Palestinian women and children demonstrate on January 3, 1988 in Al-Ram in the West Bank.
(Photo: Esaias Baitel/AFP/Getty Images)
This post is part of the series “Roots of Resistance: 25 year retrospective on the first intifada.” Read the entire series here.
In May of 1989, I left my job as a labour lawyer with a Canadian union and joined the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to serve as a refugee affairs officer in Jerusalem. UNRWA had created the refugee affairs position the previous year as a modest protection program for the Palestinians living in the 27 refugee camps that it administered in the Occupied Territories. Once the Intifada started in December 1987, the refugee camps had quickly become the epicentres of the revolt. While the demonstrations, clashes and commercial strikes against the Occupation took place in virtually every city and village throughout the West Bank and Gaza, the refugee camps were the sites of some of the most intense protests by young Palestinians and, in reaction, some of the fiercest crack-downs by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).
My work with UNRWA took me to all of the 19 Palestinian refugee camps on the West Bank on an ongoing basis. UNRWA’s refugee affairs officers were recruited from Europe and North America, and, along with the Swiss delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross, we were the only internationals who were able to regularly visit the Palestinian camps and the more isolated towns and villages in the West Bank where the IDF had restricted access to the media and other observers after incidents of stone-throwing or in the aftermath of another demonstrator’s death. Our job was to monitor the human rights and living conditions in the camps and serve as the eyes of the international community, with the hope that our presence would dampen the actions of the IDF and also let the people in the camps know that the UN was playing attention to their suffering.
Because of our work, the refugee affairs officers saw the Intifada up close. One minute, we would be parked in our UN cars near the entrance to a camp, witnessing a ferocious, if unequal, exchange of stones, rubber and lethal bullets, and tear gas. The next minute, we would be negotiating with the IDF to escort a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance into the camp to treat the wounded, and then ferry them to a hospital, while trying to head off any arrests. On other occasions, we would be patrolling a camp under IDF curfew in our cars or on foot, trying to determine the state of dwindling food supplies or if there were any medical issues that might require evacuations. More than once, when no ambulance was available, I ferried badly hurt boys in my car to the nearest emergency room, using my shirt on two occasions as tourniquets to stem serious bleeding from live bullet wounds in the abdomen.
Among the most rebellious of the refugee camps in the West Bank in 1989 were the three camps in Nablus – Balata, Askar and Am’ari. These camps spent prolonged periods under IDF-imposed curfews, endured a very high toll of wounded and dead, and produced a militant, youthful and very tough local leadership who faced the constant threats of arrest, lengthy imprisonment and death. The curfews ordered by the IDF meant a total shut-down of the camp or village: schools, stores, health clinics and every other regular institution of life were completely shuttered; no one could leave their house on pain of arrest or being shot on sight; and, often, the IDF used the cover of camp curfews to organize late night raids to capture or assassinate the young leaders of the Intifada on their lengthy wanted lists.
While on duty in Nablus, we would sometimes visit the ambulance bay of the local Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), high up on the side of Mt. Gerizim. The ambulance paramedics and drivers were a wonderful source of current information about the trouble spots in the city, with invaluable suggestions on where international eyes might be usefully deployed. As well, their hospitality was boundless: a visit always meant Turkish coffee, kanafi and, on the occasional quiet day, some backgammon. From this perch on the mountainside, the entire city was spread out at our feet: we could see where smoke from burning tires was coming from, or spot a convoy of IDF trucks and jeeps racing through the streets of Nablus for another raid, and off we would go. The city was regularly under full curfew, and it was eerie to watch over a city of 100,000 people in broad daylight, and not see a single person in the streets, nor any cars on the roads, nor hear any urban sounds beyond a pack of stray dogs barking.
Early one summer evening in 1989, after a day of patrolling through the camps in Nablus and those in the north of the West Bank, several of us dropped by the PRCS ambulance bay for a visit. While the coffee was brewing on their portable hotplate, we heard several shots to the east. The telephone in the ambulance bay began ringing, alerting us to a large IDF presence in a nearby neighbourhood on the mountainside. We drove over to the neighbourhood, with one of the ambulances following. As we arrived, we saw a dozen or so young Israeli soldiers milling around the slack body of a young boy with a kufiya wrapped around his head in a meadow at the edge of the neighbourhood. Several weeks before, the IDF had issued a shoot-to-kill order for any shabab who covered his face in a kufiya, regardless of what activity he was involved in. The boy had been painting slogans on a low concrete wall, and he was armed only with a paint brush. On the wall, he had written: “The Intifada is our moment for…” Apparently, he then heard the soldiers coming, turned to run, and was shot in the back at least once about 30 feet from the wall.
The Israeli soldiers were full of caffeinated energy, taking in excitable voices and occasionally punching each other’s shoulders. After identifying myself, I asked the officer leading the patrol why the boy had been shot dead when he posed no obvious threat. “You are not responsible for security in this city,” he replied, “I am. Until the Nablousi understand that no act of defiance will go unanswered, keep that ambulance engine warm.” I then told him that I wanted him to allow the ambulance to gather the body and take it to the morgue by the It’tihad Hospital. “No, our biggest problems come with those bloody funerals. Put the body in the ambulance, and follow us to the army headquarters.”
The IDF headquarters in Nablus was in a military fortress with high brown-cream walls, built by the British during the Mandate. We waited with the ambulance for several hours by the entrance, with IDF jeeps and soldiers all around us. Evening became twilight, and then nightfall. Nablus was ghostly dark, but the enormous floodlights around the entrance to the IDF headquarters cast streaks of bright light and deep monochrome shadows all around us. The boy’s family had come to claim his body, and they waited with us. The mother and two teenage girls whom I assumed were the boy’s sisters were fountains of tears. The father told one of the ambulance paramedics that they were residents of Balata camp, and their son sometimes stayed with relatives living in the mountainside neighbourhood where the shooting occurred. Around 11 pm, the Israeli officer whom I had spoken to earlier summoned me into his office inside the building to deal with the release of the body.
In his office, one of the Brandenburg concertos was playing on a cassette machine. The beauty and precision of the music was the very opposite of my own jumbled emotions at that moment. The officer explained that Balata camp was probably going to erupt tomorrow, and he wanted the boy’s family to take the body now to a nearby cemetery under IDF escort, with no other accompaniment. The boy’s family wanted to take him home to the camp, and to bury him in Balata’s burial grounds, and I told this to the officer. “That will not happen. If they won’t take the boy to the cemetery now with us, we’ll find our own place to bury him.” After a fruitless back and forth, I left his office, explained the terms to the family and, soon afterwards, the PRCS ambulance with the family in the back was escorted by half a dozen IDF jeeps to the city cemetery for a melancholy midnight burial of their only son. I walked with the family to the grave site, shone my flashlight to assist the gravedigger as he shovelled away the dirt, and watched as the boy, in a white shroud, was lowered into the ground. His father had the boy’s kufiya draped around one of his arms.
Early the next morning, we drove to Balata camp, and went to the local health clinic. Within twenty minutes of our arrival, the first IDF jeeps appeared near the camp entrance, a hail of stones descended on them, and the pop-pop sound of tear gas canisters was soon heard. The Palestinian doctor who ran the health clinic brought us wet cloths and onions to counter the impact of the tear gas; although the clinic’s windows were shut tight on these occasions, the stench of the gas was omnipresent. The clash went on for hours, and the IDF soldiers twice entered the camp under cover of riot shields and rubber bullets, and twice retreated. On their third attempt, they captured a young stone-thrower, and advanced several blocks through the camp using him as a human shield through the rocks.
By mid-afternoon, with hundreds of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets fired, the IDF left the camp, taking the young boy back to the army headquarters in plastic handcuffs on the back of a jeep. Boys and young men soon began arriving in droves at the health clinic with huge purple bruises from being hit by rubber bullets; one boy’s cheekbone was fractured, another had badly broken his arm while running away from the soldiers, and a third boy was incessantly retching from the effects of the tear gas. The clinic doctor was overwhelmed by the causalities, and I went to fetch an emergency room physician from It’tihad Hospital and escort him into the camp. My UN station wagon was a mess: three windows, including the rear pane, had been smashed during the clash, and the exhaust from the tailpipe curled back into the car when I was driving it, and made breathing an onerous chore. One of the other refugee affairs officers went to the IDF headquarters to try to negotiate the release of the arrested boy.
Around 8 pm or so, after driving the emergency room physician back to the hospital, I returned to Balata and caught up with the clinic doctor. The causalities had been largely treated, and the clinic nurse was now dealing with the stitching for the two remaining boys on the waiting bench. The doctor was rewarding himself with a strong coffee and one cigarette after another. He was a native of Nablus, but he had never spent any time in the refugee camps until the start of the Intifada. “Before this all began, it was very easy for us to find differences among ourselves. We marked ourselves off by family, by clan, by status. Now, that has all changed. We are all in this together.” Later, as I stood up to leave, he told me that he could never imagine being so tired, or so happy, or so hopeful. This democratic spirit of sacrifice, he told me, was transforming the Palestinians, and that would surely mean that there was no going back.