Gideon Levy
Selected Articles from Ha'aretz


Suddenly, this summer

August 31, 2001

Children at home in Silt al-Dahar: The village has three martyrs in this intifada. 
(Photo: Photos by Miki Krats)
   

   The infant lay dying; his uncle tried to rush him to the nearby clinic, but the soldiers at the roadblock didn't let them by - and Abdullah Atatra died. The end of the summer vacation in two remote villages in the Jenin district 

Just about everyone in the village knows the license number of the jeep by heart. If a youngster misses a number, one of his friends will immediately supply it. None of the kids in the small, remote village of Al-Taram has escaped an encounter with this military jeep. Almost every day, it makes a sortie on the single access road to this tiny, tranquil village at the end of the world, and deploys next to the roadblock of rocks fashioned by the army in order to prevent anyone from entering or leaving the village. 

The soldiers chase away every vehicle that tries to bypass the obstacle. Sometimes the soldiers slash tires, as they did - the villagers say - to the local schoolbus last week. Last Thursday, the village residents relate, the soldiers also tried to delay the car that was rushing Abdullah Atatra, an infant who had fallen into a water container and was barely alive, to the clinic in the neighboring village. According to the passengers in the car, who were desperately trying to get the infant to a doctor (there is none in the village), their begging and explanations were of no avail. The soldiers refused to allow the car to pass, even after one of them saw that the infant had turned blue, was barely breathing and was throwing up water. By the time they finally reached Yabed, a five-minute trip when there are no Israeli soldiers around, the infant's breathing had stopped and the doctor in the neighboring village could only pronounce him dead. 

Even before this incident, the children of the village were afraid of the jeep, says Fa'ad, 15, as he puts covers on his textbooks and notebooks ahead of the new school year. He is happy to be going back to school, but he is scared. He is scared of the jeep. Scared of the soldiers. Scared they will curse him. Scared they will shout at him. Scared that they will call him manyak. Scared they will hit him as he makes his way to school via a road that passes by the jeep, the terror of the village. 

Fa'ad received his schoolbag from an Islamic charitable organization. His father, an invalid, is unemployed, as are almost all the men of the village, who have been unable to get to Israel for work since the closure and the siege were imposed. 

A quiet, peace-seeking village, one of the last of its type, is now also being pushed into the confrontation line. Israel is apparently unwilling to forgo any foothold of any kind, and is pushing every village, including the minuscule Al-Taram, into the arms of desperation, just a short step away from violence. 

It's quiet now, deathly quiet, but how long will the men of the village, doomed to be besieged and jobless, remain silent? And what will happen to their children, who are now covering their schoolbooks thanks to the funds of an Islamic charitable organization - children who have never seen a computer or an unarmed Israeli, who are afraid that the soldiers will abuse them on their way to school, who now hear how the soldiers prevented an infant from their village from being taken to a clinic, even though he was dying. 

In Silt al-Dahar, a larger and less remote village, an hour's drive away, where I also visited this week, the children throw stones at the settlers and soldiers who pass through the village. What will the children of pastoral Al-Taram do? 

One village, one family. Everyone in Al-Taram has the same surname, Atatra. There are 350 residents. The village is located east of Mei Ami, a "lookout" community in Israel, and near settlements with lovely names like Shaked and Heinanit. There are no martyrs. No detainees, only simple villagers, naive and provincial as only the residents of a small, remote village can be. A huge boulder was moved on the gravel path that ascends to the village, enabling access to the place for a moment. Once a week, more or less, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces put these obstacles in place, and once a week, more or less, the villagers move them or improvise an alternative route. What else can they do? Stay enclosed in their small village forever? 

The head of the village council, Raleb Atatra, says that 90 percent of the residents are unemployed. He too worked in Israel for a long time, 30 years, since he was a boy of 16: he helped build the power station at Hadera and the houses in the settlement of Shaked. Since 1988, the council head hasn't visited Shaked, his neighbor, a minute from his house. That is forbidden. Now he too is unemployed, a jobless council head. The villagers neglected their fields, he explains, because of their work in Israel, which was more lucrative. Now there is no work and there are no fields. Maybe they'll go back to farming. 

But how will they market their produce, with all the roadblocks? And who will buy it, with the economic plight in the territories? In the meantime, there is no water in the houses, either. Water from Israel's Mekorot Water Company reaches the taps in the village only one or two hours a day, always at night, when there is no demand for water in the settlements. The villagers drink the rainwater from the cisterns in every courtyard. 

A few weeks ago, the council head sent an urgent letter to the governor of Jenin. He asked for new schoolbags and notebooks for Faras, Suheil, Fuad, Raleb, Mohsein, Naim, Ibrahim, Nashat, Nabil, Hitham and Nur, all Atatras, the village's poorest children. He also sent the list to the International Red Cross, in the hope that they might help. Last week, a dozen new black schoolbags arrived, filled with notebooks, the gift of an Islamic charitable organization. 

"For you, everything you need," it says on Fa'ad's new schoolbag. His uncle, the council head, organized a new schoolbag for him, too, even though his name wasn't on the list. He is entering ninth grade, and his dream is to tile floors. 

What did he do during the summer vacation? An embarrassed smile. Nothing. What did he have for lunch? Chips and tea. When did he last eat meat? Another embarrassed smile. A week ago, on Friday. What time did he get up? At five, because he had to be at school at seven for an English examination, and the school is six kilometers away; he traverses the distance on foot. The exam, by the way, was postponed until the next day, so Fa'ad got up before dawn for nothing. Starting next week, when the school year begins, he will be getting up at five every day. 

His cousin, age 10, wants to be a tailor when he grows up. Why? Because his father once worked as a cleaning man in a sewing factory. And Fa'ad? He has heard that tilers make good money, and anyway, he's not doing well in school. And if he had a bit more money? He would buy a car. And more money? He would support other families in the village. And still more? He would open a factory and employ the village's jobless. What kind of factory? One that makes tiles. 

When will there be peace? 

"If the Israelis keep going like this, there will not be peace," says Fa'ad. 

It's early afternoon on Monday, the day on which Abu Ali Mustafa was assassinated (the news of the killing makes the rounds of the village instantly). The children's room: a heap of mattresses and blankets by the wall, eight souls in two rooms, a plastic dining table. There are no games, no books, no toys, nothing. They have barely heard of computers. One good thing about the siege: All the village children now go to school - the elementary school in the village, the junior high in the neighboring village, or the high school in Yabed. In the past, they would drop out and go to work in Israel, to help makes ends meet at home; but now, with the closure, they go to school. On the way to school, Fa'ad is afraid of the soldiers in the jeep. His uncle, the council head, says he is afraid, too. 

Baby Abdullah climbed onto a stool and fell into a container of water in his neighbors' courtyard. That was last Thursday, toward evening. By the time his appalled mother managed to get him out, he may already have been lifeless. A worker from a neighboring village who happened by tried to give him artificial respiration. They say he started breathing again. Then the worker put the baby into his truck and rushed off toward Yabed, a five-minute drive. There is a clinic in Yabed, a large village. Every so often they turned the baby over on his stomach and he vomited water. The IDF jeep stood by the roadblock of rocks, four soldiers who won't let anyone pass. 

"We have a child in serious condition," the worker said, and the soldiers made a gesture of dismissal with their hands. Jalal, the infant's brother, was in the car, too. He says that the soldiers didn't pay any attention to their begging. In the meantime, the baby's cousin, Mohammed, arrived in his car and tried to explain to the soldiers the seriousness of the situation, in Hebrew. He even got one of the soldiers to glance inside the car and see the baby, they say. They shouted, but the soldiers ignored them, they say. 

Finally, after eight or 10 minutes, they estimate, apparently very precious, perhaps critical, minutes, Mohammed decided they would have to break through the roadblock and go on, come what may. According to the others, Mohammed positioned himself in front of the soldiers and tried to attract their attention while the other vehicle, which was carrying the dying infant, slipped forward quickly. The soldiers, it must be noted, did not open fire. 

Jalal says that Abdullah was still breathing when they reached the roadblock. By the time the argument with the soldiers was over, he was no longer breathing. The doctor at Yabed pronounced Abdullah dead. On September 15, in exactly two weeks, he would have been two years old. Two photographs remain as a remembrance. 

The IDF Spokesman's response: "We have no knowledge of the event on Thursday, August 23. According to the directives of the battalion commander, soldiers at every roadblock are obliged to allow humanitarian cases through as soon as possible, and the forces in the field act according to those directives." 

The city of Jenin resembles a ghost town. The "city of suicide bombers" is now the city that always stops. As in a Spanish town during the siesta, as in Paris in August, the streets are empty. Here, on the broad entry road is where the IDF tanks lumbered in, and here their progress was halted, according to the local ethos, at the gates of the city's refugee camp. About a dozen suicide bombers have already come from here, and maybe, in these deserted streets, the next suicide bomber is getting ready for his mission. The ruins of the police station are still there. On the way up from Jenin to the town of Silt al-Dahar there is only one roadblock, made of stones, but there are no soldiers there and there is a bypass: the wheels of the car slide and scrape on the rock-strewn path. 

Silt al-Dahar is located between Nablus and Jenin, and its main street is the only access road to the settlement of Homesh, on the hilltop. A thicket of antennas and observation points look out over every tractor that moves on the town's streets, visible from everywhere and seeing everything. There is a map of the world on the wall of the dingy office of the council head, Rageb Abu Diak. Why? 

"The council head likes to see the world," his aide, the town engineer, explains. It's been a long time since the dust-covered fax machine spewed out anything. There are 6,000 inhabitants, 60 percent of them unemployed: 40 percent who worked in Israel and 20 percent who can't get to their land in order to work it because the settlers keep chasing them off, they say. 

In any event, agricultural produce can be transported only to Jenin, as the road to Nablus, which used to be the major market, is blocked. Yes, you can get to Nablus if you go the long, roundabout way, a matter of a hundred kilometers. Only the officials from the services departments still work in Silt al-Dahar. The two schools on the main street were closed by order of the IDF after students threw stones at army vehicles and settlers' cars. The settlers have no other way to reach home. 

Next week, the school year will open on the floor above the offices of the local council, in two shifts. Fatah has an absolute majority of supporters here. There have been three shahids (martyrs) in the current intifada, one of them an elderly man who choked on tear gas and whose photograph is hung on the town's streets as one of the heroes. 

The Hantouli family opened a store. They sat the aged, half-blind grandmother in a tiny space so she could try to sell six blue, made-in-China school shirts, a set of six coffee cups from Turkey, six glasses from Indonesia, two bottles of shampoo from Israel and a tube of toothpaste from England. The council head says this is the poorest family in town. Above the store is the family home, which from the outside does not betray the scale of its poverty. The father, a contractor, built the house when their situation was still good. A year ago he disappeared; before that, he went bankrupt. In the town they say he married a Jewish woman and that he is living in Israel. Some even say he married a settler woman. Be that as it may, the family has nothing to live on, apart from donations by neighbors and relatives. On the floor, one of the children is finishing his lunch: bread dipped in milk in a moldy tin plate. 

The photograph of the weeping Palestinian child, blonde and wearing a kaffiyeh, hangs on the wall here, too, as it does in a great many Palestinian homes. Abdullah Hantouli lies on the sofa, covered with a blanket, his foot and shoulder bandaged. He is 14. Less than a month ago, he was wounded when soldiers opened fire at him for throwing stones. His vacation began with work in the local carpentry shop, NIS 100 a week, which he gave his mother, and he ended up in two hospitals. 

Every day after work or school, he would go with the other children to throw stones at army vehicles and settlers' cars. Now he wants to be a doctor when he grows up, because of what he saw in the hospital in Jenin, where he was taken after being shot and from where he was evacuated on the day the IDF entered the city, and in the hospital in Tul Karm, where he was transferred. He was hit by two bullets. Next week he won't be going back to school. 

Why did he throw stones? 

"To defend Al-Aqsa." 

Will he do it again? 

Abdullah keeps mum and smiles, the smile of an embarrassed boy.

==========
 
levy@haaretz.co.il

Caricature by Omayya Joha

 

 

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