At first no one could believe it. Palestinian television in Gaza announced that the Israeli army had taken over Amwaj television and warned viewers to beware of false information. But what Ramallah residents found when they turned to the station was that soldiers were broadcasting a German soft-porn channel.
Not long after CNN reported the imposition on conservative Palestinian society, the broadcast was whisked off the air. Still, Ramallah residents remain without any local television and radio broadcasts to inform them of real-time Israeli army movements in the now nearly weeklong siege on the city. The news blackout is only one element of the wearing psychological battle taking place during the army’s planned reoccupation of all West Bank cities, and possibly the Gaza Strip.
Since the early morning hours of March 29, hundreds of Israeli tanks, jeeps, armored personnel carriers and gigantic armored earthmovers have lumbered through the town. Open spaces have been cleared for parking the giant, noisy machines – often right in front of resident’s homes.
“They make so much noise, coming and going and shouting and pointing the tank cannons at us,” said Abir, 26, her voice tired after a sleepless night. “At least there isn’t as much shooting as last time.”
Twice in one month now, the young mother’s driveway has served as an armory for the Israeli military. In the previous invasion, the family’s pride, a black Chevy sports car, was smashed by the passing tanks.
Nor can residents escape homes located in dangerous areas. As the army deepened its invasion in the first hours of the attack, snipers have hidden themselves in buildings and homes all over the city. It is unknown how many people have been injured by sniper fire, but they include American journalist Anthony Shadid, shot in the shoulder despite wearing press insignia. The difficulty of movement of the press and medical staff makes it impossible to give reliable numbers on those shot and injured or killed by these hidden snares.
In one neighborhood, Israeli soldiers came through and searched the area, breaking into a storage area on one of the houses. When a Palestinian reporter (who, like most in this article, did not want to be identified) asked if they found anything, they said “Kalashnikovs and bombs.” She said she did not see the soldiers carry anything out.
Afterwards, two young men were standing and talking to a family at their front door when shots were fired from a sniper far away. One of the men was shot in the leg. When the other tried to pull him away, he was shot in the kidney. Ambulance workers were not allowed to enter the area for one hour, as the family tried to stem the blood flow with sheets.
Some areas of Ramallah have not had electricity since the start of the invasion, while others have had electricity cut and then renewed. Those who have no telephone, use cellular phones to get breaking news from friends. Still, phone batteries also require an electrical recharge. Water, too, has been cut in areas.
In one apartment in Ramallah, four men from Nablus play cards and try to while away the time, far from their families and with the knowledge that around the city men their age are being rounded up for questioning and detention.
“We are scared,” one of them said frankly. “Maybe they will come here. One of us is handling the situation by staying in bed.” Then he jokes to ease the tension. “Every once in a while we check him to make sure that he is still breathing.”
The Israeli troops appear to be looking for activists and armed men from any faction, but most of those arrested are Palestinian security officers é the very people Israel has counted on in the past to round up those who carry out attacks on Israelis. Ironically, busloads of the security men have been taken to homes in Gaza that they have not seen for 18 months due to the Israeli closure.
Others avoiding capture have been roaming the city, carrying their bedding under their arms and looking for sanctuary in unused buildings and closed offices. Frightened residents report that them asking for food, water and shelter. “I told them, God protect you, but please, please just leave us be,” said one elderly woman. “I will give food, anything, but I don’t want them [the Israeli army] to destroy the building over all our heads.”
In the Cairo-Amman Bank building on March 31, five National Security officers in their fifties were found shot in the head and back at close range. Blood was spattered on the wall at waist-level. The journalist who found the group said he heard bursts of gunfire in the lower floors of the building as he reported from its upper floors. Israel has said that the men were killed in a “close-range” gun battle. Reports of at least two other groups of slain men totaling nine remain unconfirmed.
Other than the thunder of tank shells and sporadic gunfire, a deafening silence cloaks the city. Armored press vehicles travel in convoys, their lights flashing as they creep through the streets. Ambulances, too, have stopped using their sirens.
In the eerie silence punctuated by weapons fire, buildings are left to smolder as fire crews and ambulances seek permission to travel the city streets.
On a street in the Ein Misbah area, two ambulances slowly turned a corner, only to be met by four soldiers in crouched position, their guns turned on the medical vehicles. The four medics and drivers were made to sit on the curb while the soldiers searched the vehicles. Then the ambulances were told to go back the way they came. When the ambulance staff appeared to protest that they needed to use this road, the soldiers pointed to an alternate – and circuitous – route.
One of the personal guards of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat tells a harrowing story of his own injury on March 31. Khaled, a clean-cut man in his late twenties, was stationed in his uniform near one of the entrances to the area when the Israelis attacked, first with tanks, and then with commandos.
Khaled, under orders to defend the president, was injured in the ensuing gunfight. When the black-clad soldiers approached him, they pointed a gun at his chin and asked him who he was. For at least half an hour, he lay there, as the Palestinian doctor in the compound pleaded that he be taken to the hospital. “I am cold,” Khaled told them in his slow English. “I need a doctor.”
Finally, he was taken in an armored personnel carrier to the military settlement, Beit El. There he was placed uncovered on the chilly ground for some three hours as Israeli intelligence asked him questions. “Where is Yasser Arafat? he screamed at me in Arabic,” Khaled remembers. “I told him that he knows better than me where Arafat is.”
Finally an Israeli woman medic came and covered Khaled and put a warmer on his chest. Eight hours after the guard’s injury, the Red Cross negotiated his release to a Palestinian hospital.
But that was not the end of his story. Lying in the hospital, glad to be alive and that the bullet in his leg had not penetrated the bone, Khaled heard in the hospital corridors that the Israeli military was entering the medical facility in clear contravention of international law.
But they never came. At the hospital gates, 20 visiting Italians stood with Palestinian doctors in front of the advancing armor. Later, Khaled retells the story and says that the group of internationals plans to sleep in the hospital to keep the army from entering. He is quite clearly relieved.
As word filters out of Ramallah about the mounting pressure squeezing Palestinians here, fear and defiance is spreading in other Palestinian towns. A Fateh activist in the Gaza Strip sounds neither plaintive nor provocative when he says, matter-of-fact, “We are waiting to die.”
Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report.