CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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PALESTINE : Silwad, a History of Revolts

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Palestinian couple on the ruins of their houseOn the outskirts of the village of Silwad an old man is busy hoeing his field -- a small field, barely a hectare in size. Just behind, the mountain rises sharply. There are several stone-built houses at the bottom of the cliff, and the soft light in the last days of winter gives a special colour to the freshly turned earth.

The photographer could not resist taking a picture. The old man protested and shouted something in Arabic. The interpreter translated: “Take this as well. It is all I have left. After that it is all gone”. He was convinced that we were Israeli surveyors making a search before confiscating his land. Our interpreter, a student from Bir Zeit University had a hard time convincing him that we were not Israelis but European journalists.

8.000 Palestinians from Silwad in Kuwait

Silwad is a Palestinian village like the others. Since 1967 through emigration it has lost 14.000 of its 19.000 inhabitants.  There are about 8.000 Palestinians from Silwad in Kuwait alone, and there are also some in South America, especially Brazil. Even here, with a bit of luck, one can drink Brazilian or Colombian coffee served by a waiter in traditional dress who will trade a few words of  Spanish or Portuguese.

Lawyer Lea TsemelThe 18.000 dunums of land belonging to the village extends from the djebel Ashour (the tallest mountain in the West Bank) through the narrow neighbouring terraced valleys to the Ramalla road and the plain where the farmers of Silwad till the fields with ancient wooden horse-drawn ploughs. There used to be about one dunum per person, but since the Israeli occupation in 1967 land seizures have considerably reduced the area.

In 1972, the Israelis took between 4.000 and 5.000 dunums (more than 500 hectares) beneath djebel Ashour to put up a military camp. Then in 1974, there was another seizure for the establishment of the Israeli settlement of Ophra. “Before 1967”, Moussa Mahmoud Hamed, the Mayor of Silwad, explained, “the Jordanian Government confiscated a hundred dunums to build a camp. Then in 1974, the Israelis established the settlement on this “government” land, taking an additional 2.000 dunums from the villagers”.

Not long ago, the Mayor received notification from the Military Governor of the West Bank forbidding the villagers to construct new buildings in a 2.000 dunum zone between the village and the Ramalla road and comprising most of the flat cultivable land. To the Mayor, it is obvious the Israelis intend to double the size of Ophra.

Like other Palestinian villages, having already lost many of its inhabitants and most of its land, Silwad resisted the Israeli occupation. “In 1968”, the Mayor recalled “a curfew was imposed twice a week, Thursdays and Sundays, and the men of the village were confined for hours in the sun in the school yard”.

The first revolt in 1972

The first “revolt” came in 1972 with the first land confiscation, when the Mayor and his friends organised a demonstration in cooperation with the mayors of neighbouring communities. There were more demonstrations in 1974 with the establishment of the Ophra settlement.

Check-point in the West-BankAnd the result of these 10 years of occupation and repression? “You can safely assume that there is not a single inhabitant who has not been arrested at least once”. At the end of December 1978 the toll was 20 people in prison, some still awaiting trial. Five had been sentenced to prison for life, nine had been exiled, and 10 houses had been destroyed either by dynamite or by bulldozers.

To understand the effect this repression has had on the inhabitants, one has only to listen to women and the children. Even though for the most part they do not know how to read, they have a level of political awareness worthy of any student from Bir Zeit, the nearby Palestinian university.

Aisha is the wife of the “dean” of prisoners from Silwad. Her husband, Zaineddin, will be 80 next August. She received us, sitting on a mat on the ground near the door of the one room that comprises her home. Aisha, aged about 60, is still a strong woman. Almost without emotion, even smiling occasionally, she recalled the tragedy which befell her family when the Israelis arrested her husband.

“On 12 August, 1969 the Israelis arrived at 4.00 in the morning. They asked for my husband. he had half-opened the door, they pushed it and came in, then grabbed the old man, pinned him to the ground and hit him with their rifle butts. They said that they had found arms hidden in the mountain that he had hidden, and they took him away. The next morning they brought him back and went up to the mountain to look for the arms. He wanted something to drink but they forbade us to give him water”. At that time two of their three daughters, one of their four sons, and Zaineddin’s old mother, were living with them.

Later the Israeli soldiers came back and blew up the house and now Aisha lives in one room with her 13-year-old son, Jemal. “Rent? The owners do not ask for money. They feel sorry for me. My other sons are in Kuwait but they cannot help me. They all have children”.

Zaineddin was first taken to the prison in Ramalla, and tried to escape by jumping over a wall. One of his friends managed to get away, but Zaineddin broke his leg. He was sentenced to 75 years in prison and was taken to Nablus. He is now in prison in Ashkelon. “It will be 10 years next August since he went to prison”, Aisha explained. “He will be 80”. Their son Jemal can only remember his father in prison.

Aisha sees her husband once a month, “thanks to the red Cross, because we do not have any money”. She said that on the first Friday of each month a Red Cross car took them to Ashkelon. “It takes us the whole day from 6 am to 6pm, just to see him for half an hour”.

Her husband sits on one side of a barrier and she sits on the other. It is forbidden to take fruits, clothes, or anything except money. She takes whatever she can afford, usually 30 to 100 Israeli pounds.

She described a typical visit: “When I sit down with my husband the soldiers are seated on either side of us. With one soldier for each prisoner, we cannot say anything. He says to me, “How are you”? I tell him, “I hope you are well. Your sons send their regards”. Aisha said he was very courageous but that he did nothing because he is very old. “he lives in one room with dozens of prisoners. If he wants to go out into the sunshine he does a little work, like sticking stamps on envelopes”.

She was uncertain what effect the negotiations for autonomy might have. “The prisoners hope to be freed but they are not sure. All I can say is God will help us”.

All this time a neighbour who was sitting on a mat beside Aisha listened without saying anything. Her face was a picture of indescribable sadness, and we learned her story first from another neighbour. Her two sons had been arrested in September and she had not had any news from them since.

“The first time”, Amina explained later, “they came at 4pm. My son Muhammad, aged 15, was playing. They took him saying, “we are investigating him”. He was accused of being a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Eleven days later they arrested the second son Abdel-Hamid.

“This time it was 11.00 at night. Tanks surrounded the house. The Israelis knocked at the door and saw my two daughters and my son sleeping. They asked, “How many sons do you have”? I told them, “You have taken Muhammad, there is Abdel-Hamid”. They woke him up, took his Jordanian passport, and his identity card. They searched the house but did not find anything”.

Abdel-Hamid was accused of being a member of a group which had assassinated Jenho, a “collaborator” from Ramalla, who was killed in his shop on the main street on the night of the Good Friday. A few days after the arrest, Israeli soldiers came to measure the house to blow it up. But Israeli lawyer Felicia Langer, who, with Lea Tsemel defends Palestinian political prisoners, managed to stop it.

Halima’s luck has been no better. Her house was one of the first to be destroyed by the Israelis, on 13 June, 1968. Six days before the Israelis had surrounded the house at midnight and had arrested her husband, Hussain Ibrahim, a stone-cutter. “Five days later they came back and measured the house”. She thought they were making another search, but the next day they returned and told her, “You had better be out in 20 minutes”. “I asked them”, “are you going to blow up my house”? They said “yes”. I told them,  “but you have searched the house and found nothing”. Then I started to cry. The children helped me take out a few things. The first explosion was not enough, they had to go back to Ramalla for more explosives”.

Her husband was in prison for six months without trial. She could not attend the trial because she did not have an identity card. Normally a wife appears on her husband’s card, and when the Israelis took her husband’s papers they had left her without any.

Hussain Ibrahim was sentenced to five years in prison for membership of Fateh. “He spent two years there and was exiled to Jordan at the beginning of the civil war (September 1970) on the assumption that the Jordanians would kill him. It was the Mayor of Silwad who told me that they had released him, he saw it in the newspaper”.

Halima’s third son Abdel-Rahim was arrested one year after his father, and he too was accused of being a member of Fateh: he was imprisoned for 13 months and was exiled to Jordan with his father. And just six months ago, her 22-year-old son Hassan was arrested. “Nobody has seen him since”, she said, then corrected herself, “his lawyer, that woman  (Lea Tsemel), she saw him, she said he was OK”.

Asked about plans for autonomy, Halima answered simply, “Anything as long as I see my sons again”.

Adnan, aged 19-and-a-half, was arrested on 11 July 1977, accused of being a member of Fateh. He was beaten up for 12 days until he signed a confession in Hebrew which he did not understand, admitting membership of a secret organisation.

He was brought to trial about six months later and sentenced to a year in prison. The year ended a few months ago, and his identity card now has a special stamp. Any Israeli patrol checking him knows immediately he was a member of a secret organisation and he must not leave the West Bank.

His brother, Mahmoud, was arrested in 1968 when he was 22, accused of being a member of Fateh. The Israelis blew up his house soon afterwards.

On 4 December 1978, at 4am, an Israeli Army bulldozer demolished the house of Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Fattah, although Felicia Langer had obtained a stay of execution for a tribunal of three judges to hear her plea. The soldiers pretended that they had not received the counter-order in time.

Abdel-Rahman was not guilty of anything, but his 16-year-old son, Akram, had been accused of being involved with the Palestinian cell which assassinated Jenho, the “collaborator”. But the Jerusalem Post reporting the incident, continued to insist that the house belonged to Akram, whose age it did not mention and described its demolition as “a measure of dissuasion”.

Rima, a tiny, thin woman of 71, as gnarled as olive bark, told how her daughter, Fatma, a nurse, had been arrested twice. In 1970 she spent eight months in prison and in 1971 she spent another six months in prison  awaiting trial on charges of carrying arms”.

“They arrested my daughter, and the next day they measured the house”, Amina said, “Eighteen days passed and I thought they were not going to blow it up, but they did. I shouted at the soldiers, “kill me first”. But they pushed me and told me to get out. I tried to kill myself  with a big stone but some friends stopped me. Since then I often have had headaches”.

She also told of her own imprisonment. “I was the first to go to prison, before my daughter. I spent three days there and paid a fine 10 Jordanian dinars”. Then she added, “When they came to blow up the house they told the Mayor they were teaching the village a lesson. But we did not learn anything, we are still revolutionaries”.

(The Middle East magazine, June 1979)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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