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Shades of oppression

Life in fear under occupation

by Salwa Duaibis | Mission Crossroads

Parents of detained children wait inside the Ofer military courtroom. As of Sept. 30, there were 4,184 Palestinians (West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza), including 157 children ages 12–17, held in detention facilities, according to the Israeli Prison Service. (Photo by Syliie Le Clezio)

JERUSALEM — I was born in Nazareth, but spent five years of my childhood in Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, where my father was the Anglican priest.

In some ways, living on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea was idyllic. I remember with joy road trips to Nazareth and fishing excursions with my grandfather. But I also remember having to speak my mother tongue, Arabic, in hushed tones on the street, lest we attract unwanted attention from our Jewish Israeli neighbors and always sensing that somehow, we might be seen as different.

Salwa Duaibis, a Palestinian citizen of Israel based in Jerusalem, is co-founder of Military Court Watch, an organization that monitors the treatment of children in Israeli detention. (Photo by Amal Duaybis)

All this changed when I was 12 and we moved to Nablus, after my father was posted there to serve the small Christian community. Not only were we moving inland to a conservative city, but we were venturing into the heart of Israel’s then recent military occupation of the West Bank.

My first introduction to this reality occurred at school when a classmate told us that her grandparents’ olive grove had been confiscated to build an Israeli settlement. I remember we marched into the schoolyard, motivated by injustice, chanting our objections. It was not long before soldiers stormed our school, scattering the girls — except me. I stood my ground because our demonstration was peaceful and on private property — and my life experiences, up to that point, did not involve fearing soldiers.

Families wait in the courtyard of Ofer Military Court. (Photo by Syliie Le Clezio)

In the general commotion, a soldier grabbed my ponytail, threw me to the ground and punched me in the stomach. I thought I would die that day and realized that the rules of the game were now very different. Shortly afterward, my younger sister, Amal, had a similar experience when soldiers stormed into her classroom. As other girls jumped out of the ground-floor window, Amal remained seated at her desk. Her brave teacher clung to one of Amal’s arms as a soldier tried to drag her away. This experience so traumatized my little sister that she lost her ability to speak for 24 hours.

As the settlements around Nablus multiplied and the occupation intensified, so too did the violence. When I was 16, one of my best friends was a girl called Lina. We rode our bicycles together, something that was quite daring for girls back then. Lina was one year older than me and a leader. Whenever us girls demonstrated, it was Lina who was out front. One summer, over the course of several days, Lina got into an argument with a soldier. This upset the soldier and at their third meeting he pushed her into a stairwell and fired two bullets into her neck, and one into her heart. For months afterward, I could not bear to see Lina’s parents, as my grief (and theirs) was too great.

Our house in Nablus was opposite my father’s church and strategically located at one entrance to the old city. One night, Amal and I woke up to the sound of heavy boots climbing the stairs outside our bedroom. Around 20 Israeli soldiers had come to take over our roof due to its strategic importance. To this day when I think about that night, I have a sense of dread and can feel my heart pounding in my chest. This invasion was repeated dozens of times, but the fear did not diminish.

All this happened many years ago, but my memories are still fresh. I now work for Military Court Watch (MCW), an organization I co-founded that monitors the treatment of children detained by the military in the West Bank and prosecuted in military courts. I sometimes travel the length and breadth of the West Bank, meeting boys who have been detained and parents whose homes have been raided. Again and again, familiar patterns emerge, and I am often reacquainted with the threads that run through my life.

Boys wait in the dock with a guard at Ofer Military Court. Children as young as 12 can be prosecuted in the military courts, most commonly for throwing stones, and 95% of the cases end in conviction. (Photo by Syliie Le Clezio)

First, there is Israel’s settlement project, the catalyst for my demonstration in Nablus. Over the years, my organization has collected nearly 900 testimonies from boys who had been detained. Almost all of them have one thing in common, according to MCW — they live within a mile of a settlement built in violation of international law or a road used by settlers. Secondly, no one should underestimate the terror caused by night raids on civilian homes. Thirdly, Israeli military law in the West Bank technically applies to both Palestinians and Israeli settlers alike. But in reality, military law is only applied to Palestinians — a distinction based on national identity or ethnicity. And fourthly, it is worth recalling that Israel’s legal justification for prosecuting Palestinian civilians in military courts is the Fourth Geneva Convention — the same Convention that outlaws settlement construction.

During my lifetime, Democrat and Republican administrations have come and gone — most support a two-state solution and all profess peace — while always providing unflinching political, diplomatic, financial, military and moral support for successive Israeli governments whose policies I have described. Forgive me as I enter the second half of my life if I ask myself the simple question — “What, if anything, does America actually stand for?”

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This article is from the Spring 2021 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes within the U.S. twice a year by Presbyterian World Mission. To subscribe, visit pcusa.org/missioncrossroads.


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