Text size

Zina heard her first shot when she was 13-hours-old. That was when she passed her first APC [armed personnel carrier]. Two hours earlier she had set out for the first adventure of her life, on a journey from the hospital in Nablus, where she was born on Sunday evening, March 23, to her parents' home in the village of Dir al-Hatab, east of Nablus. A taxi brought them to the new Askar refugee camp, which is on a hill overlooking the plain with the three villages of Salem, Dir al-Hatab and Azmout.

In the taxi were her mother, her father, the doctor and her two-year-old brother, Abdallah. Zina could not yet know that the regular road from Nablus to the village - about a seven-minute ride - was completely blocked by an iron gate, dirt hillocks and trenches. An army spokesman: "In recent months, we have come to the realization that terror is making use of the free passage in the area for its own needs. At one time, anyone could cross without any problem via orchards and fields, in the direction of Askar. Everyone drove any which way through the trees. There were several incidents where terrorists infiltrated the Jewish settlements of Elon Moreh and Itamar, mainly via those villages. In the last two weeks there have been two successful infiltrations. For example, a 16-year-old weirdo who came from Askar via Azmout to Elon Moreh. They caught him there, and he said that he wanted to carry out an attack."

On Monday morning, March 24, after getting out of the taxi on Askar hill, Zina, her parents and her brother started almost sliding down on the eastern slope of the hill, on the slippery, muddy path between the rocks. Zina's mother held the baby in her arms, wrapped in a blanket, her father held Abdullah as well as a package of his wife's clothing in his hands; from time to time Zina's mother cried out in panic when she almost slipped.

Zina could not have known that at the end of the slope was an IDF [Israel Defense Forces] unit. It is stationed, along with an APC, next to an asphalt road that was destroyed about a year ago by IDF bulldozers, and leads to the three villages that are home to 11,000 people. She also had no way of knowing that between September and October 2002, the IDF dug two deep trenches along the length of the fields at the foot of the Askar hill. One of the trenches is two meters deep and three meters wide. The other is full of sewage water: The residents of the village say that when the road was being destroyed and the trenches dug, a sewage pipe leading from Nablus was broken.

When Zina's parents reached the end of the slope, one of the soldiers signaled to them to wait. He scolded a man who was carrying several packages and wanted to go west on the dirt road. Meanwhile, the other passersby were detained. Zina's father, a doctor, tried to explain that his wife had given birth less than 24 hours earlier. Finally, "Not after a long time, perhaps a quarter of an hour," says Zina's father, the soldier allowed them to pass without even checking their ID cards. When their backs were turned to him, they heard a shot: The soldier had fired a shot, perhaps to keep away someone who tried to take advantage of the moment and to cross over.

Zina's mother cringed in fright, which made her forget the pains she was still feeling. First they climbed on the mound of mud and broken asphalt fragments at the western end of the demolished road, then walked carefully on the slippery asphalt, and reached the mound of mud and the trench and the fragments of asphalt at the eastern end. They got a little wet from the sewage water mixed with rain.

An army spokesman: "In November-December 2002, in a major IDF operation in Nablus, the trench was dug. The purpose: to prevent unsupervised crossings, with no intention of preventing the crossings altogether. We purposely left two arteries, where the trench does not interfere: a dirt road to the south of the villages, and another traffic artery - blocked, from the west. The idea is to have a force guarding the arteries, and to let people cross freely. There are ways to filter out terrorists from crossing. Because of the rains, the dirt road is not in use at present. The second route was cut. There doesn't have to be a permanent force there, only one that comes and goes, and is backed by an armored vehicle. Once when there was a permanent force at the site, it was fired on from the direction of Askar. It's only a matter of time until a soldier is hurt."

The fast ones run away

But on our visit to the site this week, on Sunday and Monday, the IDF force was stationed there during most of the day. Residents testify that at least in the last two months, there has been a force posted there regularly; it leaves "only in order to change shifts." Members of Physicians for Human Rights who visited the site in February saw the force. They also heard from residents that the force is stationed almost permanently at the end of the demolished road.

Since the heavy rains, the only path is the ruined road. Three weeks ago, a woman teacher slipped into the trench filled with sewage water, and almost drowned.

A military spokesman: "I am not aware of this problem, of sewage water. We'll check again."

Zina's father's says his greatest fear was that a patient in serious condition would come to his clinic in the village, or that he would be called to examine someone who was not feeling well; theoretically an ambulance can be ordered from Nablus, but usually all the arrangements take such a long time that, practically speaking, this possibility is nonexistent. In any case, the sick person has to be carried over the trenches, the mounds of earth, the asphalt and the sewage water, facing the soldiers' rifle butts.

In December 2002, the local pharmacist, a man in his forties, died of a heart attack. In January, a woman from Azmout was forced to give birth at the side of the demolished road and the baby died. In both these cases, it took a long time for help to come.

Vegetables and fresh food are bought in Nablus and brought to the villages on the backs of donkeys, who descend the Askar slope. The difficulties of transportation make it hard for grocery store owners in the three villages to make a living. Many people prefer to carry a few sacks of food home by themselves. When they cross the demolished road, there, at the entrance to the villages, cars and taxis are not allowed to wait for them.

When a few drivers dare to defy the rules of the army, and wait for those crossing the road in order to drive them, they risk a sudden raid by soldiers and Border Police. Anyone who is fast runs away. Anyone who isn't, is in trouble. Sometimes the soldiers break one of his window panes or mirrors. Sometimes they beat him, or simply delay him for hours. M. was fast, and a few days ago he got away from the Border Police who raided the junction. On Monday morning the soldiers returned. The mark of a fresh wound could be seen on his right temple. He says that a soldier hit him with his rifle butt. He didn't want to give identifying details and submit a complaint: "What for? They'll only come back and harass me more."

An army spokesman: "Sometimes soldiers come and take care of the junction. Taking care means they get rid of cars. Of course, there are no instructions to beat people. It's forbidden. But it's forbidden to park cars there, it's forbidden to turn the place into a taxi stand. It's permitted to cross on foot. The reason? Because then the place becomes a `back-to-back' station [transporting merchandise and people from car to car over an area where traffic is forbidden - A.H.] and then we lose control. We blocked the road because we don't want uncontrolled passage of vehicles.

"The patrol that sometimes stands at the site - that's in order to enable the passage of an ambulance for a patient who can't walk, an elderly person, an unfortunate, a dying person who has to pass via a cut-off traffic route. And then we allow `back-to-back.' It has to be coordinated, and then an IDF force comes to see that it's a humanitarian case, food, medicine, anything one can't live without. Not commerce for import-export."

Students improvise

Many who lost their places of work in Israel and in the West Bank have been trying their hands again at agriculture and sheepherding, together with their older parents. But the sheep and goats and chickens need feed. Since the trenches were dug, so that a 4 x 4 vehicle can no longer cross the fields, there is no way of bringing in sufficient quantities of feed. Even for those who manage, there is no way to sell the milk and eggs.

An army spokesman: "Filtering pedestrians crossing the cut-off artery is not a law of nature. It's carried out according to a situation assessment that at present men aged 16-40 are the high- risk populations. They need a transit permit from the LCO (the Liaison Coordination Offices of the Civil Administration). The residents of the Samaria district can cross with the permission of the LCO, which can be obtained by any innocent civilian who is not involved in anything. The work of the LCO is meant to help us distinguish between the innocent and the non-innocent. As for the rest - babies, women - we don't prevent them from crossing. We don't require a permit from the LCO."

In February, activists from Physicians for Human Rights came across about 20 woman students who were detained for hours at a nearby checkpoint. Last week, woman teachers from Nablus were not permitted to cross the road and to reach the elementary school in the village where they teach.

In order to obtain a permit from the LCO, one has to go to the offices of the Civil Administration at the Hawara base, south of Nablus. But this road is closed to Palestinians without a permit.

There are people in the village who have not heard about this order. Others are opposed in principle to receiving a transit permit from Israel within the area of the West Bank. High school students, those in the "high risk" category, who study in Nablus, improvise each time: They leave for Nablus via muddy fields that are far from the eyes of the soldiers. Sometimes, residents testify, soldiers shoot at the "escapees," as they put it. Getting back is easier. If your identity card says that your place of residence is Salem or Azmout, the soldiers don't insist on knowing how someone in this dangerous age group landed in Nablus. Sometimes people are detained for hours alongside the soldiers.

An army spokesman: "The amount of time depends on the Shin Bet security service. We pass along the name and the ID number to the Shin Bet by phone. There's a heavy workload, there are a lot of checkpoints, and these are things that prove themselves, because huge numbers of wanted people have been caught this way. Estimated time: an hour or two at most."

Once every few days the physicians' association receives urgent phone calls: A number of people, including women, are being held up at the checkpoint. For an hour or two already. In the rain and the cold. The residents see it as an act of punishment. As it seemed on Monday to four men aged 29-40, who came down from Askar in the direction of their villages. A loud telephone call to the IDF spokesman, next to the soldiers, led to an immediate order to the four to take their ID cards and leave, after they had been detained for over an hour.

The rare presence of a journalist or a team of human rights activists, they say in the villages, speeds up the crossing process.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel [ACRI], the physicians' association and a resident of Azmout who works for the Red Crescent in Nablus submitted a petition to the Supreme Court on Monday protesting the total blockage of the three villages. They spelled out the harsh consequences of this blockage in terms of access to health services, a livelihood and education. They mentioned in the petition that about two years ago the Supreme Court rejected petitions against the internal closure, after receiving the army's explanation that for every Palestinian community that is blocked, there is one artery that allows for direct motor traffic.

The petition said this promise is not being kept in regard to the three villages Azmout, Salem and Dir al-Hatab. There is a road that bypasses the village from the south and the east and reaches Elon Moreh, but the path that connects Dir al-Hatab has been closed, and a tank has been placed in the junction leading from the road to Azmout.

Aside from army jeeps, nobody travels on this road. Once every few weeks a Red Cross truck arrives, after long and careful coordination with the IDF, and brings food to the villages. As though it were a drought-stricken area.

The IDF said that as soon as the rainy season ends, they intend to pave a traffic artery on the southern dirt road, which is presently not in use because of the rain and mud. It will be a monitored route, with a permanent force stationed at its end.

On Monday afternoon, heavy rain began to fall. Residents of the villages who were afraid to slide on the slope or to drown in the mud were stuck in the Askar camp. Woman teachers who live in Nablus and were afraid of slipping on the ground, which was as slippery as ice, were stuck in the villages. The villages were completely cut off from their surroundings.

And the father of baby Zina, who was already 16-hours-old, thanked God that his family had arrived home before the heavy rain.