Displaced Reality, Impressions from a Visit to Jenin

“When they came in they blasted the door open. Three hundred soldiers in my house, and they put us, twelve people, in one room. They brought a dog and took a man with them to serve as a human shield to walk between the houses. Then they took me. I won’t forget this. It was a Bedouin soldier, named Haitham. I will recognize him among a hundred soldiers. He grabbed me by the right hand and made me walk in front of him so that they would shoot me instead of him. I walked with him to four houses like that. And in the end they bombed my house from the air. Without warning. I was at home then, and flew outside.

The soldiers took 100 dinars from my brother, I didn’t believe they would take money like that, and they also took the camera I brought from Saudi Arabia. From all the houses they took cameras, money, jewels, computers, put them in the tanks…”

Before we entered the Jenin Refugee Camp we had been told by Farhan, a resident of Jallame, a village which has recently become a journalists’ and humanitarian aid teams’ launching point on their way to the camp: “You will not be able to perceive what you’ll see.” He then made a general gesture with his hand. As someone who was raised on the fetishization of Holocaust imagery, a scary excess of action movies and close-up shots of victims of terrorist attacks on TV, I immediately tried to fit in my mind one of these, or a combination of them all, to what we would soon be seeing. But Farhan was right. After a day of walking in the sun in the dust-stricken streets of the Camp, and many conversations with men and women, the mind still refuses to concede that it is faced by something never seen before, and that it cannot really situate it. Something eerie and troubling, like a blind spot in the eye, like a scratch on a camera lens. As if part of the worldview has suddenly been taken away, blurred and erased, and the mind keeps insisting, trying to situate the missing object in its right place.

In Jenin reality is partial. As if together with the Camp’s homes the D-9’s of the Israeli army have also flattened one of its dimensions. The hustle and bustle of life in the Camp, the running children, the vocal conversations, the cars and trucks, all this semblance of business as usual only makes it harder to perceive what is going on. For after walking up the street for a few minutes, a street which is actually a dusty gravel road, a strange panoramic view opens up: the houses framing the street are suddenly gone, and instead, at the center, there is wilderness. The eye refuses to perceive the nothingness, and instead searches desperately for something, anything – the remainder of a roof, a shred of wall, pieces of a blanket, a table’s leg. Few identifiable shapes poke out of this enormous mound, which was once hundreds of two- and three-story buildings. Most of them were ground and covered by layers of thin, yellow dust. The weeks that have elapsed since the fighting ended have turned this moon-like landscape to a particularly distraught part of life in the Camp. Cars have paved a road on it, people cross it as a shortcut to their destination. But these neither reduce its size nor the inability to perceive it. As if the houses that used to stand there still exist in some dimension, and will not accept their own non-existence. As if the concept of nothingness, the philosophical absence, has found its physical materialization in the crazy, horrifying reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Saturday morning, May 11, a group of independent Israeli journalists reached Jallame, a village in area C. At the village exit, next to a big truck, were lying in rows, piled up, boxes of aid supplies – beans, lentils, flour, oil, with the Red Cross symbol on them, on their way to the Refugee Camp.

The distance from Jallame to the Refugee Camp is five minutes by car, and at least half an hour in the current reality of closures. First in an oscillating van bypassing the Ganim and Kadim settlements (the road is usually closed to non-Jews) toward a dirt battery. And then by foot, with men and women and children, and baskets of food, on a lane crossing a tomato field. Past the second dirt battery the yellow cabs are waiting to take us the remaining kilometer to the Camp.

In the camp we meet Jamal Shati, a member of the Palestinian Authority’s Legislative Council and third time chair of the Refugee Camp’s refugees’ committee. Originally he’s from Mansi village near Haifa, today’s Mishmar Ha-Emek. A few dry facts: In the Refugee Camp live former inhabitants of 58 villages once within Israel, totaling 13,000 inhabitants, making about 2,400 families. Over 1350 of them have lost their houses again during the month of April. Some are living in tents at the Camp’s edge, most in apartments in the city of Jenin, some among relatives elsewhere. At least 600 of the Camp’s residents have been arrested and kept in detention camps by the Israeli army. Some are still missing, and it is unknown whether they remain in custody, are buried under the ruins or were shot during the battles. The IDF is in no hurry to provide the Camp’s residents with answers, despite their appeals.

On the pierced-through wall of the council’s chamber hang pictures of the victims: 64 names identified with certainty thus far. Pink carnations replace eight pictures – these are the women, whose pictures it is disrespectful to display. At least three of the dead, we are told, were handicapped and mentally ill. The body of Jamal Fajed, a 37-year-old mentally ill man, was run over several times by a tank. Yuser Abu Huraj, a handicapped woman aged 60, was killed when soldiers entered her home. The soldiers shot Nasser Rayeb, a 30-year-old mentally ill man.

Jamal Shati reveals an aerial map of the Jenin area, apparently forgotten by the soldiers as they left – it’s a detailed map, classified as “secret” and adorned with military unit symbols, marking each and every house by a consecutive number. The rectangular area that was flattened at the Camp’s center is marked on the map with a ball pen, and on it, in Hebrew, the units’ symbols. “Zohar Div. 4” on one house, “command post Meged” on another, and on two other houses the abbreviation “Res.” In the days before the coming of the D-9, the Camp was thoroughly shelled, we are told, by missiles from Apache and Cobra helicopters, and by shells from the tanks besieging it.

We go outside, and after taking a few steps down the road the houses wane and finally disappear, leaving only pieces of walls. English slogans in red graffiti cover the walls and their pieces: “Israel’s crimes must stop,” “Sharon, killing civilians does not lead to peace.” In one place someone drew a green swastika, and next to it, also in green, the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol. Residents silently look at our procession. “Kandahar,” an old lady says half-jokingly to one of our escorts, and you can hear laughter around her. In the past two weeks the Camp’s residents have gotten used to the non-stop delegations of journalists and human rights activists who have come to make of their tragedy a film, an article, or a report. “It is somehow consoling to tell what had happened,” we will later be told by one of the residents, “but only for a short while.”

There is no running water in the Camp, and no electricity. Yet. Although electricians and plumbers are working to fix the networks. Some of the houses have been temporarily reconnected to electricity for part of the day, some have not. A truck carrying a water tank runs from one house to the next, or from one house to the next half-house, whatever is left of it. Many of the rooftop water tanks are riddled with bullet holes. Inside the ruins rest several such tanks, torn apart. There are no phones either, since the invasion, but these have long been replaced by cellulars. The school only resumed classes three days ago. Most of its 1300 students no longer reside in the Camp. They are bussed in every morning from houses in town. The parents come along, and stay in the Camp most day. They simply sit and gaze at the destruction, or walk amidst it. For most of them work is out of the question at the moment, and impossible too. Everything is still too fresh, too unfathomable. The vast majority of this mass of people depends for its livelihood on some kind of aid: food, water, money, clothes, the most basic equipment. These are people who don’t even own a fork, or a pen, or a pair of shoes.

The destruction is most clearly visible from the mosque’s roof. The mosque, we are told, was desecrated by the soldiers. “They broke in and dirtied the place, defecated inside, shame to tell,” says Jamal. Now the inside is almost clean, but the holes in the walls and the roof cannot be concealed. One of our escorts shows us a few bullet holes in the holy books. >From the roof one sees a panorama of landscape far toward the horizon – green meadows, a shady grove (“that’s where they took the detainees, and lay them on the ground with their hands behind their back,” says Adnan, one of our escorts). Red-roofed houses on the sloping hill. The city of Jenin is in an inner circle, with its high, bright white buildings. Closer still is a circle of lower, grayish-yellow houses, the houses of the Refugee Camp. And at the center of this circle, amidst roofs, clotheslines and punctured water tanks, is the nothingness. That pile of dust and ruin that was once a residential neighborhood. In this dead zone it is somehow quieter. We walk there, amidst snippets of reality, and around us are walking some camp residents. Mostly young, slow paced, they stop to watch, to lift something, then drop it and keep going. The mind, reluctant to see what is not there, makes another inventory of what remains: a girl’s light blue sock, a worn out beige carpet, a seventh-grade history book bearing the PA’s symbol, its binding gone, tears of a woolen blanket, little pieces of something that used to be purple, a felt armchair with a dusty arm, another punctured water tank, another graffiti on a wall fragment that sticks out, perhaps a roof fragment, a bathroom sink, a spool of thread, a sleeve of a dress, a car tire or a part thereof, scraps of paper. These are only the unraveled edges of the lack. Underneath them are buried lives that were ended. There are some residents in the Camp who argue that bodies too are buried deep underneath. Even if there are none, it is clear than anything that represents the lives of the people who used to live there disappeared under the D-9’s. Two yellow tractors are now trying to bite at the edges of the mound, to pile up some more parts of the ruins and clear some more ground. But when you see from above the size of the tractors compared with the force of the mountain, it becomes clear what a sad joke this is. Other equipment for removing the ruins was not allowed into the Camp area.

At the center of this huge, shiny wilderness is a patch of color glimmering in the sun. By the lane that bisects the mountain, underneath a sheet of cloth tied in an improvised manner to two sticks is sitting a slim man, silver haired, about fifty. “He sits here all the time,” one of the escorts nods pityingly toward him. “Occasionally he would go out to dig amidst the ruins, to see if he could find his money.” When we get closer the man offers us room on the rug by his side. His entire family – a wife, three daughters and a son – are in the city of Jenin. He’s here, because he has no place to go.

For six days he and his family were sitting in their home in the dark, he relates. Electricity was disconnected by the first day of the invasion. On the sixth day they started to hear heavy shelling. The little boy started crying and wouldn’t stop. The man says he hadn’t heard soldiers calling civilians to come out, but following his wife’s pleading decided to leave the house. As they left he saw that neighbors’ homes were bombed and ruined completely. When the soldiers saw them he was separated from his wife and children, and forced to take his clothes off and remain in his underpants. Of all his possessions he was only allowed to take his ID. 550 NIS that were tucked inside the ID card were left behind, never to be seen again, as were his pants and coat. He didn’t have time to put on his shoes, and so remained barefoot. His hands were forcefully tied behind his back, despite his pleading not to pressure his arm, which had undergone operation following an accident and had platinum inside it. He and others arrested with him were forced to lie on the gravel. Later the detainees were tied to each other in groups of five, and he was forced to walk, barefoot, about two and a half kilometers to the grove at the Camp’s edge. There they were laid on the ground for long hours. >From there they were taken, in the same manner, to an interrogation facility in Salem. He was not beaten, he says, but the younger folks were. At 2 in the morning they were put on pickup trucks (“cattle trucks, like they use to carry sheep”) and brought to within a short distance from Romani village in area C. The road to Romani, about a kilometer, they were forced to make by foot, with the explicit order not to attempt to return to Jenin or to the Refugee Camp in the next 9 or 10 days. The man’s story is disrupted when one of the village residents approaches him, greets him, and shoves a 100 NIS bill into his hand. He nods thankfully, puts the bill in his pocket and takes out a key-chain. While playing with the key-chain he relates how he came back to Jenin when he heard on the news that the Israel Army had retreated, equipped with a pair of clogs given to him by one of the residents of Romani, how he met on a Camp street his mother in law, who told him that his wife and children were safe in the city of Jenin, and how he took the key out of his pocket and intended to open the door to his house, only to find out that the door and the house were both gone. He lowers his eyes to the key-chain and remains silent for a moment, then laughs. “I could hardly recognize where the house had used to be, only by the neighbors’ house which remained standing.” Here, he nods toward the spot where we are sitting, used to be our room. And there – nodding to the right – was Mother’s room. “Funny, isn’t it? We used to want a negotiation to go back to our homes from 1948. Now we need a negotiation to have my home back.” He too, like Jamal, is from Mansi village. His wife is from Safuri. He’s a car electrician by trade. Until recently, he was doing pretty well. He nods to a man who passes by with a jug of coffee, pours coffee into cups and treats us. On top of the ruins, underneath a blanket spread between two sticks, the coffee sticks in our throat.

In the past few days he has done some digging. He found some of his daughter’s schoolbooks. Her uniforms he was not able to find, and he promised to buy her new ones, but doesn’t know how. The money he had from working in the garage, 15,000 NIS, is buried under the three-story nothingness. He knows exactly where it is; after all, it was he who hid it there. Sometimes, in the late afternoon, he goes and digs. So far he hasn’t found it, but he has no doubt he will. I insist on asking him about the future, and how he sees it, and already while asking I realize how senseless the question is. In response he gestures around. “I have a brother in the Netherlands, and he has invited me to come over for a long time. I could go to Jordan, that’s a good future on the personal level. But my future is here in Palestine, all of Palestine.” He has no problem with the Israeli public, he says, only with Sharon. “I read in a poll that 5 percent of the Israelis support peace. Sharon is to blame for this.”

In the streets surrounding the razed area there are houses that look like monstrous dollhouses – the fronts have collapsed, fully or in part, so that lives inside them are fully revealed to the observer. Some families are cooking, dining or sitting and chatting as if the room still had its external wall. Children peep outside from holes in the wall caused by tank shells. People go up and down staircases that hang in the air, wriggling dangerously – a new, terrifying architectural style, courtesy of the Israeli army soldiers.

One family, the front-half of its home ruined — having weird concrete and iron tassels hanging from its roof — is sitting in the remaining stairway, facing out to the street. Four elderly brothers, with their wives, children and grandchildren, who used to share a three-story house together. On the remaining wall one notices flower patterns made of plaster, “the paint is still fresh, we only finished the work eight moths ago.”

From the first day of the attack, they relate, electricity, water and phone lines to their home were disconnected. “During these days we sat at home, in the dark, fearing going out.” The heavy shelling started on Friday night. Bombs, and more helicopter bombs dropping one after the other, day and night. The third floor, hit by the shelling, caught fire. Windowpanes were all smashed. The family’s 25 children were all gathered in one room in the middle of the house. A few of the men went up to try and put out the fire. Neighbors called them from the outside, during the short breaks between one shelling and the next, to leave the burning house and come join them. The neighbors’ house opposite theirs, which was less heavily hit, already had 200 people inside, who had escaped from nearby homes. They still cannot understand why the Israeli army chose to bomb their home. In our area, in our neighborhood, they say repeatedly, there were no shootings, no fighters. The next Sunday the neighbors’ house was also hit by the shelling, while they were inside. A few women were hit, and the children started crying and screaming. The father of the family was also hit by shrapnel in his foot and hip. When they tried calling the Red Crescent and Red Cross they were informed that they cannot reach the area, that it is besieged and that the army wouldn’t let ambulances in. “We tried calling the press, anyone we could, no one could help.”

We decided to go out, relates the father, it is better to die on the street than be buried under the ruins. About two hundred men, children and women left the house, carrying the wounded along, and marched through the streets. Next to the UN building in the Camp they were stopped at gunpoint by the soldiers. Men and women were separated, the men ordered, at gunpoint, to take their clothes off and remain in their underwear. Their hands were tightly handcuffed behind their backs. The father stretches out his arms and shows us the marks on the wrists, clearly visible two weeks after. The soldiers took the women to an unknown destination, and the men were left lying on the ground. Both were convinced they would never see each other again.

“We were told – go back home,” recalls the mother of the family, an elderly woman in a long pink satin dress and a head cover. “I told them we had no home, you ruined it. The soldiers retorted yelling that we should go to the local council building. We were very frightened.” Eventually they went to A-Zahar St., the American neighborhood at the edge of Jenin. There a woman let them into her house. During the next few days hundreds of women and children wandered around the neighborhood’s homes. When one house was about to exhaust its food or water supplies, they were instructed to leave, and they kept wandering, looking for shelter that would take them in. The wandering from one house to another they did barefoot – they hadn’t had time to take their shoes when they had escaped their home. During all these days, the mother recollects, she was convinced her husband was dead. “There was no Red Cross or anyone else to ask.”

For four hours during their first day of fleeing, amidst all the commotion and the shelling, their two-year-old daughter got lost. She was only found the following day at the home of a neighbor who had picked her up from the street. The men were meanwhile taken to a grove, and laid on the ground for a few hours. Their heads were covered with sack, and to cover their bodies after they had been stripped naked they were given big plastic bags “like the ones used to wrap corpses,” says the father. “I told a soldier I had medical problems and high blood pressure. He yelled at me to shut up and leave him alone.” From there they were taken by truck to the interrogation center. Five men in civilian clothing yelled at him, he relates, that there had been shootings from his home, and demanded to know who had done the shooting, then offered him to become a collaborator. Each day they were given to eat one tomato, and a liter of water. This is how he spent two days, during which his hands were constantly tied behind his back. At the end of the two days they were taken by trucks toward Romani village. “We are good to you,” one of the soldiers told him, “otherwise, we would have dumped you in Gaza.” They were threatened that should they return to the Camp before the operation was announced to be over in the media, they would be thrown into Ketziot camp.

During the following days about 8000 refugees from the Camp had gathered in Romani. Worrying about the family was particularly hard. “I thought they might die, or get hurt,” the father relates. “I was scared. After all, they could have done to the children whatever they wanted.”

After the operation he returned to the Camp, and managed to find his family. Now they reside in Haroub neighborhood in the city of Jenin, but come back to the Camp every day, to get used to what is left of the house. The children go to school in the Camp anyhow. The father has still not gone back to his job at city hall. The children’s uniforms were burnt, along with most of the personal belongings that had been left at home. The children worry them. “They don’t sleep well, they pee in bed,” he says, “and are full of anger. Lots of anger toward Israelis and Jews. I don’t really know what to do with it. They have lost something, the sense of compassion.” “This is what happens to a child when he sees his father in underpants facing the soldiers,” his brother adds. He himself is angry too. “In this war there are no Israeli civilians. Everyone is a soldier. Those who made this war were reserve soldiers. In Israel after all even girls carry weapon. And the Palestinians, whatever they do, however they fight, still don’t have Apaches.” Between six and seven Apaches, they say, were involved in shelling the Camp, helicopters which fired about 600 to 700 missiles. Unprofessional estimates, of course.

A future? “With Sharon there is no future. I hope that the people in Israel will rise up against Sharon’s bad policy. He’s to blame, not the people, but whoever has lost his father, his brother, will not sit quiet.”

Journalists too are for them almost a regular procedure. “In Romani there were more journalists than residents. We told them: Don’t sit here; go write about the planes bombing the Camp. Nobody went. The Red Cross didn’t come either, and the UN, the whole world is asleep.” Right now, they intend to stay in the Camp. “We know this is a strategic policy to make people leave. We will stay. It won’t make any difference anyhow.”

A water truck passes in the streets and causes immediate commotion – young people climb on it, roll the hose, and attempt to connect it to water tanks, those which were not punctured, or to residential pipes. Some of the young children sit by a dripping end and try to build a castle in the mud. On the wall in front a big sign in English and Arabic reads: “Watch out, shells, do not touch,” with close-up shots of unexploded shells of various sorts. A smashed car was thrown by the roadside, looking as if it came out of a silly cartoon. In a wider street there is a beautiful stone house, whose top is ruined and riddled with holes. “This is Jenin’s old railway station, from the time of Ottoman rule,” explain our escorts, “at that time there used to be tracks between Jenin and Haifa, a 70 year old building.”

During the invasion the building had filled up with bodies of injured people, who lay there dying while any kind of medical aid was prevented from reaching them. On the building’s external walls, like many ruined walls around the Camp, hang pictures of the victims. Some in striped uniform, some in khaki jackets that look like IDF reserve officers’ coat, one pictured in an offensive pose, with his hand on the trigger; another with a smooth face like a boy’s. A few cans of pop roll in the street, along with a picture of the American flag. The water dripping from the truck quickly transforms the yellow-grayish dust into mud, which somewhat reduces the quantities of dust in the air. Most of it gets stuck somewhere on its way to the trachea, like living in a quarry. To the home of Adnan, one of the escorts, where we stop to drink and relax a bit, comes Muhammad Abu Ghalion, Jenin’s local TV producer, who normally spends a fair chunk of the year in Saudi Arabia. An old, lean man, with fiery eyes and dramatic body language, who complains about the bad luck that had made him stay here when it all began, and about the stupidity that had led him to build his house on the hill, at the observation post overlooking the Camp. “Every time there has been an invasion to Jenin the soldiers settled in my house,” he says, “since the invasion they have entered my house three times, three times! After they came for the third time, truth be told, they cleaned the house. And after they had left they bombed it from the air, from an F-16 warplane. The entire top floor was ruined. Now I need a hundred thousand dollars to repair it. Where will I get the money from?”

“When they came in they blasted the door open. Three hundred soldiers in my house, and they put us, twelve people, into one room. They brought a dog and took a man with them to serve as a human shield to walk between the houses. Then they took me. I won’t forget this. It was a Bedouin soldier, named Haitham. I will recognize him among a hundred soldiers. He grabbed me by the right hand and made me walk in front of him so that they would shoot me instead of him. I walked with him four houses like that. And in the end they bombed my house from the air. Without warning. I was at home then, and flew outside. The soldiers took 100 dinars from my brother, I didn’t believe they would take money like that, and they also took the camera I brought from Saudi Arabia. From all the houses they took cameras, money, jewels, computers, put them in the tanks…” the other people present in the room nod in agreement and add their own stories of looting.

A videocassette is placed in the VCR. Adnan’s house is one of the few that have been reconnected to electricity in the last few days, so that we benefit from luxuries like cool water and a fan. The cassette, secretly recorded by one of the village’s residents on April 13th, the tenth day of the invasion, is intended to be handed over to the investigation committee, which they still hope will arrive one day.

On the screen is a group of young people naked from the waist up lying on the ground, their hands tied behind their backs, with several soldiers standing above them and a tank by their side. The tank begins moving toward them, almost touching the foot of one of them, and then retreats at the last moment.

The picture is replaced by close-up shots of dead bodies, covered by white plastic bags, placed in a room at the hospital with a few ventilators at their side. At that point there was not enough room for all the bodies in the morgue’s refrigerators, and the doctors had to improvise solutions. Another scene shows a group of nurses and doctors in white and green robes digging a pit in the ground, a temporary grave for the bodies, to prevent a sanitation disaster.

With the cassette playing in the background the Camp’s residents who are present in the room recall more and more details. One of the detainees was shot from close range, while handcuffed. Jamal As-Sabbar, who had suffered from back pain and used to walk around with a back belt, who was arrested by the soldiers and forced, like everyone else, to lift his shirt to prove he’s not carrying an explosive belt. When he lifted the shirt and revealed the back belt he was shot on the spot. Camp residents relate that a tank ran back and forth over his body, until it was completely flattened. “5 kilos of him were left, we recognized him by the tattoo on his arm,” says Adnan. In the close-up footage on the cassette one sees a strange mass on the ground. A human mind cannot concede that once there was a human being there. The pictures become harder and harder to watch, some of us lower our heads, or try to stare at the walls, anything but looking straight at the screen. “The Red Cross was only allowed in for a few minutes,” I can only hear the voices of residents who keep on talking. “They took with them some of the more lightly injured, and left. People who were severely injured were dying. They were allowed in again only after the eighth day. The day 13 soldiers had been killed the Israeli army bombed the hospital and the ambulances which were there. We too were not allowed to move the injured or treat them. Whoever went out was shot. There was an injured guy lying, dying 10 meters from the hospital, but they wouldn’t let us treat him. Another guy, shot in the neck, was lying without any treatment; worms had already gathered on the wound. When Ahmad Tibi and “B’tselem” visited the Camp they took him to the hospital in Afulah. Only yesterday he regained consciousness and was immediately taken in custody.”

Here too the stories repeat themselves about the Lebanese soldiers, who accompanied the Israeli army soldiers in fighting, in the Jenin Camp as well. “There was one in the tank,” relates an eyewitness, “he was distinctly speaking in Lebanese slang, unmistakably. These soldiers are even more corrupt than the Israelis. Surely they killed more than the Jews.”

It is getting late, and we must go back. We warmly bid our farewells to the Camp residents. Shaking hands, exchanging phone numbers and business cards. They trust, they say, that we will relate this information to the Israelis, that we will make it public. Go explain to them that most Israelis don’t care, or will think this is all the figment of oriental imagination, or wicked propaganda, or worse – that they deserve this.

On the way back, sitting at a street corner in Jallame, a military jeep stops in front of us. “Wow, Israeli women!” calls a surprised soldier, “What are you doing here?” We rather ignore him and remain silent. We won’t be able to explain it anyhow.

This article was first published by Indymedia-Israel.

Translated by Natalie Rothman

Hebrew original available at: http://www.indymedia.org.il/imc/israel/webcast/27602.html