War-weary residents of Ramallah get brief respite to venture outdoors

People use hours to shop for food, exchange news

April 03, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - There were a few hours of normality here yesterday. For four hours, residents of this tattered city, the Palestinian capital in all but name, could venture out of their homes and shop for food, before the Israeli Army reimposed a curfew that was in its fifth day.

People bought cooking gas and corn flakes, stocked up on water and toilet paper, lined up for bread and bought up vegetables just trucked in. And enjoyed the sound of relative silence, broken by a few cracks of gunfire, and freedom of movement before dusk arrived.

"The fact they opened for a few hours means it's going to be a long siege," said Nidal Sarne, 30, who held a metal canister in wait for a supplier to fill it with gas, so that his wife could cook. "It doesn't mean they'll leave tomorrow or the day after."

He was standing with about two dozen men on Nablus Street, the road snaking downhill toward the center of Ramallah. They waited patiently by a doorway, and when the gas man showed up around the corner, the line moved en masse into the middle of the road to resume its wait.

Other suppliers were more orderly - fruit and vegetables gathered in one shop, bread in another.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was among those resupplied with groceries. The Israeli army said the goods sent in to the remnants of his compound included yellow cheese, 13 cans of humus, 600 pitas, 34 crates of mineral water, more than 120 pounds of coffee, 23 cans of tuna, 55 cans of sardines, and medicine, antibiotics, painkillers and needles.

People wanted to be outdoors, wanted to talk about the events of the past five days and see what the Israeli army had wrought. People talked, car horns honked. When an Israeli armored vehicle came into view, people stopped, stared and fell quiet. When it passed, the low buzz of conversation resumed.

Some streets had deep gouges from tank treads, light poles lay on their sides, a guardrail was smashed like crumpled paper, several cars looked as though they had been gripped by a giant iron hand and crushed.

Residents described Israeli soldiers moving house to house in search of weapons and asking men older than 16 to report to a local school where ID cards were checked.

"This is like a concentration camp, when you put people under a siege," said Muhammad Shtayeh, head of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction. "It's a killing field where you don't know how many people have been killed."

Shtayeh said three Israeli soldiers entered his home, while others circled the house. "They asked us to go into one room," he said. "They were formal."

At Khaled Hospital, Dr. Jamal Tarifi lamented that an Israeli tank had knocked down the hospital's sign. Otherwise, the building was untouched. For the first time in days, ill people could arrive to be admitted.

The remains of Arafat's compound were guarded by two Israeli tanks. In the ultimate Do-Not-Enter sign, they swiveled their turrets toward an approaching car.

Remnants of the fighting of the past days littered the landscape of dirt and concrete. Two sedans were crunched like tin cans beneath dirt, a wall had been reduced to rubble, on a nearby street the power lines were on the ground. Walls had been pockmarked by bullets.

Nearby, two kids, about 10, skipped by an Israeli tank.

And Arafat's neighbors scurried home to beat the curfew.

"We are not Arafat's neighbors only," said a 31-year-old accountant who identified himself as Abu Nasri. "We are the Palestinian people. [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is fighting the entire Palestinian people."

Abu Nasri lives on Einjalout Street, a few blocks from Arafat's compound. The street is lined with trim brick homes and a few cars; the road is a little bumpier since the tanks arrived. The neighborhood has also been rather noisy, Nasri said - due to the tanks, gunshots and explosions.

And life is a little tougher, he said, now that there is no power or water.

"We have been here since Friday," Abu Nastri said. "We could not leave the house. My wife is nine months pregnant with twins. I can't come or go or bring her medicine."

And for a time, sleep was impossible.

"Whenever we hear those sounds we get frightened and scared," he said of the battles that raged at the compound. "The effect on children is worse."

Across the street are his sister, Abeer, her husband and four children. Abeer Nasri said her family has been sleeping six in one room since the fighting began.

"My kids are scared to sleep alone," she said, bringing in her shopping.

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