Friday, April 13, 2007

Twilight Zone / Village of the Martyrs

Last update - 15:04 12/04/2007

By Gideon Levy

In a square marked by cypress trees, the dead rest. Here are 48 decades-old graves - graves of Qassem Abbas, Awad Jawad, Arif Aqel and many unknown soldiers, who rest beneath the old tombstones. The cemetery of the fallen of the Iraqi Army's Second Battalion, 1948. Until the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, an Iraqi tank that had invaded the area was also kept here. In 1993, Israel hastened to remove the tank, lest the Palestinians make use of the steel junk heap.

Up on the hillside, above this military cemetery located south of Jenin, the "Village of the Martyrs," Al-Shuhada, was founded in 1948, a village of Bedouin refugees. About 2,000 of their descendants live here today; about a third of the men still go to work in Israel, in the fields of Emek Hefer and the surrounding area, exactly where their forefathers' villages once stood. At the end of last week, they dug another grave here.

Ahmed Asasa was buried in the soil of his village. He'd been shot in the neck from afar by an Israeli sniper. Two of his friends, who tried to come to his aid while he was bleeding to death, were also shot and wounded by snipers. Asasa was 15, a 10th-grader in the village high school. There was more than one Ahmed Asasa in this story: One of the friends who tried to help him, and one of the witnesses to the killing, also share the same name. Everyone is Ahmed Asasa, in the Village of the Martyrs.

Our escort to the village hesitates to drive his car into the Jenin refugee camp, where we are waiting for him. Captain Saud, of the Palestinian national security forces, is armed and wearing a fashionable shirt embroidered with the logo of the U.S. Army Special Forces; he knows that the camp's boundaries are a "red line" for PA personnel. Outside the boundaries, his people lie in wait for the owners of the stolen cars from the city and the camp, and they immediately confiscate and destroy the vehicles. "The PA brought an end to the occupation, solved the refugee problem, and now all it has left to do is to confiscate cars stolen from Israel," people in the camp say bitterly.

The government hospital in the city, on the edge of the camp, is shut down again, due to non-payment of wages. The two wounded boys whom we met later had received only first aid at this hospital and then were released. The hospital is deserted. Oh, the international boycott. In both the city and refugee camp of Jenin, people look like the walking dead.

We parked our car outside the house of Rabi'a Asasa, the "bingo" - slang for the wanted man of the village. In order to apprehend him, the soldiers raided this place two weeks ago Thursday at first light; in seeking to catch him, they killed young Ahmed. Rabi'a managed to get away.

We walk to the house of the dead boy. The blue iron gate is wrecked, because of the Jeep that stormed into the yard. The houses here are built on a rocky slope and we climb over the rough terrain to Ahmed's house. The fields of Qabatiyah, carpets of brown and green, are visible in the valley below. Further up the hill, between the houses, is a makeshift monument with a photo of Ahmed. This is where he fell. The sniper, say the residents, stood in the pink window of the house on the slope, under the television satellite dish, more than 100 meters away. The sniper aimed at the neck, fired and Ahmed collapsed.

It was very early in the morning. Only the laborers who go to work in Israel were awake at that hour. The sound of gunfire and stun grenades exploding was heard from the hills and the whole village awoke in a fright. Ahmed also awoke in his house at the top of the hill. The women and children rushed out, toward the slope, in fear of the soldiers who had invaded from above. They didn't know that the soldiers had raided the entire village, and were standing on the roofs of the houses and at the windows, also along the same slope. Only the head of the household, Ibrahim Asasa, remained in the house.

Ibrahim is 69, the father of 11 children; Ahmed was his youngest. Three days after the tragedy, the signs of shock and bereavement are still apparent on this withered man in a kaffiyeh. He was born in a village that is now the site of Moshav Beit Eliezer. Ibrahim still goes out to work in the fields of neighboring communities, between Kfar Monash, Beit Lid and Netanya. Last week, he was working for the Columbia citrus fruit company in Hadera. Now he's afraid that the state will prevent him from going to work in Israel because he has become a bereaved father. It seems like all the men of the village have come to console him in the living room of his home. They sit sipping bitter coffee and eating dried dates.

Ibrahim awoke at five that fateful morning and was getting ready to leave for work in Israel, when he heard gunfire from the hills overlooking the house. The other members of the family woke up and began running for their lives. Ahmed headed toward his cousin's house further down the slope. Ibrahim stayed behind, near the iron gate. A few minutes later he was informed that his son had been hit and was lying wounded on the slope. He was told that the boy was taken to the hospital and, afterward, that he had died. By the time he reached the hospital, he could only see his son's dead body.

The family's neighbor, also named Ahmed Asasa, was also awakened by the gunfire, and soon looked out the window and saw the other Ahmed Asasa lying wounded on the ground, bleeding from the neck, not far from his house. This Ahmed Asasa was afraid to leave the house because of all the shooting. Yet another Ahmed Asasa, an 18-year-old neighbor, decided to make a run for it and try to save his wounded cousin. A few women had tried before to pull the wounded boy out of the way, but then ran off because of the continued shooting. This Ahmed Asasa thought that because he was short, he could get to his bleeding cousin and help him. He started pulling him along the rocky ground, but then he, too, was wounded by bullet fragments, in the head and the waist. He shows us the scars. He says that when he got close to his cousin, Ahmed was still moving parts of his body and his eyes were open.

The Ahmed Asasa who'd tried to come to his aid fell and lost consciousness. He woke up later in the hospital. Neighbors say that the Ahmed who was shot in the neck lay on the ground for close to an hour. The Ahmed Asasa who survived still has trouble getting around.

Another neighbor, Shawki Asasa, a 24-year-old soldier in the PA under Captain Saud, also made his way to the wounded boy. Now he is at home recovering from his own injuries; a sniper's bullet pierced his shoulder and exited his upper back. He heard the women shouting that someone was wounded and rushed to help. After he himself was hit, he managed to drag his body a little before collapsing on the rocks like the two Ahmed Asasas. One of his commanders says that he tried to talk to one of the Israel Defense Forces officers, to persuade him to let them evacuate the wounded, but that the officer told him: "Don't interfere." Shawki's father says: "They don't want the world to help us and they don't want us to help each other, either. A boy lies there wounded and they don't let us help him."

By the time the first Ahmed Asasa arrived at the hospital, having finally been transported in a private car since no ambulance was permitted to get near him, he was already dead. The second Ahmed Asasa survived.

The IDF Spokesperson, this week: "On March 29 an IDF force operated in Shuhada, south of Jenin. During the action, the force was fired upon in a number of different incidents. At 4:47 the force identified a terrorist armed with a long weapon on the roof of a building, fired at him and identified a hit. At 5:24, the force identified two more armed terrorists on the roof of a nearby building and fired at them. Subsequently, a violent riot erupted in the village that included the throwing of explosives, gunfire and rock-throwing. In the course of the action Palestinians blocked the traffic routes with boulders, which prevented the medical forces from reaching the place. The IDF force did not prevent ambulances from entering the village. As noted, IDF fire was directed solely at armed terrorists."

His friends say that Ahmed loved soccer and was a good student. In the last picture taken of him, he's holding a certificate of excellence fr om his school. They laugh at the claim that he was armed, and his father points out that, given the distance between the sniper and his fleeing son, the boy wasn't endangering anyone, in any case. In recent years, six others from the village have been killed, including Hussam Asasa, who was physically and mentally disabled, and young Fadi Asasa, who was run over by a vehicle belonging to an undercover army unit.

All the students from the school came to their friend Ahmed's funeral, which was held in the village cemetery not far from the Iraqi cemetery, in the shadow of the cypresses.

Gideon Levy is an Israeli journalist for Ha'aretz, a member of its editorial board and former spokesman for Shimon Peres [1] A recurring theme of his articles is what he calls the "moral blindness" of the Israeli society to the effects of its acts of war and occupation, an attitude which he attributes to the systematic dehumanization of Israel's neighbours. During the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, he joined a distinct minority of Israeli commentators by rejecting the view that this was a "just war" whose civilian casualties were inevitable and acceptable.

Levy was born in 1955 in Tel Aviv as a child of European immigrants. From 1978 to 1982 he served, along with Yossi Beilin as aide to Shimon Peres. Since 1982 he writes for the Israeli daily Haaretz, where in 1986 he first reported about the occupation and Palestinian life under the occupation.[2] In 1996 he was awarded the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

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