Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Incidents in Beit Ommar

Sometime toward the end of January my friend Ahmad (not his real name) sent me a distressing message that the IDF had surrounded the homes of his parents, grandparents and in-laws at 2 AM, seeking his two oldest boys, Ashraf -15 – and Nabil – 13 – (again, not their real names). At one of the homes, the husband/father worked at night so was not there when the IDF demanded entrance. His wife was terrified and fled with her children to a relative living in an apartment above them. Being denied entrance, the IDF broke the door, several windows and mirrors in the home before locating family members on the second floor. Before the night was out, they entered four homes of families related to Ahmad. In each case the family answered the demand for the two boys with “No one with those names lives here”.” Ironically, the IDF has not sought the boys where they live. The IDF either has poor intelligence (pun intended) or learned the boys were unlikely candidates as rock-throwers or informants on others. Ahmad and his wife now require the boys be home immediately after school to avoid the chance they will encounter an IDF patrol.

Ahmad and his extended family live in Beit Ommar, a Palestinian village of 15,000 on route 60 a little more than half way between Bethlehem and Hebron. The surrounding Israeli settlements (referred to as colonies by Beit Ommar’s mayor) make growth in the village impossible, and settlers are now encroaching on their farm land. Ahmad is an extraordinary man. Imprisoned three times during the first Intifada and beaten severely during the last imprisonment, Ahmad became convinced that non-violence was the only viable and moral strategy for resisting the occupation. Believing resistance alone was not sufficient, however, he founded an organization dedicated to “crossing the borders” with dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. In a recent meeting convened in Beit Ommar a Palestinian who had been imprisoned in Hebron sat one seat away from an Israeli who commanded that prison. And they listened respectfully to each other.

When I visited Ahmad in November he told me of his 15 year old nephew (whom we’ll call Sami) who had been roused from sleep by the IDF sometime after midnight in June (2010) and taken from his distressed family for questioning. What Ahmad told me was, frankly, difficult to believe. The military leveled charges (rock throwing) against Sami, but they were also after the names of other boys and adults who encouraged them. Sami was held for a little more than a week and, at some point in the interrogation, he was threatened with electrodes being attached to his genitals and told by the guards he would be like his sister and never marry. Sami was understandably terrified and signed whatever he was told to sign. Again, no matter what the circumstance, I had difficulty believing the Israeli military/police would threaten a 15 year old boy with torture which, in itself, amounts to torture. Sami was eventually released to his family if they paid a fine of 500 shekels (approximately $140) and pledged to return Sami for questioning within an hour whenever required to do so.

I returned this past weekend (February 19) to Jerusalem and to Beit Ommar the following Monday. Before I did, however, I planned a meeting with B’Tselem’s Jerusalem staff to discover what they knew about this particular incident with Sami. B’Tselem has field staff in Beit Ommar who interviewed Sami after his release and received essentially the same report as I did from Ahmad. Torture is of course illegal under any conditions and is a serious abuse when used with juveniles. Because of B’Tselem’s work and that of others, torture is not regularly practiced, but they acknowledged there continue to be isolated incidents, even with young people. The practice of arresting young Palestinians, telling them they were identified as rock-throwers (whether this is true or not) by some of their friends and demanding they name others as well as adults who organize and encourage violence is described by B’Tselem as a common practice. Strict laws govern the detention of juveniles in Israel and the occupied territories which B’Tselem alleges, at least in the case of arrests in the Silwan neighborhood, the police “consistently breach.” An excellent discussion of these laws and a report on their observance by the authorities may be found in B’Tselem’s December, 2010 publication Caution: Children Ahead.

Like parents anywhere and maybe, given the circumstances in which they live, more so, Palestinian parents are intensely protective of their children. Many must live with the constant fear of police banging at their door sometime after midnight, and children with the fear they will be awakened from sleep and taken away for questioning. For many this is what it is to live under military occupation.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Most Galling Veto Yet

At about the same time in the UN Security Council U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice was issuing our veto to the resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, I was leaving Newark's International Airport for Israel’s Ben Gurion. I came here in part to visit Israeli and Palestinian friends who devote their lives to pursuing a just peace for both peoples. Sadly, I come ashamed of my country’s and, more importantly, my President’s actions. Ambassador Rice compounded our shame with the double talk explanation of why we really do condemn this construction; we just don’t think the UN is the proper venue to discuss it. As my friend Bob Tobin said this morning, “What better place to discuss it. This is the body that created Israel in 1948.”

Later this morning, I walked to my favorite money changer on Salah Ed-Din to buy some shekels. The young man behind the counter is invariably pleasant and engaging. As I was his sole customer, we chatted for some time. When the subject of our recent veto came up, he said, “It’s okay. We no longer expect anything from the U.S. government. The Israeli lobby seems to have them locked up pretty tight. To tell the truth, I think Americans are just naive. They don’t know much about the world, and the media doesn’t help. We’re invisible to most Americans.” All this said without any sign of animosity to me or to Americans in general.

Message to President Obama: the average Arab man on the street “gets it.” And I fear they will not forget it for decades.

What I fail to understand is the reasoning of those in the administration who made this decision. This veto takes place in the context of an historic movement among Arabs in the Middle East, seeking an end to economic and political oppression and autocratic rule. Cautious as it may be, this administration sends the courageous Arab young (and old) men and women messages of encouragement, and, at the same time, tells them by our actions: “Don’t count on us. When the chips are down, we didn’t really mean it.”

I cannot believe it is primarily the strength and success of AIPAC, or even our genuine devotion to Israel that leads us to such duplicity. There must be some larger mythology, some ideological frame like those that brought us Vietnam and Iraq, that drives us once again to fail to be the beacon of hope we so want to believe we are.

I have hunches about that mythology, but if anyone thinks they have a handle on this, please offer it. We need the best analysis we can muster if we are going to make any contribution at all to redirecting the destructive path we are on.