My Writing

One family’s story illustrates the cumulative impact of Israeli interference in Palestinians’ lives

This article first appeared on Mondoweiss.

Tia, a Palestinian toddler in Qalandia refugee camp, looks doll-like, with a yellow bow in her hair. She only just celebrated her first birthday, but already Israel has intervened in nearly every aspect of her life. In a sense Israel even instigated her birth.

Four years ago, according to her father, Mohammed Abdel Rahman, an Israeli military judge offered him a secret deal. He told Mohammed to get married within 19 days or he would serve his five-year suspended sentence in prison. They also forced him to change universities. “They said they wanted me to calm down, but they interfered with my personal life and tried to provoke me.” His eyes suggested a maturity that is common among Palestinians who came of age during the second Intifada and who have served prison terms.

Mohammed Abdel RahmanNow, only 24, Mohammed is married with a toddler and another child on the way, and already his life story reads like an inventory of Israeli harassment tactics.

Israeli occupation policies affect all aspects of Palestinians’ lives, including where they can study and how they get food. A recent NPR story on This American Life even documented in chilling detail how Israeli soldiers routinely invade Palestinian homes in the middle of the night to photograph children, ostensibly for security purposes. However, while teargas and shooting have become cliché in reporting about occupation, the cumulative impact of Israeli interference in Palestinians’ lives is rarely reported.

Mohammed knows the ingenuity of Israeli harassment tactics first hand. He was only 17, not yet a legal adult, when Israeli soldiers first came for him, claiming he was a member of an illegal organization. This video shows the day of his arrest; Mohammed says he is the one being put into the ambulance at the end of the clip.

Recalling the events of March 2, 2007 in Qalandia refugee camp, he said, “I escaped to a nearby house. About one hundred soldiers stormed the house. I was unarmed, but they shot at me. I was hit in the right leg and it destroyed the bone between my knee and hip.”

“So many people came to help me that the soldiers weren’t able to arrest me that day,” Mohammed smiled, “but they wounded thirteen more people trying to get me.” Camp residents told him that soldiers later shoveled over the entrance of the house where Mohammed was shot. Mohammed believes they sought to destroy evidence that he says proves that Israeli Special Forces shot an unarmed minor using illegal ammunition. Such incidents are not rare.

Palestinians, who are the world’s oldest and largest refugee population, are protected under various international laws. Yet Yousef Hushiyeh, Chief Area Officer of the Jerusalem and Jericho Area for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), said, “Residents of Qalandia refugee camp are subjected to many abuses.”

Mohammed spent ten months in the hospital as a result of his injuries that day. Dr. Ahmad Bitawi, who is currently director of Ramallah Hospital, treated him for a fractured femur with a platinum implant. “The injury was consistent with the damage caused by dum-dum bullets,” Dr. Bitawi confirmed. Although use of dum-dum, or exploding bullets, is prohibited by international humanitarian law, Dr. Mousa Alatary, an orthopedic surgeon at Ramallah Hospital, said, “We see gunshot injuries every week. About 20 percent of them are the result of exploding bullets.”

Mohammed was finally sent home from the hospital to continue his rehabilitation.“I knew the soldiers would come to arrest me. But it was snowing, which is very rare in Palestine, so I thought they would wait until after the snow stopped.” They didn’t. Mohammed was arrested the same day.

He spent 65 days in interrogation at Israel’s infamous Moscowbiya facility, a period so horrible that he is still haunted by memories years later. He found the psychological tactics—denied sunlight so he did not know what time of day it was; sudden, threatening banging on metal; frigid air conditioning after mandatory showers—worse than the physical pain.

“I complained to the woman from the Red Cross when she finally came to see me on the 30th day of my detention,” Mohammed said. “She didn’t seem very sympathetic. She just wrote down what I said and gave me three cigarettes and some clothes. The prison guard took the clothes away as soon as she left, and I don’t smoke.”

In court, the Israeli military prosecutor asked for seven years, so Mohammed felt fortunate when the judge brought it down to two years in prison with five years of probation. Mohammed was still under 18 when he was sent to Ofer Prison and later to Naqab Prison.

Mohammed recalls that the Israeli human rights organization, Btselem, which regularly monitors the status of minors in detention, saw him twice—once in the hospital after his injury, and again during his initial court proceedings, but Btselem was unable to locate Mohammed’s file and couldn’t comment on his case.

As the occupying power, Israel is strictly bound by International Humanitarian Law (IHL), International Human Rights Law, and a host of other protections. Also treatment of prisoners is governed by international rules concerning the administration of justice. These include treaties, customary international law, judicial decisions, and general principles of international law, but violations are frequent and well documented.

“It is typical for Israeli soldiers to enter refugee camps without a legitimate military objective, which can provoke stone-throwing, to which Israeli forces frequently respond with disproportionate force,” commented Shawan Jabarin, General Director of Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization. “It is common for them to arrest young men, individually or en masse, and hold the suspects incommunicado. They are not read their rights before being interrogated, and are often denied requests for a lawyer.”

Lawyers who work with Palestinian detainees say that denial of rights continues throughout the judicial process. Investigators regularly ask judges to postpone sentencing so they have more time for interrogation, which can involve mistreatment and even torture, even when detainees are children. Only after information is obtained under duress and charges are filed does the suspect get access to a lawyer. But if the lawyer is Palestinian, he or she may not be able to enter Israel to visit the prisoner, who is often transferred to Israel for detention, a practice considered a breach of the Geneva Convention. Furthermore, lawyers say that it often takes two to three years for a case to reach trial, and since there are no provisions for bail, there is tremendous pressure on prisoners’ families to cut a deal. One lawyer concluded that about 95 percent of cases end with a plea bargain and outcomes that further curtail suspect’s rights.

Israel’s infamous administrative detention policy allows the authorities to bypass even the sentencing process: Palestinians can be held for up to six months without being charged with a crime and without any opportunity to defend themselves. Moreover administrative orders are frequently renewed, sometimes for many years.

In Mohammed’s case, he was sentenced, served two years and was released with five years of probation, as promised. But after six months he was arrested again.

“Someone turned me in,” Mohammed said. “They lied and said I had weapons but it wasn’t true. The interrogators tried to get me to agree to collaborate and become a spy for them against my own people. They threatened to imprison me for five more years saying that I violated my probation.”

Mohammed wasn’t the first person in his family to experience psychological coercion by Israeli military officials. He described how his older brother was in detention when he developed a growth on his neck. The prison doctor said that it was an insect bite, but it turned out to be cancer. For the next seven years Nidal was in and out of hospitals and at every stage Israeli intelligence services questioned him. More than once, Mohammed said, the interrogator promised Nidal treatment if he would provide information about political activists in the camp but Nidal refused. “Just before he died, Nidal was denied permission to go to Jordan for treatment, but the Israelis had already stolen all his medical files from our house, so it didn’t really matter anyway.”

When Mohammed went before the military judge the second time, for allegedly violating his probation, he was not sentenced to serve five more years as he had feared. “There was no evidence that I had done anything wrong,” he said, “but I felt they were all working together to pressure me to say I was guilty of something. The judge sent me back to the Israeli military intelligence agents and they tried to play with my mind. They pretended to be interested in me. They asked what I wanted to do with my life and I told them I wanted to get married and have a family.”

When Mohammed reappeared in court that day, the judge greeted him by saying “Mabrook,” which means “congratulations” in Arabic. “He told me I had to get married in 19 days or he’d arrest me again and sentence me,” Mohammed said. A lawyer, who refused to be identified, confirmed that Israeli military judges frequently take advantage of prisoners’ personal situations to elicit certain kinds of cooperation. He gave the example of a man, engaged to be married, who was released from prison for his wedding on condition that he would leave the country for a minimum of two years. Often, he said, prisoners with severe tooth pain are given pain relief in exchange for confessions.

“It took me three months, not 19 days, to find Rana,” Mohammed said, glancing proudly at his wife who poured glasses of soda in their kitchen. “But they [Israeli military intelligence] were asking about me the whole time. They knew that I was seriously looking for a wife.” Rana was 16 at the time of their marriage.

Rana said that Israeli military officers visited their home soon after the wedding claiming they came to congratulate them. “They sat on the couch in our living room for five hours pretending to be friendly,” Rana said. “But before they left, they broke everything in the bedroom and the bathrooms,” Mohammed added.

Ironically, Israel is under attack for its policies that impede marriage. They are not known for encouraging Palestinians to marry.

A few months later, Rana miscarried when Israeli soldiers let off a stun grenade next to their house in Qalandia refugee camp. “There was a lot of shooting that day, and our walls are thin,” Mohammed knocked on the plaster to demonstrate his point. “We were moving from room to room, staying away from the outer walls in case a bullet came through,” When the loud crack of the stun grenade went off just below their window, Rana felt a severe pain and ran to the bathroom where she started bleeding profusely. She had not known that she was pregnant.

“Rana was scared, so I couldn’t leave her. But I could see three young men had been shot in the street near my house. The soldiers were right in front of my door. It was dangerous so I didn’t go out. Later two of my friends died and I still feel guilty that I didn’t go out to help them,” Mohammed said.

“I grew up in this refugee camp, too,” Rana said. “One of my uncles was killed by soldiers and several of them are in prison. I’m used to it.” When asked why she married Mohammed, knowing his history and the likelihood that his problems would continue, she smiled shyly, “It’s my destiny.”

But now that they are parents Mohammed and Rana are more concerned about the long-term impact of the violence that surrounds them. “One time we were sleeping on the floor so my daughter wouldn’t fall,” Mohammed recalled. “She climbed up on me while I was having a nightmare about soldiers grabbing me and I pushed her away very hard. I nearly hurt her.”

Though it would be difficult financially, Mohammed and Rana could leave Qalandia refugee camp and live in Ramallah, where conditions are easier. “But,” Mohammed said, “that’s what they want. They want us to leave the refugee camp, and get a comfortable life, and forget our right of return.” The couple intend to stay put.

Mohammed conceded: “I did get married and I did calm down, but the Israeli plan for us isn’t going to work.” Despite Israel’s daily harassment and intervention in nearly all aspects of Mohammed’s life, and the lives of millions of other Palestinians, the Palestinian people still have their dreams and determination. Mohammed said: “They may destroy our lives, but they can’t damage our national spirit. It’s always inside of us.”

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Hilarious video of my writing circle in Palestine

 

Enjoy 7-minutes of laughter, and please comment if you like this video as much as we do!

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Every Friday in Jerusalem

This poem was published on PeaceXPeace. I would love your comments.

 

On Fridays,

I feel rested
you feel anxious

I make pancakes
you cut onions

I fold laundry
You tie kafiyehs

I read email
You read danger

I buy fish
You buy time

I contemplate you
you contemplate them

Then,

tear gas stings
shots ring

I cringe
you bleed

I write

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Five Guaranteed Ways to Profit from Investment in the Palestinian Community

This article appeared in This Week in Palestine’s January 2013 issue on the theme of investment.

Investors want their assets to multiply. They buy shares in companies or funds and expect financial returns in the form of periodic dividends or growth in the value of their shares. Our economy revolves around investment – investors accept stakes in other people’s ventures; entrepreneurs grow their initiatives with others’ resources and support.

Hiyam and Saeeda in Zawiya, Salfit

Hiyam and Saeeda in Zawiya, Salfit

“Community investment” is a little different. It also involves inputs, but the inputs are not limited to money. They include expertise, material goods, moral support, and more. Community investment is profitable, but it brings a social return on investment (SROI) instead of simply financial gain.

The social return on community investment in Palestine can be measured in stronger community institutions, lower poverty, better education, improved livelihoods, personal security, hope for the future, and other collective benefits. Moreover, making a profitable community investment in Palestine is less risky than almost any other kind of investment if you keep these five guidelines in mind:

1.    Focus on the potential return. If you invest in a community group that becomes empowered and effective, how will it impact children’s life chances, equality for women, sustainable farming, cultural expression? Isn’t it an honour to play a small role in the development of Palestine?

2.    Show faith in the management. If managers are credible and if they are learners, support their leadership, even when they take risks. Community leaders are not contractors to be hired to implement activities. They are the dedicated front line of social change. Believe in them, even when they doubt themselves.

3.    Consider your capacity. Are the resources you have to invest the ones that are needed? Do you have contacts you can use to mobilise other resources? Never think that what you have to offer isn’t enough. If you listen to local priorities, you will find a valuable way to contribute.

4.    Make a long-term commitment. One-time transactions may feel good to the giver, but profits from community investment don’t accrue short term, and they rarely lead to sustainability. Are you ready to participate in Palestinian community development for the long haul?

5.    Work collectively. No one investor can solve community problems alone. Are you willing to combine your investment with others’ investments in order to capitalise the Palestinian community? One way to do this is through a philanthropic organisation such as Dalia Association, Palestine’s only community foundation.

Saeeda Mousa, director of Dalia Association, took me to Zawiya, a village of about 5,500 residents on 23,000 dunams in Salfit Governorate to see one of Dalia’s community investments. As the road from Ramallah twisted and turned for nearly an hour, I left pieces of my stomach in each Israeli settlement and in each Palestinian village we passed. But it was worth it when I sat with community members and we started talking.

Dalia had already worked intimately with the village, implementing a small-grants programme that empowers community members to decide which of their own community groups to fund and to hold those community groups accountable. It made sense, then, for Zawiya to be a pilot site for Dalia’s “village funds” concept – a kind of resource bank into which local residents, the private sector, and the diaspora could invest in community-led development.

The first contribution of $2,500 came from The Abraaj Group, headquartered in Dubai, which maintains a “company fund” with Dalia Association. That first contribution was a vote of confidence, but it still took more than a year to inspire enough trust to raise more. The next $400 came from Adam, a local Zawiya resident who wanted to be part of launching the new idea. Then Ismail, a Zawiya native living in Brazil, added $1,000 to leverage more funds, and that was followed by a $1,000 contribution from Abdul Qader Mustafa Abu Naba’a, a philanthropist originally from Zawiya who now lives in Jordan. When Adam submitted the idea to Dalia’s philanthropy contest and was one of three winners, it brought another $1,000 to the Zawiya Village Fund. This example demonstrates that “community investment” means both investment in the community and investment by the community. It’s a model that values the financial contribution of investors and the sweat equity of local community workers. They become true partners in the success of their joint venture.

Zawiya residents considered several ideas before deciding to use the $5,900 in the Zawiya Village Fund to provide revolving loans. Seven men and five women took small loans of NIS 1,300 (less than $450) interest free. The municipality contributes by providing the repayment system: they take NIS 100 every month when loan-takers pay their electricity bills. Those payments are set aside for another round of loans. Dalia Association has already committed to adding another $2,500, also from The Abraaj Group company fund at Dalia Association, for the next round of revolving loans.

Abu Majdi was among those very satisfied with his loan. “I had a small store that brought in about NIS 400/month. I expanded it and now it brings in NIS 1,000/month. Now that there’s more work, my mother runs the store. She benefits personally and socially by having something important to do.” Abdel Mi’em used NIS 400 of his loan to buy seeds and dirt, and he planted them in plastic bags that he cut from sheets. “Come back in May and you’ll find 400 small trees; each one selling for NIS 10,” he said proudly.

Store in Zawiya expanded with loan

Store in Zawiya expanded with loan

Saplings in Zawiya purchased with loan

Saplings in Zawiya purchased with loan

Zawiya was a philanthropic community before Dalia’s involvement. Abu Naba’a invested $135,000 in a cultural centre that was the first in Salfit. It works closely with the municipality offering sports and cultural activities, Islamic education, and other training courses. Many community members are also involved in the village’s nine active groups. Hiyam, who has served on the city council for seven years, says, “When I give, I feel happy. I sacrifice, but I feel I have made a difference.” They stay in contact with villagers who have moved away through an active Facebook page.

“All villages have resources of some kind. Many local residents are ready to give, but they can’t give a lot and they think that their small contribution won’t matter. Business folk like to give to their villages, but only if they have confidence that their contributions will be used well. And there are Palestinians in the diaspora who love to give to their villages, but they want a safe, easy, transparent way to give,” Saeeda says. Village funds housed at Dalia Association provide these benefits. She adds, “Companies can also open corporate social responsibility funds in the name of the company. Groups or individuals can establish funds in the name of a family or on behalf of a specific issue.”

“But community investment is not only about money,” Saeeda says. “Sometimes you just need to believe in people and help them to believe in themselves. Don’t push them onto your timeline or in the direction you think is best for them. Follow their lead and they will find solutions to their own problems.”

We drove back to Ramallah from Zawiya on a different road. We passed Qarawa Beni Zaid, Nabi Saleh, and so many other Palestinian villages ripe for the idea of a village fund. We passed stunning valleys and terrace after terrace of tenderly pruned olive trees. The clouds, puffy against the baby blue sky, were so low you could scoop them up in your hands. Palestine is truly abundant. There are many resources to be mobilised through investment; there is much potential for high social return.

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Things I love about Jerusalem #1

“Extra large?” The shop owner holds up the soft, pink pajamas I’ve brought to the register. “For you?” (He is surprised because I am very small.)

Photo by Princessrica

“No, for my friend’s daughter.”

“Is she fat?” he asks. He uses the word descriptively not as an insult.

(I realize this conversation reminds me of buying meat. I point to the cut I want and ask for half kilo, but the butcher insists on knowing what I’m cooking before he agrees to sell it to me.)

“No, she’s not fat,” I indulge the man’s curiosity. “She’s tiny.” I hold up my pinky finger to indicate that the girl is a stick. It’s true. Her eyes have started to bulge over her sunken cheeks. I tremble slightly and the shop owner notices.

“Why, sister, are you buying an extra large pajama if the girl is small?”

“Her mother told me to buy extra large.”

“Is she tall?”

I hesitate. I image her lying in the pale green hospital gown with the hospital sheet over her bony knees. “I’m not sure,” I confess. “I’ve only seen her lying down.” (This is not exactly true. I met her at her aunt’s wedding some months ago. But there were hundreds of women there, and I don’t remember meeting her. Who knew that she would come to play such a prominent role in my life?)

There is a pause.

“The girl is sick?” he says, compassion flooding his face. I nod. “She’s only eighteen,” I say to fill up the silence pressing on my throat.

“You have done me a favor!” he bursts out, startling me. He puts the extra large pajamas in a bag and slides them across the glass counter. “I try to do good every day, but I don’t always find an opportunity.”

I begin to shake my head, embarrassed by what I think he is saying, but he continues: “Please take these to her. Please do it as a favor to me. Let me do this good thing today.”

“No, I can’t accept that. I came to buy the pajamas. I can pay for them.” I fumble with my purse.

“But you are already doing good for her. You are visiting her, right? And you’re going to take her the pajamas?” He’s practically begging.

“Yes, but…”

“So let me do something good, too. Let these pajamas be from me.”

Our eyes meet and I know how he feels: powerless to make a difference, desperate to contribute something meaningful to this suffering world. I nod and clutch the pajamas to my chest so my emotions won’t spill out onto his tile floor.

Two days later, I’m sitting on the edge of the hospital bed and I ask about the pajamas. The girl’s mom smiles awkwardly. “She’s lost a lot of weight,” she says, having discovered for herself what the rest of us already knew.

“I’ll exchange them,” I say, reaching for the bag that she’s put in a box under the hospital bed.

“It’s too much trouble for you.”

“Please…” I say, “let me do something good. Please?”

And she let me.

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