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For anyone who witnessed the results of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in New York City, the scene was horrifyingly familiar, albeit on a smaller scale.
The first evidence of the devastation was seen and felt blocks away from the site–billowing clouds of brown dust that filled the air, stung the eyes, and clogged the back of throats.
The site itself was a landscape of obliteration–the legacy of the Israeli Occupation Forces’ three-day blitzkrieg on a complex of public buildings that included the muqata’a–an enormous command and administrative structure built in the 1920s by the British–a Palestinian security building, part of a prison, and the ministries of agriculture and the interior.
Mountains of still smoldering debris were everywhere. Piles of stones, building materials, wood, twisted metal, shards of glass, crushed cars, and wires dangling crazily from fragments of electrical systems covered the ground.
The Israeli soldiers assaulted the city on Wednesday searching for "wanted men" for the purpose of "national security." The siege followed the death of an Israeli soldier last Sunday when a group of soldiers entered the Old City by foot and engaged in a shooting clash with Palestinian resistance fighters.
The soldiers had used high grade military explosives to blow up the buildings in blasts so loud and powerful they could be heard all over the city. Windows and doors in surrounding buildings, most of which are residential homes, were blown out.
In addition to the destruction of public buildings, the Israelis killed at least six Palestinians and injured 85 before leaving the city in their armored vehicles Friday after dark under cover of a final massive explosion they set at the building complex.
Buried and half buried in the ruins of the Ministry of the Interior were hundreds of thousands of file cases and documents–birth and death certificates, identification records, passports and other travel documents, ledgers of hand written information–a heritage of historical information about Nablus residents that covered more than 100 years of successive Palestinian occupations under the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, the Jordanian kingdom, and the current Israeli regime.
"We offered to give the Israelis the keys of the building so they could search it to make sure there was no one hiding there, but that was not good enough for the Israelis, who insisted on demolishing everything," said Abed Al Illah Ateereh, the director of the Ministry of the Interior in Nablus.
Ateereh was at the site Saturday morning directing dozens of municipal employees and volunteers sifting through the piles of wreckage and digging in the ruins in an effort to retrieve the few documents that were salvageable..
It was not an easy task.
"There is 100 percent damage," Ateereh said. "They destroyed the building completely, but that wasn’t enough for the Israelis. They then used their Caterpillar bulldozers to churn up everything and mix all the documents with the soil so that nothing is able to be preserved," Ateereh said.
The ministry had at least 175,000 individual case files each containing multiple documents. It will be impossible to recover an entire case file, Ateereh said. Some of the newer documents are backed up on a computer, but the old historical records are priceless and irreplaceable.
"Passports, birth certificates, family information, identity records–all the kinds of information that an interior ministry would keep are all gone. These documents were used not only by Palestinians, but also by UNICEF and other agencies and foreigners who came to the ministry to do research," Ateereh said.
The destruction will have an immediate impact on thousands of people who intended to travel out of the country soon–students going abroad to continue their education, old people or sick people seeking medical care, people planning to visit family and anyone who depended on the ministry’s records.
Refugees in exile and in local refugee camps may also be impacted by Israel’s destructive spree. Several refugees from the Nablus area who are now in Syria came to the ministry for proof of their history and status as refugees, Ateereh said.
The Israeli military also attacked the Ministry of the Interior in Gaza earlier this month, and recently, journalist Amira Hass reported in Haaretz newspaper on a new Israeli clamp down to stop Palestinians in exile and the non-Palestinian spouses of Palestinian residents in the West Bank from entering the country.
Observers of the conflict said the destruction of personal identification records may indicate a new phase in Israel’s ongoing policy of ethnically cleansing the indigenous Arab population while the Jewish state continues its land grab through construction of the Apartheid Wall, expansion of its illegal settlements, and expropriation of around 28 percent of the West Bank in the Jordan Valley, some of the best agricultural land in the country.
Nablus Mayor Adly R. Yaish was also at the site early Saturday morning consulting with Ateereh on the situation. Yaish said the devastation of the public buildings was deliberate and unjustifiable.
"This is a civilian institution where all the reports for people are kept. You can see they were determined not only to destroy it, they mashed it and turned it upside down. These documents are from 100 years ago. They destroy everything," Yaish said.
Asked if the city could afford the massive clean up effort, Yaish said, "Of course, the city has no money for this kind of clean up."
The city also has no means of testing whether the Israelis used any chemicals or depleted uranium in their explosions, Yaish said. None of the workers digging through the debris were wearing masks or other protective gear.
The city will declare an emergency and refer people to other cities to try to solve the problem, at least temporarily, Ateereh said.
The city also plans to take legal action against Israel for its wanton destruction.
"We plan to take this case to the international court. We will work on it and we plan to contact all kinds of humanitarian institutions in the United States and everywhere about this injustice and violation of human rights. We hope everyone will express the Palestinians’ feelings of suffering from this kind of operation," Ateereh said.