How Fire at an Israeli Settlement Sparked Closure of a Palestinian Village

After several houses in Halamish went up in flames two weeks ago, the Israeli army closed off Deir Nizam and turned one home into a military outpost. And then the problem really flared.

Children in the West Bank village of Deir Nizam, December 8, 2016.
Amira Hass

“Why did you only come today?” the 65-year-old man from the West Bank village of Deir Nizam asked bitterly. “You should have come a few days ago. How could you not know that the village was closed off, that it was completely sealed?”

But another man of a similar age, sitting beside him on the steps of the village mosque at noon on Thursday, welcomed me more graciously. “If you want, after prayers I’ll take you to a house the army has taken over,” he offered.

A few other elderly people, one with the aid of a cane, walked slowly up the street. They climbed the steps and disappeared into the mosque, and the street was empty.

The curves in the silent street led me to a small plaza where two teens were sitting beside a stone building, staring heavenward and then, with curious smiles, at the car with the yellow Israeli license plates.

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“Have you by any chance been arrested in the last two weeks?” I asked them. The Palestinian press had reported that children from Deir Nizam were arrested after last month’s fire in the settlement of Halamish, but later released.

“We weren’t arrested,” one replied. “But look, in a little while the kids will be leaving school and some of them were arrested.”

I found one boy who had been arrested just over a week before among the first bunch of kids who came out and congregated around us. He said he was 13 but looked no more than 11.

As the number of children surrounding us grew, so did the number who said they had been arrested. But others said it wasn’t true; those boys hadn’t been arrested. The street isn’t the place to collect reliable testimony.

Aisha Tamimi, 73, holding the canister of a stun grenade that was fired at her in Deir Nizam, December 8, 2016.
Amira Hass

Later, Iyad Haddad – a researcher for the B’Tselem organization – told me that five residents, aged between 13 and 21, had been arrested and then released (including the 13-year-old boy who looked like he was 11). The oldest was freed after less than a day, and the younger ones after a few hours. Some were held at the Nabi Saleh pillbox; others at the military outpost in Halamish. One was taken to the Binyamin police station.

Immediately after the fire at Halamish, which broke out on the night of Friday, November 25, the army blocked two of the three access roads to Deir Nizam. On the third, it stationed soldiers who blocked all vehicular traffic, and sometimes even pedestrians as well. That same day, the army blocked the main entrances to other villages in the area, using iron gates erected more than a decade ago during the second intifada, or various other methods.

But the closure of Deir Nizam has continued to this day. Cars have been allowed to enter since Wednesday, but two access roads – the western and southern ones – remain blocked.

No fresh food

During the first days of the closure, teachers who weren’t residents of the village couldn’t get to the school, so students learned only the subjects taught by teachers from the village: math, Arabic, English and religion. Students who attend the high school in the neighboring village of Aboud (“That’s where the smarter ones study,” laughed someone who attends the Deir Nizam high school) couldn’t go to school.

The trucks that bring fresh food weren’t allowed to enter. Ditto those that bring gas canisters. Luckily, there were no health problems that required an ambulance or a doctor.

The 20 or so residents who work in Israel couldn’t get to work, one said. To get to the Maccabim checkpoint (built on lands belonging to the village of Ni’lin) in time to get through the lengthy security checks and still make it to work, they have to leave town at 5 A.M. But at that hour, the soldiers weren’t letting anyone leave.

Instead of four rounds a day, the bus from Ramallah only managed to come twice – and even then, only to the entrance to the main road. So villagers who work in Ramallah and its environs had to walk to the main road on foot and return the same way at night.

Every day, soldiers entered the village and fired stun grenades and tear gas that penetrated into the houses, residents said. The peak was on Monday, when a tear gas grenade was fired into a school during school hours. The students on the ground floor, choking, rushed outside in a panic and scattered everywhere. The soldiers fired more tear gas grenades – seven in total.

Dozens of children suffered from choking. Five were more seriously injured, but were still treated on site. Over the next two days, many parents opted not to send their children to school, the school principal told Haddad.

Did the children throw stones at the soldiers? Here’s the answer I got from one adult: “What were the soldiers doing near a school during school hours? They were there to provoke.”

Flag face-off

One of the highlights of the closure was when soldiers took control of the home of Nasser Tamimi (Abu Mizhar), which overlooks the main road from the north to the settlement of Halamish to the east. Only the ground floor is populated, by his son and his wife and children: Wisam, 2, and 8-month-old Alyn. The upper floor is still under construction – exposed concrete, openings lacking windows and doors. Abu Mizhar himself and his wife, Kifah, live in the adjacent building.

The soldiers – about 20 of them – appeared and established themselves in the house last Sunday afternoon. They hung a large Israeli flag from the roof. In response, the neighbors – all relatives of Abu Mizhar – hung Palestinian flags from the roofs of their homes and also on an electricity pole close to the occupied house.

“At first, there was a polite, respectful officer who told us we could enter and exit the building at will,” Abu Mizhar recalled. But after two hours, the officer left. “At night the soldiers constantly threw stun grenades. We couldn’t sleep. Jeeps came and went, soldiers entered and exited, they beat the floor – apparently with a hammer they found – while my son, his wife and baby were below, frightened.”

The soldiers only left on Wednesday at about 2 A.M. The intervening two days were filled with stun grenades that the soldiers detonated, threats and intimidation.

“I wanted to bring my daughter-in-law and the small children to my home,” said Kifah Tamimi. “I went out of my house, a distance of 5 or 7 meters [16 or 23 feet], then a soldier told me, ‘You have seven seconds to get back,’ and cocked his rifle. They wouldn’t even let us sit on the balcony, in the sun.”

Her mother, Aisha Tamimi, who lives on the corner of the street, came to visit her together with one of the grandchildren. The soldiers allowed this. But when she returned home, she said, a soldier threw a stun grenade at her, which exploded only a few centimeters away. “I thought my head was exploding, splitting into two,” she said. “I am 73.” She has kept the grenade’s terrifying, heavy orange canister.

On Monday night, Abu Mizhar’s nephew returned from Ramallah at around midnight. He is a cabdriver, a wage earner. At the end of his shift, a colleague drove him to the main road and he walked into the neighborhood. The soldiers in the occupied building arrested him and left him with his hands and legs cuffed until 5 A.M., freezing in the cold.

Abu Mizhar, who speaks Hebrew, tried to negotiate with the soldiers so that his brother’s son would be released. They refused to listen to him, he said. When his nephew was eventually released, he couldn’t move his arms or legs.

The soldiers had left behind garbage in a barrel and some words in Hebrew, written in large letters on the exposed concrete walls: East, North, West, South. “It must be for the Qibla,” (the direction of prayer for Muslims) joked one of the children, who didn’t want to miss Abu Mizhar’s conversation with the journalist.

“The soldiers really prayed, we saw them,” said the owner. “About half of them are religious, with kippot. Look – I don’t have any problem with the people in Israel. I have a problem with the army and with the settlers who took away our lands. Halamish is our land, they took over our spring and we’re not allowed to go there.”

The Israel Defense Forces spokesman’s office responded: “Following the arson attack on the settlement of Neveh Tzuf (Halamish) and the throwing of stones from the direction of Deir Nizam, one access road to the village was temporarily closed, while the main entrance remained open. Last week, about 30 Palestinians threw stones toward Neveh Tzuf, and in response IDF forces used riot dispersal means. The forces seized one house in the village for one night, without evacuating any of its residents, and arrested five rioters.”