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.

Advertisements

Kufr Qadum

It’s Friday, the day for prayers and protest, and we are in the village of Kufr Qadum. It’s story is similar to many West Bank villages; the nearby settlement of Qedumim was established around 35 years ago and since then much of the village’s land has been confiscated. Villagers are also banned from using the road that goes directly to the nearest Palestinian city of Nablus, as it cuts through the settlement, and must now take a long detour around the settlement to reach either Nablus or the nearest Palestinian village.

The village has been protesting since 2011. Every Friday demonstrators march towards the forbidden road.  Since then many demonstrators have been injured, and one protester was attacked by military dogs. The army regularly raids the village at night, sometimes breaking in to people’s homes and damaging property,  and many villagers have been imprisoned.

The majority of today’s demonstrators are villagers (all men, as Palestinian women are rarely seen at demonstrations) along with several members of IWPS, ISM and some Israeli activists. The Israelis are from Anarchists Against the Wall, a group who once turned up at the US embassy with a box of spent tear gas grenades (Israeli weapons are paid for by American tax dollars) with a note saying ‘return to sender.’

The ritual begins in late morning when a truck arrives with a load of used tyres which are piled across the main road out of the village towards the settlement. The protesters set fire to the pile, sending huge clouds of black smoke in the direction of the settlement. Today the wind favours the protesters; it’s all blowing away from the village and towards the settlers.

The main road out of Kufr Qadum, with the settlement of Qedumim in the background.

The main road out of Kufr Qadum, with the settlement of Qedumim in the background.

After midday prayers the march begins towards the settlement. An Israeli army jeep is visible through the clouds of smoke. The protesters have anticipated the jeep, and have set up a series of makeshift blockades of rocks at intervals down the road. The army has anticipated the blockades, and are accompanied by a bulldozer.

Army jeep accompanied by bulldozer

Army jeep accompanied by bulldozer

There are soldiers up on the hillside overlooking the village and some of the youth throw stones at them. In a familiar routine, the army responds by shooting tear gas at the protesters. Some of the older villagers stand further down the hillside shouting directions at the youths;  at first they shout at the youth to hit the soldiers, later, when the situation begins to look more risky, to come back.

P1030691

P1030690

One of the Israeli protesters pointed out a mysterious individual at the top of the hill, away from the other soldiers,  dressed in black. He said that the last time he appeared, there were arrests of internationals, and he advises us to take a different route home. I ask him if he thinks the presence of internationals bothers the army. He says that in their worldview, if there are Israelis and internationals present at a demonstration, then they must be telling the Palestinians what to do, so part of their strategy is to get internationals and Israelis out of the picture.

I’m never sure what I feel about this style of protest, which despite the stone-throwing, is part of what is  considered non-violent resistance.  Many people have observed that these weekly demonstrations, which take place in villages every Friday across the West Bank, are like a ritual or a game in which each side participates week in week out, with nothing gained. When I spoke to Ahmed, the coordinator, he told me that the demonstrators have three main objectives: to reopen the main road, now closed for 11 years, prevent the expansion of the settlement, and for the village’s land to be returned. But when I asked him if they would be prepared to march all the way to the settlement, if ever the army decided to take the day off, he gave an emphatic no.

This is a small group of people protesting against a heavily armed occupying force; a very different context than political protest in Western democracies, where the leadership is accountable to the people, or even Cairo, where it’s possible for millions to protest en masse. The difficulty for Palestinians is always that they have so few options – they have no standing army, no real political representation, and no powerful friends. For now, this is how many Palestinians choose to resist the occupation.

Once the organisers declare the protest over, we sit and drink tea. We have been advised to wait a while in case there is a checkpoint set up on the way to catch activists. The Israelis leave ahead of us, then call to say the way ahead is clear. We say goodbye to our hosts and leave.

Israel

It’s the first day of my break this morning and I’m returning to the Western world (northern Israel) for 3 days of coffee, showers and the wanton exposure of my lower arms.

I leave first thing. As I stand on the corner hitching a lift, I’m accompanied by a settler in civilian religious clothing. I notice that he hasn’t come out with a jacket or a bag, but he has felt the need to wear a large semi automatic slung over his shoulder. This isn’t an uncommon sight among (male) illegal settlers, but this must be a cumbersome accessory.

As I stand and wait, I look at him and wonder: Why does he have it? Out of fear? Hatred? And why the need for a semiautomatic? Would a discreet handgun not do? Perhaps he is planning to mow down groups of Palestinians, or perhaps he is compensating for something. Either way, a death machine over the shoulder doesn’t seem to be a hindrance when it comes to hitching a lift round here, as pretty soon a young secular Israeli man pulls over and opens the door for him with a friendly ‘Hi, how are you?’

I get a lift with an Israeli man who used to be a commander of a tank unit in the army. He explains to me, apparently without irony, that this area doesn’t belong to Israel, and that’s the reason why I’ll see so much army here. He gives me some chocolate and a business card, then drops me off at a junction which does indeed have it’s fair share of soldiers and armoured jeeps. There’s a huge menorah in the centre and Israeli flags everywhere.

I get talking to an Israeli woman from a nearby settlement, who is also hitching to Jerusalem on her way to see her father. She is young, attractive and  kind. She says she likes living on a settlement, ‘apart from that,’ she says, as a car with two young Palestinian men drives past, leering at us.

We get a lift together, and in Jerusalem she accompanies me to the central bus station. She says that eventually she would like to raise a family in either a settlement or a moshav, because they are pleasant and safe for children, unlike cities, where parents don’t feel able to let their children play outside. I think of the family we met last week, in the village not far from this girl’s settlement, where the army walked into the family home and took three boys at gunpoint in the middle of the day.

This is what it’s all for, I think, this is why Fatima is awake at night not knowing where her children have been taken, and this is why tramuatized Palestinian children cling to their parents with fear, in order to allow people like this to raise their children in comfort and safety on confiscated land. We arrive at the bus station, she directs me to the nearest coffee outlet, and we say goodbye.

Driving through the West Bank and then later through Israel, I suddenly become aware of what I somehow never noticed before: the absurdity of two distinct nations living together in the same land, as neighbours, yet almost entirely segregated. Speaking different languages, with separate towns,  separate public transport systems, and different names for the same places. In Israel, some Arab towns are barely signposted.

I catch another bus to Tiberias in the Galilee where  I check into a hostel which has hot water and a whole room full of showers. I don’t really like Tiberias that much – it’s a tacky resort where bad music is piped through loudspeakers at every turn, but it’s a good base for exploring some of the nature nearby.

P1030663

In the morning I get my coffee at my favourite cafe and sit watching the sun twinkling on the waves of the sea of Galilee, then hitch a lift to the south of the lake with a psychodrama therapist who has just moved here from Tel Aviv in search of nature and peace. The beach  there turns out to be twice the price of the beaches in Tiberias, so I hitch a lift back again with an Israeli man who tells me about his travels around Europe and Asia. He has a child’s car seat in the back. When I ask him what he does for a living, he says he does ‘a security job.’ I know this means I can’t ask any more questions. I wonder if this means he works for Shabak, the Israeli intelligence service that interrogated the boys from Haris. He drops me off at a reasonably priced beach, where I open my book, block out the music, and relax.

The next day I catch a bus to the Golan and go for a hike in some beautiful nature. The colours of the flowers are amazing, and for a while I could hear nothing but the hum of bees, the sounds of birds and the occasional helicopter overhead. I notice that there are way more Israeli army and UN vehicles in this region, and I wonder if this is normal or whether their presence has increased since the civil war in Syria just across the border. I hitch a lift back to the Galilee with an affable reservist army major, whose gun rests at my feet the whole journey. Like many Israelis he is open, friendly and talkative. He is about to begin his reserve duty in the West Bank, where I hope I don’t bump into him.