Yazan Meqbil grew up in the occupied West Bank town of Beit Ommar, in a house with ten demolition orders on it and a father in an Israeli prison. This reality hung over him for much of his youth and remains close today, even in adulthood. Over the course of his teenage years, Meqbil lost two close friends—Youssef and Mohammed.
In 2011 Youssef was shot to death by an Israeli settler while working his farmland in Beit Ommar and Mohammed was killed by an Israeli sniper in 2014, while looking out his second floor window.
“I grew up imagining that all the children in the world grew up having a similar a type of life,” Meqbil said. “[I thought] they all have teargas, bullets and checkpoints; they need to have three IDs and I don’t know how many passports to walk around; they need to see the separation wall whenever they go to another city; they have to lose friends or be detained; or grow up with a father [in jail].”
Last week, Meqbil recounted these and other painful stories at a packed Congressional briefing in D.C. held for the third consecutive year by the human rights groups American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCIP). Joining him were Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch, Brad Parker of DCIP, and Nadia Ben-Youssef, director of Adalah Justice Project. Jennifer Bing of AFSC introduced and moderated the discussion.
The human rights groups urged lawmakers to defy the pro-Israel consensus and act on behalf of the 4.68 million occupied Palestinians; especially Palestinian children, who are subject to daily abuse and repression from all arms of the Israeli state.
No Way to Treat a Child, a joint project of (AFSC) and (DCIP), seeks to spotlight Israel’s military occupation by drawing attention to the state’s excessive and routine rights violations of Palestinian children.
Living only for lack of death
Meqbil, now a biochemistry major, told of his anxiety over final exams week at high school as any teenager might—but as a Palestinian teenager, he described the additional stress from a threat of an Israel Defense Force (IDF) night raid as he stayed up late to study. According to evidence compiled by DCIP, 56 percent of Palestinian children in the West Bank were arrested from their homes in the middle of the night in 2013.
Although he was able to leave Palestine in 2015 for school in the US, Meqbil admitted that it has been difficult to leave behind the trauma of his childhood.
“I used to carry my passport wherever I would go and every time I saw a police car I freaked out.”
“I never looked them in the eyes, I tried to avoid them, I changed streets if necessary,” Meqbil said of his interactions with US police.
Reflecting on his old life in the West Bank, Meqbil eventually realized his personal truth in the Palestinian saying “we are living because of the lack of death.”
This month marks the fiftieth year of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights, a unique attribute that featured distinctly in the statements given at Thursday’s briefing. According to the International Committee for the Red Cross, the Israeli occupation is “the world’s longest, sustained military occupation in modern history.”
As the Director of Israel and Palestine at Human Rights Watch—an organization that has documented Israel’s rights abuses for nearly three decades—Omar Shakir said that the sheer length of Israel’s occupation has essentially cemented most of its racist policies, originally meant to be temporary, into Israeli law.
“For much of this time in the Israeli-Palestinian context” Shakir said, “we found ourselves documenting the same sorts of abuses.”
The fifty-year occupation is today maintained by what Shakir called “an entrenched system of institutional discrimination against the Palestinians in the occupied territories.”
One month before the briefing, DCIP and AFSC asked supporters to urge their elected officials to attend in order “to learn what it means to be a Palestinian child living under military occupation.”
In response, constituents sent some 2,969 such emails to their Congressional representatives.
Organizers confirm that staffers, interns or otherwise representatives from thirty-six Congressional offices joined the briefing, filling the Cannon House building room to capacity.
This includes staffers from the offices of Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Representative Nita Lowey of New York’s lower Hudson Valley, California Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative John Conyers of Michigan’s 13th District, which includes the cities of Detroit and Dearborn Heights.
Staffers and interns present at the briefing declined to speak on the record. Not a single Congressional office returned requests for comment from Mondoweiss, despite repeated attempts.
One staffer who wished to remain anonymous did tell Mondoweiss that members of Congress often feel stifled from talking about Palestine by the ubiquitous pro-Israel lobby.
A member of Betty McCollum’s office also attended the briefing. McCollum is the representative for Minnesota’s fourth Congressional district and one of the more outspoken members of Congress on the rights of Palestinian children.
For the past two years, McCollum has initiated letters to the State Department, urging action to stop Israel’s policy of detaining children without charge or access to counsel.
Nineteen Congress members signed the 2015 letter and twenty signed in 2016.
Given the pervasive influence of the pro-Israel lobby on the hill, however, these calls have gone largely ignored. In 2016 alone, pro-Israel interest groups contributed $7,487,287 to US House members and another $5,240,113 to those in the Senate. Another lobby closely aligned with Israel is the US Defense and Aerospace industry, which contributed a total of $12,359,768 to Congressional campaigns in 2016.
Even Representative McCollum, for all her advocacy on behalf of Palestinian children, received $33,500 from the defense industry in 2016, with another $40,500 from related industries including the pro-Israel lobby, all according to campaign contribution watchdog site Open Secrets.
While unmitigated election spending is an obvious obstruction to the fairness of US elections, the fact remains that companies like Lockheed Martin—which manufactures the F-35 fighter plane, used by Israel during the 2014 Gaza War that claimed roughly 2,200 Palestinian lives—donated tens of thousands of dollars to Representative McCollum the same year she publicly advocated for the rights of Palestinian children.
Occupation Is a Symptom
Last year Israeli forces and settlement security guards killed 32 minors, making it the deadliest year for Palestinian children in a decade, according to Brad Parker, Staff Attorney and International Advocacy Officer at DCIP. Parker attributed the 2016 statistic to a combination of escalating tensions, relaxed laws on Israeli use of deadly force and the near impunity under which Israeli authorities operate.
So far this year nine Palestinian children have been killed by live fire in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, suggesting this trend will continue.
“As I speak, remember that we are talking about people’s lives,” lawyer and human rights advocate Nadia Ben-Youssef began.
Israel’s legal system has a 99 percent conviction rate for Palestinians and over 90 percent of investigations into police misconduct are closed. In this context, Ben-Youssef described the absurdity of acting as legal counsel to accused Palestinians who are essentially deemed guilty before any trial takes place.
And because the Israeli legal system—as the state—was founded on Jewish supremacy, the lives of Palestinians are not valued, she added. “When your life is not valued, your life can be taken away. When the law doesn’t protect your rights and doesn’t deem you to be equal,” there can be no equality.
“The occupation is the symptom of this problem,” she continued. “There’s no right to equality in Israel—it’s not enshrined in law because [Israel] cannot protect equality and protect [Jewish] privilege.”
Ben-Youssef recalled the case of Umm al Hiran, a Bedouin village in Israel whose demolition Adalah Justice Center fought against for thirteen years. Although it was ultimately demolished by Israel this year, Adalah brought the case to the Israeli Supreme Court and for those thirteen years, prevented the demolition.
In this climate, Ben-Youssef said, human rights lawyers like herself “work within the system [in order] to expose and advocate for a transformation of the system.”
“You take a case that if you win, you win. But if you lose, you also win, because you expose the system.”