Saturday, October 14, 2000

Ramallah lynching

October 13, 2000

It has been very hard for me to collect my thoughts about the last few days. If the events of the past week and a half were shocking, what should I say about Wednesday and Thursday?

On Wednesday the funeral of Rabbi Hillel Lieberman, a teacher at the Joseph's Tomb yeshiva who was murdered by Palestinians near Nablus/Shekhem earlier this week, took place. American born Lieberman had been a teacher at the yeshiva for 17 years and was so troubled when he heard reports that Palestinians were destroying the site of Joesph's Tomb that he left his home in the nearby Jewish community of Eilon Moreh and started walking to the tomb. He never made it. His bullet-riddled body was later found on the outskirts of the Nablus/Shekhem.

The funeral procession numbering in the thousands began at Leiberman's home in Eilon Moreh, was scheduled to go via the outskirts of Shekhem/Nablus, past the remains of the ruined tomb, and on to the regional Jewish cemetery in the village of Yitzhar. While passing the city the dignified entourage was attacked by an organised ambush of Palestinian snipers. We saw footage of the mourners, including the pall bearers, diving for cover, while the military escort and other security personnel returned fire on their attackers.

Yesterday I knew something was up even without listening to the news. Since the troubles began I have seen the odd Cobra attack helicopter flying overhead, en route to the hot spots in Gaza, Ramallah or Shekhem/Nablus. Yesterday I lost count of the number of Cobra helicopters I saw from about midday onwards flying over my balcony as I worked on preparing it for our Sukkah. Most of the helicopters were flying east, I assume to Ramallah.

At the post office yesterday morning people stood around ashen faced, unusually quiet and patient. I knew the situation was bad but hadn't heard a recent news report. It was only from overheard conversations while waiting in line that I heard the news about the lynching of two Israelis in the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

I turned on the television at about 3pm because they mentioned that there would be special news broadcasts in light of the current events. Mercifully at this stage they were only broadcasting footage from Ramallah from after the lynch, crowds milling around and cheering, but not the actual lynch footage itself. (We found out later that Palestinian police officers on the scene made sure to confiscate tape and film from journalists in the area. Somehow, one crew's footage survived, and that's the film that's been broadcast since then.) A dizzying selection of politicians and experts played musical chairs in the interviewee's seat but despite the mix of right, left, reporters and retired officers, academics and activists, they all had one reaction in common - utter horror and disbelief. Even veteran channel 1 news anchor Hayim Yavin looked traumatised.

At 3:54pm a Channel 2 reporter was standing at the western edge of the Jewish community of Psagot, which borders Ramallah, and interviewing a resident who only months before had narrowly escaped a lynching under similar circumstances when he accidentally entered Ramallah. In the middle of the interview there was suddenly a loud boom, everyone dived and in the background a voice yelled in Hebrew 'take cover!"

In the background we could see smoke rising from central Ramallah and hear helicopters overhead. Israel had decided to show the Palestinian Authority that enough was enough and fired 6 missiles at the police station in which the lynch took place, and at local police headquarters. Channel 2 had accidentally captured it live on TV. In order to avoid loss of life Israel warned the Palestinian Authority what the target was to be in advance, the idea being to destroy the buildings used for killing Israelis, without injuring local people.

Despite the shock and pain of the day's event life has to go on and with only an evening and a day to go before the Sukkot holiday we had to overcome our paralysis and take care of some pre-Sukkot errands. The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) town of Kiryat Sefer had a pre-Sukkot market selling arbah minim (lulav and etrog sets), as well as sukkah parts and sukkah decorations. The usual festive atmosphere was subdued, and despite the delighted children running around, many of the adults looked shaken or jittery. The public noticeboard was covered with posters issued by the various Rabbis and synagogues in town announcing special emergency peace prayer services and calling on residents to recite Psalms for the sake of our brethren in the troubled areas, and for the safety of all of Israel.

From Kiyat Sefer we went on to a local Home Center (Israel's equivalent of the American Home Depot or the British Homebase or B&Q), located in a nearby village. The store was full of people buying wooden beams, tools, folding tables and chairs and decorations for their Sukkot. This is one of their busiest times of the year. Last night however the flurry of activity was subdued.
Customers paused periodically by a group of staff and shoppers who were huddled around a radio in the electronics section and listening to the reports of the day's events. Regular radio programmes were suspended on most national radio programmes, which instead broadcast continuous news, analysis and quiet songs.

I overheard snippets of conversation from the shop assistants: "How can we go to work as usual at a time like this?", "The people who did this lynching aren't human, they're animals if they can behave like this!". "How will we ever be able to negotiate a permanent peace treaty with people like this?", "Issam (an Arab name) didn't show up for work today, I hope he was just staying home because of the situation, I can't imagine that he would be involved in these terrible acts" and, from one of the Palestinian shop assistants, "I know the building that was hit by the Israeli rockets, it's right in the middle of downtown Ramallah, sure I know it, I've been there, everyone knows the police station."

There are quite a number of local Palestinians who work at the store. Many were working there last night. Even as only a few kilometres from here a Palestinian mob was lynching those two Israeli soldiers, and only a few kilometres down the road from us the residents of a local Palestinian village were stoning Jewish cars on the main road to Jerusalem, other Palestinians, some even from the same village, were working as usual alongside their Jewish colleagues in Jewish-owned stores such as Home Center in nearby Jewish communities. It certainly felt strange hearing the news on the radio, knowing the day's terrible events, and then going about business as usual with local Palestinians. Yes, one can't blame an entire nation for what is happening, but in this state of quasi-war it felt hard to trust. Borders here are very fluid, populations are mixed and even in these troubled times, many people get along and work together on a day to day basis. The mix of business as usual salespeople a few kilometres from where people from those same villages were trying to kill Jews is just the way it is, our own little twilight zone in the Middle East.

That evening we arrived home just in time to see footage from the actual lynch itself. If I have been shocked and horrified by the past week's events, it was nothing compared to the feeling of terror and revulsion as I watched Palestinians throw the Israeli soldier's body out of the police station window to the frenzied mob below who set upon him with a broken window, knives and whatever they had to hand. You could see the blood on some of their hands as they beat the life out of him.

A journalist, hiding behind a wall, later gave an eyewitness acount of the joy with which the crowd murdered these two Israelis, she said that they went as far as to disembowel one of them, later breaking out into cheers and joyous songs, celebrating their victory over the Zionist enemy. While I have felt like crying at many points during the current craziness, this is the first time that the tears actually came, uncontrollably, as I sat frozen in my seat, refusing to believe that the human beings living just a few miles from here could be that brutal, that blood thirsty - that these are the people we've been negotiating with.

A shooting is terrible enough, but to physically kill someone at close quarters with bare hands and knives, to actually tear someone's body apart, that is a level of barbarism that defies understanding.
And it's happening right here, maybe a 15-20 minute drive from my home, I could have taken a wrong turn somewhere there. There have certainly been occasions over the years when we've accidentally ended up in a Palestinian village while trying to drive to friends in Jewish communities near Ramallah.

Contrary to Palestinian claims that these two Israelis, Vadim Norzitch and Yosef Avrahami, were 'spies', they were in fact army drivers, reservists who had been called up to serve north of Jerusalem. Somehow they had taken a wrong turn and ended up at a Palestinian police check post near Ramallah. Instead of turning them away, the Palestinian police abducted them at gun point and took them to the police station in central Ramallah. It was here that the brutal lynching took place, aided by several uniformed Palestinian police. It's still not clear whether there was a third man in the car; if so, his whereabouts remain unknown.

During the lynching Avrahami's mobile phone rang. His wife had heard about the trouble in Ramallah and called to make sure he was all right. One of Avrahami's murderers answered it and told his wife, 'I've just killed your husband'. Norzitch's wife also tried to reach her husband on his mobile phone, wondering why it was taking him so long to reach his base. One of the mob answered the phone in Arabic and then hung up. She rang several more times but there was no answer. Norzitch was married only a week ago, and his wife is in the early stages of pregnancy. Avrahami leaves behind a wife and three children.

Palestinian radio and television continue to broadcast military music and war songs along with calls on the Palestinian people to continue fighting the Israelis. At Friday prayers today, imams in mosques in the Palestinian Authority and in some places within Israel issued calls on Muslims to fight Israel. The Palestinian Authority broadcast sermons from the central mosque in Gaza City and from Al-Aksa in Jerusalem. These sermons included calls for Palestinians to fight for Jerusalem, to make Jerusalem a Muslim city, and many very unpleasant things about Israel and Jews in general. Not exactly an encouraging sign.

Meanwhile Israeli news remains full of hopeful stories about the chance for the renewal of peace talks, or at least a ceasefire. A recent newspaper survey of Israelis show that a majority are still in favour of continuing negotiations.

Palestinians are continuing to attack and destroy Jewish holy sites. Following yesterday's lynching and Israel's response they decided to burn down the ancient Shalom Al Yisrael (peace upon Israel) synagogue in Jericho. This synagogue, famous for its beautifully preserved mosaic floors, is one of the most ancient in the world. It has somehow survived the turbulent centuries in this part of the world. Even during Jordanian rule of the West Bank, when many Jewish holy sites and synagogues were destroyed and desecrated, a local family took it upon themselves to protect this synagogue. Under the Oslo accords Jericho and the synagogue were placed under Palestinian control in 1994. Under the agreements the Palestinian Authority is duty bound to protect this site, and and to allow free Jewish access to the site, and the adjacent yeshiva. The yeshiva students don't live on the site, but commute from nearby Jewish communities, and in addition to their learning helped to maintain the synagogue.

Since the troubles began Israelis have been barred by the Israeli army from entering Jericho, for their own safety. While Palestinian police have for the most part protected the site, yesterday they and a mob of local residents decided to destroy it. They ransacked the synagogue, destroying the Torah scrolls and other religious articles, and then set it alight. In an interview on Israel radio today residents of nearby Jewish communities described how they watched from a distance as the mob descended on the synagogue and shortly after thick black smoke rose from the site.

Of course these reports are only the tip of the iceberg, but this is all I have the time and concentration for right now. It's almost yom tov, almost shabbat and there are all the usual last minute things to do.

I pray that this shabbat will be uneventful, but I'm not optimistic.

Wishing you all shabbat shalom and hag sameah,

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