Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Twilight Zone / A day in the life

By Gideon Levy

We were just sitting down on the plastic chairs in the living room when the noise began. Boom after boom, volleys of gunfire. Closer, farther away, single shots and rounds of automatic fire. Occasionally, too, a brief respite. Jamal poured coffee as usual. Another cup, another cigarette. The firing continues. How are you? What's doing? But it's clear that the shooting is now very close, almost on the other side of the wall. At the Jalama checkpoint, on the way here, we hadn't noticed an ominous sign: a convoy of armored vehicles of the Israel Defense Forces was parked along the roadside. Maybe they were waiting to enter.

Air force planes above, rattling the windows and the thin walls with their sonic booms. On the street, life goes on as usual: It's midday and the children are on the way home from school, backpacks on shoulders, their mothers chatting as they wait for them in the alley, the mobile-grocery man announcing his produce via a noisy loudspeaker attached to his vehicle. The volleys of fire are growing louder and more insistent. That's life. But now it becomes clear even to Jamal Zbeidi, a veteran of suffering and struggle, that something is happening in the camp, something is happening - again.

Late the night before, too, IDF troops had entered the camp and wounded an armed young man in the leg. He managed to get away and reached the adjacent house. The neighbors dressed the wound and tried to persuade him to wait for first light, but his pain intensified and he begged to be taken to a hospital. Jamal called an ambulance. As it approached the house, an IDF Jeep that had been waiting in ambush at the corner of the street suddenly swooped in. The soldiers, who did not dare leave their armored vehicle, ordered the paramedics to turn over the wounded youngster. They bundled him into the Jeep and drove off, ordering the ambulance to drive ahead.

A short time before that, another youth was hurt in the camp and was rushed to the hospital in Nablus with a head injury, after a quarrel among children in the local Internet cafe. Meanwhile, the camp committee tried for hours to calm things down between the two families, the Shalabis and the Ararwis. People in the camp hadn't slept; another restless night, as usual.

The red telephone starts to chirp. Jamal is a member of the camp committee, and people call his mobile to find out what's going on. He too starts to call neighbors and informants. Initially, there are rumors that mistarvim - Israeli soldiers disguised as Arabs - are entrenched in one of the buildings up the road in the alley we are in, and local gunmen are firing at someone inside the house. A municipal foreman didn't come to work today, and the suspicion is that the mistarvim are holding him captive in his house, where they have been taking cover since entering in the dead of night. It's now a little after noon. Jamal says that if there really are mistarvim in that house, the IDF will send forces to extricate them.

Sounds of men breathlessly running in the street. We are glued to the barred window: Three armed men are dashing up the alley, toward the shooting. Jamal says it may be a false alarm. Amir Peretz is on Al Jazeera, on the TV set that is on day and night, without the sound. The camp's muezzin calls worshipers to come to the midday prayer. That's life. If anyone is killed, the youngsters will come to the mosque and use the loudspeaker to announce it. The shooting intensifies.

One's hands break out in a cold sweat. For someone from the outside it's very scary. The ceiling fan turns silently on its axis, dissipating the heat but not the fear. Jamal is a cool character. If it were not for his Israeli guests, he would already be out on the street. The firing is getting closer. Hani Damaj, whose home is in the eye of the storm, reports on the red phone: The word is that an IDF unit is entrenched in the house next door, that of the foreman, Abu-Imad Ghraieb, and the young men are shooting at it. Jamal asks Damaj to get back to him with more details. He reminds us that we once visited the besieged house - when Ariel Sharon was hospitalized.

Ghraieb, about 50, lives in the besieged house with his wife. They have no children. A group of youngsters runs toward the shooting, schoolbags flopping on their backs. Also making their way up the alley, but slowly, are girls in their striped school uniforms. It is very hot outside. Another phone call: Damaj confirms that the soldiers are in the house. Jamal does not let us leave; this is not the time for Israelis to walk around the camp. His children are not home: Anton is at work in a garage, Naim is doing guard duty, and the little ones, Yusuf and Hamudi, are on the way home from the school next to the new cemetery for martyrs of the second intifada. Their father is certain that they have already joined the children who are running toward the gunfire, to throw stones at the Jeeps.

A few months ago, Yusuf was wounded in the leg by a bullet. Jamal keeps his cool. He really has seen it all. With his own hands he removed numerous bodies from besieged alleys after Israel's Operation Defensive Shield five years ago. His son-in-law and two of his nephews were killed, and he was placed in administrative detention [arrest without trial] seven times.

The phone rings. On the line is Khaled Abu al-Haija, a construction worker who is on a job near the besieged house. He relates that there is still traffic on the road between the camp and the city, but there is a great deal of shooting and many explosions. The Jenin version of a traffic report. A few hundred meters from here, I recall, a teenage girl, Bushra al-Wahsh, was killed in her room a few days ago while preparing for an exam.

A powerful blast. It's a roadside bomb that the youngsters planted for the army vehicles. Lately they have been greeting the IDF with gas canisters placed by the roadside. The explosions leave gaping holes in the camp road, which was rebuilt only a couple of years ago.

We tune in the local TV station, which may have more news. The headlines of the Maan news agency crawl by at the bottom of the screen: "Israeli security forces set up roadblocks at entrances to Jenin." And immediately afterward, "Israeli security forces enter Jenin camp."

Al Jazeera is reporting on the French elections. The firing goes on unabated. A minibus drops off the camp's schoolchildren at their homes, but most disappear quickly into the alley, running into the firing zone, to the only action this camp can offer them.

A call is made to Ali Samoudi, the Al Jazeera correspondent in Jenin, who is already at the scene. Panting hard, he tells me that there are already about 20 IDF vehicles next to the house and another group parked below, next to the equestrian sculpture made by a German artist from parts of wrecked ambulances, on the edge of the camp, at the entrance to the government hospital. The hospital is not operating now, because the employees haven't been paid for months. Another explosive device goes off. Samoudi says there are wounded people.

"I hope you get out safely and that we won't have anyone killed today," Jamal, our host, says matter-of-factly. Air force plane serve up another sonic boom. "That has nothing to do with it," he adds reassuringly. "If things go wrong, the Apaches [helicopters] will come. You don't play with the Apaches."

The neighbors' nine-year-old boy runs in, his face sweaty and red, a lemon in his hand. He has come from there, there are already two wounded, one of them seriously. The wail of an ambulance speeding by drowns out his words. Little Usseid says he is not afraid. "What? Me, afraid of them?" the diminutive boy exclaims. Yes, he threw stones at them. Three unarmed youngsters are moving up the hill on their ancient tractor. A taxi turns around and heads back at the sound of the shooting. When the firing intensifies again, Jamal says it's probably the end: Before the soldiers leave, they often step up the shooting, and that is the most dangerous time.

It's 1:20 P.M. Sanaa serves lunch. A tray of ground meat and peanuts on rice, with bowls of yogurt and meat alongside. "Two were wounded, one seriously," she says as she distributes the dishes, giving us a direct report from her situation room: the kitchen on the second floor. On Al Jazeera the German foreign minister is meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. A rickety van drops off a boy in the alley. Ali Samoudi reports that an IDF bulldozer has arrived.

A neighbor rushes out, screaming: He sent his son to work and now he is not there; he must have gone to the scene of the incident. A few years ago, this neighbor lost two nephews within a few days. Now, distraught over his son, he runs back and forth in the alley, grumbling and cursing. "If you see my son, tell him his father is looking for him," he shouts to someone on his mobile phone. More bursts of fire and another ambulance cruises through the alley, siren wailing. The neighbor decides to drive to the hospital, to see if his son is there, heaven forbid. He too has heard that there are wounded.

Hamudi has returned home. In his childish voice and with his captivating smile, the 11-year-old reports from the scene: They are throwing stones at the Jeeps. The word is that the soldiers tried to assassinate someone, but he opened fire and wounded a soldier. A rumor. Did you throw stones, his father asks. "No, I just stood there and watched." They both know the truth. At night, Hamudi sprints into his parents' bed whenever shots are heard, but during the day he is as brave as his older brothers.

The phone doesn't let up. On the line is Atef Abu al-Rub, a field worker from B'Tselem, the human rights organization, who wants to know what happened. Shall we eat now? It's 1:50. Who's at the door, they ask with concern. Fifteen-year-old Yusuf hasn't come home yet. Sanaa's food is wonderfully tasty, as usual in this house. Another close explosive charge goes off as we polish off a second yogurt.

A tractor that sounds like a tank makes us jump to the window with the plastic louver blinds. Two hours have passed. A Jeep carrying helmet-clad reporters speeds up the alley. Another ambulance, too; this time without a siren. Yusuf arrives, and says: "I just watched." Four children were lightly wounded by rubber bullets, he says. "Did you bring back the schoolbag?" his father asks. Yes, when he went there he placed it by the side, and now he collected it on the way back. It's after 3 now, and quiet.

Response of the IDF spokesperson:

As part of IDF operations in the area of Judea and Samaria intended to maintain the security of citizens of the State of Israel and destroy the terror infrastructure, the IDF operates in the area of the city of Jenin in order to eliminate the terror infrastructure and prevent attacks on the home front.

On the date in question, explosives were thrown and there was firing in a number of cases against IDF forces operating in Jenin, there were no injuries, the force returned fire against the sources of the shooting.

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