Saturday, November 29, 2003

Conversation with Omar in Balata Refugee Camp

I took my first days off in Balata refugee camp in Nablus. First I went to Huwwara, hoping to enter the city from the southern checkpoint, but the soldiers refused to let me through. It was getting late and I was worried about getting into Nablus before dark, but I remembered our policy of not pleading with soldiers or asking for favors. We do not ask permission for something that is our right, and we do not validate the authority of soldiers whose presence in the West Bank is to protect settlers in illegal colonies. That doesn’t mean we don’t treat soldiers with respect, but we are careful that respect does not appear to be consent for their illegal actions and presence. This is something we think and talk a lot about at the IWPS house, because we wish to distinguish between people and the institution that they are serving, and to recognize their humanity even amidst the inhumanity of many of their actions and the Occupation.

I asked around for a service taxi to another checkpoint, but it was too late. A young man with whom I had shared a taxi noticed I was stranded, and led me to a taxi full of other passengers who were refused entry. We set off down the highway until we reached a spot on the side of the road next to a steep hill that had clearly been trodden. Everyone hurried out of the taxi and I quickly realized that we were entering Nablus the long way, over the hills, to avoid checkpoints. We ran up to the summit and climbed over two roadblocks. There we found a taxi waiting to take us to a nearby town, where we could find transport into Nablus. By the time we reached the city it was after dark. The young man who had aided me in my journey led me to a shared taxi bound for Balata, where I was staying that night in the ISM apartment. He would not take any money for my part of the journey. I insisted, but he just put his hand on his heart and smiled to say that I was most welcome, and then walked away.

Balata sees more violence and incursions than most other places in Palestine, which is evident as you walk through the camp. There are bullet holes in every house, school, and store. The children are tougher than those in other Palestinian communities, and their parents are more suspicious. But the barrier is easily broken with a little Arabic and indication of solidarity. It was in Balata that I met Omar.

Omar is a sad-looking man who works with ISM. A year and a half ago, on the day I graduated from my elite university in cheerful oblivion, Omar’s cousin Mahmoud was shot three times with an army tank, tearing his body into four pieces. Mahmoud belonged to Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the military wing of the Fatah party.

Omar told me that Mahmoud had once been a Palestinian police officer but found it impossible to be effective with constant Israeli military invasions undermining all efforts towards Palestinian self-rule. One day Mahmoud confronted the raiding army with two friends; one of them was killed and the other sent to prison for over twenty years. He joined the Brigades after that.

When Omar’s younger brother heard of his cousin’s death, he was devastated. Five days later, he strapped a bomb to his chest and blew himself up in a city outside of Tel Aviv, killing an Israeli woman and her eighteen-month-old granddaughter. Omar’s brother was eighteen years old.

International volunteers stay at Omar’s house in Balata not in support of what his brother did, but in protest of the demolition order threatening Omar’s family’s home, which is a form of collective punishment in retaliation for his brother’s crime. There is a picture of Mahmoud and Omar’s brother in the front hall of family’s house. Balata camp is covered in pictures of men and women who have been killed by Israeli forces, or who have killed themselves in attacks on Israel. They are revered and mourned by the community as martyrs, regardless of how they died.

Omar and I spent the evening playing Palestinian backgammon and talking. Omar learned to play backgammon during his seven years in and out of jail since 1985, when he was first arrested at the age of thirteen. He had been on his way to school when he was picked up by a jeep and put into prison for six months. The soldier who arrested him claimed he had thrown a stone, but Omar insists he never threw stones. Never, that is, until after he spent six months in jail. When he was released from prison, his attitude had changed. If Israeli soldiers were free to imprison him without trial for six months, he would have no qualms about throwing stones or Molotov cocktails. That was Omar’s attitude until he started working with ISM.

ISM has a strict policy of nonviolence. I asked Omar what his friends and family thought of ISM’s strategies and he said, “They support my
nonviolent resistance work with ISM. Most of my friends do, too. Yet the Israeli media says we are animals and killers. But they are killing us!”

Omar pointed to a crack in the ceiling.

That is from a bomb that exploded the same night I stood at this window and watched my friend get shot on the street below. I wanted so desperately to go help him but I couldn’t because the army was shooting. I am powerless. I am part of ISM but I cannot do Checkpoint Watch; I would have no effect. I cannot even go to an organizational meeting next week because there are three checkpoints between me and the meeting—with my last name, I will never make it. It is very frustrating, and as the Occupation policies become stricter it will become harder to find people sympathetic to ISM’s strategies. Nonetheless, I believe there is still hope for nonviolence. Even with one brother paralyzed from falling debris during a raid and another one with only eight fingers, after he lost two in the same raid. Even as I watch three of my cousins and my nephew spend their lives in prison.

Omar looked at me and I saw he had tears in his eyes. When he saw my face he looked down, ashamed; “I’m sorry I make you sad. I shouldn’t bother you with my problems.” I encouraged him to continue. He smiled. “Thank you so much for listening to me. I have nobody left to talk to, and I’m happy to know that you are listening.” I nodded. Omar was ready to tell his story. These are his words as I remember them:

I was crossing at a checkpoint near Nablus when a soldier asked me my name. I told him and immediately he asked me about Mahmoud: “Why did your cousin die?” he asked. I said, “Because you killed him!” Then the soldier asked, “Why did your brother explode himself with bombs?” and I answered, “Why do you think?” The soldier told me I would go to jail because my family was dangerous. I said that I was different from my brother, but he said that I was Palestinian, and so I did not want peace. He called his men over to take me away.

The police took me to a room where I was blindfolded and my hands were tied behind my back. Ten men beat me on and off for many hours. I remember it was raining outside. When they had finished there was blood streaming down my face so they took me to an army doctor. The doctor looked at me once and said no problem, although I was badly hurt. I waited for them to take me to my room where I could rest. Instead they took me to another room where they beat me for about one more hour.

When they had finished they took me to a small, empty dark room with water on the floor. They left me there, shivering on the floor, with blood all over my body. Occasionally they would bring me food, but it was food not even fit for animals. I did not eat for three days. After five days in solitary confinement, the captain told me I would stay in jail for six months. When I asked why, he repeated the reasons of the first soldier: he said I was dangerous, and that even if my brother was dead the “Arab wrath” would continue in me.

The next six months were a living hell. If a soldier ever asks me if I prefer prison or death, I will not have to think twice. The bathrooms in jail were repulsive. Every day, we had half an hour for thirty people to use one toilet. We were all sick with not being able to go to the bathroom, and when we complained that it was not enough time the guard told us, “Don’t worry, you can go tomorrow.”

There were boys there only fourteen years old. And there was an eighty-year-old man who was very sick in bed crying. I told the guard he needed a doctor or he was going to die. The guard answered, “He is dangerous. If he dies, then the people of Israel will be safe.”

One week before my prison time was finished, I could not sleep. I was tortured with fears that they would decide to keep me another six months, or worse, that they would deport me to Gaza so I could never see my family again.[1] And then they told me I could go. It was a wonderful feeling of freedom, until the reality sank in that I was returning to life in another cage. I had gone from one prison to another, a bigger prison, called Balata. I am still in prison. We all are.

Omar is luckier than some. He was on AmnestyAmnesty International’s list of illegal political prisoners until he was released. Still, he remains trapped. He is desperate to leave Palestine. One international invited him recently to visit Germany. He applied for permission to leave but Israel rejected the application. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have no citizenship and cannot travel or migrate without permission from Israel.
[2] The police say Omar is dangerous, and I am reminded of how people become what people expect of them. I hope that Omar will be stronger than that. He said he hopes so too.

I asked Omar if his brother had warned him before he killed himself and others. Omar looked at me incredulously: “Are you kidding? Do you think I would have let him go?” His anger turned to tears. “I would have locked him in the house and brought him food and never let him out of my sight! He was my baby brother... And if I ever meet someone who knew what he was going to do and didn’t tell me, I’ll never forgive them.”

I asked Omar if he wanted to tell me about his brother. He smiled and looked off into space. “He’s not my brother anymore. He’s a part of me, inside of me.” Omar patted his chest. “I still feel him here. He was great, very charismatic, always coming home with a new crazy hairstyle. He loved to dress up nice and wear fancy cologne and he couldn’t wait to buy a car to drive the pretty girls around.” Omar laughed for the first time that night. “He was the only person around who didn’t smoke. He hated cigarettes, and when I smoked he would yell at me that it was bad for my health. He was so smart... A year before he died he’d finished high school and wanted to study in a university, but we didn’t have the money. He had worked three years in a small hospital in Israel but lost his job when the Second Intifada started. After that he was working odd jobs to save up the money for school. He wanted to be a doctor.”

Omar turned to me with a big smile, “Thank you for asking.” I smiled back, sadly. I didn’t know what to say. There were no words to comfort. How could I tell him he was not alone when so much of the world has turned their backs on people with stories just like his? He kept apologizing for troubling me, which broke my heart.

I told Omar I wanted to tell him something. He listened. I looked him in the eyes and said, “I’m Jewish.” He looked surprised, but kept listening. “My family also has a devastating history. My grandparents were refugees from the Nazi Holocaust and most of their parents, sisters, and brothers were killed by the Nazis.” Omar cocked his head and shook it slowly. A pained look had come into his eyes. He spoke. “I see Sharon as a second Hitler. I hate Sharon but I do not hate Jews, and I do not hate you. God loves everyone: Muslims, Jews, Christians, everyone. If you do good, then you go to Heaven. God doesn’t distinguish and neither do I.”

I am not writing this account to excuse what Omar’s brother did. It is appalling, and likely only inspired more violence. Interactions like the one I had with Omar don’t make the tragedies any more bearable, but they do remind me that Palestinians who attack Israelis or Israelis who attack Palestinians are not homicidal maniacs. Many on both sides truly believe that the other is out to destroy them, and that violence is their only hope of survival. Fear makes people do crazy things. The struggle is to revive the humanity amidst the fear.

It’s hard to feel human in Palestine, with the Wall closing in and the threat of imprisonment always lurking. There are more than 8,000 Palestinian political prisoners being held in Israeli prisons today, about 10% of whom are in administrative detention,
[3] meaning they can be held without charge or trial, indefinitely.[4] Approximately 40% of all Palestinian men in the Occupied Territories have been detained or imprisoned by Israel. Almost every day, I meet former prisoners. In Nablus, a young man not much older than me saw me looking confused and asked in English if he could help me. I needed a phone and he let me use his. I asked him where he had learned English and he said in prison in Israel. He had just been released the year before after nine years in prison, from age 18 to 27.

The stories don’t end; they multiply. Tonight I received a call from the father of a 23-year-old accountant named Amjad who was arrested this afternoon at Huwwara checkpoint without explanation. I tried calling the military prison where we thought he might be, but the prison operator was unwilling to talk to me. I immediately called the Israeli human rights organization Hamoked. They had more luck phoning in Hebrew and located Amjad, who is being held for inspection without charges. He has never had any problems with the army, and his family is extremely upset and worried. They are not allowed to visit him, nor can he contact them.

[1] According to Al-Haq Palestinian human rights organization, dozens of West Bank Palestinians have been expelled to Gaza during the Second Intifada. In one instance, “[two West Bank Palestinian prisoners] were taken to the Israeli military base at Beit El in the West Bank, where they were given half an hour to say goodbye to their families before they were expelled to Gaza. They were given 1,000 shekels each, blindfolded and driven into the Gaza Strip in two armoured vehicles before being dropped off in an orchard on the edge of the Israeli settlement Netzarim. They did not know where they were, but met Gaza Palestinians who helped them.”

Kate Coakley and Marko Divac Öberg, “Israel’s Deportations and Forcible Transfers of Palestinians Out of the West Bank During the Second Intifada, Occasional Paper 15” Al-Haq (April 2006).

More than 1200 Palestinians have been deported by Israel since the Occupation began (following the initial 320,000 who were expelled during the 1967 War). According to Noam Chomsky, a program of “‘invisible transfer’ began under the Labor Party shortly after the 1967 conquest as one of the means to deal with the ‘demographic problem’ (the problem of having too many Arabs in the Jewish state)... Over 90% of the victims were women and children.” Chomsky wrote in the early 1980s, “Israel appears to be the only country in the world that relies on this mode of population control as a regular practice, in violation of the Geneva Conventions [and] the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, updated edition (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999), p. 476-477.

[2] Israel occupies the entire area between the West Bank and Jordan, so Palestinians wishing to leave require permission both to get to the border crossing (accessible only via Israeli roads) and then to cross it into Jordan. Permission is difficult to obtain for all Palestinians, but most of all for those whose families have had legal problems, like Omar’s. Israel is not required to give reasons for rejecting applications beyond citing Israeli security.

Entering other countries is also complicated because Palestinians don’t have any legal citizenship. Additionally, applying for visas is difficult if not impossible because most embassies and consulates are in Jerusalem, a city forbidden to the majority of Palestinians.

[3] Addameer, Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association (2003).

[4] Administrative detention orders expire after six months but can be renewed indefinitely.