A silent witness to struggle

SUN JOURNAL

Fort: Six Palestinians wanted by Israel will be jailed in a building whose history embodies the shifting tide of power in the West Bank.

May 02, 2002|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SUN STAFF

Whatever their route, the six Palestinian prisoners wanted by Israel and the British and American guards who drove them last night in a convoy of armored cars would have briefly had the sensation of falling as they traveled from Ramallah to Jericho.

The drop in elevation is that steep down the brown tweed hills of the Judean Desert from Ramallah to the prisoners' new quarters in sleepy Jericho, 1,200 feet below sea level at the sandy bottom of the world.

Every car entering the outskirts of the city passes the remnants of a refugee camp where the mud-brick huts are barely distinguishable from the sand, and then, set back from the road, a fort - two stories high - that embodies part of the violent, unhappy history of the rulers and the ruled in the West Bank.

The convoy brought the six men to the fort, their new, well-guarded home. Guards from the Palestinian Authority will watch the six, and the British and American wardens will watch the guards, indefinitely. It ended a standoff outside Yasser Arafat's Ramallah headquarters. Israel refused to end its siege there unless the six - variously accused of killing an Israeli Cabinet minister and arranging for a ship to deliver weapons - were securely jailed.

The British built the fort in the 1930s, when Great Britain ruled Palestine. It was a time, like now, of soldiers, gunmen and violence. The soldiers were British; the gunmen were Jews and Arabs fighting to determine whether and when the land would become an independent state and who would control it. The war was three-sided. Arabs fought Jews and the British; Jews fought Arabs and the British; the British tried to subdue the rival populations.

Then, as now, gunmen and armies carried out guerrilla attacks, house-to-house searches, bombings, more bombings, mass arrests.

Jericho was where nothing seemed to happen. The heat was paralyzing. The herders and farmers lived desperately poor lives. The housing was wretched. But even there, an Arab mob burned down the British military headquarters in 1936.

The British replaced it with the fort.

Sir Charles Teagart built it. Having made his name suppressing anti-British riots in India, he took charge of security in Palestine. He established a training center in Jerusalem for interrogators, who learned about torture, as documented by the Israeli historian Tom Segev. To stop the infiltration of Arab gunmen, Teagart commissioned the building of a fence across the north of Palestine.

The Jericho fort was one of many, and for economy's sake, all the buildings followed a single set of blueprints, cookie-cutter style. The fort in Jericho was interchangeable with forts in Ramallah, Nablus and a dozen other cities.

It is made of concrete and stucco the color of wet sand. Every line of the building is long and straight. It is a long, heavy-looking rectangle, the deeply recessed windows like dark eyes facing the road. A deep veranda runs along the upper level, and the interior ceilings are high. The commander or local governor had his office on the second floor. Jail cells and interrogation rooms were in the back, away from the road.

The British used the building as a military headquarters until they withdrew from Palestine on May 13, 1948. On May 14, the day Israel declared its independence, the first Arab-Israeli war began. When it ended, the fort was controlled by Jordan. In the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the building was captured by Israel. In 1994, the Israeli military carted files and furniture out of the building and handed it over to the Palestinian Authority.

Across the road is a house that the first British high commissioner of Palestine built as a winter cottage. In the 1920s and '30s, the most important local occasion was the once- or twice-a-year visit by the high commissioner. He could walk to the fort. When Israel took control, the cottage housed the public works department. When control passed to the Palestinians, the head of the security police for the West Bank made the cottage his first headquarters.

The days there are already very warm. Wildflowers from the winter rains have become dry stubble, and the desert beyond the fort's front gate will soon be blindingly white. Every governor who presided there - British, Jordanian, Israeli, Palestinian - commanded meetings, busied himself with phone calls, listened to requests for a new road, a new school, improvements to the irrigation system.

It could give the Palestinian prisoners, their Palestinian guards, and the British and American wardens topics of conversation: the era when the British ruled, the day the Palestinians took control, the ebb and flow of power in the fort and the West Bank.

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