An arrest on the West Bank

Israel/Palestine
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A few weeks back we ran a report from Pamela, an American journalist living in Ramallah for the summer. Here’s another.

Six years ago, during my first trip to the West Bank , I met a Palestinian woman named Rania who aspired to a college education.  She was from a small village and her family wasn’t supportive, but she found jobs with international NGOs, saved enough to pay for one semester of college, and enrolled herself, knowing that would probably be all she could manage unless a miracle happened.

When I learned about her efforts to educate herself, I made an appeal to several friends and professional contacts to help her finish her second semester, and then her third.  After four years, she graduated with a degree in social work and psychological counseling.  In the meantime she met and married a man named Sharif and moved to the Palestinian city of Tulkarem .  By the time I arrived in Ramallah this summer, they had a one-year-old son named Karim and a daughter on the way.  Rania and Sharif were in the process of building their new home a little at a time whenever they could save some money.

Sharif is one of the genuinely nicest guys I’ve ever met.  He supported Rania through the final semesters of her education, he loves his son Karim (Sharif’s mother died while giving birth to him, so the idea of an intact family is novel and wonderful for him), and he changes diapers and helps with the cooking and cleaning.  He has a great sense of humor and a disarming smile.  He’s had a difficult life, and so has Rania, but things were finally looking up for them.  They both adore Karim (trust me, he’s impossible not to adore), and Rania is ecstatic about having a daughter and giving her every kind of love and support she wished she’d had growing up.

A month ago, there was loud banging on their door around 1:00 am.  Frightened, Rania asked who it was.  They said they were Israeli soldiers.  Rania knew they were there to arrest Sharif, though neither of them knew why. This is standard operating procedure for Israeli army arrest operations—entering homes in the dead of night when people are at their most psychologically and physically vulnerable.  She had no choice but to open the door, knowing it would be blown up or knocked down if she refused.  They asked if her husband was home.  She said no.  They asked if they could come in and make sure.  Again, she had no choice but to allow them.

When they found Sharif hiding in the bedroom, they gave a loud order, and twenty more armed soldiers stormed in.  They beat Sharif in front of his wife and son, called Rania a lying sharmouta (whore) while holding a gun to her head, and took Sharif away.  He’s been charged with car theft in Israel , an absurd charge.  He’s never been to Israel , though he had recently been given a permit to work in Israel .  Rania said to me, “It is very difficult for a Palestinian to get a permit to work in Israel .  Why would they give him a permit if they thought he was stealing cars?”

An Israeli friend of mine guesses it might be to pad their statistics on cracking down on car theft, or they might be trying to recruit him as a spy—offering to let him go if he will inform on his neighbors or extended family members.  This is one of the most devastating tactics an occupier has for tearing the fabric of a society apart, sowing suspicion and division between neighbors and family members.  How can a man be forced to choose between lying about his neighbors and family members, or spending a year away from his wife, son, and soon new daughter, knowing that without his support, they may not have enough to live on?  He may be in prison himself because another man chose to falsely inform on him rather than pay this terrible price.

I visited Rania in her brother-in-law’s home in Tulkarem as soon as I learned about the situation.  She can’t stay in her own home because she’s too scared to be alone.  She can’t sleep because every time she closes her eyes she sees Israeli soldiers.  Every time she hears a car outside she thinks it’s an Israeli army Jeep. 

Because she and her husband have been putting most of their savings into their new home, she was left with only about a month’s budget when her husband was taken.  She has been trying hard to get a job, but unemployment is bad in the West Bank even for people who don’t have a small child and aren’t five months pregnant.

She’s spent much of the past month crying.  She says the worst is when Karim walks to the front door (where he’s used to seeing his father burst in and scoop him up and hug him after work) and says, “Baba?”  (Daddy?)  He doesn’t seem to be scarred by the violence he witnessed.  His first birthday happened to be the day I visited Rania (Sharif had planned a nice party and to buy him a little car he could scoot around in)—he’s too young to understand what’s going on.  He’s actually one of the happiest toddlers I’ve ever spent time with.  But when he asks several times a day where his Baba is, Rania says quietly, “Baba fi sijin, habibi.”  (Daddy’s in prison, sweetie.)  It’s a hard thing to witness.

‘Prison,’ by the way, doesn’t carry the same stigma in Palestine as it does in America, given that most Palestinians in Israeli jails are held not because they are criminals but as a form of collective punishment, as political prisoners, as bargaining chips (sometimes Israel agrees to release a few hundred prisoners in exchange for some Palestinian concession or as a ‘gesture of goodwill,’ which makes them look generous to the Americans and the international community, most of whom don’t understand the true nature of the situation), or to recruit spies. The statistic that ‘only’ 10% of prisoners are held in administrative detention (imprisoned without charge or trial) is misleading.  Many are in prison simply for belonging to the wrong political party.  Rania’s husband was charged, but the charge is bogus, the Israeli court system for Palestinian prisoners does not meet international standards, and many Palestinians can’t afford the exorbitant lawyer fees.

It’s not a stigma—it’s just a massive violation of basic human rights.

During my visit, Rania kept asking me Job-like questions I couldn’t answer.

“Why does this happen to me?  I am a good girl, I always do right.  I love my husband and my child.  Why do they do this?  What right do they have to take my husband?  Why do they have human rights in other places, but not in Palestine ?  How can I raise my children if I am alone?  How can we have any security if soldiers can take my husband away any time they want, for no reason?  I don’t hate the Jewish, but it makes it very hard for me to respect them when they do this.  He is a good man, never any guns, no bad thing to anyone.  He has had a hard life, but always he does his best.  Why do they take him?  If we do right and always bad things happen, maybe if we do wrong, something good will happen.  I don’t know, I can’t imagine why the life is like this.  What do you think?”

What can I say?  “In my current understanding, they do this because they feel insecure (to an often delusional and self-fulfilling degree and/or as a post-rationalization for brute grabs of power and resources), and they have power and you don’t.  They want to make life difficult for Palestinians so they will submit to Israel ’s dictates or leave.  This is called power politics, or ‘Realism’ in American foreign policy circles.”

Does she really want a lecture on realpolitik?

“In my current understanding, you don’t have control over anything in this life but your own behavior.  Behave with as much integrity as you can, and try to make peace with the things you don’t control.  Unfortunately, you happen to have the short end of the stick when it comes to the things you don’t control.”

Of course I can’t say something like this to a frightened young mother.  Not sure what else to say, I told her the story of Job (apparently it’s not in the Quran, unlike many Bible stories) and told her to take care of herself and her kids and be kind to her husband, that things would work out somehow, and in the end some good may even come of it (even though of course no one can guarantee any of this).  It’s very strange for me to be in this position—I never imagined I would be trying to comfort a Muslim friend with Bible stories.  I think more than anything it did her good just to be able to talk for hours about her fears and feelings.  It’s ironic that she’s the one trained in psychological counseling. 

Aside from the post-traumatic stress, she has some hard economic realities to deal with in the medium-term.  If, as the family’s lawyer seems to think, her husband will be in prison for about a year, and if Rania doesn’t manage to find a job soon, she will be ten months without any way to support herself.  Normally she would ask her family or her husband’s family for help, but most of them are either barely scraping by themselves (Israel has built the Wall around her family’s village, and it has isolated most of its land from its owners, forcing many to move out, find work in Israel or the settlements, or become charity cases), also in prison, abroad, or dead.  It’s a miracle there is any sense of society left in Palestine, much less one as strong as it is.

I and some friends have pitched in enough to keep her going for another month and a half, and she has a couple of possible leads on jobs.  If she didn’t have a university degree, she would be in an even bigger mess.  As it is, the strangled economy due to the Wall and closures and the loss of her husband for a year due to the occupation nearly destroyed her young family, and might yet if she doesn’t find a job and I can’t gather enough money to keep her afloat through the birth of her daughter and the many months of separation from her husband. 

Just one more of the millions of stories of what the occupation means for the civilian population of the West Bank and Gaza .

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