Journalists were ordered out of Ramallah late on Sunday night. It’s an old trick. Whenever the Israeli army wants to stop us seeing what they’re up to, out comes that most preposterous exercise in military law-on-the-hoof: the “Closed Military Area”.
So yesterday was a good day to do the opposite, to go look at what Israel’s army was up to. And I can well see why it didn’t want reporters around.
A slog down a gravel-covered hillside not far from an Israeli checkpoint, a clamber over rocks and mud and a hitched ride to the Palestinian refugee camp of al-Amari on the edge of Ramallah told its own story; a tale of terrified civilians and roaring tanks and kids throwing stones at Israeli Jeeps, just as they did before Oslo and all the other false hopes which the Americans and the Israelis and Mr Y Arafat brought to the region.
Rather than waging a “war on terror” the Israeli soldiers looked as if they had entered the wilderness of occupation, just as they did in Lebanon back in 1982, when “Closed Military Areas” were about as common – and worthless – as confetti. The Palestinians hid in their homes, shutters down, eyes peering from behind blinds, occasionally sneaking on to a balcony to wave when they saw a Westerner in the street. A few children could be seen running between houses. At what age, I wonder, does war transmute itself from a game into a tragedy?
It was a grey, cold, wet day for a “war on terror” and the first part of the journey followed the usual pattern of farce and fear. There were Palestinians aplenty walking down the track to the old quarry south of Ramallah. The Israelis know all about this little by-pass, of course, but usually can’t be bothered to control it.
To tell the truth, it was an Israeli officer at the nearby checkpoint at Kalandia on Easter Sunday who smilingly advised me to enter Ramallah by this little track. And beyond a pile of boulders and dirt and concrete blocks – long ago piled up by the Israelis – was a minibus driver who promised a trip to the Ramallah Hotel.
It was, of course, too good to be true. No sooner had we reached the al-Amari refugee camp – home under occupation of the Palestinians who originally fled their homes in what is now Israel in 1948 – than the drivers’ courage drained away.
A woman called Nadia and her tiny son offered me a guided tour through the camp. There were young men in the streets, tough young men in parkas and jeans who were watching every side road and alley. And there were children around the camp, shrieking with excitement and fear every time an Israeli border police Jeep drove towards them. Everyone was waiting for the Israeli raid to begin.
It was a doctor who offered me a lift to central Ramallah, a journey we accomplished with considerable anxiety, driving slowly down the side roads, skidding to a halt when we caught sight of a tank barrel poking from behind apartment blocks, forever looking upwards at the wasp-like Apache helicopters that flew in twos over the city. Our car bumped over the tank tracks gouged into the tarred roads. The nearer we got to the centre, the fewer people we saw. Downtown Ramallah was a ghost town.
So Oslo has come to this. There were the usual claims of house vandalisation and some rather more disturbing allegations of theft by Israeli troops – “baseless incitement whipped up by the Palestinian Authority,” went the Israeli reply, which might have been more impressive had Israeli troops not stolen cars and vandalised homes during their invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982.
Then, for the few journalists left at the Ramallah Hotel – and a clutch of largely French and Italian peace “activists” (earrings and Palestinian scarves, and in one case a nose ring, being in profusion) – came the moment of high drama and utter comedy.
A Merkava tank, roaring like a lion, drove slowly to the front of the hotel and then, very slowly, swivelled its barrel towards the front door. Peaceniks charged back into the foyer, screaming at reporters to stand in the road holding their passports above their heads.
And that, I suppose, is what the occupation of Ramallah is all about. All day, the streets vibrated to the sound of armour. Between apartment blocks and villas we could watch the Merkavas clattering between trees or veering off the highway into fields. On a hill above the city, another tank sat hull down in the mud, its barrel pointing towards Arafat’s scorched headquarters prison. The matchstick snap of a rifle would be followed by the bellow of a shell or the sound of a heavy machine-gun. And then the empty world would return to birdsong and the faint buzz of an Apache high above us.
With little time before dusk, leaving Ramallah was even more farcical and dramatic than entering. With a small group of French and Italian journalists, I slogged through the afternoon sun for more than an hour before realising we were lost.
True to its nature, war can be a surreal creature and so there we were by late afternoon, marching – all smiles – towards two Israeli tanks, whose frightened crews were huddling between their vehicles, opening their ready-to-eat ration packs. Less surreal – far more real, in fact, – was the Merkava tank which came thrashing down a lane towards us an hour later. There was much flourishing of European passports and timid waving before the hatched-down beast passed us in a blue fog of spitting stones at 30km an hour.
Yet the Palestinian families on our six-mile journey out of town would creep from their front doors and wave to us and offer us coffee. A child ran across a field, chasing a horse, and a clutch of families walked gingerly between houses, watching for the slightest glimpse of the Israelis. One old man drove a mule up a side road with a broad smile.
And I realised then, I think, that it was these ordinary people, the families and the old man and the child with the horse, who are the real resistance to the Israelis – those who refuse to be intimidated from their equally ordinary lives.
So if this was a “war on terror”, it was a little difficult to know who was the more terrorised in Ramallah yesterday: the Palestinians, or the Israeli soldiers who have gone to war for Mr Sharon.