This latest extract from my new book, ‘No Road Home’, describes a planned visit to Gaza by Mahmoud Abbas in 2003, and an attack on an American diplomatic convoy in the same area later the same year. The latter incident was subsequently dramatized in an episode of the television series the ‘West Wing’.
There was something wrong. A couple of hundred metres away, people were sheltering behind the walls of their houses, from time to time peeking out from their hiding place. A short distance further on, along the road into Beit Hanoun, an Israeli tank sat among the tree stumps like a monstrous predator enjoying a snooze after gorging itself. An embarrassed deputy minister from the Palestinian Authority, who had himself come to welcome Abu Mazen, was left to hold a stand up news conference on the forecourt of a nearby petrol station.
He explained that the Israelis had refused to guarantee Abu Mazen’s safety, and so the visit would not go ahead. The honour guard dispersed. The villagers gave up cowering behind their walls and went inside, out of sight. A few pedestrians made their way along past the petrol station, and tried to get to Beit Hanoun. Once it was clear that the Palestinians had accepted that the visit wouldn’t go ahead, the Israeli tanks advanced further, moving to block the road altogether. A bulldozer began piling up earth and rubble to make the way impassable. Boys in their early and mid teens gathered to throw stones at the heavy, armoured, vehicles. The sky remained covered, but it was hot. Dust in the air and the throatmade the overcast day worse. This non-event received little news coverage on the day it happened, but served to demonstrate to the people of Gaza that their Prime Minister was as powerless as they when faced with Israeli armour. Those few Palestinians who dared to believe that Abu Mazen’s appointment might make a difference, might mark the start of a real peace process, probably smiled bitterly as they chided themselves for foolish optimism.
The Israelis ended their occupation of Beit Hanoun about a month later, during the period of a hudna – or temporary ceasefire – called by the Palestinian militant groups. There was great excitement when George W. Bush presided over a summit in the Jordanian resort of Aqaba. Very few people in Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza shared the optimism. The most they allowed themselves to do was enjoy the brief calm which followed, too wise to believe it would last.
The road from Beit Hanoun to Gaza City had been torn up by tank tracks. It was a mixture of sand and holes. It remained that way for some months while the local authorities collected the funds, machinery, and manpower to put it back together. In this respect, the Israelis probably unwittingly aided some of the bombers they had come to destroy. The road’s surface was an ideal place to conceal a home-made mine.
On October 15th 2003, a massive explosion hit an American diplomatic convoy which had just crossed into Gaza through Erez. Three security personnel were killed. A short while after the blast, their car lay on its roof at the side of the road. It was a silver-grey four-wheel drive vehicle. Its remains looked like the carcass of a metallic whale, harpooned by a bloodthirsty hunter so often that it was not just dead, but disfigured. The arrival of an Israeli tank, the aftermath of a helicopter missile strike, anything, in fact, which made life in Gaza more dangerous, always drew a crowd. Males from the age of 10 upwards arrived like shoals of fish towards a source of food. If there were tanks and troops still in the area, they hid behind the flimsiest cover, out of the line of sight, occasionally darting out to shout insults or throw stones before being driven away by a burst of gunfire. The onlookers could be relied upon to turn up. The crowd at one incursion in Gaza City was even catered for by one gentleman selling flavoured ice. I had previously seen him plying his trade on the edge of crowds at demonstrations. The crowd today was aggressive. Young men swarmed around the car and the police who were trying to keep them away. Some of them were bearded, lean, and hungry. Others seemed just to be the local disaffected youth who had come to watch the spectacle. It was chaos. The Palestinian police made no attempt to cordon off the area around the wreckage. They just engaged in the occasional shouting and shoving match with the bystanders. This degenerated into scuffles whenever the police tried to take one of the men away and were prevented from doing so by his clansmen and friends. Two Israeli tanks had taken up position a little further up the road, but well within shooting range.
The warmest part of the year had passed but the noon heat was still oppressive. Dust and sand thrown up by the explosion and the scuffles hung in the air. Into this anarchy drove another U.S. diplomatic vehicle, carrying American investigators. They went to look at the wreckage and the youths surged forward to encircle them. The crowd began chanting ‘Allahu Akbar!’ (God is greater) in celebration of what had happened. Then stones began to rain down, missing the sunglass-covered eyes of the Americans, and bouncing off the roof of their car. They made to leave. Suddenly, there was gunfire all around. No one was sure who was shooting. The crowd bent double and ran for cover. The bullets were the Palestinian police’s first serious attempt at crowd control. As the police continued to fire, the Americans made their escape, a few final defiant rocks landing in the dust wake of their car. The jeering youths, their faces twisted from shouting, moved back and the crowd thinned out. An Israeli helicopter gunship clattered overhead, the tanks revved their engines. The grim show was over.
Copyright Material ©James Rodgers 2013.