Under Siege

By Jarat Chopra / July / August 2002
June 29th, 2007

Spring break begins, always, at the end of one last class. This year my international law seminar closed for the break after a heated discussion about Moroccan occupation in Western Sahara, but what students were really talking about was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so much in the news. I was preparing to go to the West Bank as a peacekeeping adviser in the latest effort to broker a cease-fire; for the preceding eighteen months, I'd been part of a project sponsored principally by the British government that aimed to achieve a permanent settlement between the parties. Before I left, Lara Harb '04 handed me her passport to be renewed by her parents in Ramallah. Then I saw that emotive and uplifting film Amelie and, liking the music, ordered the CD. And left.

A young Palestinian assembles a slingshot as he prepares for yet another battle with Israeli soldiers near the dividing line between Palestinian and Israeli-controlled parts of the city.

While I was en route, Israel launched its largest military operation since its invasion of Lebanon twenty years earlier, a seventy-two-hour offensive into Ramallah by some 200 tanks and 20,000 troops. Deep in the night well-armed soldiers in flak jackets forced adrenaline-rushed families out of apartment blocks commandeered for the operation. One witness, seeing fear in some of the young soldiers' faces, described them as "mice in big machines."

It was not the first incursion, only the most extensive in Palestinian-controlled areas to date. For the preceding year there had been, in addition to endless exchanges of gunfire, shelling, and F-16 bombing runs, an intensifying pattern of tank raids, first around the edges, then past defenseless checkpoints, and then farther and farther down main streets into the city and around PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's headquarters. Israeli forces increased their confidence each time, as did Palestinians in their response.

At a hotel, I duly delivered Lara's passport to her parents, who submitted the renewal application to an ill-fated office in Arafat's compound. The talks, meanwhile, were another round of painful negotiations, lagging behind the reality on the ground and in the streets. They were, predictably, too little too late, replicating again each failed attempt to end the second intifadah uprising and resume a political process.

In the wake of the three-day incursion, the parties presented their positions, and the United States put forward its own proposal, which Palestinians interpreted to be mainly in line with the Israeli position. In generic terms, these were dysfunctional conditions for a cease-fire, and the attempt to negotiate one failed.

Wednesday, March 27, was a fateful day. When U.S. and Palestinian teams met in the morning, their exchange seemed uncharacteristically promising. But trust began to break down in the afternoon, and that evening a suicide bombing at a hotel in Netanya marked the start of Passover. It was the end of the talks. A further military escalation was imminent. The feeling in Ramallah was now in bleak contrast to the days past, when life had become temporarily normal again, as it does during the lulls between pounding acts of violence. Just the night before, on Tuesday, friends had invited me to see Amelie, but I had so recently seen it that I went to dinner with other friends instead.

Thursday I was due to leave; I needed to get back for class on Monday. But a great pall hung over Ramallah. Dark clouds rolled ominously over the city, and torrential rain flooded the streets. Panic set in as people rushed to shops to stock up for another incursion. At the Qalandia checkpoint, on the main exit route out of Ramallah toward Jerusalem, rain had turned the dust and dirt into a muddy quagmire. Some 500 to 600 people were desperately trying to escape in a brown chaotic clamor, until rifles were leveled, firing began, and the men and women withdrew hopelessly back into the city. Colleagues returned soaked and shaken, trailing the mud behind them. The city was closing down.

A Palestinian man peers over a wall in Ramallah to view a clash between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli troops.
As the light faded, friends and I passed a grocery shop, stopping to get bottles of water and to pick at what was left on the shelves - just in case. We went for an early, last supper at a popular restaurant, vacant and desolate as the staff prepared to go. Later in the evening, to stave off the coming onslaught, Arafat declared a unilateral cease-fire and restated the Palestinian position in a late, dark hour; but to enraged Israeli government officials, Arafat's proposal was nothing but a gimmick.

During the night I heard the rumbling. In the first hours of Good Friday, half asleep and in denial, I could hear it. Some part of my mind knew, but another part, hiding under the cover of sleep, didn't want to believe what was happening. I kept my eyes shut and ignored the sounds, seeking refuge in a protective coma. But the house was partway up a hill: engines whined, and rattling, crunching tracks chewed at the road above and below me, invading my own darkness. After dawn broke I heard the television in the sitting room, where I'd dragged myself draped in a blanket, and the word was clear: invasion, a Good Friday invasion. This was now the largest military action since the 1967 war. A sleep-deprived Ariel Sharon and cabinet members pronounced the Palestinian leader an "enemy"; Ramallah was the "capital of terror," and a juggernaut of tanks and troops had taken the city - the empty roads and buildings outside the window - "to root out the terror infrastructure." Arafat was to be "isolated," Sharon kept stating.

We could hear Arafat's compound being attacked as we also watched the event on CNN, tanks firing into the white walls, soldiers storming it room by room, "isolating" Arafat in his office. Coils of barbed wire were erected around the building. I thought of Lara's passport, the documentary evidence of her Palestinian identity; was it still inside that compound? In another part of town her father, a doctor, was trapped at a medical center.

No one ventured onto the streets. No one looked out. The shutters on houses were tightly closed. The tracks of tanks and armored personnel carriers had ground themselves into the roads, leaving grooves of mud and broken tarmac that were deepened further as patrolling continued throughout the day. On Easter Sunday loudspeakers on Jeeps blared that a twenty-four-hour curfew was in place. Anyone seen outside would be shot.

Suicide bombings punctuated each day of the weekend. Electricity and water were cut off in much of the city. Cell-phone batteries died. Most homes had enough food for three days. How long would this invasion last? The bodies of executed Palestinian policemen were discovered by journalists and broadcast westward on CNN and eastward on Al-Jazeera. At one point soldiers opened fire on about thirty policemen as they exited a building in an attempt to give themselves up - an event that may have intensified the fighting in places like Jenin, since it was now understood that surrender was not welcome.

I spoke with Lara's father by a still-functioning landline. Troops had entered the medical center on several occasions and searched both it and the patients while holding him at gunpoint in front of them. The use of "human shields" was commonplace in these days. The injured and the dead lay in buildings and in streets where medical staff could not reach them. The smell became a stench. Sewage seeped into the water supply. There was fear of a cholera or typhoid outbreak.

I heard from a friend whose house is near Arafat's compound. Conducting citywide house-to-house searches, soldiers came in and ate her food, ransacked her rooms, and suggested she give them a massage. They drove a tank over her car, flattening it, though the horn defiantly blew throughout the neighborhood, until hours later it too died.

All of us were regularly in contact with our national consulates. The United Nations finally delivered fresh medical supplies to one of the refugee camps, though the trucks were fired upon in the process. Ramallah was proclaimed a "closed military zone," and all journalists were ordered out. Foreign governments were powerless to protect their citizens, despite intensive efforts. The U.N. Security Council voted for and demanded a withdrawal; there was no response. In Rome the pope lamented that "war had been declared on peace."

There were constant explosions. We already knew how to distinguish tank shells from rockets, artillery mortars, grenades, and various calibers of machine guns; now we heard new sounds: explosive charges on doors and roads, anti-aircraft cannons being fired at buildings. At first these were far away, but within days they moved into our area. We began to ask ourselves: Which was the safest room? Which was the safest corner?

The queen mother died in England, and the news began to switch back and forth between her death and those in Ramallah.

On Monday, the day I'd hoped to resume teaching in Providence, I counted thirty-three enormous explosions in succession. I could hear heavy-caliber machine-gun fire. Apache helicopters circled overhead. That night, the assault on the main security headquarters of the Palestinian Authority took place. It began at 1:15 in the morning. Sixty Palestinian civilians were arrested and placed in front of the attacking force, until the practice was reported and then stopped. Tanks began to blast chunks off buildings while the helicopters fired rockets, shaking the ground. The attack could be heard as far away as Jerusalem. We were on the telephone with those inside the burning compound. They were becoming desperate. They weren't being let out, they said. We spent a feverish night on the phone awakening consular officials and pleading with them to intervene. In the morning there was a brief reprieve in the shelling, but then it continued sporadically, until an eventual surrender.

Word came on Tuesday, after I'd struggled with a few broken hours of sleep, that the curfew would be lifted for three hours in the afternoon and we would be allowed to leave through the checkpoint. But that proved impossible. As people emerged from their homes, some were shot. The curfew was not lifted in all parts of the city, and the route to the checkpoint passed through some areas still under its restriction. Too much gunfire persisted. I had time only to see what food was left in a nearby shop and then rush back just minutes before tanks began moving again. Was it all a trick to get everyone to expose themselves, or was it poor communication among Israeli units? We didn't know.

We waited until Friday. Again it was announced that the curfew would be lifted for three hours. People streamed out onto the streets. Although men were being arrested, my friends and I made our way to the checkpoint in relative calm. At Qalandia were two lines, one with about sixty foreign nationals and another with about forty Palestinians. For two hours no one was let through. British consular officials on the other side of the checkpoint were trying to negotiate our safe passage. Half an hour before the curfew was to be reinstated, soldiers shouted that the checkpoint was closed. After some people protested, rifles were leveled and shots fired, until the crouching lines hastily retreated back into the city.

We tried again on Monday. I had arranged to teach my class by phone, either from Ramallah or, if possible, from Jerusalem. [Sentences omitted at request of subject.] We were searched and then allowed to cross.

With each step along that hundred or so feet, I could feel a gradual lifting of an invisible cloud. It was like a scene out of a Cold War film. We looked back one last time and then met an armored car from the British consulate on the far side. Other consulates were trying helplessly to get their own nationals across. As we drove away, we could see a new chainlink fence with barbed wire being erected around Ramallah. Noticing our parched lips, the driver stopped and bought us some orange juice. At the hotel in Jerusalem we could suddenly eat what we wanted. But our appetite was gone.

When I got home, the Amelie CD was waiting for me. But now when I played it the haunting melodies had a tragic and deeply sad association. Henceforth, this film, which I'd last encountered just before the Good Friday invasion, would remind me of the last flicker of life in a city disfigured and altered indefinitely.

The siege of Ramallah lasted another week. Later I heard that Lara's passport had been found. Somehow it had survived.

Jarat Chopra is an assistant professor at the Watson Institute for International Studies. He returned to Ramallah in late June, when he finally retrieved Lara's passport.

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July / August 2002