Fear and loathing in Balata

Palestinian women reacting to explosions in Balata last Friday. “Why is the IDF allowed to harm Palestinian civilians and we aren’t allowed to harm Israeli civilians?” they asked in the refugee camp. (Photo: AP)

In Ha_aretz, the Israeli Newspaper published in Tel Aviv

BALATA – Even when the soldiers who had taken the upper floors in the houses they occupied in Balata refugee camp aimed their rifles at every woman and child who dared go into the alley, the camp residents agreed: The soldiers are afraid.

That doesn’t mean the people in the camp were not afraid. They were very afraid when the helicopters above fired down into the alleys and within a few hours dozens of unarmed people were wounded; they were afraid when their armed sons were killed after standing in the alleys trying to face down the soldiers who shot from hidden places; they were afraid when the soldiers, from positions on the hill opposite the camp, used machine guns to fire into the bedrooms and kitchens and hit the electrical transformer, plunging the camp into darkness.

They were afraid of the tanks that reached the edges of the camp and fired occasionally, of the bulldozers that cut deep trenches in the roads around the camps and by the way this broke the water main, cutting off water to the camp; they were afraid in the thick darkness that covered the camp at night because the army wouldn’t let the city engineers in to fix the transformer and they were afraid during the day when they saw the tanks on the distant hills near the settlements.

They were afraid when a company of soldiers “came in through the closet,” after cutting a hole in the wall and then broke another hole through the opposite wall and into the next apartment. They were afraid when the soldiers blew up a suspicious car at night in a narrow road surrounded by houses, believing it was a car bomb, and when the soldiers ordered the dozens of families who lived along the narrow road to leave their homes because there was going to be an explosion. Actually two.

And for a few minutes, the two explosions created a shared sense of fear.

A few seconds before the first blast, late Saturday afternoon, a group of crouching soldiers ran from alley to alley, with weapons drawn, helmets on their heads. Anyone who was close enough to see their faces could see the fear and panic in their eyes. They were trying to move the dozens of frightened people as far away as possible from the explosion, people who had no idea where to run. The children bawled, the women cried, the men roared, the elderly who could barely walk, the women who clutched a baby or two or three. It was clear that the soldiers were afraid for their lives, and also afraid that innocent people would be killed as a result of the explosion.

Between the first and second blast, about five minutes passed. The alleys were choked with dust and it was impossible to see more than a few meters ahead. There was the sense that the world had come to an end: cement blocks and wooden planks and electric wires and broken plants were strewn everywhere. >From out of the clouds of dust the soldiers began running, and their crouched manner as they ran past the crying children was the posture of frightened people. It was contagious for everyone in the camp.

But when the dust cleared and the fear subsided, the soldiers left and the militiamen of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade returned – after all, they had escaped the camp with the first incursion on February 28 – people gathered to discuss their impressions, assessing the IDF’s military tactics and strategy and reaching the conclusion the operation was a failure for the Israeli army.

In the camps of Jenin, Rafah and Balata, the people are convinced that the IDF’s attacks in the two weeks since the killing of the six soldiers at the Ein Ariq checkpoint were mostly about revenge and especially against civilians. In Balata, they asked “why is the IDF allowed to harm Palestinian civilians and we aren’t allowed to harm Israeli civilians?” In Balata, they reached the conclusion that without the tanks and helicopters, the Israeli soldiers sent to the checkpoints and the refugee camps would be stripped of their power – and their courage. That says a lot to the people of the refugee camps about Israeli society. Maybe, someone said hopefully in Nablus, the fear shows the soldiers don’t know what they are doing in Balata.

These conclusions are being made in the alleys, not in the central headquarters of the Al-Aqsa Brigades, which Israel likes to call “gangs.” The conclusions are translated into armed attacks and terror not because someone orders the attacks but because the masses of people demand them, since they believe that’s the only way to show the Israeli public how fed up the Palestinians are with the occupation.

Our children, said someone, unlike the Israeli children, can’t dream of being pilots or tank commanders when they grow up. They also have learned that the improvised bombs that the Israelis show off as dangerous weapons usually cause more noise than damage. They have also seen their older brothers trying unsuccessfully to tickle the helicopters with their Kalashnikovs. They watch TV and are pleased to see in the reports about the terror attacks that they are not the only ones who are afraid, that in the cities where the soldiers come from, people are afraid. THat’s why all that is left to them is to dream of putting on an explosives belt and detonating it in Tel Aviv. Because the game is now who is more afraid, and who is less afraid of dying.


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