Scenes From The Rubble

Gideon Levy

What is the most precious thing you lost in the house?
     "The children - Shadi and Nidal."
And in addition, is there some object, a piece of furniture, a picture that you will miss?
     "If you lose a horse, you don't look at his reins."


Friday, 25 October 2002

Mohammed Agbariya: two dead sons, a dead son-in-law, two sons in prison. 
(Photo: Photos by Miki Krats)


Clearing the rubble at Jenin refugee camp: About 500 houses were destroyed or damaged.

   It was here, in a city where people look like zombies and the streets are dying, that the attack at Karkur junction was planned, sowing death and destruction in Israel once again. The "engineer" behind the attack, Iyad Sawalhe, reportedly comes from the nearby village of Ra'i, west of the city. From the same village, a 40-year-old woman, Yosra Sawalhe, set out last week; she was shot and killed by soldiers as she was on her way back home with friends in her car.

The suicide bombing in Israel was apparently perpetrated by residents of Jenin, a captive, closed and half-destroyed city, where according to press reports the army has recently introduced "relaxations" in the curfew. There are no relaxations in hell, but now they, too, will be canceled.

Until this week, the rubble that remained in the wake of the Israel Defense Forces' incursion half a year ago had been left untouched. Now the Jenin refugee camp has begun to clear away the rubble. For half a year the ruins lay in place, as a monument to what happened. But no one took any interest. The camp, which for a moment captured the world's attention, has been utterly forgotten and has sunk back into its routine of a life of unemployment and death.

The residents left the heaps of rubble intact in the hope that someone would remember them and the ruins of their lives. Now, having despaired of that, they have decided to get rid of the rubble. A Palestinian bulldozer cleared away the remains of houses this week. Two weeks ago, the IDF published its full report of the events in the camp, which contained not a word about the vast destruction wrought by the soldiers - as though the army had nothing to do with the present situation. The upshot is that the hundreds of newly homeless people have remained totally destitute, refugees for the second or third time, trying somehow to rehabilitate their lives in rented apartments, while the next crop of terrorists is undoubtedly springing up among the smashed houses.


Bulldozers are again at work in the Jenin refugee camp, plunging their shovels into the ruins. This time they are Palestinian machines, painted yellow, and their goal is rehabilitation. Last time the bulldozers were brown and belonged to the IDF; the goal of the terrifying D-9s was demolition. Their operators sowed destruction and were decorated for their efforts, and one of them, a reservist, Moshe Nissim, known fondly to his buddies as "Dubi Kurdi," boasted in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, "for three days I just kept erasing and erasing" - referring to buildings - and added that he ate sunflower seeds and drank whiskey while he worked. Now the rubble is being cleared from the center of the camp.

The residents of the camp sat this week and watched mutely as the iron machines arrived to remove the last remnants of their former homes and former lives. They sat in circles, each family by itself, on the earth ramparts around the heavy machines. In the rubble they occasionally saw a pair of trousers or a doll's head, perhaps a table leg or a fragment of a painting, a bit of carpet or a crushed pot, but the machine immediately scooped them up and dumped them with a crashing noise into trucks that will take them from here to the nearby landfill, in Wadi Yamoun, leaving behind only clouds of dust.

The children were still poking around in the rubble. They have been at it for months, scrambling to salvage what can still be salvaged, to return items to their owners or sell them for a penny.

The sight of the bulldozer revolving on its axis, turning and plunging its scoop into the rubble heaps, part monster and part merry-go-round, is the nearest thing to a fairground that these children have ever seen. Some of them were visibly astounded at the amazing machine, following it intently as it turned on its axis and dug its scoop into the ruins. A white United Nations jeep drove around the area, as in a disaster zone. The English driver, Larry, who has long curly white hair and a thick beard, an aging flower child, has already become a personality in Jenin. 


Three floors, six apartments, a pile of stones: the bulldozer is clearing what is left of the home of the Agbariya family, 1948 refugees from the city of Umm al-Fahm in Israel.

Mohammed, who is about 60, lived on the first floor with his son Shadi, 19, who was killed in the fighting that erupted during the incursion. His brother, Nidal, was also killed. Another son, Khaled, newly married, lived in the adjacent apartment with his wife, Shuruk. She is now pregnant. On the floor above lived a fourth son, Imad, with his wife Jeanette and their three children. Imad is in Israeli detention at the Ketziot camp, in the Gaza Strip - he has been there for half a year without trial. Jihad, another son, his wife Zenab and their two daughters lived in the adjacent second-floor flat. Maher, 24, who is single, and now in Ashkelon Prison, lived in one of the two third-floor apartments, while Ra'ad, 22, also unmarried, and employed by the Jenin Municipality, lived in the apartment next door.

Mohammed Agbariya, the father of this bereaved family, with two dead sons, a dead son-in-law and two sons in prison, sits at the edge of the rubble, an infant on his knees, using his hands to protect the baby from the dust of the debris that threatens to choke him. The scoop digs into the earth again, pulling out construction stones from which iron rods jut out. Is this a stone from Maher's wall on the third floor, or perhaps of Imad from the floor below? Ra'ad, from the third floor, says that the house burned before it was demolished, and nothing is left. But a staircase that survived thrusts out of the rubble, leading nowhere.


A. is the senior person on the list of wanted Fatah men in the camp. He walks back and forth between the diggers and the evacuators, preoccupied as though he were the conductor of a chorus. Now he hides, pops up suddenly, and disappears. His look bespeaks authority. About 500 houses were destroyed or damaged in the incursion; only 100 of the families have returned to their former homes. The Gulf emirates promised $27 million for the camp's rehabilitation but have so far sent only $8 million. That money is now being used to level the area. There is disagreement in the camp about whether the new houses should be built on the ruins of the old ones. UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, has proposed an alternative site, but the majority of the residents decided in a kind of referendum to go back to where they had been living. They said that for them it is holy ground; it has been consecrated in blood.

Here is the home of Mohammed Tawalaba, the head of Islamic Jihad in the camp, whose successor, Sawalhe, was apparently behind the attack on the bus this week. Tawalaba was killed here in April when a volley of missiles was fired at him. The alley leading to his house is strewn with rubble and the house is half-destroyed, yet here, far from the heart of the camp, life goes on. In the upper section of the alley is the home of Awad al-Jana, who was also killed in April, aged 75. And here is where Ahmed Hamadouni, 75, lived, until he was killed in April. His body was shown on television, being picked at by chickens. Here, in this house, behind a stone wall and an iron gate, three Israeli soldiers were killed in April. 

At the bottom of the hill, which is packed with crowded homes, is the new cemetery for the victims in the camp; it was dedicated in April, after the invasion. More and more new graves were added to the 55 that were dug at the outset. Next to the cemetery is a construction site: here a playground is being built for the children of the camp, a gift of the International Red Cross, so the children will have something to do other than wander aimlessly among the ruins, in which explosive devices still lie in wait. One such bomb blew up near the soldiers on the morning of our visit; no one was hurt. The houses in the camp are marked with numbers in red paint: this one is designated for restoration, that one for demolition. The alleys become narrower, difficult to navigate. 


Yehiya Hindi stands on the edge of the crater of what used to be his house, in the center of the camp. His hair disheveled and his face pallid and covered with dust, throwing into relief the bristles of a budding beard. He wears jeans and a T-shirt, and they too are dust-drenched. With great concentration he is following the movement of the scoop, his gaze rising and falling. He has not moved from this spot for months, spending day after day, hour after hour here. When we asked if we could speak to him he refused to move, lest his gaze drift even for a second from the dust of his home. 

Hindi is afraid to miss even one action of the scoop, for if he does he will thereby lose the last chance to save his life, he believes. In the ruins below, he says, are 17,000 Jordanian dinars, his entire life's savings. He has been looking for the money for weeks on end. First he dug and dug - we saw him digging the last time we were here. Now he watches the bulldozer intently, occasionally approaching to dig again. Then he watches the scoop in its motion toward the dump truck, in the hope that at the last minute he may yet be able to salvage something. 

So far he has not found even one dinar, and he has nothing left. His face is an open book of weariness and despair. Every time the scoop digs its teeth into the ground, it is like a final glimmer of hope. The chances of finding bills amid this sea of dust are less than negligible. Still, hoping against hope that something will happen, Hindi holds a nylon bag - empty for now. Maybe he will be able to fill it. Another day or two and all hope will be gone. A Swedish UN staffer stares indifferently at the heartrending scene. The bulldozer takes out another scoop, nearly the last, from the Hindi home, and next to nothing is left. The dump truck is full. 


Mohammed Agbariya leans on a wall on which a sea of tulips and waterfalls is painted. There can be no greater contrast between this idyllic scene and the melancholy one outside. Agbariya, the father from the three-story building that was utterly destroyed, has been living for the past few months in an apartment that the camp's committee rented for him, as they did for the other homeless residents of the camp, using the donations that arrived from the Gulf for that purpose. 

His granddaughter Haba, whose father, Nidal, was killed, wanders around the house. The seven children of Sharifa, Mohammed's daughter - whose husband, Fawaz, was also killed - come every morning, too. Mohammed had a tile factory in the camp, of which nothing remains. For 20 days he lived with his brother, then with his friends for a few days and then he moved to the rented flat. The rent is 130 dinars a month. This month, the money will run out, says Jamal Zbeidi, from the camp committee, and no one knows what will become of these homeless people. 

Dusk descends on the camp. A volley of gunfire occasionally shatters the quiet from afar. What is the most precious thing you lost in the house? Agrabiya: "The children - Shadi and Nidal." And in addition, is there some object, a piece of furniture, a picture that you will miss? "If you lose a horse, you don't look at his reins." Agrabiya has sky-blue eyes and wears a kaffiyeh. He still remembers the flight from Umm al-Fahm in 1948 and his first days as a refugee here in the camp. 





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