Friday, July 11, 2008

Administrative Detention: the case of Dr. Gassan Sharif Khaled

I first heard about Dr. Khaled from our coordinator, Valentina. Dr. Khaled’s father, Abu Azzam, had requested that we attend his court case at the High Court in Israel as a show of support. I wanted to learn more about the case before I went, so I met with Abu Azzam at his home in Jayyous, a small village in the northeast part of the West Bank.

This was my first experience with Arab hospitality and it was quite overwhelming. The food, cheer and generosity were double anything I had experienced back home. Abu Azzam certainly fit his moniker, Abu meaning father as he is considered the father of the village. It was hard for me to understand his patience and good humor all while his son was sitting in a military prison, but for most Palestinians that is life in the occupied territories.

His son, Dr. Khaled, is a professor of international and civil commercial law at A-Najah university in Nablas, a major city to the north of Jayyous. He was abducted from his home by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on the 16th of January, imprisoned for two months, and was released on bail after his family raised 30,000 sheckles in addition to the 30,000 raised by Israeli friends, which amounts to around 20,000 dollars. The initial three weeks of his detention included constant interrogation from the Shabak (Israeli Secret Service) at which time his father tells us he was tied down to a chair for twenty hours daily with only four hours for sleep and was not allowed to speak to anyone, even his lawyer.

The initial charges by the Shabak are seen by friends and family as a frame up, completely baseless to anyone who knows him. He is a sworn adherent to non-violence, has never been charged with a crime before, is a man of truth, and is an ardent promoter of the law. However, after backing off its initial charges, the Shabak decided to pursue the matter further. Only ten days after being released, the IDF broke down his door with sledge hammers at 3:30 am and took him away for the second time, severely traumatizing his wife and five children, the youngest just five months old.

Several military court hearings were held after his second detention at which even the military court judge expressed his concern for the Shabak’s lack of evidence for why a second detention was necessary. He warned that Dr. Khaled could not be kept in prison absent any “new facts” pertaining to the case not being provided within 24 hours. The judge ultimately gave in, however, and instated the administrative detention order on the basis of allegations made by the Shabak that Dr. Khaled was “master planning a large scale military attack on the authorities.”

During the course of our afternoon together, I came to understand Dr. Khaled’s situation and learn more about Abu Azzam’s difficulties under occupation as well. As the largest landholder in Jayyous, Abu Azzam faces constant threats to his land. None of his son’s can get a permit to work the land, most of which is between the security fence and the Green Line (the 67 borders). His olive trees have been uprooted by settlers, only to be planted again with the help of internationals and Israelis and then uprooted again. And he can’t sell his fruits and vegetables in the biggest market to the north, Nablus, because, although there is no law that states he cannot, anytime he brings produce to the market, it must be checked by Israeli authorities box by box, after which most buyers have left and the product has lost its freshness. Despite all of this, or because of it, Abu Azzam is a vocal critic of the occupation and has given lectures abroad about the situation in Jayyous and the West Bank as a whole (some Israelis have expressed to me that they think Dr. Khaled is being held in prison because of the activities and position of his father).

The court hearing was brief, about a half hour for oral arguments from both sides, and the three judge panel seemed more critical of the prosecution, but in the end the verdict was handed down in favor of the State, meaning Dr. Khaled will serve the whole six month sentence, which could be extended indefinitely. Under administrative detention, a person deemed as a security threat by the state authorities can be held for up to six months without a trail, essentially suspending the writ of habeas corpus. The defense attorney is at a loss because he cannot see the evidence being brought against his client, evidence that the state can claim is too sensitive to be made public at a trial. It is very much a Kafkaesque reality for those being charged. When they brought out Dr. Khaled, he looked frightened and confused, he didn’t belong in a brown prison jumpsuit surrounded by prison guards, he should be in a classroom teaching. For someone who has studied the law extensively, his predicament must have seemed all the more absurd, but it was all real and I could see the helplessness written on his face. He had no one to turn to; his lawyer, his friends, and the international community could not help him that day. He is still in prison, and who knows how long he will stay, separated from his family, friends, colleagues…his life.

An Early Morning at Qalandiyah

Qalandiyah, as mentioned in an earlier blog, is the main checkpoint between Ramallah, one of the biggest cities in the West Bank, and Jerusalem, and it fields most of the traffic coming from the northern part of the West Bank into Jerusalem. So if you live in the north and need to get to work in Jerusalem, your mornings are spent at Qalandiyah.

I’ve already described the layout there so I won’t go into too much detail. It has three initial turnstiles followed by four metal detector checkpoints. We try to go there at least twice a week to monitor the checkpoint and help people with their difficulties, whether it’s getting through the humanitarian gate, the gate for women, the elderly and the sick, or helping people connect to other organizations, Machsom Watch or the International Committee of the Red Cross, that can help them with permit problems. As I mentioned before, anyone coming from the West Bank (a green ID holder) must walk through the checkpoint, only Jerusalem (blue) ID holders can go through via car or bus, which takes much less time.

The checkpoint is an intolerable place and one of the most difficult tasks for me as an EA. We leave Augusta Victoria at 4:30 and get to the checkpoint around 5:00. There is always a large crowd of men waiting outside the initial set of turnstiles anxious to get to work, so they begin to climb the fence in an attempt to jump into the turnstile in front of everyone else waiting in line—not really a line though, more like a pile of people pushing and shoving, trying to gain entry any way they can. The working day is from 7 to 3, so people come as early as 4 am or before, but the problem is that the people in charge of the checkpoint only keep one metal detector gate, out of five, open during the early hours. They wait until 5:30 to open the rest of the gates, but, by that time, huge crowds of people are waiting outside the first turnstiles, so you have a very chaotic situation. And more and more people continue to come throughout the morning in taxis and services all throughout the northern villages and towns of the West Bank, so when the metal detector checks begin to slow then things just get worse and worse—three to four people mashed together in the turnstiles for example.

Some people have approached us trying to explain why those waiting to get through behave as they do—the pushing, shoving, shouting, and climbing. But, of course, we tell them it is unnecessary. Many have told us that if they are late for work a couple of times it is ok, but they are in danger of losing their jobs if they are consistently late. For someone providing for a family of seven or eight getting to work on time is about survival. If I had to go through the same procedure every morning, I would be one of the ones climbing the fence and jumping into the turnstile. It pains me to see these grown men have to be reduced to this every morning.

The Humanitarian Gate (HG) is another major problem. Because women, some for religious reasons (they are not allowed to come in contact with the men), cannot go through the main gates, as well as older men, the sick, and children, there is another gate solely for them that is opened periodically throughout the morning but not with any regularity. Of course, the younger men, seeking any way to get through, will also attempt to pass through the HG. This creates a problem because it angers the policeman in charge of it and creates further delays. The hardest part is seeing women holding their crying babies as they wait, sometime as long as a half hour, but the worst is seeing some of the sick people who have to wait, some too sick to stand so they lay on the dirty floor (and to think that this gate wasn’t opened to women and the elderly at the beginning, the women at Machsom Watch had to work hard to get the military to keep it open every morning).

We see the misery of the checkpoints every morning we go, but we also here people’s stories and frustrations. They ask us why the international community is not at Qalandiyah at 5 am, why no one is there to report the hell they go through each morning just to get to work. Just last week, we met a man who had bruised and broken several ribs because he fell trying to get into the turnstile and was out of work for a month. But he was back because he had to work, and with the high unemployment in the West Bank many people turn to work in Israel, they have no other choice. So he was back, climbing the fence again. His story is not unique either, we have heard many more like it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Refugees in Jerusalem

After passing through a small checkpoint, your senses are immediately assaulted by the heavy stench of burning garbage coming from the dumpsters that line the main road into the heart of the camp. The interior is a concrete jungle. It’s a tangle of cement structures suffering from neglect and poorly constructed additions to make room for the ever growing population. The streets and alleys are narrow and littered with waste, and a mess of telephone cables dangle above. The wall is visible from the edge of the camp, as is the surrounding settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, a stark contrast to the chaos of Shu’fat.

The Shu’fat refugee camp lies just north of Jerusalem and is the only one in the West Bank inside its municipal boundaries (meaning many of its residents are blue ID holders and are not restricted by the Israeli closures in the West Bank). The camp was created in 1966 when the Jordanian Government and the UN attracted the initial inhabitants from their homes, in what is now the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, with promises of new houses and lands to cultivate. More refugees came in 1967 when Israel occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the camp quickly became overpopulated. Today, the problem of overpopulation continues for many reasons: high birth rates, people can no longer afford the cost of living in East Jerusalem, or have been forced out and want to retain their Jerusalem IDs. Current population figures suggest the camp hosts around 20 to 22,000 residents, 10,290 of which are designated as refugees by the United Nations.

As in most refugee camps, there is little infrastructure and high unemployment, and with the building of the wall, many of these problems are getting worse. The influx of people from different places means that Shu’fat is increasingly a place of anonymous urban life with a lack of authority; all of which is evident upon visiting the camp.

Then there are the children. Everywhere you go in Shu’fat you see children: boys kicking beat-up soccer balls off old buildings, girls chatting on the steps outside their home, and brothers and sisters returning from the corner store with treats in hand. Everywhere, groups of children. Some of them greet us with smiles and say “shalom, or hello” while others look at us with a mixture of confusion and curiosity. What is evident upon a trip through the camp is not just that a large portion of the population consists of children (almost half we are told), but that they have no place for recreation. The creation of the wall has cut off expansion of the camp leaving little space for these kids to run and play.

Fortunately, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is very active in the camp and there are quite a few international NGOs who sponsor activities and programs as well. One of the highlights is the community center where children come for after school activities including arts and crafts, English lessons, and other recreational activities. The center has a very dedicated staff of volunteers led by Dr. Salim (pictured below in the middle), a family practitioner who splits his time between his clinic in Jerusalem and work at the center. It is through places like the community center where you see the hope in the otherwise dire story of Shu’fat. It is a place where the chaos of the streets is confronted by the community building and fellowship of the many programs offered by Dr. Salim and his team of volunteers. Most importantly, the children are not idle, and left to their own devices. They are taking part in something that will help shape their futures in a positive way. Unfortunately, however, these children are a few hundred out of thousands living in the camp. So more needs to be done, and, hopefully, as more and more people here about the positive stories like this, the more and more positive changes will take place.

Bridging the Divide: an Israeli Volunteer in Shu’fat Refugee Camp

Anne comes every Wednesday from 9 to 2 to the community center in Shu’fat refugee camp to help the Palestinian women and men undergo physical therapy treatment. She has been a professional physical therapist for twenty three years, specializing in a technique called integrative manual therapy. She is also an Israeli.

Anne came to Israel via New York in 1974. She was a Zionist, served in the military, and later moved to the settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev. Things changed for her, however, after her first trip to the States in over thirty years. On the suggestion of a friend, she decided to attend a peace camp in Yosemite. Of the 250 people who took part in the peace camp, 50 were Israeli, 50 where Palestinian, and the rest were Arab and Jewish Americans. This was her first face to face contact with the “other,” and she came to realize, despite the depictions in the Israeli media, they were people, they were human.

In 2007, she moved from Pisgat Ze’ev to the Palestinian-Israeli village of Abu Gosh where she met a German nun who told her about the community center in Shu’fat refugee camp. Up to that point, her only experience of Shu’fat was the smoke she could see from her neighboring home in Pisgat Ze’ev billowing from the camp after incursions, and the stories of terrorists she heard on the news. Despite warnings from friends of the dangers of the camp, she decided to go and see for her self and learn more about the community center. Dr. Salim, the director of the camp, and his staff were very welcoming, and, in February of 2007, she began volunteering once a week.

Over the past year and a half that she has been going to the center, word of mouth has gotten out about an Israeli physical therapist in the camp, and the response has been great. The Palestinians really appreciate her work and they get to experience a different side of the Jewish people, a contrast to soldiers and settlers. Many of her patients have said that just her coming there means a lot, and while most of the Palestinians from the camp can go to Israeli clinics, this is the first time an Israeli has come to the camp to treat people.

Although she is just one person, her story is not unique, or rather her motivations are not unique. Many Israelis that I have met like Anne say they decided to get involved after they have met Palestinians and come to realize that they are human beings just like anyone else. Unfortunately, the mutual hatred, fear, and ignorance that people on both sides of this conflict have, compounded by the construction of the separation barrier, makes the leap between cultures and people very difficult. But it can be done, and Anne is a shinning example of it.

Breaking the Silence in Hebron

Our bus, full of internationals and Israelis, drove through the paved roads of the Jewish Settlement of Qiryat Arba on our way to Hebron. We were all there for a tour conducted by a group of former Israeli soldiers who are now active in speaking out about the horrors of occupation. Their organization, aptly named “Breaking the Silence,” has been giving tours of Hebron for the past four years. That day, however, we never made it into Hebron.

Hebron is the only city in the West Bank with a Jewish settlement in its center. It consists of two areas: H1, home to around 120,000 Palestinians and under the control of the Palestinian Authority, and H2, where 30,000 Palestinians remain under the control of the Israeli military who protect the 800 settler inhabitants. At the center of the old city of Hebron is the tomb of the patriarchs where Abraham and his descendants are believed to be buried, and is thus holy to all three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. H2 remains the source of much tension and conflict between the settlers and Palestinians who live there.

We could not make our destination because of the large crowd of settlers who blocked our bus from entering. At first, it was a small crowd of children but soon grew to include women and older men, along with the leaders of the extremists who live there. Several police were there to escort us (Breaking the silence had just won a decision in the High Court to continue conducting their tours with the cooperation of the local authorities), but they were not enough. At one point, our tour guides got out of the bus to speak with the police and document the situation for the court. It was a circus. Our guides were filming the settlers and the police response, or lack thereof, and the settlers were filming us while the police filmed everyone. The children tried to block Yehuda, one of our guides, from filming but he was crafty and tall enough to evade them. One of the men had a bullhorn and began preaching to us in Hebrew, but I didn’t get what he was saying. The police couldn’t move them out of the way because they are not allowed to physically contact the children, or the babies whom some of the settlers placed in carriages in front of the bus.

These are the most extreme of the settlers. They are ideological settlers who want the Palestinians to be expunged from the land they believe was given to them by God. For the EAs in Hebron, most of their time is spent protecting Palestinians from settler harassment, including walking the children of Cordoba school to and from school each morning in an effort to dissuade the settler children from throwing stones and attacking them, although not always successfully. Most settlers, on the other hand, are not like this. They are economic settlers who are living in the West Bank because of the subsidized housing provided by the Israeli government, and they do not present a physical threat to the Palestinians.

In the end, after waiting over two hours, we were told we could drive a few hundred meters into the old city of Hebron, but our guides declined because they didn’t want to give the authorities the satisfaction of allowing us to conduct a partial tour, which would not have been beneficial when they bring their case to court, yet again.

But the day was not totally lost. We went with Yehuda to the South Hebron hills and heard from a family who have had there olive trees uprooted and wells poisoned and have courageously stayed their ground in the face of consistent settler harassment. And we got to hear Yehuda, a three year veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces who spent over a year stationed inside H2, give his testimony of what he saw. We heard about the IDF’s policy of constant presence through things like incursions, with or without intelligence of a threat, into homes so as to make sure the Palestinian communities fear them. We heard about the IDF using Palestinians as human shields to inspect suspicious objects on the side of the road thought to be bombs, or to approach homes of suspected militants. And we heard about the strategy of urban warfare whereby the military blows holes through the homes of Palestinians so they don’t have to walk through the streets where they might be vulnerable to attacks. Finally, we heard why he helped start “Breaking the Silence.” He said he was deeply disturbed at how what he saw and did became normalized; how soldiers lose their humanity by slowly and consistently crossing the lines of morality; how decent human beings become monsters, with serious mental health consequences after leaving service; and how all of this can happen without even noticing it.

Of course, those serving in the IDF are not unique. Decent people involved in military actions around the world experience the same thing to be sure. The question is can something be done to end the suffering of the Palestinians and the young IDF soldiers who become dehumanized because of occupation. I personally think that something can and must be done to end the cycle of violence and dehumanization. Thankfully, people like Yehuda are forcing Israeli society and soldiers to question what occupation does to them. They have been to over 1,000 classrooms telling children about the ugly side of occupation, a contrast to the heroic images they are inundated with from an early age. They are doing important work and their story needs to be heard.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Checkpoints in Jerusalem

One of our main, weekly tasks as EAs is to monitor the checkpoints that connect the West Bank to Jerusalem. These checkpoints pose a major challenge for many Palestinians in and around the Jerusalem area trying to gain access to the city. This is a potential problem for all Palestinians and especially for those without blue Israeli identity cards (a blue ID means the holder has a residency in Jerusalem while a green means that he or she is from the West Bank). Palestinians with green ID cards can travel into Jerusalem only if they have a valid permit (e.g. work or medical). However, even a valid permit will not ensure passage when there are closures for security and other reasons. For instance, from May 6 to 17 there was a closure imposed on the West Bank during which Israel’s Independence Day, Al Nakba Day, and President Bush’s visit to Israel all transpired. So Palestinians with valid working permits were out of work for a period of 12 days during the closures.

When there are no closures, we try to go at least 4 times a week to two separate checkpoints: Zeitun (pictured above), a pedestrian only terminal down the hill behind the Mount of Olives where we live, and Qalandiyah, the main checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Zeitun opened at the beginning of 2006, and is a main crossing point for many children who go to school in Jerusalem. We have been going there early in the morning from about 6:30 when the children begin showing up for school and the men and women head to work. The traffic there is quite small (about 200 people any given morning). Qalandiyah, on the other hand, connects two major population centers, so it experiences a much higher volume of people and is therefore much bigger than Zeitun and accommodates motorists as well. At Qalandiyah, there are two, initial lanes for cars (pictured below) that lead to a four or five lane toll booth looking structure where guards check cars and passenger’s IDs (only blue ID holders can pass by car or bus while all green ID holders must go through the pedestrian terminal).

However, the basic layout of the pedestrian terminals at both sites are similar. They both have an initial gate with several steel turnstiles and high, wrought iron fences topped with razor wire. Just inside the first gate is a guard box with bulletproof glass where, usually, a female guard communicates with the Palestinians through a loud speaker. Then there are five or six additional gates with turnstiles that lead you into the metal detector section with machines much like you would see at airports to check baggage, and where more guards sitting behind protective glass check IDs (more recently, many of these gates have been equipped with fingerprinting identification systems as well). After passing inspection through the metal detectors there is a final corridor leading to the last turnstile before reaching the other side. In all, you pass by two guard booths and through four steel turnstiles, waiting in two separate lines, before you reach your destination.

Up to this point I have been referring to the checkpoints as terminals, but they are anything but. When I think of terminals I am reminded of the minor annoyance of passing through airport security before boarding a flight. Qalandiyah and Zeitun, on the other hand, look like special military zones, complete with concrete walls, razor wire, and guard towers. The area is patrolled by military vehicles and armed personnel, and a constant barrage of commands seem always to emanate from the loud speakers which can be heard at quite a distance from the source.

For many thousands of people, the checkpoints are part of their morning routine. And after only a month of checkpoint watch, I cannot fathom how anyone could internalize an experience like this making it routine, or normal in any way.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

House Demolition in Ar Tur, East Jerusalem

The large arms of the bulldozers jackknifing their way through the concrete roof of the Abassi home drowned out all other sounds in the area, as plumes of dust spewed into the air under the blazing sun. We stood on a hill just above the scene, along with a handful of international aid workers, students, and reporters, but all we could do is watch. The order to demolish the home had come down that morning despite last minute appeals from the family’s lawyer for a stay on the order.

Audrey, one of my fellow EAs, had seen the bulldozers driving down the street outside her bedroom window and informed the rest of us of what was underway. The house, it turned out, was located just behind the Augusta Victoria complex on the Mount of Olives where we are staying. The family had built their home there two years ago without the necessary permits from the Israeli authorities who control the Eastern Palestinian part of Jerusalem. They moved there because they had been displaced by Israeli settlers from their home in nearby Silwan, the neighborhood I mentioned in an earlier blog. And it is very difficult for Palestinians to get permission to build in East Jerusalem, or even to add additions to existing structures. We have heard figures in the realm of less than five percent getting permission to build. Thus, many families, faced with few desirable alternatives, build without permits and are subject to a similar fate. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) reports that over 18,000 homes have been demolished over the years.

Before the demolition began, the family and a team of yellow-vested workers began removing the family’s belongings, and a small skirmish erupted after one of the workers scratched a piece of furniture as they carried it out. The family was then detained and escorted to another part of the property, while the children were moved to the neighbor’s house but not spared from the sights and sounds of it all, as they watched through the slats of the neighbor’s balcony railing.

There are seven people in the family including three children, of which the youngest, a girl, is 7. As they watched their home slowly dissolve into twisted metal and rubble, I thought of this popular reality show in the U.S. called “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” where impoverished and hard luck families are given new homes. I have to admit, it is a warm feeling to see a family being given a second chance with a new home, but I never imagined what it would be like to witness the other extreme. It was awful.

We approached a soldier to ask what he thought and, in his broken English, used the analogy of driving a car without a license. Despite the obvious flaws in his reasoning, it was clear that there is a legal aspect behind the destruction, a misuse of laws and bureaucracies to force people from their lands and homes.

After about an hour, it was all done. The house was gone and the family left homeless. All we could do was walk away, sweaty, speechless, and sad.
To learn more about ICAHD, go to their website at