Today, 8 April, is the eleventh day of the re-occupation of Ramallah and its twin city El Bireh. It is the fourth re-occupation in as many months, but this one is by far the most extensive, savage, and severe.
Since hundreds of Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers bearing thousands of soldiers rolled into Ramallah on the night of 28 March, normal life has simply ceased to exist. The entire city is under a strict, around-the-clock curfew. Anything seen moving outdoors can and has been shot on sight by Israeli snipers deployed throughout the city; not a few of the more than 40 dead recorded so far – men, women, children, seven of them today – have been killed in this manner.
Because of the siege and curfew, there are no children or teachers in schools, no officials or citizens in public institutions, no workers or clients in office buildings, no proprietors or customers in any of the city’s supermarkets, restaurants and theaters. Ramallah – a town of some 45,000 people – may as well have been hit by a neutron bomb and has been reduced to a ghost town.
Inside their homes, the residents of this city are terrified, desperate, yet defiant in equal measure. Parts of the city have been without water, electricity, or telephone connections for almost two weeks, after Israeli forces deliberately shut these off. Other parts of the city suffered disruptions due to severe weather, with repairs being delayed on account of the curfew. Stocks of food, water, milk, medicines, diapers, and other essential supplies have been running extremely low, especially in the poorer parts of town. We have been fortunate with the inclement weather – many residents report that they placed buckets in the rain so as not to run completely dry. We appear to be much better off than the residents of Jenin refugee camp in the extreme north of the West Bank in the sense that I have not (yet) heard of the residents of Ramallah drinking from sewers so as not to die of thirst.
It is true that the Israeli military has since 28 March lifted the curfew on three occasions for a sum total of 9 hours. But such measures become increasingly meaningless with the passage of time, because the siege around Ramallah means that the military is preventing its resupply with basic goods. Indeed, a clearly marked UN convoy which entered town about a week ago was shot at by the military.
Journalists have been shot too. Israel declared Ramallah a “closed military zone” on 29 March with all foreign media ordered to leave, officially “for their own safety” but in fact so the army could plunder and lay waste to Ramallah away from the eyes of the world. Quite a few refused to leave and have remained holed up in small offices, unable to go about their duties in normal fashion. The local media has fared considerably worse, and has been literally smashed to bits.
Why journalists are not welcome in Ramallah is not too difficult to discern. At least 15 summary executions – including several civilian non-combattants – have been reported and require urgent investigation. For perhaps the first time in the history of armed conflict, medical care is being systematically and deliberately used as a weapon of war; emergency services such as ambulances are being explicitly prevented from collecting the dead and wounded – men, women, and children alike, whether victims of the conflict, kidney patients, or women in labour. Ambulances have been shot at by the Israeli military and their staff injured, to the point where the International Red Cross recently announced a suspension of services out of fear for the safety of its staff. It seems beyond question that many of the dead sustained treatable wounds but were deliberately left to bleed to death. Even the transport of decomposing bodies to mortuaries and provision of a decent burial has been forbidden. On those rare occasions where ambulances have been permitted to operate, it is not uncommon for Israeli soldiers to kidnap wounded passengers.
An awesome number of buildings in Ramallah have been raided by the military. Often, soldiers use one or more civilian residents as “human shields” in such exercises. More often, they loot such homes of personal belongings such as cash, jewelry, camcorders, and the like. Virtually always, they leave with a number of “suspects” – sometimes several males been 15 and 50, sometimes all of them. And without exception, they leave behind a path of wanton violence and gratuitous destruction. This has applied equally to private homes, schools, commercial establishments, medical clinics, government buildings, and refugee camps. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and Ministry of Education are just two of the facilities that have been emptied of most of their contents, the remaining files and equipment smashed to bits.
Israel claims that its current campaign is no more and no less than a war against terrorism. While the Israeli military has indeed killed or arrested a handful or two of wanted militants and found a number of weapons caches, this has been the least succesful aspect of its offensive, both in terms of objective military criteria and because the methods used have created several dozen new militants for every one eliminated. The wider goal of this “war” has been to create the conditions for a permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank through the elimination of the Palestinian leadership, the destruction of the Palestinian Authority, and the severe degradation of the entire infrastructure of Palestinian society. Institutional racism has always been an integral component of Israeli domination of the Palestinian people. Currently, apartheid is being formalised before our very eyes.
It is often forgotten that the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is the key factor in Israeli-Palestinian relations and that both the first uprising in 1987-1993 and the current one which commenced in September 2000 are a result of this occupation and not its cause.
In terms of the methods used to prosecute this conflict the United States is quite right to insist that there can be no justification for Israeli civilians being deliberately targetted and indiscriminately murdered by Palestinian militants. But it is a demand which lacks any form of moral authority whatsoever for the simple reason that the United States has not once – and I repeat not in even a single instance – explicitly condemned the deliberate and indiscriminate murder of Palestinian civilian non-combattants by Israeli military forces. Nor has it ever called on those responsible for such killings to be called to account. One assumes this is because those doing the killing on the Israeli side are America’s strategic allies, and the weapons used for such murder and mayhem are manufactured by the United States and provided to Israel courtesy of the American taxpayer. Whatever one may think of various American governments, American citizens are blessed with what is without a doubt the largest degree of domestic political freedom yet achieved in human history. But with this comes a responsibility as well as a duty; a responsibility to know what is being committed here in your name, and a duty to exercise the influence you have as a voting tax-payer to end what any rational observer would only describe as Israeli state terrorism.
Mouin Rabbani is director of the Palestinian American Research Center in the West Bank town of Ramallah.