Thursday, 30 April 2009

Palestinian Prisoners: Imprisoned for their Love of Freedom

Every year, on April 17, Palestinians commemorate the Palestinian Political Prisoners Day. On 17.4.1974 the first Palestinian political prisoner, Mahmoud Baker Hijazi, was released from Israeli prisons in the first prisoner exchange deal with Israel. That same year, the Palestinian National Council declared the 17th of April a day of solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners, to be commemorated every year. In Occupied Palestine prison and imprisonment are as common as sunrise and sunset. There is almost no family that had not been subjected to Israeli imprisonment one way or the other. Palestinians are being detained on a daily basis, making them the most imprisoned people on earth. It is difficult to estimate their number, but several sources put the number of Palestinians detained or imprisoned by Israel since 1967 at over 750,000 Palestinians, making 20% of the total Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories, and approximately 40% of the total Palestinian male population. With the outbreak of the 2nd Intifada in September 2000 until September 2008 some 65,000 men, 750 women and 7,500 children were arrested by Israel. According to the ICRC, in October 2008 there were 10,500 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Addammeer puts the number at 9,493, 750 of which are administrative detainees, 349 aged 18 and under, and 75 are females. Among those detained are political figures and some 47 Palestinians parliamentarians.

The IOF can arrest anyone and anywhere, without giving a reason. Palestinians are arrested at home, on the way to school or work, at universities, in hospitals, at checkpoints. Mass arrests, as form of collective punishment, are also very common. Curfews would be imposed on villages, towns or refugees camps, houses would be raided and Palestinians arrested. I have witnesses a number of these mass arrests, but never did the IOF bother to tell the residents why they were forced to leave their homes in the middle of the night and stand in the cold and the darkness for long hours. Under the cover of darkness and the curfew, the IOF would demand with loudspeakers that all men, usually those between 16 and 45, gather in the school yard or on the main street. We used to sit in the darkness at the windows and try and recognize the men standing in line and questioned by the IOF; relatives, friends and neighbours. Sometimes the men are blindfolded and handcuffed. They would wait for this to end, while being harassed, shouted at and kicked by the Israeli soldiers. We would wait with them, behind windows, hoping that they would all be released soon and come home safe. Sometimes, they are all sent back home after a night of harassment, but often this ends with mass arrest for no given reason.

Another form of collective punishment is house arrests. I have witnessed so many house arrests, and all were accompanied by violence and harassment and the wilful destruction of property by the IOF. They would turn the house over, destroying the furniture and even the food, as if the person they are searching for would be hiding in the wheat or the sugar, and if there was any money or valuables in the house, it was sure they would never be found again after the IOF had left the house. Family members trying to protect their home or their children are beaten. We would tell them that the person they are looking for is not in the house, we would try and reason with them, but it is all useless. They come on a mission to harass, destroy and arrest. Often I thought they knew they wouldn’t find what or who they are looking for, and that the whole operation of house raid is purely to punish the family and pressure it to hand over their son. During such house searches, the IOF would push us against the wall, kick us with their boots and beat us with the butts of their rifles. They didn’t care that they were beating children and elderly.

Upon arrest, detainees are often blindfolded and handcuffed. Not only is the detainee physically abused and humiliated, but other members of the family as well. Also, it is common practice by the IOF to use family members as human shields during such raids. The detainee is taken without informing the family about where he is taken to. Usually it takes days, if not more, before the family finds out where a detainee is. There are many incidents where families realized that their sons were in a certain prison months after they were arrested, and only after another detainee was released and informed that family about their son. One summer afternoon, my uncle and I were playing football in the garden. He was on the IOF list of wanted persons and was staying in our house. Nearby, there was a huge fruit tree, and when I was a child my father told me as way of a joke that a soldier was buried under that tree. At nights, when the leaves of the tree would move with the wind, I used to imagine the sound they made the murmuring of that soldier, and with all the Russian books we had in our library, I gave that imaginary soldier the name Yuri. My uncle and I made bets as to who would win the football game, we joked and laughed and I remember telling my uncle that Yuri would come and take him. After I explained to him what I was talking about, he said: I think you mean Uri and not Yuri, meaning that if any soldier came to take him away, it would be an Israeli soldier, not a Russian. That night at 2 in the morning, I was awakened by hurrying footsteps outside the window. The minute I fully woke up and stood, there was loud knocking on the front door. My father asked who it was, and removed the side of the curtain to see who stood outside. Standing near him, I could see the face of my grandfather and behind him nothing but darkness, complete darkness. The minute my grandfather said it was him, my father opened the door immediately, only to see grandfather practically thrown inside the house. In a matter of seconds, the house was full of IOF soldiers, some in army uniform, others in civil uniform. They had finally figured out were my uncle was hiding and had come to arrest him. They brought my grandfather, an old man, in the middle of the night as a human shield, in case anything happened. My uncle was still in bed, and the minute the Bethlehem area commander saw him, he jumped on the bed and held his throat in his arms, wanting to strangle him, shouting repeatedly: you were here the whole time. My mother tried to get them off my uncle, but the commander pushed her away. And while my uncle was putting on his clothes and shoes, the commander was slapping him and kicking him. The other area commander, responsible for Sawahreh and the surroundings, told his colleague not to do any beating in his area, meaning that since the prisoner was from the Bethlehem area, the beating was okay once they reached that area. I remember we had a huge poster on the wall, one of “Guevara Gaza”, and the commander asked my sister if she knew who it was. The name was written on the poster for all to see, so when she replied yes, he ordered her to remove the poster. When they left, we realized that they had surrounded the whole area around our house. IOF vehicles had blocked the way in case anyone thought of escaping, and I am sure that if an ant moved in the darkness that night, it would have been shot dead immediately. My uncle was taken to interrogation and tortured to confess to things he never did, and when they failed to get a confession from him, he was held in administrative detention, which is a detention without trial or charge, often used by Israel. When he was finally released, he told us that they couldn’t wait for the interrogation to start the torture, and that he was beaten by the soldiers all the way from Sawahreh till they reached the Israeli detention facility.

Sometimes, injured or sick prisoners are taken from their homes, from hospitals, or after being wounded in a demonstration. They rarely get the needed medical help, and often get Aspirin as treatment for everything. Health examinations are conducted through a fence and additional medical treatment or hospital transfers are often postponed for long periods of time. Withholding medical treatment is one method used to pressure detainees into collaboration. There are more than 800 Palestinian detainees who suffer from bad health conditions, much of which as a result of the arrest or the interrogation. According to Palestinian researcher Abdul-Naser Farawna, 196 Palestinian detainees have died in Israeli prisons since 1967 due to medical negligence and torture, 49 of whom died due to medical negligence. Alone last year, 2 detainees died because they were not given the needed medical assistance. During the 2nd Intifada 72 Palestinian detainees have died in detention, 17 due to medical negligence, 3 as a result of torture, 51 were executed by the IOF after being arrested and 1 prisoner was killed during prison protests.

Often Palestinians are arrested for breaking one of the over 2,000 military orders governing the Occupied Palestinian Territories, some of which they have never heard of before their arrest. Women and children are often arrested to pressure detained family members into confessing or pressure other family members wanted by Israel to hand themselves in. The Palestinian Prisoners Society reports that between September 2000 and September 2008 some 750 women and 7,500 Palestinian children were arrested by Israel. In September 2008 there were 69 Palestinian female political prisoners held in Israeli prisons, 2 of them in solitary confinement and 5 in administrative detention. There are 6 female child prisoners and 4 detainees imprisoned as well as their husbands. One detainee has her baby with her who was born in prison. Palestinian female prisoners are placed in 2 Israeli prisons: Hasharon-Telmond and Neve Tertza prison, where they are detained in the same section as Israeli female criminals accused of murder, drug use and prostitution. Like Palestinian male prisoners, Palestinian female prisoners face torture and humiliation. Strip search, brutal body searches and sexual harassment are frequent.

Contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines a child as being under 18, Israeli military orders consider a child over 16 an adult, to be treated, tried and sentenced as such. In practice, Palestinian children as young as 12 may be arrested, charged and sentenced in Israeli military courts, since there are no juvenile courts. According to several reports, there are over 400 Palestinian children in Israeli prisons today, including 7 girls and 6 administrative detainees. These child detainees are aged between 13 and 18, more than 54 of whom are not older than 16. They are detained in Israeli prisons together with adults. 50 of these child prisoners are held in Ofer, 100 in Magiddo, 7 in Atzion, 22 in the Negev, 105 in Hasharon-Telmond and the rest in other prison facilities. Today, more than 450 Palestinian adult prisoners were children upon arrest and turned 18 in Israeli prisons. Like adult prisoners, Palestinian child prisoners are subjected to physical and psychological torture to extract confessions from them. During interrogation, they are not allowed to have any family member or a lawyer attending. Although I was practically a child when arrested, I was placed in a small empty room. I had been separated from my sister, and didn’t know where they had taken her. I stood waiting for a life sign from anyone, and I didn’t know how long I stood there, but I remember well how tired I was of standing and how thirsty I was. After some time, I could hear the cries of a boy in the room next to where I was. I thought, they were either torturing him or someone was making these noises to make me scared before it was my turn to be interrogated. I kept thinking of everything I ever heard, of how to keep still, stay brave and remember that they are only playing games with us to scare us into confessing to things we didn’t do. When I was finally led into a room with a number of IOF soldiers, all males, the soldier in charge checked my school bag and found my biology textbook. He looked through the book and saw a drawing of the anatomy of a human tooth. He showed it to me and asked smirking in a disgusting way if I knew what it was. I knew what it was and knew what he thought it was and what his plan was by asking me about it. At that moment I didn’t feel scared anymore, because I realized how stupid they are. Not only didn’t he know it was a tooth, the textbook was in English and it was written below the drawing what it was, but most probably he didn’t know a word of English and was acting so superior. I looked at him and said: yes, this is a tooth. My suspicions were confirmed when, upon not believing me, he asked one of the other soldiers in the room and the other confirmed what I said.

Child prisoners are held up in overcrowded cells, face torture and solitary confinement and don’t receive the needed medical treatment. In the last couple of months there has been an increase in the number of Palestinian children arrested. They are either arrested at home, at checkpoints or in streets, and are often accused of throwing stones without any proof. DCI-Palestine reports that the number of children brought before Israeli military courts in pre-trial hearing in the first two weeks of January was twice as high as in 2008. It added that its legal department receives a monthly average of 10 to 15 new cases of children for legal representation in Military courts, and that alone for the first two weeks of January 2009 it received 10 new cases. In one incident, 7 children were arrested in Toura Al Gharbieh in Jenin on 20.1.2009 and were detained at the Salim detention and interrogation centre. Two of the children were 12, two 13, two were 15 and the last 17 years old. Under pressure and with no lawyer present, the children confessed they had thrown stones at the Apartheid Wall. In another incident, during an invasion of Hares in the West Bank on the night of 12/13.3.2009, the IOF arrested a 17 year old boy suffering from kidney malfunction.

Palestinians prisoners are held in facilities run by the Israeli Prison Services (IPS) or the IDF. There are 30 detention centres that include 21 prisons and military camps, 5 detention and holding centres and 4 interrogation centres. Also, there is at least one known secret prison, Facility 1391, which is renowned for its severe torture methods. The exact location of this prison is unknown and lawyers and the ICRC have no access to it. The majority of these facilities are located outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and transferring Palestinian prisoners to these facilities constitutes a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention, and making family visits almost impossible. Some of these facilities are buildings while others are tents within military camps like the Ketzion Military prison camp in the Negev, exposing detainees to harsh weather conditions. They are all overcrowded, with little hygiene, prisoners have to sleep on wooden planks and covers are often provided by the families or human rights organizations. The food provided is insufficient and of poor quality. Palestinian detainees have to live in appalling conditions in these facilities, are humiliated and subjected to inhuman treatment. In some cases, detainees are deported, either abroad or to the Gaza Strip. After the siege of the Nativity Church in 2003, Israel deported 13 Palestinian detainees to Europe and 26 to the Gaza Strip. During the Gaza war, hundreds of Palestinian civilians were arrested, including minors. They were handcuffed and blindfolded, and had nothing to shelter them from the harsh weather. Many held for days in pits dug in the ground. Reports added that some of the detainees were held near tanks and in combat area, making them human shields for the IOF.

Prison visits usually take the whole day, although the visit itself lasts less than an hour. We would set off in the very early morning, when it was dark outside and everyone else was still sleeping. The bus of the ICRC would be full with Palestinians from everywhere, mostly elderly women and children, all anxious to see their relatives. And before we would finally be able to see our loved ones, we would undergo one checkpoint after the other and one search after the other. I remember during one visit, when we were finally allowed into the visit room, I walked quickly looking for my uncle. I hadn’t seen him in years, and after I finally sat opposite him, we started talking through the barbed wire. We were both so happy. It was after a few minutes that someone from my family came and told me to come and say hello to my uncle. I was talking to the wrong person, and I was so embarrassed I didn’t even say goodbye or look back to see if that prisoner had any visitors that day. Later, I thought he too might have not seen his family since so long that he too mistook me for a relative, or maybe he was just anxious to speak to someone. During another visit, I remember sitting and talking to my uncle and at the same time trying to ignore the rain drops that were seeping through the roof and hitting me on the head and running down my face. My uncle must have found it amusing, because every time a raindrop would hit me in the face he would smile, but I would ignore it and continue talking, and by the end of the visit my hair was totally soaked and I was freezing. There was no possibility of kissing or hugging a relative, and the only thing we could do in way of shaking hands was to stretch our fingers through the barbed net separating us. Saying goodbye was always difficult, because we knew we were going back to our homes, to the relatively bigger prison, while leaving them behind in the small overcrowded cells. And when we finally reached home, it would be dark again and most people would be sleeping, a day spent between checkpoints and searches for a 45 minute visit of loved ones.

One time, on the way to my aunt’s house in Dheisheh, a friend of mine and I passed a young man, who was walking up and down one narrow alley of the refugee camp. The man was most probably mid twenty and was good looking. He was walking that alley and was arguing with someone. I looked around and saw no one in the whole area. I looked up to see if he was addressing someone sitting at a window or on the roof, but could see no one. I pointed the man to my friend, who told me not to worry. She said the young man had been recently released from an Israeli prison, where he was tortured. Since then he had been roaming the streets of Dheisheh, arguing with an invisible friend. As I listened closer, I realized he was talking politics with himself, discussing the occupation and life in prison. They had not released him, for he was still in that Israeli cell, being tortured every minute. Last winter when I was in Palestine, I wanted to take some photos of old UNRWA rooms, built for the Palestinians in 1949. Most old UNRWA rooms were being destroyed to build new houses, and I wanted to keep a record of the last remaining rooms that are a synonym to the Nakba and refugee camps. The wife of one of my uncles accompanied me in my search since she was born and grew up in Dheisheh and knew where to find a few old rooms. Most of these tiny rooms are deserted now, standing empty near larger family houses. I would take photos from the outside and if the room had no door or the door was open, I would take photos from the inside. As we came to inspect one room, we were surprised to find an old man lying on the ground, wrapped in a torn out winter coat. The old man opened his eyes as he saw us, he made a move as if to stand up, but my uncle’s wife told him not to leave and apologized for disturbing him, since we thought the room was deserted. A few minutes later, my mother’s aunt saw us invited us for some tea. Inside, we told her about the old man, and as she and my uncle’s wife talked about the old man and giving him something to eat and warm himself, since they knew who he was, I realized it must be the young man I saw long time ago. He was still imprisoned in that cell, a whole life wasted, and all I could do was to shake my head at the injustice of it all.

Under international humanitarian law, torture is strictly forbidden. The world was shocked when the torture in Abu Ghreib came to light, there were condemnations from everywhere and demands were made to close that prison. But the Zionist state, which conducts one war crime after the other, never hesitates in using torture. The forms of torture used in Abu Ghreib were not new to Palestinians, because they have been used since decades by the IPS against Palestinians. Was it not revealed that Israeli IOF and Shin Bet interrogators were hired by the Pentagon to brutally interrogate prisoners in Abu Ghreib? Was it not revealed that the American interrogates implicated in the torture had attended an “anti terror” training camp in Israel, and that many of the torture methods used in Abu Ghreib resembled those applied by Israel against Palestinian detainees? Much is documented about torture in Israeli prisons, but we rarely hear of any condemnation or demand to close these torture facilities. According to B’Tselem, 85% of the Palestinian detainees have been subjected to torture, adding that “Since 1987, the GSS (Israeli General Security Service) interrogated at least 850 Palestinians a year by means of torture …. (a)ll governmental authorities - from the Israeli army to the Supreme court - take part in approving torture, in developing new methods, and in supervising them.” In 1999 the Israeli High Court superficially outlawed the use of arbitrary torture as an interrogation method, but in reality it did not ban it and till today torture is still used by Israel. Physical ill treatment combined with humiliation begins with the arrest, whether at home or in the street. Palestinian detainees can be interrogated for 180 days, and can be denied a lawyer for a period of 60 days. During interrogation, torture is used and has led to the death of the detainee in some cases and confessions extracted under torture are admissible in Israeli courts.

Palestinians may be held for days without being brought before a judge or informed of the reason for the arrest, during which they are interrogated, which can last up to 180 days, or are administratively detained. Administrative detention is a detention without trial or charge or the continuation of imprisonment after the completion of a sentence. It is often used by Israel and is authorized by an administrative order of the IOF rather than by a judicial decree. Israeli Military Order 1229 of 1988 empowers IOF military commanders to detain Palestinians for up to 6 months, which can be extended indefinitely. Over the years, thousands of Palestinians, men and women and of all ages, have been held in administrative detention for periods ranging from 6 months to over 8 years, without being tried or charged. Families of detainees are not informed of a person’s arrest or the arrest location. Theoretically, detainees can appeal, but in reality neither they nor their lawyers are informed of the reason for the detention or examine the evidence, which makes defending their clients very difficult. The Orders governing administrative detention were also modified in 1999. MO 1466 - Temporary Order, Modification 13 states that a detainee must be brought before a military judge within 10 days of his arrest, and authorizing the military judge to approve, cancel or decrease the time of administrative detention order. This modification is also superficial, since the judges are military personnel who give legal legitimacy to the illegal actions of the IOF and the IPS. In reality, Palestinians are tried by Israeli military courts consisting of a panel of 3 judges appointed by the IOF. These judges often have no legal background and thus don’t fulfil international standards of a fair trial. Since the beginning of the 2nd intifada in September 2000 some 20,000 Palestinians were held in administrative detention. By April 2009 there were more than 560 Palestinian administrative detainees, held in Israeli prisons without trial. 372 of these detainees have been held without trial or charge for at least two consecutive periods, 47 of them for over two years, and 23 for over two and a half years including two who have been imprisoned for over four and a half years.

While a Palestinian may be held in custody for 18 days before being brought to a judge, an Israeli can be held in custody for a maximum of 48 hours before being brought before a judge. While a Palestinian can be held for 30 days without charges which can be extended indefinitely, an Israeli can be held for 15 days without a charge which can be extended for only another 15 days. Palestinians brought to court on accusation of murder are always convicted, even without evidence, and are always sentenced to life imprisonment. Most cases against Israeli soldiers or illegal Jewish settlers accused of murdering Palestinians are closed without any charges, even with the existence of evidence or witnesses. The few who do get sentenced are imprisoned for short periods ranging from 6 months to 7 and a half years or to community service. Palestinian Prisoners have been used by Israel at politically convenient moments, whereby Palestinians who had already served out their sentences with only a few days remaining would be released as “gestures of good will”. At the same time hundreds others would be arrested. For example, on 25.8.2008 Israel released 198 prisoners as a “gesture of good will”, however statistics for August 2008 show that another 338 Palestinians were arrested. Today there are some 81 “old detainees” i.e., detainees who are in continuous imprisonment since over 20 years, 2 of whom since over 30 years, and some 290 prisoners who have been in prison since over 15 years.

Although they have modern deadly weapons, are top recipients of military assistance, have their war crimes justified by a biased western media, and their interests protected by Zionist lobbies all over the world, the Zionists still fear us because they know we are the rightful owners of the land and that alone by existing we are defying them and their power and countering the myths and lies on which their state is built. Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman said on the release of Palestinian prisoners: “It would be better to drown these prisoners, in the Dead Sea if possible, since that’s the lowest point in the world.” They not only deny us our rights and our freedom, they want to kill our spirit and see us dead. What they haven’t understood by now is that the more they humiliate us, harass us, imprison us, take away our freedom from us, the more we value that freedom and the stronger becomes our belief in our just cause and our will to be free.



Saturday, 4 April 2009

They can't take that away from me: "settlers" stealing Palestinian land from under our feet

March 28, 2009

Commemorating 60+ Years of the Systematic Murder of Palestinian Land. The first part of a three part series for Land Day

As I stood on the roof and watched Jerusalem stretch in front of me, with the sun reflecting on the golden Dome, I felt angry and felt how unfair the world is. I was born in Jerusalem, went to school there and practically grew up there knowing almost every corner, every street and every alley in it. I have more memories in Jerusalem than any other place in the world, all cherished ones. But now, I am not allowed into the city anymore because I am Palestinian. As I stood there, with tears in my eyes, I envied every Palestinian with an American or European passport, because they can come and visit Jerusalem. I envied every foreigner who can visit the city whenever they choose. I even envied the birds singing on the cypresses before me, because they could fly over Jerusalem and fill their eyes with its beauty and their lungs with its air. In my childhood, Jerusalem was the only major Palestinian city I knew well and loved. In the eyes and mind of a child, to me Ramallah was a cold city, Bethlehem was the "village" nearby, Nablus and Hebron were the places "to visit my uncles in Israeli prisons" and Jericho was too hot. Only Jerusalem was perfect: with its bustling Old City, the old bus station, Salah Al-Deen Street, Al Musrarah, the walk to the Notre Dame, the walk down Wadi Al-Joz and up to Al-Tur and the walk up to Ras El Amoud. I walked on the roof and saw the mountains on the Jordanian side, clearly visible during mild weather. Late afternoons, coming back home from school, one would witness a breathtaking sight going down the steep street in Sawahreh: a marvellous mixture of simple houses, some with old traditional domed roofs, barley fields or olive groves spreading against a curtain of mountains. Between the mountains and the last of the houses a strip of blue was visible. We always thought it to be the Dead Sea. Well, I personally still like to think of it as the Dead Sea. It was a combination of colours that rarely showed itself, but when it did, it was truly breathtaking.

To the south I could see Mount Herod in the distance. I have watched this artificial mountain since my childhood and always wondered at its shape. It always looked far away to be reached, but at the same time so close, an integral part of the view surrounding my home. I used to think about the impossibility of climbing that mountain, because it had steep sides, one would keep slipping and would never reach the top. I did "climb" that mountain years later, during the work on a TV documentary on Bethlehem. During the 2002 IOF invasion of the West Bank, my parents told me that Israeli fighter jets used to pass over Sawahreh on their way to Bethlehem. After a few minutes, the sound of explosions would rock the sky, as the IOF bombarded Bethlehem and the surrounding towns, villages and refugee camps. Since hearing this, every time I see Mount Herod I can’t help thinking of Israeli jets on their way to destroying yet another part of Palestine and kill innocent unarmed civilians. In Sawahreh, Israeli jets roaring in the sky were always a common thing. Some of Sawahreh’s vast lands had been confiscated for so-called "security reasons" and were used as a training area for the IOF. We would often hear sounds of explosions and the house would shake, or hear Israeli jets coming and going. One time, my sister, my brother and I thought that they were preparing for war, and since we had no army of our own, had no jets or tanks or bombs to protect ourselves, we held a meeting to decide on the best way to protect the family. The only solution we could think of was to build an underground shelter. I don’t know where we got the idea of a shelter from, since Palestinians have no shelters, but most probably from one of those WWII films the Israeli TV kept showing. We did start digging, using our hands and small pointy stones, but realized after a while what a lengthy and hard process that was, and instead decided that in case a war does break out we would use the water well as a shelter, i.e., after removing all the water.

One would think what a beautiful view, Jerusalem on one side, Bethlehem on the other with mountains and an imaginary sea in the background. Unfortunately, this scenery is interrupted by the Jewish illegal settlements Maale Adumim and Kidar, spreading themselves on Palestinian hills. Many Palestinian villages and town are surrounded by illegal Jewish settlements. Some are surrounded by settlements from one, two or three sides. Others are surrounded by illegal settlements and the Apartheid Wall. Sawahreh is surrounded by the illegal settlements of Maale Adumim from the northeast and Kidar from the east and by the Apartheid Wall from the west. Kidar settlement is the closest to us. Before the first intifada, Kidar settlers used to come and walk through our main street, among Palestinian houses. So sure they were of themselves, acting as if the land belonged to them. I remember once we were playing in the land, when a group of settlers walked up the street. We stopped playing and just watched them. I didn’t understand settlers and settlements much at the time, but I remember knowing that these people had no right to walk on our streets. We used to spend our holidays in Dheisheh refugee camp, where the IOF would shoot to kill little children, and then we would come back to Sawahreh, where settlers were walking our street. Those close to Kidar used to sell home-made white cheese and yoghurt to the settlers, who thought us too quiet and peaceful, so they called us "Kiryat Shalom" or the village of peace. It was something I always felt ashamed of, knowing that the settlers thought us too peaceful to bother with, while their army and their fellow fanatic settlers were attacking Dheisheh and killing people there. If the illegal settlers of Kidar were so very interested in peace with us, why did they steal our lands to expand their settlement, knowing that our livelihood depended on these lands? You can’t have peace with your occupier, because the only peace they will offer you is a masquerade, not a real and just peace. In Palestine, power cuts are a regular thing, and whenever we had no electricity and had to study using candle light, which often hurt our eyes, I used to look through the window and watch Sawahreh, Abu Dees and Ezariyyeh drown in complete darkness, while Kidar and Maale Adumim would be lighted like a Christmas tree. Even as a child this made me think of how unfair the situation was and that these settlers and these settlements don’t belong here.

I remember as a child how "far away" Maale Adumim seemed. But as I grew up, so did the illegal settlement. The danger of this expansion never really registered in my mind until one night I dreamt that I opened the window of my bedroom to find myself looking into the courtyard of a Jewish house. The settlement had eaten the land all the way from where it stood till our house, and our house and the land surrounding it was next. I woke up sweating and my heart beating fast. So real was the threat, I realized at the time, that I knew it was not a mere nightmare. The next day I went at the back of the house to the spot where one could get a direct view of Maale Adumim and tried to calculate how much time we had before my nightmare became reality. I thought we still had time to act, but I was mistaken. Since the 1990’s the settlements have been expanding and are eating more Palestinian land at an unprecedented pace. In this area there are several illegal Jewish settlements such as Maale Adumim, Alon, Almon, Kidar, Kefar Adumim and Mishor Adumim, with a combined population of some 40,000 settlers. The largest, Maale Adumim was established in 1975 on confiscated Palestinian land and lies 14 km to the east of Jerusalem. It has a population of 35,000 illegal Jewish settlers and a jurisdictional area of 50 km². Road networks have been also established to connect Maale Adumim and neighboring settlements with Jerusalem and with the Jordan Valley. Palestinian land would be confiscated, declared a "closed military zone" and later used for illegal settlement expansions.

On the day of my arrival to Palestine for a short visit, I watched in shock as I passed Maale Adumim at how huge it has become. Within the space of two years, since my last visit, it had doubled in size, to say the least. Standing there on the mountain top, with a wall surrounding parts of it, it reminded me of a fortress from the middle ages. Although I am a fan of fortresses, this one brought only anger and disgust. The lands opposite it, which I distinctly remember were planted with olive trees, had become bare land, the trees uprooted and the land destroyed to make way for more illegal settler houses and roads. At the entrance to Maale Adumim stood a single olive tree, as huge as life and older than any illegal settler on this land. It was clear that this tree had been uprooted from some Palestinian field, maybe even from our confiscated land, and replanted here. Macabre, I thought and could only shake my head at the sad view of that lonely olive tree. Olive trees are like Palestinians, they grow in groups, surrounded by family and friends. That tree stood there alone, a reminder to every Palestinian that this is what the so-called peace process had done to us, and that if this process is allowed to go on, every single Palestinian will end up like that tree, alone and uprooted.

The plan to expand Maale Adumim, known as the "E-1" Plan, which was initiated by Rabin in 1994 and approved in 1999, led to the confiscation of yet more Palestinian land. This Plan is an important part of the "Greater Jerusalem" scheme, which includes Maale Adumim, Beitar, H´Givat Ze’ev, Gush Etzion, the Ariel bloc, the Hashmonain bloc and the Jordan Rift, and aims at annexing large areas of the West Bank to Jerusalem. This plan expands the jurisdictional boundaries of Maale Adumim and its satellite settlements to the Israeli Jerusalem municipal boundaries, linking Jerusalem with surrounding settlement blocs and linking the Maale Adumim bloc with with other settlement blocs such as Pisgat Ze’ev, Pisgat Omer, Neve Ya’acov and the French Hill. Also, a wall is being built around Maale Adumim and its satellite settlements, which will completely encircle East Jerusalem and 61 km² of Palestinian land. The "E-1" Plan aims to completely cut off Jerusalem from the rest of the Palestinian Territories, disconnecting the geographic contiguity of Palestinian Territories by dividing the West Bank into two parts, thus ensuring that no viable Palestinian state would ever come to existence. Last year, roads were paved and a bridge, main junctions, public squares, police stations, checkpoints and side walls were built in the "E-1" area. This area will cover some 13,000 dunums confiscated from Palestinian villages around Jerusalem and is to house an additional 15,000 illegal settlers. Two Israeli-only roads will connect settler roads southeast of Bethlehem with roads to the northeast, including connecting Maale Adumim and other Jerusalem settlements with the Ramot Ashkol settlement. For the construction of these roads, tens of houses in Sawahreh, Abu Dees and Al Tour are to be demolished. To prevent Palestinians from entering Jerusalem or using Road Nr. 1 that passes through the E-1 and Road Nr. 60 that passes through East Jerusalem, an "alternative" road is being constructed for Palestinian use and is to connect the Southern West Bank with its Northern part. For the construction of this road, the IOF issued a military order in 2007 confiscating 1,128 dunums of Palestinian land from villages between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, i.e. Sawahreh, Abu Dees, Nebi Musa and Al Khan Al Ahmar.

Blocking the southern entrance of Sawahreh is the "Container" checkpoint, which is now being expanded to become a permanent border-like crossing. Passing the checkpoint, one would not imagine what beautiful landscape lies behind the Israeli stone blocks and control tower. Locally, we call it "Barriyeh", the wilderness or the prairies. Green meadows decorated with red poppies wherever one looks. My favourite spot there is a low area, surrounded by hills and naturally-formed stone structures. Here, running was not possible because of the tall vegetation that covered the place. We would imagine ourselves swimming and race each other or play hide and seek. Then, when we would feel hungry, we would have something to eat under the olive trees. Relics of family history decorate caves in that area and cherished memories of childhood lie behind the checkpoint, making them off-limit to us. The last time I went there was just before leaving for Germany and I had not set foot again. Our lands there, including the olive fields, which were a source of income for my family, were confiscated in 2003. Today, only those few who originally had their houses behind the checkpoint are allowed in, but no one knows how long before their houses will be demolished for some reason or other so as to close the area completely.

The "Container" checkpoint is a passage between the north and the south of the West Bank. It is one of more than 630 Israeli checkpoints and road barriers all over the West Bank, aiming to restrict Palestinian movement on Palestinian land. Travelling to the south, one would have to take the "Wadi Al-Nar" road. Wadi Al-Nar, the Valley of Fire, is most probably called so because of its steepness and the danger of driving there. It was a dirt road connecting Sawahreh with Ubediyyeh, rarely used except maybe by villagers travelling on donkeys. With the signing of the so-called peace process, Jerusalem was closed to most Palestinians and this road was used instead as a link left between the south and the north. If one is stuck behind a truck on that road, the meaning of "Valley of Fire" becomes clear, for when driving up the road, one has the continuous feeling that the truck will turn over any minute and everything behind that truck would be squeezed underneath it. As children we would follow the shepherds with their herds whenever we could. We would eat figs, search for snake nests in caves and play at the old ottoman stone circles. Every time we were there on the hills, we would go exploring a bit further. It was mostly steep hills, where we learned to slide slowly down a hill, using our left foot as a break. Here, there were no illegal settlements and no IOF soldiers, or at least they were not visible. When it was time to go home, instead of taking the direct way, we would go all around the hills, passing the "sacred river" to the old Sawahreh houses and further back home. The "sacred river" as we called it, was a small "river" running through the Wadi Al-Nar. Greenery was along both sides of this river, giving it a genuine river look, like those we used to see in cartoons. The vegetables growing around the riverbanks were double the size of the ordinary vegetables we would buy from the supermarket. Later, and to our great disappoint, we found out that the reason for the extraordinary growth of these vegetables was the waste water. This "sacred river" was actually the flow of waste water from Maale Adumim and other settlements in the area. Not only was their waste water contaminating our lands, their solid waste was being dumped and burned on our lands as well. Several studies have shown that illegal Settlements comprise a major environmental threat. Waste water and industrial waste from settlements is dumped on Palestinian lands, contaminating the soil and the water supply. Palestinian plans to treat waste water are usually rejected by Israel, and in one incident Israel insisted that a treatment facility for Tulkarem be built on the other side of the Green line, for no other reason than to use the treated water for its own interest.

During my last visit to Palestine, I wanted to see these hills again and enjoy the beauty of a Palestine that was free of illegal settlements and IOF checkpoints. It was late afternoon and as I looked around me I saw Mount Herod in the distance, with Palestinian villages decorating the hills all the way from there to Jerusalem. And opposite them, Palestinian hills extended all the way to meet the Jordanian mountains in the horizon. There was no Apartheid Wall, no IOF checkpoints and no settlements. Although I knew they were there, breaking the natural bond between Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, they were not visible from where I stood. I saw the old stone houses with the traditional domed roof, a herd of sheep with a shepherd who was playing the flute, the sunset adding a magical touch to the whole landscape, and there, at that moment I felt what it would feel to live in a truly free Palestine. I started taking photos and wondering how long before the Israelis would wipe out this landscape and all traces of Palestinian existence here. I went home, thinking that the Palestine I grew up in is not the Palestine of today. The Palestine of today is the rest of the so-called peace process with its illegal settlements, the Apartheid Wall, the IOF checkpoints and "Herrenstraßen" that are eating Palestine from inside, like a cancer, destroying the land piece by piece. I remembered that lonely olive tree in front of Maale Adumim and hoped that those still disillusioned by the "peace process" would wake up and act before it was too late.



Palestinian Mothers: Homage to Steadfastness and Sacrifice

March 21, 2009

When the women came and told her to leave what she was doing and come and sit in front of the house with them, my grandmother knew what was to come. They sat outside and didn’t talk much. My uncle had been shot in the chest by the IOF that afternoon, and was at that moment being operated. He was in a critical condition, the doctors had told the men who had brought him to the hospital. Some were sent back home to prepare the family for the news and to prepare the refugee camp to welcome the hero, in case the worst happened. Although hope dies last, it was a necessity to prepare everything for a quick funeral and a quick burial. The Israeli army had been known to take bodies of Palestinian martyrs and steal their organs without the Palestinian family’s consent. The organs would then be given to Israelis who needed them. So a Palestinian killed by the IOF, mostly for no reason at all or for defending his country, would be labelled as terrorist by Israel and the biased media, while his organs would be used to save Israeli lives. In other countries, stealing the organs of dead people is considered a crime, but as usual, it doesn’t apply to Israel.

My grandmother sat quiet the whole time, no tears and no words. It was her youngest son, they said. His elder brothers had one time after another been imprisoned for everything that Israel considered "terror", that she decided at least to spare the youngest the inside of an Israeli prison. Every day she would tell him to go to school and come back directly. "don’t go here or there". I heard my mother say one time "she thought this way she was keeping him safe from the Israelis; everyday coming back from school after classes were over, and keeping him at her side most of the time." Till one day, the boys came and told my grandmother that her son had been arrested. "Arrested for what?" "he was throwing stones." He hadn’t even bothered to go to school that day." One of my other uncles said laughingly when the story was brought up once: but we had prepared him for this. And everyone laughed. I laughed too, because I have been though this process as well. Actually, to us kids, it was just another game. One of those bizarre refugee camp games, like the "UNRWA restaurant" game, where we would play little refugee kids standing in line and waiting for our daily portion of a slice of bread and small slice of tomato with salt, and being shouted at by the "UNRWA employee". The other game, which was to prepare us for future imprisonment by the IOF was the "confession game". Each one of us would be "tortured" to strengthen our resistance and prevent us from confessing anything in case we are interrogated by the IOF. There was really no "torture" in this game, because there was no real beating. We would be shouted at in a funny way, and the one among us to act the "IOF soldier" would be mimicking Israeli soldiers trying to be brave, but who are in fact afraid of us, little children. We would laugh while being "tortured", for it was mostly fun for us. Although the game would not really prepare anyone for the barbaric Israeli interrogation and torture, in some way, the game was educational. It gave us the feeling that we are stronger than the IOF and that despite all their weapons, they feared us. So, we would just play being beaten by the IOF, and the one playing the IOF soldier would ask us continuously to confess and we would refuse. He would slash us, though not harshly, on the soles, and demand we confess. We would refuse, laughingly, because for us it was a game, a game that would prove useful one day.

That day, no funeral took place, for my uncle had made it. He had a strong will to live. But every time I think of that moment, I think about my grandmother. The 60 year old woman, who used to divide her week according to visiting days in Israeli prisons. Before one of them was released, another would be arrested, so that they rarely gathered at a dinner table. We were all used to it, not seeing all my uncles at the same time. I rarely heard my grandmother complain, but it was clear to everyone how much she loved her family and how sad she was that they weren’t all around her. She didn’t have to tell her children to go and demonstrate. It was a natural reaction to what these children themselves saw and went through, and it was the love of the land planted in their heart by my grandmother. She would often talk about Jrash, the village from which she and her family and all the residents were ethnically cleansed by the Zionist terror organizations. They were forced to move from one place to another, until they finally reached what is now Dheisheh refugee camp. There she tried to reconstruct her original home by planting some trees in the small piece of land near the UNRWA rooms they were to live in.

The life of my grandmother is typical of the lives of many Palestinian mothers. She was born in a small picturesque village in Palestine, where she grew up, got married and started a family. She would take care of her home, and help the family with the fields. She would care for her small garden and the apple trees which she loved most and would make marmalade for the winter. When the Zionist terror organizations started implementing their plan of ethnically cleansing the Palestinian population, Palestinian villages were attacked one after the other, and horrific massacres took place. The residents of Jrash were finally forced to leave, but not before they fought heroically. My grandparents often talked about these days. During my last visit to Palestine a couple of months ago, I listened to my grandfather as he talked about the fight with the Zionist groups. With sharp memory, he mentioned such details, that for a few seconds I could feel myself there, with them, 60 years ago.

A number of times my grandmother was beaten by the IOF soldiers, some of whom were younger than her own sons and who didn’t care that she was an elderly woman. When IOF soldiers would attempt to arrest someone in the refugee camp, she would hurry with the other women and try and stop them. When Zionist settlers would attack the refugee camp, she would carry the tree stem she hides behind the couch and go protect the camp alongside the men and women. And in the early mornings of the day, when everyone is still fast asleep, after finishing the morning prayer I would hear her asking God to protect her family, her relatives, her neighbours, the refugee camp, the Palestinians and the whole world. I heard her day after day asking forgiveness for the whole world.

In Palestine mothers are sacred. Every one of us has several mothers: the mother that gave birth to us, the olive tree, the land and the mother of all: Palestine. And a Palestinian mother isn’t just a mother to the children she gives birth to, she is mother to all Palestinians. When a Palestinian is being arrested by the IOF, women of all ages will be surrounding the soldiers within seconds, trying to free the prisoner. And for that, sometimes they pay a heavy price, like the 60 year old Mariam Ayyad from Abu Dees. On the night of 20th of September 2008, IOF soldiers broke into her house. After arguing with her, the old woman was repeatedly hit and thrown on the ground by the soldiers until she died in front of her children and grandchildren. During curfews, it is mostly women who would move carefully from one house corner to another and from one street to the other and distribute wheat and milk. When young masked men wanted to go from one place to another, they would be assisted by these mothers, who would check that the roads were clear of IOF soldiers. And when one of their millions of children gets killed by the IOF, they all gather and mourn as one single mother, that it becomes difficult to figure out which one of these mothers is the martyr’s mother. They are the protectors, the helpers and the witnesses of Israeli brutality, for many of them not only carry the pain of losing their children, they carry the scars of more than 60 years of Zionist terror and destruction.

During the Nakba of 1948, Zionist terrorists massacred Palestinians indiscriminately. Even women and children, who are protected during wars under all human laws, were killed in a brutal way. Accounts of the Deir Yassin massacre mention that among the 254 Palestinians victims were 25 pregnant women who were bayoneted in the abdomen while still alive. Another 52 children were maimed in front of their mothers before having their heads cut off by the Zionist terrorists. After the village of Beit Darras had been surrounded by Zionist terror groups and further Zionist mobilization was on the way to occupy the village, the Zionist terror groups called on the Palestinian residents to leave the village safely from the south side. The villagers decided that it was safer for the women and children to leave, since it was the village the Zionists wanted. Upon leaving the village, all the women and children were massacred by the Zionist terrorists. Kafr Qasim, Qibya and many other massacres carry the same pattern of killing unarmed mothers and their children. Other mothers lost their children, and many their lives, after being forced out of their homes to wander the hills of Palestine in search of a safe spot.

The suffering and pain of Palestinian mothers continues till today. Palestinian mothers, including the elderly and the sick among them, are often humiliated at checkpoints in front of their children, and pregnant women are delayed, causing many to give birth at these checkpoint. Women are not only delayed at checkpoints, they are often prevented from reaching hospitals, causing miscarriages and even the death of some of women and infants. Many unnamed children are stillborn at Israeli checkpoints after unnecessary delays or after their mothers were forced to deliver on the dirt road or inside cars at the checkpoint. A report of the Palestinian Ministry of Health published in October 2006 states that since the beginning of the second Intifada in September 2000 some 68 pregnant women gave birth at Israeli checkpoints, leading to 34 miscarriages and the death of four women. In 2002, in two consecutive days two pregnant women on their way to hospital were shot and injured by the IOF soldiers at a checkpoint in the Nablus area. One of the women lost her husband who was shot on the neck and the chest. Others are forced to give birth at home, despite fear of complications because they fear they will be stopped at checkpoints and won’t make it in time to the hospital. In Azzun Atma near Qalqilya pregnant women are even forced to take up residence outside the village until they deliver out of fear that they might not be able to get the necessary medical treatment. The village, encircled by the apartheid wall, is separated by a gate from the rest of the West Bank. This gate is not manned at night, making the village a prison to its residents. According to a B’Tselem report, alone during 2006 some 20 out of 30 pregnant women from Azzun Atma were forced to relocate outside of the village because of their pregnancy.

IOF soldiers don’t hesitate in arresting Palestinian mothers to be used as hostages to pressure wanted Palestinians to give themselves up. In its report "Behind the Bars: Palestinian Women in Israeli Prisons" published in June 2008, Addammeer, Mandela Institute and the Palestinian Counselling Centre state that "As of May 2008, over 9.080 Palestinian political prisoners remain in Israeli prisons, detention facilities and camps; of those 73 Palestinian women (including 2 girls aged 16 and 17 of a total of 327 minors, and 24 mothers with a total number of 68 children." Many of the prisoners are held without any charges, and are subjected to torture, humiliation and intimidation. There were four cases of women giving birth inside Israeli prisons under difficult conditions. These women had their hands and feet shackled to their beds. They remain so until they enter the delivery room and are chained again after they deliver.

Palestinian mothers are not only to suffer the loss of their children, husbands and other family members, they themselves are also targeted by the IOF. According to Miftah 7141 Palestinians had been killed by the IOF during the period from 28th September 2000 till 28th February 2009, 1138 of whom were children and 581 were women. A recent report of the Palestine Centre for Human Rights on Israel’s war on Gaza confirms that "Over the course of the 22 day Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, a total of 1,434 Palestinians were killed. Of these, 235 were combatants. The vast majority of the dead, however, were civilians and non-combatants: protected persons according to the principles of IHL. PCHR investigations confirm that, in total, 960 civilians lost their lives, including 288 children and 121 women. 239 police officers were also killed; the majority (235) in air strikes carried out on the first day of the attacks. The Ministry of Health has also confirmed that a total of 5,303 Palestinians were injured in the assault, including 1,606 children and 828 women." Every single child killed had a mother. Human rights organization talked in their reports about mothers being killed together with their children, others witnessing the killing of their children and not able to prevent it, while others died in front of their children. Some of these mothers lost not only one child, but several. Of the many war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza, one horrific story tells the fate of a Palestinian mother of 10. While sitting with her children, the IOF soldiers entered her house and demanded she choose five of her children to "give as a gift to Israel". After the woman screamed in horror, the IOF soldiers told her they would choose themselves and then killed five of her children in front of her.

Palestinian mothers have been actively participating in resisting the occupation. They are the first to organize sit-ins in front of international organizations and hold marches demanding the release of their children from Israeli prisons or protesting the brutality of the Israeli military occupation. They visit their sons in hospitals and in jails, despite the long wait and the humiliation they endure on the hands of the Israelis jailers. Also, many of these mothers are the supporters of their families. When the father or son is arrested or killed by the IOF, it is the mothers who take on the burden of providing for their families. Those among them who have a piece of land would plant it with vegetables and herbs, to be later sold to neighbours or at the local market. Others use their embroidery skills to stitch Palestinian tradition dresses "thob", scarves, shawls and pillow covers. They hold their families together, particularly in difficult times.

Biased media, serving only Zionist propaganda, ignores the suffering of Palestinian mothers under Israeli occupation and instead often portrays them as heartless women, who send these children to the streets and encourage them to throw stones so be killed and then celebrate their death. Palestinian parents encourage their children to study and get a good education and build a better future for themselves. Some parents even lock their children inside the house to prevent them from participating in demonstration or any other kind of activity against the IOF because they know the brutality of the IOF and out of fear they might be killed by Israeli soldiers or settlers. Parents work hard to spare their children the suffering they themselves endured under the Israeli occupation. But as long as the Zionists occupy Palestine, Palestinian suffering will continue, and generation after generation will seek to get themselves rid of this brutal occupation, no matter how hard the parents try to keep their children away from it. Living in Palestine, and being confronted with Zionist terror every day, one is not in need of parents or teachers to form an idea about this Zionist state and decide to demonstrate for a better future. That is why many join demonstrations or get politically active without telling their parents. In many cases it is when the children get arrested or are killed that the parents first know of their children’s involvement in resisting the occupation. Palestinian mothers who lose their children often appear composed on TV and in the news, and if asked, most of them talk about their martyred children in pride and calm and without shedding a tear. It is behind the camera that they show their sorrow and anger at the loss of their beloved ones. Palestinians know that these mothers want to send a message to Israel: despite the suffering and the pain, you won’t break us, ever. Few journalists bother to visit these mothers days after their children have been killed. Many of them visit the grave of their killed child daily, and others keep their room as it was when they still lived there. Few reporters bother asking these mothers what memoires they have kept of their children. If they did, they would be shown clothes, hair brushes, notebooks and pictures, all soaked in tears. These mothers would have freely sacrificed their lives to save their children from death on the hands of the IOF and give them a future empty of Zionist occupation.

Mothers are sacred in Palestine because they are the personification of Palestine: the homeland and the mother of all Palestinians. It is the love of this land that is handed over from one generation to the next. Whenever in Dheisheh, we often sat with grandmother as children, listening to her talking about Palestine, the Nakba, the Naksa and the life in a refugee camp. She would talk about her mother and her grandmother, about her brothers and sisters, about my grandfather, and about her children. She was strong and was always there for her family, even at times when she herself was very weak. She was the safe island everyone seeks and the cave that sheltered us from the storm. Even long after her death, I still often think of her and ask for her guidance. She passed down her strength, steadfastness and kindness to her children. My mother continued the tradition of connecting us to the Palestinian landscape. As children, she and my father used to sit with us and tell us stories about Palestine, the history that one would not find in book, the history of the real people who lived on this land and appreciated it. For me, the personal experiences of my grandmother and mother are priceless. I am thankful to my grandmother and my mother for introducing me to a Palestine that was unknown to me, to parts of our history that others work hard to delete, to a heritage that is mine forever. Through our mothers Palestine is celebrated every single day.

In his poem "My Mother", late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said:

I must be worth my life
At the hour of my death
Worth the tears of my mother