The rooftop youth of Nablus
In the old city and in the Balata refugee camp, where most of the wanted suspects of Nablus are concentrated, there is no end to the gunfire and the fear.
In the old city of Nablus, they hate the night. Nearly every night, people say, it is impossible to sleep because of the gunfire. People shrink into inner rooms, trying to guess where the gunfire is coming from, where the soldiers are hiding, where they are aiming, what was that blast they just heard, why those people are shouting, when the soldiers might finally leave. In the evening, people hurry home to shut themselves in, so as not to come across the army. In the morning, they only dare to step outside long after sunrise, and only when the first sounds of civilian vehicles can be heard in the streets outside the old city. In other words, when it is clear that the army has departed the alleyways. And during the day, even when the alleys are bustling with people, the shops are open, the wagons of the peddlers are rolling - the voices are restrained, sad, subjugated, low. As opposed to the clamorous colorfulness of the hundreds of posters that extol the memory of the shahids.
A total of 213 Palestinians were killed in Nablus between September 29, 2000 and July 20, 2004 (according to B'Tselem figures). About half were killed in the old city, which has a population of 30,000. Twenty-three Palestinians were killed in Nablus between June 1 and July 20, 2004 (according to data amassed by the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group). Of that number, 12 were killed in the old city and six in the Balata refugee camp. Most of the men sought by the Israeli armed forces are concentrated in the old city and Balata, meaning that the IDF raids are a nearly everyday event. And raids mean gunfire and fear. A senior army source claims that the IDF knows that many residents are fed up with the wanted men living in their midst. But in the old city, even residents who do not hesitate to express their anger at the wanted men will stress that they saw and continue to see the Israeli occupation army as responsible, as the guilty party.
"In four years, we've aged forty years, there's so much death around us," explains one man, when asked the meaning of the silence that hovers over the old stone buildings; they are linked to one another in mazes of inner courtyards, arches, dome roofs, stairwells that ascend to unseen corners, different levels of roofs and the porches hidden between them, heavy with ornamental plants that flower in a variety of colors and shapes, climbing from old pails and plastic and tin containers.
Mohammed Fouqaha was killed on one of these roofs. It happened on June 25, a Friday, around 5:00 p.m. The old city was then under its second successive day of full curfew, during an operation to capture wanted men. The Israeli media focused on the seven wanted men who were killed the following day, Saturday, but for the residents of Nablus - and of the old city in particular, what happened that Friday confirms all their fears.
A neighbor of the Fouqaha family heard the sound of something falling on the roof of her home. She thought that children had climbed on the roof to throw stones at soldiers, and sent her son to scold them. That was all she needed - for soldiers to start shooting and for someone in her own home to be hit. The son climbed a ladder that leads to the roof and yelled down to his mother: "Mom, it's Hamud (a pet name for Muhammad), it's Hamud."
The IDF says that Fouqaha, a 17-year-old high school student, was about to throw a cooking gas balloon at army forces operating in the old city; he was spotted and then shot at from an observation post. The neighbor and her son swear that they did not seen any gas balloon near the body. His parents are convinced that he just wanted to get away from the curfew, climbed from one roof to the next, maybe on his way to a friend's house. People in the neighborhood are sure that the nervous soldiers are afraid of every rustle and are quick to shoot, and then afterwards fabricate gas balloons and explosive charges. The IDF says that that is the method: set off and throw explosive charges from the roofs in the old city.
In the neighborhood, they say the IDF exaggerates the capabilities and intentions of the people in the old city, in order to justify the killing of civilians.
Indeed, Muhammad's oldest brother, Jamal, is a wanted man - a member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. But at home, they did not have the impression that the younger brother was interested in following in Jamal's footsteps. "What have they seen in their lives, what can they look forward to? They were born into the first intifada," says the father, pointing toward the two empty beds - out of four - in the small children's room. According to B'Tselem, seven 17-year-olds have been killed in Nablus since September 2000.
And on one of these porches, about six hours later, Ihab Islim, 18, was killed by IDF gunfire. His brother Baha, 15, suffered serious facial wounds and is still hospitalized: he lost an eye and will need a series of operations to rebuild his jaw, nose and cheek. Their father, Maher, suffered head injuries but has already been released from hospital. In this case, even the army admits that civilians were wounded. According to B'Tselem, three 18-year-olds have been killed in Nablus by IDF gunfire since September 2000.
The Islim family - the parents, two sons and three daughters - has for 15 years lived in a rented apartment in the Yasmina quarter. It consists of three small bedrooms arranged around a living room, high ceilings, basic furnishings that are decades old, a few ornamental items, a grandfather clock and decorative floor tiles. They have not paid rent for the past two years, like most residents of the old city who rent. The father's salary (he is employed by the Nablus Municipality's maintenance department) was cut, due to the situation. Ihab left school two years ago in order to help the family make ends meet, but had a hard time finding work. He'd begun working again, in construction, five days before his death.
Twice, in 2002, soldiers broke through the walls of their apartment, in passing from one house to the other. The first time, Ihab was arrested for five days and then released. The second time, Maher, 55, was arrested for three days. On the first occasion, an army unit took over the home for six days; the members of the family were restricted to one of the rooms. Now, the traumas of 2002 are dwarfed by the loss of their son.
Military sources report that on June 25, "at approximately 10:00 p.m., two figures were spotted crawling on the roof of the house. It should be recalled that the modus operandi in the kasbah (old city) is to throw or set off explosive devices from roofs. The two figures hid behind a solar water heater. The soldiers who spotted them shot at one of the figures, right underneath houses in which IDF was operating at the time. The assumption was that they were about to operate an explosive charge, and therefore fire was initiated. It turned out that we hit innocent people, but the soldier received authorization to fire on the basis of this description, which was given in real time. This is not an excuse, concocted post facto. Due to the irregular time of day and the irregular situation, the order was given to shoot."
That Friday night, the Islim family was sitting in the living room of their home. Voices could be heard emanating from what had been the silence outside. Ihab and Mohammed recognized the voices of their friends, who live in the apartment across the way, on the other side of the narrow alley. The voices of their friends and the boredom of two days of imprisonment under curfew encouraged the boys to go out onto the porch to get a little air and chat with their friends. It is a deep porch, surrounded by relatively high walls. The father and two younger daughters then joined the two older boys. The mother, Nadia, remained inside. "Come on out," Ihad yelled to her. "There's an unusual light in the alley." The mother said she was afraid, that maybe the soldiers were in the area, but Ihab calmed her, and said that everyone was "outside" (in other words, by the windows or on the porches). "The truth is that Ihab and Baha were the types that were usually scared, not the sort that run outside whenever something happens," the mother recalls. The alley is narrow, and army jeeps don't enter it. The roofs of the neighboring apartments close in on the porch, so it is impossible to see what is going on in the adjoining streets.
The mother stepped outside. The air was pleasant. Her sons were standing on a step that runs the length of the outer wall of the porch, leaning on the railing, talking with their friends. All of a sudden, recalls Nadia, "There was a huge boom, and I saw Ihab fall. I thought it was from the shock wave - my other son and my husband also fell, as did the two girls (the third daughter is married). I don't know how, but I did not fall. I told my older son to come inside, but he didn't get up. I thought that out of fear he couldn't get up, so I got closer to him in order to pick him up and I saw a pool of blood. I started yelling to his father, `Maher, Maher, come and see, Ihab is hurt.' Maher was lying on the floor, dizzy, he opened his eyes, and I saw blood dripping from his head. The girls were injured very lightly from shrapnel. Then we saw that the other son was also dripping blood, we couldn't figure out where they'd been wounded, we picked them up and brought them inside, into the light. We laid them down on the sofas, everything was filled with blood, the floor, the upholstery. I don't know how I held them, I never could stand the sight of blood. I don't even know the type of weapon that hit them." Her sons' faces were disfigured. She saw pulps of flesh, skin and blood. "Ihab's eyes seemed to have been pumped out, were pressed inward toward the skull, a stream of blood burst from his throat."
She started to kick at the front door, from within, kicking at it and calling for help. Her screams and the kicking at the door echoed through the entire neighborhood, and beyond. After a few minutes, she could no longer deal with the sense of helplessness, and went out into the street wearing her bloodstained pajamas, shouting, "My children are dead, my children are dead." She headed to an emergency room 20 meters down the alley, which is operated by the Medical Relief Committees, one of the non-governmental health organizations that operate in the city. But she says that the medical crew had to contend with gunfire from soldiers, and was not immediately successful in reaching the apartment and arranging for the evacuation to hospital of the two sons.
Her son Baha regained consciousness a few days later. He still cannot talk, and communicated with his visitors through a cell phone keypad, on which he types out messages. A physician and a psychologist have gently informed him that his brother was killed and that he himself lost an eye. Upon hearing this, he began beating himself with his two hands.