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The Knock-Knock of a Sledgehammer

Sequestered in Nablus

by SCOTT HANDLEMAN

On August 21 in Nablus, soldiers imposed a curfew on the Old City and conducted house-to-house manhunts in the garbage-strewn streets. International observers tagged along behind the soldiers, checking up on the inhabitants.

Soldiers on the roof of one house smashed a hole in an antiquated stone wall, purportedly to ease their movement across rooftops. I sat below in a living room adorned with two framed Koran verses, an ornamental clock, and a shelf of knick-knacks. Also present in the living room were the man of the house, several women and children, a sleeping infant, a few Palestinian medics, and a human rights volunteer from Spain. Other persons were sequestered in the bedroom across the staircase.

The soldiers were using a sledgehammer. Downstairs, over thump of hammer and crunch of falling rock, I attempted conversation with Bashir, the man of the house, who spoke little English. An alarming crash and thud interrupted us. Two small girls ran in from across the hall, sobbing in terror. It turned out that a rooftop soldier, standing on the corrugated plastic awning, had crashed through to the floor of the house. The drop was extremely high–I would guess 15 or 20 feet, from later observation. He had broken his leg.

A prisoner in his own living room, Bashir spoke in agitation with Palestinian medics, now in the hall. Soon, one of the medics, a woman named Annan Qadri, was forced into our room. She had seen the soldier fall, and had run to the roof to alert the other soldiers. Qadri told me that the soldiers had not been concerned about their comrade’s fate before she alerted them, as they thought he had fallen only a short distance. She emphasized that the injured soldier’s fate had lain in the Palestinans’ hands as he writhed on the ground, separated from his gun. Qadri was upset that, despite her manifest goodwill and offer of paramedic assistance, the soldiers had violently shoved her away. She contrasted the medics’ peacemaking offer with the Israeli military policy that delays the passage of Palestinian ambulances at checkpoints.

We were not allowed to open the door. We heard the soldier’s moans, crackle of walkie-talkies, boots running up and down stairs.

The soldiers were in a foul mood. At first, the living room was palpably fearful. What vengeance might they inflict? A grown woman cried. Later, as it became apparent that no arbitrary punishment was immediately imminent, a widely-felt schadenfreude found expression. A plump woman in a hijab grinned and snapped her fingers at the moans.

Qadri’s father was the landlord of the property. Someone produced photos from the previous assaults on this house, coinciding with the military invasions of Nablus in April and June 2002. During one invasion, soldiers broke down the living room wall to open a connection to the neighbor’s house. In the other, they made a large hole in the living room floor, opening a passage to the vegetable stall below. In the military invasion of Nablus of April 2002, an 18-day curfew was imposed and the Israeli military killed 105 Palestinians, including three colleagues from Qadri’s hospital.

I asked Qadri why she thought the soldiers seemed so determined to wreak destruction on this particular house. She assured me that the house had no military interest. She said that the purpose of the manhunts and searches is "to have input on the psychology of the people. So that in the future, we will accept any solution. We are so tired."

SCOTT HANDLEMAN is a lawyer based in Berkeley, California. He just returned from a month on the West Bank.