Narratives of Siege: Eye-Witness Testimonies from Jenin, Bethlehem, and Nablus
The testimonies below were collected from 10 to 17 May 2002. I traveled first to Jenin refugee camp. No matter how many images you have seen in the news, nothing quite prepares you for the devastation at the camp's ground zero. The storeys-high mountains of rubble are littered with reminders of lives disrupted: a mattress here, a child's schoolbook there. The 373-dunam camp, which had been home to about 13,600 residents, had been invaded at least twice before the assault that began on 3 April. The camp held out for nine days--a point of pride for many residents. Though a total of only fifty-six bodies have been found, rumors persist of mass graves and of trucks carrying body bags to undisclosed locations. Many of those who lost their homes are living with relatives in Jenin town and elsewhere, further hampering efforts to account for the missing. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 140 buildings were completely leveled and more than 200 others severely damaged, leaving about 4 ,000 people--more than a quarter of the population--homeless.
The Israelis invaded Bethlehem (population 45,000) on 29 March, the second time in a month. The town was kept under siege for forty-four days, though world attention focused almost exclusively on the Church of the Nativity, traditional birthplace of Christ, besieged as of 2 April. Though not subjected to the kind of devastation seen in Jenin and Nablus, numerous centuries-old facades were destroyed or heavily damaged.
I had every intention of traveling to Nablus, a city that had put up impressive resistance to the Israeli onslaught (which began on 3 April) and that had sustained heavy casualties and the destruction of large areas of the historic Old City. However, the numerous roadblocks and alternate routes necessitated by checkpoints and settler snipers turned the forty-minute drive to Nablus into an unpredictable journey that could last up to five hours. I had to settle for phone interviews. Official estimates of fatalities in this city of 110,000 run to about eighty.
In Jenin refugee camp and Bethlehem, the sight of residents talking to a stranger with a tape recorder tended to attract other residents, and often more than one perspective was offered on events. Because I allowed interviewees to talk, rarely interrupting them, some of their narratives contain gaps and some confusion, even inconsistencies, which I have made no attempt to eliminate. At the same time, I was struck by how careful interviewees tried to be in recounting their stories, clearly distinguishing between what they had seen and what they had heard. No one rushed to accuse the Israeli army of looting (a commonly reported feature of house searches in the Ramallah area, for example); when they witnessed it, they were careful to describe the scope. Some interviewees reported the presence of Arabic-speaking soldiers, some with Lebanese accents (presumably South Lebanese Army soldiers who fled Lebanon after the Israeli withdrawal in 1999); others did not. Above all else, I was struck by the extraordinary dignity and restraint with which these people described terrible moments in their lives--when they lost a son or their homes, when they were put at great risk, when they tried to locate their dead or wounded--at a time when their entire futures were clouded with doubt.
Ida Audeh, a technical writer in Boulder, Colorado, collected these testimonies and translated them from the Arabic. She would like to thank the following people who facilitated her interviews: Bahia Amra; Muhammad Abu al-Hayja', Jamil al-Hamad, and Ghassan Hamdan of the Medical Relief Association; Nawal 'Amer of Jenin refugee camp; Muhammad Hammad and Sami Sab'ana of Jenin; and Taghrid Hamdan and Chrissy of Bethlehem. She is especially grateful to the individuals whom she interviewed.