Sunday, April 24, 2005

Jewish Emancipation & Palestinian Imprisonment

Friday night we hosted our first official IWPS Passover seder[1] in Palestine. Passover, a Jewish holiday celebrating self-determination and freedom from oppression, never meant much to me in the past, but this time was different. We invited Palestinian neighbors, Israeli activists, and other internationals to celebrate with us, and also to mourn the brutal oppression that continues today. Hannah handed out copies of an alternative Haggadah,[2] including the “ten plagues of the Occupation” in addition to the traditionally-referenced ten plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians by God.[3]

It was hard for our Palestinian friends to understand how any Jews could justify oppressing another people when they have suffered so much in the past. My friends knew the biblical story of Exodus better than I did—it’s in the Koran—and we enjoyed comparing stories and interpretations. We talked about the past and the future, we sang songs about freedom, and we ate a lot of good food. The meal had a Palestinian twist to it: taboun (Palestinian flatbread) instead of matzoh, fennel instead of maror, and olives on the Seder plate to symbolize freedom, peace, and economic security.

Shortly after the Seder ended, there was a knock at the door. It was the sister and cousin of Jaber, the sick man whose arrest I had witnessed the night before. They were in tears, desperate to know of his condition. I had called the army’s “humanitarian” office earlier that day to learn that Jaber had been seen by one of the army doctors, who are infamous for ignoring injuries and illnesses if doing so protects or facilitates the work of the army. The doctor’s diagnosis: “sensitivity in the chest and heart pain, but medical condition does not bar arrest.” That was all.

I called Physicians for Human Rights, who had already heard of the case. They said the doctor’s diagnosis was bogus, and when pushed, the doctor admitted that Jaber had a stomach ulcer. I called the army’s District Coordinating Office (DCO), and they assured me that Jaber was receiving the proper medication: ulcer pills and lots of water. They said they were positive he was being properly cared for and told me to stop calling them. They even had someone from the prison call me to say Jaber was fine and well. I asked to talk to him and was told that that was out of the question.

When I told Jaber’s family that he had an ulcer, they were very confused. This was not at all the diagnosis given by the Nablus doctor in whose care Jaber had been during the past week in the hospital. We called the Nablus doctor, who informed us that Jaber didn’t have a stomach ulcer at all; he had meningitis.

We began to make phone calls. The DCO was annoyed to hear from us again and assured me that the army knew of Jaber’s meningitis and was caring for him accordingly. “That’s the same thing you said about him being treated for an ulcer,” I replied. “Meningitis is a lot more serious. And it’s contagious. Have they been giving him ulcer pills? He should be in a hospital, not a prison. The doctor in Nablus had released him only because he thought he could heal at home in bed—”

The official interrupted me. “He’s fine! I promise. I have personally verified it. Now stop calling us!”

I wondered how he could make such a promise. Did he really know? This was too much of a risk. “Security threats” were usually tortured under interrogation during their first few days under custody, not nursed in bed.

Jaber’s sister Samea was also suspicious. She said he had been arrested over 10 years ago and thrown into jail for 9 months. He had been a student at Bir Zeit University at the time, the most prestigious university in Palestine, and noted Palestinian scholar Edward Said’s alma mater. She said young Jaber had been innocent, but they had tortured him until he confessed to something. His crime: they said “he was nationalistic and had the intention to do nationalistic actions.” What does that even mean? Apparently it meant they could keep him as long as they wanted.

Samea asked if she could see the pictures of his arrest. When I showed her the first one on my computer screen, she began to cry. In it, you could see Jaber’s face, on the verge of tears and passing out as the soldier dragged him to the jeep. I closed the picture quickly, regretting having opened it.

Samea said she had lost many people in her life but nothing this painful or out of the blue. She said she couldn’t understand it. He had no political ties. He passed through many checkpoints every day to get to work at the Ministry of Finance in Ramallah, and he had never been stopped before. But Jaber’s wife said a soldier had Jaber’s number written on his hand when the couple arrived at Huwwara checkpoint—they were waiting for him. Someone, somewhere, must have given his name. That’s all the army needs to hold people indefinitely.

Hannah and I decided to put out a call to action, asking Israelis to call the prison or DCO to demand that Jaber see a real doctor and receive genuine medical care. Israeli groups forwarded the appeal to their mailing lists around the world. The result was amazing: people began to call en masse. Since the prison didn’t pick up, the DCO’s phone line was flooded with calls from over 10 different countries. Each caller demanded that the prisoner named Jaber who was suffering from meningitis receive proper medical attention. The DCO staff was irate, but they were left with no choice. With the spotlight on them from around the world they couldn’t afford to risk Jaber’s life. Jaber was finally transferred to an Israeli hospital, and as luck would have it, the Jewish doctors were all on leave for Passover so his physician was a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. That meant Jaber not only had a doctor, but one he could communicate with!

My colleague Hannah went to visit Jaber in the hospital. Here is an excerpt from her report:

His room was not difficult to find, since it was the only one with a closed door and two armed soldiers sitting outside.... They would not let us enter, but we were able to talk to the doctor, who had not yet received any information about Jaber’s prior medical situation. He seemed frustrated with the army’s reluctance to share information. The doctor told us he had just done a spinal tap and would soon determine Jaber’s illness.... The viral meningitis diagnosis was confirmed an hour later…

When we entered [his room] Jaber was sleeping. I said his name softly and he opened his eyes and gave a little moan. I introduced myself, and he greeted me with the customary, “Ahlan w’sahlan (Welcome).” He started to come to his senses [and said he was] tired, and sick.... He kept saying “Biddi amoot,” which could be translated as “I want to die” or “I’m going to die.” I’m not sure which he meant. Maybe both.

He said the doctor was good, but [that] if he’s taken back to Salem detention center they might as well shoot him. He was in tears as he told us he hadn’t eaten, drunk, or slept in 3 days. In Salem, he said, they threw him in a small cell with nine other people, and did not let anyone out to go to the bathroom from nine at night until nine in the morning. He spent the next 2 days on the floor in pain (there were no beds), where he said it was extremely cold at night. He told us he lost consciousness four times, but didn’t sleep at all. Nobody spoke with him while he was there, so if there is to be any interrogation, it has not yet begun.

He told us to lift up the blanket covering his feet, and we saw the metal cuffs on his ankles. . . . He was too weak to sit up or feed himself, and two armed guards sat outside his room, but he had to be shackled?! While Susy spoke to the soldier [about the shackles], I dialed Jaber’s wife’s number. She picked up and I quickly said, “Hi Khulud, I’m with Jaber, hold on...” and handed him the phone. They talked for a few minutes before the soldiers [forced him to hang up]. . . Jaber handed me the phone, thanked me, and smiled for the only time all day.

So the DCO was lying after all. They never personally verified Jaber’s condition, and Jaber wasn’t even given the water that the army was told was most crucial to his recovery. Now Jaber is getting food, but it’s only a matter of time before he’s taken back into custody at Salem.

Jaber’s story is tragic, but far from unique. According to AmnestyAmnesty International, Israel violates international human rights standards in its treatment of Palestinian prisoners in various ways, including police brutality, denial of access to a lawyer,
[4] and refusal of bail.[5] Perhaps most serious is Israel’s torture of Palestinian prisoners, a practice that Human Rights Watch found so widespread that “Israel’s political leadership cannot claim ignorance that ill-treatment is the norm in interrogation centers. The number of victims is too large, and the abuses are too systematic.”[6] Tens of thousands of Palestinians were “tortured or severely ill-treated while under interrogation” during the First Intifada alone.[7] About 20 Palestinian detainees mysteriously died under interrogation and detention during the same period.[8] And according to B’tselem, “nearly 50% of interrogations end up with no charges being pressed, or any other steps taken against the detainee.”

Methods of torture include covering prisoners’ faces with hoods or blindfolds, hanging them by their wrists for long periods, sexual assault, electric shock, and “binding the detainee’s hands to his legs so that his body is bent backward... exposed and vulnerable to the blows of the interrogators... on the face, the chest, the testicles, the stomach, in fact on all parts of the body.”[9] The San Francisco Chronicle reported one case in which the Israeli abusers “took photographs of themselves with their victims, holding their heads by the hair like hunting trophies,” just one of many such incidents according to Israeli human rights workers.[10]

Female prisoners report additional kinds of abuse. Pregnant inmates have been forced to give birth with handcuffs on.[11] Some female prisoners are arrested, humiliated, and photographed as a means of putting pressure on their husbands.[12]

Palestinian child prisoners also consistently report being tortured, as well as intimidated, insulted, sexually harassed, and deprived of education and family visits.[13] Just a few weeks ago, a 16-year-old Palestinian from Jerusalem who was released from detention said that “Israeli investigators tied his testicles to a thread and pulled it strongly, causing severe pains. He added that they used him as an ashtray, putting [out] their cigarettes on his skin, and that he was deprived of sleep, movement and using the toilet.” The testimony came after three Israeli border guards confessed to forcing a group of Palestinian minors to eat sand and kiss their boots after being detained for not carrying their IDs.[14]

Amnesty also cites Israel’s lack of effective investigation following incidents of torture of abuse by soldiers: “More than 80% of investigations of [Palestinians’] complaints relating to [Israeli] police violence are closed.” The power to close investigations lies with the army, the very organization being investigated.[15] In a 2001 report, B’tselem put the percentage of Palestinian complaints effectively ignored higher at 100%: “All the investigation files were closed with no action taken.”[16]

There are soldiers in every army who abuse their power; I don’t say that Israelis are worse than most (although rarely are the abusers lauded abroad as “the most moral army in the world”). The first problem is that Israeli soldiers have no right to be in the West Bank and Gaza, yet the armed 18-year-olds enjoy virtually unchecked power over millions of people. The second problem is that Israel has institutionalized these abuses and failed to investigate complaints or allow impartial observers.

Luckily, people are watching. Each person who called the DCO on Jaber’s behalf last week made an appeal on behalf of justice for prisoners—and it worked! The abuses are many, but so are we.

[1] A seder is a Jewish ritural feast on the first evening of Passover.

[2] The Haggadah is the book traditionally read aloud during the first nights of Passover. It recounts the story of Jews enslaved by Egypt’s Pharoah and then liberated following a series of plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians by God. The alternative Haggadah we used was based on the “Love and Justice in Times of War Haggadah Zine” by Micah Bazant and Dara Silverman, available at

[3] The ten plagues of the Occupation of Palestine: Home Demolitions, Uprooting Olive Trees, Blockades and Checkpoints, Destruction of Villages, Administrative Detention, the Wall, Theft of Resources, False Democracy, Erasing Histories, and War Crimes.

[4] Attorney of Law Jonathan Kuttab reports that “in 98% of the cases, lawyers cannot see Palestinian clients until after they ‘confess,’ and judges will accept the ‘confession’ at face value,” even if the confession is written in Hebrew, a language unknown to the suspect, and elicited after threats, psychological pressure, and torture. Associated Press (February 28, 1988); As cited in Chomsky, Fateful, p. 484.

[5] “Israel and the Occupied Territories: Mass Arrests and Police Brutality,” AmnestyAmnesty International (November, 2000).

[6] “Torture and Ill-Treatment: Isreal’s Interrogation of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories,” Human Rights Watch (1994); As cited in The Origin of the Palestine-Israel Conflict, published by Jews for Justice in the Middle East, third edition, p. 28.

[7] “Israel’s Interrogation of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories,” Human Rights Watch (New York, 1994), pp. x, 4.; As cited in Finkelstein, Chutzpah, p. 156.

[8] Finkelstein, Chutzpah, p. 161.

[9]The Interrogation of Palestinians during the Intifada: Ill-treatment, “Moderate Physical Pressure” or Torture?” B’tselem (Jerusalem, March 1991), pp. 27-32.; As cited in Finkelstein, Chutzpah, pp. 142-146.

[10] Rachelle Marshall, “The Peace Process Ends in Protests and Blood,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (December, 2000); As cited in The Origin of the Palestine-Israel Conflict, published by Jews for Justice in the Middle East, third edition, p. 32.

[11] Their newborns become the youngest Palestinian child prisoners, some going years never having seen the outside of a prison.



[14] “Israeli soldiers force Palestinian minors to eat sand,” Al Jazeera Magazine Online Edition (April 7, 2005).

[15] “Israel and the Occupied Territories: Mass Arrests and Police Brutality,” AmnestyAmnesty International (November 2000).

[16]Standard Routine: Beatings and Abuse of Palestinians by Israeli Security Forces during the Al-Aqsa Intifada,” B’tselem (Jerusalem, 2001); As cited in Finkelstein, Chutzpah, p. 166.


Anonymous said...

thank you, your work is enlightening.

Anonymous said...

theyve got the oil lazy weve got land work they have hate losers weve got love winners weve been here forever nazis will always lose