Dear Mum: email from an Israeli prison cell

August 5, 2009

“We politely make it impossible for them to live here.” An Israeli tour guide
“Demolishing someone's home is not 'polite'!” THT

Sarah Haynes, a volunteer with Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, recently wrote this group email to her friends and family in Australia. Her missive has not been edited.

Not all tours end in arrest — but mine did.

I am volunteering with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). This is an Israeli human rights group with a focus on house demolitions both in solidarity with the Palestinians who suffer the devastation of losing their home, but also to debunk the Israeli myths about actions based on security: Destroying peoples homes can have no security justification — instead it is a tool in what the convener of the group, Jeff Halper, describes as the “matrix of control”.

For a detailed account of the strategy of settlement, this article by ICAHD is pretty exhaustive.

As I mentioned in an earlier email there is a hotly contested area in East Jerusalem called Sheihk Jarrah — it has even made it on to Obama’s radar, with specific mention. There is a group of fanatical setters who want to create a new settlement complex in this neighbourhood, which means first expelling all the Palestinian residents, taking over their homes, then eventually razing the area for this new settlement.

Everytime settlers move into a neighbourhood means the Army also moves in to protect them, Palestinians are restricted from moving in the area, and the flavour of the neighbourhood of course changes. This is already a heartbreaking situation for Palestinians whose national aspirations both depend on East Jerusalem as capital for any future economically viable state, but also whose very cultural desire is tied up in this city.

The other point is that every home taken away from Palestinians is one less home available for Palestinians — not just in that neighbourhood, but in toto. They do not have the option to buy somewhere else in Jerusalem or Israel so they become homeless, or squish in with over-crowded relatives. In some cases, as per the policy design, they will give up their Jerusalem residency and privileges and job opportunities, and instead move to the West Bank. As my Israeli tour guide said yesterday, “We politely make it impossible for them to live here”.

So. As the tour was almost finished, we got a message that settlers were in the process of occupying a home in this neighbourhood, which we were just about to pass. We jumped off and proceeded to the house (with a little difficulty as the neighbourhood, unlike the new settlements, is still somewhat like a refugee camp and does not really have addresses).

The home in question is claimed to have been bought by American bingo centre millionaire Irwin Moskowitz, who is integral to the fanatical settler movement (see this article by Israeli peace group Gush Shalom). The sale is disputed by the locals who have a court case pending. This means the settlers should not take any action until the court has made a ruling on the “sale”, but they have tried to move in on several occasions since the legally protected woman living there died recently.

This time they had turned up with the police and when we got there they were already taking to the house with sledge hammers, and putting up a tin fence (not actually demolishing, apparently just renovating). Neighbours watched helplessly. The police are notorious for helping the settlers, and often pretend not to know about court orders until they are presented with a new emergency injunction when a demolition has already started — then they declare the house structurally unsafe and the demolition continues on this new logic!

This was the first time I had observed a demolition, and it really made me so sad. I could feel my heart in my chest, and the tightness of my throat. I wanted to cry with the Palestinians watching the process from the sidelines.

…six of us from ICAHD and ISM (International Solidarity Movement) sat down at the front of the alley way and linked arms to block the path of a small earth mover. After about 20 minutes the police told us to move, we didn’t move, so they bodily removed us one at a time. They were very efficient. Five of us were put in a police van and taken to the station (four internationals, one Israeli).

So far, pretty normal Israeli police response to non-violent action here. We expected to be held for a couple of hours and then released on condition not to return to the area for a few weeks. A lawyer paid by the Rabbis for Human Rights arrived and began negotiating for our release.

Three more ISM activists arrived. They had been arrested two hours after us for taking photos. They had walked into the area without being stopped, took some photos, the settlers told them not to, they asked why, the police told them not to, they asked why, the police told to leave, they started to leave, they were arrested.

Meanwhile we were separated and interrogated. Some people got good cop, some got bad cop. Israeli girl of course got a major grilling, told she has ruined her life with an arrest, asked why she is a self-hating Jew etc etc. She has to go through a similar spiel with pretty much every single cop, guard, driver, gaol officer, and paper-work processor we encounter, and then again after shift change. Some just ranted at her, several actually seemed to listen to her perspective.

I got bored cop. I confirmed my name and nationality (he had my passport, it was moot), and then for each question I answered “I have no response for that question” — ranging from “what’s your mobile number here?” to “did you come to Israel to disrupt the police?”. He told me I was held on suspicion of disrupting the peace and hindering police (I think — his English wasn’t great). Then he asked with a sigh if I would sign a document about our interview, I said I wouldn’t as it was in Hebrew and I didn’t understand it.

After interrogations we were eventually put in a holding area with the police lockers, and were allowed to talk to each other. Our lawyer asked if we would agree to release on condition that we not enter the area for month, we said we would if ICAHD supported it, which they did… then nothing. Apparently the chief decided during these negotiations that we were being held overnight and our lawyer left.

Several people had their phone confiscated at the beginning but I still had mine and had credit, it was our link outside.

Then a new, mean cop came into our holding area and yelled at me for playing Solitaire. The Israeli girl translated this as “NO! you don’t play cards here, this is not a fun fair. Would you play cards in the police station in Australia?”… well, firstly the police would not have already held me for five hours, and if they had, and I had cards, well yes — I would play with them!

When we received a phone call he really spat the dummy and yelled at the other cops “What kind of a police station are you running here? You let them keep their phones all this time?”. So that was that… my phone gone, I was now in communication silence. Sorry to panic my boyfriend with my sudden dropping off the radar there!

In the final analysis, I believe the court found us guilty of something along the lines of obstructing the peace and we are not to go within 500m of Sheikh Jarrah for three weeks — if we are caught there we will be deported and the Rabbis for Human Rights will pay NIS 5000 (AUD$2000 – more than they can afford). The prosecutor wanted us to be banned from the whole of Jerusalem and be forbidden from entering Israel for “some time” but our lawyer was very good at presenting case law from right-wing demonstrations where the perpetrators who threw rocks at Palestinians were only banned from the precise location (not a whole neighbourhood) and only for 15 days.

She also made the prosecutor look a fool as he could not supply any examples of us being violent, and he could not demonstrate that police were obstructed as the work was completed on the day as planned.

The judge berated the police for holding us overnight which is good for precedent.

The earthmover did go in and do its business, but the media attention meant that the court injunction was rushed and the settlers must now stop (or at least the police will stop protecting them). Last night settlers tried to evict another family in the neighbourhood. There were internationals there, a group was mobilised to attend (not me) and media arrived. The police, with their recent admonition and the pressure of a US delegation apparently visiting the area yesterday, told the settlers to leave. A stay of execution, and a small victory.

Back to me! Why were we held for so long? (24 hours till the court case, and then another three until we were released, then another hour until we got our stuff back)…

Either the police chief was in a bad mood. Or they were trying to scare internationals from taking actions, for fear of spending a night in gaol. In which case they failed because goal is only marginally skankier than my hostel and is mostly just boring. In any case the judge has pretty much put paid to that precedent for a while.

Timeline of my incarceration (kind of vague, I wasn’t really noting times):

12:15 — arrive at Sheikh Jarrah
12:45 — bodily removed by police
1-3pm — separated, interrogated, fingerprinted, waited, read my book, interrogated, advised of 24 hour arrest, paperwork
3-6pm — sit around and chat, phones removed. Fed at 5:30pm (bread, creamcheese, Israeli couscous).
6-7:30pm — ankle shackled to Abbey from Ireland
7:30pm — driven to Russian Hill gaol. Boys processed, girls wait in that room where you can talk through a phone to your loved ones (if they’re there, obviously).
8:30pm — bags removed, we’re moved to holding pen with gross bathroom. I pee while still shackled to Abbey, sticking my right leg under the door on the left and balancing so I don’t actually touch the rim. Gross. Female guard who we’ve been waiting for to search us takes one look and decides she has a call to be somewhere else.
9pm — back to phone room and unshackled. Paperwork starts again. My jewellery and watch are removed (in case I use them as currency to buy chocolate, says the guard).
10pm? — back to holding pen and individually strip searched
10 – 11pm? — questioned by doctor to make sure we’re fit to be in gaol (are you pregnant, do you need drugs, are you healthy?)
11pm- 12:30pm ? — back to phone room. We’re a novelty, they seem to enjoy keeping us there. Eventually our bags are individually searched, each valuable itemised and sealed.
12:30am — issued with prison goody bag: towel, sheet, two small soaps, shampoo, shaving cream (no razor)
1am (confirmed by guard) — shown to our cells — I share with Abbey and a Palestinian woman who was arrested because of a visa problem (I think her East Jerusalem ID had expired?). No toilet paper. No blanket, airco too cold. I slept on the top bunk with my skirt as a sheet, but had to eventually crawl under the sheet, directly on the not too skanky mattress.
5am? — lights on, stand up, be counted. That’s when it really hit me that we’re in prison!
8am (confirmed by guard) — breakfast (white bread, boiled egg, weird jam, olives, triangle cheese). Back to sleep.
10am — due in court, told that we are not going to court yet. Chat with Abbey.
11am — hand cuffed and ankle cuffed. Wait in phone room
12pm — driven to court 100m away (which seemed excessive, until I realised how much those ankle cuffs hurt)
12:15 — 1pm – court case
1pm — back to phone room. Observe two old Palestinian men brought in hand and ankle cuffed and also blind folded. Nice.
1:30pm — un-cuffed, back to cell… I have a “shower” under the pipe from the wall. The pressure is good but I have some complaints about the temperature adjustment which got very hot. I do some yoga. We’re told we missed lunch because we were in court. Excuse us our foolish schedule! But we have bread remaining from breakfast — bread and water! Prison!
3pm — moved to police office next door (no cuffs!) to be photographed, and have prints taken (Right hand, each finger and thumb, thumb again, whole palm and fingers. Left hand, repeat).
4pm — lurk around gaol window waiting for the hilarious guards to drip fee us our personals.
5pm — THE END!

I called my parents who sounded … annoyed. I had promised I wouldn’t go seeking trouble and here I am getting tear-gassed on Friday, and arrested on Sunday. But in neither case did I feel that I was in an unusual or dangerous situation. This is the normal functioning of the Occupation. Apologies for those who were worried about me, but really I am fine, and being safe.