Sunday, July 24, 2005

Donkey Justice

Last week I served with Christian Peacemaker Teams’ (CPT) at their international accompaniment project in the West Bank village of At-Tuwani. This 1,000 year old Palestinian village lies in the south Hebron District where many of the 50 or so families live in stone cottages that are at least 500 years old. At-Tuwani boasts of one spring-fed well for drinking and one diesel generator which provides enough electricity for four hours per night.

The village is surrounded by three major hilltop settlements: Ma’on and Havat Ma’on to the east and Carmel to the northeast. All three settlements are connected by the Israeli “by-pass” road 317, which is closed to most Palestinians and cuts At-Tuwani off from the neighboring pastures of Ja-wayaa. Ever since caravans of Israeli settlers arrived to establish Ma’on in the mid 1980s, they have been on a systematic campaign of harassment and intimidation with the aim of frightening the villagers and seizing their land. Settlers have beaten shepherds with sticks and stones; attacked children on their way to school; stolen and burned their crops; destroyed valuable olive groves; and poisoned their wells and sheep. According to Israeli human rights activists and Palestinian sources, the settlements manage to confiscate the equivalent of 100 dunams of land every year.

Last September, in cooperation with the Israeli group Ta’ayush, CPT accepted an invitation from the village to establish an international presence in the area to monitor the human rights situation. CPT was joined by an Italian-based NGO, Operation Dove, and together they provided a permanent presence in At-Tuwani as villagers planted and harvested their crops and children went to and from school. The presence of internationals in At-Tuwani has had an appreciable effect in deterring the violence: Villagers have noticed a marked decline in settler harassment, and the Israeli military and police even met with the village to offer their protection from the settlers – something that has never happened before – in an effort to mitigate the negative publicity that the Israeli government has received due to their relative indifference to the human rights situation there.

But the internationals working in At-Tuwani aren’t immune to the settler violence. Settlers from Ma’on have attacked and beaten several members of CPT and OD on separate occasions. In one notable case, CPT member Chris Brown was beaten with a baseball bat and chains for daring to accompany Palestinian children on their way to school. Brown apparently veered too close to the settlement boundary on the only path that children can take without having to make a lengthy and hazardous detour. For Palestinian students, the choice is stark: If you want to go to school, you risk getting a beating.

During my week in At-Tuwani, the school season was just finished, and the harvest season was still a full month away. For the most part, my days and nights were filled with getting to know the slow pace of village life. Days were often spent underneath a lone tree on top of a hill with a good view of the village and surrounding countryside. Nights were spent sleeping atop the roof of a concrete block home watching an infinite night sky lit up by innumerable stars and even the occasional shooting star. If it weren’t for the constant threat that armed Ma’on settlers with bad intentions could come strolling down the hill at any time, At-Tuwani would be a rustic but relaxing getaway from the city.

Appearances, however, are deceiving. Even when there is no overt violence, there is a structural violence that is always lurking underneath. It is the omnipresent type of violence that comes not only from living at the mercy of hostile neighbors who want your land, but also from an occupying military and police apparatus meant to protect and serve Israelis and not Palestinians. When a foreign nation is occupying your land and one of its citizens commits a crime against your person or property, who are you supposed to call for help? The police?

This was made very clear to me during what was supposed to be a routine accompaniment assignment last Wednesday. Al-Hajj (not his real name), one of the Palestinian Bedouins in nearby Ja-wayaa, had his donkey stolen three days earlier by Israeli settlers from Carmel. Members of Operation Dove confirmed this when they photographed the donkey inside Carmel tied up next to the settler security office. Al-Hajj asked CPT and OD to accompany him to the Israeli police station in Kiryat Arba, a settlement on the outskirts of Hebron and a full 20 minutes away by car if you take the Israeli-only “by-pass” road. If you’re a Palestinian like Al-Hajj, however, the trip along dusty and narrow side roads can take at least an hour under the best of conditions.

And that’s just the beginning. As I soon learned, filing a simple complaint for Palestinians can turn into an all day affair. When we arrived at the police station, we had to enter at the rear entrance where there was a locked gate with a phone and no one around. Compared to the busy front entrance where Israelis and internationals (but not Palestinians) are allowed to go, the rear entrance to the Kiryat Arba police station felt like the narrow back alley of an Italian restaurant where the alley cats are allowed to feed on table scraps. Al-Hajj dialed the phone first. The irritated voice in Hebrew told him to try dialing some other number which turned out to be a dead end. He called again and this time someone else answered and hung up. When my CPT colleague called the station from her cell phone, a somewhat surprised officer assured us that someone would be out in a few minutes. After waiting almost 40 minutes outside the gate, an officer finally walked out to let us in. Within a few minutes, we were directed to an Arabic speaking officer who told us that we would have to make the complaint at the Carmel settlement – at least an hour away by Palestinian taxi – but a police jeep was being prepared to take us there and would depart in 45 minutes.

While we waited an Israeli settler (presumably from Kiryat Arba?) pulled up to the internal parking lot with his car decked out in the familiar orange ribbons that signified opposition to the planned evacuation of the Gush Katif settlement and withdrawal from Gaza. The settler turned out to be very friendly and spoke fluent Arabic. He engaged Al-Hajj and other nearby Palestinians in a spirited dialogue assuring them that he was a settler but, as he pulled up his shirt to demonstrate the point, he carried no weapons and only wanted to live in peace. Even assuming his sincerity, the settler still missed what was obvious to the Palestinians sitting in an Israeli police station: He didn’t have to carry weapons. There was arrayed around him a very sophisticated police and military apparatus that is dedicated to protecting him and his settler cohorts first and foremost, twenty-four hours a day. Any Palestinian concerns (like Al-Hajj filing a criminal complaint against a settler) are at best of a secondary nature, and more often, directly conflict with their intended mandate.

My time spent with Al-Hajj that day bears this out. We waited for the police jeep for almost two hours before we were told again by the same Arabic speaking officer that, unfortunately, the police jeep will not be going out today and, if Al-Hajj wishes to file a complaint, he will have to show up to Carmel and file one with the police there. Even assuming we could the Israeli-only “by-pass” roads – which we couldn’t – it would have meant at least another hour lost after having spent most of the morning trying to do what most citizen-nationals have the inherent right to do, namely filing a grievance with their local constable in a respectful, timely manner. But Al-Hajj was a Palestinian, and that meant he would take a very indirect route that eventually cost him most of his afternoon. Seeking justice took an Olympian determination and an enormous amount of time. Al-Hajj may have had the former in ample supply but the lost time in jumping through intended bureaucratic obstacles cost him time spent in working in his fields where he depends on for survival.

Our Homeric trek to Carmel began as we walked out of the Kiryat Arba police station and toward the center of Hebron where we could catch a taxi to the outskirts of town to catch another taxi headed toward Yatta. To catch that taxi, we had to cross an Israeli military roadblock that included passing through a sandy ravine and climbing over several boulders. The second taxi could only take us to the other side of Yatta, where a second military roadblock greeted us. This time, however, there were no more taxis, and thus we had no choice but to begin a 10 mile walk along highway 317, the road used almost exclusively by the Israeli military, settlers, and the occasional tour bus headed for the settlements. Walking along the highway with vehicles speeding past can be dangerous in any country, but in the West Bank this is especially risky for Palestinians. What if an armed settler or a soldier decides to pull over and provoke a confrontation? What would Al-Hajj do then? Again, call the police?

Remarkably, Al-Hajj didn’t seem too bothered by this risk. He had his donkey to get back after all. After failing to reach the police by cell phone to alert them of our situation, he flagged down an Israeli army humvee to vainly plead his case to several surprised-looking soldiers. One of them wore goggles and a mask to protect him from the dust storms, but it had the unintended effect of making him look like a gangster. After several more miles of walking, Al-Hajj managed to flag a Palestinian taxi near At-Tuwani that was able to take us up to the entrance at Carmel. As we got out of the taxi and walked toward the entrance, I could see a police jeep waiting in the driveway in front of the gate. Behind the gate were four settlers, a private settler security officer, and a donkey.

The officers in the police jeep took Al-Hajj’s complaint, and I gave them photographs of the donkey inside the settlement that were taken earlier by members of Operation Dove. The gate opened up and the settlers walked up to the police jeep with the donkey. Remarkably, they seemed to take this token defeat in stride and with a little sarcasm. They photographed themselves next to the donkey, saying ‘Salaam’ as they posed in front of the beast, and one of them even turned to me and smirked, “Peace and love, right?”

The most remarkable part of the story is not that Al-Hajj got his donkey back. It is rather the manner in which the Israeli police handled his case. It was obvious to me from the very first moment that Al-Hajj would have never seen any justice if he hadn’t had an international friend with him at every step advocating on his behalf. And even with my help, the whole affair cost him dearly in taxi fare and time. By the time he was able to file a formal complaint, all of the morning and most of the afternoon had passed. And the biggest scandal of all was the barely concealed fact that the Israeli police knew all along who had the donkey and where. There was no need for a large manhunt. The donkey was there when we arrived. Perhaps the most outrageous sight was watching one of the Israeli police officers get chummy with the settlers. He even put his arm around one of them and patted him on the back while they exchanged a good laugh. Imagine you called the police to report a stolen television, and the officers show up with the perpetrator acting as if they were schoolyard buddies. You, too, would wonder whose side they are on.