Free the Hares Boys

Six months on, the five Hares boys remain in jail and the international campaign demanding their release is underway.

In my previous posts I anonymised the names of most people, but as the names of the boys and their families are now in the public domain, I have changed this. For those of you who have been reading up till now, Karim’s real name is Ali Shamlawi, and his parents (who I called Um and Abu Fares) are Um and Abu Fadi. Um Fadi is also known as Nema Shamlawi, and she was recently interviewed by Al-Jazeera. The other boys are Mohammed Kleib, Mohammed Suleiman, Ammar Souf, and Tamer Souf (Ammar and Tamer are cousins). They are all in the same class at school. There are pictures of all five boys and their families on the website set up to demand their release.

This is Um and Abu Fadi describing the night that Ali was taken:

The first international demonstration demanding the release of the boys happened in London and was attended by the footballer and hunger striker Mahmoud Sarsak. Mahmoud first became famous playing for the Palestinian national team, until 2009 when he was arrested and held without charge for three years. He began a hunger strike in March 2012 and his case attracted international attention; Eric Cantona, Noam Chomsky, Ken Loach and UEFA president Michel Piantini all called for his release, which happened eventually on July 10th last year. In person he is gentle, and shy when speaking English, but very powerful when on a platform speaking Arabic.
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One of the difficulties in publicising the boys’ case in the UK is how much is lost in translation. We tend to adopt the language the Israelis use; we say that the boys have been ‘arrested’ and that they are due for ‘court hearings.’ We are used to the idea (at least in theory anyway) that if someone is arrested or put on trial, it’s because there is reasonable grounds to suspect them of something. There is also a perception that Palestinians are exceptionally prone to violence, so this tends to leave a cloud of suspicion over five boys who have been arrested and put in prison.

In fact, it is far from accurate to say that the boys have been ‘arrested’ in the sense that most people understand it. The army did not give the boys a reason for taking them away. Usually, if a gang of armed men descend on your home at night and take you away in a jeep, blindfold and still in your pyjamas, we call it abduction.

I try to picture the headlines in the UK if five boys from the same class at school were abducted from their beds and held, for months on end, being abused. I imagine the sense of outrage against the perpetrators, the expressions of sympathy for devastated, sobbing parents who just want their children to be returned to them.

It’s also slightly misleading to say the boys are due for ‘court hearings.’ These are not really courts and the boys have little chance of being ‘heard.’ Operated by an enemy army and held in a language the boys don’t understand, this system makes no pretence of being equal or fair. Israeli civilians are not tried in these courts and people are frequently convicted on the basis of ‘secret evidence’ that their lawyers don’t have access to.

The Al-Jazeera investigation found that there are no eyewitness accounts to say that the car accident was caused by throwing stones – the prosecution’s case rests solely on insurance claims and the boys’ ‘confessions,’ which the boys have said were made under duress. It is well documented that Palestinian minors are forced to sign confessions and in any case, five young boys all confessing to attempted murder by stone-throwing should raise suspicions.

This practice of arbitrary arrests, administrative detention and kangaroo courts has little to do with preventing crime and punishing criminality. By all appearances it is just a strategy for keeping men and boys of fighting age out of the way, or at least, subdued.

Afterthoughts

The Israeli writer Amos Oz has described the situation in this land as ‘a tragic clash between right and right,’ and I think that’s how many people see it. Perhaps at one time, in some ways, this was true.  But from what I’ve seen, it’s certainly not true for what is happening  now in the Palestinian territories.

This is not two oppressed peoples struggling for self-determination in the same land. Israel is not a vulnerable country trying to defend itself against aggressors harbouring an irrational hatred. It’s not a war between two nations.

It’s nothing less than old-school colonialism, in which a militarily powerful nation is oppressing another, in the most brutal way, for material gain. Even the religious fundamentalists are essentially materialistic; they’re after land, not heavenly rewards.

Boys with pictures of their fathers in prison

Boys with pictures of their fathers in prison

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Israelis often dismiss international supporters of Palestinians as naive and ignorant of the realities of the situation on the ground. We don’t understand how inherently violent and primitive these people are. Palestinians are lying. International reports of human rights abuses here can be attributed to anti-Semitism.

My question is: where is the real ignorance and naivete here?  Aside from illegal settlers and the soldiers sent to ‘protect’ them, very few Israelis (or their vocal international supporters) spend any time in the West Bank and Gaza. Military occupation is necessarily brutal, and to believe that Israel’s occupation of Palestine is a special case, or even, as you sometimes hear, that the Israeli army is ‘more moral’ than others, takes considerable self-deception. And there is nothing more violent and primitive than the Darwinistic principles on which Israel’s occupation of Palestine is based. Call it for what it is.

Leaving

Getting ready to leave the West Bank to go overseas is a huge faff. The chances of being questioned and searched at the airport are high, which means that every last Arabic bus ticket must be found and thrown away, every last photo of Palestine uploaded into a dropbox and deleted from your camera. By the time I am finished everyone else has left the house to go to Friday demonstrations and I am alone.

I lock up the house and walk through the village for the last time. It’s midday, hot, and apart from the sound of the muezzins in full voice, the village has a chilled out Friday feeling. I’m wondering how I’m going to make the switch from village pace to London pace on Monday.

I get a taxi to the junction and we drive past the flying checkpoint that appeared at the entrance to Kifl Hares this morning, complete with smelly skunk tank, and past the sign warning: ‘This road leads to a Palestinian Village. The entrance for Israeli citizens is dangerous.’ These signs can be seen all over the West Bank, sometimes adding ‘entrance is dangerous to your lives and against Israeli law.’

In fact, the people  most in danger in Palestinian villages are Palestinians themselves, but these signs reveal something about the way a culture of fear is encouraged among Israelis. A widespread Israeli and sometimes even international perception holds that Palestinians, or even Muslims and Arabs in general, are innately more violent than other people. But during my time here I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Palestinians are any more or less violent than anyone else, or that they harbour a special hatred towards Jews or Westerners – they just have rational objections to the theft of their land, the arbitrary arrest and detention of their children, and the US backing that supports this.

This area has been my home for the last few weeks. Even the watchtowers and soldiers have started to feel familiar. I look out at the elegant green hills, so calming and grounding, and wonder if it is these, along with the sense of community and the sunshine, which keeps the people here sane.

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I’m planning to tell airport security that I have been here on a religious pilgrimage, so when I get to Jerusalem I spend a few hours taking pictures of churches and religious sights. I even buy a Holy Land bookmark for added effect, and by the time I arrive at the airport I have an imaginary itinerary to account for my entire four weeks here. I’ll say I got to Tiberias, ate a dodgy falafel, and spent several days in bed with food poisoning – that will kill 3 or 4 days out of the 28. I also spent a lot of time here in church or reading on the beach  – another 10 days. I even devise a couple of imaginary friends, Maria and Sylvie, devout Christians who I travelled with to various holy places, and who have scribbled down their email addresses on the back of some tourist brochures.

Old City of Jerusalem in the morning light

Old City of Jerusalem in the morning light

In the event the questioning turns out to be rather half-hearted. I get extra questions and my suitcase is searched – this always happens to me, as I think it is standard for anyone who is travelling alone and has Arabic stamps in their passport. But the security man looks distracted as he asks me questions about my time in Egypt, as if he is just going through the routine. They ask to see some extra photo id, as my passport photo is nearly 10 years old, so I show them my driving licence, which is even older, and this seems to satisfy them. When my suitcase is searched they don’t even bother to take all my things out.

As I wander through the departures lounge trying find stuff to buy with my last 30 shekels, I start to feel emotional at the thought of returning somewhere where me, my family and friends are able to get on with our lives free from fear of arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture.

My flight home involves a brief stop at the airport in Paris. It’s grey and raining. A woman queuing to board the London plane is reading the Daily Mail: ‘Diana Fund Hijacked By The Left’ panics the headline. On board the plane the pilot announces: ‘the weather in London is as awful as it is here.’ I arrive at Heathrow and walk straight through passport control and onto the tube. It’s good to be no longer foreign or illicit.  As I head home, I walk down streets where army jeeps never drive and past houses where soldiers never bang on the door at night to take anyone away.

Update

Hares village arrests:

Ali and the other four boys who were arrested following the car crash remain in prison.

In the last week, three more boys in the village of Hares have been arrested in night raids and sent to Megiddo prison. They are due in court next week. The soldiers who took the boys told their families that they were given their names by the other five boys, who remain in al-Jalame interrogation centre.

The three boys from the same family who were taken at random three weeks ago have been released from Megiddo prison. We haven’t been able to make contact with their mother, so we haven’t yet interviewed them. Their case seems to be about something different from the car crash, and one of the villagers thinks the arrests were intended to scare the local boys after some stones were thrown at an army jeep which passed the school.

These are women I met at a protest, who were carrying with them photos of their sons who are in jail

These are women I met at a protest, who were carrying with them photos of their sons who are in jail

We have contacted Betselem, the Israeli human rights group, and asked them to investigate the campaign of intimidation against the village since the car crash last month.

Sebastiya: Some good news for this village as the sewage pipe has been turned off, although we’ll have to wait to see whether this lasts. It may also take a while before the produce from the land is fit for human consumption again. Either way, it would be good to think that the protests played a part in this small victory.

Burrin: Two days before I left the army raided the village, apparently in response to the non-violent resistance that has been happening there recently. Murad and some of his friends had set up a community centre and protest tents, and had organised actions including one  a couple of weeks ago in which protesters planted trees and released pro-Palestinian balloons near the settlement. Some of my colleagues from IWPS  went to the village and said it had been completely devastated. Apparently large numbers of soldiers came at night and smashed up the community centre and raided people’s houses, damaging personal property.

Court

The Megiddo plain is where, according to some, the battle of Armageddon will take place. It’s also home to Megiddo prison and Salem Military Court, where Ali’s hearing happened this morning. Later it occurs to me that Salem, sharing it’s name with the Massachusetts  town where the infamous witch-trials of the 17th century happened, is an ironic location for a kangaroo court.

It turns out that military courts are not user friendly. Salem is on the northernmost point in the West Bank, and as we weren’t told what time Karim”s hearing would be, we had to arrive first thing.  I met Ali’s parents, Um and Abu Fadi, at 7am this morning. I had faxed a request for permission to enter the court, along with a copy of my passport, but I hadn’t heard whether authorisation been granted.

Leaving our bags outside, I somehow make it through the first security check, despite not having permission, and take a seat in the waiting room next to Um Fares. The room is full of prisoners’ families and the atmosphere is subdued. Um Fadi is almost entirely silent, murmuring prayers every now and again. She taps her feet, adjusts her headscarf, fiddles with her purse, adjusts her headscarf again. She must have been thinking about this moment all week. She knows that her son is being kept in a prison where his rights are not respected and that he is probably being ill-treated.

Um and Abu Fadi must have had Ali, who is sixteen, later in life, as they seem older, especially his father. Both of them are shorter than me. Abu Fadi is even gentler than his wife. The other week when we visited them at home, we sat outside and Abu Fadi described  how an Israeli road has been built across their land, isolating one of the trees. ‘At night I heard the laurel tree weeping,’ he said. ‘It was lonely.’

Ali is still named on his fathers’ identity card  as he is too young to have one of his own, but his parents  have not been present at any of his interrogations.

A crowd start to gathers at the revolving gate near the reception. Teenage border guards, carrying semiautomatics, bark orders at the crowd, most of whom are old enough to be their parents and grandparents. Sometimes in Arabic, mostly in Hebrew: ‘Get back, all of you! Move! If you don’t all get back into the room, no-one will be allowed in!’ A man asks, ‘Why? We have children in jail and we just want to see them!’ He doesn’t seem old enough to have children in jail – his son must be young.

We continue to stand. The names of prisoners are called out one by one and their families allowed through the gate. We seem to have been standing here for hours, and still Ali’s name hasn’t been called. The rain crashes angrily on the roof outside. Now there are only a few people left, and we are let in, Um and Abu Fadi before me. The soldiers  stop the revolving gate  while I am still inside it, leaving me stuck inside it for a few minutes. Eventually I am let through, and for some reason, the guards give me permission to enter the courtroom.

Now we just have to stand and wait to be frisked. While Um Fadi and I wait, I overhear Ali’s lawyer tell the guards that her son is already in the court. Um Fadi is eventually searched and let through, but the guard makes a phone call and leaves me to wait. Finally I am searched and the lawyer escorts me to the court.

Inside is chaos. I’m aware of a boy sitting in the dock with his head in his hands, but I don’t think it’s Ali. The room is full of people in uniform carrying guns; army, border police, civilian police. Um and Abu Fadi, usually both so mild-mannered, are shouting at them. They are escorted  outside and I follow. The court hearing is over and we have missed it. Only Abu Fadi got to speak to Ali. Um Fadi bursts into tears.

As we leave, two of the women in reception, a soldier and a border guard, ask me in Hebrew why she is crying. I translate, and Um Fadi turns round and shouts angrily in English, ‘Because I have been here all day and you didn’t let me see my son!’ The guard says, in Hebrew, ‘What do you want me to do? There were lots of people!’ but I don’t translate.

Ali’s detention was extended for another five days. Abu Fadi said his son was ‘weeping and weeping,’ and that he told him to be strong. He said Karim told him he had been beaten and that a soldier held a hand to his throat. He told his father he was forced to sign the confession with one hand cuffed to the chair. This sounds sadly believable – it’s well documented that the military court regularly uses coerced confessions as the primary evidence to convict minors.

Um Fadi did not stop crying for the rest of the day.

Qusin

This morning we arrived at Qusin, another village close the settlement of Qedumim, to help the villagers plant olive trees. When we get there Riad, one of the organisers, warns us that as we will be planting trees close to the settlement’s industrial zone, we can ‘expect the worst.’

A team from the International Solidarity Movement join us and we set off. It’s a sunny morning and the way to the fields are lined with colourful wildflowers. Although the land belongs to the villagers, they are required to get permission from the army to work on it. Today they have not.

We unload the baby trees and start work. We plant three in memory of victims of the occupation – Arafat Jaradat, Tom Hurndall and Maysara Abu Hamdeya. The army appears and parks a jeep at the side of the road by the next field. The soldiers get out but for now, just stand and watch.

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Arafat Jaradat, who died in custody in February, probably as a result of torture

Arafat Jaradat, who died in custody in February, probably as a result of torture

After we have planted a few more trees, the group splits and some villagers head to the other field, closer to where the soldiers are standing. Now the soldiers approach, although rather reluctantly. They look young and bored, and are accompanied by a settler security guard in civilian clothing armed with a semiautomatic. The settler is the only one who seems  truly scary and is, I suspect, the only one of this group that actually cares about olives trees or this patch of land.

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A soldier wrenches the tools from one of the villagers and carries them off to the jeep. As the soldiers try to stop people planting trees, a scuffle  follows in which one of the ISM volunteers is arrested and dragged away by the soldiers. A row ensues, in three different languages.

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I try asking some of the soldiers what exactly the problem is with planting trees in this area, but it soon becomes obvious that they neither know or care. I’m starting to see why the settlers have organised their own security; the Israeli army have clearly delegated the task of defending this settlement to it’s doziest unit. These look as if they are the ones who got the lowest scores in the army entrance tests. One of the soldiers is overweight, and even the commander seems barely awake. Are these the ones who tear gassed us on Friday?

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Eventually the villagers agree to return to the other field in exchange for the return of the arrested volunteer, the tools, and a promise from the army to contact the army civil administration to check whether they have permission to use their own land.

One of the ISM volunteers asks the army to return the confiscated tools

One of the ISM volunteers asks the army to return the confiscated tools

The civil administration arrives and the row continues. This is absurd. There are now around 20 or so army and police standing in a field negotiating with the village mayor, it’s hot, this is taking ages, and this is all just about planting a few trees on privately owned land, miles away from anyone’s settlement. The commander points out, to everyone’s amusement, that we can’t leave the trees here as he can’t stop the settlers from stealing them. We take photos of the army, the soldiers take photos of us.

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Eventually the mayor makes the decision to drop it, so we leave. Who knows if the trees we planted are still there?

Wedding

One of the village girls is getting married and the entire village seems to be attending the wedding. On the main road from Deir Istiya to Biddiya, where the wedding will take place, cars full of families and even a whole bus are speeding, bumper to bumper, towards the celebrations.

My chaperone is Badriya, a friend of IWPS who lives in the village. In her sixties, she is unusual around here as she lives alone, having never married or had children, and like many Palestinians, her family is spread all over the world. Before she retired  she was headmistress of the local girl’s school, where she taught maths and science.  She chain smokes using a cigarette holder and has a voice like a man. Her garden is her passion;  she grows fruit and vegetables which she cooks into incredible food, and tonight she has made up a bouquet of stunning, colourful flowers to give to the bride.

Badriya doesn't like having her photo taken, but this 2 month old baby was cute

Badriya doesn’t like having her photo taken, but this 2 month old baby was cute

We arrive at the venue,  a large room packed full of women. I have no idea where the men are; they must be having a party of their own somewhere else. As it’s women only no-one is taking any photos, as some people are without their hijabs. The bride and groom enter and walk through the room to an Arabic version of  ‘Here Comes the Bride,’ accompanied by the bride’s four sisters, who are all in tears.

There’s loud music, lots of dancing, and a huge cake. Some women are dancing together in the centre of the room, and I join them at the insistence of the bride’s grandmother, who I met at last night’s women-only, pre-wedding party. The mother of the groom is dancing on the stage at the front, smiling.

Westerners sometimes find it odd, even unhealthy, that in the Arab world social activities are segregated according to gender, but I’m not sure why this any more problematic than our Western custom of segregating our social lives according to age group. Here older women, younger women and little girls all dance together,  enjoying the same music and the same company. Babies and toddlers are also entirely welcome at this party.

Last week we had a picnic with an extended family who were making music together and singing. The elderly grandmother was using an empty water container as a drum, beating out a rhythm for her small granddaughter to dance to. I love the way there seems to be no age limits here on having fun.