No one deluded himself that the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, which takes up five of the eight floors of a new building in the center of El Bireh, would be spared the fate of other Palestinian Authority offices in Ramallah and other cities - that is, the nearly total destruction of its contents and particularly its high-tech equipment.
After all, Israel Defense Forces troops were deployed in the building for about a month.
Armed vehicles were always parked in front of the building, around which the familiar pictures of destruction accumulated; crushed cars, banks of earth, deep ditches in the roads, broken pavements, dismantled stone fences, toppling electricity poles, loose cables and clouds of dust and dirt enveloping every vehicle, tree and roof in thickening layers.
The Ministry of Culture is located in the large residential area the IDF kept under curfew, even after its partial withdrawal from Ramallah on April 21 and its focus on the siege of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's headquarters.
Every night the neighbors, who hid in their houses, heard the sounds of objects smashing as they were hurled through the windows of the Ministry of Culture.
During the 10 days that preceded the lifting of the siege on Arafat's office, the force in this building shot every night at the Asra, a large commercial building opposite the ministry, on the slope of the hill.
The residents of the neighborhood at first tried to locate armed Palestinians who had perhaps opened fire at random in the direction of the military base. But there were no armed Palestinians there.
The neighbors concluded that this was nightly entertainment for the soldiers.
All that was left for them to do was to stay awake and alert for four or five hours every night and listen, against their will, to the ceaseless shooting that the walls and windows of the Asra building, causing fragments of building stone to fall straight onto the roof of the small stone house nearby with a noise that echoed through all of the valley east of the building.
After one bullet got stuck in the wall of the home of H. and her two daughters, they decided to leave.
One night the neighborhood awoke to the sound of barking: They saw that someone had attached a speaker to a tape recorder and was playing a recording of barking dogs. Within a few minutes all the dogs in the neighborhood woke up and joined the racket. Very soon the barking reached more distant neighborhoods. A night's sleep down the drain.
This is an established neighborhood of single-story or two-story stone houses, surrounded by gardens and thick with cypress and fruit trees. L. remembers how her husband planted some of the trees several decades ago. The rural character of the neighborhood was unaffected despite its proximity to the busy main streets and the tall commercial buildings that have sprung up during the past 10 years.
A few days after the partial withdrawal, neighbors were astounded to hear bulldozers and the cutting down of he shady row of cypresses.
One cypress tree was lying across the road, a natural barrier against cars, and an apricot tree laden with fruit had been uprooted from the garden of one woman who lives in the neighborhood and whose entire world is her 35-year-old son who is mentally retarded.
On the evening of Wednesday, May 1, when the siege on Arafat's headquarters was lifted and the armored vehicles and the tanks had rumbled out, the executives and officials of the ministry who had rushed to the site did not expect to find the building the way they had left it.
Employees of the local radio and television station, Amwaj, also hastened to the scene, as did the employees of the local television channel, Istiqlal, which take up three stories of the building.
But what awaited them was beyond all their fears, and also shocked representatives and cultural attaches of foreign consulates, who toured the site the next day.
In other offices, all the high-tech and electronic equipment had been wrecked or had vanished - computers, photocopiers, cameras, scanners, hard disks, editing equipment worth thousands of dollars, television sets. The broadcast antenna on top of the building was destroyed.
Telephone sets vanished. A collection of Palestinian art objects (mostly hand embroideries) disappeared. Perhaps it was buried under the piles of documents and furniture, perhaps it had been spirited away. Furniture was dragged from place to place, broken by soldiers, piled up. Gas stoves for heating were overturned and thrown on heaps of scattered papers, discarded books, broken diskettes and discs and smashed windowpanes.
In the department for the encouragement of children's art, the soldiers had dirtied all the walls with gouache paints they found there and destroyed the children's paintings that hung there.
In every room of the various departments - literature, film, culture for children and youth books, discs, pamphlets and documents were piled up, soiled with urine and excrement.
There are two toilets on every floor, but the soldiers urinated and defecated everywhere else in the building, in several rooms of which they had lived for about a month. They did their business on the floors, in emptied flowerpots, even in drawers they had pulled out of desks.
They defecated into plastic bags, and these were scattered in several places. Some of them had burst. Someone even managed to defecate into a photocopier.
The soldiers urinated into empty mineral water bottles. These were scattered by the dozen in all the rooms of the building, in cardboard boxes, among the piles of rubbish and rubble, on desks, under desks, next to the furniture the solders had smashed, among the children's books that had been thrown down.
Some of the bottles had opened and the yellow liquid had spilled and left its stain. It was especially difficult to enter two floors of the building because of the pungent stench of feces and urine. Soiled toilet paper was also scattered everywhere.
In some of the rooms, not far from the heaps of feces and the toilet paper, remains of rotting food were scattered. In one corner, in the room in which someone had defecated into a drawer, full cartons of fruits and vegetables had been left behind. The toilets were left overflowing with bottles filled with urine, feces and toilet paper.
Relative to other places, the soldiers did not leave behind them many sayings scrawled on the walls.
Here and there was the candelabrum symbols of Israel, stars of David, praises for the Jerusalem Betar soccer team.
Someone had forgotten to take his dog tag with him. His name is recorded in the newspaper's editorial offices.
Now the Palestinian Ministry of Culture is considering leaving the building the way it is. A memorial.
No response was available from the IDF by press time.
© Copyright 2002 Ha`aretz