Interview: 'Ala Jaradat, Coordinator of the September 1996 Web Memorial Project
This week Birzeit remembers the clashes that swept the West Bank and Gaza Strip a year ago, resulting in the deaths of over 80 and injury of 1,200 Palestinians. 'Ala Jaradat, Birzeit student from Jenin, talks to Adam Hanieh about the Birzeit project to build a memorial website for those who lost their lives in the September 1996 clashes. The website, to be located at http://www.birzeit.edu/martyrs/september96/, is to be launched at 4:25pm on Thursday 25 September 1997 and completes a circle that began with Birzeit's live reporting of the events via the On the Ground in Ramallah: Reports from a Town become Battlefield website. The interview below is also available as a Real Audio 3.0 file, either via streaming or download (1.76 MB).
Adam Hanieh: 'Ala Jaradat was a witness to the events of September in 1996. 'Ala is a 28 year old engineering student at Birzeit University, and comes from the northern West Bank town of Jenin. 'Ala was a main impetus behind the project to design a website as a memorial for the martyrs of September 1996. Today, we’re going to talk with 'Ala about the project and also about some of his experiences in the events of September 1996.
To begin with, 'Ala could you explain a bit about why the opening of the tunnel under the Al-Aqsa Mosque provoked the clashes in September 1996. Many people claim that the opening of the tunnel was the only reason behind the clashes. Perhaps you can explain some of the other factors that were involved in these clashes.
'Ala Jaradat: Actually, 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 the start of the peace process, Palestinians were unsatisfied with the results of the peace process. They didn’t succeed in bringing peace, the real peace that they hoped for.
The confiscation of land kept on, the building of settlements kept on, the evacuation of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem kept on, quietly and slowly. Then came the opening of the tunnel, and like I said, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Adam: The clashes began on the 25th of September. Perhaps Ala you can explain how long they went for and also how many people were involved. Whereabouts in the Occupied Territories did people protest over the opening of the tunnel and also if you could describe the feelings of people throughout the clashes.
'Ala: Actually, after the start of clashes on the 25th of September by Birzeit students protesting against the opening of the tunnel and expressing their disappointment of what the peace process reached, the clashes spread everywhere, throughout the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. They went on for a couple of days, about two or three days, in all areas and continued even later in the area of Hebron for the next five or six days.
Nothing can explain the feelings of the Palestinians during the clashes more than the site itself at the moment. They were facing with empty hands the Israeli helicopters, Israeli tanks, Israeli snipers. This couldn't have happened without real anger.
Adam:How did Palestinians organize during the clashes? What prompted people to come out?
'Ala: To tell the truth, there wasn’t any organization to the clashes. People took to the streets to express their feelings without preparing in advance to do it. The situation just drove them out into the streets.
Adam: But a lot of Israeli journalists claim that the clashes were organized through the Palestinian National Authority and Palestinian president Yasser Arafat.
'Ala: Actually, I remember the students coming down towards the southern entrance to El-Bireh. They were alone. Even the sulta, the Palestinian Authority, tried to prevent them from reaching the Israeli checkpoint. The Palestinian Authority only became involved later on in the evening, after watching about 250 students being taken to Ramallah hospital by ambulance. That's how their involvement started.
Adam: A lot of people were surprised by the severity of the Israeli response. Perhaps you could describe some of the things the Israeli military did during the clashes and how people felt at the time.
'Ala: I would like to go back to the first day, the first day when the students arrived at the Israeli checkpoint. They were just protesting. Standing against the checkpoint. Then 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 guys that were killed on the 25th, the Israeli soldiers just started shooting, mostly at civilians. They were prepared in advance, bringing with them tanks to the area. Minutes later the helicopters appeared in the sky and started shooting 30 millimeter diameter bullets at civilians.
No one could imagine what was happening there. There was blood everywhere, people falling, watching snipers dancing after shooting at everyone, shouting "one more". It was a horrible sight. Most of the people who were killed during the clashes, were shot either in the head or in the chest. There were no minor injuries.
Adam:'Ala you were present while people were getting shot?
'Ala: I wasn’t trying to remember that day, but it kept coming back all the time. You can never forget. I wasn’t doing anything, just standing there. We couldn’t get close to the soldiers, even to throw stones at them. We were just standing there, being shot at.
I remember I was talking to someone who was pointing up to a sniper on the hill, saying "There, there he 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, and I saw him fall down. I couldn’t even manage to catch him to prevent his fall.
Just seconds later, as the medical personal 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. I saw lots of them that day. There were so many injured. What can you do in those situations? You’re just standing there, and another one falls. You run and try to get some help, and if you manage to do it, you help lift him into the ambulance.
This scene happened several times. Sometimes you didn't manage to reach the injured in time, because there were so many others around. There were hundreds of people there, all standing watching all this happening.
Adam: Ala those sound like horrible days. Could you explain about the memorial web project and the idea behind it?
'Ala: The fact is that throughout the occupation, there was killing by the Israelis everywhere in the West Bank and Gaza. But such intensive killing, in such a place - a hundred square meters in the southern part of Ramallah and El-Bireh - I never saw in my life. About twenty people fell in two days. A year later, remembering the death of all those guys, people keep thinking of the causes of those clashes. And those causes still remain and remind people that clashes like those can happen at any time. Because the causes 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 five thousand Palestinians. There are many other issues, like the rights of refugees to come back, the right of self rule for the Palestinians, the right to have an independent state like every other nation in the world. All of these problems haven’t been solved, which may cause the death of many more people at any time.
So I thought that having this website, creating a memorial website for those who died during last September, may show the actual and real picture of what is happening here, because media never shows the reality as it is.
Using new technologies, like the Internet and the World Wide Web , I thought we have the chance to reach more people in the world, to show them the real picture of what is happening here in this region .
Adam: During the interview process, I understand all of the families of the martyrs have been interviewed. Could you explain or talk about the response of the parents and sons and daughters and friends of the martyrs to the project?
'Ala: To tell you the truth, I didn’t’ have the chance to interview all of the families myself. Lots of people have been helping with the project. So I can only talk about those families that I interviewed. During the interviews, for example, during the interview of Iyad Taraifi’s family, there were lots of pauses. His father kept turning his head aside, and looking towards his picture. I felt how he was thinking about those moments remembering his son, not really finding the words to answer my questions. His mother almost started crying several times.
It was difficult to change the subject that we were talking about at that moment. At some moments, I couldn’t find the words to ask some questions. Or try to make it easier for them to answer.
Sometimes you felt that the families didn’t want to answer the question because they brought back so many horrible memories, or great memories which they have been trying to forget.
Adam: 'Ala many of those families lost their main breadwinner or means of support and now rely on funds from the PA to help them survive. I understand the official list of people who were killed in those clashes from the Palestinian Authority includes only 61 people, but in the course of finding names there were actually well over 80 people who were killed during those clashes. Can you explain why there is that unrecognized martyr?
'Ala: Events like this happen often here, although they are not always like the September clashes, and sometimes it takes people time to die later in the hospitals, after the official lists have been prepared. And no one gets the chance to add them later.
Those who died later were added to the official list of martyrs but to this specific list they have not been added, the list of the martyrs of the September clashes.
In addition, what makes it difficult to prepare all the statistics about some incident is that always following such incidents we have closures, the separation between areas by Israelis, which makes it more difficult to gather the information and record it.
For example, Yasser Abdel Ghani, the Birzeit University student, who was shot on the first day, the 25th of September, was the first guy to be shot, but he 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. He died in Jordan four months after he was shot.
Preparing for the website and gathering the information, we faced lots of problems. The Israelis are using the Oslo Accords, which are supposed to be peace accords, to turn the Palestinian areas into separate cantons, which made it difficult for us to gather the information needed for the website and to conduct the interviews effectively. So the website will be launched first including the information we were able to gather under these circumstances.
After the launch we will keep trying to visit and interview the rest of the families of the martyrs on the list. We also hope that we can find the financial support to print all of this information in a booklet. This is for this project. We also hope that we will later be able to launch a similar website which will include the students of Birzeit university who died during clashes with the Israeli soldiers.
On a more major level, we will try and prepare a website 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.
We think that these websites will be a sort of Palestinian Yad Vashem [note: the Israeli Museum of the Holocaust]. It seems that the Israelis and Zionists haven’t learned anything from history. The things Jews suffered in other regions, other than the Middle East, are what they want to practice and are practicing on other peoples now.
We hope that funds and support for those families of the martyrs that are really in need will come.
Adam: How can people who see the website help in these projects?
'Ala: The first thing we hope for is that financial help will be sent to the families of the martyrs. We also hope to get support, mostly financial support, for similar projects like the 1967 project that I talked about and the 1948 project. Actually, all the details of how people can help is mentioned on the section of "How you Can Help", people can have a look at it. As well as for other projects, people can take a look the page "About This Website."
Adam : The project is going to be launched on 25 September 1997 at 4:25 Palestinian time, which is the time that the first Palestinian martyr was shot. For people who want to access the page at this time, go to http://www.birzeit.edu/martyrs/september96/.
Thank you very much Ala for talking to us today.
'Ala: Ahlan wa sahlan.