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The Small Battles

by Daniela, Tuesday 26th September

This weekend I attended a small rally in Tulkarem, where Palestinian NGOs were calling for a boycott of Israeli goods. Although the group was small, they were organized and seemed intent to follow through with this goal. On our way back to Ramallah, our taxi slowed to a stop. A line of ten cars was ahead of us, waiting at the checkpoint.

When our time came to pull up beside the soldiers we all passed our IDs to the driver. The three soldiers glanced at the IDs and began to walk around the car, inspecting the passengers. We opened the door and they instructed my friend to step out and speak with them. He walked over to their station, lifted his shirt upon request, and turned in a circle to prove that he was not carrying a weapon. He said nothing. (One day later, I would watch this same guy as he furiously chanted in front of a group of soldiers, “Hey Israel what do you say, how many kids did you kill today?”)

The three soldiers spoke to him for a short time, and then asked the driver to pull over to the side and wait while they called in my friend’s ID. “It will only take five minutes,” they said, and went back to chatting. One soldier appeared bored with this game, and blithely urged his friend to just let us pass, but he refused.

Five minutes turned into fifteen, and the car’s passengers began to get restless. After my friend’s failed attempt to reason with the soldiers, I decided to get out, and use any pull that I might have as a U.S. citizen to get back the ID.

“What do you want,” called out one soldier as I approached them.

“Listen, I’m not sure what the problem is, but we’re really in a hurry,” I said, trying to sound casual and degrading at the same time.

“What’s your hurry, do you have to catch a plane back to the U.S. or something?” one of the younger ones joked.

“No, but there are people in that car that have things to do with their day. They have to get to work, they have to meet people in Ramallah, they have lives to get back to.”

“This will only take a few minutes, we have to check your friend’s ID.”

“Why,” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said another one.

“You don’t know, but you’re making us wait here for 20 minutes?”

“Well, he could be a suspect,” he responded authoritatively.

“He could be a suspect? That’s it?” I said, trying to be careful with my words. “Listen, can you just give me his ID and let us go. We really need to get to Ramallah.”

They looked me up and down, and then hesitantly handed me the green ID. I snatched it up and walked back to the car.

When I was only a few steps away, the youngest of the soldiers called back to me, “Don’t hate us sweetie,” in a tone of condescension that I had not been subjected to in a while.

I turned around, prepared to say everything that I thought this kid needed to hear, everything that I hadn’t spoken out loud since I arrived in Palestine. But I looked down at the ID in my hand, wondered what might happen to my fellow travelers if I talked back to the soldiers, thought about the four more checkpoints we would have to go through that day, and remembered that this wasn’t my fight.

Recently I have been working on a report for ADDAMEER (Arabic for conscience, a prisoner support and human rights association) on Palestinian child detainees, and the various military regulations that apply to their interrogation, trial, and detention. Advocacy agencies will often make the point that most Israeli military regulations consistently violate international laws. For example, Palestinian children are tried as adults when they reach the age of 16 and will be placed in adult prisons. They are denied the right to education, the right to congregate in prayer, and are subjected to both physical and psychological abuse on a daily basis. But what do all of these small arguments matter when they are merely tiny details in a much larger injustice?

I was interviewing an Israeli lawyer the other day on the differences in treatment between Israeli children and Palestinian children. He mentioned that Israeli children who are convicted are often sent to rehabilitation centers, and not to juvenile prisons. When I pointed out that this option has not been provided to Palestinian children he scoffed at the idea. “The help [a Palestinian child prisoner] might need is not the help that Israeli occupying system would be able or ready to supply,” he said. “What will be the rehabilitation? Education to Zionism? Or will Palestinian social workers, who identify with the Palestinian cause (and may be potential
prisoners themselves) be let inside to help the children?”

It is rare that I will see a lawyer make the argument at trial that this system, as a whole, is illegal. It is rare even to hear someone bring up international law in the proceedings. With the exception of administrative detention cases, or cases of torture, international standards have no place in these military courts. More often than not, there will be a plea bargain, and if they’re lucky they will get their client’s sentence down a few months. As no one is listening to the big arguments, they have to make these small arguments day in and day out: This child has never been arrested, so his sentence for throwing rocks should be reduced…This man has a family to take care of, so may he pay a fine for belonging to the PFLP party instead of serving time?

Last week, I was able to attend the appeal hearing for the members of the Palestinian Parliament that have been held in Israeli jails since June. A few days before, a military judge had ordered the release of these detainees, on bail, for the duration of the trial, but this was delayed in order to give the prosecutor time to appeal. Five minutes into the trial my translator had to abandon me, so I stood silently and did my best to pick up a few words.

All of the hearings are conducted in Hebrew, but a soldier will stand at the back of the room and translate in Arabic. Most of the time his words will be mumbled, so it’s nearly impossible for the detainee’s families to understand what is happening. The defense attorney went on at length, speaking for nearly half an hour straight. The court was definitely standing room only that day, as all of the seats were occupied by reporters. I wondered if the judge would have allowed the defense attorney to continue for this long if members of the media weren’t watching him like hawks. The members of the legislative council sat quietly, occasionally mumbling something to their lawyers and laughing. I had seen the faces of all of these men on posters plastered up around Ramallah. In their pictures, they looked dignified in their suits and ties, resembling every politician I have ever seen. Now, even in their brown jumpsuits and shackles, they still seemed determined to look stately.

The defense attorney was still presenting his case, and all I could think was, how could he possibly have that much to say? What more is there to say than, “This is completely illegal. You can’t arrest someone for being a democratically elected official.” Done. Case closed. But things do not work that way around here.

There have been moments in the history of this occupation when defense lawyers have decided to boycott the trials altogether. They will make a statement that they cannot participate in this instrument of the occupation. The organization I’m currently working with has often called for such boycotts, but will never follow through with them without the full support of the prisoners. After all, it is they who will bear the brunt. I was speaking to a good friend the other day about his time in prison. He said that these boycotts had occurred during his time, but it was always damaging to the prisoners. If a group of lawyers made a public statement about the illegality of the Israeli Military Courts, any prisoner associated with them would undoubtedly be sentenced to double the amount of time. This is a risk most lawyers are not willing to take, nor should they—unless their client is ready to take that risk with them.

So I sit back each day and watch the small battles being fought, but not often won. I’m still trying to figure out my role in all of this, but for now I’m satisfied in getting the stories of those I meet out to all of you. So here are the words of one client of ADDAMEER who is currently being held under administrative detention. This means that he is held without charges or trial, and his attorney is not permitted to see the secret file against him. Technically he may only be held like this for six months, but most administrative detainees have their sentences renewed indefinitely. His name is Yahir, and he is 18 years old:

“During the last 10 days of my Detention Order, I start to think about the outside world. About my family and friends, how things are outside, what all my friends are doing, how they are spending their time. When my Detention Order is renewed, I feel shattered. I am depressed and frustrated because in my mind the renewal means nofamily, no friends, no knowledge of the outside world.

“On the day of renewal, the prison authorities move 26 prisoners all together and put us in 3 cells. We leave our section at 8:30 in the morning and have to wait until the end of the day, when all the 26 prisoners have finished, before we are returned to our section.

“During the renewal hearings, I sit and wish I would hear the word ‘release’ and I wait for the judge to say ‘sha’rur’ (release). I don’t understand what the translator says as he speaks too quickly and sometimes I have to ask him to repeat.

“On the last hearing, when my detention was renewed, I told the judge that I am only 18 and that there is nothing against me and that I have never been in prison. I wanted to know what the secret file against me has in it. I told him I was from Qalqilya, which is literally a prison anyway due to the wall. I asked him to release me. My request was refused.

“The life of the Administrative Detainee is all about waiting. We don’t know when we will go home. When our detention order is about to end, all our thinking goes to the outside world. We daydream about our family and friends and what we will do when we are released.

“I have seen Detainees receive a renewal of their detention on the day they are supposed to be released, and they go mad. One Detainee, Nimmer Nazal in my section gave all his prison belongings away on the morning he was to be released. He was given a renewal on that day and he lost his temper.

“Then in the evening he had to ask to get all his belongings back again…”