On the second day of the Israeli invasion into Ramallah, Iptisam Anwar watched her 18-year-old son Fadi being led away by Israeli soldiers through the crack in the yellow- curtained kitchen window.
“I was crying but I couldn’t say anything,” remembers the spirited woman, her face framed in black cloth, “I was afraid they would find my eldest son and husband, who were here.” Fadi was staying with his friends and an uncle in the adjoining apartment and when the soldiers came, they came first to the door near the mosque.
Outside the Anwar home in Ramallah’s Old City sits the detritus of war – police cars with their windows shot out, a flashy red convertible smashed under the treads of a tank, garbage piled and scattered in the streets.
But the unseen remnants remain lodged in these young men – Fadi, Jilal, 21, and Jihad, 19. Fadi’s father says he told him a lot about the five years he spent in Israeli jail. Now Fadi has stories of his own.
The childhood friends were first taken by soldiers to the empty home of a neighbor, where they were strip searched, blindfolded and their hands tied with wide plastic thread. “They tied our hands so hard that that itself was a lesson,” remembers Fadi.
From five in the morning to some time that afternoon, the young men were left there on the floor, the smell of human waste around them. “One soldier came and we told him that we would like to smoke,” says Jihad. “He gave us cigarettes and a piece of chocolate that we split. We were hungry.” A few minutes later, another soldier came in. When he saw the cigarettes, he started to hit the boys. Jihad was struck with a plastic stool in the back of his skull.
“My hands were tied,” says the lanky teen, headphones hanging around his neck. “What could I do?” It was the worst of many such blows in their ten days of the young men’s detention by the Israeli military.
That evening, the young men were than taken to a local high school with other males between the ages of 15 and 65, then on to a bus that transported them to the nearby Israeli settlement of Ofra. In the last two and a half weeks, thousands of Palestinians have been processed in the settlement, now the main West Bank detention center.
“When we got to Ofra,” says Fadi. “They left us out in the rain until the morning. The ground, all of it smelled like filth,” the talkative boy remembers. “They sat us out there all night and the air was like ice. Our hands were tied and our eyes blindfolded and we couldn’t move.”
Human rights worker Ala Jaradat says that of the estimated 2,000 Palestinians arrested in the Ramallah area, some 300 remain in detention. Tens of these é no one knows exactly who and how many é have been moved to Megiddo prison and the Negev desert.
“All of what the Israelis are doing is illegal according to Israeli law,” says Jaradat. “But what they did was make a new law.” A retroactively applied April 4 military order allows any Israeli officer to arrest any Palestinian between ages 15 to 65 that is perceived a threat. For 18 days, they may be detained without seeing a lawyer or the Red Cross. But since no prisoner’s lists have been released, lawyers are left to their own calculations as to who is still imprisoned and – particularly for those from Jenin – who may no longer be alive.
BACK AT home, Fadi’s mother was beside herself. It wasn’t that she had just her son to think of. In the same minutes Fadi was being led away, her neighbor was about to give birth. “One window, I was watching my son, and at the other window, I was trying to take care of her.” Despite frantic calls for an ambulance, there was no way the medics could get in to their besieged neighborhood.
“Finally, I just took her outside,” says Iptisam. “I said, if they shoot us, they shoot us.” Miraculously, the two women made it to the Ramallah hospital, where her friend delivered a baby boy.
Despite the new life, Iptisam’s mind was preoccupied with death. “I thought they took Shadi away and shot him,” says the mother of four. “They were showing on TV people who had been shot and killed.” On the third day of the reoccupation, five bodies were found in a bank building not far from Iptisam’s house. The men had been shot in the head and neck, seemingly while kneeling on the floor.
The Old City, like the rest of Ramallah, remains under a tight curfew. Iptisam walks its alleys in the short window of time residents are allowed outside. She stops beside a woman in her seventies, her aunt. The woman pulls up her skirt to show a leg swollen below the knee to three times its regular size. At the base of her foot, the skin is split and an angry infection burns.
Her aunt has diabetes and has not been able to go to a regular doctor’s appointment for treatment. “Everything is closed,” they say by way of explanation. It does not even occur to them to call the ambulance.
Along a winding path and across a street, Iptisam slows. This is the apartment in which her son and his friends were held. Ironically, she knows this family well. While their flat was made a holding cell, the six members of the Ashur family were forced to stay at the neighbors across the street.
“Where are we supposed to go?” Selwa Ashur says they asked the soldiers when they were forced outside at four in the morning. “Go wherever you want to go,” they said. “Go to Arafat.”
Selwa’s 14-year-old boy was taken upstairs with the soldiers. “I was crying, I was screaming,” she remembers. “I said, ‘I want the boy.'” The soldiers told her at first that they intended to blow up the house with him in it. But Selwa must have screamed enough that her son and two other neighbors were released.
There is little remaining evidence of the damage done to Selwa’s home during its interim use as a detention facility. She has kept the curtains. They are a blue woven satin, and their edges are tattered where they were ripped to blindfold the sons of her friends.
“The soldiers told us to strip and to put everything that was in our pockets on the table – our cell phones, our watches, our money,” remembers Jihad. “It sounded to me like they brought a box and put all our things inside it.”
“At the same time, we could hear them talking to each other, opening the drawers of the house we were in, and pulling things out and calling to each other to divide things up. We understood a little Hebrew – enough to understand that.”
The Ashur’s say that 30,000 Jordanian dinars worth of gold é some $45,000 é was swiped from their home. Selwa pulls out the wooden box, its hinges broken, that once held her wealth. The family’s Israeli-issued identity cards are missing, as well.
Despite repeated charges that soldiers are looting Palestinian homes, the Israel military denies the charges. When the boys got to the camp, they even told an officer that their things had been taken. “In Israel, we have cell phones,” he retorted. “We don’t need yours.”
The boys stretch out their wrists to show that all of their watches are missing.
“Everything they did, had a purpose,” says Fadi. He and Jihad found themselves in a tent with some thirty others. Jilal was taken to a tank hanger nearby. Their days were numbered by three sparse meals of a packet of yogurt, a cucumber and a tomato, all shared between six or seven men.
“We had no idea when we would get out,” says Fadi. “The food would be late in coming and we would think that we were being released and then it would turn out to be something else. The guys who got sick, got sick from the waiting.”
The toilets, both inside the tent and outside the barracks, were inoperable the entire time of their detention. To compensate, the prisoners just tried to eat little that would cause them to go to the bathroom. Jihad smirks. “When we got home, it took forever for us to be able to use the toilet again.”
Their time was also broken by regular meetings with Israeli intelligence. Jihad describes how Israeli agents tried to reel in prisoners to work as collaborators. “He wanted me to know he can help me. How did he get his message across? He says, ‘Do you want money? I can help you. I can give you my phone number.'”
These are the same techniques that have been used for years by Shin Bet interrogators. But Jihad, Shadi and Jilal were only children during the first Intifada. “They thought that at such a young age, we would be easy,” Jihad smiles, wryly. “It’s the first time that we’ve been through this, you know.”
Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report.