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Miriam as human shield

Al-Ahram Weekly – 28 November 2002

Discarded in a narrow alleyway behind a row of shoe shops in Jenin’s old town are a pile of metal doors, each with a hole twice the size of a human fist where once the lock was to be found. New doors, courtesy of the council and freshly painted white, now guard the entrance to each home and lead like footsteps up the alley to a cul de sac where a small, two-storey house still has no front door to protect its privacy.

In fact it has no privacy left to protect. All its doors are either missing or hanging off their hinges. On the top floor the walls are crumbling, part of the roof is missing, debris of rocks, concrete and earth lie on every surface and there is a rubble-filled hole in the floor with a large metal spike sticking up from its centre.

The scene downstairs is worse. A small passageway filled with yet more rubble leads to gaping hole in a wall. Beyond it, through the gloom, a deep cave is visible, black from the explosions that tore through it and pockmarked with holes made by hundreds of rounds of live fire. To the left of the passage is a doorway to a room, barely recognisable now as a kitchen apart from a battered metal kettle amid the wreckage on the ground. Once the room and the cave were separated by a wall but that too is now missing.

Here, exposed, is the hiding place of 28-year- old Iyad Sawalha, leader of Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, in the northern West Bank and one of the men most feared, and wanted, by Israel. The army finally found him — and killed him — in the early hours of 9 November, after a three-hour search and gunbattle which wrecked the surrounding area and terrorised most of the neighbourhood.

According to the Israeli army, Sawalha was the mastermind behind two of the most lethal bus bombings in northern Israel. A total of 31 people died in two incidents when cars laden with explosives drove into buses, one at Megiddo Junction near Afula on 5 June and the other at Karkur Junction near Hadera on 21 October.

The story of the night Sawalha was killed, as recounted by his neighbours, is a chilling tale. Not because of the last desperate gun fight he waged as soldiers surrounded his home, but because of the Israeli army’s apparent casual disregard for the safety of the lives of those who lived close by him.

One neighbour, Khaled Kamil, 39, has already provided testimony to the Israeli human rights group Btselem that he was taken as a human shield by soldiers that night and made to enter Sawalha’s home, while the Islamic Jihad militant was hiding inside.

His is one of five recent examples of the military using Palestinians as human shields — known in Israel as the “neighbour procedure” — that have occurred in violation of a temporary ban on the practice issued by the Israeli courts in August. During Israel’s invasion of West Bank cities in April and June dozens of such cases came to light. The court ordered the temporary injunction after a 19-year-old Palestinian, Nidal Abu-Mukhsan, was killed while being used a human shield during a search for Hamas activist Nassaer Jarar in Tubas on August 8.

The Adalah legal centre in Israel is using the five cases as the basis for a petition to the courts to fine the Israeli army and government for contempt of court.

The army has been ordered to respond by next week. If it admits that Palestinians were used as human shields in the latest cases, it is likely to mount a defence that these were isolated cases of low-ranking soldiers disregarding orders.

But an investigation by Al-Ahram Weekly reveals that Kamil was not the only person taken as a human shield in the hunt for Sawalha. Three people were used to protect soldiers that night. Separate units of soldiers, approaching the hideout from different directions, took separate human shields, suggesting that in this case the “neighbour procedure” was ordered by a senior commander and approved in advance.

All three individuals were forced to protect soldiers from potential return fire from Sawalha, in violation of international and Israeli law which requires that civilians’ lives not be needlessly endangered and that they not be compelled to take part in military action.

One of those other human shields was Sawalha’s wife, Miriam Melhem, an 18-year-old Croatian national who married Sawalha a few weeks earlier. She met him two years ago when she was studying in Kfur Rai, a neighbouring village, where her father’s family lives. She returned from Croatia, where she lives with her mother, in June to marry Sawalha. Her father, Sameer Melhem, believes she may be pregnant.

Miriam Melhem has not been able to tell what happened to her on the night of 9 November because she was arrested immediately afterwards. She was held for interrogation in an Israeli jail till last Wednesday when she appeared before a military tribunal accused of being an accomplice to a terrorist. The judge rejected the charge and ordered her release but at the time of going to press she was still being detained and was facing a deportation order as an illegal alien.

Sameer Melhem says his daughter knew Sawalha was a strong nationalist. “But I don’t believe she realised the extent of his activities until she married him,” he said. “She was young and lived life like she was in a movie. He was a hero to his people and I think she thought their life together was going to be a big adventure.”

Sawalha, who was from Kfur Rai too, moved with Melhem to Jenin after they married and rented the house, in an alley half sunk below the level of the main street, inside the old city. The neighbours insist that they did not know the true identity of who was living there, a not implausible suggestion given the number of collaborators in the occupied territories who inform on wanted men.

They say they only ever saw his wife leave the house, fully veiled. They believe Sawalha dressed the same way, as a woman, in the street to conceal his identity.

How Sawalha was located by the army is unclear. There are reports that his mother and sister were taken the night before and revealed his hideout under interrogation. What is known is that at 3am the Sibat neighbourhood was flooded with soldiers, tanks and army bulldozers.

The soldiers appear to have known the area but not the precise location of Sawalha’s hideout. Everyone recounts that the soldiers were looking for a cave.

They tried to break through the concrete of the main street with drills and swept through house after house, detonating small bombs on the doors before bursting in.

People were herded into the street. The women, most of whom wear the hijab, were forced out in their night clothes. Some angrily report that the soldiers felt for explosives through their clothes. The men were threatened, or told they would have their houses demolished if they didn’t tell the soldiers where the cave was.

Abdel Hameed Mobayd, a 48-year-old council repairman, was one of the first to be rounded up. His home is opposite the house Sawalha rented, though only the top floor is visible from the street. The ground floor, where Sawalha was hiding in a cave behind the kitchen wall with his young wife, was below street level.

The soldiers forced Mobayd out of his house and repeatedly asked if there was a cave under his home. When he answered no, they threatened to demolish his house.

“They had a huge bulldozer with them, it was like a monster,” he said, pointing to the deeply rutted tracks in a garden closeby where he says the vehicle was parked. “I was afraid they would destroy all our homes if I didn’t tell them what they wanted.”

He was kept standing on one foot for some time before, he says, the commander spoke. “I heard him say in Hebrew, ‘Let’s start the operation’ and I thought they meant they were going to beat me or kill me.”

In fact the operation was for the soldiers to take Mobayd and Kamil to search respectively the upper and lower floors of Sawalha’s house. Mobayd was taken to a small yellow door, half the height of a man, and told to open it. It was locked and so the soldiers blew it open with a small bomb. They threw in a series of stun grenades, then pointed their guns at Mobayd and told him to go in.

“They had turned off the electricity and street lighting so it was pitch black when I stepped in. I was sure I was going to die. I didn’t know what I was going into or what they thought was in there.”

The soldiers followed Mobayd in after a short time and made him open the door of an adjoining room, while one hid behind him with his gun resting on Mobayd’s shoulder.

“When they saw mattresses in there they went crazy and started throwing in more stun grenades. They obviously thought they concealed booby- traps and ordered me to walk all over the mattresses and turn them over and to stamp on the floor.”

At that point Mobayd heard Kamil shouting from below, “Iyad, please come out”.

Only then, says Mobayd, did he know who they were searching for. He was pushed out into a makeshift front room overlooking the alley where Kamil was standing. The soldiers with him started banging a long metal spike into the floor to make a hole into the space below.

“I could just make out Khaled [Kamil] by the door of the kitchen. Then a woman, Miriam, came out with her head covered. She was ordered to raise her hands and stood by Khaled. Then they said, ‘Tell your husband to come out or we’ll kill him’. She was pleading with him to come out for a long time. She was very upset.”

According to Kamil’s testimony to B’Tselem, he had moments earlier seen the soldiers detonate a bomb to open up the kitchen wall and was then forced to go into the mouth of the cave to call to Sawalha. Later he was joined by Melhem who came out of the cave and was told to call to her husband. Kamil said: “They also told her to take off her head covering and her dress. She kept crying and yelled louder: ‘Iyad come out, otherwise they’ll hurt me. Don’t let them do anything to me. Don’t let them kill you’.”

Mobayd points to a fist-sized hole in the wall of a neighbouring house, opposite the cave. He believes the soldiers had a gun trained on the cave opening and intended to shoot Sawalha as soon as he emerged.

Kamil and Melhem, says Mobayd, stood there for some time before they were led away to another house.

Shortly afterwards there was an explosion that sent earth and concrete flying in all directions. He heard the soldiers swearing and asking if anyone was hurt, and presumes the blast was not caused by the army. It was most probably a grenade the Israeli army claims Sawalha threw out.

The soldiers with Mobayd then rushed back into the main room, away from the front room, shutting the door on Mobayd who was forced to stand there as the soldiers on the ground below started firing into the cave beneath him and throwing in grenades. He says a zinc roof fell close by his head.

The gunbattle raged for some time, though he doesn’t remember how long. He says he was sure he was going to die.

But eventually the gunfire died down, then stopped and he was taken to the floor below, where he was made to go into the cave. “They asked me if I could see any bodies. When I said no it was too dark, one shouted, ‘You’ll start seeing if we shoot at your legs’. I was terrified. I thought maybe the place was booby-trapped, or someone was still alive with a gun. I couldn’t see anything amid all the rubble and dust.”

The soldiers brought a small lamp to the entrance of the cave and when he had found Sawalha’s body they made him feel it for explosives. Then they threw him a rope and told him to tie it around Sawalha’s ankle. They ordered him to drag the body out.

“I tried to lift him, to show him respect. He is a shaheed [martyr]. But they kept tugging at the rope to get him out quickly. His body was banging on the rocks on the floor so I took his head and tried to stop it from being damaged.”

According to sources at Jenin hospital, reported by the Palestinian human rights group Law, Sawalha had 15 bullets in his body.

Kamil and Sawalha’s wife were later arrested. Kamil was blindfolded and his hands cuffed, and both of them were taken to Salem detention centre for interrogation. Mobayd was released at 6.30am, after being held and used continuously as a human shield for three hours.

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