Life under My Country’s Arms

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I want to thank you for your concern and that of our government for my welfare and that of my fellow citizens, both in and out of the movement to stop the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and to some extent within Israel itself. Of course we count on this concern and strain it at times, as a means of drawing attention to the problem and of impeding the worst excesses of Israeli military might, and for this I beg your indulgence.

I came to Jordan yesterday and am therefore no longer in danger of being the target of US arms, delivered by our Israeli allies. However, since you asked me to report to you the things that I have seen and heard, I am pleased to do so, to the extent that time permits.

I believe it was the evening of April 8 that I last called you, just after I and two other Americans, as well as the other members of our group, arrived in Nablus by walking over some very rough territory for half a day to avoid the checkpoint which refused to let our bus through. The three of us are no longer there, although at least eight more came in by the same route, and some of the non-American contingent of our original group stayed behind. I am not sure of the composition of the new group, but I know that it includes some Americans.

I was in Nablus for five days, and I can see why the Israeli authorities did not want to let us or journalists or even outside medical personnel in to see what they were doing. My host on the very first night was a 54-year-old man who had only the previous day been released from a detention area which the Israeli occupation forces had set up in the suburb of Huwara. According to him, he had been held there for four days, was shackled the entire time, was never allowed to stand, received no food or water, and was beaten and interrogated periodically. He showed me the marks on his wrists and the release slip given to him. This was a story that we heard over and over again from many men aged 15-64 during our stay. It was clear that thousands had been held at one time or another, and when they were released, many were fired upon because they had to make their way home for up to 10 kilometers or more, without protection under total curfew, sometimes at night.

We arrived at the Rafidia Hospital just as a French journalist had been brought in with a gunshot wound to the chest that, as it turned out, came very close to his heart. His flak jacket apparently saved him by diverting the path of the bullet, but I wonder if the shooter had been counting on that and might not have aimed elsewhere if he had not had protection. I asked his colleague why he thought the man had been targeted, and he responded that it was because he had been the first to get out of the vehicle. Apparently, it had been a clearly marked press vehicle in plain sight. This is, of course, hardly the first time that the press have been fired upon by the Israeli military.

The most striking thing about Nablus was the wanton and indiscriminate destruction. The tanks and other military vehicles obviously went out of their way to crush virtually every vehicle they came across, as well as all public lighting, traffic signals, water lines, and every other prominent fixture in or near the streets. Masonry was reduced to rubble, store and house fronts were swiped by these vehicles, especially at street corners, and walls were knocked down. Since this included cemetery walls and a girls’ school, I think it is safe to say that military targets were not the concern, and in any case the devastation was simply too widespread to have been selective in nature.

Ambulances were virtually the only vehicles on the streets besides those that were part of the war machine. Nonetheless, they came under fire. I have pictures of three vehicles that were damaged by bullet and artillery fire. One was completely destroyed, another rendered inoperative, and the third functional but with an unwanted air conditioning system. Medical personnel were often detained, and in at least one case, a doctor’s ID was taken, thus making it impossible for him to make ambulance calls.

In the old city, the destruction was even greater. I have no idea how old the church/monastery in the Yasmeena district was, but it is now just a very large pile of stones, courtesy of one or more air-to-ground missiles from an F-16, according to residents, who seem to be familiar with the destructive patterns of various weapons. I have been away from news media, but friends tell me that this was hardly reported even though it was by far the greatest single instance of damage that I saw.

More coverage was apparently given to a single missile which obliterated a three-storey stone house. For a day and a half, no one was permitted to get to the rubble to see if anyone was alive, and then two persons were miraculously found. They and the dead were all members of one extended family. No fighters were found.

There is no doubt that there were some resistance fighters in the old city, exercising their rights under the Geneva conventions, and in one case a gunman entered the medical facility, to be quickly sent out again. However, the methods used by the occupation forces were particularly cruel to the non-combatants, such as the invasion of homes by battering down its walls or by using machineguns or explosives on the doors without warning the residents inside. On the few occasions where I actually heard the soldiers’ reactions, amusement seemed to the main form of statement, such as when a pregnant woman miscarried in a house requisitioned by troops, which elicited laughter from a soldier as she was taken away in an ambulance, with the fetus in a plastic bag.

I have already written much more than I had intended, and I haven’t even spoken about the bodies rotting for days outside the makeshift medical centre in a mosque in the old city while ambulances were denied access to take them away. In any case, I’m sure it all pales by comparison to what happened in Jenin, so it’s hardly even news.

I hope this information is helpful and that you will continue to look out for Americans even when we put our lives at risk to prevent US allies from committing atrocities. Of course, we will all welcome the day when US policy actually helps to prevent rather than support those atrocities, but no one holds you personally responsible for that.

Paul Larudee, a US citizen and a member of the International Solidarity Movement, was one of about 100 individuals to enter refugee camps in Bethlehem and Nablus between March 29 and April 13 to help the Palestinians under siege. Larudee, who holds a PhD in linguistics from Georgetown University and now works as a piano technician, recounted his experience in a letter to the US Consulate General in Jerusalem.

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