Al-Ahram Weekly – 4 July 2002
It was a far shorter visit than I intended. Within 55 minutes of entering Jenin, my meeting at the Al-Razi hospital was cut short and I was joining everyone else in an unexpected and tank- enforced “rush hour” to get home.
Minutes earlier, a doctor had burst into the consulting room of pediatrician Dr Ali Jabareen to tell us that the curfew, which had been lifted by the army till 6pm, was being reimposed with immediate effect. I looked at my watch: it was 1.08pm.
The streets that moments earlier were busy with shoppers, were emptying. Stores clattered down their shopfront grills and house doors were hurriedly locked. Road junctions grew noisily congested as drivers battled against the traffic to leave the town centre.
I flagged down one of the few yellow taxis not occupied and we turned at speed into an empty King Faisal Street. The reason was soon clear. Fifty metres ahead, a tank was blocking our path, its long cannon pointing directly at our vehicle.
Word spreads quickly in Jenin. My driver slowly turned the car around and headed off into a side alley. The street parallel to King Faisal was livelier. Here there were no tanks. One man was cramming large bags of nappies into the boot of his car, others were quickly paying up at the checkout for essentials like milk and sugar.
My driver, Mohamed Turkman, 26, said he and his family were fed up with being penned into a small house for days at a time. “People are afraid to leave their homes even when the curfew ends but they have to. People need to get food and medicines. And more than anything, we are all desperate to get away from the four walls and the television.”
He tuts and adds: “Would you accept this in London or New York? This is no life.”
It was Monday, 1 July, the 13th day of the Israeli army’s reoccupation of Jenin, the first town to feel the stranglehold of Operation Determined Path.
Since the beginning of the year, Jenin and its neighbouring refugee camp have rarely had time to catch their breath between invasions.
Last Saturday the army promised that 800,000 people under curfew in the seven occupied Palestinian cities would have their movement restored during daylight hours as soon as possible. There is little sign of that promise being kept.
On Monday, Hebron and Nablus were still under curfew; elsewhere, confusion reigned as normal. On Tuesday most of the cities were back under curfew.
For Jenin, the announcement of a 10-hour respite provided a rare sense of liberation. Last week, the curfew was ended intermittently and usually only in the mornings. For a brief moment on Monday, before it was snatched back, a sort of normality settled over Jenin.
According to the army, commanders reimposed the curfew because of riots in parts of Jenin. But in other cases, Israel has admitted it has a policy of changing plans at short notice to make life more difficult for suicide bombers plotting attacks.
It is not only the bombers getting caught out, however. Across the West Bank there have been a series of “mistakes” involving civilians out when a curfew has been reapplied. Notice of a change of Israeli plans is often no more than the sound of tanks rumbling back into the main streets.
One incident at the forefront of everyone’s mind in Jenin, is the killing of three children and a 50-year-old man on Friday, 21 June, three days after the town’s invasion. The four were among a large crowd in the central market when a tank fired a shell and then sprayed shoppers with its heavy machine gun. Some 24 people were injured.
Before we are interrupted by the renewed curfew, Jabareen points out that the deaths have left a mark on everyone, making them nervous of being outside.
“One of the dead was a six-year-old girl,” he says, referring to Sujud Fahmawi, who was out with her brother and sister buying bread and milk.
“She was holding a bag of bread when the shell was fired. She arrived at the hospital with wounds to her abdomen and chest, and a piece of shrapnel had removed a large part of her arm. Her body was covered in blood-soaked bits of bread.”
Jabareen says that the curfew is never fully lifted whatever the army announces to the media. Tanks and soldiers are never far away and close roads without explanation or apparent logic.
“Regularly I am made to get out of my car, even though it is clearly marked as a doctor’s vehicle. Sometimes I’m simply turned back. On other occasions, they make me lift up my shirt to show I have nothing strapped to my waist and then make me sit on the road, sometimes for hours. Some of the soldiers have real contempt for us.”
The question being asked by Jabareen and everyone else in Jenin is who is now running the town. Certainly not the Palestinian Authority, they all agree.
The truth is that the Israeli army is in charge of most of the West Bank and all the cities apart from Jericho. Palestinian- controlled Area A barely exists. The PA is slowly being transformed into a hollow shell.
Further evidence of this was provided at the weekend when the army closed its liaison office with the PA in Beit Jala, which covers the Bethlehem region.
Soldiers confiscated filing cabinets, removed two Palestinian flags flying over the building and locked the doors. It was the final severing of contact between the two sides in the district.
Israel insisted that the office had been shut for security reasons and it did not plan to close other offices. But on the same day, the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharanot reported that Israel was intending to end all security cooperation with the PA and assume full responsibility itself.
No one in the military, however, wants the logistical nightmare of taking over the PA’s administrative role, collecting garbage and organising the school curriculum — responsibilities Israel had before Yasser Arafat returned from his Tunis exile.
Last week Israeli security sources warned that reinstituting the military government of the West Bank, the Civil Administration, could cost Israel close to $1bn a year. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is known to be opposed.
But Sharon is also keen to let the army stay in the West Bank towns for as long as his military commanders feel they need. Any pressure there might have been to act swiftly has evaporated since President George Bush’s speech last week. The word from the soldiers is that they are being told to take their time.
That is also how it looks from the streets of Jenin. Round-ups of men and arrests are still happening sporadically — five men with suspected links to Hamas were arrested on Saturday in the town. Some in the army are referring to it as a long mopping up operation. A total of 1,000 men are being held by the army as administrative detainees as part of the operation — the largest number since the first Intifada.
My taxi was stopped at the first checkpoint outside Jenin and the driver sent back. On the other side was a United Nations vehicle waiting to be allowed in. Its two UN staff had no answers for Jabareen either. “It’s not clear who’s running the show now,” one said.
I made the rest of the way along the main road on foot. A few hundred metres away I could see women and men scurrying through fields of wheat back to the neighbouring Palestinian village of Jalameh, which is in Israeli-administered Area C and not under curfew.
In the village, I met Saleh Abu Fahra Zeid. He works for the UN relief agency as an English teacher at the boys’ secondary school in Jenin refugee camp, but, with the repeated curfews, has found himself with a lot of time on his hands.
“Today the school holidays began,” he said, “but most of the children won’t notice any difference.” There’s been virtually no school since the previous invasion in April. “My pupils were supposed to be taking their university entrance exams last week but in the end the curfew wasn’t lifted and so they couldn’t. It’s not clear when they will be able to finish off their education. Maybe the universities won’t be open after the holidays anyway, or they won’t be able to reach them. Nowadays, who knows anything?”