From the Royal Albert Concert Hall to an Israeli Dungeon: Omar Saad, a young violist and conscientious objector

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Omar Saad

Omar Saad

Omar Saad is the oldest of a quartet of siblings from the Galilee village of Maghar. The four are, indeed, literally a quartet, namely the Galilee String Quartet, composed of violist Omar, his two younger violinist brothers, and their sister, the ensemble’s ‘cellist.

When not performing as a quartet, their other musical accomplishments are no less interesting. The three brothers were featured members of the ensemble known as the Palestine Strings, a brainchild of Palestine’s National Conservatory of Music, when the eminent violinist Nigel Kennedy brought that ensemble to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall for a performance at the 2013 Proms. To a packed London audience of five and a half thousand people, Mr. Kennedy not only showcased them playing their respective instruments, but also improvising and singing.

They are ‘Palestinians of 1948’: Palestinians who were not ethnically cleansed from the land that became the Israeli state. Omar’s region of Galilee, in fact, does not even lie on the Israeli side of the 1947 Partition, but Israel seized it in late 1948 under Operation Hiram. Israel refused to vacate the region, and kept Maghar under Martial Law until 1966. The village’s proximity to Lebanon has left it vulnerable to more violence: During the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, several people in Maghar were killed by Hezbollah rockets and cluster bombs.

When Omar turned seventeen in 2013, he received orders to appear at the IDF recruitment office. He replied with an open, polyglot letter to the Prime Minister and Defense Minister which read in part:

I am Omar Zahreddeen Mohammad Saad from Maghar village-Galilee. I received a summons to present myself at the recruitment offices on October 31, 2012 [but] I refuse to go… I declare myself as a conscientious objector and refuse to serve in any army … How can I carry arms against my brothers and my own people in Palestine? How can I be soldier at the Qalandia check point or at any other barrier when I have experienced the oppression of barriers? How can I prevent people from Ramallah visiting their city, Jerusalem? How can I guard the separation wall? How can I be the jailer of my own people when I know that most of them are prisoners of war and seekers of justice and freedom? … I declare it loud and clear: I am Omar Zahreddeen Mohammad Saad and will not be fuel for your arms or a soldier in your army.

At first, the IDF dealt with his refusal by ignoring it, ordering him to appear for conscription on March 3, 2014. But on November 27, this date was moved up, without explanation, to December 4, 2013. So on December 3, the Galilee String Quartet played together one last time, and in the morning Omar presented himself at the recruitment office, repeated his refusal to serve, and was taken away.

Most Arabs do not face the issue of serving in the Israeli military, because they cannot serve. Like the infamous ‘grandfather clauses’ of post-slavery United States, this keeps them from civil service jobs, since military service is a prerequisite. Omar, however, is Druze, and by Israel’s ethnically predicated laws, Druze must serve. This grants them a citizenship status one notch above that of other non-Jewish Israelis, but at a terrible price. In return they must take up arms in support of the same state that took their land, the same state that refuses to make them equal members of society. Most terrible of all, they will find themselves pointing automatic weapons at Palestinians in Palestine.

Having Druze in the military gave Israel the opportunity to demonstrate ‘accountability’ without convicting Jewish Israelis. Of the thousands of Palestinians killed by the Israeli occupation forces, only once was the killer was brought to justice—the Druze soldier who killed Tom Hurndall as that twenty-two year old British man attempted to sweep a Gazan child from harm’s way.

I have had the pleasure of working with Omar Saad at the National Conservatory of Music, in the Conservatory’s orchestra, and coaching chamber groups he played in. Like the American heroes who went to jail rather than collude with their governments’ crimes against Vietnam, Omar is a threat to Israel’s incessant war. His stance challenges both the Apartheid system within Israel, and its war of ethnic aggression beyond the Armistice Line.

His sacrifice offers us an opportunity to raise awareness of both issues.

Links :
Support Omar Saad Facebook page
Support Omar Saad Website
News video of Omar explaining his position
Video of the Galilee Quartet’s last meeting before Omar’s imprisonment
Wikipedia entry on Maghar

Update: This piece originally stated that Omar’s family has not been told what prison he is in. The family did then learn which prison he is in. Thanks to Nigel Kennedy’s agent, Terri Robson.

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