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Ha’aretz: Intifada redux

By Gideon Levy

For the original article, click here.

The intifada is back. Maybe not in full force, but the sights we saw last weekend suddenly brought us back 20 years. Israel Defense Forces bulldozers blocked the main entrance to the village of Azoun. Its roads were strewn with stones; Molotov cocktails were thrown; the IDF distributed threatening fliers; a curfew was imposed; and dozens of young men gathered on streetcorners, slingshots in hand, waiting for IDF jeeps – just as then.

Just as then the smell of burning tires filled the air, and the half-deserted streets were frightening. Only the young people dared to leave their shuttered homes. In Azoun they say that since the IDF officer named “Captain Joe” arrived in town, their lives have changed. They speak of harassment of schoolchildren, guns fired at the knees of the boys, patrols and arrests.

In handwritten and poor Arabic – there is hardly a word without a spelling mistake – photocopied fliers were distributed over the weekend in the streets: “We demand that the residents of Azoun stop throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. If you don’t stop the riots, Captain Joe will enter the town and begin lethal firing at the residents, arrest the children and close the shops. This is our decision. If you don’t stop the riots, everyone will be responsible. This is a final warning – Captain Joe.”

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades responded quickly. Their flier was written on the organization’s official stationery and was dated February 1, 2008: “Yesterday fliers were distributed on the streets of our town signed by Captain Joe, one of the soldiers defeated by our heroic brothers in the Gaza Strip. We hereby declare that we will continue on the armed path. The Day of Judgment is approaching and we will yet defeat Captain Joe, his soldiers and his collaborators, Inshallah.

“To Captain Joe: We are still strong and our bullets will continue to shriek. In the coming days we will burn the ground beneath your feet, the feet of your soldiers and your collaborators. The fortress of Azoun will continue to be as strong as a rock … Just wait, you cowards, we have promised and we will keep our promise – we will strike and cause pain.”

Curfew, stones, fliers, tires: Is the first intifada returning?

Barbed-wire fences and piles of dirt blocked the main entrance to Azoun, a town of 10,000 residents on the main Qalqilyah-Nablus road, or should we say Kfar Sava-Kedumim. On Sunday an IDF bulldozer was standing on the hill overlooking the blocked entrance, observing from a distance. Several passengers got out of a Palestinian taxi and crossed the piles of dirt and barbed wire on foot, entering the town that was put under curfew.

A few minutes after we arrived an IDF vehicle appeared out of nowhere. From it emerged an officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel, the brigade commander, who said: “I’m asking you to evacuate the area of the junction … Leave the area.” How long will it be blocked, we asked. “When things are calm … it will be opened. The equation is very simple. On Friday evening there was a Molotov cocktail and on Saturday there was stone-throwing and now it’s closed. It’s a dangerous place, Azoun.”

“Is there a curfew here?”

“No, there’s no curfew.”

But there was a curfew. Salah Haj-Yehye, the fieldwork director for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), who organizes visits by medical staff to the territories, is with us. He asks the brigade commander how ambulances will enter the town, and the commander assures him that the southern entrance is open. Haj-Yehye is not satisfied: How will the organization’s staff reach the hospital in Nablus? No answer. Then the commander says: “Don’t take pictures.” Why not? “Because I’m not photogenic.” Was this “Joe”? The brigade commander did not identify himself by name, only by his position.

Carpets of poppies and almond trees greet us as we enter Azoun by a different road, from the west. An IDF jeep had driven around the streets of the town a few minutes earlier and announced a curfew. In any case the schools were closed that morning, after the soldiers prevented them from opening. The residents say that during the past three months the village has been under curfew for 25 days, as it was last weekend. Since last Friday there has been a “strict” curfew in the village

Next to the Hamuda carpentry shop, dentist Dr. Amin Salim, a member of the town council, joins us. If he sits on the front seat of the car, maybe they won’t throw stones at us, he says. In the morning, a group of settlers had gathered at the blocked entrance to the villate to protest the stone throwing on the main road, Salim says. The IDF prevented them from entering the town. A black cloud rises to a distance above the houses. A small intifada in Azoun.

Our car tries to make its way through the angry streets, navigating between the large rocks strewn on the road and the tire bonfires. Children stand next to the shuttered stores, stones in hand. A large crowd has gathered at Independence Square in the center of town, which has a stone monument engraved with the Palestinian declaration of independence. The men are dressed in jeans, sweatshirts and cheap jackets, some quasi-military; their hair is cut short and their faces flash with hatred. Hopeless, bitter young men, one limping from an old injury. “The situation has worsened since the arrival of Joe, about two months ago,” they say, volunteering information. “The IDF comes in every day and harasses us.” Four of them were wounded last month.

The crowd becomes increasingly restive. The soldiers, they say, enter the houses, throw stun and tear-gas grenades, and shoot. The mysterious Captain Joe sometimes speaks on the loudspeaker of one of the jeeps, threatening and cursing.

Up the small hill of a half-deserted street nearby, people are pushing a wheelchair. In it is Mohammed Faisal, 16, who was wounded on January 15. Salim shows us the footage on his cell phone of Faisal’s injury. We can hear the shooting; it happened here, in the square. Faisal says he was standing there when the soldiers entered at noontime. There was stone throwing, everyone fled and he was wounded in the leg by the soldiers’ bullets. He says Joe’s jeep was standing up the street and that he was shot twice, once from a distance and once at close range. He exposes his leg, which has a long, coarsely sewn scar all along it. A sign of the French-Palestinian Solidarity Association stands at the edge of the smoking square.

Two Swiss volunteers emerge from one of the houses; they came to identify with the burning town. “The situation is bad,” says one of them, who sports a nose ring. Every sound of an approaching car increases the tension. Everyone is waiting for the IDF. We enter a house, one of the most decrepit, where Othman Raduan, 16, is lying. He was also wounded on January 15 and is still bedridden.

Curled up in cheap colorful blankets on an iron bed, in a room with stained and moldy walls, Raduan has the first signs of a mustache and wears a white hat with a drawing of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. A blue door with a peephole and the number 28 engraved on it leads to the rest of the rooms of the house. Raduan works in the grocery store in the square.

On that “black Sabbath,” he says, he went outside when the soldiers arrived. The soldiers cursed and fired; the young men threw stones at them. One bullet hit his leg and he fell on the road; then, he says, one of the soldiers fired another two bullets at him from a distance of about half a meter. The result: one bullet in his left leg, two bullets in his right.

After the shooting the soldiers dragged him on the road and beat him, too, says Raduan. After half an hour he was evacuated to the local clinic, from there to the UNRWA hospital in Qalqilyah and from there to the Rafidia Hospital in Nablus, where he was operated on. He can already move his left leg, but his right leg is still paralyzed. They shot at his knees. He says that this is not Sderot; nobody reported the wounding of Raduan and Faisal.

Salim says that in three months, 27 young men have been wounded in their legs by the soldiers’ gunfire. Rami Issaf of the Palestinian Association for Rehabilitation of the Disabled, says that in most of the cases the wounds were indeed in the legs.

Haj-Yehye of PHR says that three weeks ago his organization held a medical day in Azoun with the participation of 12 Israeli doctors, who came to examine the sick and wounded. Some 500 showed up. On that day, too, the IDF entered, there were riots and the medical team had difficulty getting out.

By the time this issue went to print, no response had been received by the IDF Spokesperson’s Office.

In his relatively spacious home, the dentist Salim says that up until a few months ago Azoun was a quiet place. “Since then the new policy has begun, which is aimed at turning Azoun into a chaotic place. The council asked the IDF to stop the harassment, but the IDF continues to enter, almost daily, harassing and firing, cursing mainly the children.

“Apparently they have a goal for the future. They want to build a wall around Azoun and to imprison it. They are looking to provoke the children. The local council and the governor of Qalqilyah are making an effort to calm things down, but each time the IDF enters again and the efforts fail. If there is no change, there will be a disaster here,” warns Salim.

Currently eight youths are being detained by the IDF; 19 others were detained and released. In all about 70 residents have been detained in the past three months. Salim shows us the list of names.

Bayan Tabib, council head of the neighboring village, Izbit al-Tabib, says demolition orders have been issued for 22 houses – half of his tiny unrecognized village. A demolition order has also been issued against the new youth center that was built between Azoun and Jiyus; part has already been destroyed and the other part is slated to be razed on March 15. The center was built on private land with money from donations, but did not receive the approval of the Israeli Civil Administration.

“An oasis for children in the midst of the despair,” said the information brochure in English, which made a desperate call to prevent the demolition. On February 21 they are organizing a demonstration in Azoun against the demolition of the center. Salim says that the Civil Administration told him: “We will erase Azoun yet.”