Al-Ahram Weekly Online
4 -10 April 2002
Issue No.580
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Diary of an Egyptian in Ramallah:

Amr Shalakany Nearly two years ago, Amr Shalakany received his PhD from Harvard Law School. He did not, however, return home, where a lecturer's post was waiting for him at Cairo University. Neither did he stay at the London-based corporate law firm that offered him a job upon finishing his degree. Instead, he went to Palestine. In some small way, he wanted to help. He arrived in Ramallah in early September 2000. He remains there. Below are extracts from his diary, the last entry received by Al-Ahram Weekly is dated 14 March

AN INTRODUCTORY NOTE: The following is not by way of apology, I just want to set the record straight before you read any further. I admit it, diaries offer a view from somewhere -- a perspective that is usually skewed, partial and incomplete. They're subjective reflections on a particularly situated experience. So let me begin from the beginning.

I moved to Palestine early in September 2000. Two weeks later, the Intifada broke out. I came to Palestine after finishing my PhD in the US and working as a corporate lawyer in London. I came here with some vague urge "to be useful" -- and if I thought being useful in Palestine meant saying farewell to middle-class life, I was soon proven wrong.

For over a year now, I've been teaching at Birzeit University and working as a legal adviser with the PLO Negotiations Support Unit. My interactions are mostly with middle-class Palestinians, sometimes the post-Oslo elite, often foreigners, seldom the poor living in refugee camps.

I live in Al-Tireh, an upper-middle-class neighbourhood in Ramallah. I have access to a car with yellow licence-plates. Yellow is a very important colour here. It means I can drive my car anywhere I want, to Jerusalem and beyond -- unlike most Palestinians, who have green licence plates and, hence, cannot drive outside the cantons created by the Oslo Accords. I have a foreign passport, which means I can leave the occupied territories whenever I want through Tel Aviv airport -- again, unlike most Palestinians, who cannot use the airport without first applying for a security permit.

I could continue for another hundred paragraphs explaining the differences that separate my privileged life from that of most Palestinians. But I'll spare you. I only wanted to situate myself before you read any further: This is who I am and that's where I come from. My diary entries are by no measure a gauge of the immense scope of suffering Palestinians endure under Israeli occupation. To pretend otherwise would trivialise their suffering. By sharing some of my diary entries, I merely hope to convey, through a disconnected account, aspects of daily life under occupation.

I purposefully edited out the politics and tried to concentrate on the quotidian. There will be no gun-toting revolutionaries in the following because the vast majority of Palestinians I live among are just ordinary middle-class people, trying to lead ordinary lives. Similar to the way Lila Abu Lughod describes Egyptians in another context, the Palestinians I know are just people "going through life wondering what they should do, making mistakes, being opinionated, vacillating, trying to make themselves look good, enduring tragic personal losses, enjoying others, and finding moments of laughter" -- albeit under the immense weight of more than 30 years of Israeli military occupation. It's in this vein that I hope my diary will be read.

September: In the flesh

A Palestinian boy hurls stones with a sling shot during clashes in Ramallah last month (photo: Reuters)
I feel exotic. A girl on the bus back from Birzeit today giggled nervously every time I opened my mouth. "He sounds Egyptian? He sounds Egyptian! He sounds Egyptian?!" For almost 10 minutes she whispered constantly between giggles to the friend sitting next to her. Finally, she mustered enough courage to blurt out: "Ya Allah, this is the first time I have seen an Egyptian in the flesh! I've only seen them on TV before!" I turned red, feeling something between being a movie star and the panda bear at the Cairo Zoo. "What exactly do you mean?" I asked, a bit cross. "Well, I've only seen Egyptians on TV like..." and she rattled off the names of a highly heterogeneous group of major Egyptian pop-culture figures: Adel Imam, Umm Kulthoum, Fifi Abdou, Faten Hamama, Shaaban Abdel-Rehim... "Do you know them?" she asked. "Not personally, no..." "Well, listening to you is like being at the movies! Please speak again. Say anything!"

I felt charming, actually powerful. Anything I say, no matter how dumb or boring, immediately sounds captivating just because I say it with an Egyptian accent. I'd never thought that I was that attractive before! Ghassan explained things to me. He suggested that my new-found charm is a function of two factors. First, the undeniable appeal of Egyptian pop-culture. Second, and more importantly, it was due to scarcity. In case I hadn't felt sufficiently commodified, he explained that Egyptian culture is so appealling here because there are so few Egyptians here. There are many Western professors helping at Birzeit, hailing from England, France and the US, but no Egyptians. "On the other hand, try speaking to Palestinians who've worked in the Gulf. I guarantee you, they won't find you so attractive! They've met many Egyptian guest-workers there, so they're used to your accent -- immune, actually!"

Since we were speaking about supply and demand, I offered Ghassan an explanation of why there are not that many Egyptian professors at Birzeit. "Anti-normalisation discourse seems to equate a visit to the West Bank with recognising the Israeli occupation as legitimate, creating a situation that inhibits many Egyptians from visiting the occupied territories," I said. Calm and composed, Ghassan dismissed my argument with a shrug of the shoulder: "But that's ridiculous. Anti-normalisation means you refuse to visit the prisoner because you don't like the prison-warden? That can't be true."

Well, I'm afraid it is true. And until there's serious rethinking of anti-normalisation's implications for travelling to the occupied territories, it will continue to be true. And I'll continue to be exotic!

September: Israel/Palestine, 052/059

I got a beliphone today. A cell-phone, that is. I was told, in passing, that my beliphone will work anywhere: in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jerusalem (East and West) as well as in Israel. "You won't have any problems reaching anyone," Andrew said confidently.

Naturally, I started having problems about 10 minutes later. I was supposed to have lunch with Souad and Salim, and tried reaching them on Salim's mobile to confirm, but the only response I got was an error message that played over and over. I decided his mobile wasn't working, and drove down to the coffee shop where we agreed to meet. They never showed up.

I now know what happened. Salim just called me on my land-line and gave me a 10- minute lecture on the-way-of-the-mobile-phone-in-the-occupied-territories. Apparently, neither of us can call the other on his mobile. My mobile number starts with 052. Salim's starts with 059. Mine is operated by Cellcom, an Israeli company that provides coverage throughout Israel and the occupied territories, including Jerusalem. Salim's mobile is operated by Jawwal, a Palestinian company which offers service only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. With his 059 number, the mobile stops working the minute you step into East Jerusalem or Israel. With my 052, I can still send and receive calls while I'm in Jerusalem -- but not to or from Salim. To reach one another, we have to use a land-line. "Got it?!" "No" I answered sheepishly.

Salim said, "Amr, this is occupation. It doesn't stop at tanks and machine guns. It extends to every single source of economic exploitation -- including the telephone! Israel used our airspace for its mobile companies. Aside from your 052 number, there's also 050, 055, 056, 057 and 058! They're all Israeli companies, and they're all operating in the occupied territories. Jawwal, the Palestinian mobile company, can barely operate in the West Bank. Clear?" "Clear" I responded, feeling an idiot who's unwittingly assisting Israel in its economic exploitation of Palestinians.

"So, I should change to Jawwal, right? I'll do that first thing tomorrow morning." "No, don't do that," Salim replied. "You need to use your mobile when you're in Jerusalem. With a Palestinian Jawwal, you won't get service there. You still need the Israeli mobile phone you have. Just keep it, and buy an 059 tomorrow as well."

Slowly and gingerly, he continued: "Of course, your confusion between 052 and 059 is of little concern to the vast majority of Palestinians. You can go to Jerusalem because you have a foreign passport. We cannot leave the occupied territories at all. So we really don't need an 052 number. Your confusion is a luxury. Enjoy it."

October: Angry with the victims

I just cried in front of the garbage can. Stepped out to put out the garbage, then suddenly I started sobbing hysterically, hugging the garbage bag, squeezing it tight to my chest. Washed my hands and changed my clothes. This sudden bout of crying took me by complete surprise. And I was screaming at the top of my lungs: "Palestinians don't deserve this -- it's just too damn unfair!"

It's almost a week now since [then Minister of Housing Ariel] Sharon caused tensions to erupt by going to Al-Aqsa. Seven Palestinians were killed the next day. Then three. Then five. Then eight. Eight, for God's sake!

And today, I went to the funeral of a 14-year-old boy who was killed by Israeli gunshots to his head. A teenage martyr. I had plenty of opportunity to cry at his funeral, but didn't. Couldn't. I was too angry with the boy for getting himself killed, and even more angry with the bungling leadership that had let him die and which had failed to come up with an effective liberation strategy so that the boy did not die in vain.

Every time I felt myself on the verge of tears, someone would chant a slogan or shoot his Kalashnikov into the air, and then my tears would just dry up. Something deeply bourgeois and middle-class in me just kept nagging: this is the wrong kind of funeral.

Something was problematic in the way death was processed around me. It didn't seem like someone had actually died. It was all about symbols: flags, banners, chants, microphones, slogans and the presence of Fatah, Hamas, PFLP and Fida organisations.

There was a crew from the BBC filming there. How would they know this was a dead child's funeral, a teenager who two days ago was probably doing his homework or playing football with friends. Where was the child? This is Israeli colonialism going to its logical conclusion: dehumanising the victims. That's never as obvious as when you compare this with Israeli funerals.

"The boy is a national hero," an elderly gentleman, who was walking next to me in the funeral procession, muttered. "But he died so young, he was just a kid. His poor mother. God give her strength," he added, almost in the same breath. A minute of silence, and then, "at least something is happening now, something is changing," he said.

In front of me, I could see the kid's father carried on demonstrators' shoulders. He was holding a large framed picture of his dead son, and on the father's face was a look of bewildered grief. Then someone approached him with a Hamas flag, and asked him to carry it along with his son's picture. The green flag, with the shehada [the assertion of faith in Islam] inscribed on it in white, was just too large for the father to handle. He was now dealing with logistical difficulties: his son's picture was large -- just as large as the Hamas flag. Would he be able to carry both and keep his balance while being carried by the other demonstrators? It was too difficult. Fellow demonstrators offered to help him carry the flag and picture. But he didn't want assistance. We'd arrived at the martyrs cemetery in Al-Bireh, and he had just climbed down from the demonstrators' shoulders. Again, I felt as though I might cry. But then gunshots were fired in the air and the cry of political slogans intensified. My grief dissipated and, once again, I just couldn't cry -- until I went out to throw the garbage.

November: Sound paranoia

Just hung up with Rami. It seems that they're bombing Beit Jala, again, from the settlement of Gilo. He's downstairs in the basement with his mother -- the makeshift shelter that they created at the beginning of the Intifada. And Adam, their Persian cat, is there, too.

Ten-years-old, terribly affectionate, terribly obese, and terribly traumatised it seems -- Adam, not Rami. At the beginning of the Intifada, Adam's Norwegian owners fled their Beit Jala apartment and left him behind. Rami saved him, eventually, but by then Adam had already been traumatised. He became clingy, suspicious, needy -- just like a neglected-house- wife.

All three huddled in the basement. The shooting subsided. Everything seemed calm when a heavy BRRRRRR sound filled the air. Rami's mom got all panicky, so he called me. "Sounds like Israeli helicopter gunships are back in the air. Can you turn on the TV and see if they're bombing us again?" "Sure," I replied, I went over to the TV, but found no news on Beit Jala. We hung up, and I started calling other friends to see what was happening.

Then, Rami called again: "Amr, don't worry about it." "Why?" "The sound we heard while in the basement," "Yes?" "It wasn't gunships." "No?" "We just realised: It was Adam purring very loudly! He's purring for the first time since the Norwegians' abandoned him!"

November: Speaking Hebrew

Apparently, I've been speaking Hebrew since I got here and I didn't know it. I assumed mahsoum was Palestinian for check-point, since that's how everyone refers to Israeli military check-points here. Mahsoum means check-point alright, but it's Hebrew. It's probably the one Hebrew word used most widely in modern Arabic -- here at least.

December: Misplacing my humanism

Got to Tel Aviv airport this afternoon and the inevitable happened. With one look at my passport, airport security personnel relegated me to the "other queue" -- the queue where luggage is opened, all belongings are removed and examined, and one is thoroughly frisked.

Airport "security" is colour-coordinated: if they put an orange sticker on your luggage, then you're a high security risk, and that's what I usually get. A blue sticker classifies you as being a medium-level security risk. If you're lucky enough to be labelled blue, then they'll only X-ray your luggage and open some items. Then there's the green sticker, which I never received. I think it's reserved for Israelis only. A green sticker means you proceed directly to the airline counter, check in your luggage, and move on to the airplane gate. Normal travel, minimal hassle.

I stood there in the queue with fellow orange-stickered passengers, staring numbly at the privileged queue of green-stickered Israelis. On a TWA flight to New York, like mine, most of the Israeli passengers were religious Jews, uniformly dressed in white shirts, black suits and hats. They looked like an undifferentiated mass to me and they were given a privilege denied to me: the green sticker. One of them stood out, though.

He had his three-year-old daughter with him. An adorable chubby little girl in a light blue dress and blond hair. He was playing with her, tossing and caching her in the air. They laughed, loudly, and I couldn't help but smile at them. A warm sense of our common humanity washed over me: they were just a father and a daughter, laughing and playing together like any other father and daughter.

But my warm feelings didn't last long -- just a few seconds. They ended when I saw it: the green sticker on the father's laptop bag. I couldn't smile at them anymore. Instead, all I could think of was that they, father and daughter, represented the state of Israel; father and daughter benefit from it. I tried hard to recapture that moment when I was able to relate to them simply as fellow human beings. I couldn't. They now belonged to that same undifferentiated mass: Israelis, colonisers, dispossessers -- all of which is both symbolically and practically expressed in this seemingly insignificant item, the green sticker.

Stuck here on my economy-class seat, I'm not proud to reduce the guy sitting next to me to being merely a representative of Zionism. But that's what colonialism does to you...

January: Wanted: Female passengers

"There is a new mahsoum policy," Hamed warned me this morning on my way to the Birzeit bus stop. "The Israelis decided Palestinian buses cannot travel between West Bank towns unless each is conveying at least one female passenger!" The idea, obviously, is that Palestinian buses are dangerous if there's only men in them. Buses with a mixed Palestinian male/female crowd are less of a security risk, because Palestinian men wouldn't endanger their women's lives by engaging in any active resistance with women around.

The policy is racist, sexist, and Orientalist to boot! Anyway, the place is now crammed with buses, full of men, waiting anxiously for elusive female passengers to set them free so that they can be on their way. We waited in the bus for almost half an hour -- and I was late for work. It's all so ridiculous.

I'm really getting tired of the Israelis. When is it all going to end?

February: Red, yellow, red

Even the traffic lights are racist -- and this is not a metaphor. I had to endure the longest traffic light in Jerusalem today. It took forever, barely turning green, only to turn red on me again! I thought I'd be stuck there, forever staring at yellow-turning-red-turning-yellow-turning-red.

Nisreen explained things to me. We were on Road Number 1, which conveys traffic between north and south Jerusalem. It intersects with another road that conveys traffic between East and West Jerusalem. The interminable traffic light is located at the intersection of these two roads. North-south traffic is basically made up of Palestinians driving between the north of Jerusalem and the Old City. East-west traffic is almost exclusively Israeli, primarily made up of Jewish settlers living illegally in occupied East Jerusalem and driving to work in West Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

The traffic light was taking forever on the Palestinian north-south traffic commute because the traffic light was programmed to ensure the smooth, fast and relatively uninterrupted travel of Israeli traffic out of Jewish settlements on the east-west commute.

In short, it takes three times as long to make it through traffic if you're a Palestinian driving north-south, than it does if you're an Israeli driving east-west.

March: Civil and disobedient at Birzeit

Picked up Lamis at 8am, then joined more than a thousand demonstrators heading for the trenches that the Israeli army dug last week on the road to Birzeit. The trenches were wide enough to completely prevent anyone from reaching the university whether on foot or by car. The idea today was to fill up the trenches without firing a single bullet in the air. A true act of civil disobedience.

People were armed with nothing more than banners and a few garden tools. A Birzeit colleague, whose family is now trapped in the northern part of the West Bank, had a simple banner saying: "Open the roads, I want to visit my mother!"

People used shovels, and more often, their bare hands, to fill up the trenches. By noon, a bulldozer arrived from Ramallah to assist in the process. There was plenty of media coverage. Everyone seemed eager to report on the first large-scale Palestinian act of civil resistance since the beginning of the Intifada. And the act was well-organised and effective. It was thrilling to see the trenches being filled bit by bit.

When the road was sufficiently level, cars started crossing over the newly filled trenches, back and forth between Ramallah and Birzeit, honking their horns and flying the Palestinian flag from their windows.

Between throwing away one cigarette and lighting another, Lamis told me how the demonstration reminded her of the first Intifada, when Palestinians used all manner of civil resistance strategies against the occupation. Actions at that time included boycotting Israeli goods to working with popular committees, teaching, working in health care, or even simply transforming one's backyard into a vegetable garden. "None of this exists in today's Intifada!" she waved her hand in grand dismissive gestures. "The only instrument of resistance available now seems to be suicide bombings, and you know what I think about that!" Lamis has many ethical and strategic concerns about suicide bombings. But more importantly, she's angry at the way suicide bombings leave the majority of Palestinians feeling estranged from active resistance. Unlike the first Intifada, when mass civil disobedience allowed every one to actively resist Israeli occupation, most Palestinians are now "sitting at home, neither engaged in civil resistance, nor able to obtain proper guns and fight real guerrilla warfare," Lamis said.

That's why today's demonstration was so important: it restored many people's faith in their ability to actively and effectively resist -- without having to blow themselves up in the process. Since the beginning of the Intifada, I haven't seen so many people feeling exhilarated, empowered, and just plain jubilant.

Anyway, the road stayed open for about three hours. Then the Israelis got wind of the situation, and started firing tear-gas canisters, then rubber-coated steel bullets and finally live ammunition to disperse the demonstrators. Some Palestinian demonstrators threw stones back at them. Ambulances had been waiting there since the morning and began taking away people who had been hurt. It was too late for Abdel-Qader Ibrahim, though. He died after two live bullets hit him in the chest...

The road was closed again this afternoon, I heard. Israeli bulldozers dug the trenches once more -- twice as wide, apparently, than they had been before. But that's irrelevant. What matters is that the road was opened, even if only for three hours.

April: Perplexed at Semiramis

I don't get it. A new Israeli mahsoum just appeared outside of Ramallah. I stumbled on it this morning on the road to Jerusalem. The Israeli soldiers there would not let me drive through. "Security," I was told in a heavy Hebrew accent, "You cannot leave Ramallah. Closed." "But I have an appointment in Jerusalem," was my feeble response. It must have been obvious that I'm new to life under occupation because the soldier grinned at me and simply pointed his finger to a line of cars driving up the hill 100 metres behind his check-point. "Follow them," he said. "They are driving around the mahsoum." And indeed they were! Hundreds of Palestinian cars, circumventing the new check-point by driving around it. I followed the cars, through a muddy dirt road which nearly wrecked my car. Ten minutes later, I got exactly where I was trying to go.

OK, so the mahsoum obviously does not "close down" the area for "security" reasons. It was an Israeli soldier who told me how to get around his check-point. So what's the point then? To make Palestinians' life more miserable by having to skirt Israel's constantly mutating borders? Destroy Palestinian cars on dirt roads? Spend an extra hour on a drive that normally takes just 10 minutes? Or are check-points just a media gimmick for the Israeli public to watch on the evening news to feel that their security is actually being safeguarded?

On the drive back from Jerusalem, Najjeyah told me that the new mahsoum has just been named. Mini-cab drivers now call it "Mahsoum Semiramis"! I tried explaining to her that Semiramis also happens to be the name of a five-star hotel in Cairo. She wasn't impressed. "Semiramis also had a history here!" she retorted. "You see that building next to the check- point? That used to be a brothel! A house of ill-repute ya Amr! Everyone called it Semiramis. The Palestinian Authority shut it down when they came to power in 1996... Now we have mahsoum Semiramis instead! Can you match that in Cairo?"

May: What is to be done?

On the way back from Birzeit, Riham and I saw an Israeli soldier pointing his gun at a Palestinian child by the mahsoum. The soldier pointed his firearm downwards, signalling to the kid to lie face-down on the ground. We rushed at the soldier, frantically asking what had happened. Riham grabbed the boy in her arms, daring the soldiers to snatch him from her. One of them retorted with genuine indignation that the kid had "thrown a stone" at him.

Predictably, a shouting match ensued. "How exactly is a stone going to hurt you, considering that you're armed to the teeth with modern weaponry?" "Aren't you ashamed of holding a teenager hostage?" "Don't scream at me, I'm an American citizen! My tax money paid for the gun in your hand!" "Don't you understand? Palestinians also have parents who worry endlessly if their children don't return home at night!"

The soldier ignored us, and watched as an armoured personnel carrier swooped down to where we stood screaming. A couple more soldiers stepped out from it, and within seconds they had taken the kid from Riham's arms. They put him inside their vehicle and closed the doors. We continued to plead, asking for the boy to be set free. I called to him, through windows covered with barbed wire, asking him to shout his name so that we could call his parents and let them know where he was. But we got no answer, neither from the soldiers nor from the boy. There was silence, and we experienced a profound sense of helplessness as we watched the soldiers drive away towards the military base, carrying with them the boy we'd tried to help.

June: Gym shorts and tennis shoes

They buried him in his tennis shoes. He had gone out to play basketball -- one of five friends heading for the gym at a Ramallah public school located opposite the Jewish settlement of Psagot. Before reaching the gym, shots were fired in the boys' direction from the settlement. The boys hid behind a wall, dressed in their sports gear -- gym shorts, sweat pants, T-shirts and the like. But the elbow of one the boys must have been visible, jutting out from behind the wall, providing enough of an indication of his presence for a diligent sniper.

The bullet met its target and the boy instantly fell to the ground where he bled to death. His friends held him tight, unable to call for an ambulance, unable to carry him away, unable to do anything but wait; wait with him while he bled to death. Ten minutes later, they managed to carry him across to the building. It's not a long walk -- I know the place well; I watched a basketball game there once. The ambulance had arrived, but it was too late. His funeral conveyed him throughout Ramallah today. And I saw him, like any other shaheed (martyr), being buried in the very same clothes he died in. A sweatshirt, gym-shorts and tennis-shoes.

July: 23 July in Tel-Aviv

Just came back from the Egyptian National Day reception marked by the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv! In recent years, the reception had become the biggest event in Israeli political, diplomatic, intellectual and artistic circles! Common wisdom among the Israeli elite holds that if you're not invited to the event, then you don't count for much. People clamour for invitations to the reception, and a wide cross-section of the elite used to be invited: Labour and Likud, left- and right-wing, secular and religious, media figures and politicians, glamorous artists and stiff diplomats. By last year, it had become the mother of all embassy receptions, with over 2,000 invitees. But tonight was different.

Relations are "strained" between Egypt and Israel. Ambassador [Mohamed] Bassiouny has been recalled to Cairo. Instead of a big reception, 23 July was reduced to a subdued affair at some seaside hotel in Herzliyya. A few guests were invited, and most of them belonged to the pre-Sharon political establishment. It felt like a gathering of has-beens. There was Ezer Weisman, the ex-president of Israel, who's apparently going senile. [Ehud] Barak, the ex-prime minister, made an appearance. [Shimon] Peres, chief loser of Israeli politics, addressed the gathering.

Rumour has it that no one from the Likud was invited tonight -- including Katzav, Israel's new president. A solemn speech was given by the chargé d'affairs, and the food was awful. I overheard someone compare it to the cheap fare served at Israeli weddings.

August: Cards and planes

We were bombed tonight in Ramallah, and I got to play cards for the first time in five years. Contradiction? Not at all. We've been expecting that we would be bombed since yesterday morning, when we heard of the suicide operation. By the afternoon, there was still no sign of Israeli fighter-planes, no helicopter gunships on the horizon, and no deafening sound of F-16 planes in the air.

By the evening, we were getting worried. "Could we please just get the bombing over with?" was our general sentiment. Esperanza, Anis and Riham congregated at my place before sunset. Come nightfall, we were certain to be bombed, and none of us wanted to be driving then. So we huddled together, and played cards. The electricity went out. A power shortage -- and we hadn't even been bombed yet! Esperanza's wisdom: "Look at the bright side: playing cards in candlelight makes it easier to cheat...!" Then it finally happened.

First, there was an exchange of gunfire: tic tic tic tic tic tic tic. BOOOOOM! You can always distinguish Palestinian and Israeli gunfire. Palestinians have short-range Kalashnikovs that produce a high-pitched and decidedly squeaky noise: tic, tic, tic, tic, tic... Israelis have tanks and heavy machine-guns that make a deafening thudding noise: BOOOOOM! And so it went: tic tic tic tic tic tic tic, BOOOOOM! Silence... tic tic tic tic tic tic tic, BOOOOOM! Silence...

We'd been sitting close to the window throughout the bombing, when Anis pointed out the obvious: sitting next to the windows while a gun-battle is going on is none to wise. So we moved to the carpet on the floor and continued our game. The fighter-planes soon joined in the battle. I'm still not sure if they were F-16s or helicopter gunships. Made a mental note to check the Internet. In either case, the sound was truly menacing: an uninterrupted buzz filling the air with the promise of something worse to come.

We stopped playing for a while and listened intently for the bombs. By then we knew the routine: the planes hover for a while, taking pictures (we guessed) of the targets they planned to hit. After a half an hour or so, they bomb their targets and leave. It was taking them longer this time. The buzzing sound started to seem normal as the game continued. For the first time, I was actually winning! Then it came: BOOOOM! Silence. They bombed Arafat's compound, we learned over the phone from a journalist friend. The air-raid was over. Esperanza and Riham left. Anis, a bit frazzled, decided to stay over.

October: What being steadfast means

Today was my first time teaching without having prepared for class. I had no good reason, really, except depression. Three Palestinian soldiers were killed by Israeli tank-shells yesterday. Killed in cold blood. I heard that charred pieces of the soldiers' bodies were salvaged for the funeral today. I refused to attend -- can't handle it emotionally.

Headed for the university at noon, preoccupied with the nagging thought that what I was doing was pointless. "Why teach black and white legal-doctrines when the law is so clearly irrelevant to everything that happens here in Palestine?" In class, I couldn't confess to my students that I hadn't prepared. Instead, stalled for time. "Why should we study law when there is no place for the law in life under Israeli military occupation? Shall we continue with the class or just call the whole thing off and go home?"

Initially, home was by far the most popular choice. End-of-the-day noises filled the lecture hall when one student started yelling: "No, I will not got back home! I came to study today. It took me three hours to get to the university. I took five different forms of public transportation. I crossed three checkpoints on foot to reach class. If I don't study, then the Israelis have won! No! Let's go on with the lecture!"

Right. It just hit me. I actually don't care if law is relevant or not. Who the hell cares anyway? What matters is that life should go on, despite it all. And that's what being steadfast really means. Life must go on. I'm so embarrassed that I didn't prepare for class today. But I will tomorrow. I'll just drink some chamomile before driving to the university!

November: Against the grain

Just spoke to Rima. The article that she co-authored, criticising suicide bombings, was published yesterday by Al-Quds newspaper. It's the first article since the beginning of the Intifada to deal with the matter of suicide bombings head-on and explain how they harm Palestinian national interests.

I agree with every word of the article, but I don't envy her position. Almost every Palestinian intellectual I meet is critical of suicide-bombings. Yet no one dares publish their critique. Fear of public opinion at home, fear of fellow intellectuals, and worst of all, fear of the rest of the Arab world -- a world in which suicide bombings have become the only acts of resistance to applaud. But isn't that the obligation of the "intellectual" -- to go against the grain and give voice to critical opinions?

During the first Intifada, a Fatah leader in Gaza did something similar. He published an article calling upon fellow Palestinians to stop the extra-judicial killings of collaborators. Many people shared his view. Much like Rima, he was concerned how such lawlessness might affect Palestinian society in the future. His doorbell rang the next day. He and his wife opened the door to find a hooded man pointing a pistol at the head of a man he was holding by the neck. "You're against the killing of collaborators?" the hooded man asked the couple. "Well, I'm pointing my gun at the head of a collaborator!" Shots rang out. The collaborator fell dead and the hooded man ran away. People came to remove the cadaver. Husband and wife were traumatised.

'They buried him in his tennis shoes. He had gone out to play basketball-one of five friends heading for the gym at a Ramallah public school located opposite the Jewish settelment of Psagot. Before reaching the gym, shots were fired....the bullets met their target and the boy instantly fell to the ground where he bled to death'

December: Camping at Al-Aqsa

I expected a sombre atmosphere, a holy space filled with the sounds of prayers. Instead, it resembled a campsite. A campsite with all its mundane characteristics: kids playing, women cooking, men eating and gossiping, some arguing, others laughing, everyone chatting while curiously observing their neighbours. Profane as likening the atmosphere to that of a campsite may sound, that night felt more sacred than any religious event I've attended.

Lailet Al-Qadr [the night that Mohamed began to receive the Qur'an, falling during the last 10 days of Ramadan] is the only night that people are allowed to spend at Al-Haram Al- Sharif [in Jerusalem]. For those who wanted to pray, Al-Aqsa was for men, while the Dome of the Rock became a women's-only praying space. But the space between the two mosques is where the real action unfolded.

Peasants from villages around Jerusalem, and far beyond, all crammed onto the esplanade connecting Al-Aqsa with the Dome of the Rock. There were many women, lots of women, far more women than men. Women with blankets, cooking pots, water containers and thermoses of hot tea. Mothers and their children; so many children.

They started arriving at the maghreb [sunset] prayers, each marking out their territory by laying heavy blankets on the cold cobblestones covering Al-Aqsa's esplanade. Food and drink was brought out, and women gathered in clusters, some talking, others laughing, some sleeping, others just laying idly, watching people walk by with bored or amused looks on their faces. And many played/talked/ran/screamed/reprimanded their children. Children with balloons, hoola-hoops, and the ever-present forkee'a, small paper balls that produce a squeaky explosion sound when thrown on the ground. Vendors selling coffee/tea/sweets/ sandwiches/toys/blankets and everything in between were scattered about. Children dragged their parents (fathers, usually) to buy them any of the above. Children ran and ran and ran, producing the full range of sounds that fill schoolyards during a mid-day break.

I've never seen so many Palestinians with happy contented smiles on their faces. Al-Aqsa was theirs for the night -- not as a praying space, but rather as the largest public park in the country. I wished that it would always remain so.

January 18, 2002: The end is never nigh

I can see it now: "The Semester that Never Ended." That's how students will refer to Fall 2001 at Birzeit. Generations will discuss it. My grandchildren will ask me 50 years from now: "You were teaching at Birzeit during the semester that never ended?" And I will reply "Yes, and it never ended." I'm going mad, clearly.

I woke up at 6.00am today, a Friday, to go teach a make-up class at Birzeit. Albert told me that we'd already lost more than 40 teaching days. The Israelis keep closing the road leading to the university, then they open it for a couple of weeks, only to close it again. And as they do this, I've been plodding along with Mill's On Liberty for the past three weeks. I don't like the text. I don't even like the man. But it's part of the curriculum, so I teach it. I had hoped to be done with it in three classes, maximum. We started three weeks ago. Did the first section of the text. Then the Israeli army closed the road and university stopped. It reopened a week ago. I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel: two more classes and Mill would be over. I had it planned: classes today, tomorrow, and next Tuesday.

I got out of bed with startling speed. Showered and shaved, feeling motivated by a single thought: Mill's end is nigh! I hopped into my car, was about to turn the ignition on, when Mariam screamed from her window next door: "Where the hell do you think you're going?" "To the University," I replied valiantly, and started the car. The response was sobering: "Are you crazy? Get out of the car! Can't you see the tank up the street? They've invaded Al-Tireh again! The university is closed." And indeed it was. I just called the administration now to confirm. "When are we going to start teaching again?" "God knows."

Ariel Sharon: Me and my buddy John Stuart Mill salute you!

February: Lavazza

Lina and May, my neighbours' 11-year-old daughters, just gave me a hand-written invitation to the opening of their new coffee shop tomorrow at noon! They wanted to make some extra pocket-money. Initially, they thought of washing their neighbours' cars, but their parents objected. Lina explained: "Sometimes there's shooting, and it's not a good idea to wash cars out in the open air in case a stray bullet comes your way..."

So, as a compromise, they opted for the coffee shop. "Since the Israelis invaded the neighbourhood last week, there isn't a place for the adults on the street to go out for coffee or sanwdiches!" So the coffee shop will be in the ground-floor studio of Lina's house next door. And they can make extra pocket money, but at home -- less dangerous than washing cars en plein air. The girls will serve coffee, tea and hot chocolate. Cold drinks on offer include, Coca Cola, Fanta and Sprite. They'll also make hot-dog and schnitzel sandwiches if you want.

What will they do with the profits? "We'll save up for an excursion in the spring. Maybe we can visit the Red Sea in Egypt! Who knows?" Does it have a name, the coffee shop? "Yes! Lavazza!" They started off giving me an artistic explanation for the name that they chose, but then just admitted the truth: "We took the name from some cups Lina's mother found in the pantry. They had Lavazza written on them. Don't you think we'll look professional with these cups?!"

We walked off across the street to see Mariam feeding her 17 cats next door. She ran out of cat-food two days ago, and risked life and limb to break the Israeli curfew to go to the supermarket for extra food.

As I drove out of my neighbourhood, I saw another neighbour taking her customary morning jog. She was jogging literally right opposite Israeli tanks up the street, and didn't even deign to look at the soldiers. With complete disregard, she followed her typical jogging route.

No one in the neighbourhood had slept much last night. At 3.00am someone at the mosque nearby began issuing warnings over a microphone that the Israelis were pushing further into Ramallah. I know Carol and Mudar didn't sleep much. They woke up and stayed next to the window, expecting to see the tanks at any moment. As the time passed, and Carol realised the window was dirty, so she started cleaning it. Since the tanks hadn't shown up, she stepped outside and started cleaning the window from the outside as well. Wasn't she afraid of stray bullets? Not really, but Mudar kept telling her to step back into the house, saying, "It's cold outside." Besides, he was busy solving a puzzle with Donya, their three year-old daughter.

I love my neighbourhood!

March: Invasion

11 March

10.00pm Abeer called to confirm that they're invading tonight. Told her I couldn't care less. I've been hearing rumours for the past five days that they're about to invade Ramallah. Three false alarms have caused me to totally lose interest in whether or not they will invade. I'm teaching tomorrow afternoon and I still haven't prepared for class. Back to reading about neo-patriarchy.

Midnight. Still haven't finished reading. Called Hamdy in Gaza and he's OK. The Israelis bombed the area where he lives. He was at his sister's place at the time, so all is well.

12 March:

It's 1.00am and the tanks have just rolled in. Immense reverberating-rumbling noise. My major objection is that I don't understand why they would invade Ramallah. It's certainly not security they're after. Surely they must realise by now that even if you have one of the strongest armies in the world, security is impossible until you've stopped occupying another people's land. If it's security they want, then instead of invading Ramallah they should evacuate the occupied territories. Simple, right?

1.02am: Mariam called from her apartment next door: she thinks they're invading us simply because they've invaded every other town in the West Bank. We're the only ones left out: Ramallah. And we shouldn't feel left out!

1.10am: Called Aline to calm her down. She just moved in down the street two weeks ago, thinking that it's a nice peaceful neighbourhood. Told her not to worry, it's happened twice before that they've invaded Ramallah, and we have always managed to drive in and out as long as we return home and stay there before sundown. After that, serious gun-battles often erupt.

1.20am: Carol called. She's shaking. Counted 12 tanks so far on the Sirriya road. The news is terrible everywhere else: 15 Palestinians were killed in the Jabalya refugee camp during an Israeli air raid this evening. Yes, the last time the Israelis invaded nothing much happened -- they were only flexing their muscles. This time, the huge barbaric army is after blood. From Beitunia they've reached the supermarket Khamas Nujoum. That's amazingly close to the city centre.

Maybe it's not just a military incursion like the past two times. Maybe it's total reoccupation.

1.37am: The rumbling has stopped.

1.52am: The rumbling is back. More tanks are driving into Ramallah. Why? It's as though the Israelis believe their own lies. The Palestinians have some short-range Kalashnikov guns at hand. Israel has the second strongest army in the world. Why must they... I want to sleep. Denial should help.

2.15am: Anis called. The Israeli army has taken over Diana's apartment building in the centre of town. Diana was given two choices: either stay in the building and not leave her apartment at all throughout the siege, or leave the building within a maximum of 10 minutes. The Israeli army is moving into her apartment and turning it into a sniper post. Diana left and moved to Andrew's where Anis is also spending the night.

4.00am: Mariam called again: the army is in the centre of town. This is not an incursion. This is reoccupation.

God, I want to sleep!

8.00am: Jalaa called from New York. Am I OK? Yes, and I want to sleep!

11.00am: Finally woke up. Called Riham at home. Her father says she woke up five minutes ago and was cross that he hadn't woken her up earlier so that she could go to work... He gingerly explained to her that we were invaded last night. We're under occupation. Full curfew in Ramallah. "No work, sweetie. No work. Go clean your bedroom instead."

11.30am: Had breakfast at Mariam's. The news is that four Palestinians have been killed so far. About 140 tanks and somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 troops have been deployed. It's the biggest operation conducted by the Israeli army since the occupation began in 1967. One Palestinian collaborator was killed and his body was strung up in Al-Manarah. Oh, and we can't go anywhere.

12.30pm: Riham called. She's cleaning her apartment. The sound of the Hoover is much louder than the drone of the Apache helicopter gunship up in the air. Sweeping is a good option, too, but not noisy enough to mask the sound of the gunfire outside. It's good aerobic exercise, though.

12.40pm: Called Anis: he's still at Andrew's. Diana and Michael moved in after the Israelis kicked them out of their building last night. They asked the soldiers as they were leaving whether they could guarantee that the army downstairs would not shoot at them as they exited the apartment building. The soldiers said they couldn't guarantee that. Diana and Michael asked whether the soldiers themselves would refrain from shooting at them. Couldn't guarantee that either. Why were they asking such arrogant questions anyway?

12.50pm: Called Carol. She's cleaning the apartment -- but not the windows.

1.00pm: After much debate with myself, I decided to call mom in Cairo and tell her what's happening. She's bound to know eventually that Ramallah's been occupied, so I might as well tell her before she watches it on the BBC. Caught her on her mobile at the Engineers' Syndicate. She's scared, so I lied as usual and confirmed that all was well.

2.30pm: Mariam called: Come over for soup, and by the way, there's news that Hizbullah has killed four Israelis in the north of Israel. Saddam Hussein is moving his troops towards the Jordanian border.

3.00pm Mariam called again: The Israelis just blew up Wafaa Idris's home in Al-Amari refugee camp.

3.40pm: Anita still has no electricity in Al-Bireh.

4.00pm: I went to take a nap and woke up at 7.00. Feeling as drowsy as the Biblical people of the cave. I have a nagging feeling that I missed out on a lot during those three hours of sleep. Riham called, and my first question was, "What's the news?" None I'm afraid. We decided that we're all suffering from RRC: Repeated Reoccupation Syndrome.

8.00pm: Dinner at Mariam's place. Nothing big: hummous, labna, cheese, bread, and boiled eggs. Now that we've collectivised our food supplies and are using them rationally, it turns out we still have 10 eggs in total. The siege will probably last until Anthony Zinni arrives to meet with Sharon on Thursday. That's three more days to go. Dinner conversation was boring. Mariam sees the lame cat outside on her doorstep and is suddenly on the verge of tears. The vet was supposed to come and remove the cast. He didn't -- couldn't -- and the cat's leg is now shrivelling up. Displaced anxiety all over the place. I leave to return to my apartment to read and sleep.

Photojournalists lay down their cameras to hod up pictures of Italian journalist Rafael Chirello, who was killed in Ramallah on 13 March (photo: AP)
13 March:

10.00am: Just woke up. I slept for over 10 hours, it seems. Called Nisreen to check on her: she's still asleep, but spoke with Tareq who told me that their building was reoccupied and there had been a heavy exchange of fire between the Israeli soldiers stationed in their building and the Palestinian resistance around it. Tareq said that the sound of gunfire that began yesterday evening continued all night without pause. And he and Nisreen can't leave the building, of course. There's a huge tank parked outside and Israeli soldiers are on their roof. All in all, there are about seven apartment buildings that have been taken over by the Israeli army. In the building next to Tareq's, 11 families were rounded up, put in one apartment and locked in there. Meanwhile, the soldiers have full access to the entire building. How many people were killed in the refugee camp yesterday? Don't know. Won't know until they leave.

Midday: I sat down and wrote a "To Do List." I have so many things to do, so many papers to write. But I'm totally uninterested in facing my computer keyboard. Will pass by the neighbours and check on the latest news.

10.45am: Anis just called. My satellite connection just stopped functioning for some unknown reason, and I have no more television news. Anis turned on the news and placed the telephone receiver next to the television speaker. Al-Jazeera is on. 20,000 Israeli soldiers have been deployed in Ramallah. 150 tanks. The Israelis have taken over the main school in Ramallah and turned it into a sniper position. I can't see the images on TV, but Anis tells me that Ramallah looks like a ghost town -- its streets full of death and destruction. His voice quivering, he asked, "Why are the Israelis destroying the sidewalks, the lampposts and the small garden in the middle of Irsal street?"

The UN Security Council has issued a new resolution that demands the establishment of a Palestinian state. The news makes it sound as if this is a historic resolution. The news says it's the first time the UN has called directly for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Have people lost their memory? The UN called for a Palestinian state more than 50 years ago. UN Resolution 181 -- remember?

11.00am: Carol called. As we spoke a tank shell exploded very loudly near my home. She hears it first over the phone then at her place. "Amazing how slow sound travels! Does light travel much faster?" Anyway, Kirstin says that a friend says that the German Representative Office says that the Israelis will withdraw at midday from Ramallah. However, George says that they will stay in Ramallah until Zinni comes so as to have another card to use in the negotiations: "We will withdraw from Ramallah if..."


11.26am: Abeer called. Can't report to her job with the Palestinian Red Crescent. None of the ambulances can move. Every time an ambulance responds to a call, the driver must first coordinate with the Israelis -- which takes forever. Then there is the matter of reaching the injured. Once the ambulance has picked up the wounded person and is preparing to head for hospital, the Israelis prevent it from driving away. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, which yesterday provided some protection to the Red Crescent, can't move today. There's only one hospital functioning in Ramallah. The rest have been cut off -- no water or electricity -- and the ambulances cannot reach them. Instead, Abeer is disseminating information and networking with the outside world on the Internet. The Palestinian Red Crescent just issued a communiqué: they've stopped providing services because the army won't let them drive anywhere. It's ridiculous. And Israel calls itself a modern civilised state.

We agree to go for a walk in an hour's time and borrow drums from her neighbours to play some music.

12.00pm: Anis on the phone again: Al-Jazeera just reported that an Italian journalist was killed by Israeli soldiers in Al-Marah, the main square in Ramallah. He was killed even though another Italian journalist standing with him says there was no gunfire from their direction at all!

12.32pm: Dori called from Tel Aviv. Am I OK? Yes I'm OK. Just stuck at home, that's all. Can't go anywhere. The city's under curfew. What's the news in Tel Aviv? Well, the Israeli Defence Force seems jubilant that they've occupied Ramallah, the de facto capital of Palestine. Everyone wants blood. Revenge is in the air. They've lost it. They actually believe they are in a state of war, not that they are occupying another people's land! They actually believe there's a Palestinian army to fight. What army? They lie and then they believe their lies. The Israelis have gone completely mad!

12.44pm: Abeer called again. There have been further confrontations at Al-Mattal. Helicopter gunships are flying all over the place and are shooting at Palestinians in the street. Let's not go for a walk now.

I'm trying to work on my article about Deir Al-Sultan [a monastery in Jerusalem the control of which is the subject of a dispute between Ethiopian and Coptic monks], but the humming sound of helicopters has been going on for the past 20 minutes. Difficult to concentrate like this. The sound gets louder, and I realise that it's now mingled with that of two tanks driving in the street beyond the hill that is opposite my place. Near my laptop, in a glass, are the lovely wildflowers that Riham and I collected from the valley almost a week ago. They're still fresh and their colours vibrant.

1.00pm: Aline came by: Jocca's husband -- Lina and Nadim's father -- just died in Jerusalem of a heart attack, we just found out. They need to go to Jerusalem and from there to Nazareth for the funeral. The kids are wailing and Aline's apartment is just below. She's at Mariam's now.

1.15pm: Called Riham to tell her about Jocca's husband. She's busy cleaning her grandmother's cupboard. This is seriously risky business. It's the middle cupboard in the kitchen cabinet. A cupboard that no one discusses. Nobody wants a confrontation with grandma over the cupboard, so every one just walks by without daring to open it. But Riham's grandmother is now stuck at her aunt's place. And since the curfew will last for another couple of days at least, this is a golden opportunity to open and clean the cupboard without risking a confrontation with the grandmother. And Riham has discovered a wonderland inside. Ten bags of almonds, 20 of beans, bags and bags of dry foods. Enough plastic cups to keep us going for another 10 barbecues. Enough sugar to last for the next 30 years of Israeli occupation. Two lovely pairs of high heels. About 40 empty plastic boxes and bottles. A big block of wax. What is it used for? To make candles?

Aside from the danger of confronting her grandmother when she eventually returns and discovers that her cupboard has been ransacked (we'll just blame the Israelis!) Riham has an even bigger problem at hand: she has only 10 cigarettes left at home. She's trying to ration them.

Palestinians place flowers on the permanent memorial to Rafael Chirello on the spot where he died (photo:Reuters)

2.02pm: Just done cooking pasta for lunch. Went to Mariam's to get a sieve and found a group of women congregating there. Actually, it was all of the women living in the neighbourhood. They were discussing what to do about the death of Jocca's husband.

Nasser is supposed to drive Jocca and the kids to Jerusalem. The Dutch and American embassies are involved since the kids have dual nationality. The embassies are trying to coordinate with the Israeli military command to get the family out of Ramallah, but haven't had any luck so far. Nasser can't make it to Ramallah even though he has a press card. The Israelis are killing journalists without any care. So Nasser is not coming and Jocca does not want anyone with her at home. She wants to deal with the situation. But the women say that such an approach would be fine if Jocca were in her native Holland, but not here. Even if Jocca doesn't want anyone around, the kids need people around them. Besides, they will eventually go to their father's village outside of Nazareth for the burial ceremony and they will have to deal with family members screaming and crying and the children need to be prepared for that. Can't cut off the kids from society.

The women finally decide that a man should intervene. Ghassan should call Jocca and tell her that she must let the kids see people. I leave with the sieve in my hand. "Please let me know if you need anything. I can take care of Jocca's dog while she and the kids are away." Ghassan's wife tells me to drop by if I need anything. I tell her not to worry; we're already working collectively. It's like the Paris commune. We've pooled our resources, food etc.

Meanwhile, the helicopters are still hovering about, their menacing sound evoking death, siege and curfew. Leonard Cohen is on the CD player. And I want to cry.

Lama, Kifah, Aline and Mariam had lunch at my place. Kifah was living in Beirut during the Israeli siege of 1982. What we're going through is a piece of cake, she says. They leave and I take Lama's car to throw away the garbage. An achievement in itself since it involved driving up the street and back again.

It's 4.00pm and the helicopter gunships are still flying about. I am tired of this.

5.10pm: Hani called to check on me from Cambridge. All is well, don't worry.

6.00pm: Khaled called to check on me from Cairo. All is well, don't worry.

7.00pm: Mariam dropped by. The latest news is that the Israelis will not be leaving before Sunday when Dick Cheney arrives in Israel. That means four more days under siege. Oh, and the water has been cut off. I will have to make do with whatever water is left in the reservoir.

8.00pm: Riham called. Down to six cigarettes. Just discovered that there is a store nearby where we can buy cigarettes tomorrow morning. Slightly dangerous since I seem to remember that it overlooks the Jewish settlement of Psagot across the street.

8.42pm: Toby called from London to check on me. Yes, Yes, Yes, I'm OK. Just bored to death, that's all. Aside from the misery and suffering, being under siege also means forced socialising with my neighbours and interminable hours of abject boredom. And phonecalls -- many, many phonecalls from all over the place. Even as I write, the phone is ringing: Lama wants me to drop by either to play cards or go to Kifah's to watch a movie.

I wonder what being under siege in other Ramallah neighbourhoods is like.

14 March:

10.30am: Spoke with Stephanie on the phone. Ruba Tawil's grandmother died the first night of the reoccupation. The ambulance was unable to reach the house. So she died, at home. The dead body is still there. The Israelis won't let them bury her. Ruba spoke with someone from French radio on the phone. They are clueless.

11.00am: Finally managed to reach Umm Samer. Her stories terrify me. The Israelis have taken over the Gamal Abdel-Nasser mosque next to her place. Israeli snipers are poised at the top of the minaret. Since yesterday, four Palestinians have been killed just outside of Umm Samer's front yard by sniper fire from the mosque. And she can't do anything. None of us seem to be able to do anything. What can you do when the second strongest army in the world is shooting bullets into your front yard?

Can't concentrate and can't work. Will disconnect the phone and go to sleep.

2.59pm: Riham got cigarettes!

3.00pm: Went out for a brief walk with Abeer. We heard tanks close by so we decided to return home. The weather is gorgeous, though. It just rained and the air smells of fresh soil. The sky is grey-blue, everything is so green and lush, wildflowers of all types are everywhere. Such a pity we can't walk further.

4.00pm: Walking back into my street, a car drives by, its horn sounding repeatedly. An elderly man is driving and his wife is sitting next to him, waving her arms out of the window as he keeps his hand on the horn. Both are shouting, "We have bread for those who need bread! We have bread for those who need bread!" Mariam has been out of bread since yesterday. I ate my last bit today. We both thank them profusely and take a couple of extra loaves. People, ordinary people, driving around with extra bread. I'm not scared of ever going hungry here.

4.20pm: Ghassan says that according to Ahmed, the Israelis will evacuate tonight. Nabil calls and says that a withdrawal tonight is unlikely given the heavy gun battles in the centre of town. I drop by Mariam's and Kifah is on the phone; someone is telling her that the Israelis will withdraw today at 5.00pm.

Israeli soldiers stop Palestinians at the Qalandia checkpoint on the road from Jerusalem to Ramallah (photo:AP), Palestinians run for cover as Israeli soldiers aim a tear gas launcher during last month's clashes, Palestinian mother mourns her son killed on 15 March during the Israeli incursion into Ramallah (photos: Reuters)

5.00pm: Latest news: three Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza. At the gates of Netzarim settlement in Gaza, a bomb exploded destroying an Israeli tank and killing all three soldiers inside. A tank was destroyed! The strongest Israeli tank ever. And the Palestinians hardly have any weapons! A joint operation by PFLP and Fatah.

Apache helicopters kill two Palestinians in Anabta.

Israeli shells destroy a statue of the Virgin Mary.

6.00pm: Mariam called: one of the cats has just given birth.

8.00pm: Anis called. Al-Jazeera says that Sharon has decided to redeploy the Israeli army in Ramallah this evening. What does that mean? "Redeploy" is not the same as "evacuate," "withdraw," "pull out," "leave," "say good-bye!" Are they bloody leaving or not?

Anyway, the operation seems to be a complete failure. It seems they didn't manage to arrest any of the Palestinian resistance figures that they wanted to arrest. They had all left Ramallah before the incursion.

10.22pm: Mariam called from Lama's. Ahmed says two Israeli tanks were just attacked in Ramallah Al-Tahta. One Israeli soldier seems to have been killed. Still not clear. "No!" I hear Lama scream in the background, "That means they will not evacuate from Ramallah today. I'm running out of milk!"

11.00pm: Abeer just called. Seven settlers were killed in Maale Adumim.

11.15pm: Hamdi called. He was in a street fight in Gaza today. Someone made rude remarks at his sister while she was walking down the street, so Hamdi beat the guy up. He later filed a report with the police. "But where?" I asked. "Didn't the Israelis bomb the police station ages ago?" "The policemen work from the street now. A policeman wrote the report under an olive tree at the edge of the street... "

11.25pm: Anis called. The army seems to be withdrawing from Ramallah. The tanks are lining up outside Andrew's place.

11.30pm: Called Mariam to give her the news. She says they're only redeploying. We'll know tomorrow if they're out or not.

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