Journal Highlights: Roads I Have Traveled ... Excerpt #4 June 2002

(continued): Israel, West Bank, Ramallah: June 6-14, 2002: Our next meeting proved to be quite interesting. There were four different officials representing different groups or municipalities needing medical supplies. Dr. Mofleh Nadi of the Palestine Arab Front also represented the Palestinian National Authority’s ministry of local governments. He explained how the regional hospital of Joresh was desperately in need of everything from examination tables to forceps to autoclaves for sterilization. I told him I believed we could help him. He then presented me with a handwritten list of the most urgently needed items for his region.

Ibtisam Zeidan was a middle-aged Arab woman who attended our meeting. Somehow she had been able to obtain an American passport in the past and had spent some time in the Ohio area. She was telling me how she had also learned Hebrew and that by showing the Israeli guards her American passport and speaking the Jewish language, she was able to move about the West Bank quite freely.

Ibtisam represented the Palestinian Women’s Committee. It was really quite interesting to talk to her about what her committee was doing to influence the Arab women in the old occupied areas.

When we left that meeting Mohamed’s uncle drove us straight to Arafat’s Palestinian government headquarters compound. Mohamed’s uncle had been born in Ramallah, and since he knew nearly everyone, we just drove right through all the checkpoints and stopped very close to Arafat’s main residence building.

Just two nights earlier, in retaliation for the suicide bus-bombing incident, the Israeli tanks, attack helicopters, and troops had converged again on Arafat’s compound knowing that he was sleeping there. The devastation that had occurred just two nights earlier was just amazing. This raid wiped out several large buildings on and near the compound that had escaped destruction during the March and April retaliatory raids by the Israelis. 

The landscape looked like an earthquake had hit and leveled the area. There was not a lot of difference between what I was looking at and the flattened and demolished buildings I had viewed just weeks earlier at the epicenter of the super earthquake which had hit northwest India in Gujarat state.

There was still the fresh smell of burned gunpowder and spent explosives. It reminded me of sitting near the firing pit at a July 4th fireworks extravaganza and smelling the residue of the cannon-fired jumbo sparklers.

As we got out of the car I carried my camera in plain view and began snapping pictures. No one bothered me. I strolled right up to where the Palestinian Authority’s uniformed guards were probing around in the rubble. Scores of Palestinian Authority vehicles sat burned out or run over by Israeli tanks. I had definitely entered a war zone.

I continued to be amazed that no one seemed to be concerned that I was taking pictures and freely walking around inside the bombed-out executive compound.

Two of the main buildings were joined at the second level by an enclosed bridge way. From that bridge way there was a great view of the entire compound and of the lower end of Ramallah. That was where Arafat’s formal dining room was located. That was where he hosted the Arab country leaders when they visited. That was where Arafat held most of his interviews with BBC and CNN.

But the tanks had rumbled into the compound and successfully blown huge holes right through the middle of the swank bridge way. Mohamed’s uncle asked if I wanted to try to get an interview with Arafat. He was just inside the landing of the main building, no more than a hundred feet away from me conducting other press interviews. I declined the uncle’s suggestion saying that I did not think it appropriate nor did I feel comfortable with requesting an audience at such a tense time. 

I walked on continuing to take pictures. There were two Palestinian bulldozers trying to push around the rubble and broken buildings and clean up the mess from the previous nights.

I was just in the middle of trying to count the demolished vehicles inside and outside Arafat’s compound when Mohamed reminded me that we were about late for our next appointment.

I had not remembered from my previous visits to the West Bank that Ramallah was as large as it was. Well over 500,000 people lived there. Many of the residents traveled out of the city and out of West Bank to work every day in the Israeli areas. The Palestinians didn’t really have much industry or employment of their own. Their economics were dangerously dependent on the Israeli economy. Likewise, the Jewish economy depended heavily on the Arabs for laborers.

When we finished our other appointments, we stopped by the headquarters of Red Crescent, the Muslims’ counterpart to the West’s Red Cross. There we registered our confirmation for our meeting with the director general for the next morning.

Apparently, my interest in photographing the remains of Arafat’s governmental compound caught the attention of Mohamed’s uncle who was driving us around Ramallah. “How would you like to go look at Arafat’s preventative security palace, which the Israeli army destroyed about 60 days ago? I think I can drive there.”

“Yes,” I answered, “I would very much like to go and see it. Are you sure you can get me in to see it? Isn’t that where the elite Palestinian guards and intelligence forces are stationed?”

“Yes,” Mohamed’s uncle answered, “but no one is even there anymore. It is completely destroyed.”

Next Week: The Arab’s Preventative Security Palace in ashes 

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