What Kind of War is This?

Leaning on a cane, the man stood on a huge pile of ruins: a jumble of crushed concrete, twisted iron rods, shreds of mattresses, electric cables, fragments of ceramic tiles, bits of water pipes and an orphaned light switch. “This is my home,” he said, “and my son is inside.” His name is Abu Rashid; his son is Jamal, 35, and confined to a wheelchair. The bulldozer began to gnaw into the house when members of the family were inside it. And where would they be, if not in the house, seeking – like all the inhabitants of the refugee camp in Jenin – the safest place to hide from the firing of the mortars and the rockets and the machine guns, and waiting for a brief respite?

Abu Rashid and the other members of his family hurried to the front door, went out with their hands up and tried to yell to the huge bulldozer, the operator of which was unseen and unheard, that there were people inside. But the bulldozer did not stop roaring, retreating a bit and then attacking again, returning and taking a bite out of the concrete wall, until it collapsed on Jamal before anyone could save him.

All around Abu Rashid other people were climbing up or down heaps of rubbish, making their way between piles of cement, sharp iron wires and fragments of metal, concrete pillars and ceilings that had collapsed, fragments of sinks. Not all of them were as introverted as Abu Rashid, who talked to himself more than he talked to those who stopped to listen to him. There were those who tried to rescue something from the ruins: a garment, a shoe, a sack of rice. Nearby, a young girl almost stumbled on a pile of broken cement blocks, pointed at the ceiling, at her feet, and wept and wept. Between the wails, she managed to say that this had been her parents’ home and that she does not know who is buried under it, who had managed to get away, whether anyone was alive under the ruins, who would get them out, or when.

Among the piles of ruins, and in the midst of some houses that were still partially standing, the walls that had not collapsed riddled with numerous bullet holes of all sizes, a broad expanse had been created. Where, up until two weeks ago, several houses had stood, some of them three stories high, one or more Israel Defense Forces bulldozers had gone over the piles of cement several times, flattened them, ground them to dust, “made a `Trans-Israel highway,’” as A.S. put it. His home had also fallen victim to the bulldozers’ teeth. Someone indicates a small opening in one pile of rubble. From it he had heard cries for help until Sunday night. On Monday morning there were no longer any sounds coming from it. Someone else points to what had formerly been a house where two sisters lived. Someone says that they are crippled. It is still unknown whether they are under the ruins or whether they got out of the camp in time.

Relative quiet

There are houses that were empty of inhabitants when they were demolished. In some cases the soldiers ordered people to leave immediately, so that they would not get killed. One old man, people say, refused to leave his home. “Fifty years ago you expelled me from Haifa. Now I have nowhere to go,” they report he had said. The soldiers lifted the stubborn old man bodily and hauled him out. And there were cases in which they did not bother to issue a warning – and the bulldozers came. Without announcing over the bullhorns, without checking whether anyone was inside. This happened on Sunday, April 14, to the members of the Abu Bakr family, who live on the thin line between the refugee camp and the city of Jenin proper.

In both city and camp, a curfew had been imposed; soldiers were circulating in tanks and armored vehicles and on foot, shooting from time to time, tossing stun grenades or blowing up suspicious objects. But relative to the previous week it was quiet: There was no longer any firing from helicopters, no more exchanges of fire with a handful of armed Palestinian activists. But all of a sudden, at four in the afternoon, the members of the Abu Bakr family heard the sound of a wall being crushed. The father of the family went outside, waved a white flag and yelled to the soldiers: “We are in the house; where do you want us to go, why are you demolishing our home with us inside?” They yelled at him: “Yallah, yallah, get inside,” and stopped the bull- dozer.

This narrow seamline where the house is located, several meters wide, has in recent days served as a transit bridge from the city to the refugee camp. The residents of the city, many of whom come from the refugee camp, tried to evade the soldiers and bring their relatives and friends water, food and cigarettes. At the Abu Bakrs’ home they concluded that the soldiers wanted to expand the area that separates the city from the camp in order to prevent “smuggling” of one sort or another. In the evening, an armored vehicle was positioned next to the house and soldiers combed the surrounding courtyard. Then the armored vehicle left. M. went to make coffee. He managed to put a teaspoon of sugar into the narrow-necked, long-handled coffee pot and began to stir the boiling water when someone or something came quickly in through the window, broke the glass and set the kitchen on fire. A stun grenade? A tear-gas grenade? Did the soldiers outside think someone was firing at them when he lit the gas burner? M. thanks God that only his hands and face were burned in the flames that were immediately extinguished, and that other people in the family weren’t hurt, and that the house was not destroyed.

Mohammed al-Sba’a, 70, was not so lucky. On Monday, April 8, the bulldozers thundered near his home in the Hawashan neighborhood, in the middle of the camp. He went out of his house to tell the soldiers that there were people inside – he and his wife, his two sons, their wives and seven children. He was shot in his doorway, hit in the head and killed, related one of his sons this week. Members of his family managed to bring him inside. But then they were ordered to come out: The men were arrested, and then released and taken to the village of Rumani, northwest of Jenin. The women were taken to the Red Crescent building. The father’s body remained in the house. When the men of the family returned from arrest, they could not find the house.

The destruction of dozens of houses by bulldozers began on Saturday, April 6, four days after the Israel Defense Forces attack on Jenin began. It is not yet possible to know how many people were buried under the ruined houses. The horrible smell of dead bodies – of which new ones are being discovered every day – mingles with the stink of the garbage that has not been collected, the garbage that has been burnt and the surprising smells of geraniums, roses and the mint that grows near the bougainvillea that people cultivated in the narrow strips of ground between the crowded houses. When the time comes, UNRWA and the Red Cross will make lists of the detained, the wounded and the missing. But the most urgent mission right now is the distribution of water, food and medicines. The camp has been defined as a disaster area.

The demolition of the homes by bulldozers was preceded by heavy shooting and shelling from tanks, from the beginning of the IDF action on the night of Tuesday, April 2. The tanks surrounded the camp, took up positions on the hill to the west of it, rumbled into the main street. Two days later, firing from helicopters began, people relate: rocket fire and submachine-gun fire. People took shelter under staircases, on the ground floor, in interior bathrooms, in storehouses near the inner courtyards. People crowded into small rooms, feeling each other in the dark, frightened. They blocked their ears and shut their eyes, cuddled the small, crying children.

Damage statistics

When the shooting died down, they related, they went out and found their houses scorched, flames and smoke rising from them, riddled with holes, their floors shaky, doors and windows ripped out, windowpanes smashed to bits, huge holes in the front walls. The turn of the damage statistics will also come, and when it does, UN teams will tell of how many houses were destroyed by the bulldozers, how many were damaged by the shooting and whether they can be repaired or whether it is safer to demolish them altogether. How many families were in them. How many individuals.

Umm Yasser rescued a year-old baby from the neighbors’ house, which was shelled. The baby’s father, Rizk, she related, crawled out with his two legs injured and his back burned by fire. He came out with his arm stretched forward, bleeding, she said. The house was surrounded by soldiers. A military doctor or paramedic came, cleaned the wounds, bandaged them, and soldiers took him to the area of the cemetery and left him there. Neighbors who saw him gathered him up and called a doctor. They managed to get him to a hospital only a week after he was wounded.

H. and her family were in their house when it was bombarded. They ran to take shelter in her father’s home nearby. H. thinks that this was on April 8. People find it hard to remember exact dates; all the days of the attack have become a jumble of fear and blood and destruction, without nights or days. Y., her husband, was wounded by the shooting when he went out the door. She dragged him to her father’s house. There they bandaged his leg, prayed that everything would be all right and managed to get him to a private hospital only on Sunday, April 14, evading the soldiers who patrolled the alley on foot.

A.S. was wounded in the course of performing an IDF mission: A foot patrol took him out of his house to accompany soldiers, walk ahead of them and open the doors of the neighborhood for them. A.S. did as he was told, and as he stood by one of the doors, another unit of soldiers appeared. Perhaps they thought he belonged to the mukawamin (insurgents, armed activists), because no one else dared to roam the streets during those first days of the IDF takeover of the camp. He was shot and wounded. For four days he lay in the home of neighbors, until his brothers managed to take him to medical care. Their home, on the second floor of the family’s house on the hillside, was damaged by three to five rockets and numerous bullets. Soldiers took up positions in a tall house nearby, and shot.

His mother tells the story at length, leading visitors from one destroyed room to the next. And then she takes us out to the garden: he loved to plant things, he loved life, not death, she said of her son. Her other sons offered the visitors fruit from the garden: pleasantly tart loquats, refreshingly juicy plums. Most of the water tanks in the camp had been hit during the first days of the shooting. The water pipes were burst by the IDF bulldozers and the tanks. The fresh water supply was cut off immediately. Therefore, when every drop of water must be saved, biting into these fruits is a luxury.

Abu Riyad, 51, was also enlisted, like many others, for IDF missions. For five days he accompanied soldiers: During the day he walked ahead of them, from door to door, knocked on the doors as the soldiers concealed themselves behind him, their rifles aimed at the door and at him. At night he was with them in a house they had taken over. They handcuffed him and two soldiers guarded him, he said. At the end of his mission, they told him to stay in a certain house, alone. All around the bulldozers and the tanks thundered. One of the tanks rolled onto the house. Abu Riyad jumped to another house, leaping from one destroyed house to another until he got to his home, which he also found partially in ruins, from hits by three rockets. There were 13 people in the house when the rocket landed on it.

A soldier cleaned the bathroom

S. declared that she had been lucky. Her family’s house was only occupied for a week, like a dozen other houses in the camp that climbs up the hillside and the cliffs. S. is a widow who lives with her brother and his family in a house at the western edge of the camp: four adults, 10 children. Most of the residents had left the neighborhood before the IDF invasion. On the first and second nights soldiers took over two or three houses adjacent to the home of S.’s family. The members of the family took shelter in the kitchen, which they thought was the most protected room. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, someone came in through the wall, made a gaping hole near the floor and came in right over the head of 8-year-old Rabiya. Windowpanes shattered and the room was covered in dust. The 14 people in the kitchen began to scream. Through the hole in the wall they heard someone shouting in Arabic: Anyone who leaves the house will die. They peeked and saw a group of soldiers in the narrow alley. They tried to negotiate with the soldiers; perhaps they would go out to the neighbors’ house, to a safer room, but the only answer they heard was: “Whoever leaves the house will die.”

After a short while, the soldiers made a hole in the wall that leads to the staircase and came in through it. The members of the family, huddled together in one corner, looked on in astonishment as more and more soldiers came in, their faces painted black. The members of the family were put in another room, full of broken glass and dust. They were held there from the evening until early Friday morning. The soldiers, related S., did not allow them to leave the dimly lit room. When they pleaded to go to the bathroom, the soldiers brought them a pot from the kitchen. S.’s brother-in-law was arrested, and three women and their children were left along in a house filled with strange soldiers.

At dawn, S. opened the door and discovered that the soldiers had been replaced. With hand gestures and body language she signaled that she wanted to go to the bathroom, to take the children to the bathroom, to bring food. Someone who looked to her like an officer said to go ahead. She had to make her way through any number of soldiers who were lying on the floor of her home, tiptoeing among them. The filth she found in the bathroom disgusted her. The officer who was next to her hung his head and she concluded that he was ashamed of what he saw. He went to a nearby house, where no one was home, and brought water. And he cleaned the bathroom. When they leave in about a week the soldiers will leave behind a large pile of leftovers from their rations.

During that night, when the family was locked into one room, the soldiers made a search of the house. They emptied drawers and cupboards, overturned furniture, broke the television, cut the phone line, took away the telephone and broke another hole in a wall that leads to another apartment. Along the broken wall is a picture done in watercolors that was painted by her brother-in-law’s brother when he was 15. He drew a Swiss
landscape: a lake, snowcapped mountains, evergreen trees, a deer, a house with a red-tiled roof and smoke curling from the chimney. By the shore of the lake he painted two mustached men dressed as Palestinians, riding a donkey. The date: May 10, 1995. The signature: Ashraf Abu al-Haija.

Al-Haija was killed on one of the first days of the IDF attack, hit by a rocket. On Tuesday of last week his scorched body was still lying in one of the rooms of the half-destroyed house. Al-Haija was an activist in Hamas, who together with members of other armed groups had sworn to defend the camp to the death. J.Z., two of whose nephews were among the armed men who were killed, estimates that they numbered no more than 70. “But everyone who helped them saw himself as active in the resistance: those who signaled from afar that soldiers were approaching, those who hid them, those who made tea for them.” According to him, no door in the camp was closed to them when they fled from the soldiers who were looking for them, the people of the camp, he said, decided not to abandon him, not to leave the fighters to their own devices. This was the decision of the majority, taken individually by each person.

Despite his family and emotional relationship with many of the armed men, he admits that it is hard for him to describe exactly how the fighting went in which they were killed and in which Israeli soldiers were killed. “From reconstructions that we made together, it appears to us that the army attacked the camp with tank and machine gun fire from several directions and tried to get infantry forces in. But because of the resistance by our fighters, this failed. Then they started to attack all the houses in the camp with helicopters and tanks, indiscriminately. The soldiers that took over the houses at the edge of the camp signaled where to to fire and hit.” Gradually, the armed Palestinians were routed deeper into the camp, to their last battles.

J.Z. is a construction worker who built his own home and homes of friends. His house was destroyed by direct hits from several rockets. He is sleeping at the home of his young friend, A.M. When darkness envelops the camp, whose electricity has been cut off since April 3, candlelight shines through only a few of the windows. There is an illusion that a window through which light does not shine will not be hit by shooting. IDF fire continues at intervals, though there are no longer any Palestinians who will shoot in the direction of the soldiers. From time to time the silence is shattered by the sound of an explosion.

Anxiety and uncertainty are overcome in a conversation typical of these days, with A.N.’s mother and his aunt. On Monday evening the conversation with the guest from Israel began with the enumeration of those J.Z. knows were killed: Seven of them were armed men killed in battle. There were 10 civilians, among them three women and at least two old men. There are scores of people whose fate is still unknown.

The conversation jumps from memories of the prison installation at Ketsiot, where J. was imprisoned during the first intifada and which has now been reopened, for soldiers. One soldier, someone had told A.M., had left his skullcap in a house he had searched. Heavy shooting enveloped the neighborhood and the house where he had forgotten the skullcap. The soldier told a young Palestinian who had been “recruited” that if he brought him the skullcap he would be released. Dodging the bullets, the young man ran to the house, brought the skullcap and was allowed to go home. J. tells another story that is going around the camp, about soldiers who were attacked from inside a house they had taken over earlier, from which they fled, leaving their weapons behind. It is said in the camp that one of them cried: “Mother, mother, what kind of war is this?”


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