Saturday, 16 July 2011
Released from Israeli jail
Well I spent yesterday trying to chill out after a rather expensive long weekend in an Israeli jail. I guess most people already heard that from the media reports - if not check out http://www.scottishpsc.org.uk (see item; welcome-to-palestine-israel-arrests-jails-and-expels-internationals-en-route-to-bethlehem)
The plan originally was to spend a week with various Palestinian NGOs as part of a deliberate challenge to the Israelis' constant attempts to prevent people visiting the West Bank for any kind of political or cultural dialogue with Palestinian people. If people say they are Christian pilgrims or that they have come as 'innocent' tourists with a hotel booking, the border authorities will probably let them through passport control. But if you're on a human rights fact-finding tour, or a town twinning visit, let alone any kind of volunteering mission, you are very likely to waste your air fare unless you conceal the real motives for your trip. I did this twice. The first time in 1989, when this 'tourist' visited the West Bank talking to prisoners' support groups, advice centres, and so on with a group of (mainly Jewish) lawyers who later founded Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights. The second time I was a volunteer English teacher for a few weeks, after a visit to my former art teacher now living in Jordan, and again presented myself at the Allenby Bridge as a 'tourist'. The third time, July 8 2011 at about 3.45pm, I had the following interesting conversation with passport control:-
First passport official; why have you come to Israel ?
Anne: to go to Bethlehem to visit Palestinian friends.
Official; Are you going to the conference ?
Anne; What conference is that ?
Official; stand aside.
Second official; Where are you going?
Second official: where will you stay and what will you do ?
Anne: I have an invitation to visit the Al Rowwad arts centre - it's a theatre, arts and educational centre,with various children’s projects. They will arrange accommodation.
Second official (indicating waiting room);go in there please .
That was enough to get me four days in jail, and as I learnt only after being put on a plane back to Luton, an 'access denied' stamp in my passport.
After an hour, there was another bigger waiting room, EXCLUSIVELY for the 40-50 people (many French) who had arrived that afternoon to join the Bethlehem trip organised by several Palestinian NGOs (see http://www.palestinejn.org). There was no further questioning at all, not like they usually do if they are seriously considering your request for an entry visa. Just waiting, until after about two hours the border police boss said he wanted to take us to a 'hotel' one by one. I instantly had a feeling that this would be more like Harmondsworth than the Hilton. Our passports were visible in a pile, each with some kind of dossier attached. But we weren't getting them back, and if we wanted to go to the toilet, it was with a police escort. Eventually 23 uniformed men, some army, entered the room and grabbed the first person to drag him out - a French guy who looked of Algerian parentage. We linked arms to protect each other and stay upright. But several people didn't and got bruised as people, hard chairs and luggage all fell about in chaos. Eventually we all filed out and were led downstairs to the toilets, hand luggage searched, patted down, chivvied out to a waiting vehicle. No explanation at all. No chance to say anything. Some people, mainly men, got handcuffed - starting with a brave Scot who shouted, as one of the soldiers got up on a desk with a video camera; 'this is all a put-up job so they can show the media WE are being violent'. Which we certainly weren't! It was all them.
The vehicle might be called the Black Hole of Ben Gurion. We sat in it from shortly after sunset -maybe 8.30 at the latest? - until well after 11. It was all metal and had been sitting in the sun with the fan off, at least 30 celsius inside. Twenty eight women in 23 hard metal seats. The men, and the last four women, were in little box-like compartments, some handcuffed - see photo on
http://www.swanseapalestine.org , look for 'more uk citizens to be released tonight'. After an hour, they turned the fan on intermittently, but kept turning it off as it was clearly linked to the cattle-truck battery. A bit later we banged on the doors and shouted for water. They brought 2 litres for 28 women. (We might have had the odd bottle in our hand luggage but they had taken that away.)
Dehydrated and very hungry, we finally got to the Giv'on prison after midnight. Another couple of hours of waiting with hardly any access to our hand baggage. We could see it in a corner with a guard standing over it. They brought a water urn, a box of apples and a few take-away-like containers of rice and chicken, enough for only one between 2 or 3 women. We were searched again and phones, cameras, money, belts and so forth confiscated for the prison safe. Finally to bed in cells with 6 bunks each, a stinking squat toilet cubicle and filthy floor, and lock down till the British consul arrived to see us at 9 am.
Well treated, claimed the Israeli press releases. Well if you call it that, with about 3 hours in the exercise yard over 4 days, and locked in the cells (so that we couldn't even move around the corridor)for about 16-17 hours each day. I'll grant the Israelis could teach HM Prisons (whose catering I fortunately never suffered) a thing or two about food - with raw peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, apples and yoghourt even a fussy veggie like me didn't complain. Though by 10 am Saturday, having had a few spoons of rice and two apples since landing, I was like a wolf and barely wanted to say hello to my French cellmate till I had eaten breakfast. Horrifying what jail does to life's small courtesies - I kept thinking of a certain Primo Levi novel.
The legal (or any other basis) for our detention remained a mystery. Our consul reckoned at first we would get a deportation notice, our Palestinian lawyer (working pro bono for I think the Red Crescent)said there was a right of appeal, but it rarely got anywhere. Later the story was we were 'in another dimension' as one prison official put it, or 'in transit' as the consul was told. So we didn't have the rights even of immigration detainees pending deportation - who according to the notice in the corridor, could have cellphones and money with them, and a right to a court hearing. We clamoured for permission to make one phone call, but got it only by Monday.
The men's block was incommunicado from us until 4pm Monday, when all the UK citizens met with a British consular representative. Only then did we learn from the men about three important developments:
1. On Monday morning the men had started a hunger strike, demanding an explanation for why they were detained -- though they never received an official explanation.
2. On Sunday evening they had been told they would be allowed to make phone calls on Monday morning, but then this offer was restricted to those who would eat -- i.e. break the hunger strike.
3. On Saturday afternoon a couple Israeli border officials visited the prison to offer that the over-55s could go to Bethlehem if they signed a document saying they would not approach zones where there was conflict with the Army -- e.g. Bi'lin, Silwan, Jayous, etc. After much discussion, the older men agreed to accept the travel restrictions -- if the offer was extended to all the men, regardless of age. They made that proposal to the border officials, who gave no response.
Why the age limit? It was probably a proxy for 'We do not want these young Arabs in our country on any terms', since most of the French and Belgian youths were of North African descent. By analogy, in 2009 Israeli ruled that only the under-15s and the over-50s males could go pray in Al Aqsa during Ramadhan and for a few weeks afterwards. Insidiously, age was being used as a marker for ethnicity. The border officials' offer aimed to instrumentalise the older men to isolate and stigmatise the younger ones.
On Tuesday we were locked in cells most of the time and called out in twos and threes to get ready for the airport. The Luton flight was the last - all accepted it except for four brave Welsh women who wanted to have a go at an appeal, but they never got it. They are now back - see http://www.swanseapalestine.org/2011/07/bbc-welsh-palestinian-activists-put-on.html for their story.
And a wonderful welcome at Luton from several of my friends and local Green party people who had come out at midnight to meet us. Thanks everybody!
Was it worth it ? The Palestinians who had invited us thought so. It's highlighted how impossible is the cultural and political future of a country where if you leave, you may not be allowed back in, and if you have visitors, they may be arrested. Rather like a giant prison, in fact. Activities that would support any peace process like educational and cultural exchanges, town twinning visits, aid and human rights work are all made far more difficult by these kind of restrictive immigration practices. Since the Israelis won't say if they will let you in till you get to the airport, they're not even really immigration 'rules'.
Should people feel sorry for us ? Probably the people to feel sorry for are the Palestinians themselves. When they go to jail, it's often for weeks, months or years of arbitary detention with no trial, or a perfunctory military court, and quite a few beatings attached. And all over the West Bank, there are constant attacks on unarmed civilians with tear gas, rubber and plastic bullets and sometimes live ammo, sometimes against people who throw stones but very often against people who have done nothing violent at all. Even during the time we were in jail, some horrendous things were going on; see for example
The Palestinian academic who coordinated the 8th July 'Welcome to Palestine' week, Mazyn Qumsiyeh, is sure that non-violent resistence is the key to advancing the Palestinian cause. Look at the web site, http://www.qumsiyeh.org/ and do read his books. They will inspire you, as they did me.
Written by Anne Gray who has a blog here.