Assaf Oron

On June 4th, 2002, a coalition of organizations, including Ta’ayush, Rabbis For Human Rights, Caritas, Windows, Arabica and the Union of Charitable Relief delivered a food truck to Deir El-Khattab. What follows may help explain why a small remote village received such attention.

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On April 15, the eve of Israel’s Military Memorial Day, a desperate message from the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees reached ‘actleft’, an Israeli left-wing email distribution list. This is how it started: “UPMRC appeals to the world: We don't know what else to do, please help us save a child's life.”

The email was about a little toddler girl called Tabbarak Odeh from the village of Deir El-Khattab near Nablus, who just turned two when the Israeli government sent the army to invade Palestinian cities. The village was placed under strict curfew.

Tabbarak was suffering from cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and relied upon daily medicine in order to survive. The medicine allowed her to live a happy normal life. But after three days of curfew, her parents ran out of medicine. All pleas by the family and by local Palestinian health personnel to allow an ambulance to bring her medicine, were refused by the military.

The email message arrived ten days after Tabbarak stopped receiving medicine, 13 days after the curfew had been imposed. “Tabbarak's condition,” the message stated, “is deteriorating by the hour and she could die if she doesn't receive the appropriate medical care. UPMRC has been trying all day to get an ambulance to her, but Israeli troops have prevented us from doing so.”

Faxes from several readers of this message, including myself, reached the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Within a few hours, the military yielded to the Ministry’s pressure, and let an ambulance evacuate Tabbarak to El-Wattani Hospital in Nablus. She arrived in critical condition: unconscious, with fever from pneumonia, convulsions, and dehydrated. The next morning, April 17th, Israel’s Independence Day, Tabbarak Odeh died.

About a week later, I received a phone call from Jabber Odeh, the bereaved father. Since then we have maintained almost daily contact, and I have learned more and more about his family and about the plight of Deir El-Khattab’s people – which, sadly enough, is probably typical of the plight of most Palestinian villages nowadays.

The Village of Deir El-KKhattab

Deir El-Khattab is located about 3 km east of Nablus, not far from Hawwara and the Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh. Many of its 350 families are poor. There are no factories, no quarries, no restaurants, no businesses. Each family has a small plot, barely enough for subsistence.

The villagers have an additional 300 dunams [~70 acres] of olive trees located on top of the nearby mountain, closer to the Jewish settlement. But since 1985, the settlers have prevented the Palestinians from reaching their land. The villagers appealed to the Israeli Civil Administration, who sent them back and forth, but they were never permitted to reach their olive trees again.

300 more dunams belonged to the village, and were located in the Ghor region, down in the Jordan Valley. They were confiscated back in 1978, and handed over to the settlement of Hamra. Jaber Odeh recalls that at the time, the village elders did not dare complain. Now he plans to start the struggle to get these lands, over which the villagers hold proper documents.

All the men had jobs outside the village. For years most of them worked in Israel. Until the second Intifada, every day 3 or 4 buses would leave Deir El-Khattab at 3:30 in the morning, full of workers on their way to Israel. After the Intifada erupted, they were all fired.

During the invasion, dubbed “Defensive shield,” the village suffered yet another blow. For more than five weeks a strict curfew was imposed. After their food stock ran out, the residents were left with pita bread and labanne (yoghourt cheese). Day in, day out, that’s what they ate. That is still what most of them have to eat.

A couple of weeks ago the curfew was lifted and the residents were allowed to go to Nablus, by foot only. Although Deir El-Khattab is practically almost a suburb of Nablus, it continues to be cut off from the city. Some of the men, who had managed to procure work in Nablus after they lost their jobs in Israel, have now lost these jobs as well. There is simply no business in Nablus.

The few factories that were not ruined have a hard time receiving any supplies, and when they do they have little or no money to pay for them. Currently, the municipality is providing public relief work, paying 20 shekels [~$4] a day, so that residents can buy basic foodstuffs. Only city residents, however, are eligible; people from nearby villages are not.

Meanwhile the Israeli military continues to harass the local population. Since the start of the invasion, an army post has been placed at the village entrance. At night, soldiers would shoot at the front wall of the nearby home of Amjed Awwad, occasionally hitting the windows. Mr. Awwad also has a two-year-old girl, and he and his family members could not sleep at night. Only last week, after the Israeli human rights group, HaMoked (‘Hotline’), intervened, the military stopped shooting and moved the post away from the Awwad home.

The world has forgotten Palestine. Nowhere is this more evident than in places like Deir El-Khattab. Villages, towns and cities are controlled by military officers, many of whom turn a blind eye to the people’s suffering. In Deir El-Khattab, officers ignored the cry of the Odeh family for almost two weeks, thus causing a two-year-old to slowly die in pain in front of her helpless parents. These officers then went home to their own families, as if nothing happened, as if this world they left behind them does not exist. In a place where tragedies such as Tabbarak Odeh’s death happen and the world doesn’t know, the door is open to even worse tragedies. We must do whatever we can to shed a light upon these forgotten places, upon the suffering of their people at the hands of the ever more suffocating military rule. We must make the military know that we know, know that we are watching them. This light, this knowledge may save lives.

When we consulted with Jabber Odeh, whether it would be a good idea to send a food convoy to the village he said:

“I am not one of the ‘big men’ in the village. But I want you to send a convoy and I want it to be in memory of my Tabbarak. I will take responsibility to arrange the convoy from our side. Even if less packets arrive than the number of families in the village, I will make sure that whatever arrives is divided between all of us. It is important for me that the world will hear about what happened to Tabbarak. That people will open their eyes to our plight and to our suffering.”

“I am not afraid of anybody anymore. What do I have to be afraid of? My daughter is dead. Why can’t people, Jews and Arabs, just let each other live in peace?”