Palesitinian Life Under Curfew

Occupied Ramallah. The West Bank is under curfew. Every resident of six of the seven major Palestinian cities, about seven hundred thousand people, is under house arrest. Stepping into the street is tantamount to breaking the rules of occupation. A punishable offence.

On 24 June, Israeli jeeps passed through Ramallah, a town that has gotten used to being under the nominal sovereignty of their own elected Palestinian National Authority for almost a decade. Israeli soldiers announced from their loudspeakers, their burly voices resounding up and down the neighborhood roads: “To the people of Ramallah: It is forbidden to move around. Anyone breaking curfew will be shot.” Silent houses, closed shops, and deserted streets greeted their orders for good reason. These are no idle threats. Last week, several Palestinian civilians, including six children, were killed and injured when they went outside during what they thought was a lifting of the curfew.

Residents pass some of this time inside peering out of windows, watching their gaolers, the tanks, jeeps, and APCs, file through town. I survey the neighborhood through my kitchen window, and see other faces doing the same, searching for the source of random, window-rattling explosions and occasional shots fired throughout the city, day and night. What some witnessed a few nights ago were two tanks shooting at a street light, then ramming into the light pole, cracking its wooden beam. Was this more wanton destruction, as happened during the last incursions, or was there a method to this madness? My neighbor soon found out the answer.

He was dragged from his bed by Israeli soldiers around midnight. They ordered him to turn out the lights and come with them. Terrified and pleading with them to let him go, telling them that he was the father of three small children, he was ordered outside. The commander told him to shut up-“Sheket!” he hissed in Hebrew—- and ordered him to walk in front of a huge tank, equipped with a spinning meters-long turret . One of the five soldiers told him to move something from the middle of the street. Neither the soldiers nor my neighbor knew what the object was. Probably fearing a locally made bomb, as were used in Jenin, the Israelis enlisted the unwilling assistance of this Palestinian civilian to clear away the suspicious object.

My neighbor tried to refuse. The soldiers raised their guns to his face, the tank spun its turret towards him. He had no choice but to do as they asked. He stretched out a foot and tentatively gave the thing a shove, and then picked up what turned out to be a small, empty carton. The soldier told him to throw it to the side, which he did. Next he told his human landmine sweeper to retrieve it again, and throw it further down the street, which he also did. Then the soldier said, “Thank you,” and allowed him to return to his house and crying children.

“Thank you?!?” the father said.

“Were they kidding? Thank you?!? They would just as soon have had me exploded as not,” he told me the next day, still shaken up. “In having me pick up this thing-something kids were probably playing with–they knew that I would either be blown up and killed, or at the very least terrified senseless. They could have shot at it with their guns. If they had, the thing would have been blown away, and their tanks could pass. But instead they used me.”

The next afternoon, two tanks pulled up in front of their house again. Six soldiers hopped out, some went into the neighbor’s house, a few others scurried into their back yard. According to his wife, one of the soldiers took a cursory look in one of the cabinets. Then they used the fatheras a human shield and English translator as they invaded another neighbor’s house. Their search was perfunctory, they found nothing, and drove away.

His wife wondered why they were targeting this house. “I’ve never been involved in anything,” her husband explained. Unlike tens of thousands of Palestinian men and boys, this mild-mannered school teacher has never been arrested, never partaken in stone throwing demonstrations. The most political thing he has done was to help supervise a ballot station during the 1996 Palestinian elections. “Someone else might be driven to revenge by this kind of treatment. Me, I just want to live in peace. Why did they pick on me?”

Despite the curfew, and in order to spite it, after several days of enduring this collective punishment, many in the neighborhood began sitting outside, on porches or roofs. I do likewise, listening to the chorus of migrating birds chirp, stutter, and coo. I try to ignore the neighbors’ goats bleating for their breakfast of garden weeds. The stray cats, now with the run of the streets, mewl and whine, carrying out their own turf wars, pawing through over-flowing garbage dumpsters that have not been emptied for nearly a week. My neighbors water their garden, their kids harass a turtle, and a large old woman dressed in her brightly colored house robe and gauzy white head scarf bravely waddles down my street, the only pedestrian within view.

But in the midst of all these pleasant sounds, and some of the normal sights of small-town life, one’s ear is always tuned to the sound of approaching tanks or jeeps. I tense up with each far away gust of wind, confusing it with the grumbling roar of tank treads churning asphalt. My neighbor, a vigilant mother, shunts her children under a large-leafed fig tree, warning them of the dangers of being exposed.

The breeze dies down, and slowly her brood emerges back into the sun and dirt. Quiet reigns for a few minutes, before we are disturbed again by the familiar sqawk of a jeep’s horn, and orders, garbled through a loudspeaker. I run inside. Peeking through my kitchen window I see a jeep parked at the intersection down the block. I warn my neighbors, and the whole gardening crew runs inside, the goats half-fed, the watering hose left on to drown the gladiola, the children scampering in a half-crouch, alarmed little faces with confused, wide-eyed concern. Only the turtle is free.

Then the jeep moves on, the family comes back outside, and my neighbor remarks on how pleasant the weather is. We try to remain positive, despite this game of cat and mouse, our efforts at optimism dissolving with each tug from the sounds of war and occupation. The neighbor continues her chatter. Isn’t it nice that there are no snipers this time, she asks me?

I reconsider the sagacity of sunbathing under curfew. In fact, we have no idea if there are snipers or not. We have no idea if the relative calm of this last invasion will hold. True, there has been no Palestinian “resistance,” this time. Most of the young men with rusty Kalashnikovs who confronted the tanks during the previous incursions have been killed or imprisoned, hundreds of them corralled into a desert prison, Ansar III, in the Negev desert. According to human rights groups, most of them are being tortured and maltreated, many beaten severely, few formally charged and tried.

The absence of these men means that the Israelis have come in unimpeded, free to search, seize, shoot and explode things at will and whim. It also means the Israelis have no immediate excuse for shooting randomly, killing anything that moves. But this is little comfort. The Israelis need no excuses. For his part, George Bush has given them the green light: it is in “self-defense,” after all, and how they defend themselves is no concern of his, and apparently, no body else’s either. This collective punishment of hundreds of thousands of people has been barely mentioned in the western press. The enthusiastic foreign reporters who flocked to the West Bank when Palestinians were shooting and dying in March and April are nowhere to be found during the few hours of “freedom” residents have every couple of days. Watching people rush around trying to stock up on supplies before the curfew is reimposed is not news. Repression through stifling is apparently not dramatic enough.

But the drama of Palestine under occupation continues on its “Determined Path,” the name Israel has given this latest operation. On June 21, two Palestinian boys, 9-year-old Ahmad Ghazawi and 6-year old Sujud Fahmawi, were killed by Israeli tank fire in a market in Jenin. In Bethlehem, children threw stones at tanks, making a game of who could get close enough to the massive machines to touch them before running away from the Israeli bullets and tear gas.

And the drama of resistance takes many forms. High-school students are doing what they can to reach their classrooms, taking their final exams. The Minister of Education, Mr. Humus, praised these efforts as a clear challenge to the occupation’s efforts to bring a halt to everyday life. A father of several school age children told me how his family passes the time under curfew: he encourages his children to study every day, they play cards, they paint murals on their backyard walls. He gardens. “We have to stay busy and productive. We can’t just give up.”

Palestinians call these forms of rebellion “sumood”: staying power as resistance. Albert Camus described a similar obstinacy manifest in the French resistance during WWII: “That hopeless hope is what sustains us in difficult moments; our comrades will be more patient than the executioners and more numerous than the bullets. As you see, the French are capable of wrath.”

As the situation in Palestine attests, hopelessness and patience are not the sole preserve of the French and times past. Those who sincerely want to see security for the people of the region must know that not even overwhelming military force and daily indignities can stamp out the wrath against occupation–a wrath which only grows with every passing day under curfew.

Lori A. Allen is a graduate student in the Dept. of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. She is currently conducting research in the West Bank on Palestinian nationalism.