Best of Breslin: They Always Shoot the Young
The legendary reporter's column on the conflict in the Holy Land that is still relevant today.
JERUSALEM — A panel in the large wooden door opened and the face of a young man appeared. “What it is you want?” he said.
“To come in,” he was told.
“Nobody is allowed to wait inside,” the young man said. “This is the rule of the hospital. Today is very bad. Everyone must wait outside. Don’t you see that the other people are doing this?” The women sat on the steps of the hospital at Ramallah, a Palestinian town on the West Bank, and the men were up on a wall at the end of the building.
“Do you have a person named El Huj in there?” the young man was asked. El Huj was one of four university students shot by Israeli troops during a Palestinian demonstration the day before.
“Oh, That is a different matter.” He opened the door and told us to wait while he went upstairs and brought down a young doctor.
“You cannot see him, but he is all right, I think.”
“The bullet came in from the back and came out the front.”
“He was shot in the back?” a woman said.
“The entrance of the wound is from the back,” the doctor said again. “He is sixteen. That is what helped him.”
A few blocks away, truck tires had been thrown in the middle of Ramallah’s main street and set afire, to both block traffic and announce, by the black smoke rising over the street, that anyone who wished to cause trouble and throw stones at the soldiers should hurry to the place where the smoke was coming from.
The ones throwing the burning tires into the street were in their late teens and early twenties.
They were followed by packs of small children. There is a general strike of Palestinian people on the West Bank to protest the peace talks. The military commander then closed all the schools. The streets and alleys of Ramallah were crowded with children all day. If you stood on a street corner for more than a few moments, you became surrounded by children and had to walk in half steps.
Wherever there are Arabs, the numbers stun. In Cairo, after walking the streets and alleys for a couple of days, I fell asleep at night with waves of people coming at me. There are so many people there that the official census figure has to be picked from the sky. And it is similar in these Arab places outside of Jerusalem. There is no pill, and abortion is a word used by university women. And in the alleys there are only small children bumping into your legs as you walk, so many children bumping that you still feel them hours later. The figure is 3 “million Palestinians in the Middle East. I hope nobody has to feed the numbers over 3 million.
One of the older boys in the street in Ramallah crouched down and peered through the black smoke and saw an Israeli armored personnel carrier turn the corner. The older boy began to run and everybody followed him, spilling down alleys and across lots where goats grazed.
The armored personnel carrier rolled down the street without stopping. The Israeli soldiers held up automatic weapons and watched fiercely for any sudden motions. After the vehicle went by, the smallest boys rushed out of the alleys and jeered the Israelis.
This was on the day that Jimmy Carter trudged to his diplomatic success in getting Egypt and Israel to agree that their future is not in bleeding. It is a treaty that mentions the Palestinians with words such as linkage and autonomy. But no Israeli leader ever will allow the Palestinians to have a country of their own on Israel’s border. And the Palestinian millions appear to be led by Arafat, a terrorist, and he demands land for a country, that vague word in a treaty. So peace is something that Israel probably still must scratch out of the years to come. The great danger, Egypt, has been removed. But the Palestinians remain. Yesterday, the West Bank was heavily patrolled by Israelis, and in the north, artillery fired at Palestine Liberation Organization rocket bases in Lebanon.
“We are only beginning to gather strength,” Ramondo Tawhil was saying in the living room of her house in a comfortable residential part of Ramallah. Ramondo is considered the voice of the PLO in the district. She has all the prerequisites of a revolutionary: a banker husband, a daughter in medical school, a son in engineering school, and rhetoric for any occasion.”
“There were four boys shot yesterday, not three,” she said. “Someday the bullet of the oppression will melt to water in the face of the resistance.”
She patted the midsection of a figure that many say causes as much trouble among Arabs as oil. “I must diet,” she said. “The best diet is to be in jail. I lost eleven kilos [about twenty-four pounds] in jail last year. I am under house arrest now. If I go out of the house, they claim I am inciting. They will put me in jail. It might be good for my diet. No, I have been last year in jail. Once is enough.”
“Have you spoken to Arafat about the peace treaty?” she was asked.
“Why me? It is Carter who should speak to Arafat. Carter should look at Iran and then he would know he should speak to Arafat. Your Mr. Carter, the prophet, should go directly to Arafat. He speaks for all Palestinians.”
Which was not thoroughly accurate. Sometimes, the Palestinians do not talk to themselves. Later in the day, in Bethlehem, which was a grim town, with soldiers standing on rooftops in the rain and truckloads of troops at roadblocks, the home of the former mayor of the city was pointed out as an illustration of the troubles among Palestinians.
The Palestinian Christians who live in the town of Bethlehem do not speak to the Palestinian Muslims who live in the refugee camp at Bethlehem. The former mayor, Bandak, a Christian, went beyond this; his animosity toward the Muslims was extraordinary and the Muslims were always eager to return it. Bandak then stole much money as mayor and bought land directly across the street from the entrance to the refugee camp. He built an expensive stone house and atop the house placed a high television tower. Running down the tower, in the kind of letters used to advertise cigarettes, is the name “Bandak.” Across the street in the refugee camp, every time a Muslim raises his head he must see Bandak’s name. Then, when he left office, Bandak had the city council name the street in front of the refugee camp “Bandak Street.” Each time a Muslim leaves the refugee camp, he spits at the sign that says he lives on Bandak Street.
The Bethlehem refugee camp is an old one. The Israelis have provided electricity and water, and most of the men in the camp work at jobs in Israel at Israeli pay. So the conditions of the camp are better than usual and Israel receives credit for the manner in which it handles the camp. But Israel cannot take care of the millions of other Palestinians, and at the same time the Palestinians don’t want Israel around them, even if Israel is making sure they have light and can eat.
An old man sat at a table in a hut in the camp where he sells note pads and candy bars. He said his name was Muhammad Abdullah, and when asked for his age, he wrote the number thirty-seven. The number sixty-two was jotted down and shown to him. He shook his head and printed out forty-two. When the figure eighty-four was printed in retaliation, Abdullah became angry and wrote down the number fifty-eight. Finally, after fifteen minutes of bargaining, he admitted to being seventy-one.
When he was asked about the peace treaty, he shook his head. “We are no peace treaty. We are Palestinians. We must wait and we will get our peace.”