Eyewitness to a Massacre

Against the Current, No. 30, January/February 1991

Betsy Esch

WHEN THE SHOOTING began on the morning of October 8, I was at my house in northeast Jerusalem. As on most occasions (usually at night) when we heard gunfire, my roommate and I went outside to try to determine from which direction the sounds were coming. From our house we could see clouds of tear gas near the Old City, and two military helicopters alternately circling around and hovering.

We stood on the porch listening to fifteen minutes of continuous gunfire. At about 11:00 am I decided to run the ten minutes to the Old City to see what was happening.

As I hurried up the street from my house a car slowed near me. In it were journalist friends of mine who had heard that “something was happening at the Mosque” and were going to Maqassed Hospital to see what it was.

The trip from my house in the valley to the hospital, on the Mount of Olives, takes about five minutes, all uphill. By the time we reached the main road up to the hospital, dozens of cars with horns blaring were coming from the direction of the Old City, many with young men hanging out the windows screaming and waving their hands, signaling the other cars to get out of the way.

About three-quarters of the way up the hill, traffic slowed and stopped while cars continue to honk and people screamed. The Israeli military had closed the road to the main hospital entrance. All cars and ambulances were turned back and forced to drive across an unpaved mad and part of a field.

I remember seeing cars with Red Cross flags flying from their windows driving madly across the field. Several young Palestinian men, just yards away from well-armed Israeli soldiers, stationed themselves to direct traffic toward the back entrance to the hospital.

We were able to get into the hospital from the back, on foot. We were among the first three or four people there with cameras and were immediately pulled by hospital workers into the areas where those who had arrived dead at the hospital were being kept for identification. By this time there were four, and only a fraction of the injured had arrived.

By noon, approximately one hour and a half after the shooting began, hundreds of people filled the courtyard of the hospital, while the Israeli military occupied all the neighboring roofs, soldiers and jeeps filled the street in front of the hospital and a military helicopter circled overhead.

As cars and ambulances continued to arrive, the crowd formed human chains to pass injured people and supplies; young children took responsibility to look out for incoming cars and would come running back to alert people to move before the ambulances came screaming into the crowd. Women and young children, less likely to be stopped by soldiers, were told to walk to the other hospital that needed blood donors.

As more and more people flooded into the area of the hospital, it was apparent that the gathering was going to become a demonstration. Palestinian flags made from hospital sheets appeared everywhere, youths covered their faces in kafflyeh and led the crowd in nationalist chants.

This fact was also apparent to the hundreds of soldiers in front of the hospital, who were in direct communication with the military stationed at the Mosque. As in other situations where groups of Palestinians gather—funerals, schools, holiday celebrations—the military responded with force.

At approximately 2:00 pm, tear gas was fired directly into the maternity, orthopedic and emergency sections of the hospital.

Dr. Darwish Nazzal, head of Maqassed’s disaster committee, said “At one point I could not even go into the emergency room. Every one of us had cotton with chloroform on his nose. One arm was busy holding this and the other arm treating the patient. It was very difficult. We had no masks. We evacuated the maternity and orthopedic sections to other areas; newborns were transferred to the administration and the library. We only had fans to help circulate the air.”

(For details of this incident see “Report on the Massacre at Al-Haram Al-Sharif,” Palestine Human Rights Information Center, 4753 N. Broadway, Suite 930, Chicago IL 60604.)

I was among a group of journalists and hospital administrators who went to the front of the hospital to confront the soldiers. The president of the hospital approached one soldier, who refused to speak or respond in any way. Other soldiers nearby, many of whom were my age, shook their heads and laughed at us.

Border police also fired rubber and marble bullets and live ammunition in the hospital area. One woman living near the hospital was shot in the back with a marble bullet that afternoon.

As I left the hospital at about 4:30, the surrounding area had been declared a closed military zone, which means that it is “legal” for the military to prevent journalists from entering the area and that residents are forced into their homes. All roads into and out of Jerusalem were closed and Red Cross personnel were prevented from entering the city from West Bank towns.

The Israeli radio stations were already reporting “an attack by Palestinians on Jewish worshippers at the Wailing Wall.”

Neither one Jewish worshipper nor any Israeli military personnel were wounded, while more than 300 Palestinians were hospitalized or treated for injuries, hundreds of others arrested, not to mention the dead, eleven of whom were shot in the head or neck.

January-February 1991, ATC 30