Even The Birds Are Gone
by Gideon Levy
No, this is not a "normal war." It is a genocide just as the Holocaust was; the only difference is the fact that these people are Muslims and therefore have no American troops to liberate them as the Jewish holocaust survivors had at the end of World War II. The intent, as George W. Bush admits, is to get rid of all the Muslims no matter where they live. According to the book Countries and their Cultures Vol. 3 (©2001) approximately 75% of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are Muslims; therefore, there's no hope without forcing the U.S. government to stop the money it sends to Israel. That is their only hope because that will force the Zionist government to sit down and negotiate a just peace which is a goal of all Palestinians and all Jewish people too. Judaism is not synonymous with Zionism. Approximately 10% of Jewish people are not Zionists in Israel.
Friday, October 26, 2001
Fear of the tanks in the street, funerals for the victims, crushed cars, uprooted telephone poles, the sounds of shells and bullets, blood donations and the lost dreams of a former casino dealer. Scenes of war in occupied Beit Jala
As soon as they heard the sound of the steel treads approaching, everyone rushed inside. They closed all the shutters and windows, leaving just a crack open from which to observe what was happening outside. Another Israeli Defense Forces tank or armored vehicle was making its way down the street leading to the center of Beit Jala - a street already scarred by tanks from a previous incursion - and sowing a path of fear and destruction.
Remnants of the ruin caused by Israel's latest incursion into Beit Jala and Bethlehem, which began last Friday, line the road: cars that were crushed by the tanks passing down the street of this normally quiet, well-off neighborhood; and telephone poles that have been uprooted by the Israeli military vehicles.
Tanks and armored personnel carriers were practically the only vehicles moving on the main street of the southern section of town this past Sunday. Even with no curfew imposed, the place was like a ghost town. It was a self-imposed curfew born of the fear felt by Beit Jala residents, who hardly venture outside the doors of their homes since the Israeli war machine returned to their streets. As in nearby Bethlehem, the sounds of war - the thundering shells and shrieking bullets, round after round - have continued almost without interruption, perhaps signaling the beginning of a much larger war.
This is located in the "Congreso Nacional Hostosiano" camp. It is intended to
house the protesters. Vieques, Puerto Rico
Sometimes, the shooting sounds muffled and distant; at other times, it is very sharp and close by. Ihab Lulas, a young Palestinian biologist and former blackjack dealer at the Jericho casino, sent out a letter to the world over the Internet:
"Even the birds have gone," my mother told me this morning. Another dawn breaks in Beit Jala and we're still awake and the Israeli tanks and helicopters are preventing the sun from shining. This morning, we couldn't hear the chirping of the birds or the bells of the churches. Just the sound of the Israeli killing machine and the crying of our mothers and tears of our men. They killed the boy. Musa was 19, another victim of the hatred and cruelty of the Israeli Zionist soldiers. He wasn't carrying any weapon. His only crime was that he was born Palestinian and his mistake was that he sat down to watch television with his family. The Israeli bullets came through the window of his home and struck him in the chest, killing him and leaving his family in terrible mourning ... For anyone who doesn't know, this is what is happening in this holy land, especially here in blessed Bethlehem, in the place where Jesus was born ... I don't know if God is watching us now. I don't know what Jesus would have said to this innocent boy who bled to death in the place where he was born. I don't know what the world is seeing or why it is waiting. Palestinian blood has been dripping since 1948 and Israel is still killing us and our children. But we are the strong ones in this war. Our dream is the true dream ... I could be the next in line. Pray to God to watch over me and my family. Ihab, Palestine."
That same day, Sunday, three more Palestinians were killed in Bethlehem and Beit Jala.
The once crowded and noisy Bethlehem checkpoint is now practically deserted. There are no checks and no delays; no one asks any questions. All one sees is a single imposing tank, whose gun swerves from side to side. Several foreign journalists record the scene. The soldiers cannot be seen by any of the onlookers. No Palestinian would even dream of trying to pass through here. The floor of the checkpoint is strewn with knapsacks. The road leading to Bethlehem is totally deserted. The many Hebrew signs advertising dentists are the only reminder that, not so long ago, things were different here. At night, Israeli tanks arrived in front of the Abu Shinab restaurant - once a favorite of Israelis who came for the lamb chops. Now a tank sits there, two minutes away from the Church of the Nativity. In front of Abu Shinab, between Rachel's Tomb and the Paradise Hotel, Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinians continue shooting at each other. The bursts of gunfire are separated by intervals of deathly silence. We decide to head back to Beit Jala - maybe it's safer there.
"Do you live in Beit Jala?" the tall Israeli soldier asks us in a thick Russian accent. Like many other soldiers stationed at checkpoints in the West Bank, he hasn't the slightest idea of where he is. He radios his superior to ask whether a car with Israeli license plates carrying Israeli journalists can be allowed through. Not possible, is the reply. But every situation has its silver lining: All the rest of the checkpoints that surrounded Beit Jala and closed it in with cement blocks and piles of dirt have been moved to allow access to the invading tanks coming to reoccupy the town. Thus, there has to be a way in on foot.
Like everything else in town, the Hope elementary school is closed. The Everest Hotel has also known better days. The managers now sit in the lobby of their closed establishment and eat sunflower seeds, as the sound of the shooting grows louder. At the Ayda refugee camp below, the funeral of Aisha Abu Awda - a Jerusalemite and mother of eight who came here yesterday to visit relatives and was killed by Israeli fire - is taking place. Jets flying overhead emit a dull roar. A funeral is also taking place in Beit Jala. Soon the crowd that has gathered in a local church for the funeral of 24-year-old Raniya Haroufi will disperse and the current deceptive quiet will give way to more angry and emotional outbursts. Haroufi tried to dodge the bullets, but was struck down right outside a store selling fire-extinguishing equipment.
Two cranes loom high over neighboring Gilo, as if defiantly warning that, despite everything, construction has not ceased. The silence in the streets of Beit Jala is occasionally broken not only by the sounds of gunfire, but also by loud announcements from the nearby Israeli military base. When the shooting fades a bit, everyone from one end of Beit Jala to the other hears, "Boris, come to the office."
The base was once a center for "coordination and liaison" - when those things still existed. The flags of the two warring sides still wave there right next to each other, as if nothing has changed. An old Opel Record, which looks like it was well-maintained even though it was probably on its eighth or tenth owner, lies on the side of the road, its entire front section smashed by the treads of the Israeli tanks that pulverize anything in their path. Was it really necessary to crush this private vehicle that was sitting on the shoulder of the road? And why did the tanks uproot the telephone poles? Was it really unavoidable? One resident ventures out of his house with some wires in hand and nervously tries to restore his connection to the outside world.
We go down the hill upon which the neighborhood houses are scattered. We see another crumpled car. The windows of some buildings are covered with sandbags. The wail of the ambulance sirens from Bethlehem augurs more bad news. It's almost war.
The Lulas family's home - just an ordinary home in Beit Jala - is pocked by the scars of far more bullets than most of the houses in Gilo across the way. Does anyone in Gilo recall that from the time the last truce was reached until Israel assassinated Atef Abiyat, no one shot at its homes? On Saturday night, a few houses away from the Lulas home, young Musa George Abu Eid was watching television, until Israeli Defense Forces bullets killed him as he sat in his chair.
Ihab Lulas is completely distraught over the killing of his brother's friend, with whom he regularly played snooker. Lulas, 23, worked for a year in the Jericho casino until it closed. A biologist, he wanted to complete his master's degree at Bir Zeit University, but when the Israeli Defense Forces blocked the road there with the Sidra and Kalandia checkpoints, he was compelled to give up his plans. These days, his computer's memory is stretched to the limit with all the games he has loaded on it to ward off the boredom imposed by the renewed closure and occupation. It's hard to say which language he speaks better - the Hebrew that he learned at the casino or the English that he picked up in his biology studies. Now he's just another ambitious young man doomed to unemployment and being frightened in his own home.
The seven members of this Christian family live in a stone house. The father attended the funeral of their neighbor, Raniya. "She was running in the street, fleeing from the bullets, but hatred caught her and killed her," Lulas wrote in his computerized message to the world. His last shift at the Jericho casino was on October 1, 2000. "It was empty. My shift began at 4 A.M. and no one came. The Austrian boss told us to go home, that they'd call us. I didn't hear from them for six months. Then, in June, they called all the dealers and asked if we'd like to return if the casino should reopen. They had conditions: It would have to be at half-pay, $500 instead of $1,000, and without laundry and meals. They knew they wouldn't be getting many customers." An Israeli Defense Forces armored carrier was approaching, and his mother interrupted the conversation, urging him to hurry inside and shut the house. Two small neighborhood children were also called inside in a panic.
"Most of the dealers said that they wouldn't return," Lulas continued, after the armored carrier had disappeared up the road. "Even those who said yes, like me, knew in their hearts that they'd never go back. I'll tell you honestly among ourselves, we always knew that it was temporary. Even when everything looked so rosy, we knew that it was temporary." Two hundred young people from Beit Jala worked as dealers.
Ihab has an uncle in Jaffa and an uncle in Ramle. He admits that he has never been in Tel Aviv legally. The last time he was there was a few days before the suicide bombing at the Dolphinarium. Because of the roadblocks, he probably won't become a geneticist, as he'd planned. After a year of searching, he recently found a job as a researcher in an environmental institute in Bethlehem. Now that Israeli tanks are parked outside his place of employment, he can no longer go to work.
"A normal war"
When the subject of the Ze'evi assassination comes up, Lulas says, "From a human standpoint - I'm against it. But I'll tell you how it looks from my Palestinian vantage point. Morally, I have to have a Palestinian point of view. You know what, maybe Ze'evi deserved it, because of all the ideas he cherished, the transfer that he stubbornly insisted on. He didn't hurt me or kill me personally, but he advocated very dangerous ideas and it was obvious that his natural place was in the Sharon government. Such a man has no other place, except for the Sharon government. I think he was no less dangerous than Abu Ali Mustafa. In fact, he was more dangerous. Mustafa was a leader with a vision of peace and we all know what Ze'evi's vision was - to send all the Arabs you know where. He was a Zionist hater, and that wasn't good for you either."
What's going to happen?
"I think it's a normal war now, and at the end, we'll sit down to negotiate."
Are you afraid?
"Yes, I'm afraid. I'm afraid ..."
Again, our conversation is interrupted as another armored carrier lumbers up the street. "I'm afraid for two reasons: Because I could lose my life and because I could lose my family. It's a new feeling for me because they've started to shoot at our houses, as you see, and this is real fear. I could lose my whole family, all my books, all my letters, all my property and I could lose my own life. This is making most Palestinians depressed. Personally depressed, because they aren't even free to express their feelings and their anger. It's not like before, when you could throw stones. Now you could lose your life. When I was a kid, we used to go throw stones at the soldiers. It was a way to breathe a little air, to express all your hatred and your anger. Now it's not that simple. The situation is dangerous. My brother's friend Musa didn't belong to any organization when he was killed. He became a victim of Beit Jala, not of any organization. This is a small town where we all know each other and it's frightening the way he was killed in his house. He was just 19.
"I should leave it all, if I only had the chance. But that's not my big dream. I've traveled, I've been to six or seven countries, including the U.S. and Taiwan and Japan and it's not my dream to live somewhere else. I want to live here, because this is where I grew up. That's the problem. When you're already in your twenties, it's hard to leave. Not because of the land, because of your family. Would you like to see my room?"
He shares the crowded but well-kept room with his sister. There are books, posters and a computer, just like you'd find in the room of a middle-class Tel Aviv teenager. Well, almost. A photo of the "Youth Ambassadors Choir" taken during a world tour shows Ihab standing between a boy from Singapore and a boy from Papua New Guinea. "Child Killers" is the caption on a poster of an Israeli Defense Forces soldier. There are pictures of refugee tents from the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe). A poster of Jesus.
When he turns on his computer, the first picture that appears is of his baby niece. He brings up more images of occupied Beit Jala. First, tanks, and then an armed Israeli Defense Forces soldier. "He's very scared, believe me. He's brave when he's inside the tank, but on the street, he's very scared." The local television station reports on the killing of a Palestinian officer, Abu Hussein, in Bethlehem, just minutes ago. Then the camera moves to a shot of the funeral of Raniya Haroufi. A Greek Orthodox priest is praying over her coffin. She was a mother of two.
Priorities in life
"We see all of this and it creates pressure," says young Lulas, who is about the same age as the dead woman. He got up early yesterday, eager to see whether the tanks had moved away from his research institute. Then he ate breakfast and watched television all day. At noon, the whole family sat down for a meal together. It's the first time in a while that everyone has been home: The invasion has its positive aspects. They ate majadra (rice with lentils) and nothing else. "We're very practical people. We eat what there is," he says. In the afternoon, he debated whether he should attend Musa's funeral. In the end, he decided to stay home, afraid that he might get stuck in the middle of town and not be able to get home because of the tanks. At four in the morning, the neighbor phoned. "The soldiers are in the street. They're searching the houses," was the message. But they did not come to the Lulas home.
What about the residents of Gilo?
"What can I say? They have to know that they're not living in Jerusalem. They're living on land that was appropriated from Beit Jala. That's why we see them as occupiers, as colonialists. And our goal is to be rid of the occupation and this colonialism. Yesterday, on Bethlehem television, they quoted military commanders who said that every soldier and every settler is a target. They didn't say every Jew. They didn't say every Israeli. They said every soldier and settler. This is an important difference. There are some Muslim movements that say every Jew. Not us."
Why don't you take part in the struggle?
"Mostly because I have my priorities in life. I love music. I play in a band, and I want to continue my studies. I have a vision for my future. The fighters have their vision and it's different than mine. I believe that they have a role and that I have my role. I was a Palestinian youth ambassador to the world. I told about our lives and I played the oud."
The shooting grows louder. It sounds as if it's very close by. The television news broadcast is suddenly interrupted: An urgent appeal for blood donations goes out to the local residents. There is a shortage of blood.