I am currently living in two different time zones, enjoying my 25-hour days (or 23 hours, depending on where and how my day starts and ends). In Israel the daylight saving time just ended last week, turning the clock back for one hour. The Palestinian territories, together with the neighboring Arab countires, will not start their time adjustment for another week. This time difference, as you can imagine, is a source of humorous confusions and mix-ups for someone like myself, whose life is involved in both worlds. We are always asking "is that in the Palestinian time or Israeli time?" as we schedule appointments, set an alarm clock, organize meetings and see friends. This strange side effect of the occupation is supposed to go on for another week.
The half-finished houses of the Khalifa family received demolition orders last week, since they coutinued rebuilding even after receiving the order to cease the construction. The court hearing was scheduled for today, but was postponed since the total closure (for the Jewish new year) of the territories prevented the brothers from reaching the court. Stay tuned.
Yesterday was a day of remarkable progress in promoting human rights and justice in Palestine & Israel. The Israeli supreme court outlawed the use of physical torture by the Israeli Secret Service against Palestinian prisoners and detainees (see the news on the web). Israeli peace activists, especially members and friends of the Public Committee Against Torture and those human rights lawyers who fought year after year against the state's sanctioning of torture, celebrated their hard-won victory.
Until yesterday, Israel was the only country in the world that legalized the use of torture, against human rights conventions and international laws (see more on the torture). Its justification was to protect the state security from the 'hostile Arabs.' Torture, called by the Israeli government 'moderate physical and psychological pressure,' was a standard procedure in interrogating suspects. During more violent days of the occupation, especially in the time of the intifada (the Palestinian uprising, 1987-1993), mass arrests and administrative detentions (to arrest a person without any criminal charge) were a part of the everyday life. There are only few Palestinian male that I have met who haven't been in an Israeli prison for being convicted of no crimes but punished for fighting against the oppression. Large number of ex-prisoners suffer from long-term physical problems and psychological effects caused by sleep deprivation, violent shaking, beating, electricution of body parts, being tied up in a painful and uncomfortable position for days, etc. Imprisonment and torture are common experience here - not something to be talked about as abnormal. Yet, I am stunned and speechless each time my friends calmly speak of their cruel prison experiences. It is beyond my comprehention what strength it takes to survive such brutality and to go on with life while carrying enormous wounds.
Although it was a remarkable victory from the human rights point of view, many Israelis reacted angrily against yesterday's ruling. Their argument was that the use of torture is necessary and critical, especially in the wake of the two bombings in Israeli towns of Tiberias and Haifa over the weekend, to prevent attacks by the Palestinians. Prime Minister Barak is already proposing a law to bypass the supreme court decision.
The two bombings were obviously to protest the newly signed agreement. But in the time of so-called "peace process," most Israelis seem not to know, or choose not to see, what keeps driving young Palestinians to such desperate acts of ending their lives.
The Israeli military occupation has systematically perpetuated a vicious cycle of hate and violence, which continue to grow as they feed on each other, through implementation of various administrative and legal measures on the Palestinians. It is the utter sense of desperation, hopelessness, and powerlessness that emerges after being beaten down so many times and for so long that pushes people to the point of no return. In the three years of my involvement with the Palestinians, I have heard of many such cases, and have witnessed one particularly heartbreaking situation with a family I have come to know. I am enclosing an article that appeared on Ha'aretz (Israel's leftist daily paper) last Sunday on a recent situation with this family.
Al-Atrash family of twelve, a couple and their ten children, live on the outskirts of Hebron on a piece of land that the family has owned for generations. My first encounter with them was June of last year, a few of days after their home had been demolished for the third time. We stood in shock amidst broken furniture, cups and plates, children's toys, pillows and blankets, all soiled and scattered on earth. Yusuf and Zohur, the couple, described the violence that had razed their home and terrorized their children - how IDF soldiers surrounded their homes one morning, threatened the resisting family members at gun points, brutally dragged them outside, and cheered when the house was flattened. It struck me that even in the aftermath of such experience, the family showed a profound sense of honor, respect and sincerity. Yusuf apologized for not being able to extend a full hospitality to his guests, while we sat in his tent and sipped Arab mint tea poured by his children. "You are welcome at our house anytime, and we hope to receive you more properly next time, under a real roof," he told us as we left the tent. "We will continue to build, until they finally give up and stop sending those bulldozers. This is a competition of patience."
Few months later, Yusuf, Zohur and their oldest son were brutally beaten and arrested by IDF as they were preparing for rebuilding their own house.
In the meantime, the Wye River Memorandum was signed in October of last year. The family waited in the tent, day after day, for the implementation of the agreement. Their modest piece of land should have come under the Palestinian control with Israel's fulfillment of the agreement. Israel, however, has not withdrawn from the areas of the West Bank, failing to comply with the agreement to this day.
My second visit to the family was in January of this year. All the rubble had been cleared, but they still lived in the same tent, with no heat, no running water and no roof and walls to protect them from the harsh winter. It was during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islam, when evenings are celebrated with large feasts after a whole day of fasting. A group of Israeli and Palestinian activists held a dinner gathering at a restaurant in town for the family, who could not afford any festivities. We ate, chatted, and laughed, while children excitedly opened their Ramadan presents. As a rally of speeches began, Yusuf got up. "Thank you for bringing smiles to my children." Beaming with joy he continued, "this is the real peace, the peace between the people, not between politicians."
Because of their determination to fight back, the family members were under constant threat by IDF. The oldest daughter, Manal, was attached and injured by soldiers on the street. Yusuf was arrested at a checkpoint for being accused of building their fourth home. He was too afraid to leave the property after the release.
Members of Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions have been committed to help rebuilding Al Atrash house. However, they are unable to start the construction until Israel withdraw from the area, since another demolition would be devastating for the family.
I returned to see them in June. The entire year has passed since I met them for the first time, and they still lived in the same misery, which seemed to be only worsening. The family was visibly wearing out. Zohur told us, while gently stroking one of her youngest boys who clung on her, that there were no more tears left with them, that their patience is running out, and that they were dying a slow death each and every day. "All we want is a small house with two rooms, so that my children can live like a human being, with rights and dignity," as she said this, I could not help but cry and was ashamed of it, for I could afford shedding the tears that they didn't have anymore for themselves. As I was leaving, the children ran up and handed me a piece of paper. It was a colorful crayon drawing of their tent, with a Palestinian flag on its roof, and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, a symbol of Palestinian dream for self-determination.
On my last visit to the family about a month ago, Zohur invited me to Manal's wedding. "We have shared with you sad times, but also want to share with you our happy time," she smiled and held my hands warmly. What I did not see that time was that the family was coming very close to their limit - the limit for living under such extreme stress, misery, poverty, fear and humiliation.
(now scroll down, take a break from me, and read the attached article.)
The new Sharm al-Sheik Agreement, signed between Arafat and Barak last week, has so many flaws for not addressing the fundamental problems of this conflict (more on this in upcoming issues). But I do hope, from the bottom of my heart, that Israel will comply with their obligation for withdrawal this time and pull out of the al-Atrash's land, before it is too late for them to rebuild the family.
PS: Some people have already asked what could be done to support the family. Because they are in a serious financial crisis, monetary contribution will be greatly appreciated. Your donation can be mailed to: [address expired]
The Moral of the Story, By Gideon Levy (shamash list archives)