Emerging from curfew, Palestinians find ruins

Respite: Allowed out of their homes for the third time in two weeks, people in the West Bank city of Ramallah survey the damage, flood the hospitals and stock up on supplies.

April 12, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Taysir Elfar cannot understand why the Israeli army, pushing into town two weeks ago, took aim at his seven-story office building.

There are two rocket holes in the back, one on the side. Most of the windows are smashed, the power cut and the lobby flooded with ankle-deep muddy water.

By Elfar's estimate, that is $60,000 worth of damage, enough to endanger his ownership of the building. It has belonged to his family for three generations and was filled with shops, offices and a few apartments.

"They are fighting all Palestinians," Elfar shouted yesterday, standing in the rear yard next to two broken doors on the ground. "They don't want anything here that is working. They are destroying everything."

Elfar may be overstating the level of destruction in the city that is home to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank, but conditions are indeed dire.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is scheduled to meet with Arafat tomorrow at his besieged headquarters, but it's unlikely that the American will fully experience the smells, sights and sounds of the city.

The Israeli army lifted its curfew yesterday for only the third time in two weeks, giving residents four hours to venture outside. It was a strange, straining experience.

Garbage was piled in the streets. Sewers had overflowed, dust was everywhere. There was an overpowering stench of dirt, decay and waste.

At the city's main square, Al Manara, traffic slowed and circled statues of lions and their cubs. A billboard featuring a photo of Arafat giving a speech was covered with Hebrew graffiti that stated "Momma, Momma, I'm running away."

Across the street, an Israeli flag flew on a building as Israeli soldiers below watched from behind barbed wire, flanked by seven armored vehicles.

One soldier trained his gun on a growing crowd. A man filmed the soldiers, saying he wanted it as a reminder of the occupation.

For about 20 minutes, some three dozen demonstrators paraded in the main square and shouted in Arabic, "1, 2, 3, 4, occupation no more."

The soldiers moved toward the crowd, firing tear gas, and the incident ended in a matter of seconds.

The effects of this occupation, though, may last a lot longer.

Consider the anger of Elfar, a well-dressed businessman venting his rage at the army that wrecked his building.

"Israel must pay for this," he said, showing off the darkened, flooded lobby. "What is in this lobby? Do we have guns? Rockets? How many people did they find in this building?"

Elfar said his family fled Israel in 1948 and set up business in Ramallah. He wondered aloud what kind of business he can pass down to his three sons.

"I will send them to destroy Israel," he said. "They are not the winners. We are the winners because we love this land."

James Salem is also angry. The 30-year-old owner of a textile store was born in San Francisco and carries a U.S. passport.

"I am a Palestinian first," he said, bringing home two shopping bags filled with cucumbers and eggplants. "You feel you are in a prison. It is a bad situation."

He held little hope for Powell's trip to Ramallah.

"We as Palestinian people have suffered a lot from the American support to the Israelis," he said. "We are not expecting [Powell] to do anything in support of the Palestinians. I think it's better he doesn't come."

At a local hospital, chief obstetrician Dr. Edwan Barghoutti had little time to discuss politics. He had not been home in two weeks; every time the curfew is lifted, he is flooded with patients, many of them pregnant, who need exams and reassurance.

During the curfew he has perfected telephone deliveries. In three cases, he has provided instructions over the telephone to help women deliver their children because they couldn't get to the hospital.

"Two husbands handled the deliveries for the first time," he said. "It was difficult to do. There was no choice."

When the babies were born, he instructed the women to put the phone to the newborns' mouths so he could listen to their breathing and crying.

Barghoutti said he also had a more difficult case, in which the hospital tried for five hours to get an ambulance to a woman in labor with a baby in fetal distress. Eventually, the ambulance was allowed to pick up the woman, who arrived at the hospital with moments to spare; an emergency Caesarean section was performed.

The mother and child survived.

"If she waited maybe 30 minutes, the baby would die in her uterus," Barghoutti said.

Barghoutti criticized the Israeli forces, which will not let ambulances move freely. The Israelis insist that ambulances have been used to ferry gunmen and weapons.

"It's a difficult situation," Barghoutti said. "Even World War II, they didn't do that. They injure the people. They don't allow the ambulances."

At a checkpoint on the outskirts of town, Palestinian prisoners who had been detained by Israeli forces were returning home on buses. Unshaven, their clothes unkempt, they straggled across the checkpoint.

Two cousins, Tarly and Oman Tayil showed the skin rubbed raw on their wrists by plastic handcuffs. They said they were called from their apartments, put in armored personnel carriers, and detained for six days.

They seemed dazed.

Amid the dust, an Israeli ambulance arrived at the checkpoint and attendants unloaded the body of a man who others said died when he was struck on the head during a prison clash.

Eight Palestinian men struggled with a wooden coffin, placed the body bag inside and marched it to a station wagon, sliding the coffin into the back.

A distressed man in his 20s tried to climb into the coffin. And the men drove off.

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