The Longest Month


Four kilograms of apples for NIS 5. The peddler’s throat is hoarse, although he uses a loudspeaker. The price is rock-bottom and there are no buyers. That’s how he walks through the alleys of the refugee camp – announcing his wares from a perch atop his ancient tractor, which chugs up the hill and threatens to roll over. Nobody stops him, nobody buys four kilos of apples for NIS 5.

A farmer-peddler from one of the neighboring villages who is trying to sell his produce for pennies, he occasionally takes a break, stops the tractor and stares at the empty streets that are suffering from fatigue. This camp is exhausted. Exhausted by the battles, by the bereavement, by the destruction, by the rehabilitation, by the occupation. There is not a single house here without mourners; every renovated apartment bears a “souvenir.” Although all the structures in the camp that were destroyed in the invasion we call Operation Defensive Shield have been rebuilt – one has already been demolished yet again – and their cream-colored facades lend them a attractive appearance, one can make no mistake: A terrible tiredness surrounds this place.

The weary wandering, from nowhere to nowhere inside the imprisoned and beaten camp, is far more weary during these days of fasting, which will come to an end next week with the advent of the holiday, Id al-Fitr (the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast). Then the children will buy new clothes, and for a moment residents will try to give this camp of wretchedness a festive look. But only for a moment. Until then they will take themselves from one evening meal to the next, between the long hours of fasting, from sunrise to sunset, a month without food, without water – and mainly without cigarettes.

Jamal Zubeideh, a member of the camp committee, breaks his fast with a glass of water and a cigarette, and then another cigarette and another cigarette, a bowl of soup and afterward the meal. He is awake until morning, smoking himself to death, two packs of cigarettes at night during Ramadan instead of the four that he ordinarily smokes. During the days of the curfew and the poverty, he used to roll his own cigarettes; during periods of economic “prosperity” he used to smoke French Gauloises, in the context of the war against American imperialism. Now he smokes Palestinian-made cigarettes.

A former Marxist, during the past four years Zubeideh has begun to fast. He also goes to the mosque during Ramadan. “It’s like after an earthquake, when everything sinks,” he says in a lyrical moment, uncharacteristic of him, recalling the fall of communism and the invasion of the Israel Defense Forces in one breath. Aristocratic, long-suffering and a six-time veteran of administrative detention, he has experienced the demolition of his home twice. He lost many members of his family during the invasion, and dragged their bodies to temporary, improvised burial in the courtyard of the houses – reminiscent of his work as a gravedigger in Israel. Zubeideh doesn’t believe in God, but attends the mosque this month. Ramadan karim. Gmar hatima tova (the Hebrew blessing said on Yom Kippur). And have an easy fast.

 

This year, Ramadan brought the fall with it, and the skies of Jenin are covered with cirrus clouds. A crowded van scatters dozens of children from the school in one trip, and the fruit market is full of merchandise and empty of people. Occasionally, an armed man can be seen walking quickly, being swallowed up by one of the buildings. At the edge of the camp stands the skeleton of a building: The IDF ordered that the construction of the new mosque here be halted, because the donations came from Iran; the workers were detained for interrogation. The occupation is everywhere, in their lives, in their deaths and in their prayers.

They leave in groups every day to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Entry is permitted to those aged 45 and above. The pilgrims’ buses leave the camp at 5 A.M. and return at about 8 P.M., because of the roadblocks. The cemetery of the fallen of the camp was recently paved, and now the place looks even more like our military cemeteries, with the uniform headstones and landscaping between the rows.

Every day, toward evening, the families of the fallen come here during Ramadan. A Palestinian flag, a flag of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and a Hamas flag wave in the autumn winds. Islamic Jihad, whose foothold in the camp has become stronger in recent years, has not raised a flag. The son of the cemetery guard, a heavyset man who is now lying on the ground between the headstones, is in prison; another son of his was wounded during the invasion. Next month, a new school for girls will open next to the cemetery, an attractive building with blue doorposts and a playing field in the front. The childhood landscape of the pupils will be this cemetery, which keeps filling up and can be seen from the school windows.

If there is any system that is somehow working as it should under the occupation, it is the education system. The appearance of the well-groomed children of poverty in their uniforms, with their schoolbags on their backs, sometimes walking for kilometers because of the prolonged siege, is awe-inspiring. For many parents, their children’s education is the most important thing. In the depressing reality of their lives, this is their only ray of light. Here the end of the matriculation exams is celebrated with parties, and failure to pass them is accompanied by great heartbreak. Of the four boys who took the exams here this year, Ahmed, Mahmoud, Mohammed and Mahmoud, about whom we wrote here in May, only one passed. Another one is already serving in the Palestinian police force in Jericho. The four boys are still alive, thanks be to Allah.

Photos of the last shaheed (Islamic martyr), as of last week, are hanging on the walls in the camp: Samir al-Saadi, of blessed memory. A new calendar is being distributed free of charge: A picture of the fallen brothers Amin and Maher al-Kamal adorn it.

D. walks around the alleys with a Galilon assault rifle on his shoulder and a pistol in his holster. He inherited the pistol from his brother who was killed; the price of the Galilon in the camp can go as high as NIS 50,000. Each bullet costs NIS 3, and there is no shortage. Another brother of his was indicted today in the military court. Following is the indictment that has already arrived by fax: He is accused of “membership in an illegal association, possessing weapons without a permit granted by the military commander or on his authority, manufacturing bombs without a permit, military exercises without a permit, attempting to shoot a man as revenge for the death of his mother [who was killed in the invasion - G.L.], firing at a person, conspiracy to cause death deliberately.” The prosecutor is asking for 25 years’ imprisonment. D.’s holiday gift.

 

The house was demolished and rebuilt, with ceramic floor tiles and furnished in the best Jenin style. The walls are covered with enamel paint in soft pastel shades. The family invested 12,000 Jordanian dinars in the renovation, beyond the basic construction standard of UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Association for Palestinian Refugees), which rebuilt the camp with money from one of the emirs from the Gulf states. The mother of the house, widow Sharifa, 37, a strong and energetic woman who in recent years has lost a husband and two brothers in battles, while another brother was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, scatters a lot of brief, nervous smiles about. “All the children already understand that Daddy went to Paradise. My son asked if Daddy will come back and when, and I told him that we’ll go to him one day,” she says.

Baha al-Din, almost 5 years old, asks a lot about his father – more than do his sisters, who were old enough to know him. Even now, when their father’s picture is pulled out of the cupboard, wearing a uniform and aiming his rifle, the little boy doesn’t take his eyes off it. In the other photo, in the memorial poster, he is already lying on a stretcher, dead. The family’s house was demolished in Operation Defensive Shield, about a year after the father was killed, and they moved to a rented apartment for two years. This is their first Ramadan in their renovated apartment. The entire contents of its predecessor were lost in the ruins, even the picture of Fawaz that they had received from a friend who kept it in his house.

The four girls are fasting, like their mother. For the Ramadan meal they gather together with their cousins, the seven orphans of Sharifa’s brother, Nidal. Sometimes the orphans eat in this bereaved home, and sometimes in the other one. Sharifa says that this Ramadan is not basically different from the previous one, although “people are more nervous this year.”

Why?

Sharifa: “Maybe it’s from the invasion. People are now beginning to calm down, and then the memories come. Until now they were busy rebuilding their homes, taking care of the children, and now they’re living in the new homes and beginning to reminisce. Only now are we beginning to think about what happened to us. We miss the house that was demolished, a demolished home brings back a lot of memories. We miss my husband and my brothers, the way we all used to be together on Ramadan. This summer there were four weddings here, and there are many people who have lost members of their families, and it came up then, too, between the weddings and the renovated houses.”

When was your happiest Ramadan, and when was your saddest?

“They both were within a year. The last Ramadan with my husband, and the first Ramadan without him.”

Two brothers and a husband dead, and a house that was demolished. Have you become more religious, or have you moved away from religion?

“I’ve becoming closer to religion. I felt that I’m missing many things, and I try to find them in religion. To become closer to God. During difficult times such as these, a person has two options: Either he turns to God, or he moves away from him. I chose to become closer to religion. God replaces my husband and brothers who were killed. Everything is from God.”

So you aren’t angry about what happened to you?

“I have no anger in me. Everything is from God.”

Not even at Israel?

“I believe that everything is from God, but everyone is angry at his enemy, and hates him.”

So do you hate more now?

“How should I respond to that? I hated before and I hate now. Even before they killed my husband and my two brothers, many members of our people were killed.”

Sharifa’s family is one of refugees from Umm al-Fahm. Her husband is buried in one cemetery, her two brothers in another. She rarely visits their graves. She doesn’t like to go to the cemetery and believes that it’s enough to read verses from the Koran in their memory, at home. She has never been in Israel, except for one visit years ago. Nor does she want to be. She has met Israelis only in uniform.

How will the enemy become something else in your eyes?

“If they release all the prisoners and give us a state – maybe. That way we we’ll think that my husband and brothers were not killed in vain.”

Have you ever thought of leaving for another, safer country?

“Never. According to our religion, it is forbidden to flee from the war. That keeps you away from Paradise. If you are destined to die here, you’ll die here.”

Dreams?

“I’m not a woman of many things. Just that the children will finish school.”

Have they ever seen the sea?

“The regular sea, or water? There are swimming pools in Jenin. Once, when my husband was still alive, they saw the sea in Tiberias.”

When did you last cry?

“I cry all the time. There’s no `last time.’ But not because of my husband, because of my children.” Sharifa’s mother-in-law is in charge of the family meal this evening. Cabbage, salad, lentil soup, chicken and dessert. “Maybe you’ll stay for the meal?”

But we’re Israelis whom you hate.

“It wasn’t you who killed my husband.”

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