Al-Jazeera was showing Iraqi prisoners, their heads covered with hoods and their hands tied tightly with white plastic cuffs, on the television behind Sultan and Shareef Haroun. But the two brothers, sitting in their home again after three days exiled from their families, hardly needed reminding of what occupation looks like up close.
The pair were among some 2,000 men aged between 15 and 40 rounded up by the Israeli army a week ago in the refugee camp of Tulkarm, in the northern West Bank, for questioning.
Afterwards the soldiers blindfolded the men, tied the same plastic cuffs used in Iraq around their wrists and herded them on to buses in which they were driven a few kilometres to neighbouring villages.
“Stay away for the next three days,” Shareef, 21, recalled the Israeli officer saying as he was loaded on to the bus. “Try to return and we will kill you.”
“Iraq and here are not so different,” said Sultan, 23, adding: “I speak very good Hebrew but many of the soldiers did not understand me and could only speak English. I tell you the Americans are practicing here so that they can learn what to do in Baghdad and Basra.”
Palestinian suspicions of cooperation between the Israeli and US armies aside, there are disturbing echoes of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian cities in the American invasion of Iraq: both are illegal under international law, both are enforced by “Western” armies on Arab populations, and both are policed by soldiers inevitably mired in immoral activities to ensure compliance as well as their own safety.
The question of how to stop “benevolent liberation” sliding into tyrannous and hated occupation will test the best American and British military minds in the coming months if there is not a swift exit from Baghdad.
Such considerations, however, do not trouble Israel’s military planners.
The 36-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was never excused as an exercise in liberation, and Israeli soldiers have never been required to dish out sweets to children in a battle for “hearts and minds”.
But like Israel, US and British forces will have to learn quickly how to distinguish between civilians and fighters’ or “terrorists” as the Pentagon, again following Israel’s lead, is all too readily labelling them.
What they may also discover, as Israel has, is that separating the two is almost impossible when resistance is a responsibility shared equally by men, women and children.
For Palestinians, it is not only the men with guns struggling against occupation but the women who hide and feed them, and the children and old people who keep their mouths shut when the army comes knocking.
That kind of common purpose cannot be picked apart: it has to be ruthlessly crushed.
Such problems inherent in Israel’s violent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza were laid bare last week in the assault on Tulkarm camp, home to 18,000 Palestinians, and the expulsion of its menfolk.
Shareef says he was woken shortly before 4am by loud knocking on the door of the family’s house. As he dressed, soldiers came flooding down the stairs from the roof, their guns pointed at him, his face dazzled by the light from torches on their helmets.
“They had got in from the roof of the neighbouring house,” he said.
Within seconds the soldiers had taken over the third floor he was decorating in time for his marriage next week. Then they moved to the second floor where his brother Sultan lives with his wife and two young children. All of them were pushed out on to the street outside as the soldiers brought in rocket launchers and machine guns to place on the building’s roof, one of the highest in the camp.
“We were asked for our ID cards but we’d left them in the house. I went in to get them and found soldiers already laying out their sleeping mattresses on the floor of my living room,” said Sultan.
In the course of the three days the army occupied the house, the soldiers broke the furniture, rifled through clothes and scrawled graffiti on the walls. The bedroom Shareef had prepared for his wife was so badly damaged he has had to buy a new bed and wardrobe and repaint it from scratch. He claims wedding gifts were stolen.
The army had sealed off the whole camp with a ring of barbed wire as helicopters circled overhead. In the early dawn, a Jeep with loudspeaker called on all the men aged between 15 and 40 to make their way to the central school run by the UN refugee agency, UNRWA, for questioning. The UN later filed a complaint, accusing the army of violating the neutrality of its site.
Sultan had only recently been released from seven months imprisonment in Ofer interrogation centre and Ketziot detention camp in the Negev, after he was caught visiting a friend in Nablus hospital during a curfew last year.
Like more than 1,000 other inmates in Ketziot, he was held under a military administrative order, without a trial.
Afraid he would be jailed again, Sultan slipped down a side street and fled to a neighbouring village. Many other men evaded the round-up and made their own escapes to family and friends outside the camp.
Shareef, on the other hand, waited in the school playground along with hundreds of others before being briefly questioned and his papers checked.
“They split us into three groups. Men over 35 were cuffed, those from 18 to 35 were blindfolded as well, and those between 15 and 18 were taken to another part of the school where they were questioned individually.”
Several sources confirmed that the army used threats and physical violence against the teenagers in the camp to pressure them into joining Israel’s extensive network of collaborators. None, however, was prepared to talk openly.
Finally, shortly after midday, Shareef was put on a truck and driven to a nearby refugee camp, Nur Shams, where he was able to stay with friends. The army claims 1,000 men were transferred that day out of the camp; residents say 2,000.
No one in the army was claiming that the expelled men were suspects. Rather the military justified its actions by saying it needed to clear out the camp so that it could search for wanted men without risk of street fighting.
For three days soldiers went from door to door searching houses infront of frightened women, children and the elderly, many of whom had little or no idea what had happened to their husbands, brothers, sons or fathers.
Some left-wing Israelis were appalled by the military strategy. The former Labour Party politician, Yossi Beilin, said the expulsion evoked “chilling memories”, although it was unclear whether he was referring to the mass transfer of Palestinians in 1948 or to the herding of European Jews to German concentration camps a few years earlier. Beilin added: “Only a twisted mind could have come up with such a plan.”
An army spokeswoman defended the operation — the first such mass expulsion since the large- scale Israeli invasion of the West Bank a year ago — saying it was designed to spare innocent civilians. “It was an operational need to ensure that those not involved in terror were not harmed during the operation,” Major Sharon Feingold said.
That was not the way it looked to the family of Mueer Samir, aged eight. He was forced to enter a house by a soldier who placed a gun on his shoulder.
Although the army believed the house was occupied by Islamic Jihad leaders, in fact it was home to six women. The owner Hannan Ashour showed the rubble-strewn floor of her bedroom where soldiers had smashed a hole in the wall in the search for hiding places and wrecked her furniture.
There was little apparent justification for such a sweeping assault on the rights of the camp’s population other than as heavy-handed collective punishment for a suicide mission planned in Tulkarm by Islamic Jihad that injured dozens of Israelis in the coastal town of Netanya on 30 March.
There was virtually no armed resistance to the military invasion and, according to the army, only 21 suspects were arrested by the army, most of them in the initial sweep. The invasion of Tulkarm ended after a Jihad leader Anwar Alian surrendered along with three others. They had been hidden by several families before finally seeking refuge in a brothel, a place they hoped the army would not expect to find Islamic Jihad men.
Located by a telephone call, they gave themselves up without a fight.
Sultan had his own theory about what the army was trying to achieve. “They want to see how far they have broken us, what we will do if they stick us in trucks like they did in 1948. I fear this is only a test run.”
There was much speculation before the invasion of Iraq about whether Israel would use the cover of war to step up its killing of Palestinians or try a mass expulsion of the population, possibly to Jordan. So far the doom-sayers have been proved wrong.
But this is probably because they misunderstood the strategy of the army high command and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose hands have been stayed rather than liberated by the war and the explosive emotions it threatens to unleash across the Arab world.
Instead, Israel has been working on longer-term plan of “softening up” the Palestinian people through destruction of their civilian infrastructure, through regular purges of the military and political leadership, through confiscations of agricultural land to build the wall, through house demolitions and deportations, through enforced and widespread unemployment, poverty and malnutrition, and through terror campaigns launched by settlers and backed by the army.
The hope is that a dispirited, malleable population can be moulded into any political arrangement Israel might persuade the Americans and Europeans is a peace agreement. Early signs of this policy were Sharon’s recent revisions of the route of the fence, taking far more land away from the Palestinians, and the opening of the first Jewish settlement, Maaleh Hazeitim, in East Jerusalem in attempt to seal the “unity” of Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s eternal capital.
Sharon will also be pinning his hopes on the war in Iraq becoming a drawn-out affair. As the Americans find themselves bogged down in a colonial war of domination against a discontented and possibly rebellious Iraqi population, Sharon will be poised by President Bush’s shoulder, whispering sympathetic advice based on Israel’s long experience of illegal occupation.
In the meantime, Sharon will pursue his remorseless campaign to make the Palestinians submit, even if a high price is paid by civilians. The army cracked down in both the West Bank and Gaza late last week, in operations that coincided with the Tulkarm expulsions.
A 14-year-old boy, Jihad Mazal, was shot in the back in the West Bank city of Qalqiliya on Wednesday night during an army raid. The next day an Apache helicopter fired a rocket at a building in Rafah refugee camp in Gaza during a heavily armed incursion that killed four Palestinians and wounded seven. The army said it was searching for tunnels; it found none. In Nablus on the same day a Hamas leader Khaled Rihan, 28, was shot dead after he was cornered in his home.
On Sunday, in a similar operation to that in Tulkarm, men of the central Gazan village of Al- Ma’azi were rounded up. During sporadic gunfights Marwan Abu-Jiab, 23, was killed. A 13- year-old, Youssef Abu-Hadi, was shot dead by soldiers, and 16 youngsters wounded, after children leaving school threw stones at them.
On Monday, Bader Yassin, 25, was shot dead by soldiers during a raid on a cafÃ© in the West Bank town of Salfit and a Palestinian gunman was killed near the fence of the Netzarim settlement in the Gaza Strip.
There are signs too that the army is trying to ensure as few witnesses as possible to its military campaign, targeting in particular foreign observers. The killing of an International Solidarity Movement member, 23-year-old Rachel Corrie, under the bucket of an army bulldozer in Rafah in Gaza on 16 March now appears like the opening shot.
On Saturday night another volunteer, 24-year- old Brian Avery, was hit in the face in Jenin by shrapnel when an armoured vehicle fired at the ground in front of him. Witnesses say Avery had his hands raised and was wearing an ISM jacket when the soldiers opened fire. At the time of going to press, he was in intensive care in Haifa.