Tia, a Palestinian toddler in Qalandia refugee camp, looks doll-like, with a yellow bow in her hair. She only just celebrated her first birthday, but already Israel has intervened in nearly every aspect of her life. In a sense Israel even instigated her birth.
Four years ago, according to her father, Mohammed Abdel Rahman, an Israeli military judge offered him a secret deal. He told Mohammed to get married within 19 days or he would serve his five-year suspended sentence in prison. They also forced him to change universities. “They said they wanted me to calm down, but they interfered with my personal life and tried to provoke me.” His eyes suggested a maturity that is common among Palestinians who came of age during the second Intifada and who have served prison terms.
Now, only 24, Mohammed is married with a toddler and another child on the way, and already his life story reads like an inventory of Israeli harassment tactics.
Israeli occupation policies affect all aspects of Palestinians’ lives, including where they can study and how they get food. A recent NPR story on This American Life even documented in chilling detail how Israeli soldiers routinely invade Palestinian homes in the middle of the night to photograph children, ostensibly for security purposes. However, while teargas and shooting have become cliché in reporting about occupation, the cumulative impact of Israeli interference in Palestinians’ lives is rarely reported.
Mohammed knows the ingenuity of Israeli harassment tactics first hand. He was only 17, not yet a legal adult, when Israeli soldiers first came for him, claiming he was a member of an illegal organization. This video shows the day of his arrest; Mohammed says he is the one being put into the ambulance at the end of the clip.
Recalling the events of March 2, 2007 in Qalandia refugee camp, he said, “I escaped to a nearby house. About one hundred soldiers stormed the house. I was unarmed, but they shot at me. I was hit in the right leg and it destroyed the bone between my knee and hip.”
“So many people came to help me that the soldiers weren’t able to arrest me that day,” Mohammed smiled, “but they wounded thirteen more people trying to get me.” Camp residents told him that soldiers later shoveled over the entrance of the house where Mohammed was shot. Mohammed believes they sought to destroy evidence that he says proves that Israeli Special Forces shot an unarmed minor using illegal ammunition. Such incidents are not rare.
Palestinians, who are the world’s oldest and largest refugee population, are protected under various international laws. Yet Yousef Hushiyeh, Chief Area Officer of the Jerusalem and Jericho Area for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), said, “Residents of Qalandia refugee camp are subjected to many abuses.”
Mohammed spent ten months in the hospital as a result of his injuries that day. Dr. Ahmad Bitawi, who is currently director of Ramallah Hospital, treated him for a fractured femur with a platinum implant. “The injury was consistent with the damage caused by dum-dum bullets,” Dr. Bitawi confirmed. Although use of dum-dum, or exploding bullets, is prohibited by international humanitarian law, Dr. Mousa Alatary, an orthopedic surgeon at Ramallah Hospital, said, “We see gunshot injuries every week. About 20 percent of them are the result of exploding bullets.”
Mohammed was finally sent home from the hospital to continue his rehabilitation.“I knew the soldiers would come to arrest me. But it was snowing, which is very rare in Palestine, so I thought they would wait until after the snow stopped.” They didn’t. Mohammed was arrested the same day.
He spent 65 days in interrogation at Israel’s infamous Moscowbiya facility, a period so horrible that he is still haunted by memories years later. He found the psychological tactics—denied sunlight so he did not know what time of day it was; sudden, threatening banging on metal; frigid air conditioning after mandatory showers—worse than the physical pain.
“I complained to the woman from the Red Cross when she finally came to see me on the 30th day of my detention,” Mohammed said. “She didn’t seem very sympathetic. She just wrote down what I said and gave me three cigarettes and some clothes. The prison guard took the clothes away as soon as she left, and I don’t smoke.”
In court, the Israeli military prosecutor asked for seven years, so Mohammed felt fortunate when the judge brought it down to two years in prison with five years of probation. Mohammed was still under 18 when he was sent to Ofer Prison and later to Naqab Prison.
Mohammed recalls that the Israeli human rights organization, Btselem, which regularly monitors the status of minors in detention, saw him twice—once in the hospital after his injury, and again during his initial court proceedings, but Btselem was unable to locate Mohammed’s file and couldn’t comment on his case.
As the occupying power, Israel is strictly bound by International Humanitarian Law (IHL), International Human Rights Law, and a host of other protections. Also treatment of prisoners is governed by international rules concerning the administration of justice. These include treaties, customary international law, judicial decisions, and general principles of international law, butviolations are frequent and well documented.
“It is typical for Israeli soldiers to enter refugee camps without a legitimate military objective, which can provoke stone-throwing, to which Israeli forces frequently respond with disproportionate force,” commented Shawan Jabarin, General Director of Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization. “It is common for them to arrest young men, individually or en masse, and hold the suspects incommunicado. They are not read their rights before being interrogated, and are often denied requests for a lawyer.”
Lawyers who work with Palestinian detainees say that denial of rights continues throughout the judicial process. Investigators regularly ask judges to postpone sentencing so they have more time for interrogation, which can involve mistreatment and even torture, even when detainees are children. Only after information is obtained under duress and charges are filed does the suspect get access to a lawyer. But if the lawyer is Palestinian, he or she may not be able to enter Israel to visit the prisoner, who is often transferred to Israel for detention, a practice considered a breach of the Geneva Convention. Furthermore, lawyers say that it often takes two to three years for a case to reach trial, and since there are no provisions for bail, there is tremendous pressure on prisoners’ families to cut a deal. One lawyer concluded that about 95 percent of cases end with a plea bargain and outcomes that further curtail suspect’s rights.
Israel’s infamous administrative detention policy allows the authorities to bypass even the sentencing process: Palestinians can be held for up to six months without being charged with a crime and without any opportunity to defend themselves. Moreover administrative orders are frequently renewed, sometimes for many years.
In Mohammed’s case, he was sentenced, served two years and was released with five years of probation, as promised. But after six months he was arrested again.
“Someone turned me in,” Mohammed said. “They lied and said I had weapons but it wasn’t true. The interrogators tried to get me to agree to collaborate and become a spy for them against my own people. They threatened to imprison me for five more years saying that I violated my probation.”
Mohammed wasn’t the first person in his family to experience psychological coercion by Israeli military officials. He described how his older brother was in detention when he developed a growth on his neck. The prison doctor said that it was an insect bite, but it turned out to be cancer. For the next seven years Nidal was in and out of hospitals and at every stage Israeli intelligence services questioned him. More than once, Mohammed said, the interrogator promised Nidal treatment if he would provide information about political activists in the camp but Nidal refused. “Just before he died, Nidal was denied permission to go to Jordan for treatment, but the Israelis had already stolen all his medical files from our house, so it didn’t really matter anyway.”
When Mohammed went before the military judge the second time, for allegedly violating his probation, he was not sentenced to serve five more years as he had feared. “There was no evidence that I had done anything wrong,” he said, “but I felt they were all working together to pressure me to say I was guilty of something. The judge sent me back to the Israeli military intelligence agents and they tried to play with my mind. They pretended to be interested in me. They asked what I wanted to do with my life and I told them I wanted to get married and have a family.”
When Mohammed reappeared in court that day, the judge greeted him by saying “Mabrook,” which means “congratulations” in Arabic. “He told me I had to get married in 19 days or he’d arrest me again and sentence me,” Mohammed said. A lawyer, who refused to be identified, confirmed that Israeli military judges frequently take advantage of prisoners’ personal situations to elicit certain kinds of cooperation. He gave the example of a man, engaged to be married, who was released from prison for his wedding on condition that he would leave the country for a minimum of two years. Often, he said, prisoners with severe tooth pain are given pain relief in exchange for confessions.
“It took me three months, not 19 days, to find Rana,” Mohammed said, glancing proudly at his wife who poured glasses of soda in their kitchen. “But they [Israeli military intelligence] were asking about me the whole time. They knew that I was seriously looking for a wife.” Rana was 16 at the time of their marriage.
Rana said that Israeli military officers visited their home soon after the wedding claiming they came to congratulate them. “They sat on the couch in our living room for five hours pretending to be friendly,” Rana said. “But before they left, they broke everything in the bedroom and the bathrooms,” Mohammed added.
Ironically, Israel is under attack for its policies that impede marriage. They are not known for encouraging Palestinians to marry.
A few months later, Rana miscarried when Israeli soldiers let off a stun grenade next to their house in Qalandia refugee camp. “There was a lot of shooting that day, and our walls are thin,” Mohammed knocked on the plaster to demonstrate his point. “We were moving from room to room, staying away from the outer walls in case a bullet came through,” When the loud crack of the stun grenade went off just below their window, Rana felt a severe pain and ran to the bathroom where she started bleeding profusely. She had not known that she was pregnant.
“Rana was scared, so I couldn’t leave her. But I could see three young men had been shot in the street near my house. The soldiers were right in front of my door. It was dangerous so I didn’t go out. Later two of my friends died and I still feel guilty that I didn’t go out to help them,” Mohammed said.
“I grew up in this refugee camp, too,” Rana said. “One of my uncles was killed by soldiers and several of them are in prison. I’m used to it.” When asked why she married Mohammed, knowing his history and the likelihood that his problems would continue, she smiled shyly, “It’s my destiny.”
But now that they are parents Mohammed and Rana are more concerned about the long-term impact of the violence that surrounds them. “One time we were sleeping on the floor so my daughter wouldn’t fall,” Mohammed recalled. “She climbed up on me while I was having a nightmare about soldiers grabbing me and I pushed her away very hard. I nearly hurt her.”
Though it would be difficult financially, Mohammed and Rana could leave Qalandia refugee camp and live in Ramallah, where conditions are easier. “But,” Mohammed said, “that’s what they want. They want us to leave the refugee camp, and get a comfortable life, and forget our right of return.” The couple intend to stay put.
Mohammed conceded: “I did get married and I did calm down, but the Israeli plan for us isn’t going to work.” Despite Israel’s daily harassment and intervention in nearly all aspects of Mohammed’s life, and the lives of millions of other Palestinians, the Palestinian people still have their dreams and determination. Mohammed said: “They may destroy our lives, but they can’t damage our national spirit. It’s always inside of us.”