Text size

The Assad family always makes sure to pay its property taxes to the Jerusalem Municipality for the one-story house it owns. Fatma Assad, 50, is a math teacher at a girls' school run by the municipality in Beit Hanina. She is also a member of the Israel Teachers' Union. Just one week ago, her 16-year-old daughter received an identity card from the Interior Ministry office in East Jerusalem - but not before Fatma spent nine consecutive days waiting in line, in vain. Eventually, Fatma decided she would wait in line overnight, along with intimidating men carrying long knives, who will reserve a place in line for anyone willing to pay. A quintessentially Palestinian-Jerusalemite experience. The fact that, unlike his wife and children, Dr. Sami Assad - a 52-year-old orthopedist - does not hold an Israeli ID card is also very typical of life in Jerusalem: He was studying overseas when Israel held a census of residents in his neighborhood, which had been annexed to Jerusalem. Sami was left with just his West Bank identity card.

Despite this typical "Jerusalem-ness," the separation fence encompassing the greater municipal area, which Israel is currently erecting some 30 meters from the Assad's yard, leaves the family home on the non-Jerusalem side of the divide.

The Assad family lives on a small hill adjacent to the northern edge of the airfield at Qalandiyah (Atarot). On their municipal tax form, it states that the Assad family lives in the Qalandiyah refugee camp. While it is true that they are refugees, the family lives on land in the village of Qalandiyah that Sami's family managed to buy in the 1950s. The Jerusalem Municipality does not provide them with any services in exchange for the tax: no garbage collection, no street lights, and no reparations of the badly damaged roads and sidewalks.

The village is located on the western side of the road connecting Jerusalem and Ramallah. Opposite the village is the refugee camp that bears the same name. A wide strip of houses and neighborhoods, along the western side of the road, and stretching five kilometers northward to the outskirts of Ramallah- El Bireh, has been annexed to Jerusalem. All those who work, study, receive medical treatment and pay taxes in Jerusalem live to the north of the fence that is suppose to separate between the city and the West Bank.

As absurd as it sounds, those who live to the south of the fence, in the A-Ram neighborhood - which belongs to the West Bank in terms of administration, and most of whose residents carry West Bank identity cards - will be inside the so-called Jerusalem envelope.

"Complicated?" asks Dr. Sami Assad, with his characteristically broad laugh, which lights up his whole face, pushes his glasses up, wrinkles his forehead and moves his graying hair. Even when he is describing the route he has to take to his clinic in Bethlehem, he is laughing: For several months he carried a travel permit, which he used to show to the soldiers at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, he related.

"Until an officer showed up and took me to one side and told me that I don't even need a permit since I have passed the minimum age (45). Also, as a physician, I don't need one. They wasted a permit on me for no reason." He even laughs when he talks about the hardships. Since he is not allowed to cross through Jerusalem in order to get to his clinic in Bethlehem, he is sometimes delayed for hours at roadblocks, during which time he gets out a book and starts reading. "I have just finished Menachem Begin's `Revolt,'" he says.

Like in 1967

Sometimes Assad is force to climb, like everyone else, a steep road. After work, he hurries back to Qalandiyah, because he knows that he will have patients waiting for him between six and nine every night. They even come from as far away as Jenin. Even when he is describing the soldiers who spent a day on the roof of his house, the laugh is in evidence.

Two weeks ago, he related, the soldiers clambered up onto the roof, and set up a barricade of sandbags. "Pay no attention to us," they told members of the family, but the sound of their footsteps echoing throughout the house was hard to ignore. One soldier, who was down in the yard, spotted Sami and pointed his gun at him.

"I started to talk with him, as I always do with the soldiers, while he continued to aim his weapon at me," said Assad, with a thunderous laugh. "I told him: I'm trying to talk to you like a human being, put your gun down. What are you afraid of?"

His laugh is a sort of declaration: What a crazy reality. But Assad stops laughing when he starts talking about what happened the very next day, when an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer came to plow up the splendid orchard his mother planted 30 or 40 years ago.

"We thought we could recreate Beit Makhsir" on the small hill, says Assad, a reference to the village his family was expelled from in 1948. The orchard was stocked with the best of trees and plants that the land can give: olive and strawberry trees, figs and vines and almonds and peaches. "We had our own private paradise," says Fatma.

Since the start of the intifada, the IDF has sent in bulldozers on three separate occasions, until the orchard was completely destroyed. Children, primarily from the Qalandiyah refugee camp, hid among the trees and threw stones at soldiers manning the roadblock, hundreds of meters away. "You are not preventing these children from throwing rocks from your land," soldiers told the family. So the area was laid bare.

The first time, the soldiers uprooted the trees closest to the road; the second time, trees in the center of the plot were chopped down; and, some two weeks ago, the army came to cut down - "within two hours" - the 100 or so remaining trees. Meters from where Fatma hangs the family's laundry, a row of trees went up in flames after soldiers threw a stun grenade. The family has managed to replant some 50 of the stumps. The last time, "after several trees had already been uprooted, I saw that the soldier driving the bulldozer didn't want to continue," says Fatma. He stopped, officers came, they argued and then the soldier continued. "We could see that it pained him."

During the bulldozer operation, a shouting, crying, cursing Fatma walked about between the soldiers. One of the soldiers pointed his gun at her, and demanded that she stop crying or go indoors. She went on crying, shouting and cursing, however. Another soldier tried to calm down his friend. "She's having her trees uprooted," he said. "You want her to remain silent?"

The first time a bulldozer came to their property, says Fatma, "all the feelings I had in 1967, when I was 14 and we were expelled from our village, came flooding back." In 1948, after the destruction of Beit Makhsir, Fatma's parents moved to Amwas, close to the Trappist monastery at Latrun. There she was born, in the fields of the monastery that her father rented, with its orchards, its sheep and cattle, and the horses she rode so well at an early age. Suddenly, in 1967, "they came and moved us all into the monastery. For two weeks we weren't allowed back in our homes. Then they put us on buses and drove us to the east. The windows of the bus were covered up, and we were told not to look out. But, being a child, I looked anyway, and some huge bulldozer was tearing down our house, which was right on the main road. Where Amwas and two other villages used to stand, the Canada Park recreation site can now be found.

"I did not even know that all that pain was still alive deep down inside me," says Fatma. "I was shocked by myself, by all the emotions that I find hard to even put into words: the sadness, the pain, the rage, the hatred, the fear. Everything together."

Lessening the input

According to soldiers at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, the area is a dangerous one. Some two months ago, said one of the soldiers, an antitank missile was fired at the IDF base in the area. At night, there is occasional gunfire. An incendiary device was found at the side of the runway at the disused airfield, which is now used by army vehicles. According to the soldiers, the local children do not just throw stones - they also hurl petrol bombs at troops.

Fatma and Sami Assad find it hard to identify any serious military activity, or even exchanges of fire, on the part of the Palestinians. "One time, a young lad came and stood behind a tree," relates Fatma. "He fired four or five shots in the air and fled. I said to myself - now the soldiers will return fire. Sure enough, they immediately began shooting with everything in their arsenal for 90 minutes."

From the family's point of view, the Palestinian's shots were no more than an act of showing off: the helpless actions of unprotected youths, as effective as stone-throwing. "Children would climb up the hill and would throw stones at the soldiers - but they were so far away they couldn't even hit them," says Fatma. "The soldiers used the stone-throwing as a pretext for approaching the house and shooting."

The soldiers use gas and stun grenades, rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition. All of the windows on the house's southern wall have been shattered by bullets, and all the anti- mosquito netting is torn. In place of windows, the family has put up layers of tin and wood, in the hope that they will lessen the impact of the bullets. At the start of the intifada, the family would crowd into a room on the northern side of the house, from where they could hear the sound of the bullets smashing into the windows of the clinic, the kitchen, the living room and their daughter's room.

Two of Fatma's children have been wounded more than once by rubber bullets, and she herself was hurt when a bullet grazed her head. She was standing in the entrance to her house, hurrying her children inside, when the shooting intensified. If she had moved her head just a fraction, the bullet would have hit her. One of the four children who have been killed on the hill was Fatma's cousin, 14-year-old Omar Matar, from the Qalandiyah refugee camp, who died some six months ago.

"When he used to come up onto the hill I would shout at him to drive him away," she says. "The oldest boys were about 15. `Why are you throwing stones?' I would ask them. `To end the occupation,' was always their answer. `This is what will end the occupation?' I asked, to which they replied that they had nothing else to use. `But you know that the soldiers respond to your stones by shooting at you. You could die,' I said to them. `So we'll die,' was the answer. I tried to tell them that they are still young, that they have their whole lives ahead of them. But the kids would reply, `This is not a life.' I am not angry at them, but I am angry at the situation in which, instead of thinking about their future, about games and about a profession, they lose their lives for a stone that achieves nothing."

Now, with the only thing separating them from the separation fence (actually two barbed-wire fences, a row of concrete slabs and a ditch in the middle) being their painfully exposed land, they wonder how it will affect their lives.

"We don't know what will happen with the open-fire orders: If we are inside our area, 10 meters from the fence, will they shoot at us? And if someone else approaches the fence, how many people will be shot at in response? Is our house in danger of being demolished?" Fatma Assad says of herself that "for my children's sake I pretend that I am not afraid, but inside I am frightened. About the future. About the present. We all live the whole time on the edge. Any minute someone could come, or something could happen, they could demolish our home, uproot the trees we have replanted - someone could get killed."

It is, indeed, hard to discern any outward signs of fear. Once, the soldiers closed down the Qalandiyah roadblock when she was on her way home. "Go home," one of them yelled at her. "That's exactly what I'm trying to do," she said, "but you won't let me get past." In the end, she decided to sit down on a concrete block, and refused to move. "There's no law against me sitting on a concrete block," she told the soldiers. After some tough negotiations, she was allowed to go home.

Sometimes, after clashes between soldiers and local youths, the troops would come into the family's yard, and would strike up a conversation with Fatma. Her conversations with them are easy, and they ask her to make them tea or coffee. "I always refuse," she says. "I tell them, when you come here without your uniforms and without your weapons - ahalan wasahalam - you'll be welcome. But as soldiers? Never."