Empty gestures

It is forbidden to stand, to smoke, to speak, to read a newspaper, to look to the side. They sit like this for an hour, and hour and a half, with their legs amid the garbage. Several male conscripts and one female soldier stand over them, rifles poised, with their armored truck parked on the side.

“Mamnu’a”- “That’s forbidden!” soldier H. growls at someone who tries to violate orders by lighting a cigarette. H. is armed and protected from head to toe. His round glasses peek out from under a helmet that’s too big for him and covers his boyish face. His armored vest rests heavily on his scrawny body.

At the dusty checkpoint near the town of Beit Anoun on the outskirts of Hebron, about 50 Palestinian men sit at the soldiers’ feet on the filthy pavement and wait. It’s not hard to guess what kinds of feelings are building up inside them and what kind of hatred they must feel, sitting there in the trash like animals waiting for their masters’ orders. It’s harder to guess what is going through the minds of the soldiers who are standing over them, making sure they do not move or speak or smoke.

This happened last Sunday, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was shuttling between Jerusalem and Jericho. Israel Radio announced that the “closure has been lifted in the territories” and the lead headline in the International Herald Tribune said: “Israel Lifts Limits on West Bank Travel.” At the checkpoint on the edge of Hebron, a group of residents who hadn’t heard the news was sitting in the dirt. All they had wanted to do was to pass on foot – there is no other way – from their town to Hebron across the road, or back.

They sat there silently until H. returned from a patrol car parked nearby, ID cards in hand, and began calling out one name after the other. Maybe their release was accelerated because we media people sat down there, too. Or maybe because they had been humiliated enough. They got up, one after the other, shook the dust off their clothes, took their ID cards from the soldier without saying a word and continued on their way. One of them was held back: “Captain Omer wants to meet with you,” the officer told him, and both sides appeared to understand each other well.

The last of the men to go on his way, a 24-year-old shoemaker named Mamoun Zidat, who wears his hair slicked back with gel, was on the way from his shop in Hebron to his home in Bani Naim. By the time he gets there, he may have to endure another one or two humiliation rites. He says he’s used to it already. Two or three times a week, the soldiers block his way, inside the occupied territories.

The soldiers get into their armored vehicle and drive away. Not far away, in Hebron, the entire area under Israeli control is as deserted as when a curfew is in force. The settlers’ wives haughtily walk the streets, while the Palestinian residents hardly dare look out of their shuttered windows anymore.

Essentially, a “transfer” is taking place here, in plain sight. About 2,000 stores, market stalls and businesses have closed and been abandoned here, and hundreds of families have left their homes, according to the estimate of B’Tselem researcher Musa Abu Hashash. He is the one who exposed the case of the killing of Amran Abu Hamdiya in Hebron by Border Police officers, who are currently being tried. His organization is currently preparing a special report about the transfer occurring here. The residents apparently can’t take it anymore. Only the poor remain, waiting for donations.

On the side of the road that leads down from Tzurif to Emek Ha’ela, two figures stand behind a blue Border Police jeep. The Border Policeman is restraining a Palestinian’s hands behind his back with plastic handcuffs. The one being handcuffed is a young man dressed in jeans and a tattered T-shirt. As soon as we draw near, the policeman hurries the Palestinian into the jeep and drives off.

Border Police spokeswoman Liat Perl: “This is a regular crew (of Border Police volunteers) that detained a Tzurif resident at a construction site, because his entry is restricted due to a criminal past. The young man tried to flee, they stopped him, handcuffed him and put him in the jeep. After they had a talk with him, and he promised not to return, they let him go.” Such is the easing of the closure.

The southern town of Dahariya is blazing in the heat. It’s harvest time now, and two Thursdays ago, the Samamra family decided to go out to their land – 12 dunams of wheat and sheep fodder, eight kilometers southeast of their home in Dahariya.

The harvest lasts a week, during which time they usually stay out in the field with the sheep, who eat the remains of the harvest. That Thursday, the mother, Amana, the eldest son, Omar, 23, his brother Hilal, 16, and their cousin Kamal, 15, set out early in the morning with their sheep and donkeys. Omar works as a mailman; he took a break to work on the harvest. Hilal, a 10th-grader, took time off from school. The father of the family died some years ago.

On Friday, their water ran out and Omar decided to take the sheep to drink near one of the houses closest to the family’s land. Hilal and Kamal went too, alongside the settlers’ road between Hebron and Be’er Sheva. Suddenly, says Omar, a white Renault van with yellow license plates pulled up. A large, bearded man with a kippa on his head and a rifle in his hand got out and ordered them in broken Arabic to get away from the road. He was about to leave when he saw Omar writing the car’s license plate number in the sand; he wanted to complain to the Red Cross. The bearded man backed up. “Do you want your name to be on Al Jazeera?” he asked, threateningly.

The man made a call on his cell phone and soon afterward a black Toyota appeared and two uniformed men got out; Omar says they were wearing Border Police uniforms. The vehicle had yellow civilian license plates. One of the men took out handcuffs and handcuffed Hilal and Kamal. They were blindfolded with a black cloth. Omar got on the donkey and escaped.

Hilal speaks in a terse monotone, but his brother says that he has recovered from the anxiety that gripped him since then. Kamal is in worse shape: He has not uttered a word since the incident. Hilal says that after they handcuffed and blindfolded him, he felt that he was being peed on. Then came the beating: slaps and kicks that went on for about 15 minutes. Then Hilal heard the attackers driving off.

At 5 in the afternoon, Omar, who had come back with two other shepherds, found his brother and cousin laying there in handcuffs, with the sheep having dispersed in all directions. He used a scythe to slice through the handcuffs and then went off to collect the sheep. Thirteen were on the verge of collapse, six had died – from dehydration, Omar believes – and another six disappeared. He shows photos of the dead sheep. They finally made it back home at 10 P.M. Now they are afraid to go back to their land. Amana won’t let them go.

So what happened on Friday afternoon, on the settlers’ road between Hebron and Be’er Sheva? Who was this civilian? Where did he come from, and who were the men in uniform he summoned?

The IDF Spokesman: “The event you describe was investigated, despite the paucity of details, and is not familiar. It should also be noted that the IDF does not have any vehicle of the kind described.” A Border Police spokesperson added that there was no Border Police activity in the area at the time.

Courtesy Raja Mattar