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.