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Voices in the Wilderness

By Jeff Guntzel

We left for Ramallah yesterday morning. In order to enter the city, our little group had to avoid the Israeli checkpoint by walking (and sometimes running) through the brush just south of the checkpoint. Once we were safely inside the military zone, a taxi driver with whom we had made advance arrangements drove us about a mile into Ramallah and stopped. He would not go any further for fear of Israeli snipers who were situated in many of the city’s tall buildings. A Red Crescent ambulance driver offered to take us to the Sheik Zayed hospital where we had arranged to meet two organizers with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), Huwaida Arraf and her fiancĂ©, Adam Shapiro. We had heard that tanks and troops surrounding the hospital might block our passage.

Those of you who have been following the news carefully might remember the Sheik Zayed hospital as the site of a mass grave dug, several days earlier, in the parking lot as a temporary burial ground for 29 Palestinians, including one American citizen. The morgue at the hospital was full, and there was nowhere else to put the bodies. Coming down a steep hill about three miles from the hospital, we spotted a tank and an armored personnel carrier (APC). These days, in Ramallah, the only vehicles on the streets are tanks, APCs, and ambulances (I guess you could also count the mangled cars peppering the roadside that tanks had rolled over during the invasion). Suddenly a soldier appeared. He crouched on one knee, aimed his M-16 directly at us, and fixed his eye to his gun’s sight. We stopped. The driver began slowly backing up the hill and several more soldiers appeared some of them taking aim and some motioning us to come closer. We all held our passports up to let them know there were internationals in the car.

Israeli troops had been harassing, arresting, and even shooting ambulance drivers since the start of the invasion. We had no idea what to expect. When we got to the soldiers at the bottom of the hill we stopped again. Eight M-16s and a tank were aimed at us. The soldier directly to my right looked tired and scared. That scared me. Our driver was ordered out of the car and asked a few questions in Arabic. Then we were ordered out, with all of our bags. We laid our bags out on the ground and opened them. After a not-so-thorough search several soldiers asked us a few questions while others encircled us. The soldier who at first struck me as tired and scared now just looked cautiously curious.

“Why are you here?” he asked, not quite meeting our eyes.

“We came to bring medicine and food to people under curfew,” said one member of our group.

“Don’t you know there are terrorists here, it is dangerous,” he replied, “do you think you can bring peace?”

“We don’t know,” we said, almost in unison.

Then Kathy, my roommate and co-worker, stepped in, “We are here because we know that our government pays for much of what is going on here and we feel a responsibility to intervene nonviolently in this terrible situation.”

“We did not ask for this, it is the Palestinian leadership, bad leaders, they are responsible for this,” replied the soldier.

“But over half of the people here are children,” Kathy said, “and children can’t be bad leaders, they can only be children!”

“I know there are children here,” he replied solemnly, looking off into the distance, “but there are also terrorists. You cannot drive to the hospital,” said the soldier.

“Then we will walk,” replied Greg, another member of our group, who then began walking towards the tank and APC that partially blocked our path.

“Stop! You cannot walk either,” demanded the soldier, who then paused and looked around. Directly in front of us was a soldier on one knee, holding each of us briefly in his cross-hairs, one person at a time.

“Don’t you understand that you make the terrorists happy when you come here to help them?” the soldier continued.

“We are here to help the innocent people in Ramallah who are being terrorized and killed every day,” replied Kathy.

“We do not kill innocent people.”

“We read Ha’aretz [an Israeli paper, printed in Hebrew and English] every day and we know innocent people are being killed,” Kathy said.

“Do you think I like this?” the soldier demanded, “I don’t want to be here.”

At that moment there was an enormous explosion and sustained machine gun fire. It was coming from directly behind us, and it was really loud. Two members of our group stepped away to smoke, and the others drifted back towards the ambulance. Kathy and I remained with the soldier.

“Do you know what Arafat wants, he wants murder, why do you want to help a murderer,” he asked.

“Maybe there is another way to look at our presence here,” I replied, “We are here operating beneath the level of the leaders who we believe do not want real peace. I think you and I have more in common than you have with Sharon, or than I have with Arafat, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, I agree.”

“So let us go to the hospital,” Kathy responded.

Silence. Then the soldier spoke again, “You know, it is not just the Palestinians who are suffering.”

“We want a just peace for both sides,” we responded, “We want an end to *all* of the violence.”

“It is too late,” insisted the soldier, “there can be no peace now.”

“It is difficult to see a way out, but…”

“Why don’t you work on behalf of the Jews, why can’t you be objective?”

At that moment, another soldier came up to us and began speaking in Hebrew. Then, suddenly, we were told we could get back into the ambulance and push ahead towards the hospital.

The hospital is actually two buildings separated by a road. It was in that road, just yards from the hospital, that an elderly woman with a walker was shot dead by an Israeli sniper just weeks ago. In the parking lot we saw the mass grave we had all read about. It was empty; the killing was less frequent 11 days into the siege, giving hospital workers the window they needed to dispose of the bodies properly.


For our second day in Ramallah, we agreed to divide our efforts. Some of us could accompany ambulances making house calls while the rest would defy the curfew by walking to the office of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC) to assist in deliveries of food and medicine to families. We had walked about one block when we spotted an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) at the intersection three blocks ahead of us. On top of the APC were a mounted machine gun and a soldier; another soldier, bearing an M-16, crouched in front of the APC. Both were aiming at us. We stopped. A soldier yelled something. Adam yelled out, “I’m sorry I can’t hear you.” One of the soldiers fired. “I hear your bullets,” Adam replied, “We’re going to deliver food, we are all foreigners.” We waited. There were shots in the distance. The soldiers ahead of us seemed to be engaged in some sort of operation that drew them out of the APC. They were moving around. We were a distraction. We began walking very slowly, then stopped, and again called out our intent to deliver food. Adam asked to speak to the commander, with whom he has spoken before. Then he asked for some signal that we could pass. Nothing. We resumed our slow march, white flag held high. We heard a dynamite explosion nearby. The soldiers were blowing their way into a building. We stopped again and Adam continued, “Soldiers, we wish to proceed, may we approach to speak to you?”. After a long silence we decided to turn back and try again later. We worried that the soldiers would do something stupid to deal with their “distraction.” Turning around, we walked back slowly, in the direction of yesterday’s snipers.

While we were engaged in our sort-of-stand-off, Alexandra had ducked into a refugee camp and returned with a heart medicine prescription for a middle-aged woman who couldn’t reach the hospital to fill it because of the snipers and the soldiers. The hospital was one block away. We returned to the hospital, got the heart medication, and decided to head back to the refugee camp, which was just in view of our friends with the APC. We began again, white flag waiving, and arrived at the entrance to the camp (really indistinguishable from the rest of the neighborhood) and were pleased to see that the soldiers had moved on. We decided to again attempt making our way to the UPMRC offices. Just as we were getting ready to walk on, a man approached us to ask if we could get an ambulance to take his feverish son to the hospital. We decided to escort the boy to the hospital since it was so close.While we were regrouping in the parking lot, two ambulances sped into the driveway. Inside one was the body of 28 year old Manel Sami Ibrahim, who was standing near her window when an Israeli sniper shot her through the heart. Her husband and three children were in the apartment.

“This,” as one Palestinian relief worker said to me, “is the occupation.”

We started off again for the UPMRC offices. I felt a small sense of victory as we passed the location of the soldiers we had confronted just an hour earlier. We turned left and headed up a hill. The streets of Ramallah were empty and ruined. Bullet casings of all varieties littered the streets. The Israelis had shot up banks, internet cafes, bars, clothing stores, medical relief offices, civil service organizations, and homes. Tanks had bulldozed power lines, dumpsters, and street signs. But the houses were full. Every once in awhile, somebody would lean out of an upper window to say hello or just look at us, wondering. A woman from Los Angeles came down for a quick visit. A man planting a tree in his garden showed us the bullet casings he had collected around his yard. It was surreal.

Occasionally, an APC would rumble by us on a nearby street, but we didn’t encounter any soldiers until the very end of our walk. It was right out of a war movie. Two young men in fatigues with a lazy grip on their M-16s. Clearly bored out of their minds and blasting Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” They made us open our bags and barely even looked into them. Soon we were on our way.

At the UPRMC offices, workers took us on a tour of the damaged building. Two family apartments were heavily hit with damage to the ceilings, walls and floors, which were covered with debris and broken glass. The clinic’s reception room and examining room were similarly damaged, but had also been ransacked. A ruined copy machine had crashed to the floor. All of the patient files had been stolen. And every window was shattered. After seeing the damage, I was assigned to an ambulance and given a UPMRC/Red Crescent vest to identify me as a medical relief worker. Alexandra and I accompanied a doctor and two UPMRC volunteers on food and medicine deliveries to various homes that had requested help. The trip through Ramallah neighborhoods was successful and without incident.

Returning to the Sheik Zayed Hospital, we learned that IDF soldiers had shot Arduf Mussa Khandil, a 23 year-old mentally retarded man whom we had seen on the hospital grounds just hours earlier. Apparently he had wandered out into a street behind the hospital. Witnesses saw 11 Israeli soldiers chasing him. They speculated that the young man ran because he was scared when he saw armed soldiers. He was unarmed. They shot him dead.

Scott, a member of our group, visited the morgue to confirm the details of the day’s deaths. A third body was delivered to the morgue while we were out. It was the body of Mahmoud Farid Bawatma, who had been dead 7-15 days, his body only recently discovered. He was shot, but the details of his death are unclear except that the bullet had entered through his buttocks and exited through his head. The morgue was full again and the doctors were talking about a second mass grave. As we were leaving the hospital to attempt a return to Jerusalem, two APCs rolled up the street and parked at the intersection nearest the hospital. It was the same army unit that had stopped us on our way in. Now they were telling us we couldn’t leave. After five minutes of talking and ten minutes of waiting while they struck war poses, we were allowed to leave.

Now I am back in Jerusalem, working on getting to Jenin with Kathy and several others. They say there has been a massacre there.