War in a very small place

East Jerusalem, March 21 — We sit in a Jerusalem hotel on Friday night — the third night of the war — watching what looks like the beginning of Operation Shock and Awe, or some variation of it, in Baghdad, wondering how our former colleagues on the Iraq Peace Team are faring under this massive bombardment, wondering how frightened they must be, wondering how we would be responding ourselves if we were there.

We are not there, but we have another war to report on, another civilian population under attack and siege. We went to Jenin in Palestine on Thursday. It was profoundly shocking and awe-inspiring itself, provoking troubling thoughts about how supposedly civilized soldiers and governments can slaughter, as the United States is doing in Iraq, as Israel has done in Jenin and elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza, with such abandon and such unconcern.

We entered Jenin with considerable difficulty. Two Israeli military checkpoints, about two miles apart, close off the main road into town, imprisoning the 100,000-plus inhabitants, “protecting” the surrounding Israeli settlements from the Palestinians inside. We arrived in a taxi owned and driven by an East Jerusalem Palestinian who has yellow Jerusalem license plates, which allow him to drive more or less freely throughout Israel and the territories controlled by Israel, unlike West Bank Palestinians, who have white plates (or green in the case of taxis) that immediately identify them as Palestinian. Nonetheless, Raja’i, our driver, is himself a Palestinian, which inevitably imposes some limitations on his freedom of movement. On this particular day, the young Israeli soldier in charge of the first checkpoint decided that no taxi would enter Jenin, and no amount of arguing over the next half hour would change his mind. We and Raja’i could walk if we wanted. It was cold and windy, but Raja’i, more than we, was absolutely determined that, having come this far, we were going to get into Jenin, so we walked, passing through the second checkpoint on foot, uneventfully. The Israeli soldier at this checkpoint urged us to be careful. He was much more worried about those “terrorists” inside Jenin than we were.

On the other side of this second checkpoint, after considerably more walking, we found a man in an auto junkyard willing to drive us into town. This part of town was eerily quiet and deserted, like some wild west ghost town, or the devastated French towns you see in World War II movies. Until we found the junkyard, there was no sign of human habitation: nothing moved, no people or animals appeared, no stores were open, no houses appeared to be inhabited. As we drove into town, the driver pointed to a large building totally destroyed and said in halting English that 80 years ago this had been the British Mandate headquarters for the Jenin district. We later discovered that this building, housing police headquarters, a court, a jail, and a health clinic and food distribution center for the poor, had been the headquarters for every governing authority since Mandate days in the 1920s — not only British, but Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian. There is nothing much left now. We’ve seen that this has been the fate of every Palestinian Authority headquarters in every city in the West Bank, including Yasir Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah. Every one of these headquarters complexes has been reduced to rubble, nothing left undamaged, upper floors usually pancaked onto the ones below.

We sat drinking tea in a makeshift office hearing the story of the building’s destruction from Brigadier Faiz Arafat (no relation to Yasir Arafat), the Palestinian Authority governor and police chief of Jenin. Through an interpreter, he described the Israeli attack. At midnight on September 11, 2001, just hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, 70 Israeli tanks encircled the building and a special unit of Israeli military forces placed explosives throughout the building. As F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters attacked from the air, the explosives were detonated simultaneously to collapse the building. “We are only police here, not an army, to make sure that things in the city are fluid and work right,” said Brigadier Arafat. “We never thought the Jewish would do this. We had no equipment to fight against them, to fight against tanks and planes, so we had to leave.” On a tour of what remains of the complex, we walked through the still-standing but heavily damaged medical clinic. Medical records still lay scattered on the floor; one paper, apparently a list of clinic visitors for one day, listed the complaints in Arabic and English: chest pain, abdominal pain, sore arm.

“They did this to stop all talk about peace,” Faiz Arafat observed. We had to agree that he was right. He also pointedly reminded us that the F-16s and Apaches that attacked the building came from America. He lamented that Americans are doing nothing to restart negotiations. “War just makes what you see here,” he said. “Peace will be much better.” As we drove away, he said, speaking in English for the first time, “My best wishes to your American people, and we hope for peace. Inshallah.”

Moments later, we arrived in the center of the Jenin refugee camp, the scene of horrific destruction during Israel’s month-long siege of the West Bank in April last year. This is the place where Israeli bulldozers destroyed a massive area in the heart of the camp, an area the size of a large city block in a major American urban center, where thousands of people had lived in closely packed, multi-story buildings. As you round the corner and come upon the now-empty plaza, it takes the wind out of you. The feeling of sadness is overwhelming. The rubble of thousands of lives has now been leveled and buried under dirt, as if nothing ever stood there, but the damage to buildings on the edges is still evident: many buildings burned, some tilting, some partially collapsed, the corners ripped off others where bulldozers didn’t quite fit in the narrow alleyways. As on the outskirts of town, there was almost no activity here. A few shops were open here and there, but most were closed. Sometimes someone sat outside a house, staring vacantly. The only real sign of life was a large number of children, apparently just getting out of school, who played in the vast empty area, a few boys kicking a soccer ball around, the younger kids clustering around us, curious and friendly. They all delighted in having their pictures taken. Life goes on even in the worst circumstances.

This whole scene is incomprehensible. The suicide bombings that Israel said were the provocation for this massive attack on Jenin and every other West Bank city were horrific and indefensible, but nothing justifies the destruction and wanton murder that Israel committed here. Israeli fear is not enough to explain what happened here.

We encountered extensive destruction, although nothing on this scale, in Nablus two days earlier. Here the police headquarters has also been destroyed, the streets have been torn up by Israeli tanks, streets are blocked by huge mounds of dirt wherever Israel has decided no one should drive, piles of rubble and mounds of flattened and burned automobiles line the streets, no traffic lights work and no policemen keep order. Inside the old city of Nablus, the real heart of town where the alleyways are extremely narrow and markets and commerce used to thrive, the destruction was even more evident. We first encountered a large building collapsed to the height of one story, formerly the metalworks shop and home of an elderly man who is now without resources. Walking farther in, we saw most stores shuttered; no one has the money to buy anything, goods for sale cannot get into town, taxis have no business because they cannot get out, people sell whatever they have from carts on the street, the economy has screeched to a halt.

In the center of the old city, Nablus‚ most venerable institution is no longer there. Three months ago, Israeli tanks and bulldozers destroyed the soap factory for which Nablus has long been known. Soap from Nablus, made from olive oil, has been famous throughout the Middle East for more than a century. Now not even a piece of equipment is left undamaged, and the building is only a shell. Farther down the street, we stood in front of a mosque damaged by Israeli tanks and soldiers. “They shit in there and do all sorts of things,” Raja’i said. On the walls of the mosque, as on walls everywhere in Nablus and every other Palestinian city, there are posters of Palestinians killed by Israelis. These are the martyrs or shahids about whom we hear so much in the U.S., but they are not all suicide bombers, as most Americans think. The posters show little kids, young men, in one case an infant, in another case a very respectable looking middle-aged doctor with the symbol of the Red Crescent pictured behind him. Some of these people are fighters, some could probably be called terrorists, but most are civilians killed because they live in the midst of warfare in their cities, and because they are Palestinian.

In Ramallah a few days ago, we met with Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, director of the principal Palestinian medical relief organization in the West Bank and Gaza. When we told him our purpose was to describe the Palestinian plight for Americans, he told us that we should emphasize most strongly how vulnerable and unprotected Palestinians are. This is the obvious and dominant impression that we had already gained wherever we have traveled in the West Bank.

At checkpoints, Palestinians are clearly at the mercy of 19- and 20-year-old Israeli soldiers, who can stop all traffic or let it through as the whim strikes them. Palestinian pedestrians stand patiently in lines, often for hours in the cold rain or the hot sun, waiting for a soldier half their age to signal them to come forward, examine their papers, and say yea or nay. Palestinian trucks are occasionally allowed through, but they wait for hours, sometimes days, in interminable lines, until some young Israeli in a uniform decides he’ll pay attention to them. Produce rots in the meantime; Palestinians inside waiting for whatever the trucks carry go without. These Israeli checkpoints exist outside every Palestinian town, impeding movement between the towns and every place else on the West Bank, where Israelis think of all the land as theirs.

There are myriad other signs of powerlessness. Dr. Barghouti tells us that Rachel Corrie, the American peace activist crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer on March 16 while trying to stop a house demolition through peaceful protest, died of suffocation when the bulldozer piled sand on top of her. Barghouti interprets this act, and the United States’ feeble protest, as an indication of the impunity with which the Israelis can act anywhere, anytime, against the Palestinians and their friends. Suffocation is what is happening to the Palestinians while they wait helplessly. Rachel Corrie’s fate is an indication to us of what would happen to the Palestinians if they adopted a strategy of non-violence. Israel doesn’t seem to care what the nature of the protest; it simply won’t stand for protest of any sort. Rachel Corrie was using non-violent tactics, but she’s now dead, suffocated because non-violence has no impact on Israel.

(Rachel has become a hero to the Palestinians. She was honored with a symbolic funeral in Gaza a few days ago, before her body was sent back to the U.S. for burial. Palestinians carried her body aloft, lying on a stretcher, draped in a Palestinian flag like a Palestinian martyr. Pictures of her death have run in Palestinian newspapers, and when we met with Yasir Arafat in his office, he showed us a series of pictures taken by her International Solidarity Movement colleagues moments before her death. In the first, she is standing in front of the bulldozer, holding a megaphone. The scene is strangely peaceful, almost pastoral: the day is sunny, she is standing on a bright green patch of grass in front of the targeted house; the scene is so disorienting it is difficult at first to recognize what we are seeing. The next picture shows the bulldozer closer to her; the next two show her lying in the sand bleeding from the head and grimacing. This too is incomprehensible.)

Like Rachel Corrie, the Palestinians are totally vulnerable and without protection. This is what vulnerability means: it is the hotel worker in Jerusalem who lives in an outlying village but can’t find work there, who works now in Jerusalem because this is the only way he can earn enough money to feed his family, even though it’s illegal for him to be in the city (because Israelis consider it theirs and will not allow non-Jerusalem Palestinians to enter without a special permit), who can only get home to visit his wife and children every few weeks. Vulnerability is the 73-year-old owner of a metalworks shop in Nablus whose shop and second-story apartment were demolished by Israeli tanks a few months ago, no reason given, leaving him with no place to live and no place to work, and not enough years to start over again. Vulnerability is the woman in Ramallah who sleeps in her clothes every night so that she’ll be ready whenever Israeli soldiers enter the town and come to her apartment or demand that she and her family vacate it, and who cries when she talks about dealing with depression while shut in under curfews that last for weeks. Vulnerability is the Jerusalem man who says he wakes up every morning and looks out the window at the Israeli settlement of Har Homa being built on a hilltop between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a hilltop once uninhabited and tree-covered that was owned by his family until it was confiscated by Israel; he has watched helplessly as the trees were removed, a gash was made in the landscape, and large apartment blocks began to rise up on the hillside.

Virtually every Palestinian village has seen such a settlement grow up across the next valley or on the nearby hilltop, and every Palestinian talks about the contrasts: the fine housing, neat gardens, and nice shops built for Israelis on land confiscated from Palestinians, while Palestinians, who also pay taxes, live with checkpoints, erratic electricity, curfews, water shortages, and few services. Every Palestinian knows that the Israeli settlements ringing his town are deliberately placed to prevent Palestinian expansion.

Vulnerability is the virtually total economic collapse that has followed on the Israeli siege: the closed businesses, the destroyed buildings, the 77% of Palestinians living on less than two dollars a day, the malnutrition, the chronic hunger. Vulnerability is waiting for the Israelis to impose a total curfew on the territories during the Iraq war, which will leave everyone unable to seek medical care, unable to buy food not already stocked up. Vulnerability is the 46 percent of cancer patients and the 42 percent of kidney dialysis patients, according to Dr. Barghouti’s careful statistics, who cannot get treatment even now, even in the absence of a curfew, because of checkpoints and roadblocks. Vulnerability is giving birth at a checkpoint or even dying at a checkpoint because the Israeli soldiers don’t believe or don’t care that the patient must get out in order to seek medical assistance. Vulnerability is not being able to afford a prescription written by a visiting health clinic doctor because the patient doesn’t even have enough money to buy bread. Vulnerability is the olive grove lovingly tended for generations on a terraced hillside, now cut down and burned by vengeful Israeli settlers who want the olives for themselves, or who sell the venerable old trees to Israeli landscapers, or who simply don’t want Palestinians to harvest this staple crop.

Vulnerability is having no security because every city’s police and security forces have been destroyed by Israel. Vulnerability is Yasir Arafat sitting powerless in the one remaining undamaged building in his destroyed headquarters complex, unable even to go out on the street, and a Palestinian government with authority over nothing, whose writ extends nowhere.

Vulnerability is 90 Palestinians killed by Israel in the last 20 days.

Bill and Kathleen Christison are former CIA analysts who worked for a combined 44 years in the agency before retiring in 1979. Kathleen is the author of the highly recommended Perceptions of Palestine, a definitive overview of US Foreign Policy on the Palestinian issue, and The Wound of Dispossession. Bill and Kathleen live in Santa Fe, New Mexico and are visiting the occupied territories.