Twilight Zone / Blood on the tracks
Ibrahim Sirhan bled to death after being shot by Israeli soldiers last week in al-Fari’a, a refugee camp near Nablus that can’t escape its tortured past.
The many signs of blood tell the story. First you see the stains: Large, dark bloodstains on the ground in the alley, one stain after another, where Ibrahim Sirhan was shot and wounded as he started to run. The stains give way to a trail of blood, a long, narrow strip of drops of blood, continuing unbroken for dozens of meters, winding through the alleys. Here he tried to escape while he still had energy (and blood). Afterward, another large, viscous stain is visible − this is where he collapsed − followed immediately by signs of dragging, where blood is smeared along the narrow road, marking the place where two girls came to his rescue in the dead of night. And finally the last drops of blood, at the spot where a camp resident, Abu Nidal, lifted him up and carried him into his home.
This is how we followed the final journey of Ibrahim Sirhan, from the al-Fari’a refugee camp near Nablus, who last Wednesday night ran in fear of the soldiers who instructed him to stop. The soldiers were standing next to the camp’s butcher shop, in the place where a donkey now stands. Sirhan and his cousin, Osama, were on the way to their grandfather’s house after early-morning prayers at the mosque. As they passed the Adam Beauty Salon, soldiers suddenly called out to them to stop. Osama stopped and was arrested; Ibrahim ran for his life, though it’s not clear why. The soldiers apparently fired one bullet, which struck him in both legs and ruptured the arteries. He kept on running, leaving behind this trail of blood, until he collapsed in one of the alleys, bleeding to death. He was 21.
The soldiers gave chase in the wake of the bloodstains and apprehended him, close to death, in one of the houses of the neighborhood. Why did they use live ammunition? Why shoot a young man who is not even wanted? And why, in this period of quiet, is it still necessary to raid these refugee camps in the middle of the night?
These are questions no one will answer. The IDF Spokesman does his duty by releasing the usual short, standard response: “The investigative unit of the Military Police is conducting an inquiry into the matter, following which the findings will be transmitted to the Military Advocate General’s Office for perusal and his opinion.”
Al-Fari’a is a remote refugee camp which lies northeast of Nablus. Some 7,000 refugees live amid the garbage-strewn streets; it’s one of the most dilapidated and destitute of the West Bank camps. The homes seem to be heaped in jumbles, with unfinished extensions jutting out from cube-like structures, gray and dense, the buildings abutting one other, one of them painted red. In the center of the camp is a spectacular British fortress made of stone, which during the occupation years was the notorious Israeli-run al-Fari’a prison and is now a Palestinian community center.
A row of white-plastered cypress trees lines the courtyard of the former prison, the office walls are covered in green paint (thanks to donations from Sweden). The pastoral scene cannot cover the terrible past of this place. In every room which was formerly a detention cell, a Palestinian manager now sits with a phone − some of the community center staff were jailed here in the past. Our two escorts − Atef Abu Rob, a regional field-worker for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, and Omar Abu Hasan, a camp activist − were also jailed here in the late 1980s, in the room which is now occupied by the director of the community center.
They take us to the rear wing of the prison, which hasn’t been renovated − the wing where the Shin Bet security service conducted interrogations and perpetrated torture. Anyone who wants to know how the Shin Bet interrogated Palestinian detainees, how they tortured them and with what appalling instruments they pressured them to become collaborators, is invited to visit this place.
Words are inadequate. The sights are straight out of Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi prisoners were tortured by members of the U.S. army. Here, in the courtyard, is where Abu Rob was tied to the wall and, bound and blindfolded, spent nine successive days, with two one-minute toilet breaks a day. Here are the solitary confinement cells, excruciatingly narrow; here the concrete cubes on which the lucky prisoners were made to stay for days and nights at a time, bound hand and foot, two of them on each cube, back to back, in rain and sun. Here are the isolation rooms, the “asfurs,” and here, in a tiny hut in the inner courtyard, under a pine tree, is where those being interrogated were tied to a hook by their hands for protracted periods, until they agreed to talk.
Remnants of air-conditioning units hang over the interrogation rooms − they cooled the abusive interrogators − along with signs in Hebrew: “Parking for base vehicles only”; “Inmates’ kitchen”; and others. In the warders’ dining room, there is still a wall painting done by the late prisoner Rusul Abu Sah, in 1983, to pleasure his jailers and torturers: streams of water and snowcapped peaks, the usual Palestinian dream world.
The painter/prisoner Abu Sah was killed by the Israel Defense Forces a few years later.
Another wall painting, in black, in one of the solitary confinement cells, shows a detainee tied to the wall, his two arms spread to the sides, as though being crucified. Our escorts demonstrate the various and bizarre types of binding, evoke nightmarish memories with a bitter smile, reveal scars and rattle the old iron bars, as was done before counts. On the floor of the yard, the markings for the position of each prisoner tied to the wall are still visible, about 20-30 centimeters each. There are a dozen of these binding stations in the yard, like in a barn. On the walls behind are engraved the names of those who underwent torture. One of them wrote: “From Majdi.”
You don’t need reports, commissions of inquiry or testimonies. It’s enough to visit this place in order to understand what was perpetrated here and the crimes in which Israel’s finest were implicated here until a few years ago. They are still among us, their conscience apparently none the worse for wear.
A Palestinian flag flaps in the wind. On the wall of a neglected soccer field next to the prison, someone has scrawled “Free words in a free world” and “The right of return never loses its validity.” There are also photographs of four of the camp’s martyrs, who were killed on one day in the summer of 2007. A photo of the last martyr, for the time being, Ibrahim Sirhan, who was killed last week, hangs on the wall of the Computer World store.
The deceased’s family, all of whom are apparently religiously observant, are huddled in their home. The father, Omar, who owns a meager grocery store, has a beard like a rabbi from Yitzhar; the mother, Rasmiya, wears a white kerchief. On the morning his son was killed, Omar was about to leave for Mecca. His bags were already packed and everyone was excited ahead of the traditional ceremony of farewell for pilgrims. And then the bitter news arrived.
At first Omar thought his son had been only lightly wounded and he contemplated going ahead to Tubas, the place of departure for the pilgrims, but he soon learned the truth. The day before, he had turned the management of the grocery store over to Ibrahim, a science student at An-Najah University in Nablus who had to drop out this year due to the family’s economic situation and was working in agriculture. Ibrahim wanted to be a teacher.
Dates rolled up in paper napkins are served with bitter coffee. Omar and Rasmiya had nine children. On his last night, Ibrahim came home late from the grocery store − usually there was a soccer game or a basketball game at the community center until quite late, but not that night. He and his cousin, Taimoor, who is nicknamed “the Russian” because his mother is Russian, slept on the roof of the house. Everyone here sleeps on the roof in the summer, because of the heat. Ibrahim woke up at 4 A.M. for the morning prayers and took leave of his father.
Abu Hasan, our escort, says that he had already suspected at around 1 A.M. that the Israeli army was about to invade the camp. A chorus of dogs started barking nervously, and the noise they made echoed far and wide. “I knew it was going to be a bad night,” he says, but it was only at 6:30 A.M. that he awoke to the sound of the mosque loudspeaker announcing that the camp had another martyr.
Ibrahim went to the mosque. He was shot on the way back. Osama, his cousin, who stopped at the order of the soldiers, told the family that the soldiers asked him who the person who ran away was. Why did he run? Maybe he panicked. When I tell the family that the IDF claimed Ibrahim had run away to warn the camp’s wanted individuals, his mother leaps up angrily: “That is a lie. The army is lying. How could the soldiers know why he ran? It is propaganda.”
The IDF had apparently gone in to try to capture − not for the first time − the number-one wanted man in the camp, Samir Rula. Two years ago, a member of the Sirhan family, who looks like Rula, was accidentally shot and wounded. People here claim that Rula is actually incarcerated in a Palestinian prison. Now they want to make it clear that there is no connection between Rula and their Ibrahim: “They are not neighbors, not relatives, not friends − nothing.”
The family did not hear the shot that killed Ibrahim. When Ibrahim collapsed, he called out with his last remaining strength to his friend Muaad, who lives in the adjacent house, “Muaad ... bleeding ... army.” A few minutes later, the family got a call from Abu Nidal, who had gone out and carried the dying Ibrahim into his house. “Ibrahim is wounded and bleeding, here in our house,” he said, and hung up. Neighbors warned them not to go near the house, because of the soldiers. Omar, the father, remained at home, still hoping to leave for Mecca, and when the mother reached the house where her son had been, all that remained was a pair of blood-soaked jeans he had been wearing. “If you wounded him, why did you chase him?” she now asks.
The soldiers arrived in Abu Nidal’s house a few minutes after Ibrahim was carried inside.
They took him out and tried to stop the bleeding. A Palestinian ambulance summoned by Abu Nidal arrived a few minutes later and took Ibrahim to Rafidiyeh Hospital in Nablus, where he died shortly afterward, after losing massive amounts of blood from the wounds in his legs.