Nablus: Curfew and Defiance

— eyewitness report from the International Solidarity Movement

WHY DO I not find words for the realities that lie before my very eyes?

Witnessing life in Nablus these past few days has been particularly difficult, infuriating and heartbreaking, for the situation is the worst it has ever been. Today marks 104 days of curfew; 104 days during which 200,000 people have been imprisoned in their homes -- over three months, over 2020 consecutive hours inside (for curfew has been lifted for about seventy hours total).

The inhabitants of Nablus have been breaking the curfew en masse, especially since the beginning of the school year, refusing to abide by this truly inhumane Israeli Army practice that punishes and oppresses the entire civilian population.

In response, the Army has been using more violence (physical and psychological) to impose the curfew, attempting to keep the population caged in their homes like animals through the use of terror and excessive military force.

The residents of Nablus face vicious violence simply because they open their front doors and step out on to the street; because teachers open the schools; because people visit the sick, walk to the market and sell fruits, falafel and sweets to make a little money to feed their children.

In spite of the ever present tanks, tear gas, injuries, bullets, tank shells, humiliation, jeeps and checkpoints, Nablus residents are determined to continue to live.

This struggle to survive has been met by an incredibly aggressive Israeli Army assault, specifically targeting the students and schools. Three days ago when school was let out, Internationals witnessed as tanks chased and shot at over 150 young students (5-15 years old) who were trying to pass in front of the government building (the mukata'a) to go home.

The tank began by opening fire on the mukata'a itself in order “to scare the people,” as one soldier said bluntly. It then proceeded to literally chase the students at high speed shooting continuous rounds of live ammunition in the air, as the children ran in all directions.

I watched as young girls and boys ran, some in tears and all in fear, their faces seized by terror, crinkled in panic. The tank came and went a number of times, doing circles and leaving for just long enough to allow another stream of children to begin passing, before opening fire again.

The tank was followed by a jeep carrying four soldiers that habitually stopped, got out, and fired M-16s at everything in the street. This went on for over thirty minutes in front of the government building and continued throughout the day.

Shooting the Children

I watched in horror, in complete and utter disbelief, knowing that it was only a matter of time until someone was injured. I was however anything but pre<->pared for it to be two children, one two years old and one three, shot in the head and arm hours later by this indiscriminate, furious firing.

We (Internationals and some Palestinians who we work with) were at the end of a meeting and wandered out onto the street summoned by the sounds of tanks grinding over the pavement.

I remember seeing the uniforms and young children in groups of threes and fours, clumped together walking towards the largest road block in the city (9-12 feet high) in front of the government building; they pass to the right this enormous barrier in front of a twice destroyed government building on a little path that has been created through use.

I remember one 14-15 year old girl with tears rolling down her cheeks, her face rife with fear, screaming, as her friend tried to calm her while running away.

One tank gone mad that manages to make 150 children run in every direction, and one soldier anything but humane who terrorizes the innocent, but who nonetheless couldn't keep them from coming back -- again and again, because “Palestinians will last and last and last; their spirit cannot be broken.”

I thought about what children say to their parents when they ask how school was today. I asked myself what kind of human beings can drive these tanks and jump out of jeeps, firing on small children and streets full of civilians for the outrageous crime of merely being outside.

I thought of how convenient it was that all the press was in Ramallah covering Arafat, and the reality that I was going to be one of the only witnesses of these terror tactics.

Schools have been tear gassed every single day this week; tanks arrive in front of the various refugee camps and schools in the city center by 6:30 a.m. when they begin firing endless rounds of ammunition, frequently large caliber rounds.

This is what we wake up to in Nablus. This is what children hear as they eat their breakfast, filling their bellies with bread, olive oil and fear as they begin thinking about the treacherous journey to school.

Battle for the Schools

The Israeli Army attempts to close the schools before they even begin by spending an hour or more terrorizing the students and teachers with this incessant tank fire.

If this security “tactic” is unsuccessful, which recently it largely has been, the Internationals make rounds, visiting the various schools and maintaining a presence in front of them to try to minimize or end the military violence and the terrorizing.

Teachers are incredibly scared and students are far from able to concentrate. After having spent their entire summer vacation indoors, they now walk the streets to school amidst tear gas and bullets.

They continue, they come back and walk in front of the mukata'a because tragically this is nothing new; their education has been regularly interrupted for two years now, and tanks are an everyday occurrence. They courageously continue, risking their lives to travel to and from school because they know how important education is for the future, because they tenaciously hold onto the last remnants of their social infrastructure, and because they genuinely want to learn.

Twelve Internationals went to Kutaiba and Tulal schools in Rafidia a few days ago because the schools had been teargassed for days and forced to habitually send students home early. A hour and half into classes, the Israeli Army arrived with a meager two APCs, one tank and two jeeps.

Internationals stood on all the main roads and accompanied women and children past the APCs and tank, while staying close to the schools. The soldiers in the jeep asked to speak to the principal at Kutaiba school and casually talked to him and two Internationals, explaining that there was no problem and that they were leaving, which they did.

I wondered why the absence of problems and hundreds of children under the age of 15 in class warranted the presence of five military vehicles and twenty soldiers.

Life Pinned Down

I was at Zatara checkpoint one week ago, trying to return to Nablus in a car with Palestinian license plates on a settler bypass road, a road which also happens to be the main road to Nablus from Ramallah.

After much discussion and protest from our driver and the Palestinian passengers, we three Internationals went to talk to the soldiers. They said that we were able to pass the checkpoint on foot, along with the others, but there was absolutely no way that the car could pass. The ever present pretext: “Strict orders.”

The soldier says to us completely seriously towards the end of our conversation: “Look, I really understand, but I can't help you.” “How will we get to Nablus?” We demand. “Ask your driver, there are other routes through the villages and he knows them. They all do.”

And our driver did. A distance of 35 km turned into a journey of five hours, but we made it, and so do Palestinians in every city and village, and the Israeli Army knows it. There is always a way, though not without risk, a back mountain path or a deserted dirt village road, and certainly anyone who perseveres, who has a little luck and time can move.

This is true in Nablus and outside too. The Israeli Army tries to keep the entire population pinned down in one place, knowing full well that right from the very start this is an impossible feat. This military tactic also completely fails to address this relatively new phenomenon called “suicide bombers;” in fact it actually exacerbates the occurrence of suicide bombings by making life hell, worthless, impossible, for everyone.

“Identity Card”

The Israeli Army's strategy has absolutely nothing to do with creating more peace, security, understanding and respect for human life. “What is this about?” I asked a soldier today, after being stopped in a taxi on our way to Balata refugee camp -- not by a traffic light but rather by two soldiers, with their M-16s aimed directly at us, who came running around the corner directly in front of us.

Hussein (a good friend) had just asked me how long I thought they would go on letting the people go out, move, as it has been relatively quiet for the past two days. This does not mean they haven't been present; on the contrary, tanks, jeeps and APCs have been parked in a number of heavily traveled areas, but they allowed most people to pass during the day.

It means they haven't been shooting at everything that moves, all the time, just some things, some times.

This was one of those times. Everyone out of the taxi; “Howiiya. (Identity card)” is all they have to say because everyone already knows the routine. I look up and notice that there are already five women and another taxi beside the jeep and four soldiers.

I begin asking questions, whether there's a problem, why they are stopping the cars. “There is something that you have to understand: there is curfew in Nablus” they respond to my protests. “Yes, but people need to move to buy food and medicine, to survive.” “Ohh . . . this is not my problem.”

“You know life here Hussein, anything is possible. One thing is sure, the soldiers have not left; it is only a matter of time,” I had answered him half an hour ago.

The Israeli Army comes any time, decides at any moment to enforce or disregard “orders,” invent laws, or bend rules; their practices are inconsistent, unpredictable and arbitrary, gray and full of loopholes. But they always come, sooner or later, and they are without a doubt not finished in Nablus.

“What are you going to do?” I ask the soldiers, as if we don't all already know; this has been going on for weeks. “Check the IDs, take the key, and let them go if there are no problems.”

“And the key, the car?” “They can get their keys back at the DCO (District Coordinating Office); the car will stay here,” I hear as I look at the driver starting to let the air out of his tires.

“You know it is impossible for them to go to the DCO, seeing as they must pass through the checkpoint in order to get there.” The soldier just smiles.

“Making the People Suffer”

I am all of a sudden interrupted by machine gun fire to my left: One soldier has begun shooting directly at a young group of children standing on the hill looking at this spectacle.

I walk right over to him and interject, “Hey, is this necessary? They are just children. You will injure or kill one of them.” I cite a few recent examples--the two- and three-year-olds shot four days ago; Baha, 13, assassinated; the 10- and 13-year-olds killed three days ago; but the shooting continues.

I ask Hussein if I can leave the men and go up the hill between the soldier and the children -- put my body on the line for this group of soon-to-be “terrorists” who were doing NOTHING more than watching. Go ahead, shoot . . . I am festering, as I begin in that direction -- and then the soldier stops.

I take a breath and return to the discussion with another soldier, telling him that I know they've been taking keys and confiscating cars regularly but it is hardly about “security,” as the people on the main road are obviously not “terrorists.”

What “terrorist” would pass right in front of them? Suicide bombers take the back roads through the villages. He smiles again, and says “This is about . . .” I continue for him and say, “Collective punishment, trying to teach them a lesson . . .”

“No” he says, this is about “Making the people suffer.”

The soldiers spend another fifteen minutes mulling around as we talk amongst ourselves, and I go to visit the women, who had called me over to explain that one of them had a newborn who needed to nurse, and they had already been waiting for over an hour.

I say a few words on humanity's behalf to the soldiers about them and am met with more explanations of curfew. I wander towards the taxi and the driver of our car calmly says to me as he lets the air out of his tires, ordered by the soldiers to continue to do so, that this is the fifth time this has happened to him . . . . and that he has another copy of the key.

The soldiers get in the jeep finally and drive off with the IDs down the road. The taxi drivers quickly jump in their cars and drive away, obviously both well prepared, and the men and I wait on the side of the road laughing.

Eventually the soldiers come back, IDs are returned over one hour later, and they move on down the road, quieted and somewhat confused by this small victory.

Free Fire Zones

The Israeli Army patrols Nablus throughout the day and night, attacking the people and opening fire in the most active, populated areas such as the Old City and the refugee camps.

Three days ago the Israeli Army injured 41 people and killed two children, one 13, one 10. I read an article last night from The Washington Post talking about the day that said “Palestinians threw stones, gasoline bombs, and debris at Israeli army vehicles and the soldiers returned fire with guns and tanks.”

This is exactly the kind of wording in the American media that is so incredibly deceiving. Let's be very clear: Palestinians do not begin these confrontations with the Army. The Army comes into their town with tanks, APCs and jeeps, firing live rounds of ammunition at walls, stores and groups of people who are caught in their path and who surreptitiously watch as they move through the streets.

They have seen them come a thousand times before, they know that bullets kill, that tanks squash cars as humans do ants, and that soldiers can be ruthless, and not because they read about it, or heard about it, but because they have seen it all.

After some time, children, young boys and men congregate and frequently begin throwing stones, to resist this monstrous military presence that roams their city. Stone throwing is a symbolic way of saying “Get out. Leave our city, leave us in peace.”

The soldiers in the tank, clearly at great risk from these rocks in their massive, armored vehicles, respond with incessant rounds of machine gun fire, tank shells of 250, 500 and 800 calibre, frequently injuring children, as was the case three days ago.

We went to the public hospital that night and saw most of the over thirty injured from machine gun fire that day alone, along with dozens others injured in the last month; room after room filled with wicked war wounds and the miraculously healing warmth, welcome and wealth of the Palestinian community.

“There is Still Hope”

What do I hold fast in my heart during these difficult days to carry me on? The image of a father walking to school with his two young boys at seven o'clock in the morning among dozens of others, making me almost believe that life is normal for a few seconds . . . . I know too well, however, that the tears I feel blistering below the surface are because he is risking his life just to get his children to the school entrance, and that this bravery is anything but mundane.

I hold onto the photo of hundreds of thousands at the demonstration in London against the imminent war with Iraq; to the audacious actions of two Israeli women who recently came to Nablus to confront their own army; to the face of an old woman at the hospital who told me “There is still hope;” and to the laughter of the little children that rings in my ears with resilience.

I cannot capture in words how greatly I admire the people of Nablus. Previously, people attempted to hide and avoid the Israeli Army but currently the people of Nablus can not be stopped. They refuse to be imprisoned in their houses any longer, they refuse to starve, they refuse to go without work, they refuse to allow their children to be robbed of an education, and they refuse to resign.

Truly horrifying plans are being talked of and created currently and as the U.S. moves ever closer to a war with Iraq, the possibility of a mass transfer of the Palestinian population becomes more and more terrifying.

May the world not wait too long, may we not let massive war crimes occur yet again, only to say sorry after the fact, “If only we had known.”

May we instead learn from the people in Nablus who have so very much to teach us. They know that there is power in numbers, that there is great strength in organizing, that you can effectively resist, that hope is a magical force, and that you can beat the world's fifth largest army with your head and your heart.

ATC 101, November-December 2002