On Friday, May 31, we heard that the IDF had entered the Balata Refugee camp near Nablus. A friend of ours called us to tell us that the soldiers had ordered that every man between the ages of 15 and 50 come out of his house. Those who came out were detained. Those who refused had their houses bulldozed. There were 16 of us international activists gathered in East Jerusalem to work in solidarity with the Palestinian people, and we made a quick decision to go to the Balata Refugee Camp and to do whatever was in our power to stop or lessen the human rights abuses against the residents of the camp.
We walked into the City of Nablus in the early evening. Since the IDF had invaded the city as well as the refugee camp, the city itself was under curfew. But there we were, walking through the streets following the fresh tracks of tanks. Word of our presence in the city preceded us and families gathered at their windows or up on their roofs to watch us walk through and shout "Marhaba," "Hello," "Ahlan," "Welcome." We shouted back and I wished I had some way to explain to them why I was walking through their streets. We had to stop and ask for directions to the Balata Refugee Camp several times and each time we were asked in for tea or coffee. The generosity of the Palestinian people astounds me still.
In the old city, where the tanks can’t fit through the narrow streets there was more activity. Kids were gathered with rocks in their hands, just waiting to hurl them at an approaching tank and then duck back into the alleyways. From the next block we could hear the excited yells of children and then tank fire. I realized with horror that the shower of rocks from the kids had been returned with a shower of bullets.
It was near dark when we finally made it to the outskirts of the camp. We approached an entrance that was guarded by two tanks with our hands up in the air. Behind us, an ambulance was also approaching. Suddenly, one of the tanks fired and we ran for cover. The ambulance screeched to a halt and quickly retreated. It was only after the firing stopped that I realized that a tank actually hadn’t fired at us. They were only warning shots. We took a hint from the ambulance, which was turning around, and decided to try another way into the camp. At another entrance we were able to walk past the tank without any problems. Since it was dark, we decided to accept invitations from people to sleep in their homes. I fell into fitful sleep to the sound of tanks moving around on the streets.
Holes in the Walls
In the morning the Israeli soldiers entered people’s homes and we could hear loud banging from inside. A woman emerged from a house and begged us to come inside to see what the soldiers were doing. There were no soldiers in her house yet, but the clanging of the soldiers next door filled the house. It was so loud! It soon became apparent why. In the living room of her house we could see a small hole forming where the soldiers in the house next door were starting to break through the wall. When I think back on this experience, I realize how terrifying it must have been for those whose homes were invaded in this way. Imagine sitting in your living room waiting for men with guns to come tearing through your wall.
In the moment, we didn’t have time for fear. We yelled at the soldiers through the wall. "Stop! What are you doing? Can we talk to you about this please?" The effort to break through the wall didn’t stop, but some soldiers came to the door of the house we were in to confront us. We tried to reason with them. They insisted that they had to break through the walls of the house in order to search it. "Why don’t you come through the door?" we asked. They replied, "Because it’s not safe." There was no reasoning with them. There was no explaining to them that they had just crossed the threshold of that house without harm, so breaking through the wall didn’t make much sense. At that point, the soldiers decided they’d had enough of us and they ordered us to leave the house. We refused and linked arms. A couple of them lunged at us and tried to pull us out of the room, but we resisted and they gave up pretty easily. Throughout all of this, the clanging on the other side of the wall never missed a beat. The most we could get out of them was an agreement to move the family’s stuff away from the wall that they were breaking through. Later, I visited that part of the camp again, and sat with a family in their home. On either side of us the walls were broken through in order to create a long passageway. The soldiers had spray painted arrows on the sparkling white tile of the kitchen walls, red pointing to the holes in the walls, black pointing to the real door of the house. When I asked some soldiers about this later, they explained to me that the purpose of this type of destruction was for the protection of soldiers in case of a gun battle in the camp. The idea was that the soldiers could move from house to house instead of running through the narrow alleys of the camp where they are supposedly more vulnerable. In other words, they had effectively turned people’s houses into a future battleground.
My partner, Melissa, and I spent a large part of our time in the Balata Refugee Camp working with the UN Clinic. Since there was a curfew imposed on the camp, people were not allowed to be out of their houses. Of course, that didn’t mean that life stopped for them. People still needed health care, either because of emergencies or for regular health necessities. Our job was to assure safe passage for patients and health care providers between the clinic and people’s houses. We were able to do this by providing protective accompaniment. This is something that international solidarity activists have been offering to the Palestinians for a while. The idea behind it is that while the Israeli soldiers might not hesitate to abuse or kill Palestinians, they will think twice about abusing or killing internationals or Palestinians in the presence of internationals.
So we spent a large part of our time walking through the camp with our hands up, speaking English loudly, escorting women and children. During our work with the clinic, we saw a lot of the camp and we saw many of the injuries sustained from the invasion. The first injured person we took to the clinic was a child about 10 years old cradled in his brother’s arms. He had blood on his head and was losing consciousness. He had been scared by a very close explosion and had fallen and hit his head. The second patient was another child, this one about 2 years old, that had fallen, also startled by a close explosion, and hit his nose. Another patient we escorted was a 12 year old that had gotten his ear nearly blown off by a bomb that the soldiers had used to open a door in his house. Later in the day there was an old man with hypertension that we had to push in a wheel chair among the scattered debris of car parts and broken metal from doors that had been blown up. We also escorted the nurses to houses in the camp so that they could deliver insulin, anti-biotics, and other medication.
On Sunday, June 2, we arrived at the clinic at about 11:00 a.m. expecting to begin our work again. As we approached the clinic, one of the nurses came running out. She looked really scared and we asked her what was wrong. "They are in the clinic! The soldiers are in the clinic!" She yelled. We approached slowly with our hands up and knocked on the door of the clinic. A soldier popped up over the wall, and shouted to us that the clinic was closed. We asked if we could enter and he said, "no." So we waited outside the clinic for nearly a half an hour, listening to the sounds of the soldiers forcing doors open with huge hammers and yelling at everyone inside. As soon as they left, a doctor let us into the clinic, and we saw the mess that the soldiers left. Many of the doors in the clinic had been forced open and permanently damaged. One of the nurses explained to me that the soldiers had refused to give them enough time to search for the keys and had broken the locks on anything that was not opened immediately. In every room of the clinic there was evidence of the soldiers’ search. Cabinet doors and drawers were opened and the contents were often carelessly tossed out onto the floor. In the dentist room, some of the heavy equipment had been thrown on the floor and it looked broken. In the pharmacy, entire boxes of medicine were dumped out all over the floor. In the storeroom, buckets of paint had been spilled.
The clinic in the Balata Refugee Camp is a clearly marked United Nations Clinic. It is absolutely illegal under international law for the soldiers to enter and ransack the clinic. We spent the first couple of hours after the soldiers left documenting the damage in the clinic and then helping to clean it up. I made two video tapes, one for myself and one for the clinic to send to the UN.
Burning and Looting
Everywhere in the camp, soldiers were going from house to house. If they were not let immediately into a house, they would either break the lock on the door or blow the door open with a small bomb. Once inside, they would herd the family members into one room and start their search of the house. Some house searches were more intense than others. I think that this depended on both the personality of the particular squad of soldiers conducting the search and on the intelligence that the soldiers had about the family whose house they were searching. Sometimes the soldiers would enter, look around for a few minutes and then leave. Other times, the soldiers would ransack the house, throwing clothes and other personal items out of closets and cabinets, breaking glass and dishes, ripping up floor tiles, and bashing electronics such as CD players and television sets.
The soldiers also entered places of business in the camp. Since there was a curfew and people were not allowed out of their houses, there was no one around to let the soldiers in to the stores to search. So the soldiers used bombs to open the doors. They then entered and often ransacked the place, breaking merchandise and sometimes setting fires inside.
By the third day, the soldiers had left their mark on almost everything in the camp. Almost all of the storefronts had been blown open, trash and debris littered the street, many of the water lines had been cut and water was running out into the street forming puddles and small rivers everywhere. The resident’s cars on the street also sustained a lot of damage. Many of them were riddled with bullet holes or smashed by tanks.
There is also the story of the families whose houses were used by the soldiers as bases of operation. In these cases, the families were either expelled from their houses or kept locked for days in one or two rooms. The soldiers then used everything in their houses for their own convenience. They slept in their beds, used their dishes, ate their food. For what it’s worth, this too is a violation of international law. Occupying forces are prohibited from residing in the homes of the occupied.
For me, home is my safe space. It is the place where my family members nurture each other, it is the place where I sleep peacefully, it is the place where I keep my most beloved belongings. The story of the Balata invasion is a story of violation of homes. Most of the soldiers’ activity was centered on violently intruding into people’s personal spaces. For four horrible days, IDF soldiers went from house to house, claiming to search for guns, bombs, and any other incriminating evidence. This is the justification that they used whenever they were asked why they were doing what they were doing. But after all that I saw during my time in the camp, I can only conclude that while searching houses was one of their goals, it was not their only objective.
The IDF soldiers went about their job in the most terrible way. It was as if they were purposefully punishing the residents of the camp for living in a place where some suicide bombers have come from. The intimidation and property destruction that I saw in the camp could only be described as a form of terrorism and collective punishment. It was systematic destruction of the physical and emotional safety of the residents of the Balata Refugee Camp.
The last night
During my time in the Balata Refugee Camp, I stayed with a wonderful family. Well, actually it was only part of a family because the Israeli soldiers had taken the men in the house away before I got there. So the remaining members were women and children. They treated Melissa and I with unbelievable generosity, especially given the circumstances of our visit.
I think it’s also important to mention that the family was well aware that Melissa and I are both Jewish. While I have not hesitated to tell this to anyone in the occupied territories, I was nervous at first to tell this family. I was afraid that the oppression and the fear was too close to home at that moment for them to be able to react rationally. But we had nothing to fear. When we told them on the first night, Hanina, the matriarch of the house, immediately smiled and said in the only English she ever spoke to us, "Beautiful!"
On Sunday, the second night we stayed with this family, the soldiers came to our host family’s house for third time in three days. Upstairs they had carried out their usual routine of pulling things out of closets and drawers. Downstairs they overturned a huge shelving unit so that everything spilled out of it. They let it fall, and it crashed to the floor, smashing the family’s computer. On the middle floor, we were all held in one room while the soldiers ripped the wood paneling off the walls, breaking the small porcelain pieces that Hanina had just washed earlier that day and carefully placed back on their shelves. In the bedroom, the bed was taken apart and then all the things from the closet heaped on top of it.
The man of the house, whom I never met, was a policeman with the Palestinian Authority. For this reason, the soldiers believed that they would find something in his house. They claimed to have intelligence saying so. Upstairs, they found the man’s two pistols, stamped with the official seal of the Palestinian Authority. That could hardly have been a surprise to them, since every policeman carries a gun.
Apparently that wasn’t enough for them because the following night, Monday night, they were back again. Once again they went upstairs and tore into the family’s belongings. On the middle floor, where we were being held once again, they began to tear at the walls again. For the women and children who had already been through so much, this was just too much. Even I could not hold back my tears and I cried with them. I finally got myself together and set about distracting the kids. Melissa and I engrossed ourselves in putting together a kinderegg toy with Abud, the four-year-old kid of the house, not an easy task especially under the barrel of an assault rifle.
Suddenly, Samar, a lively girl only slightly younger than myself, gave out a frightened gasp. I looked up to see Hanina slumped in her chair, her face ashen. Hanina is twenty-two and she is pregnant. She is one of the most loving people I have ever met. For three days she had called us her darlings and kissed us on both cheeks. And there she was, barely conscious, responding to our voices and touches, but struggling immensely to open her eyes.
There was one soldier in the room with us then, a man about 22 years old with bright eyes behind his eyeglasses. We appealed to him to get a doctor, and he refused. He told us that he was a trained paramedic and that he could help her himself. However, since he was a man, according to Hanina’s beliefs, it was not OK for him to touch her. He stubbornly denied our pleas for him to send his soldiers to get a doctor.
I felt for Hanina’s pulse and reported to him that her pulse was steady and strong. I didn’t have a watch, but it didn’t feel alarmingly fast to me. I asked Melissa to help me raise Hanina’s legs over the arm of the couch. Then I went back to trying to convince the soldier to get her a doctor. About three minutes later, I felt her pulse again. This time, her hands were cold and clammy and her pulse felt fast and weak to me. The only person in the room with a watch was the soldier and he finally agreed to lend it to us to figure out how many beats per minute. In 30 seconds she had 60 beats! I reported that to him and stressed to him that Hanina was pregnant, that she was experiencing psychogenic shock, and that she needed medical attention.
Because he was a paramedic, he knew that we were right. But he still didn’t want to do anything about it. He assured us that the soldiers would be done within the next fifteen minutes and that after they left, we would be free to leave the house to get a doctor. "But while the soldiers are here, no one can leave," he said stubbornly. Melissa spoke loudly over the sounds of the soldiers hacking at the wall outside the room. She told him that if anything happened to Hanina or her baby, he would be held responsible. At first he was incredulous that she had threatened him like that, but then he thought about it. I tried appealing to him, "Look, I know that you are a really smart and intelligent guy, and I know that you can figure out how to get this woman a doctor. It really can’t be that hard of a task for your squad."
I could tell he was scared. He finally agreed to let Melissa and I leave the house and run to the clinic. Outside the camp was dark and we knew that moving through the camp at night was risky because the snipers would not be able to tell who we were. But we were so scared for Hanina that we didn’t have much time to think about being scared for ourselves. We ran through the camp, holding hands and yelling in English so that the soldiers could identify us by the sound of our voices.
When we got to the clinic, we quickly explained the situation and two nurses agreed to go back to the house with us. We led them back through the camp, again making as much noise in English as possible. When we arrived back at the house, the soldiers were just getting ready to leave. The damage that they’d done was incredible. They had pulled almost every single piece of wood off of the walls and had then made holes in the underlying concrete. All of the wood they had pulled off the walls was covering the floor, and to walk, we had to balance on it. After a quick assessment of the patient, the nurses told us that they needed to move her to the clinic. Melissa and I escorted the entire family, kids, grandmother and all back through the camp, once again shouting English to identify ourselves, while the nurses supported Hanina, one on either side of her.
Once back at the clinic, the doctors recommended that Hanina be taken to the hospital at Oscar camp, a neighboring refugee camp with better facilities. It is also the camp where Hanina’s family lives so she would be with her family while she recovered. Most importantly she would be away from the stress of the camp.
The only problem with this is that in the occupied territories, ambulances do not have freedom of movement. Most often, in what seems like an IDF policy, an ambulance must be searched by soldiers in order to move (again, a violation of international law). Often, soldiers hold up ambulances for hours by refusing to search them immediately. So in order to get the ambulance out of the camp, we had to convince the soldiers to let it go. We went to the tank nearest the clinic and explained the situation to the soldiers there, begging them to hurry up. They took their time to load their guns and then they went and searched the ambulance. After that we piled the family into the back of the rig and sent them on their way.
Or so we thought. About 50 yards down the road, the ambulance was stopped by another group of soldiers who wanted to search the ambulance again, even though I’m sure they had seen that the ambulance had already been searched. When I saw the soldiers stop the ambulance and open up the back, I got so angry. Melissa and I went storming down to the ambulance and asked the soldiers what they were doing. When they replied that they were going to search the ambulance, we told them that it had already been searched and that they should get on their walky-talkies and ask. They backed down and let the ambulance go.
That night, Melissa and I went back to the family’s house just in case the soldiers decided to have another go at it. Hanina’s mother had asked us to do this because she was afraid the soldiers would try to steal things if no one was there. Sitting amidst the broken wood, glass and other belongings, we were exhausted and depressed. The soldiers had endangered a pregnant woman and her fetus and destroyed her home for no reason. They never found the explosives or unauthorized weapons they were supposedly looking for in her house.
I just sat there asking myself who was going to clean it all up. Who was going to pay for all of the damage to all of the houses of innocent families that were torn apart illegally and for no reason. Who was going to repair all of the broken walls and doors, and furniture, and water pipes? With a sick feeling in my stomach, I knew that it wasn’t going to be the people who had done all of the damage. That instead, the responsibility would lie with the residents of the camp who had just been through four hellish days.
While I was in the camp, I had contact with many soldiers who felt the need to try to justify their actions to me. They spoke of the suicide bombings within Israel and said that they were just trying to protect their families by being in the camp. They seemed to believe that they really had no other choice but to search every inch of the camp for weapons. They bragged about how the IDF is an army that does its best to respect human life and to minimize civilian casualties, and they spoke as if they really believed what they were telling me. Their arguments were compelling and I almost wanted to believe them.
But then I would walk through the camp. I would see the wrecked clinic, the blown-open doors, the burnt-out buildings. I would watch the faces of terrified women and children as the soldiers went about their work, pointing their guns and threatening anyone in sight. I would hear the never-ceasing explosions and gunfire, the roar of tanks and bulldozers, and the clanging of the soldiers’ hammers. Whatever their stated mission in the camp, I believe the soldiers’ main purpose was to punish and humiliate. Whatever their intentions, they certainly only succeeded in spreading terror and hatred. In spite of their lovely words about respecting civilians, their disregard for the rights of the Palestinians as human beings was blatant. It came out in the way they spoke to the residents of the camp. It showed itself as, time and time again, guns were pointed at defenseless women and children. It was apparent when a soldier slapped the four-year-old boy, Abud, in the house where I was staying. It was obvious from the smell of urine after the soldiers would finish searching a house and would urinate on the family’s belongings.
When soldiers treat the Palestinians like sub-humans the only result can be frustration and hatred. When the IDF invades refugee camps and punishes civilians who were already kicked off of their land by the creation of Israel, it only feeds the cycle of violence. When the IDF makes it clear to the Palestinians that their lives and personal belongings are not to be respected, how can the Israelis ask the Palestinians for peace? It’s time for Israel to stop its own terror campaign and to give the Palestinians a state and a future worth living for.
For more general information about the Balata Refugee Camp itself see: http://www.un.org/unrwa/refugees/wb/balata.html