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Created: July 4, 2003
Latest Update: July 4, 2003
Yesterday when I was at the Mas’ha Peace Camp, one of my Palestinian friends there, a 35 year old father of 7, told me that he did not want to live to be more than 50 years old. At my expression of disbelief he elaborated: he had in the past, when work was still available, labored 20 hours a day, had seen as much of bad times as he wanted to. He needed to be there for his children, till they were old enough to manage. “What is there to live for, he asked?” In return, I queried, “and what if times get better?” Without raising his eyes from the ground, he asked, “when?” I had no answer.
Perhaps because of that brief exchange with a friend--a person who is very real to me, flesh, blood, and emotions--Gideon Levy’s story below about Mahdi is particularly tragic to me. How readily and easily Israel had ruined lives. Is it any wonder that some Palestinians are ready to kill Israeli civilians? Perhaps the greater wonder is that most Palestinians are not.
In fact, many Palestinians that I’ve met manage somehow or other to live with--even adjust to--whatever life has handed out to them. Thus two other Palestinians at the Mas’ha camp, both in their early twenties, revealed to me yesterday that they had Israeli friends living in settlements, one of these lived in the nearby settlement on land expropriated from Mas’ha to build the settlement. They and their Israeli friends exchange visits at one another’s homes. I was amazed, particularly about the Israeli living on land taken from Mas’ha. But one of the young men said, “Ok, so it was our land. Does that mean that we have to be enemies with everyone who lives there? Will that help make things better?” Again, I did not know what to say.
But, then the young men added, “our friend (in the adjacent settlement), is beginning to understand that living there is wrong, and he is planning to move to Tel Aviv next year.” May the day come that more settlers realize this. Also, I hope the day will come when Palestinians will be able to go as freely to Tel Aviv as I to Mas'ha; then these two young men will be able to visit their friend even after he moves to live in Israel.
By Gideon Levy
Here is a person with no home, no family, no work and no hope, without a present and without a future, a prisoner in his village in enforced idleness, and all because of the endless occupation. Here is a young man who has nothing in life but his rusting weights, which he lifts every evening, between 8 P.M. and 10 P.M., both to keep fit and to find a reason for getting up in the morning.
Here is a person who as a boy threw three stones at the side of a military truck, which didn't hit anyone and caused no damage, apart from ruining his life. He was afterward tortured by interrogators of the Shin Bet security service and sentenced to 30 months in prison, half of it suspended, ten months for each stone, on the charge of "acting against the peace." It was the period of the Oslo Accords, and the judge in the military court, Lieutenant Colonel Eli Zeicherman, was deeply anxious about regional peace. Otherwise why would he have been so hard on the boy defendant, if not for the sake of peace?
"Does the judge have a child? Children?" I wrote here nine years ago, after meeting with the small stone-thrower from the village of Hawara in Nablus military court. He was then 15, a child of distress who had lost his father and was sent to prison for a year and a quarter after being subjected to a series of disgraceful tortures, all because of what might have been a violent protest or simply youthful mischievousness. Thus did his wretched childhood come to an abrupt end, and his life, which had few prospects to begin with, was devastated permanently.
His mother did not attend the trial. She remained in her hovel in Hawara. Only his two older brothers, Khaled and Hussein, stood by the side of the road and waved goodbye to their little brother as he was taken in a prison van with barred windows from Megiddo Prison to the court in Nablus. The events occurred at the start of summer vacation in 1994, while our children were frolicking in their day camps and the eyes of their children sparkled momentarily with the hope of a normal life, which quickly faded. Most of the Israeli boys of the summer of 1994 are today students after military service and a lengthy trip abroad. What about Mahdi?
"I was interrogated by a fat man wearing jeans ... The fat man told me to undress. I kept on my underpants and the fat man told me to lower the underpants. He brought a rag and started squeezing my testicles. I started to scream ... They wanted me to give them a list of 25 names and then they would stop squeezing my balls ... I didn't give them names because I don't know 25 names," he told me then in his child's voice.
He also described the humiliations he underwent during the interrogation and told me about vicious blows, about passing out, about a rubber pipe that was used on his legs and about slaps to his face. "Sure I cried. But now I don't cry at night anymore. I only really miss Mom."
The reaction of the defense establishment at the time was: "The youngster was examined by a physician and no change was found in the condition of his health." Tom Segev wrote in Haaretz: "While a boy's testicles were being crushed, the agreement on Gaza and Jericho was already signed."
The boy's age, his orphaned state, his economic situation, his unblemished background, his regret, the appeal he filed and the intervention on his behalf of Yossi Sarid, then the minister of education, who was appalled when he read the article, did no more than bring about the reduction of his term in prison from 15 to eight months, which was still a pathological punishment. "What's so interesting about this particular boy? After all, there are many children who have received a punishment of this kind," the military prosecutor asked in the courtyard of the appeals court.
Three years went by and the occupied territories became the Palestinian Authority. In late 1997 I met him again, this time in Hawara. He was a member of the Palestinian police force. Shikrour was proud of his badge: For the first time he had found a purpose in life. He was guarding the worshipers at Joseph's Tomb in Nablus. However, his happiness was short-lived. In the wake of mental problems, which surely cannot be separated from the trauma of the torture and his lengthy incarceration as a boy, he was dismissed after half a year in service at the recommendation of the police doctor, and his weapon was confiscated.
"A happy end is still a long way off, certainly in the case of the stone-throwing boy from Harawa," I wrote then. Since then I had not seen him or heard anything about him.
He sat on the ground, hunched over, lost within himself, under a blazing sun, waiting for us at the Tarqumiya checkpoint. Now he is a suntanned, muscular man, with the stamp of a beard. We drove to Tarqumiya, the village that had become a kind of new home for him, a city of refuge from the harassment of the Shin Bet, which wants to enlist him as a collaborator.
Waiting under an ancient carob tree was his brother, Hussein, who waved to him in the prison van nine years ago, and his brother-in-law, Abdullah. Mahdi has no home; he divides his nights in Tarqumiya between the home of his brother and that of his sister, Abdullah's wife.
Mahdi has six brothers and one sister. Their father, an antiques merchant from Nablus, died when they were children, and their mother, Kamallah, is now in Jordan. The others are scattered far and wide, like the majority of their nation. Rumal, the eldest, 40, is a journalist in Hawara; Khaled, 35, lives in Hawara and is unemployed; Mureib, 33, is in Houston, Texas, trying to find a cure for his two daughters who suffer from a serious intestinal ailment; Zuheir, 32, is also in Houston, with his brother; Faisal, 30, is in Zarka, Jordan, where he does odd jobs involving physical labor; Hussein, 25, has work tiling floors in East Jerusalem, where he resides without a permit; Sahar is married to Abdullah, the local postal clerk in Tarqumiya; and Mahdi, now 24, is unemployed.
His patchwork life history is the history of life under the Israeli occupation. After being released from prison - he spent time at five different prisons, all of them facilities for adults - he did not go back to school. He worked occasionally in Israel, was apprehended as being "illegally present" and his suspended sentence was activated. "I spent almost two years at home," he relates. "I have a suspended [sentence] and I'm not allowed to enter Israel. What did I do? I slept and ate."
He then found work in Ramle. "My suspended was over and I went to Ramle to work," he says. "I worked there exactly three days. Then the police caught me with another two workers. Six days in prison. I told the judge my suspended was over and he told me: You are not allowed to enter. He wanted to give me six months. I called an uncle of mine who is married to a Jewish women who has a blue ID card. He lives in Ashdod and I told him to come and help. But then the Shin Bet came to the prison in Ramle."
"What's doing, Mahdi? I'm Gilad from office of the Shin Bet in Hawara," said the secret agent who visited him in prison. "I told him, ahlan wasahlan [welcome]. He said: What are you doing? Are you making problems here? I said: No. I'm working, I'm not a terrorist, I'm not making trouble. I have a level and a hammer, I don't have attacks in my pocket. He said: All right. He said: Are you a good boy? I said: Yes, I go on a straight line, not to the right and not to the left. I'm here to work, not [the Popular] Front and not Hamas. I could go to them and get money but I don't want that. I want to work.
"He said: All right, I can give you a permit to work in Israel and money, too, just work for me a little. I said: What work? He said: Spy a little. Tell me where people are going. I said: I don't want work like that. He said: You will go home now only if you work for me. I said: You will give me trouble in court? He said: I won't give you trouble and I won't help you. We're pals. Like that. He went.
"I went to court. The prosecutor said: This one did a whole lot. I understood that Gilad created problems. I said: Now I am going to jail for two years. A woman judge, an excellent girl, really good, gave me only six months suspended. I went home.
"Now where would I go? There is no work. I said: I will go to the American Consulate and get a visa, to be there with my two brothers. I went to Jerusalem. I said: My brothers are there, I want to be with them. He looked at me. He said: Yallah, get out of here, you were a prisoner, you are barred, go home. I said: All right, and I went home.
"What to do? One of my brothers is getting married in Jordan. I will go to Jordan. I went to Jordan. At the bridge they told me: Wait here. Two hours, three, four, five. You cannot go to Jordan. You were in prison. Go home. I went home.
"What can I do? There is no work. I sat at home. On August 13, 2002, I was sleeping, it was five in the morning. The Shin Bet came to the house. I didn't run, because I knew there was no problem. Gilad: What's doing, Mahdi? Everything is fine. He said: I need to see you in my office. Get dressed. Salamu Aleikum to my brothers.
"I went to the jail. I was there six days. On the sixth day I went to the court in Salem. The judge said to me: You are making trouble. What kind of trouble? Stones. I said to him: Look at me - do I throw stones? They told me: Go to Petah Tikva [to a Shin Bet interrogation facility]. I was afraid. I stayed there in zinzana [solitary confinement]. Was it ever small! A mattress and a toilet. I slept two days."
"Interrogation upstairs, in the office. What's doing, Mahdi? Gilad wasn't there, it was a different interrogator. Did you make trouble? What did I do? You're no good. I went to zinzana. In the court: You did a terrorist attack, you are Tanzim. I said: In the interrogation no one said that. Twenty days under arrest. I went back to zinzana. Two months in zinzana with extensions in the court. Only five interrogations in two months. What did I do? And that was it.
"I went to a liar's chair [a polygraph test]. If he lies - the chair talks. Do you know terrorists? Do you have a weapon? Did you do terrorist attacks? Six questions. I drank very sweet tea. Is there a door in the room? Is your name Yasser? To check the chair. You're a liar, the Shin Bet said. You lied, you lied. My head exploded. He threw keys at me. I moved my head and they hit the wall. I finished being interrogated. He said: You're going to prison for three years. Twenty days to zinzana. I said: All right. I got sick in zinzana. The doctor told me: Take Acamol [aspirin]. I slept for a week and didn't know where I was. After eight days they told me: You are going home. I couldn't believe it.
"I sat in the police station in Petah Tikva. They said: There's no one to take you to the checkpoint. They said: Border Police will take you four kilometers from the checkpoint. I said: I have no permit, the police will come and catch me and I have a suspended [sentence]. They dropped me off far away from the checkpoint. I went by foot and I was afraid. I phoned my brothers and they said: How will we come, there are checkpoints? I walked a lot. There are settlers and there is army. After three, four hours a car from Kafr Qassem came by and took me home.
"I stayed in Hawara for two weeks, then I left and came here. I have been here for eight months. Sitting around. There is no work. I have no home. I am not married, I have no money. Just sitting. If I go to Hawara, the Border Police will catch me. They will put me on the floor for a few hours, check and say: You are a troublemaker. All because of the stones. I sleep at my brother's place and my sister's place and I eat at their expense. I am afraid to go into Israel and here there is no work.
"The Shin Bet ruined my life. I don't want to work for them. I don't want to make trouble, I don't want to be Hamas, just to work. To be married and that's all."
Suddenly he fell silent and said no more. He was crestfallen. He sat there silently for a long time, his sad gaze fixed on the floor.