Walking through Bethlehem yesterday I was stopped by a taxi driver I have come to know over the years, Abu Anwar. He seemed agitated and angry. He knows of my work over here and was keen for me to go back to his house to show me what had happened during a surprise early morning visit he had received two nights earlier.
Abu Anwar and his wife life with their five children in a small house in Doha City, a relatively new city, effectively a suburb of Bethlehem, that has grown rapidly as there is little land left in Bethlehem itself for development due to the Apartheid Wall and Israeli colonization. They have three daughters and two sons. I have visited their house before, socially, as is the custom in Palestine, to drink coffee and talk.
At around 1am in the early morning of 7th March the whole family were, as most families would be at such a time, fast asleep. Abu Anwar works long hours, with early starts in his taxi, in order to provide for his family. When the first rock came through their window they woke with a fright. As more began to rein against their house and smash their windows they had no idea what was happening. The large green metal gate into their garden was ringing out with the sound of a barrage of rocks and bricks. Their heavy metal front door was echoing through the house as it was being kicked and beaten with the butts of M-16s. Um Anwar began to shout out, to find out what was happening:
“What’s wrong? What’s happening? What’s the matter?”
The answer was predictable enough for any late night disturbance in Palestine; it was not so much an answer as an order:
“We are soldiers, open the door, open the door now!!”
Um Anwar made her way down the stairs to the front door and opened it nervously:
“What are you doing? What’s wrong with you, we are trying to sleep!”
The reply she received was again more of a barked demand than an answer:
“Where is your husband? Get him down here now, I want all your family outside and on the street now!”
Abu Anwar came down as he had been ordered and walked onto the street asking them what the problem was. He was abruptly ordered to shut up, and told that they didn’t have to tell him anything (despite the fact they were terrorizing his family and damaging his property). Um Anwar went back upstairs to find her children and was followed inside by scores of IOF soldiers. Her too youngest children had locked themselves in the bathroom. Cowering with fear, a 9 year old boy and his 7 year old sister, hoped in their naivety that if they hid they would not be hurt and the intruders would leave. The IOF banged on the bathroom door, Um Anwar told her children to open the door knowing that if they did not the IOF would open it themselves with force and the children would be hurt. As a terrified little boy opened the door tentatively he peeped round:
“Salaam alekum” (Peace by with you)
As the nozzle of an M-16 was pushed through in front of a soldier, and the door was pushed open, even he received a screamed response:
“Salaam! You want salaam? I will give you salaam!”
The two young children cowered away, then, as the soldier entered the bathroom they ran out to their mother, looking for safety. She pulled them close to her. Their other two sisters were also in the living room and all the family stood close together. As the soldiers were spreading out through the house all the family was ordered outside to join Abu Anwar. Sound bombs were being thrown all around the house. As they walked down the stairs and outside they saw soldiers everywhere. Their garden was full of IOF, all with their guns trained on the family members. The neighbouring houses and the roofs of all surrounding buildings were also covered with these violent intruders. IOF Jeeps were spread all over the road blocking it, with their soldiers everywhere.
The eldest son, Anwar, lives in a bedroom on the bottom floor of the property, he had also barricaded himself into his room. The IOF’s steel toe-capped boots soon broke down his door. Anwar had his hands up in the air when the IOF entered, save giving them any excuse to shoot him. With all guns trained on him they searched him roughly before violently tying his hands behind his back with plastic cuffs. He was then pushed onto his bed and blindfolded, before being lifted up and pushed out through the door. As Anwar was dragged into the street his parents began to shout at the soldiers:
“What are you doing to him! What is wrong with you? He has done nothing!”
Anwar was immediately put into one of the jeeps which then sped away into the dark night. Abu Anwar tried again to question the soldiers:
“He has done nothing. He is a student. He studies, he works, and he sleeps, he has no time for anything else. What are you doing with him?”
With guns pointed at him he was again told:
“Shut your mouth, we have to tell you nothing!”
Bizarrely one soldier also informed him:
“We are a democracy!”
Quite what was meant by this comment no-one is sure. But what is certain is that all the family were terrified, the children screamed hysterically.
For the next 4 hours the family were kept on the street in the cold, dark night as the IOF systematically ransacked their house. At one stage a soldier ran outside with two large bags, maybe two or three kilos each, filled with a white crystalline substance:
“This is explosives! This is for bombs isn’t it!”
The two bags were then emptied all over the floor in the house’s entrance hall. This was the family’s entire supply of sugar…
When the family, minus the now disappeared Anwar, were finally allowed to return to their home around 5am, the destruction that they found added to their
In the entrance hall all the boxes which had been stacked together filled with assorted toys, pots and pans and other household goods were scattered all over the stairs. As they went up the stairs they found smashed windows all along the way, one which looks as though it has been shot through with a bullet. At the top of the stairs next to the entrance to the living room is a sofa, they found it broken and cut to shreds with a knife. As they walked through the smashed door into their living room they saw the family computer lying on the floor, its hard drive removed and wires extruding. The sofa and chairs in here were also all damaged and had clearly been cut with knifes. The refrigerator was wide open, its door broken and food strewn all over the floor. The table and chairs where family meals are shared were all broken. Underneath the windows concrete is cracked and plaster is falling out after what must have been damaged with considerable force. The washing mac hine stands smashed and unusable. Children’s toys litter the floor, plastic cars and toy soldiers crushed, a large fluffy white bear has knife marks right down its back and its stuffing pulled out. Next to the front window a religious text has been ripped off the wall and the plaster behind it smashed and dug out with something. In the bedrooms all cupboards and wardrobes were lying prostate across the floors and their contents strewn everywhere, beds were turned upside down and mattresses slashed. On the top floor of the house, which leads out onto the roof, they find more of the same, smashed windows, storage boxes upside down and their contents thrown everywhere, and a new water storage tank, recently fitted to the roof, now full of holes and useless.
The family later discovered that other family members in the neigbourhood had received similar visits. Four houses in all had received this disgusting treatment. Around twenty jeeps had been counted up and down the street and an estimate of somewhere between fifty to eight soldiers were reported by witnesses. Anwar was the only person arrested but dozens had been terrorized through the night, including many young children.
Um Anwar shows me the footage she recorded on one of her daughter’s mobile phones. The film shows the destruction immediately as they returned to the house. Being shown round the house I can still see all the damage but things have been cleared up off the floor.
The family have received similar visits in the past. Anwar was arrested previously in 1998, when he was just 15, that time it was two years before he saw his family again. He was also fined 10,000 NIS (well over $2000) and banned from leaving Bethlehem or passing any checkpoint for five years. He was charged with stone-throwing but has always claimed his innocence and at the time all of his friends went to visit Anwar’s parents to say it was not true.
Um Anwar also shows me video footage of an incident that happened in December when a man was shot by invading IOF forces outside their home. With an IOF jeep parked across the road Anwar was ordered from his room at gun point and told to carry the injured man over to the jeep. The footage shows Anwar attempting to lift the man who is much larger than himself. He is clearly struggling with the weight as he drags the man through a pool of his own blood towards the jeep.
Anwar’s parents found out through the Red Cross that their son is being held at Acion detention centre. They still do not know if he is actually being charged, and if so with what crime.
The family are all clearly and understandably distraught, Um Anwar cannot contain her anger:
“They claim they are a democracy, what democracy! No democracy treats people in this way! They are no democracy, they are stupid, they are evil!”
There is little I can say to the family. They wanted to me to document the destruction and to tell their story, so here it is, another story of violence, destruction and families torn apart, thanks to ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’…