Wednesday, August 7

MCC Palestine Update #55

MCC Palestine Update #55

August 7, 2002

“Without being able to read, women can’t participate fully in society,” says Nawal Ghussein, the director of al-Majd Women’s Society in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. “They can’t help their children with homework, their job prospects are limited. That’s why, as an organization dedicated to strengthening women’s role in Palestinian society, we promote women’s literacy.”

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has supported al-Majd’s literacy program for three years. This past school year, thirty-five women, ranging from young women in their late teens to middle-age women close to fifty, participated in the program, all sharing a determination to learn to read. The women are divided into four ability levels, with those in the highest level preparing to take exams which will allow them to enter the regular school system.

Zahwa Immasara, seventeen (17) years old, has never attended school. School was five kilometers away, and because Zahwa suffered from a variety of health problems during her early childhood, her parents feared to have her walk such a great distance. Zahwa is one of three women in al-Majd’s literacy program who sat in July for a test administered by the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Education which will allow them to enter the seventh grade. “My hope is eventually to take the tawjihi,” Zahwa shares, smiling, referring to the high school matriculation exam required for entering university.

The women in the literacy program have varied histories. Some, like Zahwa, never attended school because of health problems or because of their distance from the school. Others couldn’t attend school because of family problems. Intisar al-Rabayah, now twenty (20), was in second grade when she was pulled out of school while her parents went through a divorce. In the years following the divorce Intisar and her siblings worked hard inside and outside the home

Siham Haroun, a lively woman in her late twenties with a bachelor’s degree from al-Azhar University in Gaza, teaches the literacy courses at al-Majd. Having been born, like her students, in the Nuseirat refugee camp, Siham can relate to the challenges her students face: crowded living conditions, poor job prospects, and the denial of the right of the refugees to return to their former homes in what is now Israel. “We know that we face many difficulties, as women and as refugees,” shares Siham. “But at al-Majd we challenge each other to overcome these difficulties.”

Al-Majd has a good track record of helping refugee women overcome obstacles. Twenty women who received training in yoghurt production in 1995 through an MCC sponsored program continue to work together as a cooperative, marketing their product throughout the Gaza Strip. At a time of record-high unemployment, these women are some of the few in the Gaza Strip continuing to bring in an income.

“Empowering women helps whole families,” notes Ghussein. For young women like Zahwa and Intisar, learning to read is central to their hopes for the future, hopes which are nurtured and encouraged at al-Majd.

Below you will find two pieces, both on Israeli checkpoints in the occupied territories. In the first, Ha'aretz journalist Gideon Levy comments on the scene at a checkpoint on the outskerts of the West Bank city of Jenin. In the second account, Ghassan Andoni, the director of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between Peoples in Beit Sahour and a professor at Bir Zeit University, relates a frightening--but sadly not isolated--incident he experienced while traveling between Beit Sahour (his home) and Bir Zeit (where he works). A note: Ghassan relays some of the graphic language used by the soldier on guard at the checkpoint.

--Alain Epp Weaver

1. Jenin checkpoint, 4 P.M.
Gideon Levy

At the Jenin checkpoint, Checkpoint 250, a few days ago. This is the barrier that blocks the entrance to the city. The place is deserted and derelict. Hardly anyone is allowed to leave or enter the "city of the suicide bombers." Nor is anyone trying to approach the checkpoint, which is made of spikes and concrete blocks. Next to it is a small army base in which soldiers man observation posts. The checkpoint itself is generally not manned - the soldiers come down from their positions only when a car pulls up.

At four in the afternoon, on the sandy road, in front of the first group of concrete cubes, far from the soldiers' position, stands an ambulance of the Red Crescent organization, the flashing of its red lights visible from afar. In the ambulance are two Palestinian paramedics and a woman volunteer from the United States. The ambulance was summoned from Jenin in order to take a woman in labor from the village of Jalma to the hospital in Jenin. It's a 10- minute trip in normal times. The ambulance driver says that the woman tried to become pregnant for six years. It's not difficult to imagine what she and her family are feeling as they wait forthe ambulance.

We are behind the ambulance. Waiting. A quarter of an hour passes. No soldier approaches the vehicle. Another half-hour goes by. Still nothing. The ambulance driver, Mahmoud Karmi, does not lose his cool. He always waits here between an hour and two hours before the soldiers come over. So far, an hour and a quarter has passed since he arrived at the checkpoint.

Following a phone call to the office of the IDF Spokesperson and a further wait, two soldiers descend from their position. In a lordly manner, they gesture for the ambulance to approach. The driver says he is afraid the soldiers will get back at him because we phoned the IDF Spokesperson. A brief check by the soldiers and the ambulance is allowed to proceed. It's worth keeping in mind that this is the road between Jenin and Jalma, not a road to Israel (between Jenin and Israel there is another checkpoint, at Jalma). The soldiers, of course, did not know the destination of the waiting ambulance or who it was carrying - an injured child, a dying man, a woman in labor.

One of the soldiers afterward told us that this was the order they had been given: to delay ambulances. The endless complaints about ambulances being delayed are more than confirmed by an eyewitness account. A few days later, the IDF Spokesperson stated in response, "The ambulance was held up needlessly. The checkpoint commander was admonished by his superiors. The debriefing of the event and its conclusions were conveyed to all the commanding officers in the brigade so that the proper lessons can be learned."

Red Crescent drivers in Jenin related at week's end that the situation at this checkpoint was now in fact better. However, last Thursday, the same driver, Karmi, was delayed for about 20 minutes at another checkpoint, near the settlement of Shavei Shomron, and then told by the soldiers to turn around and go back;there were two patients in the ambulance, who were being taken from Rafidiyeh Hospital in Nablus to Jenin. Karmi had to make the trip to Jenin through Tul Karm via dirt roads.

In some cases, tanks chase off ambulances without the ambulance drivers managing to explain their mission to the soldiers. Delaying paramedics on the way to give first aid to people who have been hurt has also become a widespread phenomenon. In one recent case, about three weeks ago, journalist Imad Abu Zahra bled to death after being shot by soldiers in Jenin, who then kept firing, preventing his evacuation for about half an hour. Similar events are described in the United Nations report about the Jenin refugee camp that was released last week.

In a period of targeted liquidations and mass terrorist attacks, the delay of an ambulance seems an almost marginal phenomenon. The woman in labor from Jalma made it to the hospital in time, unlike other cases. Still, the story should not be ignored, precisely because of its almost banal appearance. Whether an explicit order was given to delay ambulances or not, this behavior is an ordinary phenomenon,not an exception, and it has nothing to do with security risks, as no one
questions the need to check the ambulances.

This ugly and inhumane phenomenon of hazing and harassing ambulances stems from a deeper source: from the soldiers' basic attitude toward the Palestinian population. It's doubtful that the soldiers at the Jenin checkpoint delayed the ambulance because they were ordered to do so by their commanders. It's more likely that they thought this was the way Palestinian ambulances should be treated.

In the perception of the soldiers at the checkpoint, a Palestinian is not a person like them, he is part "human dust" and part potential enemy, so they have the right to do with him almost anything that strikes their fancy. It is likely that none of the soldiers tried to imagine a similar situation in which an ambulance carrying his mother or his father was being delayed. Nor, by the same token, did any of them consider how he would feel toward whoever was responsible for the delay.

We have regressed to dark days. If, after the Oslo Accords, the IDF started to become aware that the Palestinian population should be treated differently and did not consist entirely of "troublemakers," we have now returned to the old and bad conceptions - that a good Palestinian is one who is humiliated, harassed and ground into the dirt.

2. Almost Killed at Atara military check point
Ghassan Andoni

Sunday August 4th, myself and four friends of mine started our trip from Bethlehem to Birzeit University. Being away from the university for two weeks, I decided to come to the university, stay in Birzeit for ten days, finish the final exams, and go on a vacation until October 1st.

As our driver was experienced in driving the way forth and back, he knew how to go around road blocks, drive in the fields, and find alternative roads anytime we reached a deadlock. In general, and as this was not my first time, the road did not look strange to me.

In about 40 minutes, we arrived at the first (must go through) military checkpoint. We were delayed for 40 minutes and then ordered to drive through without being checked. As the two
teenage soldiers handling the checkpoint were in the midst of a conversation about the girl friend of one of them, we had to wait until they were finished. Knowing Hebrew is definitely an advantage. Honestly, I can not deny that I enjoyed at least
parts of their conversation.

After driving for 2 hours through, roads, fields, and small villages, we arrived at Attara bridge, a bottleneck without passing through you can not arrive at Birzeit. As the main road leading to the bridge was totally destroyed by army bulldozers, we had to drive through the fields, climb a steep hill to arrive at the other end of the bridge.

Driving up the hill, and as we approached the top, we saw a huge pile of dirt almost blocking the road. Suddenly the car in front of us started a U-turn back, and our driver started doing the same. Our conclusion was that we need to hit the road back to Bethlehem.

Suddenly, we found our selves surrounded by five soldiers pointing their guns at us and getting ready to fire. I can not explain to you how terrified we were. During those little moments, in which we expected to be shot at, I thought of all the people that I love and care for, and how sad they will be if I am shot dead.

An army officer approached us shouting, cursing in Hebrew, and moving his gun in a way that made us feel that this is the end. With the soldiers pointing the guns to our heads we were ordered to park aside and step out of the car.

The officer came close to me, pointed his gun at my head and said: As you have been trying to flee away from an army checkpoint, I have the full right to kill you all and no one will give a damn. Pulling all the strength I could I replied, in an assuring tone, that as we saw a huge pile of dirt and as the car ahead of us was turning back, we assumed that the road is blocked and were turning to go back.

The army officer looked in the eyes, brought his gun closer to my head and said: I do not give a fu... damn shit to the lies you are telling. And added: the only reason that I did not shoot you so far is to avoid two weeks of filling forms for the army inquiry. As well I do not want for my gun to get dirty, he added, for each bullet we shoot the army asks us to draw a mark on our gun, so if I shoot you my gun will look

At this point I was not sure if he was trying to tell me that the army have the norms of investigating shootings or trying to tell me how much we are all worth for him. What worried me more than anything else is his hyperactive behavior and his continued attempts to provoke a reaction from our side.

I decided to keep communicating with him. So I said, is it really that you do not care about us being killed. Here I think I managed to communicate with the little human that is still inside him. He said: if you stand here for two or three hours
You will go nuts and start talking Japanese.

I said, hoping to still be able to communicate, but you are not the only one under pressure here, I am as well talking Japanese. He said: yeah.. yeah tell me a Japanese word and I said Yokohama. He sort of smiled but he managed to hide it.

I guess to step out of this position he turned into being sarcastic. He asked in a low and warm voice: to where are you going? I replied to Birzeit. He said, This little sweet town, but then started shouting: in fact it is not sweet it is a piece of shit, I will not give a fu.. damn if it is wiped out.

Then he asked in a low voice: where do you come from? I replied from Bethlehem. He said in the same low and warm voice: the sweet little town where the sweet baby was born, and before me saying yes, he shouted: in fact I do not give a shit to the town or to the baby.

He then went joking with our driver who smiled to him. suddenly the officer shouted at him: what are you laughing at? what the hell causes you to smile at a military check point?

All of this sarcasm was combined with nervous movements and regularly pointing the gun to the head of one of us. As he was getting more dragged into his sarcastic behavior, he became more threatening and dangerous.

At this point I pulled all of my strength and said: it does not help being sarcastic. He closed to me, pointed his gun to my head and said: yeah.. yeah.. I am the most sarcastic person you will ever meet in your short lifetime. Then he shouted: you need to tell me right now what is it that it does not help, just one thing. I said it does not help you feel better. At this point he halted for a while. I guess to get out of this position he acted more official and shouted: you need to bring all of your bags out and unload them so that I can see the bottom of each of them. So we did.

After saying some nasty comments at some items in the bag in the same sarcastic way, he ordered us back to the car and said you can pass through. We stepped back into the car. We were extremely worried that we might be shot at the minute we move the car. But what other choices did we have? We moved out physically safe but not emotionally.

By the way, we were never been asked about our IDs or checked if we were on the wanted list or not. Anyway, I am happy to be sitting in my office in Birzeit and will only worry about my trip back after nine days.

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