The route to Jenin was circuitous, to say the least. We had to go from Jerusalem deep into Israel, drive north, and then head back into the West Bank. It would have been much easier and (in a sane world) much quicker as well to drive directly north from Jerusalem to Jenin—but it was effectively impossible because we would have hit an endless array of Israeli checkpoints, one every few miles, any of which could have ended our trip. As we drove along I thought about what life must be like for the many Palestinians who have family and relatives in other towns.
We re-entered the West Bank and drove the last few miles toward Jenin. We approached a makeshift Israeli checkpoint—really just an APC parked in the middle of the road, with soldiers stationed around it. They called in our identification and then denied us passage; when we asked why, they said they were just following orders. We drove away and approached Jenin from another direction, and again encountered Israeli soldiers along the road, but our luck was better this time—these were younger soldiers, more casual, and after a few questions they let us through. The taxi took us another mile or so and then dropped us off. We said our goodbyes to the driver, who now seemed like an old friend, and then we hiked a short way down a hill and across a soccer field to where another van was waiting to pick us up and take us into Jenin. We shared the ride with doctors from the group Physicians for Human Rights, just one of many humanitarian organizations that were coming to document the results of the brutal Israeli assault on the refugee camp.
As we drove into town, the evidence of the invasion became apparent: utility and phone lines had been cut just outside the camp. On the walls and on the doors of houses, about every 10 or 15 feet, the Star of David had been spray-painted in black paint. Some of the stars had exclamation points or "#1!" written inside of them. The message of humiliation and control was clear; Israeli troops here had been marking their territory, making a racial and religious statement to every person in the town. Thoughts of Kristallnacht came unbidden to my mind, and the irony was palpable. The media had been in the Jenin camp for almost a week now, and I had followed the stories closely in print and on television, yet I had never seen or heard about these disgusting images. I wondered what the response would be if people around the world could see this for themselves.
We finally reached our destination: the center of the camp. An area comprising several city blocks had been completely razed by Israeli bulldozers and tanks, every house first torn down, then ground up, and then flattened by tanks. The Israelis use a modified version of the Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer, a hulking monstrosity that has to be seen to be believed.
With a massive blade in the front and a spiked arm in the back used (in this instance) to dig up pavement and churn rubble, it looks like some kind of prehistoric monster—and the Israelis had unleashed these monsters within the center of the camp. In a preliminary report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that this act was "vastly disproportionate to the military objectives pursued" and suggested that priority should be given to "establishing whether this extensive destruction so exceeded military necessity as to constitute wanton destruction—or a war crime." On the ground, looking at it for myself, there was no question about it: this was terrorism.
We walked up onto the rubble pile. It was so wide and high that it had a terrain of its own; in places it was as tall as a three-story house. There was a reason for that, of course: it was made of houses (more than a hundred, according to HRW). I refer to it as the "rubble pile", as though there's rubble in every town and in Jenin it had just been collected in the center of town—but I never forgot as I stood there that I was standing on people's homes. You could see their personal belongings crushed and twisted underneath the stone. The wheels of a mangled baby carriage pointed toward the sky at the top of one rise. And above all, as you walked on this horrifying monument to brutality, you knew that you were standing on a tomb. Some people had not been able to escape their houses before the bulldozers came, and they had been buried alive, trapped inside as the walls collapsed in on them. HRW documented the case of a 37-year old paralyzed man who had been inside his family's house when the IDF bulldozers came. The Israelis refused to stop, despite the desperate pleas of the family, and he was crushed alive inside the house. I was standing on his final resting place.
(An Israeli D-9 operator, Moshe Nissim—nicknamed "Kurdi Bear"—later gave a direct account of his actions in the Jenin camp to Yediot Aharonot, Israel's most widely circulated newspaper. He said the following: "They were warned by loudspeaker to get out of the house before I came, but I gave no one a chance. I didn't wait. I didn't give one blow, and wait for them to come out. I would just ram the house with full power, to bring it down as fast as possible. I wanted to get to the other houses. To get as many as possible." And this: "I found joy with every house that came down, because I knew they didn't mind dying, but they cared for their homes. If you knocked down a house, you buried 40 or 50 people for generations. If I am sorry for anything, it is for not tearing the whole camp down.")
People had given up hope of finding anyone alive under the rubble—the screams and cries for help that had been heard early on had faded, and the chances of anyone surviving that long seemed impossibly slim. Despite that fact, we heard a report that two people had been pulled alive just that morning from the pile, after nine days underneath. There were dozens of people crowded around a hole in the pile where a backhoe was carefully digging further down, in the area where the people had reportedly been found. We looked on for a few minutes, wishing for the best, and then walked away from the pile and up a short rise overlooking the center of the camp.
A man was standing in the street, and he began talking to me and my friend Jeff, telling us about what had happened, and in particular pointing toward the nearby mosque. He motioned us inside, and a small crowd gathered. When we entered, we were appalled by what we saw. There were stains all over the carpet—food, blood, dirt, and other things we couldn't identify. Prayer mats were crumpled all around. There were cans of food (with Hebrew writing) and bottles thrown on every part of the floor. We saw empty spray paint cans—no doubt the source of some of the Stars of David we had seen around the camp. The collection boxes had been overturned and the bottoms broken through, and the money was missing from them. There were books strewn about, including copies of the Koran, some with pages ripped out.
On the roof of the mosque we saw why the Israelis had chosen this location: it was the high ground in town, providing a panoramic view of the camp, and the perfect location for the Israeli snipers (much like the Al Watan station in Ramallah; had it only been that morning that I was there? It already seemed like days ago). A concrete wall around the roof provided cover for the shooters. Near the door to the roof we saw a stereo speaker that had been broken through and used as a toilet by the Israeli soldiers. As with most buildings in Jenin, there were large water tanks on top of the mosque, and the Israelis had riddled them with dozens of bullet holes; attacking water resources is a textbook war crime, but this had not stopped the IDF from doing it throughout the West Bank during its assault. We looked at the minaret but did not venture into it at first, out of respect, but the Palestinians motioned for us to go up there with them. The inside was completely covered with broken glass; we had to go up the circular stairway one at a time to avoid the falling shards. There would be no call to prayer from this mosque for a long time.
The worst was yet to come. In the lowest level of the mosque there was a school for kids—a kindergarten, perhaps, based on the construction paper mobiles hanging from the ceiling and the colorful drawings all around. The fact that it was clearly a kids' school area had not spared it the same treatment the IDF had visited on the rest of the mosque. Desks were lying toppled on the floor, and papers had been thrown everywhere. The two classrooms we saw had been completely trashed. One of them was difficult to enter because of the stench—the Israeli soldiers had used a small basket and a box next to it as a toilet, and the smell filled the room. There was a bathroom 25 paces or less from this room, but instead of using it they had opted to leave their "mark" here, just as they had on the roof (this particularly vulgar habit of the IDF has even been documented in the Israeli press, sometimes at great length, as in a story from Ha'aretz by Amira Hass titled "Someone Even Managed to Defecate Into the Photocopier"; I was reminded of accounts I've heard that criminals will also often leave behind these kinds of "gifts" in people's cars or houses after a crime). There was a pan of food sitting next to the basket, empty and discarded. Children's drawings of robots and animals covered the floor, torn off the walls or off of shelves. On the blackboard one of the soldiers had drawn a Star of David in chalk—here, in a children's classroom.
But the most shocking of all was what they had done to a series of large paintings on the concrete wall of the basement. The paintings, drawn on the concrete, showed a little girl in a red dress doing everyday things: talking to her mother, sitting in a field, playing with a boat in the bathtub. An Israeli soldier or soldiers had gone through and cut the eyes out of each of the paintings—and not haphazardly, but very carefully, following the exact outline of the eyes. Five paintings; five sets of eyes missing. I thought about how much time it must have taken to do this, especially since the paintings were done directly on the concrete. Someone had spent a long time here with a knife or bayonet, working carefully and methodically. I could not begin to understand what kind of person could do this; my tenuous moment of connection with the young Israeli soldier at Arafat's compound and the hope it had given me was suddenly overwhelmed by the inhumanity of the people who had done this, who had laid waste to this camp, who had shattered all of these people's lives. I could only hope that someday they would reach a point where they could feel shame for their part in it.
We left the mosque and headed back through the camp. Along the way we saw a group of men wearing green bibs that identified them as volunteers with the UPMRC (the organization run by Mustafa Barghouti, whose picture the Israelis had defaced at the PNGO offices in Ramallah). They were using bullhorns to broadcast information to the people of the camp. A woman in our group who spoke Arabic said that they were announcing that there would be a "play day" tomorrow, and that people were being told that they could bring their children to a central meeting point to participate. For weeks the children had lived under Israeli terror, hearing explosions and gunfire, seeing the Caterpillar D-9s tearing apart entire houses, unable to go outside for fear of being injured or killed, and the civilian groups in town were organizing this play day to take the children's minds off of the horrors they had witnessed. We found this throughout Jenin when we arrived; many of the people didn't want to talk about what had happened anymore. They wanted to think about anything but that.
The UPMRC was also providing us with a place to stay, at the Jenin Charitable Society building. There were children running and playing throughout the building. As I was watching them, my Arab-speaking friend pointed out to me why there were so many kids there: many of them were orphans, or children whose fathers had been rounded up and taken away by the Israelis during the invasion. Another light moment turned dark.
We were given another meal by the UPMRC volunteers, a delicious mix of pita, hummus, falafel, and vegetables. Once again I was struck by the graciousness and generosity of these people who had so little but who were always willing to share whatever they had with us. We ate only a little, knowing that this same food would likely be feeding the UPMRC volunteers themselves after we had left. That evening I traded language lessons with some Palestinian teenagers, working from my completely inadequate Arabic phrasebook. They did teach us one invaluable thing: a particularly bawdy Palestinian marching chant that threw serious doubt on Ariel Sharon's sexual habits. When we finally managed to say it back to them without mangling it completely, there were laughs and smiles all around. A rare moment.
The next day we were at a loss about how to be of use, so we headed to the UN compound to offer our services to the organizations there. Jeff and I ended up getting a makeshift training in mine awareness from the UNICEF representative; she had pictures of dozens of different types of unexploded ordinance (UXO), to help us identify them. The entire camp—and especially the rubble pile in the center—was littered with unexploded mines, booby traps, pipe bombs, grenades, and other types of explosives, and at least one or two people each day were losing hands or feet as they dug in the rubble pile or went for the first time into buildings they'd fled when the Israeli invasion began. A doctor had died near the camp's center just days before when a hidden mine blew off most of his leg. The problem was especially severe because despite the dangers, people were still digging in the rubble pile to find their houses, their belongings, or in some cases their loved ones—and who could blame them? Their lives were buried under tons of stone, and they were doing whatever they could to get them back.
We took UNICEF flyers warning of the dangers of empty buildings and unidentifiable objects, to hand out around the camp, and Jeff bought a can of red spray paint so that he could mark any UXO we might find and hopefully prevent more people from losing their lives. People ran up eagerly to take the flyers from us; we were frequently mobbed. Families would call us over and ask us to take tea or coffee with them and sit down to talk—Palestinian hospitality again—but we politely declined, pointing at the flyers, and they always nodded in understanding. Jeff was called away several times to mark bombs, booby traps, and even an unexploded Israeli missile.
At one point we came to a house that had been torn apart, probably by a passing tank; the entire side was caved in and you could see what remained of the cheerful and modestly appointed living room inside. I saw a piece of metal buried in the drywall—it was a round from the 30mm cannon of an Apache helicopter. It was about five inches long and would have been an inch or so around, judging from the base, but the body of this one had been completely flattened when it came in through the wall of this house. I put it in my pocket and for days it kept spilling drywall (pieces of these people's house, of their lives) into my pocket, no matter how I tried to shake it all out. It felt as if I had come full circle, from watching TV in my apartment in the US and seeing the Apache hovering over Jenin firing missiles and cannon rounds, to standing here in Jenin itself with one of those cannon rounds in my pocket—perhaps from that same helicopter? I couldn't know, of course. But I did know that it felt good to have become more than a passive observer, to be taking responsibility and doing something to make a difference, no matter how slight it might be.
In the evening we met up with the rest of our group again. The Danes had spent the day playing soccer with kids on a field just outside the camp, helping them get their minds off the troubles around them, and I wondered if that hadn't been the most worthwhile thing any of us had done there. But we all agreed that the situation in Jenin now was more humanitarian than political, and that as ISM volunteers we could be more useful elsewhere. We decided to leave that night.