Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Closure in Hebron

The CPT delegation arrived in Hebron on Monday afternoon to find the main road into the city closed. Soldiers had set up a checkpoint around 7 a.m., our cab driver told us, and were letting cars through intermittently. The checkpoint was set up Sunday after a 25-year-old Hamas activist was killed by soldiers who demolished his home on top of him following a 12-hour standoff. ISM reports that another house was also demolished during the operation.

The checkpoint halted traffic both entering and leaving the city. A Reuters photographer told us that a woman had given birth at the checkpoint about an hour earlier, which a Ma'an report confirmed.

Palestinian Child Killed at Na'alin Demonstration

Israeli soldiers have killed a 10-year-old boy in Na'alin as demonstrations continue against the so-called security barrier, which is set to confiscate 2,500 dunams of the village's land. Ahmed Moussa was shot in the forehead at close range, said eyewitnesses. Ha'aretz reports that boys had been throwing stones after the day's protests had mostly subsided, and soldiers responded by firing live ammunition.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Drops of Water

Everyone the CPT delegation has met over the last few days seems to agree that the situation for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is getting worse. The frustration is palpable, and it’s seen on people’s faces and heard in their comments. “Don’t even think about that,” said our host in Bethany, Issa, when one of our team asked what he thought about the prospects for peace. We hear again and again the stories of broken promises and vanishing optimism. The settlement activity that exploded during the “peace process” has not slowed down since the Annapolis conference; construction of the wall continues; the military closes roads, arrests people and raids houses at will.

The suffering is extreme and ubiquitous. Friday we met Saleem in East Jerusalem, whose house has been demolished four times. After one of the demolitions, his 6-year-old son hid for eight hours in a field, and his wife was so traumatized that she didn’t speak for a month. Saturday we talked to Ahmed in the Arroub Refugee Camp, who has spent 10 years in prison, beginning when he was 16. We also met with a family in Beit Ummar with five demolition orders on their house and the mayor of Beit Ummar who spent 11 months in jail, where he was sometimes handcuffed to a chair for 15 hours at a time.

No one we have talked to is expecting a miracle. Rather they are quick to challenge our naivete if we act shocked by Israel’s actions or look for hope in the legal system or negotiations. Incursions, roadblocks, imprisonment without charge and home demolitions have become normal, and the Palestinians are prepared for them to continue.

But in the people we’ve met so far, this resignation hasn’t led to nihilism or defeat. We met Saleem at a workcamp sponsored by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions where he was leading a group of internationals and Palestinians in the rebuilding of two demolished homes. Ahmed raises money to help the people in his refugee camp. Recently they built a playground and swimming pool, and he also helps raise money to send youth from the camp to college. The mayor of Beit Ummar hopes for a time when relations in Palestine will be governed by human rights and equality. “I hate [the Israelis’] behavior,” he told us, “not their soul.”

There is wisdom in these people, born, I think, partly from decades of suffering and being forced to face questions of justice and injustice, life and death. They do not hope for peace and justice to fall down on them like rain in the desert, but they do continue the struggle for their existence. “It is like a soft drop of water that falls on a hard surface,” said the mayor. “If it falls continuously on the same place, eventually it will leave a mark.”

CPTer Attacked in Tuwanni

On Sunday, settlers from Havot Ma'On beat CPTer Joel Gulledge with a rock and a video camera as he accompanied children to a summer camp. A masked settler approached the 14 children and two CPTers and began throwing stones with a slingshot while other settlers came from another direction. The children ran away unharmed, but Gulledge, who was filming the attack, was caught and beaten. Pictures and a more complete description are here.

Settler attacks in the West Bank have been particularly ruthless over the last few weeks, including setting fire to a house in Burin, rocket attacks from a settlement near Nablus, and an attack near Samua' where a man was tied to pole and beaten.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Update on Abu Rahma Case

The soldier who shot Ashraf Abu Rahma at close range has been released, Ma'an news agency reports, and the father of the girl who filmed the shooting has been arrested at a recent demonstration in Ni'lin.

And so another promise, this one from Ehud Barak that the soldier would be held accountable, appears to be broken. Meanwhile, the Israelis may be about to approve construction of a brand new settlement in the Jordan Valley.

For the past few days, I have been traveling with a CPT delegation, meeting with Palestinians and Israelis and hearing their stories and perspectives on the situation here. There is a certain degree of cynicism in everyone these days, and it is stories like these that keep feeding it.

(Thanks to Free Speech Unlimited to bringing these reports to my attention.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Abuse of Protester Caught on Tape

On Sunday B'Tselem released a video of a Palestinian protester in Ni'lin being shot at point blank range with a rubber bullet. The man in the video, Ashraf Abu Rahme of Bil'in, is actually a friend of mine from last summer who is active in Palestinian non-violent resistance against the wall. Earlier in the year he was arrested for climbing a crane in order to prevent further construction of the settlement that is confiscating land in his village.

The video of Ashraf was taken by a 14-year-old Palestinian girl as part of B'Tselem's "Shooting Back" program, which has given over 100 video cameras to Palestinians so that they can document settler and soldier abuse. Catching attacks on film can force Israeli authorities to investigate cases of abuse that otherwise would be ignored. More importantly, the presence of video cameras can prevent violence by making settlers and soldiers aware that they can held accountable for their actions.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Watching Their Flocks By Night

On Friday, Marius (the other intern) and I headed for the Negev with some international and Israeli human rights activists. We were planning to deliver water to Tel Arad, an unrecognized village that is not receiving any water from the Israeli government. Our delivery was going to be mostly symbolic; in the current drought conditions, the few dozen litre bottles we were bringing would be no substitute for the water tanker they had been denied.

Marius and I never made it the Negev, though. Just after we crossed the Green Line into Israel our ride, Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights, got a call about an emergency in the South Hebron Hills and we left to investigate.

We arrived at around 3 p.m and two of the men came up to talk to Arik. A handful of children stood by the sheep and goats in the harsh sun, staring at us and whispering to each other. The army arrived a few minutes after us, and we guarded Arik's car while all of them went off to see the site of the attack.

About an hour later Arik came back with the story. About 30 settlers had arrived in cars at 9:30 that morning and attacked the tent where Ahmed, the shepherd, stayed with his family next to caves for their flocks. The settlers took everything - their tent, food, clothes, dishes, blankets.

The soldiers and police were reluctant to take action. Ahmed had talked to a soldier on the road just after the attack. That soldier talked to the settlers and said they were from Kiryat Arba, a settlement bordering H2. The soldier said he would call in police, but none ever came. That afternoon, with Arik there to plead on Ahmed's behalf, the result was not much better. They listened to Ahmed's testimony but said that for lack of evidence there was little they could do. After all, they said, how could they know there had even been a tent there? There was no destruction left to photograph. Ahmed was told to bring proof that he owned the land to the police station on Sunday morning. No one was hurt, a soldier told me back at the car, so everything was now ok and we could go home.

But we didn't go home. The family - Ahmed, Nafiyya and their 16 children - had a place to stay in the nearby village of As-Samua', but they were not to be driven off their land. The parents and the younger children spent the night with the flocks as usual, and Marius, two ISM volunteers and I stayed with them in case of another attack. Arik had arranged for the Red Cross to bring a tent, which arrived just in time for us to put it up together before sundown. Along with the tent were blankets, three mattresses, food, dishes and toiletries. Still, Nafiyya told us as she pointed to her son's remaining T-shirt, they had lost many things that were not found in the four white boxes from the Red Cross.

This family's life is hard even without the regular harassment they endure from the settlers. The sheep and goats require constant attention. I sat up with Meryem, a 16-year-old daughter, until 2 a.m. while she watched the flock. She stays out there three nights a week, never sleeping very much, and also goes to school in As-Samua. After she graduates high school she hopes to study history at Hebron University.

We sat on stones, wrapped in Red Cross blankets, and looked out at the lights of Asah-El, the illegal settler outpost about a kilometre away. "Are you afraid of the settlers?" she asked me. I didn't know how to respond except to say, slowly in my broken Arabic, that if they came we would film them and maybe then they wouldn't want to cause trouble.

I asked Meryem if she had been there that morning when the settlers attacked. For a moment I tried to imagine that the settlers did not effect her, that this girl needed only the strength and resilience to sit up with her family's flock at night and go to school in the morning. But she had been there that morning, she told me, and when the settlers came she ran for her life. It's normal for a few settlers to come and harass the family, she said. They come during the day or the night, whenever they please. But she had never seen so many, and she thought at first they had come to kill her family.

Once again, I didn't know how to respond except to sigh and nod and keep sitting there looking out at Asah-El. The conversation switched back to lighter topics, like a wedding she had attended the day before, and I could pretend again that the challenges of her life did not include the overt and senseless hatred directed at her from the settlers. After a little while I went to sleep and was glad to wake up and find that morning had come without incident.

For Ahmed and Nafiyya's family, the past few days have made a hard life harder. But for now at least they are holding onto their land and their livelihood in an area where to do so is a powerful act of resistance.

Friday, July 11, 2008

More Press on Hebron

Some veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa visited Hebron this week, and The Independent has an article about their impressions. While the South Africans were careful to point out differences between apartheid in South Africa and the occupation here, some said that in many ways the oppression of Palestinians is worse than what they experienced, especially here in Hebron.

The article also reports that when settlers began yelling at the tour group it was Israeli tour guides - not the harassing settler - whom soldiers arrested. Unfortunately CPT has been noticing an increasing tendency for soldiers and police to comply with the settlers' wishes in terms of who is allowed to travel freely throughout the city. Israelis and internationals are supposed to be allowed in all of Hebron, but lately CPT and other international groups have been prevented from walking on some streets near settlements.

Today, a few of us accompanied Asef, an Israeli from Breaking the Silence, who was trying to visit a friend on Tel Rumeida. We joined him on his second attempt to get to his friend; the first time settlers attacked, yelling at him and throwing eggs. The police told him they would not protect him if he was by himself, so he turned back. We accompanied Asef and his friend Amos with video cameras, while a group of settler men followed, also filming. Ultimately Asef and Amos were surrounded by settlers, police and soldiers all arguing with one another. The police defused the situation by taking them away from H2, ending the conflict but also reinforcing the settlers' influence over which Israelis and internationals can move freely within the city.

This enforced separation between settlers and those who would challenge them arguably reduces conflict in the short term. But the burden of separation here is being borne disproportionately by thousands of Palestinians - and the result looks a lot like apartheid.

(More on viewing the occupation through an apartheid framework here.)

Monday, July 7, 2008

My Friend Omar

A Palestinian friend of mine from last summer, Omar Qassis, was arrested in March and has been held since under administrative detention (meaning without charge). Omar spent a lot of time with the international students studying at Birzeit last summer, and he was always ready to help us or to talk with us about anything.

I got this update about his case today. He is in a prison in the Negev inside Israel, and so far his family has been prevented from visiting him, and he still doesn't know the charges against him. His administrative detention expires on July 31, so if it is not renewed he will be freed then. The Right to Education campaign at Birzeit University is asking people to write on Omar's behalf to the International Bar Association. See here for details.

Here's an excerpt from the Right to Education article:

On the 17th of May 2008, Omar told the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University about his conditions while under interrogation and once he arrived in Ofer prison in the West Bank.

"I am O.K. but since my arrest my weight has dropped from 67 to 59 kilos. Since arriving in Ofer I have not been given enough sugar and I couldn't sleep for the first 4 days. I had hemorrhoids which were painful but my requests to see a doctor were ignored. In the end I had to skip meals to be able to see a doctor.

The hemorrhoids developed while I was under interrogation because I wasn't given any clean clothes and the solitary confinement cell I was in - 'the hole' - was really humid. I was in 'the hole' for 11 days. Also when they started interrogating me I was tied down to a chair while intelligence officers questioned me for 4 hours at a time. Some soldiers told me that I would get hemorrhoids from sitting down so much if I didn't start confessing.

I also couldn't sleep because of the mental distress I was under. I wake up easily, every time a soldier walks past. I saw soldiers beating other inmates and fear that I could be next. I'm also very disoriented, I hear sounds of dogs barking and people screaming at night. I think these are recordings but they affect me. I also heard a siren the other night and I imagined Israel was going to war with Iran and that they had evacuated the prison leaving me there alone. I have lost my bearings and am generally confused about the times of day or night.

The other day I cried. I cried at the sight of an old man, probably in his 60s, sitting alone and looking very fragile. I also know that he is diabetic. I can't stand to see the injustice he is in, and even less to imagine the injustices he has seen.

Now that I am here in prison I am in less physical pain but I am still stressed at the uncertainly of it all. I have no idea how long I will be in prison. I have no idea what they are doing or claiming. All I know is that I'm not a threat to security but I was still being questioned about all sorts of things, so anything and everything is going through their heads.

I basically just want to know when I can see my family again."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Two Israels

Nick Kristoff had a good column a couple weeks ago about the tightening security regime in the West Bank, particularly in Hebron. He concludes by challenging the U.S. presidential candidates to be more specific about which Israel they are referring to when they pledge their support and friendship. Kristoff hopes it is the Israel represented by organizations like B'Tselem, which would be wonderful but of course is not what anyone understands to be the case when Obama and McCain speak to AIPAC.

Unfortunately the Israel represented by the settlers is the one the authorities seem to be listening to here in Hebron. I'm not sure about B'Tselem, but Breaking the Silence and Bnei Avraham (Sons of Abraham), another Israeli peace group, have recently been prevented by military order from entering Hebron. Their case will go to court in a couple months, but in the meantime they will not be able to bring delegations or meet with their Palestinian counterparts. This not only hinders the work of these groups, it limits the Israelis in Hebron to those that carry machine guns and those that throw rocks. Doesn't seem like the way to create peace.

Speaking of B'Tselem, they've done a lot of work in Hebron and have a good description of the situation that has developed since the Oslo accords here.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Welcome to Hebron

Today was my first full day with CPT in Hebron. Already I feel like I could go on for pages about the situation here, describing the geography, the history, the complex relationships between different groups of people. It all seems important and relevant. But for now I am just going to write about Omar.*

I met Omar while walking around Tal Rumeida (the hill where Hebron was located in biblical times) with another CPTer and a friend of his who is visiting from Canada. Omar has been working with CPT for years, and when he saw us in the street he invited us to his home. We had to take a rocky, makeshift path to get there, climbing through a break between two garden walls. The street that goes to Omar's house is closed to Palestinians, because of a settlement that stands just above his backyard. We entered through the back, but not before Omar stopped to show us his olive trees, which for a time were cut off from him with barbed wire. The barbed wire, thanks to a court order, now sits to the side of the little grove, but there is still trash thrown down from the settlement's balcony, just above the trees.

Living so close to the settlement has meant hell for Omar and his family. On the way to the back door, we passed a row of grape vines. Settlers had severed them all so that the intertwined tops hung eerily above their trunks. Omar's young daughters played in a tree nearby the decapitated vines, and I couldn't help but worry about them there, easily visible from the settlement balcony. I didn't feel any better when Omar showed us the bullet hole above his door from a settler attack in 2003.

We sat in Omar's living room and sipped grape juice while he chain smoked and told stories. He told us about one settler, Rebekah*, who is notorious for her cruelty to Palestinians and their advocates. I had already heard about her from CPTers who have been the target of her verbal and physical abuse. They told me she encourages settler kindergartners to throw rocks at Palestinians. Omar showed us a video of her which had been put together with help from B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. In it she taunts his niece, who is standing behind a fence. "Sharmoota," she says, which is an Arabic curse word meaning whore. She says it over and over, slowly and not too loudly, looking into the niece's face.

Omar also showed us a video of the settler attack in 2003 - the one that left the bullet hole above his door. Tal Rumeida was under curfew at the time (there was a full-time curfew there from 2000-2003), and so all the Palestinians were trapped in their homes when the attack took place. On the video, a mob of hundreds of settlers gather in the street and begin breaking into houses. They break windows and force open gates while soldiers, who so readily use tear gas and rubber bullets against nonviolent Palestinian demonstrations in Bil'in, make no apparent effort to break up the crowd. The video then cuts to the aftermath, showing broken windows and doors and belongings scattered on the floor.

Omar is a father of three, including a baby boy just over a month old. It's his children, of course, that he worries about the most. They are scared of the settlers, he said, and it's important for their fear to be addressed. Mental health workers from Doctors Without Borders come sometimes to meet with children in Hebron, but Omar also talks to his kids about the violence around them. There are two sides to every society, he tells them. The settlers are one side of Israeli society, but his kids also interact with the Israeli peace activists who sometimes visit. One of Omar's Israeli friends is a former soldier who served in Hebron and is now part of Breaking the Silence. In 2003, while Tal Rumeida was under full curfew, this soldier distracted his comrades so that Omar could carry his pregnant wife out of the curfew zone and to a hospital to give birth. Now he and other internationals in Hebron suggest to his kids a friendlier world. In the context of ongoing harassment, it's maybe an insufficient antidote, but Omar hopes these interactions are a chance for his kids to ultimately transcend the violence into which they were born.

*Names have been changed.