Once their televisions showed that the air strikes on Baghdad had abated, scores of Palestinians from isolated and encircled villages attempted to resume their normal lives.
Over the previous two weeks, the Israeli army had taken stringent wartime measures in the area. Villagers were hoping that the soldiers would now be more “lenient” and allow them to move between their hamlets and Nablus city.
But this proved to be overly optimistic. The Israeli-dug trenches surrounding their villages still scarred the landscape, serving as medieval moats, but without the necessary drawbridge. And if this was not daunting enough, Israeli soldiers stationed throughout the countryside continued to bar villagers from going about their daily lives.
The over 10,000 residents of Azmout, Deir Al Hatab and Salem villages have been encircled by trenches since Israeli bulldozers dug them in July 2002. “They have made these three villages into small isolated islands, totally cut off from their surroundings,” explains Izzidin Hamdan, head of the Salem local village council. The trenches are two to three meters deep and stretch around the three villages, like an ominous serpent, for four to six kilometers.
Over the winter, the trenches became swamps of rain and sewage water. And now that the weather is increasingly warmer and dryer, the area is becoming a health hazard. The vile smell and polluted air have even made their way to nearby fields. “Such a situation threatens to cause health and medical problems,” says one local official.
Village residents must cross these trenches, at their own peril, in order to reach Nablus or other locations. Sometimes the crossing is an ordeal of its own.
It was here that I saw men carrying woodchips on donkey back to use in their village chicken coops. Israeli soldiers ordered them to return from whence they came and as they turned back, one of the donkeys lost its balance and slipped into the trench. The sacks of woodchips the donkey was carrying fell into the dirty water below. There was no point in retrieving them because they were already ruined, mixed with the sewage water flowing through the trench.
The soldiers let out a hearty laugh at the sight of the fallen donkey trying to get back on its feet. “They enjoy what they are doing to us,” said one of the men with contempt.
Another local resident remembers a close call with the trenches’ putrid waters. Forty-year-old Ja’far Shteiyeh from Salem, a photojournalist for Agence France Presse, tells of a time his wife had to reach Nablus for a dentist appointment. He had to tie a rope around her waist, so that people on the other bank could pull her across the trench without the overflowing water carrying her away.
No through road
Israeli soldiers man the area’s paved main road. It is only open to the residents of Alon Moreh, an Israeli settlement built in the early 80s on land belonging to the three villages. Only after prior coordination does the Israeli army allow trucks to bring vegetables or other food into the villages, and then only accompanied by military jeeps. “They allow a few trucks to travel every three weeks,” says Hamdan.
The soldiers also impede the movement of locals traveling by foot. “People either have to walk long distances or wait for hours on end until the patrols change shifts at the entrance to the village,” Hamdan continues. “My brother, Abdel Hakim, is a farmer in the Jordan Valley. He waited for days until he was finally able reach his farm.”
Hamdan tells of other grave problems caused by the Israeli military presence. “Recently, 10 local residents died. They either passed away or were shot by Israeli soldiers. But people were not allowed to travel with their loved ones’ coffins in an appropriate and dignified manner. They were forced to carry the bodies on their shoulders and to walk a long distance under the watchful eyes of the soldiers.”
He says that shepherds cannot take their herds to their grazing fields, and that the work of white goat cheese producers has been harmed because they can no longer market their products to the people of Nablus. Unable to carry their tins of fresh cheese across the trenches into Nablus, they take circuitous dirt paths to deliver their cheese to “gambling” drivers, who risk taking the off-limits settler road south to Jerusalem and Ramallah.
The long way home
Residents in this area sometimes have to go to extreme measures just to get about their daily lives. One Salem villager, Iyad Shteiyeh, installs aluminum windows for a living. He remembers waiting on a hill for hours one day, overlooking a trench and an Israeli tank. He was monitoring the patrol’s movements in the hope of carrying 10 aluminum pipes on his back to the other side of the trench, once the patrol was out of sight.
Shteiyeh was able to make it to one side of the road when a soldier spotted him and ordered him to return. Then he waited another three hours until he thought the moment was right – when the tank was replaced by an army jeep. He gambled on there being a sympathetic soldier who would allow him to carry on his way.
He hoisted the pipes on his shoulder and began walking. About 10 minutes later and totally exhausted, Shteiyeh, 35, climbed up a bank facing the patrol. A soldier stopped him. After a brief exchange of words, Shteiyah was barred from crossing and ordered to return to his village, pipes in hand.
Shteiyah’s experience was repeated with scores of villagers who recently ventured out, hoping that the relative quiet on the Iraqi front would reflect on the mood of Israeli soldiers occupying their own land. The people waiting for permission to cross the trenches that day were carrying medicine, food and other basic necessities. Some held freshly slaughtered chickens. But they were all ordered back under gunpoint.
Turned away, these people were forced to take a circuitous dirt road to avoid the trench and Israeli army patrols. Using these roundabout paths, some people walked as far as seven kilometers to reach their villages.
Not making it
Salem village boasts two schools, in which 1,500 pupils study. Every day, over 30 teachers come to the village from Nablus. But these teachers run into constant problems traveling back and forth, even though they carry cards from the Nablus education department showing that they work in Salem.
Biology teacher Abdel Rahim Abu Aisheh, 28, and Ismail Abu Ghseib, a math teacher, say they are made to wait just like everyone else before they are allowed to cross the trench. When the soldiers turn them back, sometimes they have to walk for several kilometers before they can reach their village schools.
But the travel restrictions also affect village students trying to attend school elsewhere. On April 12, Israeli troops prevented scores of villagers and university students from reaching Nablus. According to eyewitnesses, residents of Azmout, Salem and Deir Al Hatab villages tried to convince the soldiers to let them cross the trenches in order to get their business done in the city.
The soldiers on patrol with a tank and army jeep answered their pleas by shooting into the air in warning, chasing the villagers away. Panic broke out, and the people, including women and children, ran in all directions. Among them was 23-year-old university student Fadi Alawneh, who stumbled and fell on a boulder in an attempt to avoid the trench. He sustained serious head fractures and internal bleeding, which led to his immediate death.
His colleague Amin Abu Warda, who works for Al Quds Press, has still not completely absorbed the news. “I was shocked at hearing of Fadi’s death,” he says. “He was working on a press report in order to graduate from the school of journalism in the university. He had only been an intern at our office for one day but he had told us of his village’s hardships because of the military checkpoints and because of his village’s isolation from these posts. And now he is a martyr, as if he were proving the truth of this suffering with his blood. I am heartbroken at this loss. He had a bright professional future before him,” Abu Warda says.
But the death of Alawneh was not the first time a local died as a result of the Israeli military presence. A year ago, roughly 100 meters away from where Fadi Alawneh died, an Israeli patrol shot and killed teacher Ibrahim Alawneh, 37, while he was traveling from Nablus to his village of Azmout. He had just cashed his salary check from the bank, and next to his lifeless body, bags of tomatoes, cucumbers and Nablus sweets were found.
Out of sight
The day that villagers ventured out with hopes that the travel restrictions would be eased, an Israeli tank prevented 75-year-old Daoud Zamel from entering the village of Deir Al Hatab. Returning from the doctor, Zamel was exhausted, and was hoisted up by two young men. His hunched back was so bent that his heaving chest almost touched his stomach.
“Why are you going back?” the old man yelled at his nephew, Ibrahim. “What happened? Where is the road?” As Ibrahim carefully lowered his uncle to the ground, panting with breathlessness he answered, “The Israeli soldiers prevented us from entering the village.”
The old man remained unconvinced. “But they allowed the ambulance to take me in the morning,” he reasoned. “Why are they doing this now? Where am I to go?”
His nephew did not answer immediately. He was too busy looking for an alternative road to get his uncle across the trench, but to no avail. In a loud voice so his ailing uncle could hear, Ibrahim shouted, “The ambulance came from the other side of the road and we crossed the trench. There were no military vehicles there,” explaining why the morning trip had been possible.
Back at the trench, Ibrahim tried to convince the soldiers to allow him to carry his uncle across. He showed the soldiers medical papers issued from the Rafidiya Hospital, where his uncle had undergone treatment for stomach ulcers. The soldier glanced at the papers and gestured towards Ibrahim.
“Bring him in an ambulance,” he said nonchalantly. “But the ambulance cannot cross the trench,” Ibrahim answered. “That’s not my problem,” the soldier curtly replied.
Then the soldier threw the papers at Ibrahim and ordered him to leave. “Go away,” he yelled at the young man.
Ibrahim finally gave up and returned to his uncle. The old man was worn out and barely aware of what was happening around him. His nephew and a volunteer lifted his weak body onto their shoulders and moved away, seeking an area out of the soldiers’ view.
In a final attempt, Ibrahim and the volunteer carried his old uncle to an olive tree orchard about 250 meters from the Israeli patrol. After a short rest and a watchful glance in the soldiers’ direction, they again carried the sick man on their shoulders and headed towards home. Quickly they were out of sight, hidden by the olive trees and the evening dusk.