North Africa, West Asia

Brothers' Keeper: while the rest of the world was apparently watching soccer

Calling the situation in Israel and Palestine a conflict normalizes it, when in actuality there is a very tilted power dynamic. There is power in this horror, however.

Kulsoom K. Ijaz
14 July 2014

On June 21, 2014 

Three Israeli teenagers, Gil-ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach, went missing while hitchhiking in the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem, in the West Bank. No one has come forward to take responsibility for their disappearance; however, their bodies were found in the Halhoul village in the Hebron District. The government of Israel has used their disappearance as a pretext to raid several cities in the West Bank. By Israeli officials’ admission, many of these raids have not been operationally related to the search for the missing teenagers. Three of the areas where the indiscriminate, widespread and devastating effects of “Operation Brother’s Keeper” were particularly felt were in the cities of Ramallah, Hebron, or Khalil, and Bethlehem. Ramallah has witnessed the encroachment of the Israeli Armed Forces on its city for the first time since the Second Intifada. Hebron and Bethlehem have experienced the brute force and asymmetric warfare tactics of the Israeli military in the form of Israeli armed forces who have violently and systematically raided homes in a series of terror provoking night raids.

Hebron is a Palestinian city located in the West Bank. The area in which the three teenagers were reported to have been hitchhiking is Hebron, or Khalil: the boys came from a family of settlers who moved there illegally. On June 11, 2014, as part of the Palestine Works Law Fellowship Conference we took a field visit to Hebron, or Khalil, a city that is the most vivid illustration of the occupation. The settlers in Hebron have strategically seized second-floor homes that used to belong to Palestinians, located directly above what are currently Palestinian homes, restaurants and shops in the marketplace. This vantage position is used to throw trash, fire-lit objects and rocks down at the Palestinians. Far from being held accountable, this violence has been committed with impunity because of a lack of Israeli government response, despite the well-documented nature of these attacks.

Many Palestinians have left their homes in Khalil because of this aggressive bullying combined with a lack of faith that the situation will be addressed. The situation in Khalil was grim to begin with and has only gotten worse since the disappearance of the three Israeli teenagers, as the Israeli government has used the disappearance as an excuse to execute a disproportionate military response.  It is questionable at best whether searching for Israeli non-combatants, whose presence in the occupied Palestinian territory violates International Humanitarian Law, is a legitimate military objective under International Humanitarian Law.

We have been warned not to visit the city since the teenagers went missing, and Hebron residents have been barred from leaving the city by Israel’s government since then as well. As such, we are reading articles to keep ourselves updated about the city. In one of the raids, the Israeli armed forces ransacked a home, emptied out kitchen cabinets and left food on the ground haphazardly. In the picture I came across, I saw a broken watermelon on the floor amongst a mess of pots, pans, tomatoes and apples. It is difficult to see what purpose these raids serve other than to terrorize the Palestinian population.  

Hebron

The aftermath of a raid in Hebron, 16/6/2014. Photo courtesy of Rania Zabanah.

I am one of twenty-six law fellows working with Palestine Works this summer. Palestine Works empowers international law students and recent law graduates to promote human rights and human development in Palestine and Israel by pairing each student with a local NGO for legal training. We are spread throughout Israel, Jerusalem and the West Bank. Though we are close in land space, since the land is virtually the size of New Jersey, we all have had vastly different experiences in the last two weeks. Mine was the least dramatic.

I live in Jerusalem, or Al-Quds, but I spend my weekends in Ramallah. I did however spend Friday night there this past weekend, observing Israelis in Mahane Yehuda watching World Cup matches excitedly, cheering for their favorite teams. In contrast, late Friday night / early Saturday morning on June 21, 2014, the Israeli armed forces invaded Ramallah, took over Yasser Arafat Square and the city’s center, Al-Manara, fired rubber bullets indiscriminately and raided several TV stations.

Two law fellows from NYU Law School, informed me that a local Palestinian friend also got arrested after he dropped her off at her house following a night at a local cafe. He was detained for several hours while the soldiers went through the private information on his phone and online accounts. What provoked this indiscriminate search and seizure and detainment? He had the bad fortune to be awake and curious about the noise in his stairway when the Israeli armed forces invaded his apartment building in order to obtain roof access to set up sniper positions on the street below.

I left for Ramallah a couple of hours later, after my evening in Mahane Yehuda, and when I went to our favorite restaurant, La Casa, the following day, Saturday, June 21, 2014, I discovered that the Israeli armed forces had shot and broken the establishment’s windows with rubber coated steel bullets the previous night. La Casa is owned and operated by Palestinian Americans. Meanwhile, patrons at the restaurant in Jerusalem continued obliviously cheering on their favorite World Cup teams.

One of our law fellows also had a similar bullet shot through his apartment’s balcony window located near Yasser Arafat Square. His father, a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon who is visiting him right now, exclaimed repeatedly, “this reminds me of Beirut,” referring to the Israeli Siege of Beirut (1982).

June 22, 2014

When I was returning to Al-Quds on Sunday afternoon, I saw at least 10 hitchhikers, several of them pre-adolescent children, waiting to be picked up by strangers. This begs the question: if the entire country is on alert and is mourning the disappearance of three teenage hitchhikers why are there still several hitchhiking children on the road?

June 24, 2014

Fast-forward a couple of days. I went to have lunch with another one of our law fellows, Jennifer Anne, from Notre Dame Law School. She is living at the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem this summer. I learned that on June 21, 2014, World Refugee Day, clashes had broken out in the camp. The Israeli forces commemorated the day by firing tear-gas canisters at refugee children.  One of the children grabbed Jennifer’s hand and led her to a car to hide behind. After a few minutes of hiding out she noticed two tear gas canisters land right at her feet.

Her account is as follows:

“When the soldiers shoot tear gas canisters the gas sits heavy in the air, especially on a day with no breeze. Even if it’s not shot directly at you, the effects of the gas will still reach you: your nose burns, your eyes start tearing up, and your throat burns so badly that it becomes difficult to breathe. The soldiers shoot indiscriminately, but they all wear gas masks so the gas does not affect them.

During one clash in particular I saw the Israeli armed forces charging towards me and some of the youth in the camp. We all ran as fast as we could towards the middle of the camp for refuge. The soldiers shot multiple tear gas canisters at the children and me as we were running away.  One canister went through the window of a car and the car caught on fire. Another went through the window of a house and large billows of smoke came out of the window. One of the youth who had been running from the soldiers noticed and went in the house to make sure there were no small children or elderly in the house, because they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of tear gas.

The situation calmed for a minute but then the soldiers proceeded further into the camp. The youth and I were seeking refuge in doorways and down small alleyways when the soldiers shot six to eight more canisters in our direction. A 12-year old boy grabbed my hand and led me further down the street, where we hid behind a car.

Even though we were hiding, the soldiers kept advancing towards us. They shot another round of tear gas canisters down the street. One landed right at my feet and another bounced off the car and landed at my feet as well. I looked down as the two canisters started twirling at my feet. Only seconds later I started seeing smoke. I saw a couple of older guys picking up the canisters and throwing them in the direction of the garden so it wouldn’t hurt the younger guys. I realized I needed to run and find shelter before the effects of the tear gas hit me.

It was too late. Suddenly, I couldn’t keep my eyes open and breathing became difficult, despite the scarf wrapped around my face guarding my nose and mouth. The door to a nearby apartment building opened and a young boy grabbed my hand and guided me up the stairs into the home. We both sat on the floor waiting for the pain to pass. I tried to breathe slowly, but it was hard to take in any air.

My throat and nose burned so badly every time I inhaled. Tears were streaming down my face, bringing clarity to the name “tear gas.” When the tears touch the skin, it starts to burn as well. Your immediate instinct is to drink water and wash your face to relieve the burning, but doing so actually makes it worse. You have to wait until the pain passes, and you no longer feel the immediate effects of the gas before you can drink water or put water on your face. I think this is the sadistic purpose of the tear gas. The thing you feel most compelled to do, is the very thing that causes more pain.”

On Sunday, June 22, 2014 the Israeli armed forces took collective punishment measures in response to a  stone-throwing incident at the camp to spray skunk water, a foul smelling liquid invented by a private Israeli company, into the houses and onto residents. When they ran away, they used sewage water.

On June 26, 2014

Some of the Aida Camp Refugees agreed to speak with me about the raids and clashes that have been occurring since the start of ‘Operation Brother’s Keeper.’ They asked me throughout the interview to ensure that their testimony would remain anonymous, stating that Israeli armed forces have made several arrests in the past due to quotes given to newspapers. An eleven-year-old boy told me that he does not get scared when the Israeli armed forces conduct their nightly raids because he has gotten used to it. He told me an Israeli soldier shot a tear gas canister at him, and when it filled his lungs he could not breathe and that he felt like he was having a heart attack. Jennifer remarked, “One of the hard parts is getting close to these families and seeing these children suffer. The tear gas canisters they are throwing are targeted towards children that you sit, eat and play with.”

An 18 year old told me that children could distinguish between the different weaponry the Israeli armed forces use by merely listening to it. A 22-year old man informed me that raids occur at night and clashes happen in the mornings. During clashes, the Israeli armed forces enter the camp gates and start firing tear gas canisters and skunk water into the streets. They open the doors to dwellings and spray in there as well. Sometimes it occurs after children as young as ten walk toward the Wall to provoke the soldiers. But often times the soldiers barge in to the camp unprovoked. I moved to another dwelling, where I interviewed three different men, who stated they had all been arrested after clashes and raids. One of the men, a man in his early 20s stated that he personally knows people who were arrested from Aida Camp in the last two weeks, some of whom were children.

Frustrated by lack of coverage

As Americans in Palestine, we have been shocked and frustrated with the lack of coverage this situation is getting. Several law fellows are sending letters to our congressmen to condemn Israel’s actions towards the Palestinian population during “Operation Brother’s Keeper.” We urge others to do the same by accessing the following petition, created by Salmah Rizvi, a Law Fellow from NYU Law. Although the operation is coming to a close, it is imperative to condemn these actions in order to prevent future ones from occurring. It is also important to hold Israel legally accountable for the current and continued violations of their obligations under international law.  

 For example, restricting the freedom of movement and the livelihood of Palestinian civilians, while inflicting excessive amounts of damage to property and possessions, is a form of collective punishment prohibited under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel also has a legal obligation to protect Palestinians against all threats, insults, and acts of violence, but is instead, systematically enabling settler violence towards Palestinians. Israel must also respect the right of the occupied Palestinian people to enjoy their home and family free from arbitrary interference, but it continues to conduct indiscriminate, arbitrary, widespread, night- time raids resulting in an increased number of administrative detainees.

The law fellows of Palestine Works are appalled by the inertia demonstrated by the international community. And while our loved ones are calling on us to stay safe, many of the law fellows have stated that they feel more safe here than a lot of places they have visited in the United States. Our American privilege is to thank for that. We are all fine. We get to go back to our apartments and sleep well enough at night. We feel but a corollary effect of the violence, as exemplified by the rubber coated steel bullet shot through one of the law fellows’ apartment windows.

 We will eventually return to New York, California and Washington DC and live our lives as law students and eventually lawyers, but this will remain a harrowing reality for Palestinians living in the West Bank. At least eight Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of ‘Brother's Keeper’, among them: Mustafa Aslan, from Qalandia Refugee Camp, age 22; Mahmoud Dudeen, from a village near Hebron, age 14 and; Ali al-Awour, from northern Gaza, age 10. Jordan Manalastas, a law fellow from Cornell Law School, put it best, “The modus operandi of the IDF: shoot first, gather intelligence later. And what more can you expect from an army of teenage thugs raised from birth to fear their neighbors and given guns (mandatorily) upon the age of 18?” Further, in more recent and gruesome events, a 16-year-old, Mohammed Abu Khdeir was abducted and burned alive last Wednesday in a revenge killing. The Israeli police force made 6 arrests for his suspected murder, showing that murder is only okay when it is state sponsored.

Under the pretext of ‘Operation Brother’s Keeper’, the government of Israel has injected fear and danger into the homes of Palestinians living in the West Bank under the nationalist guise of “bring back our boys.” But none of that justifies what has been occurring in the West Bank. A Palestinian child can, just by hearing a noise, decipher what has just been fired: tear gas canister, a bullet, a sound bomb, or just celebratory fireworks; this knowledge and awareness is deplorable and should not be sanctioned through silence. No child should be able to distinguish between the mentioned cluster of noises and no child should ever have to do so.

 As an occupying power, Israel has a duty to protect Palestinians and allow them the same treatment they do their own civilians. The disparity in the day-to-day experiences of Palestinians in the West Bank under ‘Operation Brother’s Keeper,’ versus what Israelis living in Israel and Jerusalem are subjected to, is remarkable. This is not just evident from the head count in the headlines: 5 Palestinians murdered after 3 Israeli teens went missing. Israel has created a wide contrast in the value of a Palestinian and an Israeli life in other ways through systematically violating the Palestinian right to privacy and the right to be free from arbitrary arrest, as well as violating the right to safety, peace and security in one’s dwelling. These are clear failures of Israel’s ability to uphold their international obligations during the course of Operation Brother’s Keeper.  

The other law fellows and I have seen this discrepancy first-hand over the past couple of weeks. Whenever we come together to share stories, we have continually been amazed and horrified at what each other has witnessed. This horror has been further compounded by the failure of the media to report the state sponsored transgressions that are taking place and the general failure of the world to acknowledge or respond to the illegal Israeli practices throughout Palestine and Jerusalem.

Calling the situation in Israel and Palestine, a conflict normalizes it, when in actuality there is a very tilted power dynamic. There is power in this horror, however, as it has provided the motivation necessary to use our voices to alert the world to what is happening. This is a necessary step in preventing future Israeli transgressions of this sort. We hope the world is ready to take notice and help end Palestinian suffering.

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The article was originally published in Muftah on 11/7/2014 as 'Palestine Burns While the Rest of the World Watches'. Click on the article for the author's photos. 

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