America Comes to Beit Rima

"Has America come to our village?" asked four-year-old Omar, a resident of Beit Rima, as he lay shivering in his mother's arms while incessant shooting could be heard outside.

"Has America come to our village?" asked four-year-old Omar, a resident of Beit Rima, as he lay shivering in his mother's arms while incessant shooting could be heard outside. The shooting was coming from helicopter gunships, tanks, machine guns and assault rifles. There was also the din produced by moving tanks and the engines of dozens of other military vehicles.

Omar was not the only person who associated what was happening in Beit Rima with the war in Afghanistan.

An Israeli soldier, one of those who surrounded three houses that were later blown up by the Israel Defense Forces, said to a resident of one of the homes: "If you ask me, [Osama] bin Laden is right here in Beit Rima." This was reported by an inhabitant of one of the three houses, a young Palestinian who has worked in Israel and knows Hebrew.

On October 24, 2001, a large military force made a point of demonstrating the IDF's immense military might to the inhabitants of this village, population 4,000. According to the IDF, the terrorists who carried out the attack on the Sbarro restaurant in downtown Jerusalem and the assassins of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi came from this village.

What happened in Beit Rima last week is, in microcosm, what has been happening in the territories over the past 12 months, as massive military forces have daily demonstrated the might of the IDF to Palestinians.

The initial impression created by reports from the IDF troops in Beit Rima was that the Israeli forces were fighting armed Palestinians. The commander of the Nahal Brigade, Colonel Yair Golan, told correspondents that "a short while before Israeli forces entered the village, they were fired upon. The Israeli soldiers returned fire, accompanied by fire from Israel Air Force helicopter gunships."

This description of the confrontation between the IDF and the Palestinians has also become a standard text over the past year: The two forces confronting each other are evenly matched, merely by virtue of the fact that they are confronting each other; the IDF does not initiate actions, but only reacts to actions initiated by the Palestinians.

The IDF also claims that "immediately prior to the start of the operation in Beit Rima, the Palestinians were informed that they must remain in their positions and that they must show no resistance." Possibly, this is what happened. And possibly, there is no truth to the report from Palestinian sources that the announcement was made at 3 A.M., about an hour after Israeli helicopter gunships began using heavy weapons to fire upon the area of Beit Rima's town hall and upon a Palestinian National Security forces position. According to the IDF, despite the announcement, "armed Palestinian police officers who were in the town hall at the time opened fire on IDF troops." If IDF soldiers were shot at from the town hall, why did an Israeli helicopter gunship also fire incessantly at the National Security forces' prefabricated structure at 2 A.M.? Three persons in this outpost were killed and the remaining three were wounded.

There were about 10 police officers in the local police station, or more precisely, around the police station - that is, in the olive orchard where the police officers have been spending their nights recently because they are afraid of being hit in the shelling attacks. Two police officers were killed and five wounded. The IDF "positively identified about 20 armed Palestinians, some of whom opened fire on IDF forces." Did these armed Palestinians direct their fire at the helicopter gunship? Or at the large number of armed Israeli troops who reached the village by foot from every possible direction and who were virtually invisible in the dark until two Palestinian police officers who were trying to escape were hit by their bullets? Possibly. A member of the Palestinian National Security force has testified that he heard about 50 rounds of fire from an AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle - but only after the Israelis had opened fire. There were no casualties among the Israeli soldiers.

In one of the houses that was blown up, IDF troops displayed a combination of tiredness and power. While a number of Israeli soldiers carried explosive materials into the house, some of their comrades stretched out on the family's mattresses on the floor and lay down for a rest. They rested for several hours, while the mother and five children who live in the house remained in the stairwell, receiving permission to leave that part of the house only to go to the washroom.

In the three powerful explosions, houses in the vicinity sustained serious damage. Clothes flew out of closets that were blown apart and landed in the branches of trees. Beit Rima and other villages in the area suffered a power outage. These houses, explained the IDF, were the houses of Palestinian terrorists, who were directly involved in massive and extremely grave terror attacks.

A fourth house was consumed by flames, although it did not belong to a suspected terrorist. The Israeli soldiers did not believe the neighbors that the inhabitants of that house were stranded in Ramallah because of the curfew imposed on the northern part of El Bireh. Through a window they had smashed, the soldiers hurled a tear gas grenade and a shock grenade into the shut house. The two grenades started a fire that ultimately consumed everything in the house.

There are always discrepancies between Palestinian and Israeli reports, although sometimes the differences are rather bizarre. In this particular case, the Palestinians reported that they put up "stiff resistance" that prevented the progress of the Israeli troops, especially in the direction of the Palestinian refugee camps. On the other hand, the IDF reported that it encountered insignificant resistance. The Palestinians know that in the face of the IDF's demonstrative might, the chances of their armed compatriots offering much resistance are very slim. Sometimes, an appropriate term for resistance under such conditions would be "suicide."

The IDF explains that the entire operation in Beit Rima, including the demolition of the three houses, "was carried out in the context of the struggle against Palestinian terror, the aim being to prevent, to the greatest extent possible, additional grave terror attacks." Have the Palestinians drawn a similar conclusion from the demonstration of the IDF's might? On the day after the operation, one of the villagers said he now hoped that "those who are called terrorists by Israel will multiply." Meanwhile, four-year-old Omar asks his mother: "When we die, will we at least be able to rest in paradise after all this?"