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A Witness to Devastation and Death

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.

Israel’s 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 don‘t 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 Arafat’s 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.

When I was younger, I used to own a dog. Had he been so confined and deprived, I would probably have been convicted for abuse. Then again, my mother always says that if we were dogs instead of Palestinians, the world would have been moved by our plight long ago.

Garbage wasn‘t collected for almost three weeks. Because the Israelis vandalized the water network, there are also fears that sewage is seeping into the fresh-water supply, and the Ministry of Health has asked residents to boil tap water before drinking it. The residents of Jenin refugee camp have no such luxury; they either drink straight out of the sewage lines or die of thirst.

I’m particularly fortunate that I do not have a disease requiring treatment, that my pregnant wife has had no complications, and that neither of my young children have fallen ill or had an accident. Not in the general sense of feeling blessed that one is healthy, but in the specific sense of dropping dead if you‘re not. You see, the Israelis are using medical care as a weapon of war. This means ambulances -- indeed all emergency services -- are not allowed to function and get shot at if they try. Because of this, the Red Cross recently announced a suspension of services.

It also means United Nations convoys delivering medical supplies to hospitals are fired upon -- otherwise it wouldn’t make much sense to sever the hospitals‘ utilities and bomb them. And it means hospitals and clinics are invaded by the army and ransacked, and wounded patients are arrested from their beds. On the streets and in homes, casualties are bleeding to death from treatable injuries, those who try to help them locked in the cross hairs of a sniper rifle. Kidney patients requiring dialysis are dying slow deaths. The deputy minister of health noted that “Even Genghis Khan did not prevent treatment of the wounded.” I found the statement inappropriate, because it gives the impression that Israel’s measures are solely directed at combatants. They in fact encompass every man, woman and child in Ramallah.

In Ramallah these days, even a decent burial is forbidden by the Israelis. When the curfew was lifted for the first time on day four, 25 bodies were buried in a mass grave in the Ramallah Hospital garden. Four others were kept in the mortuary because they had yet to be identified.

We simply don‘t know how many of Ramallah’s sick have died from lack of timely treatment, nor even how many have been shot and bombed to death by the Israeli military. There are about 45 confirmed cases so far, but every time the curfew is lifted, another body or two is discovered in some building. There is compelling evidence that 15 of these -- including civilians -- were summarily executed. It requires urgent investigation by the media. The only problem is that journalists have been shot at too. Ramallah was declared a “closed military zone” on March 31, with all foreign media ordered to immediately leave town. Israel says this is because of its profound concern for the physical well-being of seasoned war correspondents prepared to risk their lives to cover the story. The journalists believe Israel is primarily interested in laying waste to Ramallah away from their prying eyes. Many have refused to leave, remaining holed up in small offices and unable to go about their duties in normal fashion. The offices of the local media have fared considerably worse, having been literally smashed to bits.

There are numerous cases of Palestinian civilians being used as human shields, being made to walk in front of soldiers as they go about entering homes, buildings and refugee camps in the search for suspects. Israelis have also conducted mass roundups of men and boys between the ages of 15 and 50, detaining hundreds. Those released report being tortured, abused, humiliated, and kept for days on end without food, water or even a blanket.

Palestinians are convinced that the real purpose of Israel‘s current campaign is to break their will to further resist what U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan terms the “illegal occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. With Palestinians having once again experienced the savagery, and even more so the cowardice, of Israel’s soldiers firsthand, it is unlikely to work. To the contrary, the methods used have created several dozen new militants for every one eliminated.

In recent months the United States has tried to give the impression that it is opposed to terrorism in this corner of the world. It‘s a sham. While Washington condemns each and every deliberate and indiscriminate Palestinian attack upon Israeli civilians, it has as of this writing not once -- I repeat, not in a single instance -- explicitly condemned a deliberate and indiscriminate Israeli attack upon Palestinian civilians, even though Israeli and international human-rights organizations confirm considerably more of the latter than the former. For that matter, the Bush administration also condemns the combat deaths of Israeli soldiers within Palestinian territory while they are engaged in attacks against Palestinian civilians. Thus, its actual policy is one of denouncing the killing of Israelis only, rather than condemning terrorism irrespective of its source.

Indeed, the United States consistently demands that the Palestinian Authority “arrest Palestinian terrorists,” punish their leaders and root out their infrastructure. By contrast, you will never hear an American official use the term “Israeli terrorist.” Rather, Bush and Secretary of State Powell continue to refer to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- architect of the Sabra-Chatilla and Jenin massacres, as well as of many others -- as “my good friend.” Needless to say, their spokesmen have never called for an Israeli terrorist -- first and foremost their good friend -- to be held accountable and locked behind bars. Rather, Washington funds his terror infrastructure to the tune of several billion dollars a year and provides it with the latest in American weaponry.

American calls for a cease-fire similarly lack the required sincerity, giving as they do the distinct impression that they are intended to apply exclusively to the Palestinians. Even the parched soil around my garden shrub understands that if Washington seriously wanted Israel to withdraw from Ramallah by midnight, its soldiers would vanish within the hour.

Although the violence and terror are horrific to Palestinians and Israelis alike, they are a symptom of the problem rather than its cause. As during the previous uprising from 1987 to 1993, Israelis are killing Palestinians in order to maintain the occupation. Palestinians are killing Israelis in order to end it.

Institutional racism has always been an integral component of the Israeli domination of the Palestinian people. It has reached the level of apartheid formerly practiced in South Africa. This is why the entire world now supports the Palestinian struggle for self-determination -- with, as in South Africa, the notable exception of the United States.

Think we have it bad? I’m writing from Ramallah, not Jenin.

Mouin Rabbani is director of the Palestinian American Research Center in the West Bank town of Ramallah.


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