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Small Town Terrorism - Invisible Palestine

Jimbo | 29.07.2002 10:44

Update on daily life in villages around Jenin.

"People of Burqeen, stay in your homes - anyone who thinks he's above the law will fast become a Shahid (martyr)!" booms the loudspeaker of the local mosque, normally used to call the small village community to prayer.

Tanks, A.P.C.s and army and police jeeps move through the tiny town, announcing curfew, whilst two houses are forcibly cleared of their inhabitants by soldiers. I and a friend - the only other international staying in Burqeen at the moment - approach a jeep in the centre of town with a video camera and attempt to talk to the soldiers. We don't really expect to be told what's going on, (and two people are hardly enough to pull off any kind of effective action) but we try to ascertain as much as we can, to see if there's any small chance of doing anything at all, and, at least, to let them know that there is some kind of international observation taking place. The minimal concern that this might incur just three kilometres away in Jenin, however, where T.V. cameras are rarely absent, is not apparent here. This is, of course, not to understate the colossal atrocities committed in Jenin and other large cities and camps, yet one senses that different rules apply out here in the back of beyond. Obscurity promotes impunity.

Predictably, we are ordered from a distance to go away or be shot. Yesterday they fired in our general direction as we filmed them exploding a car parked in somebody's garden. Meanwhile, a kilometre down the road, they shelled the house of a family whose son, a member of Fatt'eh was assassinated last year. The family, who have to go on living in a house with gaping holes, were told that they must bear the responsibility of their son's activism, and that their home will be demolished altogether by bulldozer some time in the near future.

Anticipating something similar from today's activities, I call up one of the 13 or so internationals who are staying in Jenin right now, as I watch from the balcony of my friend Saher's house the I.D.F. troops swaggering about on the roof of the mosque, like gargantuan alien insects in their bulbous green body armour. The Jenin group promise to call back if there's any possibility of coming here to make a stronger presence, but telecommunications between here and there are trashed and the roads are blocked. The ground shudders as a controlled explosion blows the doors in on a house suspected of providing shelter to a man on the wanted list.

"Everybody in Burqeen must come to the mosque immediately" announces the loudspeaker. I turn to Saher to see how he will respond he appears calm, yet nonplussed: "If people go, I will go - if they stay home, I stay..." It occurs to me that everyone in Burqeen is of the same idea. The crackling of the cheap, aging speaker seems to evince the atmosphere of manic tension that incessantly plagues this town, and hundreds of others like it, in backwoods, forgotten Palestine. An old woman stops dusting out the chicken coop in the yard nextdoor as helicopters circle the sky above.

A rapid succession of excited telephone exchanges between Saher and his friends nearby is cut short by the next announcement, which issues five or ten minutes afterwards from a roving jeep fitted with a P.A. system and plunges Burqeen into panic and bewilderment: "If anyone goes to the mosque I will shoot him!"

We stay put, as the moment stretches to breaking strain. For me, a privelidged international under the relative protection of my nationality, it means extreme discomfort. For local people it must be unbearable. They have been tolerating the intolerable for two long years in this manner. I ask Saher how people keep from going crazy. "We are crazy," he replies, and the black humour is in the grain of truth.

Saher's sister, who calls him up a few moments later, is understandably unconscious of the funny side. In tears of anguish, she explains that she obediently arrived at the mosque between the two contradictory messages, to be greeted with a rifle to the head and a belligerent demand for an explanation as to what she was doing out of doors in a curfew. Her protestations were aggressively rebuffed by the soldiers who flatly denied giving any such order to come to the mosque. What might have been thought to be bungling incompetence, or perhaps a petty internal tete-a-tete on the part of the soldiers, now reveals itself to be a sick little game of psychological torment. Talk about terrorism.

By 10:a.m., everything is over, but for who knows how long? People pour out into the sunlit streets, greet one another, laugh, shake hands. a tractor and trailer, overloaded with young men, races to a nearby farm, too late to gather the vegetables to take to market in Jenin, but determined to do as much work as the day still allows. Almost everybody is paid by the day here - especially since the intifada. When they work, they can eat. Saher's cousin, a film and media student, has not attended university for two years. An ambulance came to the village and was turned back, we learn. An old man tells us that his son was due to be married today.

The main diversion here for old and young is watching out the window, for hours on end, for the army to leave. A family of 13 people live in two rooms in the house next door to Saher, forced to endure the long hours, broiling heat and each other in poverty and squalor. Palestine is a prison, with the inmates confined to their towns one day, their homes the next. Every aspect of social, familial and personal life is damaged and debilitated. Perhaps madness sometimes seems preferable - for those who can still distinguish.

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