Preparing for the Inevitable

Written for the International Center of Bethlehem

March 3, 2003

The US-led war on Iraq is coming very soon, with or without a UN resolution, and in spite of all international efforts to seek a peaceful resolution.  Thousands of soldiers—with all possible military arsenal and advanced weapons—have already been deployed in the Gulf area and are ready for the green light.  For months now, plans have been made to study the strategy of the war, its consequences, and the way to handle post-war Iraqi regime.

Similarly, people in the region are also preparing for the war to protect themselves from possible chemical and biological attacks they believe that Iraq might launch on neighboring countries in the wake of the first raids it would sustain.  Yet, the precautions taken also include the fear of possible attacks by conventional Iraqi warheads similar to the Scud missiles launched during the first Gulf war back in 1991.

The one Iraqi enemy country that will most likely be directly affected by such claimed conventional, and non-conventional attacks, is Israel.  The Palestinians in the West Bank occupied territories will also be affected especially in the absence of “clever” Iraqi missiles that would differentiate foes from non-foes.

Israel has already prepared its citizens for the war, both on the ground and on the psychological levels, convincing them that Iraq does have biological and chemical weapons, which it will almost certainly use against Israel.

On the ground, there have been calls in all Israeli media outlets for all the Israeli citizens to exchange their first Gulf war masks with new ones. 

The Israeli Ministry of Health has also urged the citizens to get immunity shots against Anthrax and Small Pox—two possible main infections that could be caused if truly a biological warfare erupts.

In addition, the Israeli Ministry of Civil Defense has called on all citizens to transform one room—preferably with access to a toilet—in each apartment into a shelter.  These shelters need to be hermetically sealed—with nylon—and stocked with bottled water, food, medicine, emergency light, radios, and batteries—enough to serve for a few hours of continuous lockup. 

In other cases, where such a possibility is unfeasible, citizens went out to buy specially designed plastic tents with an area measuring 9 square meters and a height of 2 meters and that can accommodate 3 people for a continuous period of six hours.  The tent is also equipped with a special battery operated air filter.  It has been estimated that an average family of 5 people could spend up to 25,000 Shekels (US$5,000) in preparing for the war.

Israeli fire brigades and paramedics, as well as the army, have also been trained to deal with cases of a presumed biological and chemical contamination; and all hospitals are equipped with the necessary equipment and medicine to treat cases of such contamination.  Israeli Patriot missiles have been tested and proven effective in their counter attacks against any possible attack, and the early warning systems are functional and ready.

Furthermore, the Israeli Education Ministry has conducted comprehensive training for the evacuation of students in schools in the event of a possible Iraqi attack.  Similar training has been conducted by the Israeli Civil Defense in other large community public and private buildings.

On the psychological level, the Israeli government has been trying to calm its citizens through declaring the war to be “short and intense” to the extent that Iraqi arsenal will be destroyed before it [Iraq] could even think of launching a counter attack offensive, even against Israel.  Yet, precautions against alleged Iraqi chemical and biological attacks are necessary.

Alas, and with all these preparations and precautionary measures, there has been news that many Israelis have already made hotel bookings abroad especially in Cyprus and Greece.  Airline ticket reservations have also increased in Israel with destinations to Europe and the USA.  Also, and because Israelis feel that Iraq would not attack Arab populated areas in the West Bank, many of them have made plans to move to settlements in the West Bank or to Israeli cities adjacent to the dividing line between Israel and the West Bank.

In contrast, Palestinians fear nothing from the coming war—a la guerre comme a la guerrealthough preparations for the war have been under way in most Palestinian cities and even though they do not believe that Iraq possesses either chemical or biological weapons.

Though there has been a call by the International Red Cross for Israel to distribute gas masks to Palestinians, no one so far has confirmed the consent of Israel to do so.  Nor has any international humanitarian agency taken the initiative to bring in gas masks to be distributed to Palestinians.  Israel has publicly but unofficially declared that it has made plans to distribute some 7000 masks only to Palestinians living in zone “C” (Israeli-controlled) in the West Bank.

Even with or without gas masks, the deteriorating economy in the occupied West Bank prevents most Palestinian families from stocking up food, bottled water, or even medicine, in hermetically sealed rooms.  Palestinians can hardly manage their day-to-day staple food and other necessities.

When made possible, the sealed rooms in Palestinian homes would not accommodate most Palestinian families because of the small size of the rooms in comparison to the size of the average Palestinian family.  The Israeli army however will definitely hermetically seal the West Bank and impose prolonged periods of house arrests and curfews on over three million Palestinian in the occupied Palestinian cities—something that they have been doing for over a year now even in the absence of war.

To add insult to injury, none of the Palestinian institutions (schools, office buildings, public buildings, etc.) is equipped with the proper infrastructure to absorb a panicky crowd.  Let alone the absence of any trained staff, be it medical or otherwise, to handle any alleged biological or chemical attack and contamination.

Most of the Palestinians who could afford to prepare for the war have either learned the methods to deal with the issue from their experience during the first Gulf war in 1991, or else they follow first hand the Israeli news and instructions Israel is addressing to its people.

Whatever the Palestinians would do, or not do, to prepare for the war in Iraq would not be much more different from the way they are currently leading their lives in the continuous presence of Israeli tanks roaming their streets and Israeli American-made Apaches flying over their heads.  

Memories - Reflections on Easter Past

Written for This Week in Palestine (TWIP)

April 17, 2003

From where I stood, I could see the whole of the landscape of Bethlehem stretching from the west to the east with its amazing and beautiful variations combining hills, valleys and highlands. In spite of the dusty and gloomy weather of early April, I could still identify some of the most famous landmarks of the city, starting from the golden statue on top of the University of Bethlehem, the red roof of the Star Hotel and the bell tower of the Greek Catholic Church to the Mount David Hospital building, the bell tower of the Church of the Nativity and the multi-storey Russian Hotel building next to the Milk Grotto. Further to the east I could see the plateau over which Beit Sahour calmly and peacefully stretches as it slowly welcomes the early hours of dusk.

In the background and further to the southeast I could vaguely identify the silhouette of the massive Herod's mountain with its levelled wide peak whereas the foreground was characterized by the presence of a few farmlands with different kinds of cattle grazing the freshly sprung spring grass. A seemingly tired middle-aged shepherd was guiding his herd of sheep through a down-sloping side street towards a stretch of greenery. His whistles echoed in the surrounding quiet wadi as his dog barked at a couple of lambs that drifted away from the rest of the herd. A huge pine tree blocked my vision to the west but I could still see from up close a part of the Caritas Baby Hospital and the buildings surrounding it. The smell of the soil after the recent heavy rainfall filled my nostrils as a late afternoon breeze of warm air whizzed quickly and instantly disappeared as if touched by a magic wand.

I closed my eyes for a second and, upon opening them again, I noticed the tall black crane that the Israelis have erected outside the Church of the Nativity. We were later told by friends who lived in the vicinity of the church that the crane was topped by a large loudspeaker that would emit unusually loud and disturbing noises in an attempt to make the Palestinians besieged inside the church surrender. Sometimes a sniper would mount the crane in the hope of targeting any of those held inside the church.

Seconds later, a black cloud of smoke appeared behind what could be the old Bethlehem vegetable market. We later found out that there was a huge explosion in the area that completely burned down the market and destroyed all the cars that were parked next to it. The siege of the church and the crisis of this latest incursion did not seem close to its finale. There were no local TV channels for me to follow up on the events as they unfolded in this little peaceful town. My only means of communication with the outside world was through the phone with friends who lived in the city and who witnessed the reality of things first hand. Satellite channels did not quench my thirst as their coverage of the recent Israeli incursion into the whole of the West Bank—including the crisis at the Church of the Nativity—under what the Israelis called “Operation Defensive Shield” was limited and incomprehensive.

The Israeli military forces imposed a curfew on the whole city with sporadic and random lifting of the curfew for a couple of hours every nth day, hardly enough to enable people to stock up on food which was becoming scarce. Even Easter passed us by almost unnoticed. There were a few coloured eggs and some Easter sweets on the market but there was no real spirit of this grand, religious feast.

My sister’s house, where we were locked up, was far from the centre of the tragic events. We were nine people holed up in the house, after we managed to escape from our own houses, which were in a less secure area. In the colourful living room, a huge semi-circular window overlooks the city of Bethlehem, and we all took turns in sitting on the windowsill to catch a glimpse of whatever event was taking place, especially in the city centre. Our guesses of such events were never right until we managed to confirm them after a few phone calls to friends and acquaintances who were lucky enough to have access to local channels. We would sometimes see Israeli tanks, APCs and jeeps roaming Manger and Herman Gemeiner (Al-Karkafeh) streets, both visible to us from where we were. Other than these Israeli military vehicles, the streets were conspicuously empty and the city was nothing more than a ghost town. When we happened to notice a civilian car moving, we would immediately call people around to check whether the curfew had been lifted in order to get ready for the short but exhausting adventure of getting food rations from the market.

Not noticing him getting close to me, I felt my son’s hand pulling my arm and murmuring with excitement “Baba, baba! Shoof! Kharouf, kharouf!” (Father, look, a lamb). I turned towards him only to find him pointing at the herd of cattle grazing in the nearby wadi. At the same time, I could not help but notice that the crane was no longer there, the black cloud of smoke had totally disappeared, and cars were moving regularly on the streets. There were no signs of Israeli tanks or jeeps. From underneath my glasses I rubbed my eyes and then held my son’s hand and walked with him towards the entrance of the Mary Dotty municipal park, only a few meters away from my sister’s house. I looked behind me and saw that the children were still playing on the swings, shouting and screaming with joy. The landscape of Bethlehem was still as picturesque though it had started to get dark and chilly.  “Maybe this year,” I thought to myself, “we will have a better Easter.”