Palestine Journal: New Year's in Palestine

Category: World Affairs Topics: Conflicts And War, Palestine, West Bank Views: 1365

Occupied Jerusalem, Jan. 4 ( Year's Eve in Palestine was not marked with the traditional fireworks and festivities we are accustomed to seeing in the United States. Rather, there were fireworks of a different kind in occupied Palestine.

Residents of the West Bank town of Ramallah will remember New Year's Eve for the Israeli army shelling and gunfire directed at them from the nearby illegal Israeli settlement of Psagot.

Earlier in the day, there were fireworks of a deadly variety in the northern West Bank. A Palestinian dentist and leader in the Palestinian Fateh nationalist movement led by Yasser Arafat was assassinated as he left his home in the town of Tulkarem. Dr. Thabet Thabet was riddled with bullets as he sat in his car in an attack presumably undertaken by undercover Israeli army assassins. By all accounts, Thabet was a political leader uninvolved in military attacks against the Israeli army or illegal settlers. Yet this did not deter those who seek to silence any prominent Palestinians. The murder of Dr. Thabet came only a few hours after an attack that left the militant head of the Israeli terrorist group Kahane Chai dead. Benjamin Ze'ev Kahane--son of the late, infamous Rabbi Meir Kahane--and his wife were killed in a hail of gunfire as they drove near a West Bank settlement. A previously unknown Palestinian group called the "Martyrs of the Al-Aqsa Intifada" claimed responsibility for the attack on the settler leader.

New Year's Day 2001 will be remembered as a day when even tighter Israeli sieges of Palestinian cities, towns, and villages were implemented. I began the day in the northern West Bank district of Jenin, one of the poorest areas in the West Bank. Over 25% of the population of approximately 250,000 residents of the Jenin area live in poverty. From Jenin I traveled toward Tulkarem with Khaled Zighari, a photographer friend who was going to the funeral of Dr. Thabet to shoot some footage. As a Jerusalem resident with an Israeli identity card, a government-issued press pass, and an automobile with a yellow Israeli license plate, Zighari was allowed the unique "privilege" of traveling throughout the West Bank. This contrasts sharply with an "ordinary" West Bank Palestinian, who is not allowed past any of a large number of Israeli military checkpoints set up on the outskirts of major Palestinian towns and along the major north-south road in the West Bank.

While my friend's status allows him some rights not available to Palestinians with West Bank or Gaza Strip identity cards, it does not guarantee his safety. On the second day of the current Al-Aqsa Intifada, he was shot at close range by Israeli soldiers while covering protests at the Al-Aqsa Mosque that broke out after the provocative "visit" by hard-line Israeli leader Ariel Sharon. In addition, the soldiers beat him and confiscated his camera equipment. He was subsequently hospitalized for nearly a week before being released.

On this day, we managed to reach the isolated village of Ramin, Dr. Thabet's hometown in the Tulkarem district, by traversing a variety of small rural, branch roads that circumvented Israeli roadblocks. We found hundreds of cars and buses filled with mourners from throughout the Tulkarem district proceeding somberly toward the village. Eventually, the arrival of the funeral procession was heralded by a screaming ambulance siren followed by several Palestinian police jeeps and trucks, one of which carried the victim's casket. Thousands of mourners trudged behind the funeral procession as it wound its way up the dusty village road--old men, women, children, gun-toting members of the Palestinian security forces all mingled as they marched toward the village mosque.

Along the way, young children lined the streets waving palm fronds and holding hastily printed posters of the latest victim of Israel's campaign of repression against Palestinians. Some children chanted in unison: "There is no God but Allah. The martyr is loved by Allah". Others flashed the two-fingered "V" for victory sign to passersby. When the funeral procession reached the mosque and Dr. Thabet's body was taken inside, a wave of emotion swept the crowd gathered inside. Hundreds struggled to get inside the small mosque and bid farewell to the village's slain native. Women cried and wailed as Palestinian policemen wept. Outside, chants of "There is no God but Allah" rang out. Thabet's body was then taken to the village cemetery and buried amid continued chanting and periodic bursts of automatic gunfire into the air.

After the funeral concluded, we joined hundreds of other cars on a slow procession out of the village, heading toward the main north-south road. However, as we reached the intersection of the rural road with the area's major traffic artery, we noted a long line of cars at a standstill. As Khaled crept forward past the cars, we spotted three or four Israeli soldiers manning a military checkpoint. Sitting on the ground nearby were several blindfolded Palestinian youth being held at gunpoint. We slowly approached the checkpoint, but were halted by a screaming soldier who quickly crouched behind a large concrete block and pointed his rifle toward us. Khaled was accustomed to such treatment, so he pulled out his press pass, stepped out of the car, and slowly walked toward the soldiers. They screamed at him in Hebrew to stop, so he stopped. They told him to turn around and walk back to the car, but instead he yelled at them in Hebrew that he was a journalist.

They weren't interested in his credentials, nor were they influenced by the big letters "TV" written with duct tape across the hood and roof of his car. When he continued trying to speak with the soldiers, one of them rapidly grew impatient and fired a shot in his direction from his automatic rifle. Clearly taken aback, Khaled returned to the car, telling me that in his ten years of work as a photographer, nothing quite like this had ever happened to him before. While he has been shot on several occasions and beaten many times by Israeli soldiers, he had never encountered this type of difficulty at a military checkpoint.

He spent the next hour on the phone with Israeli army officials trying to seek permission to pass through the checkpoint. Incredibly, he was told, "We don't know where you are." He repeatedly described his clearly marked car, our location, the names of the nearby Palestinian village and closest Israeli settlement, and the fact that the soldiers were detaining several Palestinian youths. His efforts were futile. Cars continued to line up behind us, but nobody else dared approach the soldiers after the shooting incident. The original group of soldiers departed, taking the Palestinian youths with them.

They were replaced by another group of soldiers who expanded the roadblock to the main north-south road, halting all Palestinian traffic in the area. Khaled was quite frustrated. At this point, he was just another West Bank Palestinian, subject to the same humiliating restrictions on movement faced by everybody else during much of the past three months. After more than an hour, with Khaled still on the phone, the Israeli soldiers suddenly decided to depart the checkpoint. The Israeli army officials on the phone still "did not know" where we were. By now quite disgusted, Khaled hung up, and we proceeded on our arduous journey to Jerusalem. Along the way, there were several more checkpoints: one south of Nablus and one on the outskirts of Jerusalem. We passed my family's town in the central West Bank, where an Israeli army jeep and tractor were busy sealing off the main road to prevent entry into or exit from the town. Then we passed by an area where a few hours before a Palestinian child had been murder,ed by Israeli, settlers. ,

We finally reached Jerusalem in the late afternoon. What should have been a one-hour ride turned into a several hour ordeal. At least we were able travel to our destination. For Palestinians who are not "blessed" with foreign passports or press credentials, their towns and villages have become prisons in recent weeks. As I settled in for the night in my hotel room, CNN was broadcasting footage of even more fireworks on this New Year's Day: a series of bombs exploded in the Israeli city of Netanya. Israeli Prime Minister Barak had announced even more restrictions on the Palestinian population. The Allenby border crossing with Jordan would be closed, as would the Palestinian Airport in Gaza. Closures on cities and villages would be tightened even further. After the day's "adventure", I wondered how much "tighter" the siege of Palestinian areas could get.

Indeed, the concept of "peace" in Palestine at this time seems like quite an illusion, far-removed from the ugly reality of occupation that permeates daily life on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza.


Dr. Riad Abdelkarim is a physician and writes for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. He is currently visiting the Occupied Territories and plans to share his experiences in a series of reports for

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Conflicts And War, Palestine, West Bank
Views: 1365

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