Terror at Close Range: Palestinians Under Siege (11/00)

Tanks surround cities. Helicopter gunships dart above deserted market stalls and abandoned garden restaurants. Sirens call women from shoe stores and banks. School children are turned back at the roads that would lead them to waiting mothers in the suburbs. 

Some of the people fleeing bullets and shells seek out alternative routes, if not to their own home, then to a relative’s. They locate a phone and report that they’re safe – for the moment. "But what about Samir and Fideh? The school closed early. Where could they be? What about Adnan at his pharmacy, and Leila at her office?" 

Waiting mothers and wives know that there will always be one who doesn’t make it home, one who decides he won’t retreat. And boys who stand firm. Their uncles were imprisoned and tortured. Their cousins were shot dead in the head two days before. They’re unemployed. They got nothing from Oslo. Their life is worse now than seven years ago. They pick up rocks on the way, passing the empty ice cream shop, the school, the auto parts store.

Adnan watches from the door of his pharmacy. He returned with the family from Italy six years ago. He’d studied pharmacy there, then stayed and had his own business in Naples. After the signing of the Oslo Accord, he returned to his homeland, but it wasn’t to seek out new opportunities. He came because his aging parents asked him to look after them. They had land in the hills beyond the city and didn’t want to part with it. So, Adnan’s younger brother took care of the olive orchard, while he started up the pharmacy. 

In Bir Zeit near Ramallah, there is a Palestinian pharmaceutical factory. But Adnan bought his supplies from Israel and Europe. He had no confidence in the local factory, whose production was hampered by many problems. They had to import chemicals for their drugs from overseas, but the Israelis began to ban those raw materials, or they were held up at Haifa port and became useless. 

Adnan avoided problems by stocking European drugs. Gradually, they also became difficult to import. Today, most of his stock is Israeli. "I came here to find myself helping build the Israeli economy," Adnan says. "Yes, we manage our own stores. But all our revenue goes back to Israel, one way or another." 

It’s the same for chocolate, soda, processed yogurt, biscuits, and shoes.

Whatever Palestinian families needed, more and more it came from Israeli factories, agents, and wholesalers. In fact, after Oslo, the Palestinians here consumed 25 percent of Israeli exports. They became the Jewish state’s second largest market after the US. 

The pharmacy is on the north road out of Ramallah, near the main route linking Nablus with Jerusalem. From Adnan’s door, it’s just a 10 minute drive to the capital. 

"Do you go to Jerusalem?" I ask. 

"Never, my mother goes when the roads are open. Me? I will never go, not even to pray, as long as I have to take special permission from the Israelis to enter my city.

"Allah is here, in the back of the drug store where I pray," he says smiling. He watches tanks move toward the city. "What is the use of running? To where?" he asks. 

"My house is up the road, in the new Ramallah suburbs, close to Beit El (one of four neighboring Jewish settlements). My father’s trees are nearby the village, in open rocky fields. October is harvest time." So, this week, Adnan’s father and brother must make a choice. Should they try to reach the fields? 

A week before Israeli’s recent military siege on Ramallah, six days before the much publicized and mourned death of the two Israeli undercover agents, what Palestinians feared most had already begun. The Jewish "settlers" were rampaging. And while soldiers under the command of Ehud Barak assaulted the towns, these settlers marked out their targets across rural areas of Palestine. They began with a man, assaulted while alone, harvesting his olives. His burned body was dumped near the main road between Ramallah and El Bireh. 

"Settlers" use different tactics than the soldiers. They know the deserted village roads, and at night they can identify if an approaching car is one of theirs or not. They’re more ideologically driven than other Israelis. Unlike soldiers, they aren’t drafted, but instead voluntarily pioneer the West Bank, believing this land is their sacred, God given right. 

Just as distressing, they believe they’re always at risk from the Palestinians around whom they set up their fortified communities. Thus, their hillside settlements usually overlook Palestinian homes that are dispersed across a valley, unprotected, while their own dwellings are heavily guarded. From any settlement land, these zealots can observe the routine of Palestinian life. They know the vulnerability of the villagers. 

The guns the Jewish militants carry aren’t newly issued. These men and women are always armed. Their rifles rest beside them or lie in the back seat of their cars as they drive to and from work in Israel. These days, they brandish weapons openly as they ambush Palestinians in their homes, orchards, schools, and shops. They move in a mob, with flashlights and dogs, walkie-talkies and vans. 

"Who can you call if you are shot at, or if 

they are outside breaking your windows, smashing your car?" I ask Fatima, a US Palestinian mother in the village below Ramonim. "No one, we have no one to protect us. We built shutters on our windows and we use no lights at night."

Fear among Palestinians heightened after the tortured and charred body of the Om Safaa farmer was found. From then on, they heard shots fired from the surrounding hills into their villages. "At first we thought [the settlers] were trying to scare us, as they usually do. But then Hanaa and his daughter were hit. They were in their home. The bullets came through the window and hit them," Fatima said.

It was "settlers" from Tirza near Nablus who shot at a car returning in haste to the safety of the city on the night of October 3. Sarah Hassan was in her mother’s arms when the bullet hit her in the head. She was just 18 months old.

On Monday, October 9, as soon as the Yom Kippur holiday was over, the settlers let loose their fury, as if to say to the soldiers – who had been using bullets to kill crowds taunting them with stones – "We’ll show you how to deal with these animals." Settlers from camps in and around Hebron began their assault with exceptional ferocity. They attacked Abu Sneineh villagers, the refugee camp at Fawwar, and Beit Hanoun Junction on the same night. They shot to death Mohammed Odwan, then turned on Mohammed Mat’laq from Jama’in village. After killing Mohammed by hacking him with axes, they set his body alight, and left it on a road to make certain the villagers would see it. 

Since then, these Jewish militants have terrorized villagers daily as they run to their homes, huddle in their defenseless apartments, return from a funeral, or venture out to market, hospital, or other Palestinian areas. 

Occupants of the four Jewish forts that encircle Ramallah – Beit El, Ofra, Ramonim, and Pisgot – have been busy every night. On October 11, a mob from Ofra attacked nearby Silwad village, while the Beit El mob shot into El-Bireh villagers’ houses. They also stoned Palestinian cars at the Jalazone refugee camp near Ramallah. 

>From Jenin in the north to Gaza, schoolchildren and schools have become targets. In Khan Younis and Rafah, settlers terrorized children returning from school. They attacked cars on the main road between Jenin and Nablus. They shot at children coming out of their school in Ta’bad near Jenin. The same thing happened in Hossen village near Bethlehem, while another mob attacked a bus carrying handicapped children to Bethlehem.

Near Nablus, a car was attacked by settlers, and Khaled, the driver, was unable to flee. He was kidnapped and hasn’t been seen since. At Erez and Rafah, the north and south borders of Gaza and Israel, settlers attacked parked trucks containing shipments headed for Gaza’s Arab markets. Their contents were burned and left in smoke.

Hebron, of course, is the site of some of the ugliest attacks by Jewish militants on their Arab neighbors. It’s almost encircled by the huge fortification of Kiryat Arab, and a settler colony lies in the very heart of the city. 

Hearing about the assaults, Adnan shakes his head. "What can we expect? We feel those camps of Jewish settlers were put there on the hills and armed just for this event. They are in strategic posts, armed, and fortified. We are in the valleys, unarmed and exposed. Every year, we see their fences move further onto our land, with more towers and spot lights, and more roads linking them together and to their cities. Once the final military assault on us begins, they will join in happily. They do not need to kill all of us, just a few. That is terrorism."

Adnan has to choose. Either he will shrink back from going into his father’s fields to claim his harvest, or he’ll join the young men in the street confronting the Israeli soldiers and the armed mobs of militants.

Barbara Nimri Aziz is a TF Contributing Writer, a producer and host at WBAI in New York. An anthropologist and journalist, she specializes in Middle East issues.