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Interview with Rawia abu Rabia of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel

May 25, 2010

Electronic Intifada published my piece today — an in-depth and very moving interview about the continued uprooting and displacement of Palestinian Bedouins inside the Green Line.

Israel denies Palestinians in “unrecognized villages” basic services like water and electricity. (Yotam Ronen/ActiveStills)

Al-Masadiya, al-Garin, Khirbat al-Watan, Bir al-Hamam, Khashem Zana, Sawin, al-Shahabi, Wadi al-Naam and al-Mashash are all Palestinian Bedouin villages facing destruction by bulldozers and cement mixers as Israel’s transportation ministry plans to lengthen its Trans-Israel Highway southward into the Naqab (Negev) desert. This means that more than 3,000 Palestinian Bedouins could be displaced if an injunction filed by Israeli civil rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) doesn’t succeed in the high court.

Spokespeople for Bimkom (Planners for Planning Rights), the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, some of the groups filing the injunction, say that the Israeli government approved the highway construction without consideration for indigenous populations in the Naqab.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reports that the highway extension is part of the Israeli government’s plan for “development” of the Naqab, which also includes the construction of a massive Israeli military training facility at the Southern end.

More than 80,000 indigenous Bedouins live in the Naqab desert region, in dozens of so-called “unrecognized villages” — communities that the state has refused to acknowledge despite the fact that most of them have existed before the State of Israel was established. Moreover, Israeli politicians often refer to the areas as “empty” in order to create support for building new Jewish settlements, removing the indigenous populations in continuation of an ethnic cleansing project that is now more than 62 years old.

On a regular basis, Israeli bulldozers and squads of police invade Palestinian Bedouin villages, carrying out widespread home demolitions and leaving entire communities reduced to rubble. While such Israeli rights violations in the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem have generated protest, it is less known that such policies are in place in Israel itself.

Rawia Abu Rabia, a social activist and human rights lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, represents her community and advocates for their human and civil rights as the state continues to discriminate and uproot citizens across the country. Nora Barrows-Friedman interviewed Abu Rabia for KPFA’s Flashpoints Radio on 13 May.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Rawia, can you talk about the current crisis facing the indigenous populations living inside the State of Israel? Explain what these so-called unrecognized villages are, and tell us about the level of institutionalized racism, discrimination and home demolitions right now.

Rawia Abu Rabia: First, we’re talking about the indigenous Bedouin community who are part of the Palestinian people. They are citizens of Israel, although they are not treated as equal citizens. Half of the Bedouin indigenous communities have existed before the establishment of the state, for many centuries, as agricultural workers. They were internally displaced by the State of Israel, starting from the Nakba in 1948, where they were transferred to a certain geographical area. They were restricted from moving from one place to another until 1966, as part of the military regime policy that Palestinian citizens of Israel were subjected to.

Then, the state decided to organize the Bedouins and established seven governmental townships that are among the poorest towns in Israel, forcibly moving the Bedouins into this tight geographical area known for its low agricultural fertility. The purpose was to have as many Bedouins as possible on minimum land. Their ancestral lands were given to new Jewish cities and other urban areas, while they were restricted from returning to their historical villages.

Then, the state started to make different laws in order to take over new areas of Bedouin land. In 1965, Israel’s implementation of the construction and building law, which designed the master plan for Israeli cities and villages, didn’t take into consideration any of the Bedouin villages. By doing that, the state used the law and the legal mechanisms to displace the Bedouins and make them illegal. That’s why today we have about 80,000 Bedouin Palestinian citizens of Israel who live in about 35 villages that the State of Israel refuses to recognize. What I mean by lack of recognition is that the villages don’t appear on official maps. They are denied basic services: running water, electricity, and garbage disposal. People aren’t allowed to build permanent houses, and those who do risk heavy fines and home demolitions.

In 2009, 254 houses were demolished in these villages. The State of Israel and state officials ignore their existence. They are invisible citizens in the eyes of the law. The other half of the Bedouins live in the seven townships that are among the poorest and underdeveloped towns of Israel. The rate of dropout from schools in these villages is almost 60 percent, the rate of unemployment is extremely high and the level of education is very poor … the Bedouins are not entitled to the same rights as the Jewish citizens.

The saddest thing is the institutionalized racism and discrimination that is written into the law. Especially laws related to the land issues — which are designed to criminalize the Bedouins and make them illegal.

NBF: What do the laws actually say; what is written in these laws?

RAR: First of all, the laws related to land issues are discriminatory. For example, since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 until today, hundreds of Jewish cities and agricultural settlements were established, while no Palestinian villages or cities were established except for the seven townships that I mentioned. Another example is the issue that this area in which the Bedouins are concentrated, is basically the only place that Bedouins can live. If a Bedouin wants to live in another place, he will face all sorts of discriminatory mechanisms, such as criteria to be accepted to live in certain towns in Israel.

I mentioned this construction and building law from 1965, the Master Plan, that didn’t include any of the Bedouin villages. So by the law, the Bedouin villages are illegal. Today, in many Palestinian villages in Israel, when people want to build homes or expand their villages, they don’t get permits from the planning authorities to do so. By doing that, they are deprived from the basic right of housing and the state doesn’t provide any alternative.

Even when the homes are demolished in the unrecognized villages, no compensation or alternative housing is provided by the state, even though, according to international law, such an alternative should be provided.

There are other laws, such as the citizenship law, [that are discriminatory]. If you are a Palestinian Israeli citizen and want to marry a Palestinian from the occupied territories or another Arab country, your spouse will not get [Israeli] citizenship. He is deprived; while if you are a Jewish Israeli, and you want to marry a foreigner from a country abroad, he can move into the process of citizenship. There is also the law of return, which is a law that says that anyone who has a mother who is Jewish can come to Israel and get Israeli citizenship, while Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 — refugees, as we all know — cannot return. They cannot get any rights, and their properties and land are declared as “absentee property” even when the people who own these lands are not absent — they’re still alive.

NBF: In April 2010, the Bedouin village of Twail abu Jarwal in the Naqab was demolished for the fortieth time in the last few years. Tell us about these kinds of actions by the Israeli government, and what happens to people during these home demolitions.

RAR: We’re talking about home demolitions — but the “homes” we’re talking about are very poor shacks and tents that are being destroyed. And these are young communities. About 70 percent of the Bedouin community is below 18 years old. These bulldozers come into these poor places, these shacks and tents, and demolish them. The purpose is meant to pressure the Bedouins into leaving their land, so the state can take control over their land.

There are other mechanisms used to take over land as well, such as the Jewish National Fund — which recently planted trees on the land of the al-Araqid tribe. These are other forms and mechanisms to take over more and more land, and to pressure people to leave their land. The Bedouins know this, and based on the bitter experience of the Palestinian people, they know that the only way that they can have a chance to keep their land is to physically stay on their land — sumoud (steadfastness). [Israel’s policies are] a very aggressive way to push people off their land without any consideration of international law, or of the declaration of the rights of indigenous people, et cetera. This actually pushes people to be hostile, and to lose any trust in the Israeli authorities; legal or otherwise. People become bitter when they see this discrimination alive, in front of them; when they see the bulldozers come and destroy their homes without any compensation or alternative, nothing.

NBF: Walk us through one of these Bedouin villages. Talk about the kinds of conditions that Bedouins are living in right now as they face home demolitions, and what kinds of services people are prevented from accessing as villagers in these communities.

RAR: Most of the unrecognized Bedouin villages lack health services and other services as well. If they want to access services in the nearest Jewish city or elsewhere, they first have to walk for miles to get to the main road. And then they have to find transportation, since there is no public transportation within these villages. The few services, the few clinics that we have in some of the villages, are results of petitions to the supreme court. None of the villages are connected to electricity at all. So when a bulldozer comes and destroys houses during the winter time — we’re talking about the desert, which is very cold at night — you can imagine that they will be left with no ways to find heating or other protection, other solutions.

NBF: We’ve been following the story of the Palestinian “unrecognized” village of Dhammash, outside of Lydd near the Ben Gurion Airport, 20 minutes from Tel Aviv. The people there are in and out of the high court, hoping to get another injunction to prevent the bulldozers from demolishing 13 homes there. Can you talk about what’s happening to communities like this, which are inside more urban areas around the state, Palestinians who are forced into displacement as the Jewish communities grow and expand?

RAR: I think that the issue of the Bedouins is not disconnected from the issues of other Palestinian communities living inside Israel. This is part of the daily situation we all face as Palestinian Israeli citizens who are treated as second-class citizens or worse. The land is the main resource that has been denied to the Palestinians.

For instance, in Jaffa, which a mixed city of Jews and Palestinians, we see how Jaffa is developing for the Jewish citizens while the Palestinian citizens are kicked out of their neighborhoods. This is the issue of the Naqab with the Bedouins, it’s the issue of the mixed towns of Jaffa or Lydd, and it’s also the issue in the Galilee, where there are many home demolition orders as well. This is the same cause. This is the feeling of the Palestinian citizens of Israel — we were displaced in 1948, and in 1967, and the process of internal displacement is still happening all the time. Especially now, with the right-wing government that is following these racist policies and pushing Palestinian Israeli citizens more and more out of their villages, and are being delegitimized as a people.

I think this is what links the whole cause. It’s the cause of being Palestinian, and being a Palestinian Israeli citizen who is being treated in an unequal way.

NBF: You met the Special Rapporteur for Indigenous People at the United Nations in New York recently, tell us what went on in the meeting and what the UN is doing to address the critical needs for the Palestinian and Bedouin communities inside Israel.

RAR: Yes, I had a meeting with the Special Rapporteur, Professor James Anaya, and I explained to him the situation of the Bedouins in the Naqab and the internal displacement, the home demolitions, and the decision of the Israeli government to triple the home demolition orders for Bedouin villages, and he’s very much concerned with the situation of the Palestinian Bedouins in the Naqab. He mentioned that he will follow up with the situation. I urged him to come and visit these villages and see for himself. I could sit there and describe this to him, but the best thing is if he could come and see the demolitions that are taking place, the actions that are taking place to push people away from their land and houses. I hope he accepts the invitation and comes and visit. But he said that in the meantime, he said he will follow up the issues that I have raised with the Israeli government.

NBF: Talk about your work as a lawyer for these communities. What is it like representing their concerns as the state pretty much goes ahead and continues to de-populate, displace and discriminate on a daily basis?

RAR: As a lawyer for human rights, working at the Association for Civil Rights, I face challenges all the time. On the one hand, I face discrimination as a Bedouin citizen of Israel — when I came back from the UN on El-Al airlines, I faced a huge humiliation because I’m an Arab. But on the other hand, the only effective tool that I can use to advocate for my people is the legal tool. It’s a challenge all the time, because you have to be optimistic. My biggest dilemma is, how can I advocate for equality within a discriminatory reality? This is a big challenge — because sometimes, the supreme court makes good decisions, but sometimes, because of some discriminatory laws, it could make a decision that is not the best for my people … And I believe in the international mechanisms as well, that we have to use these to put pressure on Israel to change its policies towards the Bedouins.

People, sometimes, are very frustrated with the situation, especially when they see that the legal system is not equal … people think that the legal system is supposed to provide answers, but not in all cases. That’s the situation. We have to promote equality in an unequal reality. We don’t have any other options — we have to continue in this way.

NBF: Israeli politicians regularly describe the state as a moral democracy for all of its citizens, but it’s clear that it’s a democracy only for a preferred ethnicity, or a preferred religion. What can you say about what democracy looks like in historic Palestine today, and what’s your response to how Israeli leaders represent their policies?

RAR: Like Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi said, “Israel is a democratic state for the Jews, and a Jewish state for the Arabs.” This describes the situation … And others, like professor Oren Yiftachel, who said that it’s actually an ethnocracy, it’s not democracy. We could argue whether it is a democratic and Jewish state or not. Israel doesn’t have a constitution. It doesn’t have a separation between religion and the state. It has problematic issues related to violations of women’s rights because of a lack of separation between religious laws and the state. So, it’s a very problematic democracy. And we are also witnessing harassment of human rights activists and organizations that are the last refuge for a democracy. They are the only voice that talk about human rights violations that are taking place in the so-called democratic state.

NBF: You’re referring to your colleague, Ameer Makhoul of Ittijah – Union of Arab Community-Based Associations and others in the last few weeks who have been detained, prevented from leaving the country. And Makhoul’s story was under gag order in the Israeli media. What more can you say about this crackdown on Palestinian civil rights activists and organizations, who are trying to represent the interests of the indigenous populations there?

RAR: I think the gag orders are problematic and they’re happening more often. It’s very concerning, as Israel wants to see itself as a democracy. A democratic state is not supposed to let things happen in the dark. We’re very much concerned with these gag orders being issues easily. Actually, Adalah [the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel] and the Association for Civil Rights are asking the courts to remove these gag orders. And people know about these cases already. It’s a globalized world; people are reading about what’s happening on the Internet, they hear about it anyway, so [the gag orders] are kind of absurd.

But I think this is also part of the steps that are being taken against Palestinian leaders in order to silence them as they advocate for their cause. We’re doing our work according to the legal system, and this is a way to silence these voices.

“I wanted to send out a message that the sky, from which my son was killed, is a beautiful sky that has beautiful things to look at.”

May 4, 2010

My dear friend and colleague, Rami al-Meghari, wrote an exceptionally moving article today on the Electronic Intifada that I wanted to make sure people read.

In Gaza, the Israeli government has tried incessantly to suppress life and growth. Through the eyes of one astronomer, armed with The Bigger Picture through a telescope, this story paints a portrait of resistance and resilience, how grief and the cosmos interweave through all of our lives, no matter where we live. Thank you Rami, and thank you, Dr. Suleiman Baraka.

Bereaved Gaza astronomer opens up the heavens
Rami Almeghari writing from , The Electronic Intifada, 4 May 2010

Suleiman Baraka stargazing in Gaza. (Amjad Hammad)

As the sun set on a clear evening in Gaza City, Suleiman Baraka was setting up his telescope on the rooftop of the French Cultural Center as two dozen visitors waited anxiously to gaze into the stars. It was a rare occasion to break away — at least momentarily — from the siege on the ground in the Gaza Strip.

“It is such an exciting experience for me that I never imagined would happen,” said Suzan al-Barashly, one of the waiting star-gazers. “I’ve been used to nothing but Israeli warplanes and drones buzzing over our heads. I have never enjoyed the beauty of our sky. I am seeing the stars close to me — such a beautiful scene.”

In recent years, the Gaza Strip has witnessed widespread Israeli air raids that targeted many parts of the coastal territory, the latest and deadliest of which was in the winter of 2008-09. More than 1,400 persons, mostly civilians, were killed in the attacks.

That reality was not far from al-Barashly’s mind. “I just told a friend that I am afraid to look into this telescope,” she said. “It resembles a rocket launcher, so I am afraid the Israeli unmanned drones will hit us, thinking we are launching rockets.”

Ahmad, another amateur astronomer, said, “I feel glad to have experienced something that is unimaginable in Gaza. Really, thanks to Mr. Suleiman, who made us enjoy such an incredible moment.”

For the past several weeks, astronomer Suleiman Baraka has been touring the Gaza Strip with his telescope to allow as many individuals as possible to enjoy a few moments looking up into the heavens. His first stop was with the schoolmates of his late son, Ibrahim.

Ibrahim Baraka

Baraka, 46, hails from the southern Gaza Strip and holds a doctorate in astrophysics from an Australian university. In 2007, he spent a year doing research at the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States. In January 2009, he returned to Gaza after Ibrahim, aged 11, was killed in an Israeli air strike that hit his home in the town of Bani Suhaila. Baraka now lives at his brother’s home in Bani Suhaila along with his own four-member family.

“The killing of my son inspired in me a message of peace, a message that I decided to convey to his killers,” Baraka said. “I gathered Ibrahim’s fellow students and started teaching them how to be inspired to be scientists.”

“I didn’t teach them sources of horror or terror,” Baraka recalled. “Rather, I wanted to send out a message that the sky, from which my son was killed, is a beautiful sky that has beautiful things to look at.”

Along with the killing of his son and the destruction of his home, Baraka lost his large library of scientific books. With a smile full of pride, the astronomer also spoke about his experience at NASA.

“Man is great, man can do everything, once he is provided with the tools for creation. When you take off the social or economic burdens that always pose an obstacle in the face of achievement, man can do anything and can reach the moon. The Americans have been successful enough, ensuring such proper conditions for creation.”

Before his position at NASA, Baraka had spent time doing research at Virginia Tech. When he first joined NASA, Baraka said, “I felt so proud of being a part of this prestigious American agency,” he recalled.

Asked whether he planned to stay in Gaza or move abroad, Baraka replied that he is thinking of staying in Gaza to foster research for the benefit of the entire Gaza community.

“In coordination with a local university here, I plan to open up the first-ever space research department, hoping that in a course of five years, Gaza will see several space researchers, God willing,” Baraka said.

But even bringing his highly-advanced Meade LXD 75 telescope into the Gaza Strip was enormously difficult due to the strict blockade Israel has imposed on in the territory for almost three years.

“Three countries helped bring this equipment into Gaza, but I am not going to name any of them,” the astronomer said after an evening of star-gazing. As he spoke, he packed up the telescope, ready for the next stop on his tour.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Military Snatch Squad Kidnap Beit Ommar Youth, Settlers Attack Residents

May 2, 2010

As I’ve been reporting for quite some time, the Israeli military has stepped up their targeting of Palestinian children especially in areas where settlement colonies are expanding. (See the story i wrote for EI about Amir, 10 years old). Beit Ommar is right on the edge of the Hebron (al-Khalil) district in the southern West Bank.

From the Palestine Solidarity Project:

Israeli Military Snatch Squad Kidnap Beit Ommar Youth, Settlers Attack Residents

2 May 2010

At 19.30 today, May 2, an Israeli army snatch squad of 6 soldiers dressed as Palestinians drove into Beit Ommar in a white Ford Transit with Palestinian number plates and took away at least 6 youths aged between 13 and 16. Under cover of darkness the soldiers terrified villagers by throwing numerous stun grenades and firing tear gas into the narrow streets of the town. It is believed that the youths are being detained in Karmei Tsur settlement.
Later this evening a group of around a dozen settlers from Karmei Tsur settlement staged a demonstration on Highway 60 and have attacked Palestinian villagers from Beit Ommar. Reports are coming in that there are 10 Israeli army and Police units at the scene and using loudspeakers to order the villagers back to their homes. Soldiers are firing flares, stun grenades and tear gas. The army have again entered Beit Ommar. Jeeps are patrolling the main street and further arrests of local teenagers are expected throughout the night.

Four young men have been named as:

Hussein Shhda Soleiby 16
Rashid Mohammed Awad 16
Ali Said Sabarneh 16
Odai Fahry Ikhlayl 13

It is thought that the Israeli soldiers are punishing villagers for the rallies held at the illegal Karmei Tsur settlement protesting against the destruction of dozens of fruit trees on confiscated farmland. In recent weeks Israeli soldiers have been filmed beating villagers and attacking journalists filming their indiscriminate violence. Last month a 10 year old child was shot with a rubber coated bullet by soldiers from Karmei Tsur during one of their regular invasions to terrorise and intimidate villagers.

In the Eyes of the State, We Don’t Exist Here

May 1, 2010

My latest for Electronic Intifada just scratches the surface of injustices throughout Israel (Historic Palestine) against Palestinians. This week, the people of Dhammash should hear back from the Israeli Supreme Court about the thirteen home demolition orders and the road closure threat. I’ll be updating this story as it develops — one of the least-reported stories coming out of Palestine.

“In the eyes of the state, we don’t exist here”
Nora Barrows-Friedman, The Electronic Intifada, 16 April 2010

One of the homes slated for demolition in Dhammash village. (Nora Barrows-Friedman)

Israeli forces carried out several major home demolition operations on Wednesday, 14 April, within three separate areas in the occupied West Bank. The demolitions left dozens of people homeless in Hares (near the northern town of Tulkarem); and the towns of Beit Sahour and al-Khader near Bethlehem. Several Palestinian-owned shops in Hares were also reduced to rubble and rebar as Israeli officers threatened residents with future demolitions in the area.

Jonathan Pollack of Anarchists Against the Wall and the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee wrote in a press release, “The massive Israeli bulldozer demolished the house of Ali Mousa [in al-Khader], which was home to nine people, including a one year-old baby, as soldiers prevented anyone from nearing the house — including the family’s lawyer, who showed soldiers a 2006 court-issued injunction [against] the demolition.”

These attacks on Wednesday highlight the ongoing crisis of expanding Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land — but these policies are not limited to the boundaries of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. On Tuesday, in the Negev desert, Israeli police invaded the Bedouin village of al-Araqib, destroying three houses. At the same time, Israeli forces once again razed to the ground all tents, huts and water collection containers in Twail Abu Jarwal, in a move that a spokesperson for the Regional Council on Unrecognized Villages in the Negev said was the “fortieth time … in the last few years” that these homes and structures have been destroyed.

And on Monday, 12 April, 13 house demolition orders were handed out by Israeli police to Palestinian homeowners in Dhammash village, an “unrecognized village” far away from the Negev — and the media’s attention.

Dhammash is located between two major so-called “mixed cities” in Israel, Lydd and Ramle. Ten minutes away from the Ben Gurion International Airport, this area is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited places in the Middle East. And for the last 62 years, Palestinians in Dhammash have fought to remain on their land as the Israeli government continues to take draconian measures to squeeze them out.

Along with this week’s 13 home demolition orders, Israeli police are also attempting to close the road to Dhammash village from the south, across adjacent train tracks and the city of Ramle. “This is another step towards forcing us to leave,” Dhammash community spokesman Arafat Ahmed Ismayil explained. “The [Israeli] government doesn’t care about us.”

Dhammash’s residents are Israeli citizens. They pay taxes. They vote in national elections. They speak Arabic and Hebrew. But, like all Palestinian citizens of Israel, they are systematically discriminated against and are forced to live, Ismayil said, “like tenth-class citizens.”

He explained, “We don’t have sewage systems or adequate electricity and water services. We’ve had to go to court several times to have the government provide our children with school buses. The school system itself for Palestinian youth is itself completely discriminatory — the quality of education is well below the standard for that of Jewish children.”

Community organizers told The Electronic Intifada, while walking through Dhammash village in March, that open agricultural land had been strategically destroyed and made barren by the Israeli authorities to implement a toxifying, open-air scrap metal processing center in the middle of the village. “That, now, is the only place where people can find a job in Dhammash,” one of the organizers said.

Ismayil said that there are approximately 600 Palestinians who live in 70 homes in Dhammash. Many of the homes have stood since before the 1948 Nakba, when nearly three-quarters of the Palestinians were expelled or fled from historic Palestine. All of homes, he said, are on the chopping block and have been for many years. Six homes have been destroyed since 2005, and every few months residents have to petition the Israeli courts to file one injunction after another as bulldozers roll back into the village.

“They want to build a Jewish-only condominium complex in this area,” Ismayil explained. “That’s why they want us to leave as soon as possible.”

According to the latest statistics, there are more than 110,000 Palestinians and Bedouins living in so-called “unrecognized villages” throughout the state of Israel, 80 percent of whom live in the Negev region. These villages are not found on any map, and all face regular home demolitions and a lack of basic services.

On their Israeli identification cards, Ismayil said that the government refuses to list Dhammash as their place of residence. “They either group us in with Lydd or Ramle,” he said. “According to them, we belong to nowhere. In the eyes of the state, we don’t exist here.”

Dhammash residents and community organizers went to two separate courts on Wednesday, 14 April — the high court in Jerusalem for the road closure issue, and the regional court in Petah Tikvah on the demolition orders issue. “They heard our cases, and said they would issue a ruling next week,” Ismayil explained later that evening. “They didn’t tell us when that date will be. It’s all very unclear. We’re not sure what will happen.”

Ismayil asserted that home demolition policies forced upon Palestinians inside Israel are exactly the same as those in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

“There is no difference,” he said. “When they want to destroy a house, they impose a curfew, they close the area, and they bring hundreds of police and soldiers with dogs. Helicopters hover overhead. They bring busloads of Jewish extremist settlers with them to empty furniture from the houses, and arrest people who refuse to be evicted.”

“We experience the same policies of apartheid here in ’48 [Israel] as those that are in effect in the occupied territories,” Ismayil added. “People on the outside think that we’re enjoying Israel’s gift of democracy. But we’re in the exact same situation. There is no peace, no democracy here.”

Keeping independent journalism alive!

May 1, 2010

Dear friends,

I have recently updated my website with a simple PayPal donation button (upper right-hand corner of this website) because I need your help. For the past seven years, I’ve been going back and forth to Palestine primarily on my own dime; with outrageously wonderful support from family, friends and small grants who want to support the kind of independent reporting towards which I have dedicated my life.

I am planning on returning to the region in the coming months, and will need funds to assist in travel, transportation and living expenses. To give you a sense of what your donation will provide, a plane ticket can run about $1500 round-trip; the hiring of a fixer/translator is at least $25 per day; room & board is around $300/month; and transportation in-country can be anywhere from $20 to $100 per day.

All contributions, great or small, are very humbly appreciated.

Thank you so much,
Your eyes and ears on the ground

Palestinian children and the Israeli state

March 8, 2010

check out my new piece on Electronic Intifada.

Amir, ten years old, abducted by Israeli soldiers from his bed
Nora Barrows-Friedman writing from Hebron, occupied West Bank, Live from Palestine, 8 March 2010

Amir and his mother just hours before he was abducted by Israeli soldiers. (Nora Barrows-Friedman)

Amir al-Mohtaseb smiled tenderly when I asked him to tell me his favorite color. Sitting in his family’s living room last Thursday afternoon, 4 March, in the Old City of Hebron, the ten-year-old boy with freckles and long eyelashes softly replied, “green.” He then went on to describe in painful detail his arrest and detention — and the jailing of his 12-year-old brother Hasan by Israeli occupation soldiers on Sunday, 28 February.

Hours after our interview, at 2am, Israeli soldiers would break into the house, snatch Amir from his bed, threaten his parents with death by gunfire if they tried to protect him, and take him downstairs under the stairwell. They would beat him so badly that he would bleed internally into his abdomen, necessitating overnight hospitalization. In complete shock and distress, Amir would not open his mouth to speak for another day and a half.

In our interview that afternoon before the brutal assault, Amir said that on the 28th, he was playing in the street near the Ibrahimi Mosque, on his way with Hasan to see their aunt.

“Two of the soldiers stopped us and handcuffed us,” Amir said. “They brought us to two separate jeeps. They took me to the settlement and put me in a corner. I still had handcuffs on. They put a dog next to me. I said that I wanted to go home. They said no, and told me I would stay here forever. They refused to let me use the bathroom. They wouldn’t let me call my mother. They blindfolded me and I stayed there like that until my father was able to come and get me late at night.”

Amir’s detention inside the settlement lasted nearly ten hours. “The only thing that I thought about was how afraid I was, especially with the dog beside me. I wanted to run away and go back to my house,” he said.

Amir and Hasan’s mother, Mukarrem, told me that Amir immediately displayed signs of trauma when he returned home. “He was trying to tell me a joke, and trying to laugh. But it was not normal laughter. He was happy and terrified at the same time,” she said. “He wet himself at some point during the detention. He was extremely afraid.”

Amir revealed that he hadn’t been able to sleep in the nights following his detention, worried sick about his brother in jail and extremely afraid that the soldiers would come back (which, eventually, they did). Today, approximately 350 children are languishing inside Israeli prisons and detention camps, enduring interrogation, torture and indefinite sentences, sometimes without charge. The number fluctuates constantly, but thousands of Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 16 have moved through the Israeli military judicial system over the past decade since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada. Israel designates 18 as the age of adulthood for its own citizens, but through a military order, and against international law, Israel mandates 16 as the age of adulthood for Palestinians. Additionally, Israel has special military orders (#1644 and #132) to be able to arrest and judge Palestinian children — termed “juvenile delinquents” — as young as 12 years old.

“This way, they have a ‘legal’ cover for what they are doing, even though this is against international laws,” said Abed Jamal, a researcher at Defence for Children International-Palestine Section’s (DCI-PS) Hebron office. “However, in Amir’s case, they broke even their own laws by arresting and detaining him as a ten-year-old boy. These laws are obviously changeable according to Israel’s whim. We have yet to see a prosecution for crimes such as these.”

I asked Amir and Hasan’s father, Fadel, to describe how one is able to parent effectively under this kind of constant siege.

“It’s not safe for the children to go outside because we’ve faced constant attacks by the settlers and the soldiers,” he explained. “This by itself is unimaginable for us. And now, we have one son in jail and another traumatized … they’re so young.”

On Sunday, 7 March, exactly a week after Hasan’s arrest and Amir’s detention, the family and members of the local media made an early-morning journey to Ofer prison where Hasan had been held since his initial arrest. After a lengthy process in which the Israeli military judge admitted that the boy was too young to stay in prison, Hasan was released on the condition that he would come back to the court to finish the trial at a later date. This trial followed the initial hearing last Wednesday at Ofer, where Maan News Agency reported that the judge insisted that Fadel pay the court 2,000 shekels ($530) for Hasan’s bail. According to Maan, Fadel then publicly asked the court, “What law allows a child to be tried in court and then asks his father to pay a fine? I will not pay the fine, and you have to release my child … This is the law of Israel’s occupation.”

Consumed by their sons’ situations, Mukarrem and Fadel say they are trying to do the best for their family under attack. “What can we do?” asked Fadel. “We lock the doors. We lock the windows. We have nothing with which to protect our family and our neighbors from the soldiers or the settlers. If a Palestinian kidnapped and beat and jailed an Israeli child, the whole world would be up in arms about it. It would be all over the media. But the Israelis, they come into our communities with jeeps and tanks and bulldozers, they take our children and throw them into prison, and no one cares.”

DCI-PS’s Jamal reiterates the point that international laws made to protect children under military occupation have been ignored by Israel since the occupation began in 1967. “Most of the time, we try to do our best to use the law, the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child as weapons against this brutality,” said Jamal. “All of these laws exist, but Israel uses their own military laws as excuses to defy international law. As Palestinians, we have to work together to create solidarity against this brutality. Through our work, we try to tell the international community what’s going on with Palestinian children to create a wide berth of support against this situation. We believe that the only way this will stop is through the support of the international community.”

Amir slowly began speaking again 36 hours after the beating by Israeli soldiers. Zahira Meshaal, a Bethlehem-based social worker specializing in the effects of trauma in children, said that Amir’s “elective mutism,” a symptom of extreme psychological shock caused by his beating and detention, is a common response, but that it is a good sign that he began talking again. “This is a reaction of fear on many levels. Amir’s house and his family are his only source of security,” said Meshaal. “This was taken away from him the moment the soldiers invaded his home. It’s easy to attend to the immediate trauma, but the long-term effects will undoubtedly be difficult to address. He’ll need a lot of mental health services from now on.”

Meshaal comments on the nature of this attack in the context of the unraveling situation inside Hebron. “We are talking about a place that is on the front lines of trauma,” she said. “This is an ongoing and growing injury to the entire community. Parents have to be a center of security for their children, but that’s being taken away from them. Especially in Hebron, the Israeli settlers and soldiers know this, and use this tactic to force people to leave the area. It’s a war of psychology. This is a deliberate act to make the children afraid and force people to leave so that their children can feel safer.”

At the end of our interview last Thursday, Amir sent a message to American children. “We are kids, just like you. We have the right to play, to move freely. I want to tell the world that there are so many kids inside the Israeli jails. We just want to have freedom of movement, the freedom to play.” Amir said that he wants to be a heart surgeon when he grows up. His mother and father told me that they hope Amir’s own heart — and theirs — heals from last week’s repetitive and cumulative trauma at the hands of the interminable Israeli occupation.


March 6, 2010

Last sunday, the Israeli military stationed and occupying inside the old city of Hebron (al-Khalil) arrested and detained two young brothers, Amir (10) and Hasan (12). They took Hasan to Ofer prison near Ramallah, where he is still being held right now. He has a court date (!) on Sunday. Imagine. a court date for a 12 year old boy.

Meanwhile, the soldiers detained Amir — ten years old — at the Kiryat Arba settlement’s detention center, blindfolded him and tied him to a chair for ten hours next to a huge military attack dog which barked and was provoked to do so by the soldiers. Not letting him go to the bathroom, he wet himself. And was terrified and traumatized.

I went to visit Amir and his family on Thursday. A sweet boy, full of spirit and laughter, was obviously still dealing with the terror he experienced, yet was still a little kid for the most part. wrestling with his cousins, fidgeting with pencils on the table, normal kid stuff. but there was a total sadness and fear in his eyes.

Thursday night, at 2am, Israeli soldiers broke into Amir’s house and snatched him from his parent’s arms (mom and dad were threatened with death by the soldiers who pointed their US-made M16s at their heads if they tried to protect Amir), took Amir downstairs to the stairwell, and beat him over and over again. When it was over, Amir’s mom and dad ran downstairs and found their boy bleeding from the mouth and nose.

He was kicked so badly in the stomach that he was bleeding internally and may need surgery. Hospitalized for a day. He hasn’t talked since the beating.

I’m going to Hasan’s court date tomorrow at Ofer prison, and then the family invited me to come with them to the mental health clinic with Amir on Monday.

This story is one of the most horrific and unbearable ones I’ve ever done. More to come soon.