The Anatomy Of A Rocket Attack - Tobas
In her second dispatch to SQUALL from the West Bank, Ewa Jasiewicz reveals the reality behind a rocket attack on a car north of Nablus.....
3rd September 2002
Within an hour of arriving in Askar refugee camp, Nablus, freshly trained in International Solidarity Movement tactics and politics, Carley - a San Fransisco-based social justice activist and temporary organiser at the camp - informs me that a few people have been requested to go to Tobas, north of Nablus, to show solidarity and gather info on the recent IDF rocket attack on 4 children and a suspected Al Aqsa* leader. Myself and Japanese video journalist and general cool dude Endo, agree to go along with Ahmad, a spiky-haired, boisterous 20-year-old who knows everything about everything it seems. We trek to the nearest village for almost 2 hours along limestone dust roads, up and over the odd IDF bulldozed mound of rock.
When we reach the first village before Tobas we manage to catch a Sheroot. Five local guys who know the Sheroot driver come along with us, just for the ride. We listen to all the latest Arabic pop classics, every single one about a 'Ha-bibi..Ha-bibi' - My darling, my love.
They smoke, drink plastic cups of sugarpop with us, open the sliding door, lean up and out, open shirts flapping in the air-rush. They're cool. They're all about 15/16. The Sheroot driver takes us straight to the spot where the car was hit. I saw it on TV last night, a smoking incinerated wreck surrounded by shocked kids dividing their attention between the car and the cameras. It should be shocking but it's not. I think I'm getting desensitised and that's really really bad. Five people were blown to bits here less than 24-hours ago, but I'm looking at it and thinking, I saw this on CNN last night. CNN clipped my shock.
Getting a straight story out of people here is really hard. I ask 4 different men and get 4 different answers regarding how old the victims were, where they were, when the attack occurred and how many rockets were fired. The language barrier is also a serious obstacle to getting accurate information, as is local people's trust in rumours and the misinformation regularly churned out by the Israeli state and Palestinian Authority.
But anyway, here are the details, cross-referenced with TV research that I managed to get:
1) The attack happened at 5pm.
2) 2-3 missiles were fired from an apache helicopter.
3) The intended victim of the attack was the leader of Al Aqsa* One 26 year-old (according to MSN) or a 33-year-old (according to local people) - the leader of Al Aqsa. Originally an Al Aqsa organiser according to Israeli news, then a leader according to local people, and now - shown on ArabYNet - that he wasn't wanted at all and wasn't the leader of Al Aqsa after all. This is also supported by the Israeli state itself which announced this morning that nobody killed was wanted.
Others killed: one 6-year-old girl, two 15-year-old boys and one 16 year-old and one 10-year-old. The two youngest children were related to the adult killed (the 6 and 10 year-old) and were both inside the car - say some locals and MSN, but the translator for the father of one of the dead children tells me that his son (aged 14) and niece (6) were both walking down the street when they were killed.
10 people were injured - there is no dispute about this figure. One boy was thrown 30 feet. He was propelled by a piece of exploding rocket, impacting and embedding itself in his stomach.
Two nearby houses suffered internal and external damage from exploding debris and alleged gunshots - the use of guns is unconfirmed. My estimation is that shards of exploding car created the mini flecks on the walls of both houses. And one rocket or probably a piece of rocket was responsible for smashing the balcony of a house, shattering the windows, a coffee table in the living room and damaging furniture. No one injured inside from that. There is video and photographic evidence of this (see picture - by the way. I'm a technology philistine and am just getting my head around the digital camera which was lent to me - it's worth 250 quid!!!! Yikes. Left it in a cab the first day I got it, but the cabbie called another cabbie who was taking us to Gaza and I got it back. Lucky or what?) Locals pointed out the serial number on the missile as American, suggesting it was manufactured in the US. I couldn't detect anything that would allude to where it was made whatsoever. But, it's no secret that US weapons are sold, if not donated, to the Israeli Army in huge quantities.
I talk to a paramedic who was at the scene. We are talking about the man who was killed. He points to a near-by tree. 'There were brains in that tree' he says, 'the brain was divided, all of his body was divided, into small pieces. We collect the pieces'.
We drink tea in a nearby shrapnel hit home. We talk politics - what else in this place?? The headmaster of a nearby school seems a bit miffed when I ask him whether he likes Arafat. 'Of course!!? We are all Arafat, I am Arafat, he is Arafat (I must let it be known that myself and Endo are sitting in a living room with 9 other men! and a kid in the doorway), he is Arafat (points to kid) we are all Arafat'. oops.
You can never really tell who's with the PA (Palestinian Authority - people don't really call it the Palestinian National Authority, although you will find that term bandied about, because there is no recognised Palestinian nation state) as a solution to the troubles or not. Best to tread careful. I bring up the fact that after the first Intifada loads of really excellent grassroots connected organisers and activists, fighters, were passed over for places in the PA in favour of old PLO leaders residing in Tunis. It's pretty notorious the way that the old Chiefs, Arafat included, have repressed Palestinian insurrections when they have erupted. A clear example is the revolt of 1969 in Tel-Al-Zatar, Lebanon (home of 29% of Lebanese industry), which saw thousands of refugees and workers (14,000 were living in camps in the region) take up arms, occupy the factories and announce their collective intention to transform Tel-Al-Zatar into 'a no-go zone safe from the Lebanese army and the state. Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese workers participated in Kalashnikov battles with the Lebanese police.
When they called for reinforcements from the PLO, the Fatah leadership dismissed the revolt as a distraction from fighting 'the real enemy - Israel', answering: "Al Naba'a and Salaf and Harash are not similar to Aga, Haifa, and Jerusalem which are occupied." The uprising was turned into a massacre and the region a graveyard for militants and their families. In September 1970 the PLO signed an agreement with the ruling Hashemite regime in Jordan under which it agreed to withdraw its forces. The remaining fighters and refugees unprotected, this signalled a green light to the Hashemite army to massacre the 30,000 remaining insurgent Fayedheen (freedom fighters with Fatah - of which there was a relatively small amount left in Amman) and ordinary Palestinian refugees. This mass slaughter came to be known as Black September.
Anyway. I just mention the Tunis leadership call-back after the first Intifada to the Headmaster. He agrees with me, "but what shall we do?", he says, hands up in a shrug. 'I don't know', I say after a long time.
All the theories you imbibe at political meetings here and there which are all very valid - the need for a global intifada (intifada means insurrection, uprising) etc etc seem a million miles away. Practically, in the prison we're in, all roads lead to deadlock. Last night on the Israeli news, a crimson mouthed, voluminous haired newsreader talked of Denmark drawing up a peace plan for the region. A full and thorough restructuring of the PA security force by September 2003 with full independence by June 2005 - after which the settler issue will be tackled.
It looks like peace will be, predictably, an American peace, with the restructuring of the PA security forces a euphemism for a reinforcement of the police-military apparatus geared towards flushing out militants and radicals - mainly Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine activists, Marxist-Leninist, and "some of the worlds most renowned terrorist instructors" according to www.specialoperations.com's terror group rundown.
They shot Israeli tourism minister Zaevi 40 days after their leader Abu Ali Mustafa was split in two by an IDF guided missile. And they got away with it.
Just last night in a reprisal attack for the killing of the 4 children and man in Tobas, a PFLP 20-year-old activist managed to get into a settlement with an Uzi and shoot two people dead. The settlement is guarded by a massive army base, situated right by its gate. But the guy got in, loaded up and went for it. They are renowned and feared for their capacity to launch attacks with almost invisible stealth and utter unpredictability.
In January 1994, Bill Clinton signed an executive order prohibiting transactions with the group due to their 'potential for disrupting the Middle East peace process', a sure sign of the group's efficacy in defying the dictates of both the Israeli, Palestinian and US states. As was the entrapment operation executed by the PA itself against Ahmad Saadat, lured by the PA into engaging in talks about launching attacks against the Israeli army. He was invited to a top hotel in Israel which was promptly surrounded by PA troops, invaded and he was arrested.
The headmaster asks me if we want to go and see the mothers of the dead children. They are all in one house, grieving. No. I tell him. The last thing you'd want to see if you'd lost you children is some muppet journalists sticking a camera in you face. We drink our tea, say our Mas Salaams and leave. Our sherrot driver takes us - and the five local lads - down to a religious building. We don't really understand where we are. One of the yoofs gestures at the place and laughs, 'Allah Akhbar!'. I still don't really get it. We walk in and see about 50 or so men sitting on white plastic chairs, lining the walls and set in two rows in the centre. Many of the men are old with heavily lined faces and wear the traditional white cloth head-dresses. I'm the only female inside. I've never ever felt so out of place. I sit down on a plastic chair up against the wall. I'm looking at them, they're looking at me.
The young guys are pretty relaxed, sitting wide-legged, talking quietly and excitedly amongst themselves. Where am I? It's like some sort of waiting room, a big white waiting room. A man comes round with an ornate metal jug of strong gritty coffee. I get a lick, a small small lick in a small ceramic cup which I down and pass on to the next person. Endo taps me on the shoulder. 'I go to interview the father, he's sitting over there, can you ask questions?'. It then dawns on me. We are in the men's equivalent of the women's grieving room. Men come in, take others sitting down by the hands and kiss them five or six times from cheek to cheek, and hold the backs of their necks, hug. I agree to talk to him. We have a dark skinned south Asian looking translator. He ends up doing all the talking. The father is too distressed. He's about 33, has heavy stubble, green eyes and is just sitting in a plastic chair, wiping his eyes now and again, wiping his face. His eyes stare forwards. He's probably still in shock. I ask where the child was when the rockets hit. The translator explains: "The boy, he was 14 years old, and he had gone out to buy trousers for school. So he was walking down to his home, along the streets, carrying his new trousers. He wanted to show them to his parents". "And where was he hit?."
"In the eyes and mouth". I nod, the camera keeps rolling. "He was with his cousin, she had a new school bag, she was carrying her school bag - she was 6 years old. Her father is over there". He points to another distraught man, flanked by silent friends. He's also staring frontwards. We pretty much end the interview there. The fathers are too distressed to talk and it seems really inappropriate to even be here.
Endo gets up and gives the father a half-hug, says "Mas Salaam, Shukran Jazeelan" - peace be upon you, thank you very much. The father doesn't really respond, he's just numb. Walking out is like walking through fire.
*The Al 'Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot group originally started by combatants in the first Intifada (1987-1993) who'd fought in Fatah, the main faction of the PLO. I was surprised to be told last night that Al Aqsa are actually Secular sharing their name with the most famous Mosque in this region is just a reference that banks on its popularity and cultural significance, and/or also in response to the outrage felt by everybody when Sharon entered the sacred Mosque on September 29, sparking the second Intifada.