...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Palestinian Boy

For the past two days I've been facilitating a Compassionate Listening training for Palestinian women from all corners of the West Bank. It's a privilege to listen to these strong and courageous women. I've heard a lot of stories about the children, so tonight, I decided to finish this post I began last week about Ibrahim, a fourteen year old boy whose parents we met two weeks ago, during our delegation. 

Our group of 25 compassionate listeners travelled to Jamal and Saadiye’s West Bank home to meet with members of "Wounded Crossing Borders" - Israeli Jews and West Bank Palestinians who have been wounded in the conflict, and have decided to reach out to do the hard work of seeking the humanity on the "other side". We were about forty people altogether, and we happily mingled on the patio, talking in small groups for the first hour, until we gathered for formal introductions and dialogue.

A Palestinian member introduced himself and told us that at the beginning it was very difficult for him to meet Israelis: “I was in prison 3 times and I was shot. I got an invitation to meet with Israelis at the Dead Sea. There have been many, many meetings, including in Bosnia, Switzerland, Jerusalem and in the West Bank.”

An Israeli member added: “We are forty members, working together for two and a half years now. ‘Working’ is a big word for us. Because we see this as a grassroots effort. We are, as you heard, wounded, and crossing borders. I am 85% disabled, and we’ve all spent much time in the hospital. Even now, it’s not so easy…our meetings are full of feelings and emotions. And I can say, is that we are friends. We visit each other. We don’t work on a political level, but we can’t avoid it either. Recently we worked on a document that expresses our values. We are all for a two state solution, and don’t believe in violence. Working people-to-people is not less important than anything else”.

Jamal’s brother Mohammad and sister-in-law (on the far right in the photo) looked quite agitated and depressed. Jamal invited them to speak to the group, so Mohammad shared their story: “The Israeli soldiers came to my house at midnight two nights ago. They surrounded the house for two hours, until 2:00am. Then they asked me to open the door. I have ten children, from age 1- 18. The soldiers asked me to wake all of the children up and to come outside of the house. They took my ID and looked at the IDs of all of the kids.

"Then they asked for my son Ibrahim, who is fourteen and a half years old. They took him with only a shirt, and nothing on his feet. I asked the soldiers if I could bring some clothes for Ibrahim, but they refused. They beat Ibrahim in front of all of his brothers and sisters, and put a blindfold on him and put him in the jeep. They took him to a nearby Israeli settlement called Karmi Tzur. I went to the Red Cross the next day to tell them what happened. That same day at 11:00 I got a call from Ofer prison to say that my son will be in court the next day. We went there about 5:30 am and stayed until 2:00 pm, waiting. When we got inside the court, they brought Ibrahim in, in handcuffs and footcuffs. They told us that they could not proceed with the trial because the report was not ready.

“Today we also went from 5:00am – 11:00am. As ususal, they cuffed his legs and hands, and his legs were bruised from the metal. The lawyer told Ibrahim to speak today and he told the judge that he had been beaten and threatened with electrocution, and that he had only admitted to throwing stones because he was tortured. He told the judge he did not do it.

"Today the court asked me to pay 1,500 shekels to release him (about $400). In addition, they said that every Sunday, Ibrahim must report to Gush Etzion police station from 4:00pm – 6:00pm. This is a child – not even 15 years old and I refused to let him go to Gush Etzion again. I refused to pay.”

Mohammad appealed to the Israeli members of Wounded Crossing Borders to come to the next court appointment, and speak on behalf of the family. They know that having Israeli civilians show up in court on your behalf would be a major event in their favor. But the Israelis told us that the case is complicated - that all is not as it seems. One of the men said, “We do our best to help each other to try to find solutions, but it’s complicated.” Apparently, one of the Israelis found out through army connections that there is strong evidence implicating young Ibrahim in the stone-throwing incident.

Jamal (our host and the boy’s uncle, in the photo on the right), said, “Last week, 25 Israeli soldiers surrounded me and my brother and beat us both. The children saw all of this – it happened close to our house. We live under the occupation – our homes are tear-gassed all of the time. We are prevented from going in and out of our village on a regular basis. The pressures on us are enormous. The children feel everything. They are frustrated. Throwing stones is a way the children release it. My brother, Mohammad, said to one of the soldiers, ‘I am an old man with 8 children, why are you hitting me?’”

We, Compassionate Listeners, managed  to continue breathing throughout this painful story. Ibrahim's mother was in tears and could barely speak. As the mother of a 17-year old son, my heart went out to her. It is so painful when we, as parents, cannot project our children. 

We found out two days later that Ibrahim was released from prison. Though the Israelis did not show up in court, they wrote a letter to the court about their long-standing relationship with Jamal’s family. The family was overjoyed with Ibrahim’s release. Apparently, hundreds of people came to welcome him home that evening.

Although this story had a positive ending, I was left with troubling thoughts. At Jamal’s house, when the boy’s imprisonment was being discussed, it was clear that the Israeli members had doubts about his innocence. But at no time did anyone stand up against or mention the beating and threat of electrocution. Let’s remember – this is a fourteen year old boy. And this is not an isolated story. I’ve spent too much time in Palestine to know that. 

According to Amnesty International in an April 2010 press release: 
"Palestinian children face routine beatings, torture and strip searches.
While some children only spend a few days in detention before their release, others could end up spending years behind bars, the report added.
"These measures run counter to international laws, especially the [United Nations] Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel has signed and agreed to," said lawyer Khaled Kuzmar.
There are currently 7,200 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, including 306 children under the age of 18."

I have a issue with imprisoning children. Nearly twenty years ago, during the first Intifada, I admit to taking part in "unarresting" Palestinian youth. It was 1991, and our delegation was staying in the National Palace Hotel in the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem. There were almost daily skirmishes in the vicinity, and one day, our group was returning back to the hotel when we saw scores of Palestinian youth gathered in the street outside - the numbers quickly mounting. Israeli soldiers had arrested some teenagers, and an atmosphere of fear, panic and chaos ensued as more and more youth streamed into the street to protest. 

Some of us ventured into the crowd for a better look at what was going on. I soon found myself close to the military jeeps, and any time I witnessed a Palestinian youth arrested and placed in a jeep, a group of us would surround the jeep, pull the child out, and push him through the crowd behind us so that he could escape. To me, it felt like that story of the hummingbird who tried to put out a fire by dropping a beak's worth of water on it at a time. These efforts didn't amount to much, but it certainly meant a lot to the 14 and 15 year olds who ate dinner with their families that night instead of sitting in prison. 

1990 and 1991 were defining years for me. I had the opportunity to stay with Palestinian families, sometimes under Israeli curfew - which would trap me in a West Bank or Gaza home for hours or days. There was nothing to do but visit and listen to all of the people in the immediate vicinity. And I was shocked with what I heard and saw. Every single Palestinian family had many horror stories concerning life under occupation. There was simply no way to rationalize it. My Israeli friends had told me that if a Palestinian family was hurt, there had to be a reason for that. But I spoke with many mothers and elderly people during those years, since the husbands and older sons were often in prison, and I was left with no doubt that the violence was systemic.  

To this day, almost 20 years later, I see that it's very difficult for Israeli Jews to believe how harsh the occupation is. People that I speak with want to believe that if a Palestinian home is destroyed, or a family is beaten, or a child arrested, that they did something to deserve that treatment. Israelis predominantly see themselves as the victims in relation to Palestinians, and it's difficult for anyone who defines oneself as a victim to simultaneously see himself as an aggressor. Israeli leaders assure their citizens over and over that if an innocent Palestinian is hurt, it falls under the unfortunately broad banner of "collateral damage" in the line of self-defense. 

I don't hear many people talking about electrocution, except the boys themselves, prisoner rights groups, and international human rights agencies who collect testimonies from the youth. 
(To read Israeli soldiers' testimony directly, click on Breaking the Silence/Shovrim Stika; for testimonies from the children and reports on the subject, click on Defense for Children International). 

I interviewed a group of Palestinian college students today - all young men, who told me that most of the Palestinian youth in prison are boys from high-conflict areas - including refugee camps, Hebron, and towns like Jamal's where contact with the Israeli military presence is the highest. Indeed, Jamal's family lives in a high conflict zone. He wrote us after the delegation to let us know that his wife's nephew had been arrested and released after three days...and so it goes.  

I grieve for all the youth in this story - including the young Israeli soldiers who are asked to do the impossible by their government. There is simply no military solution...


Cathy Keene said...

Thank you so much for sharing this story and your thoughts with the rest of us, Leah. I'm grieving with you..

Anonymous said...


The tragedy of the commons, a phrase gaining ground and meaning in the early environmental new awareness days, has a contemporary counterpart. The commons now that we have entered the 21st century is clearly not just the physical environment, but the mental, emotional and spiritual environment, too. There is no way damage to the environment does not affect us all on all levels...we are truly in a closed, global system, and we are all dependent on each person's, each country's, willingness to advance the common cause. This blog you've written, and the photos, speaks volumes to the work cut out for us as we advance the common good, overcoming the tragedy of misunderstandings and misconceptions of "my right to take action despite the effect on others" to include arrests and detentions of youthful reactors without safeguards and enforcement of international standards, and, more importantly, the compassion of the heart. Keep up the good work, and thanks, again, for all you have done so far. John