Derry community relations worker Eilis Haden reports from life as a human rights observer for the World Council of Churches in Hebron (Al-Kahlil) in Israel-Palestine. And this week she met the family of 16 years-old Mahmud who was arrested two weeks ago whilst helping women and children to escape an Israel Defence Forces attack
Imagine you are in Swan Park in Buncrana, at a public commemoration ceremony surrounded by local dignitaries, family, friends, grandparents and children when the British army storm in pumping tear gas and concussion grenades into the air, shouting orders and making arrests. Picture the babies screaming and your elderly relatives cowering, young men, their eyes streaming with tear gas sheltering the distressed whilst they try to help people escape the mayhem. Imagine that one of these young men is your brother, your son or your grandchild - how would you feel, seeing him hauled into a military vehicle and taken away, imprisoned without charge or trial, unable to access education, love or guidance for the foreseeable. Sounds a little dramatic I know, but then events like this are hardly unheard of in our own family histories.
This week I visited with the family of Mahmud, a 16 year old school student and local Community Centre volunteer. Two weeks ago Mahmud was arrested whilst helping women and children to escape an Israel Defence Forces attack just like the one described above. Mahmud is a country boy whose family farm lies on a steep hillside just outside the town of Beit Umar. I was taken to visit his family by local community volunteers Younes and Mousa, who hope that sharing this story with the people of Derry and Donegal might motivate action on behalf of child detainees. When I arrive at their farm, we chatter for a while to break the ice, whilst taking in the breathtakingly beautiful Jesus-of Nazareth style landscape. The family home is large but simply decorated, it looks like the perfect place to grow up with wide open spaces to play yet surrounded by farms from which you can hear the gentle drone of tractors and children laughing. Mahmud’s parents Yusuf and Sahir welcome us warmly as do their children Suhair, Hikmat and Hussein. We sit on sofas placed in a yard overlooking the farms and bright blue sky, and finally we begin to talk about what is most on everyone’s minds.
I ask Mahmud’s father, Yusuf what his response was when he heard that his son who had been helping out at the commemoration was arrested. He draws a breath and looks into the distance. “This has never happened to any of my children before” he says. “When I received the phone call telling me, I was so shocked that my legs gave way and I fell to the ground. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach but I knew I had to pull myself together and go find him. So I went to the watchtower on the edge of the Beit Umar to ask the soldiers if they knew where he was interned but they would tell me nothing. “
The next day, Yusef went to the nearby Etzion detention centre where he was told by the officials that they had no record of his son being held there. He drove further to Kiryat Arba police station and it was here that he accidentally met a humanitarian aid worker who told him that his son was indeed at Etzion and would be held there until his trial the following week. And so Yusef would have to wait six days before setting eyes on his son again. “When I saw him in the court the following week, I wanted to hug him” he tells me, “but they would not even let us talk. Mahmud looked so shocked and so drawn – very different to the son I know.” Yusef describes what happened next as a tragic joke. “There appeared to be some mix-up and the charge papers could not be found so the case was adjourned. I have never been in an Israeli court before but what I saw seemed like theatre play rather than reality – the accused have no rights, the Palestinian lawyers are not free to speak they way they want to and so there can be no hope of justice.”
Still Mahmud waits without formal charge in Etzion detention centre. His sister Suhair tells me that she cannot sleep because she has nightmares about what her brother is going through. “The house is deathly quite without him” she says “Mahmud has always been like a human dynamo, laughing and teasing us and making jokes. My youngest sister who is thirteen cries every day. Mahmud used to walk her to school to protect her from bullies. Who will be there to do this when September comes?”
I ask about the conditions in Etzion for minors. Our local contact Younes, who sits with us draws a breath. “I have been detained there and it is far worse than any prison” he says “It is not even a place where you would put animals. There food is grossly insufficient and what you do get is barely edible, also there are not enough bathrooms for all the people held there and those that are provided are disgustingly smelly - worse than a stable. They mix the adults and children in together and constantly humiliate them by shouting and breaking down their spirit. The adults usually know how to deal with this behaviour but it’s so much harder for the children. The worst thing” Younes says “is that this is a place where physical and sexual abuse happens on a regular basis yet nobody does anything about it. Confessions are usually elicited through beatings or through the prisoner’s family being threatened – nobody cares about your human rights once your are interned here.”
What Younes has to say is supported by a recent official report released by the Israeli Justice Ministry on the conditions of the prisons and detention centres in Israel and the West Bank. The report describes a form of punishment whereby many inmates are cuffed hand and foot, sometimes for up to several months, having to call out if they need the toilet. General living conditions are at best described as unhygienic, extremely crowded and excessively punative and as of yet there have been no suggestions for improvements. (Haaretz, August 16th 2011).
Reflecting on this, I ask Hikmat if she worries about the long-term effects for Mahmud of being in Etzion. “Of course I do” she answers “His honour and dignity have been insulted by this act. We know there will be psychological problems but my mother hopes that this experience at least will strengthen his will to end the illegal occupation of Palestine – and as a family we know that the only way to do this is through getting a strong education.” At this point I notice that Machmoud’s mother is silently crying and I wonder if I should change the subject but then everyone seems to have much more to say.
There have been rumblings amongst the military that the crime for which Mahmud is being held is stone throwing. From what I hear, this is a boy who is vibrant, lively, intelligent and adored by all his family, a boy who loves traditional music and dance, and who is all set to follow in his sisters’ footsteps and go to university so he can have a bright future. Machmud was arrested in Area ‘A’ a region in which, according to International law, the Israeli Military are not allowed to enter, the reason being that it falls under the full jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. So even if he had been throwing stones, the only people who had the legal right to arrest him were the Palestinian police force. Most of the Palestinians I have spoken to in the past two months sympathise with the fears of the Israelis who have also suffered during this conflict. Like the Israelis, they abhor the rocket missile attacks which come from Gaza and are very insistent in telling you that they do not support violence. I have even talked to Palestinian farmers who have said they are happy to share their lands with the Israelis but that this can only be done if everyone is treated equally and has the right to self-determination. It seems we are a long way from equal rights when it is only the Palestinian children and not the settlers (who often attack and injure both Palestinians and Internationals) who are detained without trial.
As our time together draws to a close, I ask Yusuf what message he would like to send to the people of Europe. Again he draws a breath before launching into a surprisingly deep political litany. “Israel is built from scratch with European and American money” he tells me. “…and still the taxes of ordinary Europeans contribute to the welfare of these monsters who suppress us. Perhaps this is Germany feeling that it needs to compensate for the holocaust. But ‘holocaust’ is not a word owned by the Jews, we too have suffered from this form of torture. There are 8,000 Palestinians left to rot in Israeli jails when for many of them their only crime was peaceful resistance. Every week we hear of the EU donating charity money and aid to Palestinians – but at the same time they do not step in to end these human rights violations and enforce international law. I would like every voter in Europe to go to their politicians and ask them when they are going to do something real to help our people.”
I feel honored to have met this family. Their intelligence, bravery and apparent lack of need for reprisals are inspiring. Their belief in education as a tool to end the occupation seems to give them hope that things will not always be this way. In an attempt to look to what I hope might be a brighter future, I ask Suhair what she will say to her brother when he finally gets home. With tears welling up in her eyes she looks at me and laughs “I will tell him that if he ever leaves us again I will kill him!” As we talk on the way to the car, Suhair tells me that in 2009, she was in Northern Ireland on an Irish Peace Centre course run by Alistair Little and Wilhelm Voerwood. It feels strange but not entirely unpleasant to be standing on a hill top in Palestine hearing her describe the Belfast Peace wall to our local friends Younes and Mousa.
On the way home to Hebron, I am overwhelmed with a sense of grief for this family and all those who lie awake at night worrying about the horrors their children face whilst in detention. In a matter of minutes the power to protect their sons and daughters has been snatched away and all they can do is sit and wait for their return. They do not know what the effects of the constant barrage of humiliation and abuse will be. What they do know is that whilst the usual jail term for a 16 or 17 year old is about four months the psychological damage is ongoing.
Over the next month, I hope to spend more time in beautiful Beit Umar where I will be working with the local community to develop an advocacy strategy to pressure our politicians to enforce International Human Rights Legislation. I know that the strong voices of the good people in Derry and Donegal are well capable of making themselves heard and I look forward to chatting with you all on this issue in November when Mousa and Younes visit us in the Northwest. But for now, I have to get back to the joys of report writing, so until next week, Masalama.