Jenin by Night

A few hours after the remotely piloted aircraft began to whir in the sky, a convoy of bulldozers and Hummers arrives. It's 2:30 A.M. and I'm shaking like a leaf.

"Tonight you should not be a journalist, tonight you should be a poet," says our host Jamal Zbeidi, as soon as we arrive. It's early evening, and a dull dusky light enveloped the homes in the camp, while a pleasant breeze caressed the faces of the children playing outside. The Jenin refugee camp is getting ready for the night. The television is tuned to Al-Aqsa, the Hamas station in Gaza. Into the house strides our old acquaintance, Zakariya Zbeidi. He had seen our car and wants to say hello. Wearing a Kenvelo T-shirt, and for the first time walking around without a weapon, he is on his way to the Muqata in Ramallah, where he spends his nights, according to an arrangement worked out with Israel. Now he is a student, majoring in social work.

The old ceiling fan has slightly cooled the room, whose walls are covered with photographs of martyrs. Not long ago, the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury sent Zbeidi an e-mail, imploring him not to align himself with either Hamas or Fatah. "The people here are confused," Zbeidi's uncle, Jamal, says. "To go with [Palestinian Authority Chairman] Abu Mazen is to go with America, and to go with Hamas is to go with religion. Both are bad."

I seem to be the only one who is nervous about the oncoming night. A poetic mood descends on those present: "We sowed and others will reap," Zakariya says in a melancholy tone.

We have come to spend a routine night in the Jenin camp, to see what the people here see, from the bedrooms, the children's rooms and the rooftops, where the residents camp out until late at night to escape the heat. There is not one air conditioner in the camp and water is supplied only once a week; think of July-August, almost without water. This is how it is every night, until the arrival of the troops and their steel monsters in the dead of night.

We are going for a spin. Jenin by night. A bluish light fills the interior of the ancient Subaru. The alleys of the camp and the streets of the city are still bustling, more than during the day. It's after 9 P.M. and you can still buy everything. Even without the all-night AM-PM chain, the tiny grocery stores are open until midnight. A full, red moon rises above the houses. This bruised and battered place wakes up at night.

We climb up to an observation point from the hills to the south, from which the soldiers and armored vehicles invade almost every night. Afula and Nazareth are on the horizon, the camp is below; there's one continuity, the whole Land of Israel. A faint light glitters from the homes in the camp, along with a few shimmering stains of green - the turrets of the mosques. A human din rises from the camp, but is later replaced by the barking of stray dogs. Sounds that will accompany us the whole night.

In another few hours, no one will dare come out of his house. In the meantime, the men are sitting on plastic chairs in front of the houses, with their coffee and cigarettes; the women never sit around chewing the fat outside at night. The pizza place is empty, as is the Internet cafe. Only in the affluent neighborhoods of Jenin, the stylized stone homes of the nouveau riche, are people not sitting out. Nor does the Israel Defense Forces ever enter there. After all, what is there to look for in the homes of the rich?

First, coffee at Khaled's place - he's a department director in the municipality - under a vine, opposite his house. A terrifying mountain of car skeletons, on the right, and a goat pen, on the left, create a hallucinatory feeling. Across the way the new mosque is being built, named after Mahmoud Tawalba, commander of the military wing of Islamic Jihad in the camp, who was assassinated by Israel.

Little Hamoudi serves water. Three months ago, nearby, an IDF sniper shot a high-school student, Bushra al-Wahash, killing her on her textbook. Hamoudi asks his father who these Jews are to whom he is serving drinks. The only Jews he has ever seen up close are the soldiers, who tied up and took away his father. Since then, whenever the IDF enters the camp, he rushes to his father's arms. "No one is safe," Khaled sighs. "It is impossible to take a sick child or a woman in labor to hospital at night." The camp's muezzins loudly call the faithful to the last evening prayer: "Allahu Akbar." If dangerous schemes are being hatched here, in the dark, it is hard to spot them.

The mosque's loudspeaker announces the death of resident Sami Hamad, a diabetic amputee, whose name now echoes through the camp. The mourners are already gathering next to the home of the deceased. The mourning tent, the loudspeaker declares, will open tomorrow. The death of anyone else in the camp is announced the same way. It's almost 10 P.M. "The fear starts at 10," Khaled says, and quickly takes the plastic chairs inside.

More stray gunfire. Still children playing games. The gas-station attendant is frightened when we approach - he thinks we are mistarvim, undercover troops disguised as Arabs - and pales. There is still some traffic next to the hospital, but the billiard hall is deserted. We drive to the northern edges of the camp to visit Sheikh Khaled, a religious man, whose disabled and feeble brother, Jamal, was crushed to death when his home was demolished in Operation Defensive Shield five years ago. His body was never found, the only missing person in the camp. Sheikh Khaled suspects the soldiers took the body away after discovering that Jamal was a cripple. The fact is that all the organs of those who died were identified, and only Jamal was never found. The neighbor from the house across the way was killed, too, 38 days later: He was one of five Palestinian policemen the IDF killed in their sleep, at their post next to the camp's antenna tower.

"We do not hate Jews," Sheikh Khaled says over our hundredth coffee that evening.

It is close to 11 o'clock. A small and mysterious ball of fire suddenly shoots across the sky, from west to east. "We are their training field," the sheikh says wearily. When a momentary silence falls, our hosts identify the strange whirring noise we hear. Good evening, remotely piloted vehicle (RPV). From now until first light, the whirring will accompany us nonstop, whispering, distant - and very threatening. If a pistol appears in Act I, there will be a murder in the final act. If the RPV appears early on, everyone here knows, there will be an IDF operation later.

Our hosts try to calm us: Maybe tonight the raid will be in the camp. That does not calm me at all. Whir, whir, goes the RPV, worry, worry.

We hurry home, where the leadership of the Popular Front in the camp await us. They call each other "Rafik," comrade, like in the old days, and look more like anti-fascist fighters in the Spanish Civil War. Rafik is also the name used for the camp drunk, who joins us as well, smelling of arak. There is no alcohol in the camp, but in the nearby village of Zabada, you can get it. The commander of the Popular Front, who is now in the living room, was in administrative detention - arrest without trial - 11 times.

It will soon be midnight. We go up to the roof for supper. The whole camp is on the rooftops. Between the black water tanks and the satellite dishes, families gather, pleased to be in the cool night air. The whirring of the RPV is relentless: Big Brother is watching. We look down. Between the trees two soldiers were killed once, and here in the yard five residents were buried. The earth is saturated with blood.

The first telephone report comes at 12:40 A.M. A convoy is advancing from the Nazareth road. Out of the north shall come evil this night. We go on eating under the RPV skies, watching jeeps with glittering headlights approach. To be on the safe side, the lights on the roof are turned off. Jamal calls his son, who is still in the street, and tells him to come home.

The IDF is in town.

A chorus of chickens squawking suddenly jolts me out of my imaginary calm, like a soundtrack for the approaching drama. Maybe they know something I don't? Watermelon is served. The jeeps are getting closer. I urge my hosts to go downstairs.

At 1:30 A.M. we decided to go to sleep; I fall asleep instantly. I hoped to wake up in the morning. Fifty-five minutes later the "white night" of the Jenin camp has ended. Jamal wakes us with whispers. The IDF is outside. The suggestion made by Miki, the photographer, to sleep in our clothes, was smart: We leap out of bed fully dressed. There is a huge noise outside. The Hummers and the bulldozer that traditionally precedes the jeeps, checking for booby-traps, are next to the window.

Often gunshot and explosive devices greet the uninvited guests, but tonight things are quiet. Jenin camp welcomes the forces. The chugging of the bulldozer fills me with dread.

We get out of bed and whisper, so the soldiers outside won't hear, and move toward the staircase, the only protected space in the building. But the convoy is right outside. What will happen now? How many residents have been killed when they made a wrong move next to soldiers with light trigger fingers? The whole family is by now sitting hunched over on the stairs, stunned with sleeplessness, used to the Hummer drill.

My thoughts wander outside. What do the soldiers in these steel contraptions know about the fear they are sowing nightly, among thousands of people, including children and infants? Young and brainwashed, do they ever think about this? And what do most Israelis know about the terror raids and those living in their shadows? Why does the army have to come here and create all this disturbance? To remind people who the lord of the land is?

The whole camp awakens like this, every night. But no one dares peek out the window or turn on a light. No one talks, no one moves. They sit bent over on the stairs, eyes red from lack of sleep. I almost faint from fright. The ringing of a phone suddenly cuts through the stillness: Zakariya Zbeidi is calling from the Muqata to ask how we are. A bit later Jamal whispers that the convoy has moved away and we can go back to sleep. I try to relax. Finally I drift off. Soon it will be 3:30 A.M. Forty minutes of restless sleep and they are back. This time I play dead and don't move from the bed. The Hummers and the bulldozer drive back and forth, for some reason. What are they looking for here?

"I told you that tonight you would have to be a poet, not a journalist," my host Jamal reminds me when day breaks later and we are on the roof again.