24 Hours in Israeli Custody: The arrest of an American activist in Palestine

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
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dooler
Dooler Campbell protesting in Beit Ommar, near the Karmei Tsur settlement. June 23, 2012

My name is Dooler Campbell, and I am a U.S. American activist currently living and working in the West Bank. I am a graduate student at SIT (School for International Training) in Brattleboro, VT, working on my Masters in Social Justice in Intercultural Relations. I came to Palestine in the beginning of March to see firsthand what the situation was like here, in order to become a more effective advocate for justice in the region. The U.S. sends Israel billions of dollars every year, making it one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, and I wanted to see for myself what my tax dollars were supporting here. The U.S. media rarely shows images of the conflict from the Palestinian point of view, so I wanted to help get that perspective across to the U.S. American public. I believe that if we want to see a just peace in the region, U.S. foreign policy must first change. Every U.S. citizen is linked to this conflict in some way, whether they like it or not, through our military and financial support of the occupation, so it is our responsibility as U.S. citizens to educate ourselves beyond what the mainstream media is telling us, so that we may work towards a just peace. In addition to financial and military aid, the U.S. has vetoed over 40 UN resolutions that have been critical of Israel and its policies towards Palestinians.[1]

When I first arrived in the West Bank, I was working with Palestine Solidarity Project and the Center for Freedom and Justice in Beit Ommar, an agricultural village of about 16,000 people, located about halfway between Bethlehem and Hebron. My work there consisted of writing reports and documenting arrests, military incursions and settler violence in the area, assisting farmers in tending their land, leading tours of the area, and coordinating the international volunteers.

Beit Ommar is surrounded by five Israeli settlements. Beit Ommar residences occasionally face acts of violence from the settlers, against their crops, property and against the Palestinians themselves, which go unpunished by Israeli courts. Take the story of Yousef Ikhlayl[2], for example: a seventeen year old who was killed by settlers last year while farming with his father. His father took pictures of the settlers who shot his son, but the killers were still allowed to remain free. Meanwhile, Palestinians are arrested and taken from their homes during night raids and are held for indefinite amounts of time with no charges against them[3].

The settlements, which are illegal under international law according to the 4th Geneva Convention[4], were built on privately owned Palestinian land stolen from Beit Ommar farmers, and fences have been built around some of the settlements preventing these farmers from accessing their land. Beit Ommar is under Area C, which means it is under complete Israeli civil and military control. A watchtower is situated at the entrance of the town, and the soldiers regularly harass Palestinians at the entrance, raid Palestinian homes almost nightly[5], and close the town’s market so the farmers are unable to sell their fruits and vegetables. Beit Ommar has the highest rate of arrests in the West Bank, when the vast majority of its inhabitants are just farmers trying to live their lives and work their land.

In protest of the land theft, illegal settlement construction and military violence, the Beit Ommar Popular Committee organizes weekly peaceful demonstrations every Saturday on the farmland next to the Karmei Tsur settlement, which was established in 1984. The demonstrations are not associated with any political group, and the committee does not allow stone-throwing, which is a common form of resistance at other demonstrations in the West Bank. Despite the demonstrations being completely non-violent, they are always violently suppressed by the Israeli military. I have been going to the Beit Ommar demonstrations almost every week for nearly four months, and in that time, I have been choked and grabbed by the throat four times, kicked, beaten with batons and shields, shot in the back with a teargas canister, and targeted with a concussion grenade that exploded on my ankle and left burn marks.

At the beginning of June I moved to Ramallah, where I began work for a development NGO, but I continued to participate in the weekly demonstrations in Beit Ommar. In the three months that I was living in Beit Ommar, only 3 people had been arrested from the weekly demonstration there: a 14-year-old Palestinian boy, an Israeli activist, and a member of the Beit Ommar Popular Committee. In the past month, however, they have been arresting someone every week—Israelis, Palestinians and internationals alike. The reports can be found on Palestine Solidarity Project’s website: www.palestinesolidarityproject.org. This past Saturday, I was one of three activists arrested, and one of two who were actually taken to jail. Here is the full story of my arrest:

I was arrested during the weekly demonstration in Beit Ommar, near the Karmei Tsur settlement. We were protesting the illegal settlements and the recent attacks on Gaza. As usual, the soldiers met our peaceful demonstration with violence. They mocked our chants, kicked us, beat us with their shields, and pushed us to the ground. The soldiers announced that it was a closed military zone and that they would start arresting us after 5 minutes. Younes Arar, a member of the Beit Ommar Popular Committee, told the soldiers that he was on his own land and that they should be the ones to leave. We sat down on the ground, refusing to move. A soldier came up to me specifically, looked me straight in the eyes, and told me I had two minutes to leave before he would arrest me. I stared straight back at him and told him he had two minutes to leave the Palestinian farmland. Knowing I was going to lose that challenge, I passed my camera to another activist and informed her of my legal name so they would know what to tell the lawyer.

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About five minutes later, they moved to arrest Younes. A Scottish activist and I held onto him, trying to protect him. They beat us away, and as I was trying to get to Younes again, the soldiers arrested me as well. They took me to where Younes was sitting, and the soldier who had given me my two minute warning twisted my wrist and said, “I told you two minutes” and told me to sit down.  I remained standing and he gripped my wrist even tighter and told me to sit down again. It wasn’t until Younes told me to sit that I actually did so. After all, the land we were standing on belonged to him, so I felt much more obliged to listen to Younes than to the soldier who was trying to hurt me.

They took the two of us to the other side of the fence, allowing us to finally reach the settlement we were always trying to get to in the demonstrations. Three soldiers were dragging Younes along by his shirt and his arms, although he was in no way resisting the arrest. One soldier led me towards the settlement by the arm, but he eventually dropped his hand and let me walk on my own. I asked him if this meant I could leave (because why would I voluntarily walk towards a police vehicle where they’re waiting with cuffs?), and he said no and told me I could either go along willingly or he would have to grab my arm again.

As we approached the settlement, my wrists were tied with zip-ties. They tied Younes’s hands as well, and blindfolded him before they started to hit him on his face and his neck. They were holding my arms again, and it was difficult to watch their treatment of Younes without being able to do anything. I asked  why they were hitting him. He was clearly not a threat, and he was already blindfolded with his hands tied. He fully cooperated with the arrest, so what reason did they have to be violent against him?? The soldiers ignored me and did not respond. They sat us down on the ground in the settlement and brought a third activist, a German citizen, who they had also arrested. Settlers who had been watching the demonstration (it’s their weekend entertainment to watch the soldiers beating the demonstrators) brought the soldiers Coca-Cola and other refreshments. The soldiers offered us water, which I only accepted after I was sure that Younes was getting some as well. I had already seen that they were treating him worse than the internationals and I did not want to exploit that situation.

After about an hour or so, we were taken to the Hebron police station for interrogations. The police station was actually just a bunch of trailers grouped together. The three of us were not allowed to talk to each other on the way there. When we arrived, they asked us for identification. The German activist and I did not have our passports with us, so we were allowed to make calls to try to find someone to bring them to us. His passport was in Beit Ommar, so he had no trouble getting ahold of it, and he was released shortly thereafter. I haven’t seen him since, so I don’t know how or why he was released so quickly. My passport, however, was in Ramallah, locked in my apartment. It took a couple of hours to coordinate, and for some reason involved 5 or 6 people, but eventually my passport was recovered, and as soon as it was, the police said they didn’t need it anymore. They changed their minds and decided the copy of my passport that I had with me was enough to process me.

I was allowed to speak with my lawyer (which the activists in Beit Ommar organized for me) for 2 minutes on the phone before my interrogation started. The interrogation was recorded, and the officer opened by saying I was in a closed military zone and that I had interfered with the soldiers’ work by grabbing onto Younes when they were trying to arrest him. Taking my lawyer’s advice, I stated my case but refused to answer any questions beyond that. I told him I did not see the map of the closed military zone, which the soldiers are required to show before making an arrest, and that I did not interfere with soldiers’ work, and I told him about the soldiers’ violence against me. The officer continued to ask me questions about who organized the demonstrations, who were the leaders, what was I doing in Israel, what was my purpose at the demonstration, etc etc, but I maintained my right to remain silent, which he then informed me would be used against me. One of the questions he asked was whether I had permission to be there. I thought, “well, yes, I had permission from the Palestinian owners of the land,” but knowing that’s not what he meant, I kept that to myself and re-asserted my right to silence. A summary or transcript or something was printed out in Hebrew, and I was asked to sign it. Not knowing what I was signing exactly, I added in English that I did not understand Hebrew before I put my name down.

The most interesting part about my interrogation was that the officer himself was Arab. I was talking to someone on the phone in Arabic, still trying to get ahold of my passport at this point, and he started correcting my Arabic. He asked me where I learned Arabic and I told him I didn’t want to answer any more of his questions. He asked if I learned it in Ramallah, and I said no. Beit Ommar? No. In the States? No. So where? I don’t want to tell you. Then I asked him where he learned Arabic. “It’s my language! I’m Arab. But I’m not Muslim.” “Well, obviously,” I responded. “Why obviously?” “Because if you were Muslim, you would be on this side of the desk.” I added, “3an jad, 3eib 3alek” (“shame on you”), and he said, “why? It’s only a job. I could be a doctor in a hospital or have any other job.” But it’s not just a job! He’s a police officer working in a settlement in the West Bank. He’s protecting illegal settlements and working with soldiers to violently suppress peaceful demonstrations. Another officer pitched in and said, “she just doesn’t understand why someone who speaks Arabic would want to work as an Israeli police officer.” I said yeah, that was pretty much it.

At some point, the Arab officer added that it was much better that I was being arrested in Israel, because they’re not violent here like they are in the States. I said, “Excuse me?? Do you want to see the bruises on my arms and legs from where the soldiers were hitting me and kicking me?? When all I was doing was holding a sign that said ‘Stop the killing in Gaza’! They were hitting Younes in the face while he was blindfolded! I’ve been choked and dragged around by the throat by soldiers four separate times!! You call that non-violent??” The officer had no response to this.

After the interrogation, they took my fingerprints and handprints and took my picture. With the excuse that I “refused to cooperate” with the investigation, they cuffed my ankles and wrists (they did the same to Younes), and they took Younes and me to Moskobiyya prison, located on the Russian compound in West Jerusalem. Younes informed me that it used to be known for its severe torture practices, and that many prisoners have died here in the past. I selfishly felt glad that Younes was taken to prison with me. I’ve never been arrested before and I don’t understand Hebrew, so his presence did a lot to boost my strength and courage. He joked on the way to the prison that he was finally being allowed into Jerusalem.

Inside the prison, they removed the cuffs from my ankles and wrists, took my fingerprint and picture again, and took all of my belongings—my wallet and its contents, cell phone, keys, earrings, nose ring, bandana, belt, and shoelaces. I was then taken into a small private room by a female guard and told to take off all of my clothes. I tried to leave my underwear on, but she said I needed to remove everything. She wanted to make sure I didn’t have a knife, she told me.

I was allowed to put my clothes back on and was taken to another room for a health check. They recorded my height and weight and asked me questions about my physical and psychological health, about any past suicide attempts, if I thought I might be pregnant, when my last period was, if I’m on any medications, etc. I told them I was definitely not pregnant, that that would be physically impossible. They then gave me a cup to pee in and led me to the bathroom. I thought maybe they were doing a drug test or checking for further health concerns, but when I brought the cup back they put a pregnancy test stick in the cup of urine. I told them they didn’t need to do that, I already told them I was 100% sure there was no way I could be pregnant. At this point, the guard who performed the strip search starting making sexual comments, which she had also done during the strip search. I was furious that they would not just leave it alone and take my word that I knew for certain that I could not possibly be pregnant. Beyond that, my sex life is none of their business, and I became increasingly uncomfortable when their questions started going in that direction.

Finally, at around 8:30 or 9pm (I was arrested at 2 and had not eaten anything since the morning), I was given a small bag of stale white bread and a small amount of jam, and another bag that contained a small towel, a toothbrush, toothpaste, 2 packets of shampoo, and a small bar of soap. Considering how I had been thrown on the ground in the dirt during the demonstration, I was glad I was going to be able to wash up a bit. As they led me down the hall towards my cell, I saw the videos from the security cameras. The monitors were set up in the hallway, and on the screens were clear views into the other cells, including the bathrooms.

I was put into a small cell that had 2 sets of bunk beds, a small metal cabinet with shelves, and a small table. There were no pillows, but plenty of blankets. There was graffiti on the walls and above the bottom bunk in both Hebrew and Arabic. A toilet and sink were separated from the rest of the room by a door (that did not latch, of course), which gave the illusion of privacy, but I knew the cameras were still watching. The shower consisted of a hole in the wall which spewed water in all directions, but it was better than nothing and at least there was hot water. I greeted my cellmate (an older Palestinian woman from Bethlehem named Nijah), ate my stale bread and jam, and nervously washed my hair and face while still partly dressed.

Before I was arrested, I had been working on a report on Palestinian women prisoners, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to interview my cellmate (after all, how else were we going to spend the time?). She seemed very nice at first, but I quickly changed my mind about her. She asked me why I was in jail, and I told her I was at a demonstration in Beit Ommar. She asked why I was demonstrating and I explained that it was because of the settlement that was built on land stolen from Beit Ommar farmers. She said, why would you do that?? At first I thought she meant why would “I”, as a foreigner, risk getting arrested for these Palestinian farmers, but then she said, in Arabic “The Jews are better than us, they’re good, better than the Arabs, all Arabs are pigs!”.  I looked at her in shock and disbelief, wondering how she could say that when she herself was Arab and she was locked in an Israeli jail. She had been there a week, and she was not allowed to go outside or have any recreation time. The cell had no windows and no natural light. She had fallen sick because of the conditions in jail, and they repeatedly refused her requests to see a doctor. Her other motive to go to the hospital was to take a decent shower, because she didn’t dare take one here with the cameras watching. Despite the mistreatment, there she was trash-talking Arabs and praising the Israelis. I replied to her in Arabic that not all people are good and not all people are bad from any group of people. We talked for a little while longer and she told me about her eight children and her poor health, and then I tried to sleep. When she thought I had fallen asleep, she called a guard over and told him everything I had said to her about participating in demonstrations, and I made up my mind not to talk to this woman anymore. I knew she had already been in there for a week, and she was sick and not allowed to contact her family, so I hoped she was only denigrating Arabs and reporting what I said to her in order to get released quickly or to otherwise improve her conditions in jail. I didn’t blame her and I wasn’t angry, but I didn’t want to humor what she was saying about Arabs and I didn’t want her to further incriminate me, so I remained quiet the rest of the time I was in jail.

The light in the cell was kept on at all times. When I tried to sleep, guards came in about once every hour telling me to stand. With no natural light in the room, I had no way of knowing what time it was. Every time they told me to stand, I hoped that I would be allowed to meet with my lawyer or that it was time for court. I asked them when my court would be, and they said they would call me when it was time. So every time they called me, I would make myself fully alert, but once I was standing, the guards would leave without saying anything more. Eventually I was brought a few more pieces of stale white bread and a thin layer of orange jam, and my cellmate was able to get us some tea. She was refusing food until they brought her to the hospital, and would accept only coffee and cigarettes.

Finally, after the seemingly endless hours of being subjected to sleep deprivation, I was finally told that they were ready to take me to court. Sleep-deprived, hungry and a bit delirious, they cuffed my ankles and wrists once more and transported me to court. This was the first time I was seeing my lawyer face to face, having only spoken to him briefly before my interrogation at the police department the day before. He filled me in briefly on what had been discussed so far—they initially wanted to deport me, but now they wanted to ban me from the West Bank for 3 months. I explained that I lived in Ramallah, and he said he would try to reduce the sentence. The entire proceeding was in Hebrew, but they supplied me with an interpreter who only translated about half of what was being said. The soldier who was speaking against me said that he had seen me many times before at the demonstrations in Beit Ommar, although I did not recognize him. I was being accused of being in a closed military zone, participating in demonstrations with “leftists” (so if it’s a right-wing demonstration, it’s ok?), interfering with soldiers’ work, refusing to cooperate with the police investigation, and accused of jumping on a soldier! I was a bit shocked at the last point.

My lawyer argued that this was my first offense, so there was no reason for them to ban me from the entire West Bank (which they referred to only as Judea-Samaria). He asked why the area was deemed a closed military zone, and the soldier responded that it was closed because the demonstrators were disturbing the peace for the residents of Karmei Tsur. My lawyer argued that a closed military zone cannot target a specific group of people. He added that there was not enough evidence to support their other accusations about interfering with the soldiers’ work, and seeing as it was my first offense, they should have only held me at the police station for a few hours and given me a warning not to attend such demonstrations. In the recent past, the court has ruled for Israeli activists arrested from the Beit Ommar demonstration that they have the right to protest and freedom of speech. In the end, it was ruled that I was not allowed within 10 kilometers of the Karmei Tsur settlement (meaning Beit Ommar) for 2 months. I was released on a bond of 2,550 shekels, and a third party had to post bond of 1,000 shekels. The whole court proceeding was finished in less than 10 minutes.

When it was all over, I was taken back to the prison (still in chains) and led back to my cell while they processed my release and my lawyer tried to find a third party guarantor for my bond. I wasn’t released for another several hours, and no more food was offered to me. I signed the release papers, which were in Hebrew, and my belongings were returned to me. My nose ring and one of my earrings were missing, but I didn’t care to stick around any longer, so I signed the last few papers, gave them my fingerprint one last time, and walked out the door without even bothering to put the laces back in my shoes.

Once I was a few blocks away, I laced up my shoes, bought some phone credit and let everyone know I was released and ok, and got on the first bus back to Ramallah. I was released just after 2pm, exactly 24 hours from the time I was arrested. As horrible as the whole situation was, it’s still nothing compared to what the Palestinians experience, and it was only for one night.  Fortunately, Younes was released on the same day as me, though he has to return to court at a future date.

This is the response of the “only true democracy in the Middle East” that the U.S. supports so unconditionally. I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the Israeli courts once again worked to protect the illegal settlements rather than peaceful protestors. While I will not be able to visit Beit Ommar for two months, I will continue to work by sharing their stories, and I will take this opportunity to visit other villages in the West Bank to learn about their struggles as well. Overall, my 24 hours in Israeli custody was a learning experience which I hope I never have to repeat, and yet I have no regrets about my actions.


[1] See http://www.krysstal.com/democracy_whyusa03.html and http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/UN/usvetoes.html.

[2] For more information on Yousef Ikhlayl and the similarities between his death and the death of U.S. American Trayvon Martin, see http://www.paltelegraph.com/opinions/views/10544-oregano-a-olive-oil-they-were-both-seventeen.html.

[3] For more on arrests without charges and the practice of Administrative Detention, see http://www.addameer.org/admin_detention.php.

[4] Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states, “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own population into the territories it occupies.” Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/1682640.stm.

[5] For an incomplete list of arrests from Beit Ommar, see http://palestinesolidarityproject.org/category/arrest/.

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