He was the tallest of the Palestinian policemen. Thin, his olive drab uniform ballooning over his boots, he swayed momentarily as a helmeted Israeli soldier stood behind him and tucked the muzzle of a gun into the Palestinian’s right armpit, keeping his finger on the trigger. Only then did the line of crouching soldiers descend down the driveway into the Ramallah apartment. The Palestinian, his hands in the air, shielded them on their way.
As the Israeli army enters the eighth day of its military reoccupation of the Palestinian-controlled towns of the West Bank, charges of war crimes abound. The situation is so bad that the usually tight-lipped International Committee for the Red Cross has issued a statement of “regret” for the “frequent and often serious instances” in which medical personnel have been hindered in their duties. But reports of ambulance workers unable to reach Palestinian wounded, Israeli soldiers raiding hospitals and troops using Palestinians as human shields continue to stream in.
WITNESSES TO A WAR CRIME
The Palestinian employed as a screen in Ramallah was one of eight regular police — men given guns under Palestinian-Israeli peace agreements — who had spent six days dodging the Israeli tanks lumbering through the besieged West Bank city’s streets. The eight men had heard ominous and nagging reports of comrades who had been killed.
But they had also received a phone call from a friend, a policeman who was captured and returned in a bus to his home in Gaza. For 18 months, the policemen had not seen their families, the road through Israel closed to them as the Palestinian-Israeli confrontations raged on. Accordingly, they asked neighbors near the empty apartment they had broken into, seeking refuge, to call the Red Cross and arrange their surrender. The Red Cross car arrived in the mid-afternoon on April 3, its bright red and white insignia flapping in the cold wind. A Red Cross officer shouted to the neighbors in English that they were there to arrange the safe surrender of the men. “When the army comes, take your children to the back of the house,” he told the neighbor. “Hopefully, everything will be OK.”
But the army took a long time. The policemen paced inside the small apartment. “Please, can we ask you two questions?” they shouted to the Red Cross. Stay inside, they were told. An Israeli sniper had been positioned just across the street.
Finally, the army showed up. Some 15 soldiers spilled out of jeeps and armored personnel carriers to point their guns down the driveway toward the men. One by one, the Red Cross officials called the Palestinians out of the apartment. Each carried a white piece of cloth. They were visibly shaking, their arms hoisting Kalashnikovs and their chests wide open to the battery of automatic rifles before them. Down an adjacent pathway, two soldiers scurried past to take positions behind the surrendering police.
Each man was recorded by the Red Cross and by the Israeli army. An army photographer filmed the handover, and the video was later distributed to the press.
Then, as the seven other policemen sat on the curb with their hands clasped behind their heads, the Israeli soldiers broke the Fourth Geneva Convention. In full view of the Red Cross only meters away, one Palestinian was picked out and used to shield the soldiers as they entered the apartment where the police had stayed. Once inside, the soldiers tore the place apart, turning cabinets over and smashing furnishings. It was not a methodical search for bombs or weapons. It took all of four minutes.
The Israeli military spokesperson was unavailable for comment. A Red Cross spokesperson says that her colleagues denied seeing this incident, but that, “as soon as soldiers put their weapons down and surrender, they are considered protected persons under the laws of war.”
GETTING BY UNDER CURFEW
The 40,000 residents inside Ramallah’s municipal boundaries have now spent one week behind closed doors under Israeli-imposed curfew. For much of that time, water mains feeding the homes of several tens of thousands of residents have been severed. Electricity has gone and returned and flickered out again. The days are cold and rainy and gas heaters families use to warm themselves by are slowly running out of fuel. At the first lifting of the curfew four days into the Israeli invasion, lines of Palestinians, their faces pale with the days indoors, crowded to refill their gas canisters. Others sought out open stores for sparse staples — bread, milk, bottled water, batteries and, of course, cigarettes.
“We made a plan,” one young man (few these days want to give their name) said on the first day of the curfew. “We have two kilos of rice and we have to make it last for the four of us.” Despite the warning signs of an Israeli invasion after a suicide bomber killed himself and 25 others on a Passover eve in a Netanya hotel, these bachelors had not prepared. On day two of the invasion, he and a friend braved streets sewn up with snipers hidden in tall buildings to get to a local store and bring back more food. “We put one of the guys on the roof to watch the movement of the tanks and to call us if they were coming near.” On that trip, they bought rice and beans for three days.
The other problem in his apartment has been the water. “Showers were prohibited,” he says, able to joke about it now that the pipes have been fixed. When the army lifted its lockdown for a few fleeting hours, the men split into two groups, one looking for vegetables and another looking for dry goods, including plastic plates and spoons that did not require washing.
All of this crisis household management takes places beneath a veil of fear. These men are adults under the age of 40 — the age group being rounded up by the Israeli military. An estimated 1,000 Palestinians have been arrested in the Ramallah area alone. No one knows their condition or how many have been released, as the press has not been allowed to see them. “In the beginning our spirits were very high,” says the young man holed up with his three friends, “But after three days, we all became very depressed.”
In the Ein Misbah area near the center of town, residents were startled on March 31 by a voice squawking in Arabic over a loudspeaker: “Come out by the time we count to ten, or we will blow the place up.” The elderly woman and family living in the four-story apartment building raced down the steps, only to find four Israeli soldiers crouching in front of the door, guns trained on them. This time, the soldiers did not break anything in their cursory search of the building. “They were terrified,” the woman said, with some relief.
Other homes have been less fortunate. One foreigner tells of how soldiers came four times to her home to search. The last time, they took five young men with them to a nearby apartment building that is being used as a temporary holding facility. A tank sits out front, barbed wire strapped across the road, and most of the families inside have been confined to one apartment. When two of the men had not been returned, the foreigner went to the house to ask about them. She was told they would be taken to the Beit El military settlement near Ramallah. She was allowed to talk to the men, who had been fed and covered with blankets, and to give them cigarettes.
No one knows how many Palestinians died in the first leg of Operation Defensive Wall, as Israel terms its ongoing offensive in the West Bank. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza reports that as of April 3 at least 54 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including five women, six children and two handicapped young men, had been killed. Twenty-three of those were buried in a mass grave in the Ramallah hospital parking lot during the break in the curfew when families were able to come and identify the bodies. Officials say that they will be moved to cemeteries just as soon as movement is allowed.
Ziad Abu Asia, a doctor at the Red Crescent Hospital, reported by phone that he was transporting two elderly people to the hospital in an ambulance. “We are going in a zig-zag,” Abu Asia said, “because every way we go, the tanks block us. Yesterday, we could not move at all.”
The Palestinian man, 75, and woman, 68, had been trapped for five or six days in their home near the offices where Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been stuck in Israel’s ever-tightening “isolation” since December of 2001. The man has not eaten in two or three days and the woman had fallen inside their home and broken her knee, Abu Asia says. “They look very sick, they are dehydrated and they have diarrhea.”
The ambulance revs in the background. “They [Israeli soldiers] are blocking the road to the hospital,” Abu Asia explains, and the ambulance turns to another entrance. His driver is not interested in one more confrontation with the Israeli army. Yesterday, the driver was stopped and forced to strip by Israeli troops. By his account, they then proceeded to beat him up.
Even the hospitals have not been safe. Soldiers searched the Red Crescent Hospital April 4 at approximately 1 pm. All communications were cut off and Israeli troops arrested doctors Qasem Assaghier, Mohammad an-Najjar and nurses Ayman Labad and Ammar Srour and hospital worker Husni Barghouti, reports the Palestinian LAW human rights organization.
As the occupation forces settle in Ramallah, fierce fighting continues in Nablus. Reports from the town betray a tired hysteria — not enough sleep and too much fear. “They have been shelling and shooting all night,” says a mother of eight. “The entire old city has been shelled with airplanes, with tanks. Listen, can’t you hear it?” Electricity has been cut to the entire city, which is provided by the Israeli grid. As in Ramallah, the news is sparse and difficult to verify. “They are saying there are 13 dead, but no one knows for sure.” Palestinians in Bethelehem, Nablus, Qalqilya, Tulkarm, Jenin and Hebron — the other West Bank towns fully or partially reoccupied over the last week — had days anchored in front of their television sets, days to think about what was to come. But no one, it seems, has been able to do much to stop Operation Defensive Wall from coming.
Charmaine Seitz is managing editor of the Palestine Report.