NIGHT FELL, AND THE SEARCH BEGAN ~~ AN ONGOING PALESTINIAN NIGHTMARE

Image by Ismael Shammout

Twilight Zone / Night fell, and the search began
Gideon Levy

It`s routine under the occupation: On any night soldiers are liable to raid any house in the territories and do as they wish. Sometimes it ends with nothing, a futile search. Sometimes it ends with arrests. It always involves great fear and sometimes even death, as in the tragic case of Maryam Ayad, 60, who died during a superfluous nighttime search in which nothing was found.

Nobody thinks about the terror these searches sow among thousands of little children, women and old people. Nobody thinks about the blatant and crude invasion of the privacy of peaceful citizens while they are sleeping. Palestinians, as you know, are never `trauma victims,` that`s for Jews only. It happens every single night and sometimes it ends badly, very badly.

Although an army medic determined that Ayad died of a heart attack, it`s not clear how he arrived at this determination. Although the Spokesman`s Office of the Israel Defense Forces claimed that there was no `demonstration of violence` on the part of the soldiers, the dead woman`s daughter and daughter-in-law, who witnessed the incident, say one of them pushed her. Ayad hit her head as she fell, bleeding profusely. Without an autopsy nobody can determine what caused her death, neither the medic nor the IDF Spokesman.

But we can believe the women of the family when they say that one of the soldiers did in fact push Ayad toward the stone barrier at the entrance, when the family exercised no violence against those invading their home. Anyone who pushes a 60-year-old grandmother bears responsibility for her death, whatever the circumstances. Anyone who approves indiscriminate nighttime searches bears responsibility for the daily and intolerable harassment of innocent families.

The way to the Ayad home transverses mountain and deserts. Before the wall dividing Abu Dis down the middle was built, they were a few minutes` drive from East Jerusalem. Now one must descend to the desert, drive past Ma`aleh Adumim and Azariyah – a frightening detour – until reaching the eastern side of the town with a wall in the middle. Next to the wall is the skeleton of the Palestinian Parliament building that was supposed to be located here, a silent memorial to the illusions of the past.

Saturday night, September 20. The last days of summer, and Abed Ayad took a mattress outside into the concrete yard and went to sleep. Maryam, his wife, sat across from him on the concrete wall at the entrance to the house, playing with Yusuf, 4, one of their three grandchildren. The house has two floors. Abed and Maryam live with their college student daughter on the ground floor. Their son and his family have the upstairs.

The son was in Ramallah. At about 9 P.M. his wife, Nadia, went upstairs to put two of the children to bed. Abed is an unemployed plumber. He worked in Jerusalem his whole life, until the city was separated from him. His shock at the death of his wife is still evident.

Abed woke sometime after 10 P.M. to the sounds of people talking. He saw that a large group of armed soldiers in uniform as well as three masked men had entered the yard, the same yard where we are now sitting, Maryam`s faded bloodstains still visible on the concrete floor.

`Where are the students?` one of the soldiers asked in Arabic. Students from Al Quds University, located in Abu Dis, rent space in many of the homes in the town. The basements of the Ayads` home and neighboring homes house students who cannot easily return home at night, because of the checkpoints.

The soldier ordered Abed to enter the house, turn on the lights and bring out all its residents. Then the soldiers went in and conducted a search. Abed says the soldiers were polite and well-behaved, with the exception of the masked men, who were rude. Maryam tried to persuade the soldiers not to go upstairs: `There are little children sleeping upstairs,` she told them, but according to Abed one of the masked men told her: `We`ll kill anyone who stays there.`

Abed tried to explain that they could not go upstairs – perhaps his daughter-in-law was not dressed, and then the soldiers fired two shots into the air. Yusuf asked his grandmother fearfully: `What, did they come to kill us?` and Maryam tried to calm him down and told him that they had only come to look for thieves. The family says Maryam did not look panicked or frightened. Abed went upstairs and told Nadia to come down. She left the two little ones, Yassin, 3, and Mohammed, 2, asleep in their beds.

When Nadia came downstairs she saw the soldiers and the masked men, who spoke to her in Arabic. They said there were about 20 soldiers in the yard. One asked why she hadn`t brought the children down and she explained that they were sleeping. The soldier said they would kill anyone who remained inside. Nadia asked to go upstairs to bring them down, but the soldiers ordered her into the yard.

In the yard Nadia saw her mother-in-law sitting with Yusuf on the stone parapet. Nadia`s sister-in-law, Hiba, the student, sat across from her. Nadia sat down with them and asked her mother-in-law to tell her what had happened. Maryam said the soldiers were looking for students. Hiba says one of the masked men was particularly tense and belligerent. Yusuf again asked: `Did they come to kill us?` and his mother tried to reassure him. They only came to arrest people, she said.

Memorial posters still cover the window bars. Abed is self-absorbed, looking down at the floor, his toothless mouth silent. The soldiers said to go upstairs, where little Yassin and Mohammed were still sleeping. Nadia said Maryam stood up and tried again to convince them not to go up. From here on in, everything happened in an instant.

Nadia says one of the soldiers pushed Maryam. She fell back and sat on the low stone parapet. Then she lost her balance and fell backward onto the concrete floor, hitting the back of her neck. Nadia thought she was simply dizzy and had lost her balance. She tried to lift her, but Maryam was too heavy. Nadia sprinkled water on her face. She says Maryam emitted a gurgling noise, and then she noticed the pool of blood under her mother-in-law`s head. Nadia began shouting for help.

Abed, who was upstairs, heard his daughter shouting, `They`ve killed Mother, they`ve killed Mother.` He came down, frightened, and saw his wife lying on her back, in a pool of her own blood.

An army medic tried to resuscitate Maryam. The family told him that Maryam had undergone a cardiac catheterization about two years earlier, at Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Kerem, and was on medication but felt well. Soon after, the medic said he was sorry but Maryam was dead. The family says a neighbor who is a physician was called in but was not allowed to approach. The ambulance they called was also kept away. Neighbors began to gather. After the medic pronounced Maryam dead the soldiers left. At 1:30 A.M., three and a half hours after the search began, Maryam was buried in the Abu Dis cemetery.

The IDF Spokesman said this week in response: `In the course of an IDF operation on the night of September 21 in Abu Dis, south of Bethlehem, a Palestinian woman of about 60 tripped on the steps of the house. An IDF medic at the site tried for about half an hour to resuscitate her before declaring her dead. During the resuscitation attempt the woman`s family told the medic that the woman was a heart patient. A thorough investigation of the incident indicates that there is no connection between the woman`s death and the operational activity on the site. The operational force checked out the compound and when the woman fell there was no eye contact, physical contact or demonstration of violence of any kind between the force and the woman. The medic who determined her death confirmed with certainty that the woman suffered a heart attack, fell down the stairs and died.`

A word about the Spokesman`s reply: Abu Dis is not south of Bethlehem, but north of it. The woman fell not on the stairs but on the stone parapet in the yard. Witnesses state she was pushed by one of the soldiers; and it is very doubtful, as we have mentioned, that the cause of death can be determined.

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