A Non-Event. April 28, 2003.
It was the end of the day, maybe around 5:30 or 6pm, I was in the living room. I could hear F16s passing by overhead, I didn’t make anything of it since the roar of engines can be heard quite often. Two from the family I was staying with were on the roof, seeing a military jeep speeding down the nearby street. Within a few minutes the whole household was on the roof. The entire village was out: girls, women, boys and men on their roofs or looking out of their windows. Something was going on. Suddenly we heard a loud bang and saw a cloud of smoke rise up from the bottom of the hill where the town ends, about a mile away. A car had been blown up by the military. News traveled in various ways, people yelling to each other over the rooftops, all the neighbors sharing their information, and tons of cell phone calls – to family members living down the hill, to others who happened to be traveling on the road back to town, others who might have seen what had happened earlier in the afternoon. The rumors were that one person was killed and two seriously injured, the car that had been blown up was suspected of carrying weapons. No one would later be able to confirm this, people who happened to be in the area will explain that the car was emptied of its passengers, its doors and trunk were open when it was blown up. As for the dead and/or wounded I would not find out, instead the people around me wondering who the victim might have been – was it someone from the village, a neighbor or a relative?
We could hear shooting. Nearby and in the not so distant hills. Three guys ran down the hill carrying weapons, hiding out in a house. No one could tell who they were, their kuffiyehs tightly wrapped around their head. The airplanes continued overhead, the shooting intensified, night was falling. A checkpoint had been set up at the bottom of the hill, at the village’s Northern entrance. We could see the light of the Jeeps. One from the family was stuck at the checkpoint, we would later find out that it took him six hours to get home from a mile away, having to hide out at friends’ houses. By dusk most people had gone back inside from their roof tops; we remained to see what was going to unfold. More shooting, not sure where it was coming from, reverberating echoes in the hills around us. I can still not tell the difference in gun sounds, but was told that most of the shooting was from Israeli used M16s and tanks. The rumble of tanks shook the house. We sneaked behind the wall of the roof and saw three tanks passing by; a few kids on the street were running to and fro throwing rocks. Some old men were still trying to make their way home, one walking along slowly with his donkey. We yelled at him to take a left at the end of the street; we could see the headlights from the tanks and Jeeps to the right.
We stayed on the roof for what must have been hours, hearing shooting, rumbling of tanks and Jeeps, people screaming and whistling and then an eerie silence. Occasionally a loud boom would shake us all. It was taking place close by. Two houses away. Military voices could be heard over the loudspeakers, incomprehensible mumbles – warnings and commands in a heavily accented Arabic. Flood lights started coming on, lighting various areas in the small village and around the hills right above us. People still called each other on their cell phones, to make sure they were home and safe; to warn us of which way the military was moving. A bulldozer was right in front of Abu Youssef’s house, threatening to dig up the main street or demolish a few houses. Rumors of more military were coming in from the next village; the Eastern side of the village was under curfew, the Northern side closed with the checkpoint.Standing, squatting and sitting on the roof, smoking cigarettes and whispering, we stood away from the edge and the lights; we could tell there was military on the street corner, after the neighboring house. Shooting continued non-stop, as well as bombings and explosions, stopping only for ten minutes when the muezzin started the call of evening prayer. It wasn’t scary per se, but a long slow wait for the unknown, not sure exactly where the tanks were, how many there were, who they were going after. They were searching from house to house; the family prepared itself for the worse. I imagined the soldiers coming in and taking away the three men in the house. How would I explain my presence and my camera equipment? Would I be able to secretly film this?
We went to the house next door – belonging to a brother – and went up on his roof. His roof a little more exposed than ours. We could hear the Apache helicopters overhead but couldn’t see them. They were on top of us, the sound of their blades too loud to be from far away. The sky was dark, it was a new moon and a bit cloudy. I searched overhead to no avail, I could only hear the blades spinning and the engine roaring. That part was scary: were they taking pictures from above, were they getting ready to launch missiles, was it the neighboring house they were hovering over? They stayed in the sky for around two hours, the whole time more loud shooting and bangs going on. By 11:30 the Apaches left, but the tanks and Jeeps still around.
Everyone at home went to sleep. How were we supposed to fall asleep with gun shots happening a few feet away from us every few minutes? To the family this was quasi-normal, they had been through much worse. They needed to get their sleep and they’d find out in the morning what had happened. I faded in and out of sleep, shaken every time I heard a round of shots. This was crazy to fall asleep in such a situation. Eventually I did. At 3 am I was awoken by a long lasting round of gun shots, followed by an intensely loud explosion that shook the house. Those around me still sleeping. I could smell burning. I had no idea what was going on, sneaking a peek out of the window I could still see the light of the Jeeps and tanks on the street. No one was moving. I imagined that someone needed help, someone was wounded. I wanted to go out in the street and see what had happened, offer help; but not a stir in the streets. I went up to the roof; there was no way I could sleep through this. The neighbors were on the roof; a car had just been blown up at Abu Jawwad’s house, indeed two houses away from ours. I was too frightened and cold to stay on the roof alone, I wandered around the dark house a bit, I heard the Jeeps and tanks drive away, and reluctantly went back to sleep at 5am.
By 6:30 I was up again. The grandmother came over to tell us the news. The family whose house was attacked was waiting for journalists to come over. We went over, the closest thing the family would see to journalists. A small crowd of people on the streets; we went in and found a larger crowd inside the house surveying the night’s damage. We looked like “journalists” – one of us with a video camera, the other with a regular camera. Walking up to the house, the smell of burning was still fresh in the air, the sky was dusty, broken glass all over the ground, a few shreds of belongings. The building was still standing I thought. Abu Jawwad, the head of the house, immediately came up to me to walk me through the house.
Abu Jawwad is an older man, perhaps in his 60’s, a father to 14 girls and 2 boys. He walks with a strong limp, a cane in one hand. His teeth are missing – he must have forgotten to put in his dentures. He has no political affiliations, none of his kids are involved in anything political. His sons are still too young to be “wanted,” the oldest being 14. He showed me the scars from his heart operation, his slipped disc operation, even bringing out his medical papers to show me his frail status, as if seeing him with my own eyes wasn’t proof enough that he could barely walk. I knew he was not a “terrorist,” nor could he possibly be wanted.
The military had entered his house in the late afternoon and occupied it until 4 in the morning. He was out of the house, they didn’t let him in and beat him up when he tried. They terrorized his daughters and wife, throwing smoke bombs in the house and suffocating the kids. The military had obviously been inside the house, every wall ridden with bullet holes only possible from the inside. Broken glass all over the ground, crackling under our footsteps. Not a single piece of furniture was left standing; the closets and cabinets in pieces on the ground, the mattresses torn, the clothes strewn on top, glass ware, plates and every other belonging intertwined in the mess. It was the same scene in the two bedrooms, in the kitchen and the living room. Windows had been blown out; the front door ridden with bullet holes from the inside. Abu Jawwad walked me to every corner of the house, showing me every bullet hole, every scratch on the wall, every torn picture (of his father) and broken piece of furniture. “I only have one question. Who is the terrorist here? Is it them, the military with their weapons and helicopters who occupy our house, beat me up and scare me children, shooting in the house from the inside, or is it us?” He asked me the same question over and over again. He was upset, his lips shivering with anger, his eyes almost in tears. “I don’t want to advertise myself, I don’t want any help. I just want to ask this question: who is the terrorist. I just want the world to see what they’ve done to my family and my house.” He called his wife and kids, pointing out their age. The kids looked tired, terrified, silent. Staring at me, listening to their father’s question repeated.
He limped up the stairs. The roof of the car had been blown up to his roof, some of the car cables hanging on the antenna. Pieces of car littered the roof. He repeated his question, cursed at Sharon, cursed at the military, cursed at the other Arab nations and cursed at America. “They came with their helicopters and tanks. They ripped apart my house. I have done nothing. No one in my family has done anything.” We went down to the back yard, the car blackened and charred, nothing left of it to discern its parts. A hole in the ground where the bomb had been placed, the car blown back about ten feet now resting upside down. The entire yard littered with burnt bits, with bomb canisters and bullets. He lined up his family to have their picture taken, a slew of little girls, a sad mother, open-mouthed children wondering why they were victims of Israeli military violence. One of the kids collected empty bullet shells to show me, “this is only a little bit of what they used” he said.
We walked around the house, Abu Jawwad insisted that we stay for coffee. We sat on the front steps. “Who is the terrorist. Tell me.” He continued in his rambling. “I’m not going to clean up the house. I’m going to leave everything as is. I’m going to wait for the journalists to come. Especially the foreign journalists, they need to see this.” He followed us home, I had offered to give him the phone numbers of the journalists I knew in the country. I knew they wouldn’t come. It was not a story worth covering.
Abu Jawwad’s house was occupied and destroyed from the inside. It wasn’t demolished. A car had been blown up, the kids had been harassed and he had been beaten up. The military was in town all afternoon and night; but no one was killed, no one died, no “terrorist” was caught – except for the other car’s driver. This was a routine incursion into Palestinian Territories. Nothing new. No journalist was going to make his way up through the difficult passes from Ramallah or Tel Aviv to document this. Abu Jawwad might as well clean up his house. He was lucky that we were in town; but no one else was going to show up. This sort of thing happens all the time. The military comes in, terrorizes a whole town, a house or more fall victim to their violent outbreaks, helicopters and fighter jets circle overhead, people hide out at home from the sound of the rumbling tanks, someone loses a house, often times someone loses his life. But this is not something to be reported, to be covered in the news. These are normal Israeli military procedures masked under the semantics of “security incursions,” “targeted killings,” “hunting terrorists.” It matters not that the family at hand is innocent, it matters not that half of the village couldn’t make it home that night. It’s a normal fact of life here, it’s not news.
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