I am the General Manager of the Arab Palestinian Shopping Centers. We are trying to build a chain of modern shopping cetners in the midst of the Israeli re-occuption of Palestinian cities. Below are two personal accounts, one today and one from 4 days ago, of life under Israeli military curfew.
Today is June 27th. We finally had a house visit of our cities uninvited guests. Sixteen fully armed Israeli soliders entered our home as part of the house to house searches that they have been carrying out for 4 days now in Ramallah, while we sit under 24-hr curfew.
Our home compromises of 3 flats. My in-laws live on the ground level, we live on the 1st floor and my parents on the 2nd. My wife, Abeer, and oldest daughter, Areen, spent all day baking to fill the time while under house arrest (in international law they call that “collective punishment”). It was 7:30pm when Areen wrapped a tray of the sweet “Haresah” that had just come out of the oven and was excited to send it to her grandmother in the flat below. When we are under curfew, like now, we use a basket and rope from our front porch to send things below since we are not allowed out of the house. When the basket swings into the door my in-laws know that they should open to see what we have lowered. This time Areen was alone on the porch and started lowering the basket when she saw a soldier’s helmet at her grandmother’s doorstep after the basket was half way down. She hurried and pulled the basket up and in and left the window wide open. She came running saying the soldiers are in our house. She was scared, more than she has been since we became under curfew. I had just got off the phone with Corky, a New York Daily News reporter, and was at my computer.
I went to the front window to see a lot of soldier’s kneeling in front of the stone fence in front of our house. My dad happen to be with us at the time. As we sat to see what was going to happen our doorbell rang. When my wife answered via the intercom it was her mom saying that the soldiers are here and we should open the door. When we did no soldiers entered, only Fadwa, Abeer’s mom. I met her in the stairway and she advised that they want one of us only to come downstairs. I proceeded to go see what was up. When I reached the doorsteps of my in-laws I looked in to see their porch packed tight with fully armed soldiers kneeling in a full alert position.
One soldier was kneeling at the doorway and trained his rifle on me as I approached. I greeted them and asked what is needed. He asked me if I spoke Hebrew and I told him English or Arabic. He proceeded in perfect English and asked who was upstairs. I answered that my family and father were there. He demanded that everyone come outside in front of the house. I asked if the children should come too because the weather was a little cool. He snapped back and said “everyone”. I yelled upstairs and asked my family to come down and bring their ID papers with them. As I waited the soldier asked my mother-in-law where was Marwan Barghouti, as if she should know. I told him that although my mother-in-law has the same last name they are not related. I told him each are from a different village. He said, sarcastically, “no this is Ramallah”. I answered back and advised him that he was in Al-Bireh not Ramallah and that my in-laws are from Dir Ghasannah and Marwan was from a village called Kober. He seemed to be confused so I just answered his original question and told him Marwan was in “your jail”. He smirked and seemed to accept the answer, which is true.
My wife was now approaching with my daughters and father. Areen, my oldest daughter was shivering with fear. I held her and bought her in front of the soldiers who were absolutely crammed in the doorstep and porch all in the kneeling position, weapons pointed. I told her, “see they are just like us, they don’t scare us.” My father tried to comfort her too and told her the same. My father was itching to engage the soliders but we convinced him to pass this time so no one ended up sleeping in prison. Areen relaxed a bit, but did not say a word as the soldier in the doorstep demanded that my wife open the car garage. I told him the key was upstairs and she would need to get the key. He approved and as we sat waiting for Abeer I told the soldiers, ” we have a long way to go yet.” No one answered but 2 or 3 of the soldiers, young boys, shook their heads in agreement. We sat their looking at them, each looked as if they were fearing for there lives. They were in a foreign land in a stranger’s house and had a whole Palestinian (that is terrorist) family in front of them. They just stared at us as we hugged our children trying to relax the shock and shed the fear.
As Abeer came with the key to the garage two soldiers asked her to open the garage (in international law they call that being “a human shield”). As she opened our empty garage, the soldiers, full of fear, entered step by step guns ready to fire. I could not tell if they were disappointed that they fund only dust or if it was a relief to them.
As the the two soldiers returned to the house, as we sat outside in the cool breeze, one soldier extended his hand with all of our ID’s. My mother-in-law spoke to them in Arabic, she said, “maybe one day you will come back in time of peace and not be so scared”. No one answered.
The lead soldier called for the soldiers to exit the house. On his way past us he quickly said “bye”, as if he knew had did something wrong by violating our life. They left, one by one, in full alert. It turns out they had searched and taken refuge in every home of the house not just the porch. As they exited gunfire could be heard a little way up our street. It was another Israeli unit for sure but they took no chances moving slowly and cautiously back to the street. As the walked past us, one by one, each with a heavy weapon or radio equipment or backpack, my daughter just hugged me tight. As the last soldier left the house my father-in-law emerged and stood at the top of the steps. Frustrated, he bid them farewell and told them in broken English, “Be sure to come back tomorrow.”
After they left we learned that they checked each room and closet of the first floor.
We returned to our home and Areen was much more relaxed. She came to us and said, “you know I used to be scared of them but not anymore.” She went on, “you know, some of them look like nice people. I feel sorry for them with all those jackets and gloves and helmets, they must be so hot, maybe that’s why they did not talk to us.” I assured her that I’m sure they are nice people but Sharon forced them to come. I am struggling to make sure she does not view every Israeli, even those that violate the security of our home, as the enemy.
At last, the fear of those helmeted, armed soldiers running free in our streets has been broken. I was hoping for this day so my daughter will not live in fear of our future neighbors. Nadine my 2 year old daughter can hardly speak but she imitates the whole above episode in the most cutest accent and body language ever.
As we settled down after our daily dose of occupation, we joked that they could have stayed since we had some of the best sweets in Al- Bireh to offer. More seriously, tonight we will give our girls an extra hug and kiss good night, because we know how today could of ended if one of the soldiers in the street saw Areen lower a basket above the head of the soldier entering the house.
God help the next house they went to search.
Today is July 1st. We enter our eighth day under Israeli military curfew (house arrest). We were rudely awaken at 7:20am by someone pressing and the holding the doorbell of our home. My wife, who was sleeping with my two daughters (who have not been able to sleep alone ever since the Israeli army entered Ramallah and tanks started roaming our streets) answered the ring through the intercom. The answer was “jaesh” (army in Arabic).
I sprang from my sleep to see what was happening. My two daughters were now wide awake and already at their mother’s footstep. Nadine, my 2-yr-old could hardly open her eyes. The Israeli soldier asked for someone to come down from our first floor flat to meet him. It was only 4 days ago we went through the same routine. At that time, my father-in-law, Abu Hazim, bid the soldiers that with a “Be sure to come back soon”. It seems they took that literally.
I walked down to our front door and opened the door to find five fully armed Israeli soldiers, all with their weapons trained on me. I was still half asleep myself. They demanded that I call everyone in the house to exit. I tried to explain that they army had already been here, but it did not matter. I called for my wife to come down with the girls and I called for my father to wake up and come down as well.
We all exited the house and stood on our front door porch, above the garage. The soldier then proceeded to call more soldiers from the street. It turns out that two fully loaded armored personnel carriers (APC) were parked in front of our house. About 12 soldiers in all gathered at our doorstep. One checked our ID’s while one stood guard at the entrance to our home and 10 proceeded, alone, to search our house. As we waited for this ordeal to end I engaged the soldier that stood guard. I asked him if he was enlisted or part of the reserve army. He said enlisted. I asked him if any reserves were with them. At first he did not understand what reserves meant but then remembered and said no. I started to ask if humiliating a civilian population was worth it or would picking to be a refusenik be a better choice. The second soldier with us did not give him a chance to answer. They spoke in Hebrew and both moved away from where we stood, question unanswered.
While the search went on my 2-yr old yelled out to her sister who was standing just 1 meter away. “Areen, give me a kiss”, Nadine said as she leaned forward from mom’s shoulder preparing her cheek. She said it so loud that the two soldiers took notice, without making a wrinkle in their straight, unshaved faces. Areen, who now is considered an expert in dealing with such situations, comforted her sister with a kiss. My wife glanced at me and just shook her head.
After 15 minutes or so the soldiers filed out of the doorway one by one. A few were talking into walkie-talkies while others seemed to mope along with the flow. Without a word, they all left to the street. They did not tell us to enter or to stay put. Areen was hesitant to just go back upstairs because she said maybe not all had left. We sat outside for a few minutes until all the soldiers were in the street before going back upstairs to evaluate the situation. As we walked upstairs one of the APC’s rolled away. The soldiers of the second one went across the street, to Abu Mohammed’s house, and rang their doorbell.
We went through each room in our home and, other than a few open closets and drawers, all was in place and again we were lucky not to have any damage (other than mentally) done. As we gathered on our front porch of our flat to see what was happening to our neighbors a loud rumble came up our street. Five APC’s, a jeep, and a Merkava tank all rolled up and parked in front of our house. Two soliders walked back toward our house and knocked my in-laws front door downstairs. When my mother-in-law came to the door they told her to come out. She said that “you were just here, ask them”, pointing to the soldiers across the street who had just left our house. They looked embarrassed and walked back to the street without a word.
Nadine now is glued to the porch window watching, absorbing every move. She can barley talk and with all the excitement she studders and sometimes stalls mid-sentence while trying to tell us that a tank came and “Umo” (arabic for uncle) came out or an APC’s backdoor opened and soldiers emerged. If only I could video my daughter to show to the Israeli citizen sitting in the comfort of his/her office in Tel Aviv what kind of generation they are creating. Areen sits quietly at my side as we watch events unfold trying to convince me, and herself, that they are only going to take our neighboors house. I can only agree since as a father I must try to bring order to this chaos.
The search group of 12 soldiers continued to knock on all of our neighboors one by one. Called everyone out of the house and searched. Aboud (9-yrs-old), Areen’s friend across the street, came out in his pajamas holding his two kittens, one in each arm, as he filed through the dozen soliders which formed two rows at his doorstep. After about 30 minutes all the soliders gathered at the APC at our doorstep. They unravelled a huge map colored map and went into deep discussion. The plastic coating on the map sparkled with every bend as the morning sun intensified. After 10 minutes they nodded in agreement and called out to each other in Hebrew. By now the APC’s had unloaded and our quiet neighborhood was a military outpost. A few dozen Israeli soldiers, the smell of diesel fuel, the rambling and squeaking of the tank moving left and right. The sound of the motor moving the tank cannon in circles. The squelching sound of radio communications, all in Hebrew. The joking and laughing of soldiers. It was a picture out of the movies. But the movie was yet to begin.
They went to the 3-storey home across the street again. But this time one soldier had a sledge hammer. They had already checked the ground floor, Abu Mohammed and Areen’s girlfriend, Asel’s, grandmothers apartments. Um Khaled’s flat is the on the first floor but she is away visiting her son in Egypt. We know that Asel’s grandmother has a key and most likely they searched Um Khaled’s flat the first time around. That left the 2nd floor flat. It’s empty and is owned by Haj Waleed, the mayor of Al-Bireh. We heard the pounding of metal for a few moments then Areen remarked “they opened it”. We asked how she knew since we could not see what was going on directly. She heard the soldiers laugh and say “yeah” when the door gave way. She was right. A few minutes later two soliders appeared in the 2nd floor flat porch, the one that is smack across from ours. It took less than 15 minutes before every soldier marched to his APC or tank or jeep and started to unload duffle bags, sleeping bags, green, torn sponge-like mattresses, etc. One soldier brought a TV out of the APC and took it to the flat. Others carried what looked like boxes of food.
Everytime we would comment amongst ourselves of what was happening, Nadine would try and recreate in full body motion, hands waving and all, the actions of the soldiers. My father just keeps repeating in total disgust that the world has accepted Israeli occupation and should be ashamed of itself. He asks himself aloud if Bush would have made his infamous speech if the issue was Texas not Palestine and Bush’s home was violated as ours has been.
After all was emptied from the armored vehicles they moved all of the APC’s and tanks and jeeps into position around the entrance of the house they now occupied. As the moved these huge armored cars two soldiers, one in front and one in back, gestured to the driver how the driver should manoeuvre in order to work his way around our narrow street. I’m sure the zoning board of Al-Bireh did not build this street for so many armored vehicles at once. Nadine picked up every move. Like the person who makes arm gestures to planes taxing, Nadine started to move her hands up and down as if she was guiding the tank. After all was in place they turned off the engines on all the vehicles and quiet came back. It was around 9am by now.
A few minutes later more soldiers appeared in the porch window, now topless. No helmets, no flak jackets, no olive green army clothes, no rifles, just a man. A man no better and no lesser than I. Only difference is this man allows himself to be part of an occupying force, something I will never do.
Today it was announced that we would have the curfew lifted from 9- 2am. Those that have started to venture out of their homes to buy the needed food and necessities can now be heard. The kids in the neighborhood are starting to gather near the tank. One young boy actually went up to the tank to touch it, as if he was in a war museum. All the soldiers, except two, are now in the house that was occupied. The two soldiers that stand guard are stopping those that are walking on the street and demanding that they turn around and use a different route. Cars coming up our street, not knowing of today’s adventure, hit the brakes as they come face to face with a tank. The soldier signals to the drivers by moving his finger in a circle that they should turn around. Our trash man, Abu Hassan, who is over 70-yrs-old came up the street pushing his three, age-old black trash barrels on his rusted metal cart. The soldier standing guard yelled out for him to stop and turn around. Abu Hassan can’t hear when we yell in his ear from one foot away so I knew he could not hear. He took another step toward our house. The solider cocked his rifle and yelled louder and gestured for him to leave. Abu Hassan now understood. He yelled back in Arabic saying that he wanted to pick up our trash. The soldier did not understand and Abu Hassan was determined to do his job. At the end of this standoff, the gun won and Abu Hassan turned around and slowly pushed his cart away in disgust.
The mayor, Haj Waleed, has now arrived. He is telling the soldiers that this is his home and he wants to enter. They debated him at the door and after a few minuites he leaves, inhaling his cigarette in frustration. We just learned that they told him “we need two days to shower”.
As I write, a car coming from Jerusalem road in front of the National Insurance Building turned to come up our road, saw the tank in front of our house and hit the breaks only to be hit by an oncoming car that was heading South. A minor distraction to the re-occupation of our city and lives.
So chaos, fear, anger reigns our home and neighborhood. The kids gather to explain to a reporter that came to see what’s happening. I can hear them give a frame by frame account of how they were told to leave their homes and how the tanks came and how they came out when the curfew was lifted and how the soldier almost shot Abu Hassan, and, and. All this while our uninvited neighboors proceed as if the house was always theirs. We can only hope their stay is short and will be the last.
In the meantime, my girls have forgotten that the real soldiers and tanks are outside. They are playing hide and seek in the house. Nadine is the Palestinian and Areen is the Israeli soldier. Nadine hides under my desk as I type and when Areen knocks on my office door we all have to go and wait in the hallway as Areen checks the room. We even have cardboard passports to give Areen. Do average Israelis understand what kind of generation they are creating! Do they feel more secure that their kids are tormenting a civilian population?
I just heard Abeer yell out to Abu Hassan. He saw only one soldier now outside and has just returned to pick up our trash. He smiled as his wrinkled and tired face looked up as he took away our trash bags. For the soldier this was probably his first encounter with Abu Hassan. For Abu Hassan, he has entered year 36 facing Israeli military occupation.
I guess the gun has lost, again.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American living in the Palestinian City of Al-Bireh/Ramallah in the West Bank. He can be reached at email@example.com
John Entwistle’s Heaven and Hell