By Nicola Bullard*

April 15th 2002

Ibrahim Assad welcomes us to his stone house in Taybeh, a small village outside Jenin, saying that he is as old as Israel. “I was born in 1948 and married in 1973, the year of the Yom Kippur war. In all these years, nothing has changed for the Palestinians, but this is the first time that we have ears to hear our problems. This is the first time we have shared our
pain with the world.”

For Ibrahim Assad, the pain has entered the heart of his family. Sitting next to him, on a low mattress, is the son of his wife’s brother – Mohammed, a thirty five year old spray painter from Jenin Refugee Camp. Mohammed’s wife, Amira, is just 24 and they have three small children aged seven, four and one. They are close and quiet but the four-year old can’t help smiling shyly at this strange group of foreigners who have come to hear their story.

Mohammed begins his story. About two weeks ago, in the early evening, Jenin Refugee Camp was attacked without
warning by Israeli Defence Force Apache helicopters, launching missiles and shooting into the densely populated “refugee camp” which is now the permanent home for more than 13,000 Palestinians.

In the panic of the attack, Mohammed and his family fled to one of the underground caves typical of the region, along with hundreds of others. They took no food or water but were luckier than many others who ran for their lives without a chance to gather their children or other family members. For four days, 50 families lived in one cave in the heat and dark, hearing overhead the shooting, bombs and the roar of tanks and bulldozers flattening the settlement. Some decided to leave, preferring to take their chances in the open than die in a cave. Eventually the shooting and the bulldozing stopped and on the fifth day most decided to leave the cave, except for an elderly couple who stayed behind. No one knows their fate.

Somehow Mohammed and Amira made it to the village of their uncle, but they have been unable to contact
their own parents and brothers and sisters. But they are luckier than most: the family is together.

Just two kilometres away, at the Altaybeh Basic Boys School, there are more than 200 men of all ages who have no idea what has happened to their wives and children. They too are from the Jenin Camp. They tell the same story of missiles and shooting; one man says he counted 51 missiles in an hour. And they tell the same story of bulldozers and tanks, but they were
above ground and saw what Mohammed and Amira only heard. They tell us of houses with women and children
inside flattened by bulldozers and of soldiers shooting young men who walked towards the tanks with white flags and arms raised. One youth describes how he was arrested, forced to strip to his underpants and then, for two days, used as a “human shield” by the Israeli soldiers as they went from house to house.
Many of these men were arrested by the army, blindfolded and their hands tied. They were not allowed to go to the toilet, they were insulted, beaten and tortured, and left without food and water.
Several had clearly visible scars and injuries, caused by handcuffs, cigarette burns and beating. After four or five days, they were released by the military, without papers and many without clothes, in the middle of a curfew and with orders not to return to the Jenin Camp. At a nearby mosque another 490 men with similar stories have also found food, clothes and shelter, but they have not found their families.

Frustration and fear on all sides

The pain that Ibrahim Assad speaks of is visible on the faces of all the people we meet. The old woman with bright blue eyes who tells us about the afternoon an Israeli tank ploughed down the steep path to her house bringing soldiers who pushed all the women and children into a room while they searched the house. The thin, middle-aged man bent double in pain and
grief unable to speak of his ordeal. But, what is even more striking – after four short days in Jerusalem and the West Bank – is the resilience and will of the Palestinians and their absolute determination to resist the occupation and to fight for their land: a
determination that seems equalled only by Israel’s determination to fight for a secure home for the Jewish people.

In the past months hundreds of international civilians have gone to the Occupied Territories, digging up IDF
road blocks, observing checkpoints, re-planting hundreds of hectares of olive groves cut with chainsaws by settlers and living with communities to provide one additional thin layer of protection from harassment and arrest by the Israeli authorities. The
fact that hundreds of foreigners have taken these risks is not simply old-fashioned solidarity. Nor is it a modern day version of the partisan international brigades of the Spanish civil war or the Nicaraguan revolution. It is, I think, an expression of total
frustration at the inability of our governments to deal with the political and humanitarian crisis of Israel and the Occupied Territories: a crisis which is the fulcrum of international peace and security.

The Israeli people, too, are desperate. Hundreds have been killed by suicide bombs and polls show that 75 per cent of Israelis support Operation Defensive Shield. And yet, in the same poll, almost 60 per cent said they would support a unilateral withdrawal from the territories, more than 50 per cent support the Saudi Arabia peace proposal and 55 per cent agree that there should be a Palestinian state. Last Saturday, 3,000 Israeli and Arab peace activists marched to the
Jenin Refugee Camp checkpoint escorting a convoy of trucks carrying food and water, medical supplies, clothes and blankets. Others hold peace vigils outside the homes of prime minister Ariel Sharon and foreign affairs minister Shimon Peres.

The fact that Israelis still think and act like this, in spite of the myth supported by Sharon that the state of Israel itself is under threat by the Palestinians (which explains the strong support for the “defensive shield”), the self-censorship of the media and the totally pervasive state security apparatus, shows that there is still common ground for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Almost everyone agrees that the solution is to establish a Palestinian state according to the 1967 boundaries,
but getting from here to there appears impossible and the forces involved, intractable.

Amjel Kazim, an insurance salesman who has been trapped in his fiance’s house 200 meters from the Arafat headquarters in Ramallah since 29 March, told us that things have never been so hard. “We see everything on the television,” he said, “but no one is doing anything.” US secretqry of state Colin Powell’s leisurely tour of the Mediterranean and his bland proposal for a regional conference at which Palestinian Authority president Yassir Arafat’s presence is “not indispensible” suggests that, in
spite of the hard evidence of human rights violations by the Israeli state and its continued occupation of the Palestinian territories, the political calculus that shapes the future of the region is based on a cynical assessment of US interests. We may have eyes to see Ibrahim Assad’s pain and ears to hear his story, but unless we get to the heart of the problem, US political and economic interests, we may as well be deaf and blind.

* Nicola Bullard was in Jerusalem and the West Bank with the International Civil Mission for the Protection of the Palestinian People.
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