Deserted Al-Shuhada Street in Tel Rumeida; Beit Hadassah Settlement visible at the end of the street.
In six days I will be deported by the state of Israel.
I am a human rights worker. I have been working to prevent and document violence against the Palestinian residents of Hebron in the West Bank. Attacks on Palestinians by violent Israeli settlers occur on an almost daily basis and range from insults and spitting to stonings and beatings; these attacks take place in an area heavily patrolled by Israeli police forces and often happen immediately in front of complacent soldiers. The presence of international human rights workers, like myself, sheds some light on the abuses that settlers and occupation forces commit, and on the crimes that police consistently fail to prevent, pursue and prosecute.
On January 19th, I was standing on Shuhada Street, in Tel Rumeida, after escorting some Palestinians safely to their homes. It was 20 minutes past 2 o’clock when an Israeli police jeep rolled up to where I was on the sidewalk – I recognized the police officers in the jeep. A police officer in the passenger seat leaned across the driver and asked me, in Arabic, “What is your name?” Within minutes I was inside the back of the jeep, under arrest and leaving Tel Rumeida.
Before going to Ben Gurion Airport, I made a brief stop at the Kiryat Arba police station where I was paraded – trophy-like – in front of Hussein Nabia, a police officer who previously arrested me on false charges of failing to identify myself and assaulting a soldier, and who has tried – without warrant – to break into the ISM/Tel Rumeida Project apartment. The officers who arrested me brought me into an office where Nabia was seated, “David!” he said, and the officers brought me back outside.
Tel Rumeida, a small neighbourhood of Hebron, is sandwiched between two small settlements. The settlers of Beit Hadassah and Tel Rumeida Settlements are some of the most extreme and violent in the West Bank; the founders of the settlement movement are among them. These settlers, with the support of the Israeli Military, aim to make life intolerable for Palestinians – with the goal of driving Palestinians from their homes, from the neighbourhood and, ultimately, from Hebron itself.
The victims of these attacks range the gamut of Palestinians in the neighborhood with no one being immune – old women and young boys, businessmen and university students.
At the airport I had a hearing with a member of the Ministry of the Interior (MoI). I had been waiting outside her office with police officers and just before I was summoned into her office, I received a phone call from a friend. Just as we began to speak, the police physically pried my telephone from my fingers, and took it away; I was told, “It is rude to talk on the phone when you are in someone’s office.”
My tourist visa has expired, but before it did I went to the MoI office in Jerusalem and asked for an extension. I was given, instead, an appointment at which I could officially apply for an extension. I explained to the official whom I met with, that my visa would expire before this appointment; “No problem,” she told me, and gave me a slip of paper explaining that I had an appointment at the Ministry of Interior. I explained this to the official who then issued a deportation order against me.
There was questioning and there were forms to sign. An oversize three-ring binder held copies of form after form, deportation order after deportation order, each form a different pastel colour, and each form translated into an array of languages.
During my hearing a police officer interrupted asking me to sign a form he held out to me. Among other things, the form was a waiver, and my signature would indicate that I was refusing my right to pick up my belongings (which remained in Hebron). To paraphrase: I recognize that it was suggested to me that I go to my place of dwelling, accompanied by police, and gather my personal effects.
“This wasn’t suggested to me, and I don’t want to waive my right to gather my belongings,” I explained in English. The MoI official translated the sentence into Hebrew for the police officer.
“In fact, lets go and get them right now,” I made to stand up from the chair, having visions of a police escort and me walking into the apartment after dinner. “Will you take me now to get my things? It says here,” I gestured to the form, ” that you will accompany me to get my things.”
More translation and then the MoI official asked, “Where are your things?”
“At my home.”
“Where is that?”
“Hevron?” incredulous. “You live in Hevron?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “So? Can we go?”
Again some translation and discussion before, “No one is going to take you to Hevron. Just sign the paper.”
I explained that I wasn’t going to sign a form saying that I waived my right, when in fact I was being denied said right. “Sign the form,” they replied.
I didn’t sign the form.
I was held in a room near Ben Gurion Airport for three days. The room had two windows, six beds, one toilet, two sinks, two showerheads, two chairs, one table and one television.
On at least two occasions I am convinced that the guards forgot I was there. One evening guards turned out my lights at ten-thirty P.M. It was not until after five P.M. the next evening that the lights came back on. That same evening a guard opened the door around half-seven, “Do you need anything?” he asked.
The guard threw a sandwich, wrapped in plastic, onto the table. These sandwiches were the staple food served to me at least nine times in three days. White bread – baguette-style – halved length-wise, three slices of white cheese, some pieces of iceberg lettuce and two cherry tomatoes.
A guard searched me – marking the fourth time I was searched that day – when I first arrived at the airport “detention centre”, before he put me into my cell. Looking at two marbles that I had in my left pant pocket – gifts from a child in Tel Rumeida – he asked, “Do you need these?”
“They’re mine,” I told him, and he let me keep them.
On the third morning of my imprisonment, I was sleeping when a guard came into my cell. “Hey!” he yelled at me, “Get up. It’s time to go!”
At Ramle Detention Centre I was searched again – grand total: five times. This time my marbles were confiscated. My lip balm was also confiscated. What was not confiscated was the razor – now broken – that I had been given in detention at the airport. The head came unattached in such a way that the two blades became removable. This remained in my custody throughout my time in prison.
During the three days that I was held at Ramle, I learned a some of what life is like there on a daily basis for the refugees and economic migrants who are imprisoned there – most for much longer than me.
Just before half-past six A.M. every day, loudspeakers blasted a wake-up warning up and down the halls of Block 4, second floor. Shortly thereafter, guards would enter every room and count the prisoners; everyone was expected to be on his feet. This marked the first such count, there being often six or more per day – wake up from your nap, stop your card game, get off your top bunk; stand up when the guard enters the room; wait while the guard counts each man; relax when the guard leaves.
Economic migrants spend time in Israeli “deportation centres” (read: prisons) awaiting their deportation, or awaiting a new job.
Most of the economic migrants I met in jail await deportation, and their stay in jail is punishment for having worked in Israel without a valid work visa. These people spend between one week and four months in jail waiting to be deported. Most of the prisoners I met who fell into this category had resigned themselves to the fact that they would be deported and were simply waiting to go home. Unlike me (if I had agreed I would have been on a plane the evening that I was arrested) these people often have to wait weeks or months for their deportation.
On the morning of the day that I was released from Ramle, guards came into my cell and told another inmate, Get ready. You leave today. The Thai fellow, who slept on the bunk next to me, had been four months in prison and the first notice he received of his departure was this warning, less than two hours before leaving the prison.
I met a Nepalese fellow who had a valid work visa. He had been imprisoned because he lost his job.
His employer was ill and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. A turn for the worse in his employer’s disease left him without a job. For this, he was jailed until he was able to find a new job; after one week in prison he had a new job in Tel Aviv and was released on a Wednesday afternoon to prepare for his first day of work that Sunday.
If the economic migrants have a rough time in Israeli prison, the refugees have it worse. With not even the hope of deportation – having fled their home countries seeking asylum – the refugees at Ramle have no way to know how long they will stay in prison.
For the refugee men with whom I was imprisoned – from Ethiopia, Sudan, Liberia and other, mainly African, countries – each day is much like the other. Months pass without any change in their situation. Human rights workers come to meet with other prisoners, and tell the refugees they cannot help them. UNHCR meets with them and says, “We’re sorry; we know you are refugees, but unfortunately, we cannot help you.”
Tyson, from Ethiopia, has been nearly two years in prison, he showed me copies of letters written on his behalf – the return addresses are Canadian. One is from a group called Welcome Place in Winnipeg, and the other from a Canadian Member of Parliament. Both letters call on officials at the prison, and officials in the government, to release Tyson and the “70” Ethiopian refugees in his position.
Welcome Place wants to sponsor Tyson and the other Ethiopian refugees and bring them to Winnipeg. Most of the legal work has been done, what remains is for the refugees to have an interview with a Canadian official in Israel. The letters petition the government to please release them to allow them to fulfill these final requirements. This has not happened. Both of the letters are dated 2004.
“We are not criminals,” Tyson said. “We all have one thing in common. We are refugees and we are looking for safety.” Israel has shown them only imprisonment. “Israel should not forget it’s past. It was a nation of refugees.”
Looking out a window, barred with three separate layers of steel, Tyson pointed to a series of small huts arranged around a central courtyard with benches, palm trees and a small garden. “Those are the criminals,” he says, explaining that in those huts are Israelis who have been convicted of crimes and are serving their time. “Their doors are open 24/7 and they have a 41-inch TV.” These prisoners – convicted criminals – can walk freely in their courtyard, while Tyson and his fellow refugees are allowed outside for one hour daily, except Tuesdays when they remain inside all day. The refugees and economic migrants I was imprisoned with do not have a television; there is no common room – people socialize in the hallway near the bathroom or in their small cells.
Refugees like Tyson wait in prison with few ways to entertain themselves, extremely limited access to fresh air, and with no way of knowing how long they will be held in jail. Compared to theirs, my lot was quite easy.
After six days in prison, I was released on bail.
The MoI judge set bail at one thousand sheqels. Fifty thousand sheqels is considered a high bail, and fifteen thousand can generally be considered low. With white skin, and a Canadian passport, my NIS1,000 bail demonstrates the institutional racism that pervades all aspects of Israeli Bureaucracy that I have had the opportunity to witness.
The two conditions of my bail were that I leave Israel no later than February 10th, and that I not participate in any “International Activities” in Hebron.
As an “international,” I have wondered what might constitute “International Activity” in Hebron, and my conclusion is this: anything I might do in Hebron, witnessed by the Israeli police. Eating breakfast, visiting friends, drinking tea on the street – indeed, even walking on the street – in a nation (Palestine) which is not my own, could be viewed as a type of this activity. As such, I have not been back to Tel Rumeida, and have not seen my Palestinian friends, since I was arrested.
But: I am free.
I felt bad leaving Ramle. I breezed in and out of there with my blue passport, staying just over three days, while hundreds of other prisoners – who have committed no crime – remain for months. Tyson and the others didn’t feel bad; they were genuinely happy for me. No one should be in there, they believe that, and that included me.
I was arrested because Israeli police in the Palestinian city of Hebron know who I am; because they know that I am a human rights worker, and because human rights workers in Hebron often have to do the work of police officers: intervening in attacks to protect civilians from settler violence.
Instead of prosecuting or even – pursuing – the settlers who have maliciously attacked their Palestinian neighbours, the police of Kiryat Arba (Hebron) harass and arrest international human rights workers, who strive for justice alongside the Palestinians. If the state of Israel is interested in peace, then she should allow human rights workers, and international observers to work for justice; deporting those who work for justice cannot be seen as part of any “peace process.”
And so, in six days I will be deported. I paid for my ticket. I was planning to leave on this date. I will go to the airport on my own. Security guards will not carry me onto the plane – I will walk. This will be my deportation: quiet, and with a stopover in Budapest.