A memorial to September

Issue 

September marks one year since the most significant clashes, in which more than 80 Palestinians died and 1200 were injured, since the Oslo Accords. 'ALA JARADAT, a Birzeit University student from Jenin, spoke to Green Left Weekly's ADAM HANIEH about the violence and a Birzeit memorial web site for those who lost their lives in September 1996. The web site is located at and was launched on September 25 at 4.25pm, the time when the first person was shot.

Question: Could you explain why the opening of the tunnel under the Al-Aqsa Mosque provoked the clashes in September 1996?

The opening of the tunnel was the straw that broke the camel's back. After the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel, the Palestinians hoped that these peace talks would work. But two years after, Palestinians were unsatisfied with the results, which didn't succeed in bringing peace.

The confiscation of land continued, the building of settlements continued, the evacuation of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem continued, quietly and slowly. Then came the opening of the tunnel.

Question: The clashes began on September 25. How long did they continue and how many were involved? Where in the occupied territories did people protest?

After Birzeit students protested against the opening of the tunnel and expressed their disappointment with the peace process, the clashes spread throughout the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. They went on for about two or three days in all areas and continued for the next five or six days in the area of Hebron.

Nothing can explain the feelings of the Palestinians during the clashes. They were facing, with empty hands, Israeli helicopters, Israeli tanks, Israeli snipers. This couldn't have happened without real anger.

Question: How did Palestinians organise during the clashes?

To tell the truth, there wasn't any organisation. People took to the streets to express their feelings without preparing in advance. The situation just drove them out into the streets.

Question: But a lot of Israeli journalists claim that the clashes were organised through the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

I remember the students coming down towards the southern entrance to El-Bireh in Ramallah. They were alone. Even the PNA tried to prevent them from reaching the Israeli checkpoint. The PNA became involved only later on in the evening, after about 250 students were taken to Ramallah hospital.

Question: A lot of people were surprised by the severity of the Israeli response. Could you describe what the Israeli military did and people's reactions?

I would like to go back to the first day, the 25th, when the students arrived at the Israeli checkpoint. They were just protesting, standing against the checkpoint. The Israeli soldiers started to shoot tear gas, rubber bullets — which are not really rubber — and then live ammunition. Five people were killed on that first day in Ramallah.

The next day, during the funerals of the five, the Israeli soldiers started shooting, mostly at civilians. They were prepared in advance, bringing tanks to the area. Minutes later the helicopters appeared and started shooting 30 millimetre-diameter bullets at civilians. There was blood everywhere, people falling.

We watched the Israeli snipers dancing after shooting at everyone, shouting "One more". It was a horrible sight. Most of the people who were killed were shot either in the head or chest. There were no minor injuries.

I can never forget that day. I wasn't doing anything, just standing there. We couldn't get close to the soldiers, even to throw stones at them.

I remember talking to someone who was pointing up to a sniper on the hill, saying "There, there is the sniper that keeps shooting at us". But he never finished his sentence. I intended to tell him that we had seen him since the early morning. But the bullet just passed me and went straight to his head. I couldn't even prevent his fall.

Seconds later, as the medical personnel ran to help him, one of the medics was injured by more live ammunition. I also saw a journalist fall down with his camera, also injured. The bullets prevented the ambulances from coming close enough to help the injured.

This scene happened several times. There were hundreds of people there, all standing watching all this happening.

Question: What's the idea behind the memorial web project?

Throughout the occupation, there has been killing by the Israelis everywhere in the West Bank and Gaza. But such intensive killing, in such a place — 100 square metres in the southern part of Ramallah and El-Bireh — I had never seen in my life. About 20 people fell in two days.

A year later, because the causes of those clashes haven't been solved, the issues haven't been resolved. The Israelis keep confiscating land, keep building settlements, continue to keep under arrest more than 5000 Palestinians.

There are many other problems, like the rights of refugees to come back, the right of self-rule for the Palestinians, and the right to have an independent state like every other nation in the world. All these haven't been solved.

Creating a memorial web site for those who died last September may show the real picture of what is happening here, because the media never show the reality. Using the internet, we have the chance to reach more people.

Question: I understand all of the families of the martyrs have been interviewed. How have they reacted to the project?

I can talk only about those families that I interviewed. During the interview of Iyad Taraifi's family [a martyr from Ramallah], there were lots of pauses. His father kept looking towards his [son's] picture. He was thinking about his son and not really finding the words to answer my questions. His mother almost started crying several times.

Sometimes you felt that the families didn't want to answer the question because it brought back so many horrible or great memories which they have been trying to forget.

Question: Many families lost their main means of support and now rely on funds from the PNA. I understand the PNA's official list of those killed numbers just 61 people. But well over 80 people were killed. Can you explain why so many of the dead are unrecognised?

Events like this often happen here. Sometimes people die later in the hospitals, after the official lists have been prepared. In addition, following such incidents we have closures, the separation between areas by Israelis, which makes it more difficult to gather the information.

For example, Yasser Abdel Ghani, a Birzeit University student, who was the first guy to be shot on September 25, actually died more than four months later. He was shot in the heart and lay in Ramallah hospital for almost two months. Then was transferred to a hospital in Jordan and lay there for another two months.

We faced lots of problems preparing the web site. The Israelis are using the Oslo Accords to turn the Palestinian areas into separate cantons, which made it difficult to conduct the interviews needed for the web site. So it will be launched first with the information we were able to gather under these circumstances.

After the launch, we will keep trying to interview the rest of the families of the martyrs. We also hope we can find the financial support to print a booklet.

We will also try to prepare a web site about all martyrs who died during the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza since 1967, as well as all the martyrs since the announcement of the Israeli state in 1948.

Question: How can people help?

The first thing we hope for is financial help for the families of the martyrs. We also hope to get support, mostly financial, for the 1967 and 1948 projects. Details can be found on the web site.