One Palestinian Family's Living Nightmare

The Suleiman family in Beit Ur al-Tahta no longer bothers to lock the door because soldiers looking for their son break in almost every night, to the deafening blasts of stun grenades.

Fida, left, and Halima Suleiman from the village of Beit Ur al-Tahta, southwest of Ramallah. Their home is raided by the IDF almost every night.
Amira Hass

The dogs started barking about 40 minutes after midnight last Wednesday. The Suleiman family from the village of Beit Ur al-Tahta, southwest of Ramallah, stopped their conversation for a moment and listened. “Usually the dogs bark when the army shows up,” said one member of the family, and went to the window facing south. 

Not many cars were travelling at the time on broad, well-lit road Route 443, which was built on the land of their village and of other villages nearby. The highway is very close, a kilometer away, maybe less, but Palestinians are prohibited from using it.

The barking of the dogs continued to shatter the silence. A few squealing tires joined in. Jihad Suleiman shook his head: It’s not an army jeep, he said decisively. A jeep’s diesel engine has a deeper rumble, explained the uncle. After 1 A.M. the barking intensified. “They must be here,” said the aunt, who had dropped in to visit. She meant the Israeli army.

The rumble of a jeep was heard. The five or six members of the family and their guest became a bit tense and each of them wondered how many stun grenades the soldiers would throw at the house, what they would shatter and ruin this time, whether they would only break into the apartment of Halima, the mother, or also go to the next door apartment of her sister-in-law, how the family members would respond to the beating, curses, humiliation. But the uncle said: “They are not coming in one jeep but in a lot of them, and they’re fanning out between a number of houses.”

For three weeks the nuclear and extended Suleiman family has been subject to a regime of military raids almost every night. Sometimes they take place at 1:30 A.M., sometimes at 10 P.M. On Friday, February 12, there was a daytime raid. Sometimes the soldiers raid a number of homes in the village, sometimes only those in the family's neighborhood, and almost always the home of Halima Suleiman and her children.

While Israel Defense Forces soldiers conduct their search of the small apartment (two bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen), the family is ordered to remain in the living room, which contains a few old sofas; a low table that is moved when necessary to the center of the room; a few plastic chairs; a light fixture, with two of its bulbs turned off; family pictures and a large photograph of Yasser Arafat over the door.

There is no reason to tidy up the mess the soldiers left behind in the boys’ bedroom, where the closets are. They will come back again, and each time they kick the iron door. They don't wait for someone in the house to open it and immediately throw in stun grenades, which produce an earsplitting bang.

Halima, a widow and mother of six, asks everyone to speak louder. Her hearing has been damaged by the blasts. The soldiers have broken the glass panel between the iron strips with a blow from a rifle; they have destroyed the door twice. Since the first time, she has left it unlocked all night. Last week on Tuesday the family visited a cousin who is recovering from an operation. Soldiers broke down the locked door of the empty apartment around 10 P.M. Every break-in costs money, for the repairs. And there is no money.

The soldiers are looking for Halima’s oldest son, Ala’a. He was sentenced in 2007 to six years in prison for manufacturing and throwing firebombs and explosive devices on Route 443, and was released in 2011 as part of the good-will gestures made by Israel toward Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Recently he served another six months in prison. His mother does not know why they are searching for him now.

“The soldiers hit Jihad,” was almost the first thing she says. During the first raid, on February 5, the soldiers arrested her other son Jihad, 28. With hands handcuffed and eyes blindfolded, they took him to the military post on the village’s land. You have to work very hard to get any details out of him: He was on the ground and the soldiers kicked him in the chest. “How could I know how many soldiers there were, my eyes were covered,” he grumbled in response to the question. He was taken to the Ramle detention facility and brought home three days later. His identity card, watch and mobile phone which had been taken from him were not returned.

Last Tuesday evening the soldiers said they had found an unexploded stun grenade in the yard.

The IDF accused cousin Saber of possessing a weapon. He grinned. They searched his home, which is near Halima's, for more weapons and did not find anything, but handcuffed him and blindfolded him, leaving him in the cold, in a jeep; only after two hours was he released. “You’re not a man if you don’t have a weapon,” Saber recalled a soldier telling him. He grinned again.

Sometimes the soldiers are accompanied by someone calling himself Captain Tareq. The family believes he’s a Shin Bet security service officer.

“He told me that he wants to come back and tear up the house” said Halima. “He said he’d bring a tent and set it up on the roof, and that he’d kill Ala’a if he didn’t turn himself in. He also told me that he’s crazy. I told him that I was even crazier.”

She’s crazy with worrying about Ala’a. Once, when the captain told her he would be returning the following Sunday, she responded with a remark like: “What else is left for you to turn upside down here?” “Shut up," he shot back. "You’re insolent.”

“Our lives are a horror movie,” says the family’s daughter Fida, but smiles. It’s hard to go to sleep every night when you’re afraid of someone breaking in. The family stays awake until 2 or 3 A.M. It’s hard to function during the daytime. Two of Halima’s younger sons are in jail “for throwing stones,” she explained. They are expected to be released in a few months. Jihad was also jailed in the past, twice for throwing stones, twice for entering Israel without permits in order to work (“Wages in Ramallah aren’t worth the effort”).

'We're being strangled'

Arrests and trials are an inseparable part of life under a foreign occupation. Fida, 23, was also jailed for seven months for throwing stones along the forbidden-for-Palestinians highway. “We’re being strangled and this is the reaction,” she said. Their father, who died of an illness in 2011, was a Fatah activist who was wanted by the Shin Bet during the first intifada. His brother is a former prisoner, and cousins of all ages were or are in jail for throwing stones. They all still belong to the Fatah organization.

Family members are stingy with their words. The aunt explained in brief: “The children throw stones in response to provocations by soldiers.” Two of her sons are also in jail. Her husband is angry at them, and their stone throwing. “What good did it do?” he asked. “Why should only the poor throw stones? Let the sons of (Ahmed) Qureia (Abu Ala'a, a senior Fatah leader) throw stones.”

Out of anger, he hasn’t visited his jailed sons, but he did explain the background to their deeds: “Someone comes from another country, takes our land, builds a villa with a garden and we, who’ve always lived here, can’t build. They uprooted our trees to build a road for the Jews and we can’t go near our land since it’s too close to a settlement, and there’s not enough water for us. We can’t work in Israel. We’re strangled from every direction.”

He then fondly remembered a Yemenite Jewish employer in a moshav near Lod, where he slept at night, eating breakfast with the man's children many years ago.

His 15-year-old son now works as a messenger, replacing his jailed brother; he had to leave school for this. The 1,800 shekels ($450) he brings home every month are critical for the family. No one is thinking of university studies: There’s no work for graduates anyway. While waiting for the army, they also spoke about the teachers’ strike that began a few weeks ago more or less sympathetically.

"Senior officials send their children to private schools. What do they care?” said the aunt.

At 3 A.M. they all decided that they could go to sleep since the army wouldn’t break in that night.

A spokesman for the IDF told Haaretz, in response: “On February 5, 2016, the army conducted a sweep in Beit Ur al-Tahta, arresting people suspected of carrying out hostile terrorist activities. In the course of this activity, Jihad Suleiman was arrested and the army brought him to the police without resorting to force, without taking his ID card, following standard procedures. His brother Ala’a Suleiman, a convicted terrorist, escaped. He left behind no traces, so that on that same night a search for weapons and other military equipment was conducted at his family’s home.”

For its part, the Shin Bet said that “[Ala'a] Suleiman is involved in popular terrorist activity and was summoned for questioning for activities that endanger public security and the area’s peace. He failed to show up. The claim that searches are conducted in his home nearly every night, with a Shin Bet operator present, is puzzling and far from being accurate.”