Twilight Zone / 'Mowing the Grass' in Nablus

Six families including infants and a sick elderly woman were kept in a single room for almost an entire day last week, under army orders. No lights, no talking. The IDF in action.

What do you do for 21 hours, trapped in one room - 28 people, including children and babies? How do you pass the time? How do you calm down crying and frightened children? How do you care for an ailing grandmother? You can't turn on the light, or the television, or talk. Armed soldiers guard the doorway and they've confiscated all the cellular phones. You can go out to the bathroom, but only after receiving permission. Used diapers have to be tossed in a corner of the room. After protracted negotiations, two women are permitted to go cook something.

Why was it necessary to imprison six innocent families this way? If the Israel Defense Forces needed their apartment building, why not let them move into the neighbors' homes? And why choose this building, when right next to it another building of similar size stands empty? Were these people being used as a kind of human shield for the soldiers? And what sort of trauma was inflicted on the little ones who were put through this ordeal?

On the radio I heard the explanation: "We have to 'mow the grass.'" This was the picturesque description offered by military sources for the IDF's activity in Nablus. This is why the army enters the city almost every night, carrying out broad-scale operations every few weeks, like the one last week. Two IDF officers were seriously injured, two were moderately injured, one passerby was killed - and members of the extended Adalay family were imprisoned together for no good reason.

The bedroom in Ra'af Adalay's apartment is actually quite spacious. You go down a few steps and there's a room with a king-size bed, a baby crib, a night table, a couch, a closet, a mirror and a small, barred window. But to hold 28 people for a day and a night there? When we arrived Sunday, after the big heat wave broke, it was still plenty hot in the room, with just one old fan trying to dispel the heat a bit. But last Thursday, the heat was still at its peak.

At about three in the morning, on the night between last Wednesday and Thursday, the residents awoke to the sound of rocks being thrown at the door. Six families live in this four-story building - six brothers, their wives and children, and the family matriarch. The soldiers commanded everyone to come outside immediately. Within a few minutes all were standing, groggy-eyed, in the street. Jeeps were parked outside. "Is anyone left in the house? If I find anyone, I'll shoot and kill him," one soldier said.

The soldiers entered the house and combed it, floor after floor. The 28 tenants were herded into the cellar. First into the children's room, and about an hour later into the larger, main bedroom, as a humane gesture. Six soldiers remained inside to guard them: four in the children's room and two by the door to the bigger bedroom, taking turns doing shifts. "It will only be half an hour," they promised at first, but the operation went on and on.

The soldiers disconnected the phones in the house and confiscated cell phones and ID cards, but the family still managed to hold on secretly to one cell phone. It was still the middle of the night and the only light that was allowed was a tiny red nightlight. Baby formula was fetched from an upper floor, under escort, after about an hour of pleading, according to the family. The soldiers also brought three fans from upstairs, but they didn't help much. The soldiers, their faces painted black, looked very scary to the children.

The house overlooks Jerusalem Street, the main thoroughfare of Nablus, and also the entrance to the Balata refugee camp in the valley opposite. Nablus is dying. It is no longer the bustling city it once was. The mayor is in an Israeli jail, but the city is still relatively clean. Maybe because it is so deserted. At the Golden Table restaurant, once the leading local eatery, an elderly couple has the place all to themselves. Now the look of the restaurant reflects that of the city: neglected, empty, fading.

In the afternoon, worried friends from the nearby village called, having noticed the soldiers on the roof of the Adalays' house. One family member managed to whisper into the telephone he had kept hidden, "The army's here."

The callers then phoned human rights organizations, including the Palestinian Medical Relief Committees. At that organization's offices, the medical director, Dr. Ghassan Hamdan, describes the events of last week. He says that this time the incursion was especially harsh, because the army surrounded the city's two main hospitals, Al-Watani and Rafidiya. Hamdan says that IDF vehicles blocked the entrances. He was delayed for about 45 minutes, together with a patient who was in one of the organization's ambulances, before being allowed to enter the hospital. Only after he called several human rights organizations were the doctor and the 11 residents wounded in the operation allowed into the hospital. Each ambulance that approached was detained while the soldiers asked everyone inside to come out and undergo inspection. Volunteers from the relief organization also tried to transfer supplies and medication to the casbah that was under curfew; one person was arrested and taken in for interrogation.

"This is how they treat the medical teams," says Hamdan. "The Israelis say this is a routine operation. I don't know if it's a training operation or a reminder that the IDF is here. It was right after the summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. Maybe they decided to tell us that all this negotiation doesn't interest the IDF. It was also on the day of the final matriculation exam, and we had to get 15 students out the Yasmina neighborhood in the old city so they could get to the exams. They hit the city every night. I don't get what their strategy is. They don't want negotiations with Abu Mazen? Again, they only want to weaken him? They don't want negotiations, I'm convinced."

Hamdan also tried to get into the Adalay family's house. Neighbors had called for medical help for the grandmother, who has diabetes and needs insulin. When he came to the house in an ambulance, he called out to the soldiers with a megaphone, but no one answered. He called the Red Cross for assistance, and says that after about two hours he was finally allowed to enter. He tried to persuade the soldiers to let the old woman move to another, less crowded room, because of her condition, and was rebuffed. However, some time later, the grandmother and one of her daughters-in-law were permitted to move to another apartment in the building.

The family runs a gas supply company. One brother is a teacher, another distributes gas canisters, the third is an engineer, the fourth drives a taxi, the fifth is a construction worker, and the sixth works in the family business. The family is well known in town, because of their business dealings.

As for food, in the morning they tried to warm up frozen pitas, but the soldiers took out the oven that was in the room. In the afternoon, they told the soldiers they were hungry. Two of the women were allowed to go to the kitchen, under escort. They stood and cooked while the soldiers kept an eye on them.

In the afternoon, they asked to move to a more spacious apartment in the building, but were turned down. "It will be okay," said one soldier in a Russian accent.

The soldiers collected all the water bottles from the refrigerators of the upstairs apartments and brought them to the room. One soldier instructed them not to drink too much so they wouldn't have to go to the bathroom too often. One mother was allowed to get diapers from her apartment upstairs. One little girl had diarrhea. One little boy in a baseball cap turned around backward recounts: "I was very scared of the soldiers ... Once I went with my dad to the bathroom and once with my uncle, and once they let me go alone."

At around 10 P.M. Thursday night, nearly 24 hours after the soldiers invaded the house, the sound of a vehicle was heard coming up the street. The soldiers left the ID cards in a pile by the doorway, and all of the cell phones in one of the apartments upstairs. "They didn't even say good-bye," say the Adalay family.

The Office of the IDF Spokesperson responds: "As part of its effort to combat terror and to defend the citizens of Israel, the IDF relies on a number of different methods, including the appropriation of buildings for operational purposes. The IDF takes care to protect the property of the residents of these buildings, and to keep to a minimum any damage to the texture of their lives."