Palestinian writer Mouin Rabbani filed the following dispatch under duress from Ramallah. Rabbani notes the difficulty of reporting during a curfew and military occupation, amid the violent swirl of events -- making full factual verification difficult for him and the Weekly. All of which underscores the need for independent and thorough investigation by journalists and outside organizations, and the even greater need for a peaceful solution.
RAMALLAH -- Today, April 16, is the 19th day of the re-occupation of Ramallah by the Israeli military. For the past 19 days, each and every resident of this town and of its twin city of El-Bireh has been under a strict, around-the-clock curfew. This means that anyone moving outdoors who is not an Israeli soldier can and will be shot on sight. Just four (or was it five?) days ago, a young Palestinian woman was shot dead by an Israeli sniper as she went out to hang the laundry -- on her balcony. About a week earlier, a woman in her mid-50s was similarly killed the moment she emerged from Ramallah Hospital, where she had a cast removed from her leg.
The siege and curfew means there are no busy pupils testing patient teachers in our schools, no pushy customers trying friendly tellers in our stores, no bored employees being harassed by greedy managers in our offices, no frustrated citizens yelling at arrogant bureaucrats in our government buildings, no silent lovers or cackling teenagers in any of our pubs, restaurants or theaters. Life as you and I know it has simply ceased to exist; the city might as well have been hit by a neutron bomb and has been reduced to a ghost town.
Speaking of schools, stores, offices and government buildings and, for that matter, of human-rights organizations, cultural and commercial centers, and private homes -- there are substantially fewer of them today than several weeks ago. Some have simply been reduced to rubble by air-to-ground missiles, tank shells, anti-aircraft guns pointed directly at buildings, heavy-caliber machine guns and plastic explosives. Others have only been damaged. Virtually all of them have been plundered and vandalized, their archives and equipment carted off or destroyed.
Who is responsible for this? Well, there is no such thing as a Palestinian attack helicopter, battle tank or anti-aircraft weapon. And looting has without exception occurred between the moment Israeli soldiers enter a building and the moment they leave it. Today they did the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, containing the archive not only of its namesake -- one of our most famous educators -- but also the office of our poet laureate, Mahmoud Darwish. Hardly a coincidence if one recalls the Ministry of Education was ransacked last week.
It is said that virtually everything we have managed to build during the past decade -- not only security forces and government institutions, but professional associations, development organizations and also physical infrastructure -- will have to be rebuilt from scratch. Take into account that, as a result of decades of Israeli occupation, we started from a point below zero, and you have a pretty good idea what this place looks like.
Israels finest have also made off with awesome amounts of cash, jewelry, valuables, antiques, cameras, camcorders -- even clothes and food. Sometimes they simply point an M-16 at you and say, Your money or your life. But as a rule they are much more disciplined: They enter a residential building, lock all of the residents into a single apartment or room, and then strip the place bare. Sometimes they have a meal and a shower in the process; usually they smash what they dont take. In a number of cases they have remained for days on end, using the building as a sniper nest to kill women doing laundry and leaving hospitals while dozens of residents are imprisoned as described above, and prevented from obtaining any supplies. To be fair, I do know of one case where the soldiers neither stole nor destroyed anything. All they did was constantly shoot at the building on the other side of the road. According to the residents, not a single shot was fired back.
Parts of Ramallah have been without running water, electricity or telephone lines for more than two weeks. This includes the office of our elected president, Yasser Arafat, or rather what remains of it. (President Arafats electricity was briefly restored for the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.) Like our president -- who, unlike his counterpart in a certain country north of Mexico and south of Canada, won a clear majority of votes cast -- most of us are running increasingly low on supplies. Neither our president nor his aides have been allowed out even once during the siege. His office has occasionally been provisioned by the Red Cross. The rest of us have been let outside for a total of 15 hours (three hours every four days). It is an increasingly meaningless measure anyway, because the Israelis are limiting fresh supplies into Ramallah. Essentials such as milk, bread, diapers, fruit, vegetables and cigarettes are running low, and the money used to buy them even more so.