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I don't want to be here... but what would you do?

"'I don't want to be here... but what would you do?'"
Published: THE OBSERVER (UK), 2002-04-07
Author: Peter Beaumont


ABSTRACT: Belgian parliamentarian says that Israelis are "making a concentration camp out of the West Bankю

QUOTE: "It is terrible - horrible - what is going on here; they are not only killing people with guns they are starving them and strangling their society. It is not a war against terrorism, it is a war against people. This is war about who has the biggest muscles. They are making a concentration camp out of the West Bank - it is a hard word - but they are are destroying everything, the economy and the infrastructure.'"

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On the streets of Bethlehem, Israeli soldiers and West Bank Palestinians caught up in the same dehumanising spiral of violence talk about their plight.

We met the Israeli soldiers in a little square not far from the Lutheran church in Bethlehem's old quarter. We were walking to the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, where 200 Palestinians, including scores of gunmen, are trapped in the church built on the reputed site of Jesus's birthplace, when they stopped us. As we waited, a Palestinian sniper's round cracked in the street. The soldiers quickly took cover, pointing their weapons from behind street corners built of honey-coloured stone. No second shot came in, so the soldiers started to relax. They seemed happy to talk briefly among the rubble, as water poured from smashed pipes down the street, but they refused to give their names.

It was the Major who broke the ice, a short and stocky man with a grizzle of dark stubble on his face. He told us he had been in the city for five days. He worked for a hi-tech company in civilian life. He was 34 and like most of his company a reservist, called up for emergency military service a week ago on Friday.

He was in Washington when the call came, preparing to celebrate Passover with members of his family. He paid with his own money to fly back for military service.

We asked if Israel could win its war on the West Bank. The Major shrugged his shoulders. 'I don't know,' he said with surprising honesty. 'I do not want to be here. It does not feel safe. But they are killing our people so I have to be here. I feel I should be doing something.'

He turned to questioning me: 'What would you do in our circumstances,' he asked. 'What would you do if every day they were bombing your coffee shops in London, if the shops were empty, if you were afraid for your young daughter to leave your building?'

A colleague challenged him about the damage his comrades had done; about the walls smashed to pieces by passing tanks, the shop doors blown open, the contents scattered broken on the floor.

'Do you think,' he asked, 'that the tanks should not be here? Do you understand why we have brought our tanks into these streets?'

But what about the ruined and apparently looted shops we had passed along the street? 'We are searching for weapons. We are working in a hurry. You cannot do that without making a mess.'

He paused for a moment. 'I heard something on television the other day,' he said. 'Someone was saying that the Oslo peace agreement meant we should be able to have a cup of coffee in Baghdad. Instead it has turned out that we cannot even have a cup of coffee in Tel Aviv.'

A second soldier walked over to talk to us. He was young and tanned with a floppy mop of hair under his helmet. He was 24. He told us he was a shift manager at a Tel Aviv coffee shop that was hit by a suicide bomber eight days ago, killing one person inside. Normally, he would have been inside, but he was called up for reserve duty 24 hours before.

He gave the impression he did not much want to be in Bethlehem but, like his colleague, explained that Israel was under attack.

'I tell you, we have found a whole exhibition of weapons searching these houses,' he said. 'I can only tell you what our company has found, but we have uncovered a machine gun, rifles, pistols, shotguns, explosives and hundreds of Molotov cocktails.

'We find them really well hidden. We have found them in beds, hidden in children's rooms, in cellars with locked doors that do not look as though they have been touched for 30 years.'

As if on cue, we heard their colleagues shouting down the street: a few minutes later these soldiers brought in two Palestinian men carrying two ammunition boxes which the soldiers told us they found in the basement of the building in which the Palestinians live.

We were allowed to speak to them for a moment. The older man gave his name as Ahmad Abu Subeih, the younger - in his twenties - as Osmama Masalma. 'The soldiers found ammunition in the cellar,' said the older man. 'But it is not mine. I do not know who it belongs to. I live in the floor above.'

The Major shrugged. 'He could be telling the truth. I don't know. But we are going to take them in for questioning.'

A few hours earlier, in another town, we had met some Palestinian soldiers. In a week of covering the fighting these men were a rarity - the only Palestinian policemen or soldiers we had seen in uniform who were not prisoners or bullet-riddled corpses.

We found them standing at a check point on the back road that leads into the city of Hebron from the road to the settlement at Kiryat Arba. Like the Israelis, they were happy to talk.

They said their names were Mohamed Ashour, 24, and Manar Abu Hussein. Their position, a breeze-block hut, was overlooked at a distance by a substantial Israeli blockhouse site on a nearby hill.

I asked Mohamed, the more assured of the two, what he would do if the Israelis came into his city as it was rumoured they were about to do. He said he was not frightened, but that he would 'do a little something' before running for his house.

What were his orders, we asked? 'They say we should avoid a fight and go home and hide our weapons and take off our uniforms,' he said without embarrassment. He had been a soldier for two years in the Palestine Preventative Security Force. He did not look so happy with his career choice.

As we entered Hebron we heard from Medecins Sans Frontieres of panic in the city. 'Everyone is expecting a large-scale occupation,' said Jimena Cabana, a young Spaniard working for the charity. 'We have seen panic-buying of food and medicines. All the food shops are empty. The hospital has drawn up an emergency plan to deal with the casualties. It is as if the city has been overtaken by some kind of psychosis.

'This week alone we have been forced to send our local staff back to their houses on two occasions because we were expecting an invasion of Israeli tanks.'

The story of the past nine days has been the story of two communities under siege. For all the carnage of the spate of deadly Palestinian suicide bombings, for most Israelis the siege is - as terrorism always intends - largely psychological.

And recent opinion polls reflect the view of the Major. Among Israelis the campaign enjoyed overwhelming support. A poll in the Jerusalem Post said 72 per cent of Israelis backed the war, while barely 17 per cent opposed it. The poll reflects a hardening of attitudes among Israels over the question of Yasser Arafat and any future Palestinian state, with more and more Israelis saying openly that they feel Arafat should be expelled.

For the Palestinians too it is a siege, but in the West Bank last week that siege was very physical.

More than a million Palestinians in half a dozen cities are now under renewed Israeli occupation. On Friday in Bethlehem the meaning of that siege was articulated by Senator Jean-Marie Dedecker, a Belgian parliamentarian, turned back from an attempt to reach Manger Square.

'When we tried to reach the square the soldiers came up to us and said that if we did not leave then they would shoot us. We wanted to go into the church and talk to those trapped there but we were told there was no chance.

'It is terrible - horrible - what is going on here; they are not only killing people with guns they are starving them and strangling their society. It is not a war against terrorism, it is a war against people. This is war about who has the biggest muscles. They are making a concentration camp out of the West Bank - it is a hard word - but they are are destroying everything, the economy and the infrastructure.'

It is a tough analysis. But it is not the only time I have heard this from independent observers. A day earlier I had spent some time with Ola Skuterud, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Skuterud has been working in Ramallah. He too believes the offensive is as much to punish the Palestinians as to root out the terrorists among them.

'We have had four of our ambulances destroyed this week and a vehicle owned by the International Committee for the Red Cross deliberately crushed by a tank in Tulkarm.

'My analysis of what I have seen is that the Israelis are not trying to kill as many people as possible. Rather they are being careful to do the opposite, which is why we do not have hundreds of people dead. What they are doing is targeting the infrastructure of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority and ambulances come under that heading. They are turning cars upside down, digging up roads, running into the houses, blowing doors and wrecking water pipes and electricity cables. They are destroying for the sake of destroying.'

The reality is that both sides in their anger are in danger of utterly dehumanising the other as they lurch deeper into their mutual hatreds.

For Israelis of all political persuasions, all Palestinians are now seen as a threat and as the enemy. This is reflected in the myopia of the Major and his friend who, one suspects from the briefest of encounters, are decent men who cannot see that terrorising entire neighbourhoods to find a handful of gunmen might leave them open to criticism.

The Palestinians of all kinds too have become locked in the same cycle. A similar myopia means they cannot see how repulsive the suicide bombers so many lionise are to ordinary sensibilities, or how they undermine the case for their own state.

In the same way as the Israelis cannot see there are more effective ways of dealing with terrorism by a process of political negotiation, the Palestinians have become locked into the idea that the only way to achieve a state is by armed struggle and the most nihilistic kinds of violence.

Both are redundant. Both exacerbate the violence, driving the two communities ever further apart.

That process of dehumanisation was dramatised by a conversation with a Palestinian I encountered on the streets of Bethlehem. Michel Nasser, a portly middle-aged man, was walking in his dressing gown and slippers, emboldened by the presence of reporters to leave his house to look for bread.

'This is the first time I have seen the light in five days,' he said. 'We have food but we have had no water for five days. We are not terrorists. Yes, there are gunmen living among us. But that is a minority. It is not the whole population, to punish us like this.

'You know, when the Israeli soldiers were fighting here last autumn they came into our streets and they spoke like people. We understood them as men like other men. Now they are worse than the terrorists.'

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