Not to be denied the full term of his vacation, Larudee returned to the West Bank around the 1st of August with other activists. A primary goal for him has been to protect a home that has been identified as a target for demolition by Israeli soldiers. Most of this Palestinian family has left after a son became a suicide-bomber in March. Two elderly grandparents remain in the home because the grandfather is disabled from a stroke. The following cell phone interview took place on August 8th.
NE: Paul, I‘m surprised I got a hold of you.
Larudee: Shit, how did you find me?
NE: Your sister gave me your cell number in Nablus for a news story.
Larudee: Okay, let me find a chair. (Seconds later) The curfew in Nablus was lifted today for the first time in eight days. So we went out and removed some of the roadblocks that armored Israeli bulldozers had put in place along the street in order to interrupt the flow of traffic. The intent is to create bottlenecks to better monitor who is coming and going.
NE: Are Israeli troops pulling out?
Larudee: They are not as heavy a presence as they were about a week ago, but they can move back in at any given moment. The Palestinian residents are, of course, desperate. It has been 49 days of curfew with an occasional lifting for four or five hours at a time. Meanwhile, as Israeli soldiers travel around, they are demolishing virtually everything in the city. When they search houses, they don‘t just search the house. They demolish everything in the house. Frequently, they... how can I say this... they shit and piss on everything.
So, things are becoming harder and harder with the prolonged curfew. People can‘t get to work. For example, when small children need milk, they can‘t make the trip just a couple of doors down the street.
NE: How did you get into the West Bank since it is basically a war-zone?
Larudee: On August 2 thirteen of us were turned back from the checkpoint at the entrance of Nablus. “Look“, the guard said, pointing to a press vehicle sitting there, “we‘re not even letting the press through. It‘s impossible to get in.“ He was wrong, of course. Nablus is surrounded by some very rough country, which is difficult to patrol, so those willing to make the trek can get in anyway. My legs were like rubber by the time we arrived at the familiar Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees Center in Nablus, where I spent most nights sleeping on a gurney in April.
Soon, we headed for the old city. Explosions and gunfire told us Israeli soldiers were just ahead of us. When we spotted them, they were right where we wanted to go. They fired shots which bounced off the stone walls, intending to discourage us. We tried to negotiate by gestures, but they were having none of it, so we took another route. Along the way we witnessed about 50 Palestinians being blindfolded and loaded onto buses.
As we walked along the edge of the old city, a family gestured to us from a sunken room that they needed help. Their building had been taken over by soldiers and all of the inhabitants had been placed in the one room. Their biggest priority was pampers, which was elsewhere in the building, but the soldiers refused to permit them to get them. We were unsuccessful in persuading the soldiers to let us go in for the pampers, too. On the other hand, they were surprisingly obliging when I asked if they would be willing to look for the pampers themselves. The pampers were found and delivered. Sadly, this humane gesture was accompanied by a cruel comment from the soldier who delivered them to me. “All Arabs must go,“ he said. “We don‘t want them here.“
NE: What else have you seen?
Larudee: Here‘s another story for you. I had been walking all day with my backpack and groceries - I was tired. As soon as I got near where I was staying, a home of one of the so-called martyrs, a kid came up to me and said, “Please, please, come with me. I need your help. My family has a chicken house that is next to two big Israeli tanks but we haven‘t been able to get to the chickens for four days. We need water and food.“
I was tired but said, “Okay (laughing), if you will carry this stuff for me.“ He said it would be no problem and his brother came along to help him carry my stuff. We opened the chicken house door which led to soldiers in nearby jeeps pulling up and telling the kids to close the door and get out of there.
The kids asked me to stall them, which I did. I asked if any of the Israelis spoke English, what‘s the problem, etc. I said not to worry, I‘ll see that these young men don‘t cause you any trouble, I‘ll see that they go home and so forth.
If they had gone by themselves they most likely would have been shot. The kids walked back with about ten flats of eggs and the soldiers left. Before they got fifty yards, they sold all of their eggs. People didn‘t have anything to eat. The kids then said to me, “Let‘s go back for more eggs.“
I said, “What?“ I knew the soldiers probably weren‘t going to listen to me, again. Fortunately, the two tanks pulled away over a nearby hill. So, we went back and got more eggs.
Then a fellow comes out of a nearby apartment building and says, “Can you help me? I have a cold storage a little beyond the chicken house and I need to get there. The raw milk is going to go bad.“
I said, “Okay“, and went with him. He and his wife filled up a grocery cart with bags of milks, eggs and cheese. On our way back, they are selling milk to everyone because the kids had no milk. The cows that produced the milk were nearby in the fruit trees.
So, here you are, all of the needed supplies are grown right on the site there but people can‘t get to them because it is all closed. There are no exceptions. It doesn‘t matter who dies or who starves or what resources disappear.
NE: Actually, why are you in Nablus? I don‘t think you are there to tune pianos.
Larudee: No, I haven‘t seen a piano, yet. I was first in Nablus in April. I am here with the International Solidarity Movement. The organization is made up of people from all over the world - Korea, Japan, Brazil, South Africa - but mostly Europe and America. We are trying to let people know what is going on here because it isn‘t really happening.
We have also been described as human shields because that is the kind of activity that we do. We put ourselves in places where our presence means the Israeli military can‘t do what it would ordinarily do.
For example, we went to a home last week that was being demolished. It was being demolished because a suicide bomber had resided at the house. Despite the Geneva Convention of which Israel is a signatory, they demolished the houses and imposed collective punishment on innocent people. In fact, not only did they demolish that house, the soldiers broke through the interior walls of five neighboring houses before they found the house they were looking for and demolished it.
NE: What is happening with the house your group is protecting from demolition?
Larudee: It is impractical to have someone stay there 24 hours a day. Usually, the Israeli soldiers come in the evening so we try to make sure at least a couple of people are there in the evening and stay overnight.
None of the people in the home understand why the son became a suicide bomber because nobody there believes in it. I think I understand, though. These Palestinians have strong values. We have long discussions about what is right and wrong. The frustration for someone with a strong moral sense is that what is happening here is so incredibly immoral that maybe at some point someone just breaks and says I‘ve got to do something about it.
NE: The news services reported that a fifteen year old Palestinian boy was killed in Nablus a couple of days ago. Do you know any more?
Larudee: It happened in a refugee camp. It is hard to know what exactly happened. The kid may have thrown a stone at a tank. Let‘s face it, though, the tank wasn‘t in any great danger.
Just after the incident with the pampers, we came down and met an ambulance because the Israeli soldiers were not allowing ambulances to go and collect the bodies. This was a young Palestinian man about 25 years old who had gone up on the roof at night to get some air. The Israeli soldiers have night-vision goggles and decided he was a target so they shot him. After the body had been there for a day and a half, they still hadn‘t allowed an ambulance to come and get the body. We decided to provide cover for the ambulance. It was in the old city and we showed up and stood between the soldiers and the ambulance in the alley. Four of us brought the body down and put it in the ambulance. I‘ve got pictures - it wasn‘t pretty.
NE: Are the Israeli soldiers able to easily identify you as a part of an international peace mission?
Larudee: Our dress usually sets us apart. The fact that our women don‘t dress like Palestinian women definitely sets us apart. Also, we publicize our presence. We make sure our office in Jerusalem contacts the Israeli commander in the region and tells him we are here. Also, the other 10 to 15 diplomatic missions in the area are informed of our presence. Furthermore, we basically go out and confront soldiers. After a while, they get to know us. We try to stay as visible as possible so they know we are here.
NE: Can any of the soldiers speak English and have you had any discussions with them.
Larudee: Yes. I haven‘t had any lengthy discussions with them. Their officers don‘t want them to speak to us very much. Recently, we saw the soldiers bashing in doors while going house to house in the old city. They would go into each house and trash the place, supposedly looking for something. When we got closer to film them, we saw with them a Palestinian man in his pajamas. He had been obviously rousted out of bed and was being used as a guide, so to speak. I became concerned when they bashed open a door with a sledgehammer and forced the Palestinian man to enter the house in front of them. At that point, I went up to them and said, “Wait a minute, you can‘t do this. Israel is a signatory to Geneva Convention, so in effect, this action is against Israeli law - never mind international law.“
A soldier said, “Yes, but who knows what‘s inside? It is dangerous. People might be in there who want fire a weapon at us.“
I said, “Yes, but are you guys soldiers or not? It is your job. I‘m sorry if your job is dangerous, but that is your job.
The soldier said, “We are not really using him as a shield. He is the owner of this place and he knows what is in there or not in there.“
I said, “Well, if you are not breaking international law, wouldn‘t it be nice if everyone watching you - including the people in these homes - didn‘t think you were violating the law. If you are innocent, you ought to appear innocent. The best way to appear innocent is not to send the Palestinian first. You guys go in first and no one will think you are doing anything wrong.“ Guess what, after that, the Israeli soldiers went in first.
NE: I wonder if that result had anything to do with your filming.
Larudee: We had it all on film. In another incident a young man was coming down the street and just passing through where the soldiers were. There weren‘t many people doing that but some were. The officer of the group said to the man, “Stop. Where are you going?“
The kid said, “I am going home, that way (pointing).“
The officer said, “No. Get out of here.“ So, the kid started to walk back from where he came. Before he got about 30 paces, the officer said, “Stop. Turn around and come back.“ The Palestinian kid turned around and came back. The officer then began to take him away from where we all were.
I started to follow and the officer turns around suddenly and shouts at me, “You stay here.“ The officer then turned back to walk away with the kid. I continued to follow him. This time he turned around and cocked his gun. I don‘t move. So, he orders one of his soldiers (who spoke English) to stand in front of me.
I then shouted at the top of my lungs, “We‘ve been here watching you guys all afternoon. This is the first time anyone has said we shouldn‘t watch. And why shouldn‘t we watch? It is because he (the Israeli officer) is going to do something he shouldn‘t do. He is going to do something illegal. I am going to go watch what he is doing.“
In the meantime, the officer had taken the kid just around the corner out of sight. Fifteen or twenty seconds later, the kid was released and allowed to walk home. The soldier, who was blocking me, said, “See, he is going home. No problem.“
I said, “Okay.“ There was nothing more I could do. I talked to the kid later and it turns out the officer bashed him in the face three times and then let him go.
NE: The kid probably thought he got off easy.
Larudee: Yes. He did off easy because the officer knew he didn‘t have much time and he didn‘t want the cameras staring him in the face.
NE: Obviously, the element of danger there is ever-present. How safe do you feel?
Larudee: I feel pretty safe. As long as they know who we are, the soldiers have strong orders not to shoot. The April 1st shooting turned into such a public relations disaster that afterwards they never shot at any of us. If they want us out of the way, they don‘t mind being rough with us sometimes. Only the border police have the authority to arrest us. When they do arrest us, the most they can do is deport us (which they have done on a number of occasions). Usually, deportation is more than they want. Officers have to be called into court, etc. They would rather tolerate us being around as much as they can.
NE: How long do you plan to stay?
Larudee: I can only stay another week or so.
NE: How will you leave considering your unauthorized cross-country trek to get to Nablus.
Larudee: No, getting out is another story. The Israelis are happy to see us leave (laughing). If fact, I went to the checkpoint yesterday to help carry the belongings of two people who were deported because a demonstration recently. Nine of us were arrested and taken to a prison near Tel Aviv where the two are awaiting deportation.
NE: What does the curfew entail?
Larudee: It is 24 hours a day. The Israelis lift it every week or so for about four or five hours. Sometimes the troops pull back but don‘t lift the curfew. Palestinians have urgent things to do and go out into the streets while looking over their shoulders because the curfew seems to have been relaxed. At these times, the soldiers have been known to break it up with shooting because the curfew hasn‘t been official lifted. That has resulted in injuries and deaths.
NE: Do you come and go as you please?
Larudee: I am not concerned about moving about with the exception of the evenings. I have noticed a big difference during the curfews, though, compared to my visit in April. The situation is just as nasty as it was in April but there is a big difference, now. There is no resistance from Palestinians anymore, to speak of.
NE: What is it like in Nablus for the typical Palestinian resident?
Larudee: It is terrifying because you never know when the Israelis are going to come to the door. Just to get food and other necessities, they are taking their lives in their hands. Especially when the Israelis coming knocking on the door, they have no idea what is going to happen.
NE: Do the Palestinians, whose houses are demolished, have anywhere to go?
Larudee: Leaving town is not an option, of course. They are all living with each other in cramped quarters. It is hard for them. Last week the Israeli Supreme Court ordered a stoppage of the demolition until they had a chance to consider the question. Their decision a couple of days ago ruled that house demolitions are legal. In other words, we need to get word to the other signatories of the Geneva Convention that it needs to be amended.
NE: Are the Palestinians aware of the political maneuvering going on - such as the talks between representatives of the Bush administration and Arafat occurring this week?
Larudee: They are all probably more aware of it than I am. Most of it escapes me when I listen to the Arabic broadcasts. Everyone else seems to know what is going on. Only I don‘t know.
NE: What would you like to see happen in this conflict? Where do we go from here?
Larudee: I have a novel way to resolve the conflict. If any organization such as the United States, Israel, or private trusts were willing to create more settlements, I think that this would lead to a solution of the problem.
The settlements that I have in mind would be inside Israel - not inside the West Bank or Palestinian territory. What they would do is build settlements inside Israel that are roughly similar to those built on confiscated Palestinian lands. They offer them to the settlers for the same terms as they do for settlements on Palestinian lands. They offer them tax incentives, subsidized purchase arrangements, special free benefits such as transportation, day care, etc. In some cases they would offer free rent. They use very powerful inducements for people to live there and furthermore they recruit from places where the people have no choice but to accept that housing. They go, for example to Russia, and offer these incentives to Russian Jews to live in Israel. When they get to Israel they receive free housing for a certain amount of time and guess where that housing is? The Russian Jews who live occupied territories can‘t afford housing outside because it is highly subsidized. They have no money so this is how they populate that area. If they built housing within Israel that was affordable to these people, from what I understand, they would drop the West Bank housing in a minute and move inside Israel and you would not have the problem.
Just one gesture like that, one gesture like that (for emphasis) - your problems with the Palestinians are over. They would stop all violent resistance because they would see this as a gesture of good faith to leave the West Bank.
NE: Do you think even Hamas would accept this solution?
Larudee: Absolutely. Hamas is very much like the extreme groups in Israel. Hamas wants to ethnically cleanse the area and make it entirely Arab. The extreme groups in Israel including Sharon want to ethnically cleanse the area of Arabs. The difference of course is that Sharon is the prime minister of a country (Israel) and Hamas doesn‘t even have a member in the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is basically a marginalized group. What they have said, and I have no reason to doubt it, is that if Israel pulls back, Hamas will stop violent action in order to achieve their goals.
Last December 16th, PLO chairman Arafat actually negotiated with his enemies, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other groups, and declared a unilateral cease-fire in effect. During the next three weeks, there was only one Israeli causality (killed by an infiltrator from Jordan who had nothing to do with the above Palestinian groups). That was during the time when Sharon was saying that he needed one week of nonviolence before he could sit at the negotiating table. Yet, there were no meetings.
During that three weeks in the U.S. there was little news in the Middle East of any kind because Israelis weren‘t getting killed. Finally, after about 16 or 17 days, the lack of violence got embarrassing for Sharon so he went out and assassinated two prominent Palestinians at different locations. That promoted a counterattack by Palestinians as could be expected. On the 22nd day, four Israeli soldiers were killed by an attack in Gaza. These deaths were reported by James Bennett in the New York Times as the first attack in a 3-week lull of violence in the region. Well, during this lull of violence, 21 Palestinians were killed, only one Israeli. That went unreported since Palestinian lives don‘t count, anyway. I wrote back and said that it wasn‘t a lull of violence but a lull of reporting. It was never published, of course.
NE: What do the Palestinians you‘ve met think about Yasir Arafat?
Larudee: I have to say that in general Palestinians are not too enthusiastic about him because he tends to be a bit authoritarian. Of course, the Israelis would like him to be even more authoritarian and wipe out all opposition. The problem with Arafat is that, in a way, he is an outsider. He and his cronies live in Tunisia a lot of the time. In the meantime, local Palestinian organizations took over in his absence. The local organizations tend to get slighted by Arafat and the local Palestinians are not happy about that. Then Israel started eliminating some of the local Palestinians as dangerous people. Arafat is one of them, though, and they don‘t want outsiders, whether Americans or Israelis, coming in and telling them who they can elect and who they can‘t. Still, Arafat is a compromise figure.
NE: Do you see any evidence of terrorist groups in Nablus?
Larudee: I haven‘t. If they were around, I wouldn‘t know where to look for them. It may be that the son of the family I am staying with found his way to them - I don‘t know. The family doesn‘t even know. It came as a complete surprise to them.
What is odd about this Palestinian house I am staying in is that there is no memorial to the son, no pictures of the son on the wall, or anything like that. There is no shrine to the son.
NE: Did Saddam Hussein pay the family a reward as he has promised suicide bombers?
Larudee: I don‘t know of anything like that. I don‘t know if they would accept it or not if it was offered. Maybe some families would accept the money out of need but this family has several members who are making decent money. They are not doing great but okay. Some of the families have donated the money elsewhere when offered to them.
The family is in fact deeply religious but how can I say this... they are not strict. For example, the youngest daughter is engaged to be married and is living in the corner room with her fiancÈ. That doesn‘t happen in strict families. When we first went into the house, many of us internationals didn‘t know each other very well, and I assumed the daughter was one of us. She was dressed very western so I spoke to her in English, only to find that she was one of the daughters of the house. This is not your typical Islamic fundamentalist family.
NE: Regarding this family, do you know specifically what the suicide-bomber son did?
Larudee: Yes. He blew himself up in Ksar-Sheba on March 17th. You can look it up. Here is a guy who owned a car, had a decent job, making decent money, had a really sweet wife and little daughter. His daughter has written little broken hearts on her bedroom window with messages to her dad saying, “We love you and miss you.“ They are very sad about it but there is no shrine. People come and tell him that they are proud of his son and the father sort of acknowledges them but I don‘t think he is pleased with what his son did.