Reflecting on Palestine: Violence, occupation, and apartheid

On March 29, 2002, fifteen years ago, the Israeli military launched Operation Defensive Shield.  I was living in Ramallah at the time, working with the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq.  Defensive Shield followed a number of smaller military invasions of Ramallah and we all knew a day in advance that the invasion was coming. You could see the Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers massing around the city as the military prepared for their invasion. 

I was living with two other foreigners, one chose to leave Ramallah for Jerusalem as did most foreigners. The other decided to stay in another part of Ramallah with a female friend who is now his wife, so I can’t blame him for leaving me on my own.  I chose to remain in Ramallah and was alone in our apartment for most of the next month while the city remained under a military imposed curfew. 

The night of the invasion I moved out of my bedroom which was on the side of our house which faced Al-Tira, a neighborhood through which one group of Israeli tanks entered the city.  I spent the next month sleeping on the floor of our smaller bathroom which was in the middle of our house because it was away from windows and walls that might be hit by bullets or shells. 

girls with spent bullet casings during one of the liftings of the curfew. Photo by Pete Shafer.

That night was filled with explosions and gunfire.  The lot next to my home was empty and contained both a short stone wall and a good view of Al-Tira.  For the first night of the incursion Palestinian gunmen crouched behind the wall and fired at the Israeli tanks across the valley.  The tanks fired back using heavy weaponry.  I was fortunate to have a building between mine and the tanks so my building was not hit by that fire, but I watched through our kitchen window as bullets from the tanks hit nearby homes where I knew families were present. 

Most armed resistance in Ramallah ended within 24 hours of the incursion.  Gunmen fought the military through the night, but by morning the military was ensconced in positions throughout the city.  The curfew that came into effect with the military takeover of the city was first announced through sniper fire.  A woman in my neighborhood went onto her balcony to hang out laundry that first morning and was shot in the head and killed.  A young man living next door to the house where my roommate was staying went out to smoke a cigarette and was shot.  His roommate went to his aid and was also shot.  The neighbors could only watch as both men bled on the balcony while awaiting evacuation.  Fortunately, they both lived.  Phone trees went into effect and we learned about these shootings.  We learned not to leave our homes and to stay away from windows.   

The curfew in Ramallah as in effect 24 hours a day for the remainder of the invasion.  It was lifted for only two or three hours every three or four days. During those brief liftings of the curfew people were allowed to leave their homes to buy needed food or other items and to check on relatives in other parts of the city. Cars couldn’t move through the streets, but you could walk between neighborhoods. 

People getting milk from a damaged shop during one of the brief liftings of the curfew. Photo by Peter Shafer.

During a smaller invasion of Ramallah in early March several Al-Haq staff lived in the organization’s offices to receive phone calls from people seeking assistance during the invasion.  I broke curfew during that invasion to go to the office every day to assist with case intake.  I could do that because both my home and Al-Haq’s offices were in the small part of the city that wasn’t taken over. 

When it became clear on March 28th that the Israeli military would invade Ramallah, it was decided that one of Al-Haq’s staff members, Yasser, would remain in the office to answer phones.  Sometime on March 30th Al-Haq’s director received a phone call from Yasser indicating that soldiers were demanding entry to the office.  He hung up the phone the answer the door.  We didn’t hear from him again that night and it wasn’t until a week later that we learned that he had been arrested.  He was ultimately held in administrative detention without charge or trial for six months.  His story is detailed in the Al-Haq report “Screaming in the Dark”. 

When the curfew was lifted for the first time four or five days after the invasion started I was asked to go to Al-Haq’s offices to find out if Yasser had left a note and to see what had happened.  I entered the office looking for blood or other signs of violence.  While there were no signs of Yasser, the office had been raided, files over turned, doors broken, and several computers had been stolen.  As I explored the office I was confronted by Israeli soldiers who had taken over the adjoining office which housed Mustafa Barghouti’s organization HDIP.  They had broken down the door that connected the two offices and quickly chased me out. 

Al-Haq engaged an Israeli lawyer and with support from international human rights organizations it received a promise from the Israeli military that they would not remain in Al-Haq’s offices. Not trusting this promise, I returned to Al-Haq’s offices the second time the curfew was lifted and took all of the organization’s computers to my home.  They remained in my unused bedroom throughout the rest of the invasion. 

When I was taking the computers, I noted that the soldiers had moved several filing cabinets so that they blocked access to most of Al-Haq’s offices from HDIP.  Al-Haq was fortunate.  HDIP was used by the military as a base of operations for the rest of the invasion. When we entered HDIP’s office after the Israeli military withdrew one whole room was stuffed with garbage, feces were smeared on walls, and graffiti covered many surfaces.  Every computer disk in the office had been systematically destroyed and all computers had been stripped of their hard drives.  Similar actions were taken in offices across the city. 

damage in the offices of a radio station after it was raided by the Israeli military.  This is similar to some of the destruction seen in the HDIP offices mentioned in the story. Photo by Peter Shafer.

On the second day of the invasion the military searched my street for the first time.  A group of soldiers arrived in jeeps, led by a tank.  All men on the street were called out of their homes.  We had to stand in a group in front of the tank with our hands in the air as soldiers checked IDs.  On this occasion, they didn’t check houses. 

Several days later a second round of searches occurred late at night.  When the soldiers arrived I was working at our dining room table.  This group of soldiers searched the side of the road opposite my house.  They were brutal. 

The house directly opposite mine was owned by a family who were in Canada so nobody was home to open the door when the soldiers knocked.  When no answer was received to repeated knocks, the soldiers began to break in the door.  At that point a neighbor who had a key to the home in question turned on her light, thinking that she could give the soldiers the key to avoid damage to the home.  The soldiers in the armored personnel carrier parked nearby immediately opened fire on her home using heavy machine guns.  She dropped to the floor (as did I) and was not injured, but her home was severely damaged. 

The soldiers yelled, screamed, and broke property as they searched homes that night.  They also detained three young men from down the street.  They didn’t arrest the men, but instead took them halfway across the city and then abandoned them in the street.  This was done at a time when snipers shot anyone who was outside.  The men were taken in by a family that lived in a home near where they were abandoned and returned home the next time the curfew was lifted.  In many respects, they were fortunate as hundreds of other men were detained for weeks or months.

Tanks and armored personnel carriers gathered at Manara Square in the center of Ramallah during one of the liftings of the curfew. Photo by Peter Shafer.

The night of April 2nd was one that I won’t forget.  That was the night that the Israeli military took over the Preventative Security Office in Betunia.  They surrounded the building with tanks and forced out the Palestinian police inside, arresting many.  They searched the prison, releasing criminals and detaining others.  They then proceeded to destroy the compound, firing tanks and missiles into the buildings throughout the night. 

In most other instances Palestinians were not allowed to surrender.  When they took over the city, one of the locations where Israeli soldiers confronted Palestinian security personnel was the British Council building.  Five Palestinians were killed in the building’s stairwell.  Israeli sources reported that the men were killed in a gun battle while Palestinian sources reported that the men were executed. 

I was asked to go view the site of the killing for work purposes when the curfew was lifted.  It was clear from what I saw that the men were executed.  They were killed on a landing in the stairwell.  All of the gunshot marks were on one side of the stairwell.  The pockmarked wall was splattered with blood which also covered the floor.  The opposite side of the stairwell and landing were unmarked.  If there was a gun battle it was one sided. 

Gunmen also holed up in the Natche building in the center of Ramallah and the building was surrounded on March 30th.  Tanks and armored personnel carriers poured gunfire into the building throughout the day causing extensive damage and killing some men inside.  Many other buildings in the downtown core of Ramallah were damaged at the same time.

damage to the Natche Building in downtown Ramallah which was surrounded by the Israel military and bombarded when several Palestinian gunmen were inside. Photo by Peter Shafer.

Several months earlier, while returning from a friend’s engagement party, an acquaintance and I were detained by Palestinian security forces at a checkpoint they had set up in the Masayoun neighborhood at the edge of Ramallah.  The acquaintance I was with started talking with the security men and not only convinced them to let us go but also got them to invite us to their home for tea.  We spent several hours talking with them that night.  Of the four men we drank tea with only one survived the March-April invasion. 

When the soldiers came back to search my side of our street they were much less aggressive.  They knocked on doors, rang door bells, didn’t yell, and didn’t destroy property, but their actions were not any less threatening.  My building was searched by two soldiers while many others waited outside.  The first floor of my building was home to two families.  One of the two couples on that floor was visiting the other when the soldiers arrived.  Their young son was at home alone in the bath.  They were not able to rejoin him when the soldiers searched their apartment.  He was forced to sit naked under a towel as armed soldiers moved from room to room through his home.

When the soldiers arrived at my apartment they were utterly confused.  One was Russian and the other Ethiopian and neither spoke English.  They could not understand why I was in Ramallah.  One put his gun against the back of my neck and the other walked beside me, gun at the ready, as we moved from room to room through the house.  When they looked in my bedroom and saw all the Al-Haq computers one smiled and said, “you work computers?”  I said yes and that seemed to solve their confusion.  When they left, I went to check in on my landlord’s family on the second floor.  My land lady was throwing up and trembling from fear.

Window with bullet hole. Photo by Mike Merryman-Lotze.

Another night I remember was less dramatic but more painful.  The curfew didn’t simply limit individual movement.  The Red Cross and Red Crescent also stopped their movement after the military repeatedly attacked ambulances.  One night Al-Haq received a call from a woman whose mother was going into diabetic shock after she ran out of insulin.  We attempted to coordinate for her removal, but medical personnel couldn’t reach the home.  We received increasingly desperate calls throughout the night as the woman’s condition deteriorated.  She died. 

I was fortunate in that I had electricity throughout the invasion and was thus able to spend much of my time working.  Many others were not so fortunate.  Roads throughout the city were purposefully dug up, cutting electrical cables and water lines. 

Water to our building was cut approximately one week into the incursion.  Water services were not reconnected for more than three weeks.  Since I was on my own I could ration the water in the tank on our roof so that I never ran out of water, but that necessitated only taking sponge baths and flushing the toilet only once every three or four days.  My neighbors and many others in homes with more people were not as fortunate.  They ran out of water quickly and then relied on bottled water for drinking and other needs.

In Ramallah fighting didn’t last long.  Most of the month we spent under curfew involved a strange mix of boredom and fear, but the brutality of the invasion can’t be overstated.

Something I will never forget is what happened after the Israeli military left the city.  People came pouring out into the streets, reconnecting with friends and neighbors.  And then people began to clean.  People took brooms and swept the streets, picked up garbage, removed spent bullet casings, and started to restore the city to normalcy within hours.  The sense of communal togetherness in a time of great tragedy and immediately after incredibly violence was amazing to witness.

people spontaneously cleaning the streets the day the Israeli military withdrew. Photo by Peter Shafer.

The military withdrew from Ramallah before it withdrew from either Nablus or Jenin.  When the military left Nablus a few days later I traveled there with two colleagues from Al-Haq to document what had occurred in that city.  We were the first investigative team to enter Nablus after the invasion.

While Jenin received most of the media attention at that time because of the dramatic fighting that occurred in Jenin Refugee Camp, Nablus was harder hit.  Twice as many people died in Nablus as died in Jenin.  While the refugee camp was destroyed in Jenin, and NGOs/government offices were targeted in Ramallah, cultural heritage was targeted in Nablus.  An ancient olive oil soap factory and an ancient Hamman in the old city were both blown up as were several mosques and other historic buildings. 

Soldiers moved through the old city of Nablus by going home to home through holes they broke through the walls of buildings.  A military expert from Human Rights Watch who joined us on our last day in Nablus and who had just come from Jenin stated that the only reason that the physical destruction in Nablus was not worse than the destruction in Jenin was that the buildings were built better so they didn’t collapse even when walls were taken out.

In Nablus I remember several stories.  There was one family who told us about how a woman in their family was killed by an Israeli sniper when she went to retrieve medicine from a window sill.  There was another family who talked about how bodies of Palestinian security personnel killed during the initial days of the invasion were left in the street in front of their home for more than a week because medical personnel were not allowed to enter their neighborhood.  Dogs began to eat the bodies. 

And then there was the Shuby couple.  Their home was demolished while they were inside.  They, the grandparents in the family, survived but were trapped under the rubble in their basement apartment for 8 days.  Eight other members of their family including 3 children, 3 women (one pregnant), and 2 men were killed.  I will never forget their pain.

From Nablus we traveled to Jenin.  One of the Israeli bulldozer drivers who went by the handle Kurdi Bear and who claimed responsibility for destroying much of Jenin Refugee Camp gave an interview to Yediot Aharonot where he talked about his actions in the camp.   A fan of the racist Israeli soccer club Beitar Jerusalem, he bragged about how he had created a stadium in the center of the camp.  Walking into the camp the destruction was shocking.  An area the size of several city blocks had been destroyed. 

cars squashed by tanks during the incursions.  These cars, as was often the case, were not  blocking the road.  The tanks just ran up the side of the roads destroying cars as they went. Photo by Peter Shafer.

As we entered the area we witnessed people pulling the flattened ruins of a wheel chair out from under rubble.  The person who had owned the wheel chair was still under the rubble.  The stench of death was in the air.

I wish that I could say that this was the last time I witnessed destruction on this scale, but the truth is that Defensive Shield and the destruction in Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, and other cities were just warm ups for later military attacks.  I was in Beirut two weeks after the end of the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon and the destruction there made Jenin look like nothing. 

And the destruction of the Dahiya Neighborhood in Beirut led to the formulation of the Dahiya doctrine by the Israeli military.  That is a strategy of asymmetric warfare that justifies the destruction of civilian infrastructure, homes, and neighborhoods. That doctrine was put into practice in Operation Cast Lead in 2009.  When I entered Gaza after that attack the destruction was again unbelievable.  And when I entered Gaza after Operation Protective Edge in 2014 I stood witness to even more destruction, suffering, and death.

In addition to this year marking 15 years since Defensive shield, this month marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war and thus 50 years of occupation.  There is no sign that the occupation will end, which means that another large attack is somewhere on the horizon.  When that attack occurs, many will act surprised or will say that while violence is unfortunate, it is somehow inevitable.  But those will be lies. 

Violence isn’t inevitable.  It can be ended.  But ending violence requires ending injustice, ending occupation, ending dispossession, ending the privilege of Jewish Israelis that keeps Palestinians in a second-class status.  Ending violence requires ending Israeli apartheid.   

For those of you who wonder why I focus so much attention on Palestine, know that these stories are only the tip of the iceberg.  When I went to Israel and Palestine as a student in 1996, when I moved to Ramallah in early 2000, I did not think that decades later I would still be involved in this way.  But apartheid doesn’t allow you to look away.  You can’t say you didn’t know, and if you know, how can you not act?