As the war approaches, Palestinian fears rise
In recent weeks, residents in the West Bank and Gaza have been spinning horror scenarios that could happen under cover of the war in Iraq.
Nearly every night these past three weeks, F. has been dreaming that she, her family, her neighbors and the rest of the inhabitants of Ramallah are expelled from their homes. As the attack on Iraq becomes more certain, the scenes have become sharper and more persistent. In her recurring nightmares, the army orders everyone out of their houses. People are taken to a piece of land devoid of buildings and trees. She loses her husband and two of her four children. Children are crying and the elderly are muttering: "Here they are going to build us a new refugee camp."
F., a Ramallah resident, laughs in consternation as she relates her nightmare. It is not complicated to identify its sources: as the war approaches, the street is full of fears, rumors and terrifying assessments. Mass deportation is one scenario that comes up in conversations on the street, in the grocery stores, and in living rooms in front of the television set, and it arouses real fear. How will this happen? While the whole world is concentrating on what is happening in Iraq, people think, there will be a heavier media blackout than usual on what the Israel Defense Forces does in the Palestinian territories, and who can guarantee that there will be no deportation under cover of the blackout?
In recent weeks, people have been preparing themselves for five horror scenarios. These are not based on intelligence information or open warnings that have been passed along by Israeli sources, but rather on the experience of the Palestinians' recent and less recent past. One scenario, based on the experience of the past two years, is that Israel will impose an internal closure that is more stringent than usual. That is, the movement of people, vehicles, medications, raw materials, food, and other goods will be more limited than it has been during the past two years.
Another scenario is based on the previous Gulf War, in 1991, when the IDF imposed a full curfew on the territories that lasted six weeks.
A third scenario is based on the experience of the past two months and Operation Defensive Wall in April. According to this scenario, Israel will increase military attacks on cities, refugee camps and villages in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and will interfere with the electricity and water supplies, and the number of casualties will increase.
The fourth scenario, of internal deportation within the territories, is based on memories of the 1967 Six-Day War. At that time, Israel expelled the inhabitants of three villages in the area of Latrun (Amawa, Beit Nuba and Yalo), immediately demolished their houses, and years later established Canada Park in their place. At the same time, the IDF began to expel people from Qalqilyah and demolished houses close to the Green Line of the 1967 border. Internal Israeli opposition eventually stopped the process.
People were also expelled from Tul Karm and its refugee camp - some to Jordan and some to Nablus. More than 100,000 people who lived in refugee camps in the Jordan Valley were also made to flee into Jordan. The geography of the expulsion policy - to empty everything that is close to the border and the Green Line - is clear. Now, they fear, Israel will continue to "thicken" the Green Line - i.e. to annex de facto more Palestinian lands. Even now tens of thousands of Palestinians have had their lands confiscated due to the building of the separation fence in the western part of the West Bank. Now they are afraid that under the cover of the war in Iraq, Israel will initiate expulsions. The first in line believe Palestinian activists in non-governmental organizations (NGOs), could be about 14,000 people in 15 villages that, according to the route of the separation fences, will find themselves trapped between the Green Line and the fence and will be cut off from the rest of the West Bank. F.'s family lives in one of these trapped villages, which appears in her nightmares.
The fifth scenario is based on an even more distant memory, from 1948, and this is mass expulsion. The entry of Moledet, the party that openly preaches transfer, in the government only increased these fears.
The appointment of Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) as the Palestinian Authority's prime minister, a process that to a large extent has been a production of the United States and Britain, has slightly dulled the sharpness of a sixth scenario: the expulsion of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat or even an Israeli attempt on his life. Until about a month ago, this scenario was mentioned in the same breath as the other scenarios; now it is no longer the case.
There is a large gap between the gravity of the scenarios and the ways of dealing with them. If the Palestinian Authority has drawn up plans to deal with these scenarios, the Palestinian public has not heard about it. Therefore, dealing with the first two scenarios is mainly personal and familial.
In recent weeks, people have been hoarding food and preparing for a long curfew. "I have never emptied my stock so quickly, emptied it and restocked," says the proprietor of a grocery store as he calculated the price of eight kilograms of flour, six kilograms of sugar and five kilograms of rice purchased by a young couple. The trucks that sell propane gas canisters pass through every neighborhood twice a day, and recently there always have been customers. There has been an increase in the sale of flashlights, batteries, candles, matches, blankets, diapers and powdered infants' milk.
In a society in which 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, stocking up on food is no simple task. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) has already filled its storehouses with enough foodstuffs and medicines for three months. This is on the assumption that as in 1991, there will be a freeze on the movement of goods through the Ashdod port, the Allenby Bridge, and Ben-Gurion Airport. UNWRA recently reinforced its staff of non-Palestinian drivers in order to overcome the restrictions of an internal closure. If needed, some UNWRA staff will work as drivers.
All the Palestinian aid organizations have hoarded foodstuffs, and all of them are accelerating their distribution. In some cities and villages, distribution is being coordinated by "popular committees that were established during the past two years to prevent duplications and cheating." The Israeli organization Ta'ayush Arab Jewish Partnership has emptied its coffers in order to send dozens of tons of flour to villages that are already cut off due to the internal closure, and with the outbreak of the war, it is not at all certain there will be access to them. This has been done in coordination with the popular committee activists.
The Al Najah University in Nablus has already recommended that its students return home to their families in the villages and in other cities based on the assumption that in the event of an internal closure, it will be impossible to hold classes. The Palestinian Authority's Education Ministry has been prepared for some time for the possibility of a closure, and has posted many teachers in jobs close to their home so they will not be stuck at the roadblocks. Nevertheless, in case of a stringent internal closure, several hundred teachers will not be able to get to work, and tens of thousands of students will not be able to attend class. In such a case, the ministry's instructions are that every district will act according to the circumstances.
The third scenario - curfew and closure accompanied by military Defensive Wall-type attacks - is more difficult to prepare for. Even without recommendations from medical organizations, people know they have to equip themselves with first aid kits in every home, or at least in every building, and at least a month's supply of medications for the chronically ill. F.'s children have already gone back to sleeping on mattresses, on the floor, along an internal wall. In this way, they are farther from the windows, and if shooting starts again, it will be safer. The talk of war is reviving the fear they felt during the days when bullets were whizzing above their heads and missiles, tank shells and bombs smashed windows, cracked walls, shook the lamps in the house, and knocked dolls and toy cars off their shelves.
It was the children who persuaded F. to fill empty bottles with tap water. According to what they had heard in school, everyone is doing it, they said. Maybe Israel will cut off the water supply, like it once did in Beirut. "This can't happen, and anyway, we have a large water tank on the roof," says the children's mother, trying to reassure them. But the children persisted. What if the soldiers shoot at the water tanks on the roofs? This has happened to thousands of houses in the Al Aroub, Deheisheh, Balata and Jenin refugee camps, and in the cities. Now the porch is filled with bottles full of water.
In worse shape than in 1991
The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry has prepared a stock of medications and oxygen canisters. By yesterday, it was supposed to have completed an emergency plan for dealing with extreme situations of closure and curfew, as well as with the renewal of military attacks. Medical Relief Committees, a large health NGO, has trained 2,000 volunteers over the past year who will be able to provide first aid to the wounded and the sick, an assumption that the conditions of a closure and curfew, especially if accompanied by a massive military presence in the cities, will make ambulance and medical team movements very difficult. Medical Relief Committees has also set up 100 emergency centers in several cities.
The initiative to put together an emergency plan based on various scenarios came from Palestinian NGOs, but apparently their main concern is to keep the lines of communication open and ensure the uninterrupted transmission of information to international organizations in order to prevent the escalation that everyone fears. In the context of the media struggle, representatives of these NGOs have set up an emergency committee together with the Palestinian political organizations and the PA, and they have met with about 25 Israeli activists from 10 organizations. For hours they discussed the possibility of the horror scenarios, and Gush Shalom's Uri Avneri recommended that the expulsion scenario be taken seriously. He noted the acts of deportation in 1967. The Palestinians and the Israelis agreed that it is important to keep many lines of communication open with field activists.
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, the director of Medical Relief Committees and a political activist, explained to representatives of the foreign consulates this week the various scenarios, concentrating on the first three: stringent closure and curfew accompanied by increased military attacks. Barghouti, who with Gaza's Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi last year created the Palestinian National Initiative - an organization trying to fill the vacuum between Fatah and Hamas - spoke about the figure published by the IDF last week saying that only 18 percent of the Palestinians killed during the past two years "were not involved in terror," while the rest, ostensibly, were involved. According to Palestinian human rights organization figures, 85 percent of those killed were civilians.
Barghouti warned the consular representatives of an Israeli campaign of "statistical distortion" that, in his estimation, is intended to prepare the ground for a drastic increase in the number of Palestinian dead. All this under cover of the war with Iraq. The killing of peace activist Rachel Corrie, he said, was not coincidental. In his opinion, it was aimed at frightening the hundreds of young foreign citizens who are spread out throughout the Palestinian villages, refugee camps, and cities trying to serve as a buffer, or at least to report on what is going on.
The worst of the scenarios is mass or internal expulsion, but the less extreme scenarios are also frightening. Barghouti said the ability to deal, on an individual and social level, with a prolonged curfew is far weaker than in 1991. After two-and-a-half years of economic decline as a result of the closure, people and communities do not have the financial resources and state of health they had in 1991.
A seventh scenario - an Iraqi attack involving chemical or biological weapons - does not concern the Palestinian public. "Sealed room" is a term that brings a smile to those who remember with disgust the days of curfew in a crowded home. Ramallah inhabitants are not running out to buy gas masks that are being sold by two pharmacies, which received them from purveyors in Israel. First, they don't have the money, and second, because they don't believe that Saddam Hussein has biological or chemical weapons or that he plans to use them. "The danger that we might face from the Israeli army is far more palpable," says F.