Thursday, October 18 and Monday, October 29, 2001
It has been more than ten days since the Israeli incursion into Palestinian controlled areas (called Areas “A” according to the Oslo Accords) has ended on October 29,
2001. In spite of this delay in reacting to the events of the incursions caused by much distress and disgust, I still feel I owe the world this story. It is the story of the difficult times we went through during those nightmare days.
do I start to tell my story? Then again, why would my story—whatever it may be—be more important and interesting than that of thousands of other Palestinians who have seen suffering ceaselessly from the day they were born?
a Palestinian residing in Palestine, I am in no position to compare myself to those people who had to leave behind their homes (and in many cases their confiscated land and country) and accept unwillingly to live in tents and refugee camps either in their
own country or elsewhere.
Nor am I worthy to even make a comparison between my and their suffering.
Even my own father, at his wise age of 82—and who has seen the many wars, battles, and revolutions fought in and for Palestine—is
speechless in front of the sufferings of many of the other Palestinians.
This would have been very true at least until October 18, 2001 since my family has been living in Bethlehem for more than two centuries, despite the many and endless waves of scattering
and migrations that usually followed each war.
My family—I would say being one of the fortunate families of Bethlehem—managed, insistently, to remain in the same little town of Bethlehem when Palestine passed through the numerous political
and military “change of hand”: be it the Turkish occupation until 1917, the British mandate until 1947, the Jordanian rule until 1967, the Israeli occupation until 1995, and finally the Palestinian quasi self-rule that is thus far still holding.
On the day following that infamous Thursday of October 18, 2001, however, my life—and undoubtedly that of my family—drastically changed and I became—allow me to use this term—a “more proud” Palestinian; more proud of
sharing with the rest of the Palestinians the real suffering that I had known and seen firsthand before but not actually lived.
At best, I could easily associate with and understand the suffering of—at least—my next-door neighbors of the
Azzeh (a.k.a. Beit Jibrin) refugee camp; what I could not do was to FEEL what they felt. I could see how their miserable houses and personal belongings could be so uncomfortable for them; what I could not do was FEEL this absence of comfort. I
could imagine how their displacement from their lands and homes in Beit Jibrin (a village next to Ashdod, north of Gaza) back in 1948 led them to suffering and insecurity; what I could not do was FEEL this displacement, this suffering, and this insecurity.
The heightening tension in Bethlehem following the Israeli assassination of three Palestinian activists in Beit Sahour on Thursday, October 18, 2001 led to the expected revenge attack of Palestinians on the Gilo settlement—established on Palestinian
land, to south of Jerusalem, abducted by Israel in 1967.
What followed was an unprecedented Israeli violation of all international aspects of any dignified civilization: human, sovereign, religious, social, educational, economical, and cultural
That midnight’s incursions of the Israeli tanks—reported to have been around 30 tanks and troop carriers—into the Bethlehem area would be the start of a ten-day siege of the cities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour.
Our two-floor stone house—built in 1956 in what was then the uninhabited northern outskirts of the city—is located at the southwestern most side of the Azzeh refugee camp. (My parents reside on the first floor, and we reside on the ground
floor). The house stands on one of four corners of the junction of the Jerusalem-Hebron road (recently named Yaser Arafat Road) and Moradeh Street. This junction (known as the Murrah junction) is the second most important and busiest one in the
city; as it is the bottleneck of all traffic going from the southwest of the city and governorate to the east and northeast, without having to pass through the narrow streets of the old city center.
By the time the clock reached 02:00 in the morning,
we learned from the local TV channels that the Israeli tanks and troop carriers had reached two main points in the northern part of the city (which is under total Palestinian control), less than 100 meters from Rachel’s tomb. The first point was
the Intercontinental Jacir Palace Hotel vicinity, not more than one kilometer to the north of our house. The second point was the vicinity of the Paradise Hotel, around 1.5 kilometers to the northeast of our house.
Inside, Carol and I sat with
my two elderly and not-very-healthy parents watching the news on TV as the heavily loaded Israeli troops entered the city from the north under very heavy machinegun and tank fire. From where we sat, we could hear the terrifying roaring of heavy vehicles
echoing in the silence of this little peaceful city of Bethlehem. Nadim, our 10-month old son, was already sleeping… but not in his bed.
The evening before, and upon hearing about the assassination of the three Palestinian activists in
Beit Sahour, Carol had this feeling that the following few days would be harsh. So she immediately started preparing the tiny space of less than four square meters under the staircase, which we believe is the safest place in the house and to where we
seek refuge when there is heavy shooting from the Gilo settlement to nearby Beit Jala, which is quite often.
In that compact space we managed to put a mattress, some pillows and some blankets. We also equipped it with a small bag that has
the accessories most needed for little Nadim in case of emergency, mainly diapers, drinking water, a thermos, milk, warm clothes, toys, a pacifier, medication, etc. In spite of the limited space available—because of the extra presence of the central
heating boiler and water pipes—we have allocated a place for two kitchen chairs to be added as and when necessary in order to accommodate my parents when required.
As we all sat in the living room watching the news, Nadim was sleeping soundly
under the staircase, not yet aware of whatever was happening outside. Occasionally, Carol would go and sleep next to Nadim to get some rest herself.
The clock was approaching three in the morning. We were all tired but could not sleep since
our bedrooms are quite exposed to the street where the tanks were parked. My parents, who had been sitting in our living room sofas continuously for more than six hours, were getting more and more uncomfortable, sleepy, and restless. They merely
wanted to lie comfortably in their bed upstairs. I was ceaselessly trying to encourage them to hold on a little longer at least until the break of day before they can go back to their room for only then we could evaluate the situation outside.
and still hearing the heavy shooting outside, my mother said, “I don’t care what will happen. I just want to go and sleep in my bed. Whatever happens will happen.” And she started getting up using her cane.
not very encouraged about this whole move, gave in and, clutching his own cane in the one hand and the arm of the sofa in the other, he slowly but painfully started pulling himself up.
Under the staircase, Carol could not sleep from the too-much shooting
and Nadim was waking up every now and then at the sound of sudden heavy shelling close by. He would cry out loud from the unfamiliar but loud sounds that would disturb his sleep. Which is quite understandable!!
As for me, well, I had no
other option but to join Carol and Nadim under the staircase and maybe—just maybe—get some sleep. And so I did, but I could not easily sleep as the thoughts in my mind were going at the speed of light.
I was continuously thinking
of the outcome of all that was happening. Would I live to see the end of it? And if I did, how was I supposed to manage to take care of us all especially my helpless son and parents. If we were to run away, where would we go? Would
we be able to leave the house to start with?
My thoughts then went further back. I started comparing the events of the six-day war of 1967—whose images I had built like pieces of a puzzle from stories I heard from people who lived and saw
that war, especially that I was then a little younger than Nadim is now: too young to remember. Are these two events, with a gap of 34 years, comparable? What did people do then? How and where did they hide? But then again, the
kind of weapons used then was surely different—lighter??!!!—from the one used nowadays!!!
Suddenly I started wondering where the shooting and shelling were directed? Poor people, I thought: my next-door neighbors of the Azzah refugee
camp. I may have a shelter to protect my family, but they don’t. How do they manage with all the shelling and shooting especially that the camp is fully exposed to the roofs of both the Intercontinental and the Paradise hotels where Israeli
snipers had taken their positions? What do these people do with their babies and their elderly? Shells my rebound off the stones clad all around our house, but in the adjacent camp, most of the houses are built of bricks. How would these
bounce off the shells—very highly unlikely—and Oh God what about the casualties?
I must have fallen asleep for a very short while because I thought I was dreaming of very heavy but short shooting, the doorbell ringing, and sounds of people
shouting outside (I could definitely hear the distinct voice of a women shouting), only to wake up at the low but scared voice of Carol telling me that the someone was at the door and that there are cries outside; a sign that someone could have been
hurt. I looked at my watch; it was close to five in the morning. There was still shooting outside, heavy and very close at times.
I started wondering who it could be at this time of day. I was not bothered by the early morning
knock as much as I was worried about the foolishness of whoever was outside under this heavy shooting.
“Be careful, please,” Carol pleaded in a whispering voice as I started to get up from under the staircase. “It could be the
Israeli army wanting to occupy the house to make a military post on the roof,” she added.
My heart started pounding and I started thinking very quickly as I headed slowly towards the door. The ringing increased and the person outside seemed
to have lost any patience that could have initially been there.
From the top of the stairs, my mother appeared and asked in a whispering voice, “Who could it be? Watch through the peep hole before you open, and if in doubt, do not open.”
The pounding of my heart increased as I thought to myself that the person ringing the bell could be a Palestinian militant from the resistant running away from the Israeli army and is looking for a place to hide. That was not the worry. The
worry was that if spotted entering a house, the Israeli military would not think twice before demolishing the house on the heads of its occupants with the justification that a terrorist (according to the definitions set by the Israelis) is in hiding in that
If on the other hand, I decide not to open the door, I would be earmarked as a traitor or turncoat; descriptions that only bring disgrace—if not anything else more serious—to one’s self. There is a story—of a greater
extreme though—of two sisters in the nearby town of Beit-Jala who were killed by Palestinians following the earlier incursion of Israelis back in August. It is said that the killing was because these two sisters offered tea to the Israeli forces
while “stationed” in the town center.
As I looked through the peephole, I could see a young dark man of not more than forty years of age, standing very close to the door. He looked frightened as he was looking around him as if
hiding from some eminent danger. He was holding a mobile phone in his hand with which he seemed to be fidgeting in a failed attempt to dial a number without even looking at the numeric pad. He was dressed in civilian clothes and not armed.
Most important was that he seemed to be all in one piece; there was no sign of injury or blood. Once relaxed about the person’s overall posture, I slowly opened the door and let the stranger in.
He was still standing in the doorway trying
to say something when all of a sudden another young man not more than 20 years of age jumped from behind and, jolting the door with his strong hands, pushed the first stranger in. I immediately shut the door for I did not know what to expect next.
Looking at them, I realized that they must have seen a ghost. They were both pale and shaky. Yet they had no signs of injury.
“Please, call the civil defense immediately,” said the older stranger with a stutter in his voice.
“Why, are you hurt?” I immediately asked, trying to see if there was any blood on them or any indication that they might have been hurt.
“No, but I think the taxi driver… was killed. I think he is martyred. He
has been shot at,” he responded after a long and fearful pause, as if he did not want to admit what had happened.
“What taxi? What driver? How was he killed? Tell me the story!” I ordered as I reached to the cordless phone
and dialed 101 requesting an ambulance to go to the designated area where the taxi was.
I then went to the stairs where they both sat and impatiently waited to hear their story, which was straight and simple, but one that cannot be easily comprehended.
Apparently, a taxi coming from Hebron carrying passengers, namely workers, passed through Bethlehem from the south and headed north towards the Israeli checkpoint linking Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Half way through, and a less than one kilometer to the
south of our house at the main junction of Bethlehem and Beit Jala (known as Bab Al Zeqaq or, if translated, “The Gate of the Alley”), the taxi stopped for another passenger from Bethlehem, who I found out later was the one who rang my
doorbell. Amongst the five passengers in the taxi was one woman. Obviously, none of those in the taxi—strangely enough, not even the passenger from Bethlehem—had any idea about the Israeli incursions into Bethlehem the night before.
Otherwise, they would be in their homes hiding.
The two young men continued telling their story. No sooner had the taxi crossed the junction with traffic lights outside our house, continuing north towards Rachel Tomb, a very heavy shower of bullets
could be heard. Inside the taxi, the passengers could hear the noise of shattered glass but they did not know what to make out of it. Everything happened within seconds. The taxi kept its pace until one of the passengers noticed that the
taxi driver had been hit by one of the bullets that shattered the windshield. He immediately jumped forward and pulled the hand break bringing the taxi to a halt. By that time all the passengers were tucked down inside the taxi. The only
exposed person was the driver who was bleeding from his face.
After a few seconds, the deadly silence that engulfed the taxi and its terrified passengers gave way for the five passengers to sneak out and go into hiding, but without the driver.
And so they did, not knowing the fate of the poor driver.
Retreating a distance of not more than 25 meters from where the taxi stopped and heading to the south on Yasser Arafat Street, the passengers could now enter Moradeh street to the east sparing
their lives from the bullets of the snipers that were literally surrounding the area.
Two of the five passengers managed to go into our driveway and seek shelter. No one knew what happened to the other three. The driver was still injured
in his taxi.
As they finished the story, I felt that one of them was holding his arm as if it hurt him. When I pulled up his sleeve, there seemed to have been some blood dripping from two places on his arm.
“That is from the shattered
glass I suppose”, he said with a smile.
I immediately rushed to the first aid kit and pulled out some alcohol and cotton and cleaned his arm. His friend also had some injuries in his arms to which I attended too, apparently from the same
Then we all sat in silence looking at each other as we heard occasional shooting. At times, the shooting was far, then it would get close. Carol and Nadim were still under the stairs trying to sleep, and my parents were
tucked in their bed. I suppose they were thinking about the irony of spending the last years of their lives the way they were instead of enjoying themselves like all normal elderly people do all over the world.
The hour was almost six thirty.
We were all tired and sleepless. Then one of my guests noted something that I had not crossed my mind.
“We have not heard the sound of any ambulance since you called them almost an hour and a half ago, right?” he asked.
don’t think I heard it. No!!” I replied hesitantly. “But I suppose they might want to do rescue the driver without noise for fear they might get shot at”, I continued with a voice full of hope.
you call the civil defense once more and see if they did send the ambulance,” suggested the other guest with a tone of doubt.
I immediately complied and dialed 101 and waited for what seemed like ages.
“Yes, good morning. My
name is Andre Dabdoub and I called you about an hour and a half ago regarding a shot taxi driver at the Murrah junction, and I just wanted to see if there has been any dispatch of an ambulance to the site of the incident.”
“My good citizen,
the ambulance was immediately dispatched after your first call. Since then, the Israeli snipers have shot at it three times and my team cannot seem to reach there. We are trying very hard, believe me,” the head of the civil defense unit answered
As I hung up the receiver, I heard voices of people outside the house, mainly coming from the side of the garden that overlooked the street where taxi was parked. I went to the salon window and saw a group of seven men trying to reach
the taxi from our garden since the garden is protected by a northern concrete wall.
If someone manages to pull the driver out of the taxi on to the pavement and into the garden, it would be easy to carry him to any car from Moradeh Street, off Yaser
Arafat street. The only problem is that the one-meter wide pavement between the taxi and our garden wall is fully exposed to snipers’ heavy machine guns.