By Dylan Bergeson/ Special to the AS Review
I don’t know where to start. Until two weeks ago I have never photographed dead bodies, never negotiated to enter occupied homes during a military operation, never run behind corners to avoid gunfire or lain awake at night listening to the low whirr of spy drones flying about and taking pictures.
Were it possible, I would transmit each detail of Israel’s recent invasion of Nablus city to your brains simultaneously; one emotional mass of exhaustion, nerves, terror, and uncertainty, as it exists in my memory.
Sixteen days had passed since circumstance forced me to abort my documentary work in Nablus’ Balata refugee camp. I had progressed through defeat, listlessness, and finally resolve to continue my project elsewhere. As if awaiting my cue, I received a phone call from Irony, informing me that medical volunteers were desperately needed in Nablus. Israel had begun the first stages of its Northern Glory operation, the largest incursion into the West Bank since mid-2005. Officially, the operation was intended to eliminate several wanted men. It was also a plain display of might by stand-in Prime Minister Olmert, who is jockeying for position in this month’s elections.
A pair of innocent teenagers had already been killed in Balata camp. They were standing on a rooftop when two calculated shots from a sniper’s rifle found their bodies, one boy in the neck, the other in the mouth and through the back of his head. They were unarmed. That Northern Glory was to be a campaign of tangential devastation was made clear from the beginning.
Several activists caught a bus through one of the checkpoints surrounding Nablus and waited for an ambulance to take us to Balata. Roadblocks sealed the camp and armored vehicles patrolled the parameter. The ambulance driver said it was too dangerous for him to go there. Instead, we hitched a ride to the outskirts of the camp in a delivery truck. The coast looked clear; we started walking— too slow. A nearby tank tore over the median, cutting us off. The man inside screamed, “Get back! Go away!”
We circled behind a row of buildings and tried again. As we crossed the street the tank barreled toward us. Shots fired over our heads as we scampered into one of the meter-wide alleys almost hidden between four-story high-rises. We made it. Adjusting our packs, we ambled toward the camp’s only normal sized road, en route to the medical clinic. Immediately an armored jeep blocked the path and soldiers demanded to see passports. This was an old trick. Our passports would be held hostage until the border police (the only arm of Israeli law able to legally arrest international citizens in Palestine) could arrive. We asked for a moment to consult, backing behind a corner, then, out of sight, ran into another alleyway where the jeep could not pursue.
So the days proceeded. With little sleep, Palestinian-international relief teams patrolled the camp, sprinting to reach the injured or, often more taxing, waiting hours for the next emergency to arise. Ambulances were often either delayed by the military or shut out from the camp altogether. Homes ran dry of food and medicine. Soldiers strategically occupied the highest buildings, detaining the extended families inside, sometimes for days.
On the second night a sniper, apparently bored, shot a 22-year-old man through his window directly across the street from the clinic. The family was hysterical. The injured body smeared blood on the wall through the bandages as the young man was carried downstairs. The bullet severed a major artery where it connected to the heart. After the man was rushed to the hospital, two soldiers entered the home, randomly shot into the walls and furniture, then left.
These instances of senseless bloodshed, killing, and suffocation of communities are not the root cause of mental distress in occupied Palestine. Tragedy is routine. Time and again, Balata refugees have collected the pieces of their lives. The true science of Israeli warfare– what really traumatizes– is psychological.
At the beginning of the invasion, military officials notified the people of Balata camp that the incursion would last three days. At the end of this period the troops pulled out with flawless punctuality. Bulldozers spent hours removing roadblocks, including one leftover from a prior invasion. Relief washed over the camp like a wave, lightening the mood to a bittersweet, almost-joyous state. By nightfall shops had reopened, the ghostly streets had filled with life, rubble and trash littering the ground had been swept away. In the morning, the community was able to give the two 17-year-old martyrs a proper funeral. I took an afternoon trip into the city with several volunteers. We were in a taxi when we received an urgent phone call. I heard the news from outside of myself, as if my body had stopped moving and my mind crashed through the windshield. The army had reinvaded.
A strange lull hung over the camp through the first half of the following day. Even the crowd of rock hurling teenagers that usually accompanied jeeps and bulldozers down the road had become less enthusiastic. Then, without warning that afternoon the incursion culminated in a frenzy of chaos and bloodshed.
A group of local and international medical volunteers had been cornered in an alley for one hour. Increasingly edgy soldiers were firing on three wanted fighters holed up in an adjacent house. Press and civilians were gradually drawn by curiosity to a vacated army jeep close to the medical team. Suddenly a grenade was thrown into the group and, somewhere, a soldier began to open fire. A Palestinian ambulance driver, a Dutch woman, and an American woman were injured by shrapnel. The driver and the American volunteer were hospitalized. Ihab Mansour, a local medic, was shot in the head.
Soldiers attempted to stop volunteers from carrying Monsour to an ambulance and then blockaded the vehicle so it could not leave. A soldier pointed his gun at us as we approached to negotiate passage, and said they could not move without orders. When the press arrived several minutes later the ambulance was finally permitted through. Before it could exit the camp, however, it was stopped again. This time soldiers removed Monsour, who was unconscious, and took him to a nearby base instead of to a hospital. Reason for his detainment was never given.
At the fighters’ house, the three men were now hiding behind a false ceiling. After unsuccessful attempts to burn them alive, the military planted bombs on the building and exploded it on top of them. The bodies were dragged to the road in pieces so the kill could be confirmed and documented. The army pulled out, leaving behind them a pile of body parts and two more innocent deaths.
Once, several weeks ago, a friend in Balata camp told me he wakes up every morning knowing the military might attack. “They could come tomorrow or three months from now and kill my family,” he said. “This is how we live.”
I could not have understood these words until now; they were more than reflective of some basic fear of the unknown. They were indicative of a military strategy to spread insecurity and fear by denying people any form of certainty.
There are 25 thousand refugees living in the two square kilometers of Balata camp. Each has a lost family member to the Intifada, amounting to over one sixth of those killed in the West Bank since 2000. Life has become so viciously unstable that mental disabilities among preteens have skyrocketed. There will be a generational stratum of people who went mad growing up under psychological warfare.
That is the true and untold tragedy of this conflict.