Muhammed Milham is the mayor of Halhoul, a West Bank town of mostly peasant farmers. In March 1979 the Israeli occupation authorities imposed a total curfew on the town for more than two weeks. The mayor here describes the events heading up to the curfew, its impact on the townspeople, and its implications for current Egyptian-Israeli negotiations over “autonomy.&rdquo The text is the edited transcript of an interview with Jim Zogby of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign in Washington, DC, in late April 1979.
On Thursday, March 15, the Israeli authorities imposed a 23-hour-a-day curfew on the town of Halhoul. It began like this.
On Wednesday, March 14, at 9 pm an old man of Halhoul, Bashir Bashir Abu ‘Asaba, told me over the telephone that the soldiers had taken his sons and the men and boys in several neighboring houses to the Military Governor’s headquarters in Hebron. Twenty to thirty men and boys, aged 15 to 50, had been taken. I asked why. He told me that reportedly a bus had been stoned that morning and its glass broken. In retaliation, the Israelis came and took all the men and boys in the four neighboring houses at the scene of the incident.
When I drove to the military governor’s headquarters I found them sitting outside on that very cold night of March 14. I asked the officer in charge why he was holding them, as they were not the sort of people to throw stones at passenger buses. He promised that he would interrogate them and send them home in an hour. When I was about to leave the military governor’s headquarters, I was called back and told to wait for the military governor, Eli Kadar. His house is in Jerusalem, and when they called me to his office, he was not there. I estimated that it would take him an hour to arrive at his Hebron office from Jerusalem so I waited about an hour. When the military governor did not come, I left for home. The soldiers tried to stop me, but I refused to stay. I asked them to call me when the military governor comes, and I would certainly come then.
I went home at about midnight. At 1 am, I received a telephone from the Israeli authorities, who told me to report to the military governor’s office at 8:30 the next morning with the members of the Municipal Council. I was relieved at that, and so I decided to go to sleep. After an hour, at 2 am, I received another telephone call; I was told to come to the military governor’s headquarters with the Council at once—at 2 am. I said that I could not bring the members of the Council because it was 2 am and I did not have transportation for them. In the meantime, I asked if the military governor were in his office. I was told that he was not. Accordingly, I said that I would not be coming. I went back to bed, but was unable to sleep. At 3:20 am, someone knocked on the door. When I opened the door, I found that it was a soldier, who told me that I must go with him and pointed out that the other members of the Council were already at the military governor’s headquarters. I dressed and drove my car to Hebron. There, I found the seven members of the Council sitting at a very humiliating place at the entrance. This place was used only for those who were wanted by police. I protested strongly, and asked the deputy military governor either to issue a detention order for us and send us to prison, or to send us back home. He told me to shup up, and set a guard of four or five soldiers over us to prevent us from moving or leaving the place.
We stayed there until the next morning, which was Thursday, March 15. At 8:30 am, the military governor came to his office. He rushed into his office and said nothing to us. Then, half an hour later, he called us to his office. When we went there, he told us about the bus that was stoned, and said that we were responsible for that. He told us that he did not mean to detain us. He pointed out that in the meantime there had been a demonstration in Halhoul—none killed, one student injured. At that time, we knew nothing about what was happening in Halhoul, because we had been detained. I protested strongly to the military governor, saying that such a thing had never before happened to any mayor or council. Then we went back to Halhoul.
When we arrived in Halhoul, the people told us that there had been a demonstration, and a boy and a girl had been killed. The streets were almost empty. The only people in front of my office on the main highway to Hebron were a group of ladies confronting the soldiers. They were shouting, protesting, and crying for the dead boy and girl. I went directly to my office and contacted all the news media in Jerusalem and the West Bank. I also called my colleagues, the other mayors. I told them what had happened to the Council, and about the boy and girl who were killed. After that, the deputy military governor came to my office and requested me to go down to the street and to maintain quiet. I did not leave my office. I told him that he had killed two, and that he could go ahead and maintain order by killing more if he wished. At about 11:30 am, the loudspeaker announced the imposition of the curfew on Halhoul.
Thus, the curfew started at 11:30 am, Thursday, March 15. Bill Siemens of ABC news came to interview me in my office. I was talking to him when suddenly a jeep within Israeli officer came. The officer told Siemens that he should leave at once. The ABC newsman inquired if it were a military order, and the Israeli officer told him that it was, so he left. He was not allowed to do any recording or filming. At that moment, I shut myself up at home.
Each day, the curfew was lifted for only one hour,which was not exactly an hour, but was sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes. In this “hour,” people could not secure their basic needs from the shops. During the entire sixteen days of the curfew, the military authorities allowed some of our dealers to buy fruit and vegetables only twice. There was no cash problem. People trusted each other: Some of the shops opened and the people took things without paying.
Telephone communications with the outside world were cut. Traffic was not allowed to cross the town during the hour break. We were closed off from the rest of the world.
In the days to follow, people began complaining. Some of them came to me during the break and told me that the glass of their houses had been broken. Others came to me saying that they had been robbed of their jewels and their money. But this was not the worst. Halhoul is an agricultural town. Our people depend mainly on the grapes and peaches as a source of livelihood, lt happened that mid-March was the time for spraying, to prevent insects from spoiling the harvest. During the curfew, whenever any farmer tried to reach his field to spray, Israeli soldiers caught him, confiscated or broke his sprayer, took his donkey and placed him under arrest. If the soldiers caught any farmer actually spraying his fields, they beat him badly. I know several cases of farmers who were beaten: ‘Abdallah al-Baba, Muhammad Mahmoud Mira‘i and Muhammad Husayn ‘Ubayd…. They stayed in bed for about two weeks.
The women and children, too, were not spared from beating. Everyone who tried to go out and was seen by the soldiers was beaten.
Sometimes they would break all the windows of a house as a punishment because one of the children in that house crossed the threshold. When the Israeli soldiers saw this, they would rush to the house and break all the glass. If the people asked why, the soldiers answered that this was in retaliation for the breaking of the glass in the bus, which happened on Wednesday.
The curfew affected 12,000 people in the town of Halhoul itself. In addition, if the Israeli authorities found anyone whose identity card listed him as a resident of Halhoul—regardless whether he was in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, in Nablus, or in Hebron—they would arrest him, because anyone listed as a resident of Halhoul was supposed to be under curfew. The poor farmers of our town… it affected them so much. They lost 30-40 percent of their crops, they lost the glass in their houses, which in some cases cost hundreds of dollars to replace. The damage caused to the crops by not allowing the farmers to spray their fields affected 90 percent of the population. At least 20 houses had glass broken, and many sprayers and donkeys were confiscated.
If any adults broke the rules of the curfew, the soldiers arrested them and took them to the high school, where they would keep them for 24 hours or 48 hours, then send them home. There was a constant circulation: They took people, and they released them.
The Israelis were very strict with me particularly. My car was parked in front of the house. During the first two days of the curfew, I discovered that its radio antenna was cut, and thus I had to send the car to the garage. When the soldiers saw that the car was not there, they checked my house several times daily to make sure that I was there.
They did not want anyone to get in touch with me. I tried to get in touch but it was difficult to let the world hear about our sufferings. Some journalists tried to get to my house, but they were prevented by the soldiers. Some of them were beaten and their cameras were broken.
It happened during the 16 days that an old woman of my family died. She passed away, and they did not allow us to bury her. The military authorities told us that only 25 persons were allowed to go with the funeral, and the funeral should take place after sunset, under heavy guard. Also, we were not permitted to follow the Muslim tradition of sitting for three days to receive the condolences of the people who would be visiting us.
The other mayors and the people of the West Bank tried to send food by truck to Halhoul for the poor families that could not secure food for their babies. I was told later that the truck loaded with food sent to Halhoul by Ramallah was by Nablus, reached Hebron, where the driver was arrested. After his release, the military authorities ordered him to return the truckload of food to Nablus.
All during the curfew, the military authorities wanted to put into the minds of the people of Halhoul that the mayor was responsible, the mayor’s attitude was responsible, the mayor’s political line was responsible. The people were aware that I had been detained when the boy and the girl were killed. I could not help anything. There was no reason to kill the boy and girl, to break the glass in the houses, and to spoil 40 percent of the crops. The glass in the bus—if there were any glass in the bus broken—would not exceed $50 in damage. But the loss of Halhoul, in labor, crops, robberies and destruction, exceeded tens of thousands of dollars. Fifty dollars—we paid thousands and thousands as much as a punishment.
At the end of the sixteenth day, on Friday, March 30, the Israelis lifted the curfew. On Saturday, March 31, many people came to the municipal office to express solidarity with us or to make sure that we were safely out of the curfew. The first group was a number of mayors and councilors from the towns of the West Bank. They started taking their coffee when suddenly I received a telephone call from the military governor telling me that I was holding an illegal meeting. I told him that it was not a meeting. They were friends—mayors, councilors and others—who came to express their sympathy and to ask whether we needed anything.
The military governor told me to tell them to leave the office, or else he would force them out in their own way. When my colleagues heard about this, they asked to leave, and they returned to their towns. Later came a group of Israelis from different political parties—Shelli, Democratic Front—and also independent Israelis, to express solidarity with us on the occasion of the curfew. I received another telephone call that there was an illegal meeting. I told the military governor that the people who were meeting with me were Israelis. The fact is that he kept close watch on what was happening, who came and who went.
Seven days later, I was called to the office of the military governor, and the officer there told me two bad things. First, the wholesale vegetable and fruit market project was rejected by the military authorities. The project has been the hope and aspiration of the people of the town of Halhoul for years. The achievement of this project would have added 1.5 million shekels of income to the municipality for services and the development of our town. Our engineer and the Municipal Council had been working for the last two years on the project, preparing the plans and securing the funds for it. The funds were partly from the government of Kuwait and partly from ANERA, the American charitable voluntary agency. The plans had been approved by the military authorities and the project had been approved by them, provided that we submit the designs for our plan. We had been working on the designs with their approval for about 12 months. The municipality paid about 100,000 shekels for the designs. If the military authorities wanted to reject the project, they could have rejected it from the very beginning, and we could have saved 100,000 shekels. After the curfew, they rejected the project as a punishment.
I called the Council for an urgent meeting, and we decided to cable Minister Weizman. We sent him a cable saying that the project had been authorized but the designs were rejected, and we strongly urged him to intervene and put things in order. We cabled him about ten days before my departure to Washington. All that time, I never received an answer from the minister’s office. The only thing I heard was over Radio Israel, which said that the project had been rejected because the proposed market was too close to the schools. True, it is close to the schools, but it represents no embarrassment to our students. If it means embarrassment—they are our sons and our schools. If it means embarrassment, it is our money. We have full responsibility.
The second piece of bad news was personal. Before I became mayor, I had 25 years service in the Department of Education, and was eligible for pension and other benefits for these 25 years of service. The authorities wrote me a letter telling me either to go back to the teaching profession, resigning my office as mayor, or to resign from the Department of Education and lose all the benefits for 25 years of service. These benefits are not for me: They are for the 11 members of my family.
As the mayor of a large town under occupation, today I am being told that according to the Camp David process we will have autonomy. In fact, people and mayors have rejected the autonomy ever since 1976. What has been offered to the Palestinians through autonomy is meaningless. We consider that the suggested autonomy is the perpetuation of the occupation and a legalization of that occupation. Nobody will accept perpetuation of the occupation, nor will they accept legalization of the occupation through the suggested autonomy. What the world may imagine to be a peace process, as they saw it in the White House and at Camp David, has borne fruit. We were the first people to pick those very bitter fruits. And if this bitter fruit—the sufferings of the people of Halhoul—was picked before the negotiating process, what kind of fruit do you think we will pick when peace is implemented?