch).

Ramallah (Thursday, April 12th, 2002) — I wake up early. I am still alive. Good. What remained of Betounia, the town across the hill from my balcony, was bombed all night long. I think the Israeli army does not understand the law of diminishing returns. The price of the bomb shells shot at Betounia is now higher than the value of the actual targets.

My colleague, the sales manager, is calling me. I can see his number on my mobile phone. Like my neighbor asserted yesterday, he tells me he has information that the Israeli army will “let us out” this afternoon. He does not reveal his sources. He announces that “Everything is ready for us to open our showroom, in downtown Ramallah, but only for two hours.” I give him the Ok. The people need the refill cards for their mobiles. The problem, however, is that we are about to run out of this valuable commodity.

The freedom bells ring over Ramallah. The army decides to “let us out.” This time we get four full hours. Praise the lord. It takes me about fifteen seconds to get in my car and drive out of my garage. My neighbor is already ahead of me. How did that happen? Mohamed (see under siege II and IV), is running towards my car. This time he will not take no for an answer. He opens the passenger door and jumps in the car. He smiles and asks me to save my breath because he will not get out of my car until we are in Ramallah. I speed away while singing the theme from James Bond’s “You Only Live Twice.” Mohamed hits a button on the car radio, the news comes on. I stop singing. He smiles.

I drop Mohamed on a street corner downtown Ramallah. No goodbye’s, just a two cordial nods. I drive to the showroom. There are at least nine cars already parked in front of the showroom. Eight busy employees are at the customer service counters. The female-employees are well-groomed and well-dressed. I am impressed. I will not describe us, the male-employees, but I think one can imagine. About thirty customers are in the showrooms. Some are asking for refill cards, others are just socializing. The showroom manager is calling more employees to come to the showroom. He wants to give each employee a carton of cards to distribute in Ramallah. He is on a mission to ensure that every citizen has access to refill cards.

Across the street from the showroom, there is a supermarket with at least ten cars parked outside. There is a truck unloading milk cartons. I step outside to get some drinks for the team. As I am about to cross the street I see an Israeli tank approaching at about 35Km’s an hour. To see a tank going that fast is a chilling sight. To see a tank going that fast inside a city, on a busy street is nerve-racking. The tank is headed towards the supermarket. Silence. Everyone on the street is helplessly watching. There is no way the tank can fit between the cars parked outside the supermarket. There are children in some of these cars waiting for their parents. Thank good for the huge milk truck. It took the hit first. The tank crushed half of the milk truck. The street turns white with wasted milk. What do they say about spilled milk and the futility of tears? The tank shifts gear and swirls a bit to the left. It hits two trees and speeds away from the carnage.

Everyone runs towards the truck. A girl is taking pictures, the milk-truck driver is devastated. He lost everything. A woman next to me is pleading to god. A teenager is avidly describing what he just witnessed to a few friends. A man runs to his car that is parked two meters in front of the truck. His two girls are in the car. He holds them, each in one of his arms. The girls are crying. The father is almost in control. “It’s ok girls, it’s ok” he says softly.

An armored army vehicle is approaching. A soldier’s head is the only part of him showing on top of the vehicle. He is announcing something from a microphone he is holding to his mouth. “To the people of Ramallah, the curfew will be in effect again after half an hour.” His Arabic is not very clear through his thick Russian accent. But all of us understand his message. Our temporary freedom has come to an end. We are still under siege.

Ramallah (April, 15, 2001) — The soldier on top of the tank announces that we are free to roam Ramallah for at least four hours. I am now driving my 4X4 vehicle to JAWWAL’s headquarters. My 4X4 is a luxury I thank god for all the way to the office. By now, I am almost used to the destroyed streets. I am almost used to the alarming smell of rubbish, to the sound of my tires driving over shattered glass, to broken lamp posts and cars flattened like pizza. But I will never get used to the site of uprooted trees laying on the sidewalk, feebly stretching, as if pleading for help.

The parking lot in front of my office building is occupied. Young kids are playing football. Surrounded by dust, the kids are sweating after the ball. The mothers are watching worriedly from the windows of the building overlooking the football pitch. Football and freedom, are somehow related.

I went to my office because I am worried about my colleagues inside the company. The Israeli army raided JAWWAL’s headquarters yesterday. Twenty five soldiers occupied the company for a day and a night. I step in the building looking for my colleagues. There are about five employees waiting for me at the reception. One of the engineers has a camera and asks me to tour the building so as to assess the damage.

The day before, the soldiers came in through the back door. They shot at the security cameras and gathered all the employees in one room, on the first floor. The employees were taken to another building down the street. They spent the night together on the cold floor of a large room.

The soldiers had with them an electric saw and other tools that will open any locked door. All doors were broken even though the keys were available for them to use. To enter the transmission room, they decided to knock the wall down, rather than simply use the keys to unlock the door. Work stations with glass paneling were also smashed. The glass is scattered all over the carpeting.

I continue to take pictures of the damage. A cameraman, from one of the news channels is now with us inside the building He is filming. Other colleagues are checking the inventory. There are many “missing” items, like phones, digital cameras and accessories. Other petty items are also missing like gift sets and CD’s. There are carpenters and technicians already working on each floor, trying to assess the requirements for re-construction. The engineers are checking the main switch with care, as if comforting a sick friend.

I enter my office. There is no office. The doors are gone. Empty boxes are everywhere. It seems that my personal property has been studied avidly by the soldiers. A broken picture frame of my brother, his wife and their baby is laying on the floor. My brother and his family live in Egypt. I haven’t seen them for a while now. I pick up the broken picture frame and I look at my brother. Brother, will I ever see you again? Will I ever hear your baby cry and giggle again? Yes, I will. In fact, you will come here to visit me in Ramallah. You will see a beautiful, modern and clean Ramallah. You will even have lunch with me in this office. That’s a promise, brother. A promise. We will rebuild. We shall overcome.

Hakam Kanafani is CEO of the Palestinian telecommunications company JAWWAL, the country’s first mobile network. Some of his writing about the Israeli invasion has appeared in the British Independent newspaper.