Is it okay for gap year students to see and experience the undesirable sides of Israel? It’s hard–even painful– to look at the face of the country you love and get so disappointed.
But that’s what happened to many of us who were willing to confront reality on February 18 or so when we gathered in the basement of an East Jerusalem book store. Through the Extend program, gap year students can get a taste of what Palestinians go through – both those over the Green Line (the “West Bank”) and those inside the Green Line – the Palestnian citizens of Israel (whose main language – Arabic – was downgraded in 2018 by Bibi Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition from being an official language of Israel to a “special status” language). I was open minded enough to be willing to engage, to hear and to experience this reality.
We first heard from Ahmad Muna, the proud owner of the “Educational Book Shop”. Despite the bleak message, Muna used great wit and charisma to communicate his status of stateless-ness, living in Israel but holding no Israeli passport or citizenship. As a Jerusalem resident, however, he pays all the same taxes as Israeli Jews. Paying these taxes, one should be able to get the same services. However, East Jerusalem is suffering from a shortage of 1,000 classrooms, there are virtually no green spaces, hospitals, post offices, or recycling services, and he can’t vote in the Knesset.
Instinctively, the sirens of “taxation without representation” rang in my head, and when I vocalized this to Ahmad, he knew immediately what I’m talking about: “Wait a minute, that’s DC, are you from DC?” Ahmad shot back at me. It’s an ongoing joke at Nativ that I often tell people I am from DC while not actually living in DC. I do this because Israelis know DC, yet who would ever know Silver Spring, Maryland? My fellow Nativers good-heartedly ridicule me for not making the distinction. Therefore, when Ahmad validated my DC-ness, I looked around the room with pride, as if saying “see, even an intellectual book store owner agrees with my DC status.”
When asked if he wished Israel gave him full services or if he preferred these services be given by the Palestinian Authority, Muna explained that as long as he pays taxes to Israel, he demands full services from them.
Even the residency status he holds is murky because if Israel deems that their “center of life” is outside of Israel for more than seven years, Israeli authorities cancel their residency status, and they become subject to total deprivation of rights, including taking away their property. In contrast, Israeli Jewish citizens of Jerusalem never lose their residency status, even if, like my parents, they have been living abroad for dozens of years.
Are you in the mood for a cruel story? Ahmad only found out about this law because he was refused medical treatment in Israel while on vacation from studying abroad. Despite having a valid ID card, the State of Israel started revoking his residency status because he was studying abroad, and this caused Ahmad to cut short his studies and return to Jerusalem.
In 1967, a path to citizenship was created for East Jerusalemites, yet it takes years and a ton of red tape. It’s interesting to see the internal dynamics in the Palestinian communities: Many who take this path do it so they don’t need to always get travel permits, can marry whoever they want, etc. However, others look upon it as a sell out for the Palestinian cause. Thus, most of Ahmad’s generation has refrained from doing it. Younger generations, however, are taking out citizenship at an increasing rate. As opposed to the older generation, Muna claims, they believe in a one-state solution, where “one man, one vote” and equal protection of the law. They think, mistakenly I believe, that Israelis will eventually agree to everyone being equal under the law, and the Knesset being a fair representation of the population. They don’t realize the many sneaky ways Israel can thwart their full participation in elections and government matters.
After explaining the status of East Jerusalemites, Ahmad talked about the history of the ongoing tensions in Sheikh Jarrah. In the 1950s, the UN and Jordan devised a solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees in Jordan by designating a plot of 28 homes in East Jerusalem. They decided that families may relocate here, but must give up refugee status (which means giving up the education, resources, etc that are accompanied by this status.) The families moved into the area in 1957, and Jordan promised to pass ownership to them, but in 1967 they still didn’t have ownership. Then, in the Six Day War, Israel captured the area and took control. For many decades this had no implications. However, after Netanyahu’s rise to power and the propagation of his radical right-wing agenda, in 2009 the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the first eviction order, and 4 others have followed in recent years. In February, MK Itamar Ben Gvir claimed not enough police protection of Israeli settlers in the area, so he opened a camp there. While this achieved his goal of bringing more police, this increased police presence only incited more clashes.
Additionally, in a recent case involving the eviction of Salhiya family, in which the wife of Salhiya is Jewish, the Palestinian reunification law comes into play- this law blocks the automatic granting of citizenship to Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens. This law means that Salhiya’s wife can easily find a house and live anywhere in Israel while the father may be forced to squat with friends and family in East Jerusalem or the West Bank. This law expired in July 6 last year, but was then revived by the “moderate” Bennet government.
Shifting gears, participants heard from Gerard Horton, a British Lawyer, and Salwa Duaibis, a Palestinian activist, both from the Military Court Watch. Gerard began by illuminating the Military Court Watch’s mission- collecting evidence from detained children by the IDF. What Military Court Watch has found is that Israeli army and Shabac use tactics that are extremely damaging and against international law. In order to make arrests, the IDF must find the stone- throwers. They do this on the basis of assumptions and by recruiting infiltrators who collaborate with the IDF in exchange for work permits and benefits. Recruiting infiltrators who snitch on their Palestinian neighbors is a genius control tactic as it creates rifts and unravels the social dynamic in the community.
Other scare tactics, such as raids and night arrests, are also implemented. Salwa Duaibis revealed that each year, 580 children are arrested at night and that almost every house in the village MCW surveyed had been raided with doors blown off. The IDF makes arrests based on the information given by the infiltrators (which is often false) within 48 hours of the reports solicited. In order to desensitize them, the detainees are blindfolded during interrogation. They use this form of psychological torment because it can’t be proven in court (with physical abuse – it’s harder to deny). The interrogation is in Arabic and then translated into Hebrew, so often the transcript is completely different from what was said in the actual interrogation. Parallels come up in the US immigration system, in which asylum officers who conduct credible fear interviews often do so in a language foreign to them, and crucial information gets lost in translation. Within 2 days the detainees are taken to one of 2 military courts. Palestinians have a right to silence and a right to consultation with a lawyer, but many times are not made aware of these rights. Many times these children are told if they incriminate their friends they will be set free. Understandably, many end up incriminating their friends yet as can be imagined – they are not released.
What happened in the Central Park 7 case–a grave injustice– happens regularly in Israeli Military Courts. Israel also does not pay for their lawyers, and sometimes they are paid for by foreign governments and NGOs if the family can’t afford it. Ninety percent of these cases end in plea bargains in which children are often coerced into falsely admitting guilt. Many villages are then bankrupted because they have to collect fees to pay lawyers. These tactics are utilized specifically in Area C because to successfully subjugate a population, it must be done in small numbers. This allows the injustices to occur slowly and gradually and helps normalize the ever-expanding Jewish settlements of Area C.
When asked why he focuses on Israel, Gerard explained that it is by no means the worst humanitarian conflict in the world, but it has the power to undermine international law more than any other conflict. He explained that a double standard exists in Israel’s occupation because of its relationship with western countries and the interest-based nature of sanctions. When China, for instance, does human rights violations, sanctions are immediately imposed yet governments strongly oppose sanctioning Israel. Ultimately, Israel is not punished by the US and UK because it is considered an ally, and it is the primary source of intelligence in the Middle East for the UK.
Essentially, taxation without representation occurs closer to home than I imagined. I knew that in my neighboring city of DC injustices persist, but I have learned about the presence and extent of injustices in my far away (currently not-so-far away) home of Israel. The first step to affecting change is education, and I have Ahmad Muna, Gerard Horton, and Salwa Duaibis to thank for starting that process.