“Let me tell you something my friend…”, said Abhul Kareem, a longtime field worker with B’Tselem, “ …if you resist the occupation, you will get arrested!”.
Abdul Kareem’s response was prompted by my question relating to the reason for the arrest of a particular person that he had just been talking about. Abdul’s facial expression was strained, but trying to hide his frustration with a question that he had obviously been asked many times before by foreigners who don’t understand what life in the occupation is really like.
In my country, Australia, if someone has been arrested, then they have likely committed some type of criminal offense, be it minor or serious. The experience of being arrested or confined in prison is a relatively rare event (in terms of population) and not something people are usually very proud of and hence it is a fact not greatly advertised.
Over here in Palestine, things are different. As I have been travelling up and down the West Bank, I have found it difficult to find many males above about 20 years of age who have not been arrested or imprisoned. Never, in any case of meeting such person’s here, would I have guessed that any of them had experienced such things. At home, things are different. Having had more experience with the prison system back in Australia than I would have liked, I think I can generally guess (but of course not always) when someone has had a prison experience/background without asking them the details.
So I took this comment from Abdul Kareem on board when I visited a “Prisoners Sit In” that is held in front of the offices of the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) in the village of Tulkarm on the north western side of the occupied West Bank. This small protest is attended by family members of Palestinians who have been arrested and are currently serving prison sentences of up to 20 years.
A long wait for justice.
On arriving at the protest, I casually walked up to the people sitting there, holding up photos of their loved ones, and asked if anyone spoke English. Upon finding an interpreter, I knelt down and started trying to get details of the people’s family members who were in prison. One of my team mates was trying to take a picture of the people at the protest and without thinking he called out, “Smile!” Immediately one of the parents at the sit in called back, “Why should we smile?”, “What for?”. It was a heart breaking moment.
The first person I interviewed had a son, Mohamed Khateeb, who had been in prison for 12 years. He is now 31years old. He was sentenced to 21 years prison and was initially arrested in the middle of the night. According to his father, the trial was a joke, the lawyer did nothing to defend Mohamed. The family believes that the court’s decision was made before the trial even started. Mohamed is being held in a prison inside Israel (contravening International Law which states that a person cannot be sent to a prison outside his/her country for an offense committed in their own country). Being in Israel means that his family cannot visit Mohamed or even write to him. Some of Mohamed’s other relatives have managed to visit him but only once a year. The family mostly gets news about Mohamed when other prisoners are released who have been inside with him. As I went down the line of family members I started to realize that the same picture was being painted each time. Their sons had been arrested in the night, had been given long prison sentences by courts that were a joke in so far as justice was concerned and were all sent to prison inside Israel, preventing any type of regular contact with family members. All of the parents and family members believed that the harshness of sentencing depends very much on the political situation at the time. When Palestine tried to petition for member status in the UN, for example, the sentences handed out to people like Mohamed, were longer than normal. The courts that they attend are all military courts regardless of the offense committed. Israelis in the West Bank do not come under the jurisdiction of such courts. As Israelis they come under Israeli Civil Law. Civil Law has much higher levels of evidence needed to obtain a guilty verdict than Military Law.
The interviews became a bit too much for me to bare after a while and I had to stop. None of these families deserved the agony they were going through. The relatives of bank robbers and murders get better treatment in my country and none of these young men had committed crimes like that. Believe me, if they had done so, they would have gotten life imprisonment or be dead and their parents would have had the dignity to admit as much and accept the consequences. The truth is that these young men had all been active in demonstrations and other non-violent forms of resistance. The more effective or more articulate you are in your resistance activism, the more likely you are to be arrested and given a prison sentence.
The parents and family members of these men are not fools. They know how their sons and daughters are portrayed in the Western Media. They know that they will be judged as terrorists, especially by people in countries like Australia, that support the Israeli Government so strongly. Their lonely vigil and cry for justice will fall on many deaf ears in the Western World.
In the end, all I could do was to ask the interpreter to tell the people that I was sorry for the injustice that is tearing their families apart and that I promised to tell their stories and advocate for them when I get back to Australia. Upon hearing this their faces light up with smiles of gratitude. They know that I can do nothing to get their loved ones out of prison, but I guess that when other people acknowledge their pain and sense of injustice and believe in their goodness and decency, it gives a reason for these people to smile, even when otherwise they can find no reason to be happy on such an occasion.
I am participating in a program as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained here are personal to me and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Churches Australia or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the EAPPI Communications Officer (email@example.com) for permission. Thank you.