This entry provides the light relief portion of the "On the Ground in Ramallah" website, if you have my kind of sense of humour: You remember this hill, with the old loose-stone wall along the top of it, where I described snipers on the first day? I mentioned that by the third day, a tank was stationed on top of it? Yes, that one.
Well, on a slightly more 'Sunday morning'-like Sunday morning in Ramallah, Catherine Grosso (Birzeit's Human Rights Action Project staff member), Eddie Jenkinson (former coordinator of Friends of Birzeit University) and I, went for a walk down the deserted streets towards Khammara checkpoint. Khammara checkpoint is so named because a long time ago there used to be a factory that produced Arak, the aniseed-flavoured local moonshine that turns milky when you add water.
There was no one in sight, and the hills looked pretty peaceful. There had been no demonstrations today or the previous day. I was showing Cathi and Eddie the location of the apartment block that had been attacked by the Cobra helicopters just a couple of days previously. I was making sure it was still where I remembered it, as B'Tselem - the Israeli human rights center - had fieldworkers coming down later in the day. We found the place and marvelled anew at the damage that one can produce in non-military targets with 10cm long high explosive ammunition fired at the rate of 625 rounds per minute.
Behind the apartment block, there was a path running along the base of the now tankless "tank mountain", and we wandered down it looking for other houses that were hit. Of course there were several. I wondered how these people, who I had not had the chance to talk to, had dealt with the days' events. Bullet holes in prime Ramallah apartment windows. One minute, sitting nervously, thinking about the events you can hear right outside and on the radio - the next - live ammunition powering through the window into your kitch, gilt-framed poster of the Dome of the Rock.
As the tank was gone, I made my way up the hill as Eddie and Cathi took in the view and the damage to apartments. If any of this seems surreal, well...what can I say? I was reminded by the landscape of summer hikes through the hills of Scotland. I even began to sing as I climbed the hill, with a wry smile, a song I learned when I was young:
I love to go a-wandering
Along the mountain track
And when I go a-wandering
I have my rucksack on my back...
Falderee, falderaa, falderee, etc.,
As I reached the plateau of the top of the hill, filled with a pleasantly spacious and therefore different kind of atmosphere than during the previous few days - and what a severe week this has been! - I suddenly saw two sets of Israeli soldiers, dug into the side of the hill, peering at me through sniper slits with weapons at the ready.
Mmmmm, I thought, More tea vicar? Unfortunately they had already seen me, about the same time I had seen them. I'm not sure who was more surprised. I had just appeared up over the horizon of their position, clearly arriving from the direction of Ramallah. I had no other option than to continue. Running at this point would not have been recommended, as you sometimes read in those rather amusing travel advisories produced by the U.S. State Department for the West Bank.
I raised the hand that wasn't holding my camera and telephoto, in one of those instinctive, primal, 'don't shoot me' manifestations of body language and kept walking forward.
I walked toward the entrenched soldiers, trying not to notice their guns any more than was absolutely necessary. "I'm a journalist," I said, as if it wasn't obvious from the camera, long lens and dangling press card, "Can I take a photo?"
For the uninitiated, dealing with Israeli soldiers in English is almost always a fulfilling learning experience. "EFFO?!!" ("WHERE?" in Hebrew) screamed one of the boys from behind his camoflage netting. "YALLA, GO! GO! GO AWAY!" he shouted, making shooing motions with his hands, "GO!!!"
"Would you just fucking chill out guys?" I asked, walking up to the slits, "I'm a journalist. I just want to take a photo." Apologies for the language but really, if you want cinema not reality, Independence Day is more acceptable entertainment if alien encounters are your thing.
"YALLA, GO!! GO!!" he screamed. "Okay, okay, I'm going," I replied, and turned round to walk back down. As I was about halfway back across the 20 metres to the edge of the plateau, I noticed a gap to the left in the wall of stones. Inside were around 30 Israeli soldiers, all similarly dug in and completely invisible from Ramallah. What would you do if the person telling you to go straight off the mountain had a gun pointing at your back? I turned left.
As I walked through the gap, I was almost immediately noticed by the soldiers camped out there. Each pair of them were assigned to a pill box-type slit, each pair armed with a long-barreled sniper rifle fitted with high powered telescopic sights, aimed at Ramallah, my home.
Ammunition, very big binoculars, supplies and general army things were lying around. I was stunned to see how like a front line the scene was, and how well equipped they were in comparison to the Palestinian police, just a few hundred metres down the hill, who had normal machine guns, no telescopic sights and maybe one pair of binoculars beween 500 of them.
No wonder the list of casualties was so high on the first two days. With this sort of weaponary, you can pick off individuals from a kilometer away without thinking about it. In fact, you can do the same without telescopic sights and sniper rifles - they just make it easier.
It temporarily became like a scene from Good Morning Vietnam or Full Metal Jacket. "HEY!" shouted the grinning soldiers, "TAKE A PICTURE OF ME!" Then a lieutenant turned up with no smile visible on his face.
"EFFO!!" he screamed, his face all red. I was getting used to this by now. I trotted out the standard response. "JOURNALIST?" he repeated at 100 decibels (I don't know why but when I transfer this encounter to paper, all communications with Israeli soldiers seem to take place in uppercase).
"WHY YOU HERE?" he screamed.
"I wanted to take some pictures," I said, "I am a journalist."
"SIT THERE! ON THAT STONE!" a captain arrived and ordered simultaneously. After the lieutenant had established that communicating with me in Hebrew was fruitless, he took my passport and press card away from me.
"Palisteenim" he remarked to the captain and they both disappeared. This was not a nice day to get arrested. The sun was shining and I really didn't fancy the idea of having to answer the same kind of questions, put with the same level of subtlety, all day in some cell somewhere.
The captain returned and we both went briefly through the same Hebrew discovery scenario until we were both absolutely sure that I still had not learned the mother tongue, and then he shouted, "COME WITH ME!" and started pulling me by the arm out of the wall area.
"CLOSE YOUR EYES!" he said. I started laughing.
"YOU THINK I'M JOKING?" he asked.
"If I walk with my eyes closed I will fall over," I replied.
"OOSKOOT! ("Shut up!" in Arabic) CLOSE YOUR EYES!"
By this time we were back through the gap.
"SIT ON THAT STONE!" he shouted. What is it with Israeli soldiers and getting people to sit on stones? I puzzled, as I sat.
"HOW YOU GET HERE?" asked the captain, as if he had just walked into the heavily guarded Israeli Prime Minister's office and found me sitting cross-legged on Netanyahu's desk, "SHOW ME THE WAY YOU COME HERE!"
"I just walked right up the hill," I said, pointing in the general direction of the Ramallah side.
"WHERE YOU LIVE?" he demanded. "Ramallah," I answered, "I just came to take some photos. What's the problem?"
"RAMALLAH?! ARE YOU CRAZY? YOU COME HERE?! FROM RAMALLAH?!"
The lieutenant arrived back as the captain continued loudly, "WHERE YOU FROM?" "Scotland," I replied. The returning lieutenant smiled like a crocodile. He was on to a winner, he figured.
"THEN WHY YOUR PASSPORT SAY YOU ARE BRITISH CITIZEN?" he asked. Both of them watched me closely to see my reaction to this revelation.
Whoever was responsible for their geographical upbringing, I was thinking at this point, was someone who definitely deserved to sit on many stones for a long time.
"You asked me where I was from," I answered, "and I told you, Scotland." I waited, fruitlessly, for some spark of intellegence. "Scotland is part of Britain."
Inexplicably, they lost interest in this line of questioning.
"THERE WAS ANOTHER PERSON WITH HIM," suddenly declared the lieutenant ominously.
"WHO IS WITH YOU?" demanded the captain. I began to realise something that Cathi fully articulated later. Basically, I had scared the hell out of them when I turned up on their 'frontline'. They were freaking out. "Actually," I said with a straight face, "there were TWO other people with me." This provoked an even more extreme reaction.
"SHOW ME WHERE THEY ARE!" barked the captain. I pointed towards the edge of the hill.
"STAY HERE!" he said and they both advanced towards the hill edge cautiously.
Needless to say, everyone is armed throughout this entire encounter, except me, Cathi and Eddie, unless of course you subscribe to my view that a 35mm SLR is as good as a .762 M-16.
I was trying to work out what Cathi and Eddie would be thinking by this stage, about ten minutes after they last saw me. Seeing that they were just standing around harmlessly, the captain shouted at them to "GO! GO AWAY!" and came back again. He dropped my press card on my lap and the lieutenant threw my passport on the ground at my feet.
"NOW GO!" said the captain, adding as an afterthought while pointing his finger threateningly at me, "IF I SEE YOU HERE ANOTHER TIME, THAT'S IT!"
What was what, I didn't have time to find out. As I reached the edge of the plateau, I paused, turned and looked at the captain, who was still watching me carefully.
"So," I asked, with an innocent expression on my face, "does all this mean that I can't take a photo?".